the sound of mountain bike tyres

Recently I took my own advice on being open to life-long learning, and set out to learn something.

Specifically I decided that after years of riding mountain bikes, I should learn some proper technique when it comes to jumping. I can get down most trails, and have fun doing so, but jumps are something else. I like staying in contact with the ground, rubber firmly in contact with dirt, as it where. But at one of the places I ride there is a new trail littered with jumps, and while I can safely roll through them, it struck me that it would be more fun if I knew how to jump.

So I found myself on the trail with Peter, a friend and on this occasion mountain bike coach. We covered lots of technique, body position, movements, bike mechanics and so on, before I started repeatedly rolling through a series of turns and into the first jump on the trail.

At one point I was unsure I was approaching with the right speed, and asked Peter about it. An unexpected answer came back “You’re at just the right speed, you can hear it in the noise that your tyres are making.” Naturally I thought he was nuts – surely it’s about how rapidly I’m pedalling, what gear I’m in, the sense of speed from passing trees?

But he assured me again, “listen to your bike, listen to the noise the tyres are making on the dirt – there’s a kind of sweet spot where everything sounds just right. When you hear that sound, you’ll know you’re at the right speed and can hit the jump.”

A few days later I was reflecting on that advice, as I sat by the beach in Woolgoolga, NSW. I’m on something of a road trip, exploring mountain bike parks and bakeries between Brisbane and Canberra, my ultimate destination.

My mind wandered, as it does, to the nature of sound. What other kinds of sounds can we hear, that maybe tell us something about all being well, and good, and just right?

So I sat, just for ten minutes or so, and listened. I let my ears guide my attention. What did I hear – here’s a few examples:

  • Dogs barking and panting as they ran and played
  • Waves curling, tumbling, foaming and crashing against the rocks
  • Snatches of conversation from passers by
  • The rhythm of footsteps crunching on gravel, including that most Australian beachside flip-flop of thongs
  • The tinkle of cutlery from a nearby balcony as breakfast by the bay was enjoyed
  • Car engines and tyres – of different notes and pitch as cars approached, passed by and travelled away
  • A litany of birdsong (my bird loving friend Warwick would be disappointed that I have no idea what kinds!)
  • The whir of my zipper as I snugged my jacket up tight against the cool morning breeze
  • The call of a surfboat skipper, barking instructions to his crew
  • Laughter – perhaps one of the most human of sounds

As I sat and listened, I picked out natural sounds that would have been heard by this same beach for eons. I heard the sounds of people living life. And I heard artificial sounds, of engine and car door and seat belt.

But all of these sounds seemed like they belonged. It seemed like they were the sounds of life. Of fun, of recreation, of preparation for the day, of life and love and relationship, of creation and wonder and majesty.

I fancy, as I sat and listened, that I could hear the sound of mountain bike tyres on the gravel, the sound they make when everything is just right. It was that kind of morning.

the most unlikely place

Whitehaven Beach, on Whitsunday Island off Queensland’s central coastline, is an amazing place. It’s regularly named as one of the top 10 beaches in the world, and it’s no wonder. 7km of stunning sandy beachline, backed by pristine coastal forest on an island that is 100% National Park. Apart from a few picnic sheds up one end, and the steady stream of visiting tourist boats anchored off-shore, you could be forgiven for thinking that the beach hasn’t changed in centuries.

Whitehaven Beach on a moody day

On the day we visited it was overcast and moody….the brooding clouds dark on the horizon lending an amazing atmosphere to the beach and the surrounding islands. Swallowtail dart swam around us as we floated in the pristine waters (wearing our seasonally necessary stinger suits of course!). Even without a postcard blue sky and sunny day, it was astonishingly, achingly beautiful. The natural world at its very finest.

Except that only moments before diving into the waters we had wandered along the beach, beyond the designated tourist area. There on a 15 minute walk along these pearly white sands my eye kept being caught by things that didn’t belong. Bits of plastic, and rubber and rope. A face mask that had protected someone from COVID. A used bandaid. A piece of pipe. Some were fresh – likely bits of deck rubber from stand-up paddle boards that came in with tourist boats that dotted the waters off the beach – but others were weathered and windblown, clearly washed up on the tides from who-knows-where and who-knows-how-long ago. In 15 minutes we collected a couple of dozen bits of rubbish, from the fist-sized to the tiny.

Despite the beauty of the beach, and the apparent isolation of the place (it’s not a Gold Coast beach packed full of people after all), the signs of human habitation, and of disregard for our natural environment were obvious. I was the sadder for it.

And I was confronted by it too. It’s easy enough in moments like these to blame the careless who dump their rubbish wherever they please. I don’t do that…so it’s not my fault….right?

But I’m as much a consumer as anybody. My house is filled with plastic junk that features built-in obsolescence – products destined for land-waste from the moment I purchase them. I buy food and drink packaged for my convenience in single-use plastic, barely softening my conscience with the “I recycle” excuse. Each piece of plastic made up of materials dug from the earth, processed and squeezed and manufacturered to within an inch of its life. Used once. Discarded.

All of it at risk of ending up in ocean, breaking up and floating about into the great Pacific garbage patch, or washing up on a pristine beach on a remote island (if some unlucky and curious Swallowtail Dart or Loggerhead Turtle didn’t take a nibble first). My consumerist tendencies end up in the most unlikely places.

There’s no simple answer of course. It’s not that easy to opt out of the capitalist, consumerist society I live in (and if I’m honest…enjoy the benefits of). Taking care of my own wake and my own waste is a start. Reducing, re-using and re-cycling goes the mantra – and it’s a fair thing to ask and encourage.

So I come home from this holiday with a mind full of memories, with a phone full of photos, and with a renewed desire to do right by our planet and by the children and grandchildren who’ll inherit it. That’s probably three pretty good things to bring back from a holiday (just a shame I had to go so far to be reminded of that third one).

Take a walk some day in an unlikely location. See what you notice. See what it reminds you of. See how it challenges you.