Meet Alastair Smith: Scholar, gentleman bike explorer, and life-long cycling advocate

Alastair descending the Dolomites “Grödner Pass”, Italy, 2009

By Nicole Gaston

In addition to being a life-long advocate for cycling, Alastair Smith is also a Senior Lecturer in Information Studies at Victoria University of Wellington, where he teaches courses in the Master of Information Science programme.  His research in the areas of information technology, information retrieval, and digital libraries has been presented at conferences all over the world and he has published extensively in number of internationally recognised journals.  Soon Alastair will be able to add “published author on the topic of cycling” to his already impressive CV. Awa Press will soon publish his new book, “Everyday Cycling in New Zealand Cities”.

Alastair is dedicate cycle-commuter, having commuted by bicycle since his days growing up in West Auckland, and throughout his life in cities such as Chicago, London, and here in Wellington.  He is involved with Cycle Aware Wellington, CAN (Cycling Advocates Network) and the Great Harbour Way: TeAranui o Poneke, a continuous cycleway and walkway in development around Wellington Harbour.

Alastair is full of amazing stories!  He described a few of his most memorable experiences, his new book, and cycling in Wellington for “Cycling in Wellington”.

  1. How and when did you first get interested in cycling?

When my partner Marg and I were starting to think about our OE in the 70s, a friend said that his plan was to go to Europe, buy an E-Type Jaguar, and tour around in it. On the spur of the moment, I said we’d buy 10-speed bikes and tour on those. So later we landed in Helsinki off the Trans-Siberian train, bought bikes and spent the next couple of years cycling around Europe [the image is me on Westminster Bridge when we first arrived in London]. After that, bikes have become our default transport for commuting and touring.

As an aside, in London we met up with our friend, who had compromised on the E-Type, and was selling his multi-owned Commer Van at the back of Australia House before returning to NZ!

2.   I know you have done a lot of cycle touring.  Can you talk about some of the places you have gone and what your experiences were?

 Since the big OE most of our trips have been relatively short. In 1979 Marg made bike bags out of deck chair canvas so we could fly with our bikes – our first trip was to New Caledonia, where the mix of cycling, french food, and snorkelling off coral reefs was fantastic. I wrote up the trip for the now defunct NZ cycling magazine Southern Cyclist.

After that we did trips around California, China and India, among other places.

Cycling in China in 1985 was a challenge. It was amazing to ride out into the streets of Guangzhou and join the sea of bicycles with the odd car and van floating like driftwood. However at that time tourists were only allowed to stay in specific cities, which weren’t necessarily a days cycling apart. We ran into a problem cycling from Wuzhou to Guilin, about 300 km. The first day was fine, and we passed through several police checkpoints without any concerns. In the evening we stopped in a small town with a hotel, and got a bed and a meal without a problem, and everyone was friendly if bemused by the sight of a couple of westerners. However the local policeman started to get concerned that we didn’t have the right stamps in our passports, and during the night and next morning we were visited by a succession of increasingly higher ranked officials, culminating with a delegation from the provincial capital who suggested that it would be better if we got the bus. After that we concentrated on using trains and buses to cover the big distances, exploring areas with day rides. We were lucky enough to get into Tibet just after it opened to independent tourists, and the rules about tourists seemed to be more relaxed, so I was able to ride for several days between Shigatse and Lhasa over 5000m passes, staying in villages.

Having children changed cycle touring a bit – once our twins were OK in bike seats, about 18 months old, we spent a couple of weeks touring around Bali. There’s a tradition in Balinese culture that having twins is the prerogative of the gods, and for ordinary people it can be viewed as a sin the family has to atone for. However this didn’t seem to apply to us, and the  Balinese were fascinated by our pair of blond toddlers, so we had a great time.

I’ve been lucky that as a university teacher, I’m expected to present papers at international conferences, and I’ve managed to combine this with some interesting rides. In 2007 after a Madrid conference, I biked through the Pyrenees, following Via Verde rail trails from Girona at the Mediterranean end, to Lourdes in France, taking in some of the classic Tour de France cols such as the Tourmalet. It’s great to watch the Tour on TV afterwards, seeing the riders flash through a town and spotting the cafe where I had a coffee only a few months before!

3.   What’s your all-time favourite ride?

 All rides are different, and I don’t think I’ve ever done a ride that hasn’t had some wonderful aspect to it. In Wellington, we’re lucky that we can bike and walk all the way around the harbour, which is why I’m part of the Great Harbour Way/ Te Aranui o Poneke project. This is one of the reasons why getting a good quality cycle path from Petone to Wellington, as close as possible to the seashore, is really important. Hopefully the submissions to the Regional Long Term Plan will help to achieve this.

Overseas, the tandem trip that Marg and I did around the Loire Valley would have to be one of the best. France combines lots of bike friendly back roads with plenty of cafes, bakeries and restaurants for replacing burnt calories. The Loire has a network of cycle paths following the rivers and connecting the chateaux. Tandems a test of trust, but are a great way to travel – Marg steers, and I can concentrate on map reading and photography!

 4.   Can you tell me a little about the book you have written, and how you did the research for it?

 “Everyday Cycling in New Zealand Cities” is due out shortly from Awa Press. A few years ago they did a guide to training for the Around Taupo ride, and they asked me who could write a similar guide for commuting – I thought about it and decided it was something I wanted to do. It covers how to get started in everyday cycling – commuting, biking to the dairy, going for a recreational ride with your family. I look at choosing a bike (the best bike to start with is the one that is sitting at the back of your garage!), clothing and equipment (no, you don’t need lycra!) and skills for feeling comfortable on urban streets. The theme for cycling skills is PVA – the glue that keeps you safe on the road: you need to be Predicatable and Visible, and Anticipate what’s happening ahead of you.

The book draws on my own experience of cycling in New Zealand, as well as overseas in Chicago, London, and Vancouver. I’ve also trawled a lot of websites and drawn on classics such as John Forrester’s “Effective Cycling” and Richard Ballantine’s Bicycle Book.

5.   What kind of bike do you normally ride?

 The Mercier 10 speed that I bought in Helsinki in 1975 lasted me for the rest of the 20th century, but eventually I retired it – donated it to the son of a Havana University professor after a cycletour in Cuba in 1999. Given the Cuban talents for recycling, it may well still be on the streets of Havana.

For road riding and commuting, I’ve got a hybrid built for me by Dirt Merchant’s Deklin Cox – off the shelf hybrids don’t have low enough gears for my elderly legs, so Deklin found a frame that would cope with mountain bike derailleurs. For mountain biking I have hard tail that I bought from Mountain Equipment Coop in Vancouver when I was there on sabbatical.

 6.   How do you think cycling infrastructure could be improved in Wellington?

More people cycling more often of course! But to do that, people have to feel comfortable cycling, and having a network of bike-friendly routes will help to achieve this. This can be cycle lanes and cycle paths on the major routes, but also bike -friendly routes on secondary roads parallel to the major arteries. Wellington’s hills are an issue of course, and that’s why getting bike racks on buses is important – people in Karori and Brooklyn would be more inclined to bike to the CBD if they knew they could hitch a ride back on a bus!

7.  Do you think it’s possible for cyclists, motorists and pedestrians to peacefully co-exist and share the roads harmoniously?  If so, how? Or, do you envision a car-free utopia?  If so, how can we achieve this?

We own and drive a car for long trips and carrying stuff that won’t go easily on a bike. I’m not sure that NZ will ever have the public transport infrastructure to make cars (or some form of individual powered transport) redundant. And frankly getting children to soccer and cricket matches with gear is a lot easier with a station wagon, so I admire parents who are prepared to go completely car-free!

I feel that most of the time cyclists, motorists, and pedestrians do co-exist pretty harmoniously (most of us will occupy these different roles in the course of a day!). 99% of motorists are considerate, but communication is important: when I’m a cyclist I need to be predictable and visible. That means not hugging the kerb, staying out of the door zone of parked cars, and clearly signalling my intentions. When I’m a motorist, it’s important to watch for cyclists, but also be patient – waiting behind a cyclist for a few seconds isn’t a big deal when the real delay is going to be the queue at the next intersection, and the fact that the cyclist has chosen not to take their car on this trip means the queue will be that much less, and the chance of a parking spot at my destination will be greater.

That said, NZ road users tend to be undisciplined, and I think we could learn from North America and Europe where people tend to show greater respect for other users- I found it quite embarrassing  in Vancouver that if I stood anywhere in the vicinity of a pedestrian crossing,  there would be a queue of motorists waiting patiently to see if I was going to cross!


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