Runkeeper app (cycling mode), with its emotion-free American female voice, says, ‘Time 25 minutes, Distance 8 kilometres.’
Riding my gorgeous birthday mountain bike on Sunday afternoon, I had swooped off Johnston Street to the Collingwood children’s farm, suddenly among horses and sheep, then climbed the Boulevard and dropped onto the main Yarra cycling track behind Richmond. Fancy houses and Scotch College across the glittery river, rowing crews on the water, and idiots wheeling three prams side-by-side occasionally blocking the path in both directions. I mean, seriously?
Thirty degrees and perfect riding conditions. I breathe and move my legs, feet clipped into the pedals.
My brain? Still in armour and skates from the afternoon before. A nagging internal voice on a loop. My brain replaying The Cherokees giving up a goal in the opening minute to Ice Wolves’ Nick, a gun from dev league. Not the start we wanted. But then roaring back with three goals of our own, none of which I was on the ice for, to carry a handy 3-1 lead into the first period break.
Runkeeper: ‘Time 35 minutes. Distance 10 kilometres.’
My head still somewhere else. Ice Wolves scoring two goals in the second period to level the game at 3-3.
But now I get fed a beautiful pass from defence and I cross the blue line, entering our zone, in complete control of the puck, thinking to myself: ‘You haven’t played for a month, don’t rush it. You have more time than you think.’ Seeing where the defender was, with enough room for me to be creative.
Hearing Kittens and Jimmy yelling, that they were also in the zone, ready for a centering pass. My specialty. Letting it fly but a fraction of a second too late, so that my pass hits an opposition skate, deflects straight out of our zone and onto the stick of the opposition’s best player, who sweeps down the ice and scores, all alone on poor Ajay, our keeper. 4-3 Wolves. Fuck.
My bike glides along the Burnley Boardwalk and the music has inexplicably cut out on my phone, so I try to turn off my hockey brain, sing ‘Under the Boardwalk’ softly to myself, as I pass the rangy, sinewed abseilers in the shadowy world under the freeway, the little water garage holding a restored ferry and all the other secret wonders of a bike track.
Now I’m at Birrarung Marr and I have to ride super slowly, and eventually walk so I’m not one of those dicks who tries to be a Tour de France rider in the middle of heavy foot traffic near Flinders Street station. This is going to kill my time-per-kilometre average on Runkeeper, but hey ho.
Now the brain loop fixates on a Kittens shot from the slot that rebounded straight towards me. I’m floating in, just as I should to the left of the goal, seeing the Wolves keeper sprawled and the puck heading my way. I wait for the puck to land exactly on my blade so I can roof it into the near high corner. I’ve practised that shot. I’m confident I can hit it. But let’s make sure by letting the puck come all the way onto my stick blade. By which time, of course, Wolves defenders have descended and hacked my stick and the puck so the shot I attempt barely registers. Sigh. Why didn’t I just whack at it immediately? Shit.
Runkeeper: ‘Time 50 minutes. Distance 16 kilometres.’
The Australian Open tennis is like a virus, spreading from the increasing buildings on what were once public ovals and athletics training fields, to now creep, with ‘festival sites’, along both sides of the river, all the way to South Wharf. I covered all the Grand Slams as a journo; don’t remember Paris, London or New York being so overtaken by the event. Maybe they are now? It’s a long time since I covered that sport.
Runkeeper solemnly intones: ‘Time: one hour, 10 minutes. Distance 20 kilometres’ as I creep over the strange intestine-like bridge linking South Wharf to Docklands. I drift up through the Docklands market, close to the water, rather than stick to the faster bike track on Footscray Road. I ride past Icy O’Briens, aka the Icehouse, aka O’Briens Group Arena, scene of yesterday’s game and my hockey spiritual home.
We level the game at 4-4 through a great lone effort by our captain, Patto.
Soon after, my line is on the ice and we charge into attack. Again I’m crashing the net when a rebound bounces off the goalie. I control the puck. The Wolves goalie does the right thing, covering the post and making himself big. I shoot anyway on a tight angle, hoping for a gap, but it hits his body and falls. I try desperately to drag the puck out from below his knee-roll, where it’s half-pinned, but the ref blows the whistle and the moment is lost.
I’m riding away from the giant wheel and Docklands now in shadow, the Bolte Bridge freeway high above my head. The sparkling Yarra and the docks have given way to the smelly water of the Railway Canal, scene of a body dump in the last detective novel I wrote; a book that still hasn’t made it through the maze of agents and publishers. Maybe never will. I should be fretting about that if I’m going to fret.
Why didn’t I hold onto the puck and try a wrap-around? Could I have fed a pass to one of the other forwards? Did I choose the right option, in shooting straight into the keeper’s body?
I ride through low underpasses and then climb carefully up the ramp to Flemington Bridge, a railway station I suspect only cyclists know even exists.
‘One hour, 25 minutes,’ says Runkeeper. ‘Twenty-five kilometres.’
Now I’m heading east. In Jakarta and in the obscure African country of Burkina FasoI, terrorists have been killing people in the last few days. There are real problems in the world, and even among my friends and family, yet I ride on, sighing at my hockey mediocrity. I pass the zoo and that means I’m heading back into the part of Melbourne I call home. There are trams, and people sunbaking in Princes Park, and street art in the tunnel under Sydney Road.
I finally run out of rusty mistakes I made in Saturday’s game. My brain eases up on itself. I tell myself that a friend who was watching the game, and is honest, said he thought I played pretty well. At least I was in the right position for those rebounds, even if they didn’t go in, right?
I pass St Ali’s near Nicholson Street and think about coffee, because, well, this is Melbourne.
And I’m me.
And, well … coffee.
But I keep riding.
The team played really well. We didn’t lose. Four-four was a good result, given we were behind for a lot of the third period.
I pull off the bike track as Runkeeper tells me that it’s been 30 kilometres in one hour, 38 minutes. I coast down a side street to Dench’s Bakery and park my bike against the glass. Order a flat white. And a jam bombolone to undo all the good work.
You did trap a puck with your skate on your defensive blue line, kick it onto your stick and pass neatly to Kittens, already flying down the centre, leading to a decent shot attempt by him. That was good.
The coffee tastes fantastic. My legs are warm, tired, sated.
It was the first game of the year. You did lots of good things; why are you focusing on the screw-ups. It’s human nature, right? Or you’re just a dick. Stop doing it. The sun’s out.
The hockey brain is a strange beast. Or maybe it’s just me?
I finish my coffee. I drink some water out of my trusty ‘Itchy and Scratchy’ water bottle that I’ve had since about 1990.
Stop beating yourself up, I think. Hockey’s fun. The team played well. You’ll be right.
When’s the next game?
I get back on my bike to pedal gently home.
Next Saturday, 3.45 pm.
I find myself grinning under my bike helmet.