by Sarah Bennett
In the mid-1970s a group of young New Zealanders were discussing plans for their big OE. One said he would go to Europe, buy an E-Type Jaguar, and tour the Continent in style. But another, Alastair Smith, had just read the Limits to Growth report produced by the political think-tank Club of Rome, in which dire predictions were made about the environmental impact of motoring. This was, of course, long before such effects were widely acknowledged and any moves were made to cut carbon emissions.
“On the spur of the moment I said I’d tour around Europe, too, but on a bicycle,” Smith recalls.
And so he did, in 1975, accompanied by his partner Margaret Powell. They cycled from Helsinki to London on ten-speed bikes, a four-month journey covering around 4000km.
Today the couple live in the Aro Valley, close to Victoria University from where Smith retired in 2015 after a 25-year career lecturing in Information Studies. When I meet him to talk about the joys of cycling, he appears youthful and windswept, dressed in his usual attire of comfy, casual clothing topped with a high-vis vest. He’s in jolly good nick for a 68-year-old.
Arriving in London in 1975, Smith and Powell took up a flat in Chelsea, he working as a patent searcher, she as a social worker. Neither was ready to give up cycling after the big European tour.
“We discovered that not only was biking a great way to see countries, it was also a much more efficient way to get around London than the bus or Tube,” says Smith. “We thought that biking around Hyde Park Corner would be impossible, but in fact as the traffic ground to a halt it was easy.”
Such revelations kick-started 30 years of commuter cycling in London, Chicago and back home in New Zealand, and propelled many more cycling adventures including a trip around Bali with 18-month-old twins, Martin and Selina, in the late 1980s. “They’ve had a fair bit of biking inflicted on them,” he says.
We meet in Aro Valley’s shopping village where bicycles increasingly outnumber drainpipes to chain them to. Smith must take some credit for this parking problem, having pushed hard for pedal power since 1979 when he was appointed inaugural general secretary of the Bicycle Association of New Zealand.
“Back then, cyclists were so rare that if you saw another one you’d stop and have a chat,” he recalls.
The Bicycle Association eventually deflated, replaced by the Cycling Advocates Network (CAN) in 1997 and renamed the Cycle Action Network in 2015.
Smith joined CAN around 2000, and although he still undertakes the occasional task for the organisation his primary focus is on local issues via Cycle Aware Wellington, of which he is secretary.
Such ardent activism is manifest in Smith’s book, Everyday Cycling in Aotearoa New Zealand, published by Wellington’s Awa Press in 2012. A practical guide to taking up cycling, the book extols the virtues of riding a bicycle for both business and pleasure.
Practical, persuasive and peppered with Smith’s dry wit, Everyday Cycling also serves as the manifesto of a man who was way ahead of the curve, commuting by bike decades before concerns about the environment and climate change spurred a new wave of urban cycling.
“Cities clearly can’t cope with everyone travelling around in metal boxes, even if they’re electric-powered. Bicycles have to be an important part of the transport mix.”
Typical of an enthusiastic two-wheeler, Smith has a number of bikes to meet his various needs.
When using public transport, he takes a folding bike that he can carry on with him. His e-bike – one of the popular, battery-powered models that takes much of the grunt out of hill climbs and long distances – provides alternative transport for errands he may once have made by car.
A car-owner himself, Smith believes it still takes serious dedication to manage without one.
“When I campaign for better cycling conditions I’m not saying that people should do without cars. I think it’s more about trips – instead of thinking whether we should have a car or a bike, we should be thinking about which trips we make in the car and which we can do on the bike,” he says.
Everyday Cycling also promotes the health benefits of cycling, including reduced risk of heart disease, Type 2 diabetes and breast cancer.
A 2011 New Zealand study (Moving urban trips from cars to bicycles; Australia and New Zealand Journal of Public Health) estimated that if just 5 per cent of car journeys were taken by bike instead, the increased physical activity would result in 116 fewer deaths per year in addition to six fewer from air pollution, and a total annual heath cost saving of $193m.
For his part, Smith credits an active lifestyle for his early diagnosis, in 2001, of multiple myeloma, a cancer affecting plasma cells within the bone marrow.
“I got a sudden pain in my hip while out running. The doctor diagnosed a groin strain injury so I had physiotherapy for several months, but the pain got much worse after a skiing crash and a doctor friend suggested I should see a specialist sports doctor who discovered I had multiple myeloma.”
Early intervention ensured that life continued largely as normal after his diagnosis. “I found the hardest part was when people would ask ‘how are you?’ and you’d have to think carefully, are they just greeting me or do they want a full medical report?
“Cancer can be quite terrifying, but to me it just felt like another disease,” Smith explains.
“People used to ask how on Earth I could have gotten cancer when I lived such a healthy life. I have no idea. I grew up on a farm at a time when we weren’t very conscious about the danger of agricultural chemicals, and I drove trucks for a company that made rubber goods so I probably inhaled a lot of solvents. But quite possibly it was just a stray cosmic ray hitting a cell the wrong way.”
By 2002, the cancer’s spread precipitated a stem cell transplant – six months of gruelling treatment during which Smith kept cycling.
“I biked between the university and hospital with a Hickman [intravenous] line coming out of my chest. I had to be pretty careful. Falling off wasn’t such a good idea.”
The treatment was successful, and within two months he and Margaret set off on a cycle tour of Tuscany.
His cancer was in remission up to 2007, and Smith has long since surpassed his life expectancy.
“At the time I was diagnosed, the median survival period was around three years but thankfully the medics I’ve had have been sensible enough to avoid such predictions.”
At 15 years and counting he is an anomaly, to say the least.
Smith, however, is reluctant to attribute his longevity to an active lifestyle.
“How cancer affects people is a very individual thing. I’ve been quite lucky, although perhaps that luck has been increased by a general level of fitness that has helped me tolerate the treatments I’ve had.”
What about mentally? Does cycling help him maintain a positive outlook?
“I imagine most people feel better when they’re getting regular exercise. If you’re going to be knocked around by something like cancer it’s probably better to feel positive than negative. You just have to make the best of it.”
Although Smith admits that life is getting harder, his idea of slowing down is certainly different from others. Last year he undertook two 200km e-bike trips around the central North Island, while recent endeavours include a two-dayer on State Highway 22 from Pokeno to Raglan, and an honourable assault on Mt Climie in Upper Hutt. His long-standing blog catalogues these endeavours, all the more admirable when you consider his physical condition.
“I’ve just finished nine months of weekly injections accompanied by a couple of other drugs. And I’m hoping to be a bit less tired as a result, but I’m definitely not as bouncy as I was a few years ago. I’ve got weaknesses in my hips and pelvis and some fairly suspect vertebrae too, so I’ve given up major overnight tramps and enjoy sea kayaking instead. Biking is still fine, because my hips are supported on the seat, but I’ve had to give up single-track mountain biking. You have to accept there are some things you used to do that you can’t do now, and you have to live with that.”
© Sarah Bennett