The path of new beginnings

An ode to a bike track that asks so little when you have so little to give.

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On maps you’ll see it called the Mullum Mullum Creek Trail, a meandering shared-use path through the leafy suburbs of Melbourne’s outer east. I like to call it the Path of New Beginnings, and it’s where I ride when things haven’t been great.

New beginnings, like when I’m getting back into riding after injury or illness. New beginnings, like last weekend, when I finally shrugged off the worst of COVID and was able to ride again.

I did all the right things, got the four jabs. Until a few weeks ago, I figured if I hadn’t had it by now, I wouldn’t get it. And then I got it – a parting gift from the Wollongong Worlds. Maybe it came from the press room, from that one journo who was coughing all week. Maybe I caught it eating at a restaurant one night. Who can really say.

COVID was far kinder to me than it has been to millions around the world, and yet it seemed to hit me harder than most people I know. What initially felt like a mild cold soon blossomed into several weeks of intermittent fevers, ever-persistent fatigue, and a feeling of weakness I’ve rarely experienced before.

I went three and a half weeks without riding and felt its absence every day – mostly as that kind of niggling irritability that can only be salved by some time on two wheels. This past Sunday, I finally had enough of my strength back, so I pulled the bike out of the garage and made my way to The Path.

There’s nothing particularly special about the 4.5 km stretch of trail I aimed for – while picturesque enough, it’s your typical, flat, suburban mixed-surface path. But on days like Sunday, its mundanity is its appeal.

To the east of where I live, the Dandenong Ranges rear majestically skyward – normally a drawcard but unfriendly terrain for the ailing rider. To the north, the short but steep bergs of North Ringwood and Park Orchards are similarly unsuitable for those easing back onto the bike. Tracks to the south and west all require some amount of climbing on the way home. The Mullum Mullum, though – it’s about as flat as you’ll find. It’s a path that asks so little of me when I have so little to give.

With the sun shining on a beautiful spring morning, I set off without headphones. I wanted to take in all of the sensory information that this ride had to offer. I wanted to hear the sound of tyres crunching through moist gravel, the chirp of noisy miners clinging to the trees that crowd the path.

There were less-pleasant sounds, too, like the whine of a drivetrain that had gone too long without a clean, or the creak of a slowly slipping seatpost. And there were other frustrating sensations – the feeling of instability in a knee that’s troubled me since February, the discomfort of sitting on a saddle after several weeks without riding.

But these would be problems for another time. On this particular ride, it was enough to simply embrace being out of isolation, being off the couch, being out on the bike.

One of several brief short-cuts along the way.

As I meandered out and back along The Path, I made an effort to find magic in the mundane. 

I took note of the water level in the creek – lower than I’d expected, given the torrential downpour of a few days earlier. I counted the creek crossings (two in each direction), the road crossings (three), and calculated how much of the 4.5 km is gravel (about 30%). That’s two more creek crossings, three more road crossings, and 100% more gravel than I’d experienced in almost a month. They all felt like little victories.

I observed those that I passed, too. The mother and daughter out for a sociable catch-up walk. The father and son out for a noticeably less-sociable jog. The older couple – him slowly riding his bike, her running alongside, looking like she was the one being held up. Parents out with their kids, out with their dogs, out with their kids and their dogs. Riders and walkers of all ages, all sizes and shapes, all mobility levels. All the beauty and diversity of humanity, on a humble bike path through the suburbs.

When a magpie offered a single, half-hearted swoop, glancing gently off my helmet, I couldn’t help but smile. His lack of gusto perfectly mirrored the strength of my pedalling.

I’ve done some slow rides down The Path but on Sunday I broke new ground. A grand total of 13.7 km, with just over 100 metres of climbing, took me just under an hour. A blistering average speed of 15.7 km/h. Even that knocked me around. I needed two naps on Sunday afternoon to get me through to bedtime.

2022 has been a year of adjusted expectations for me; a year of adapting to a life with less riding in it. It’s been more than a decade since I covered fewer kilometres in a year. New parenthood can explain much of that, but my body’s been to blame, too. That on-again-off-again knee injury has led to plenty of time off the bike, and when I have been able to get out, my rides have been shorter and easier than I would have liked.

But I’m feeling optimistic. I’m choosing to believe that Sunday was the start of something new. That with my health improving daily, my knee better than it has been for months, and the weather finally getting warmer, I might actually be able to build some momentum with my riding.

As it so often has in recent years, it all starts on the Path of New Beginnings. It’s time to start again. Again. 

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