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Looking Back at Our Influencers!: Osher Günsberg

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Sydney, NSW

It’s a year since we launched Influencers!, our podcast series of industry leaders and unsung heroes making a major difference to cycling or micromobility.

The monthly podcasts have been popular among Micromobility Report readers and other viewers, and we’re celebrating the first anniversary of the series by featuring edited Q&A transcripts from each episode.

It’s a chance to reflect on the achievements, motivations and ideas of remarkable people fostering cycling and micromobility in Australia and around the world – while introducing more viewers to the podcasts.

For the next few months, each issue of The Micromobility Report will feature a transcript from an Influencers! episode.

Naturally, we’re starting the transcript series with Episode 1, featuring television personality and cycling devotee Osher Günsberg. While Osher is a household name as the presenter of many television and radio shows, including The Bachelor, Australian Idol and The Masked Singer Australia, he also plays key roles in bike advocacy and has an in-depth knowledge of many aspects of cycling.

Micromobility Report founder Phil Latz found out just how much Osher does and knows about cycling, and how important it is to his own wellbeing, when they spoke for Influencers!: Episode 1 …

Micromobility Report: How did you become interested in cycling way back when you were a kid or whenever it was?

Osher: I think like most people it was when I was a little kid. My first memory was a tricycle with solid wheels. It was made of cast iron or something. It was not a light bike dude, and fixie too. It was the summer of 1982 and then everyone got a BMX for Christmas.

We went from running around on the street to three days later, 14 kids just in a pack hooning through the streets of Brisbane. The feeling of being eight years old and now being able to go further than my feet could carry me and not having to rely on my parents to get me somewhere was just amazing. To have the wind in my face, be riding with my friends and being able to explore the world beyond what I had previously been able to access, which was how far can you get before halfway between there and when the streetlights go off, when you have to be home. That’s about as far as we could go, and now we could go way, way, way further.

Since then, I think there was a bit of a lull and then I was doing overnight radio in Brisbane. I was about 22, 23, and I lived in an inner-city suburb called Coorparoo and I bought a bike to ride to work. I’d get on the bike about eleven o’clock, 11.15 pm, ride to work, be on air by midnight, [chuckles] and then foolishly ride the bike home across the Story Bridge at 6.30 in the morning. [laughs] Back then, it was a bit tricky, the bike lanes weren’t as good as they are now in Brisbane.

Since then, I’ve just been really right into it. It took a big uptick in the early weeks of sobriety. I’ve been sober for 11 years now. I’m not alone in sober people who go, “I’ve got all this time that I used to spend drinking and using. What am I going to do now? It’s something that’s a compulsive thing that I can just do over and over again.

This phase of my cycling has been about 11 years now and yes, I love it. I’m just so grateful for every day I’m on a bicycle. It’s the best.

MR: Tell me what your cycling world looks like in these more recent years. I guess it changes depending on babies coming along.

Osher: I’m a firm believer whenever you meet the significant other that you’re going to either cohabitate with or spend a significant amount of time with, if you have a time-consuming hobby, you better be doing it when you meet him or her. You cannot two or three years in go, “Oh, by the way hun, I’m just going to choof-off and play 18 holes of golf every Sunday and leave you at home”. You better be doing that when you meet. You better be a surfer. If you’re just going to go down the coast and go surfing or whatever, those things have to be in existence when you meet this person.

When I met Audrey, I was already like – We’re in Sydney right now and there’s a great ride around West Head, which is – You could probably do a metric ton from the Eastern beaches where I was living, to there and back, if you go the right way, which is beautiful. You go up and look over at Barrenjoey Headland where they make Home and Away and come back.
She knew that I did that, that I would just disappear for four or five hours at a time riding bicycles. I was doing that when I first came back to Australia to do Bachelor. When I was back in Los Angeles, I was riding up Topanga Canyon every day and it was a great couple of hundred kilometers a week. I don’t know how many thousand feet of elevation, but it was brilliant fun.

Now that I’m a lot busier with work and now I’m a guy with a house and a mortgage and two kids, so there’s a lot less of that four or five hours away riding, which is where the virtual cycling really kicks in. I am so grateful for Zwift and my Kickr and the Twitch Community that I stream to when I’m riding, because I just wouldn’t get riding in. That just wouldn’t happen.

We’ve got a toddler, you’ve got kids. When they’re little, you really can’t just go say, “Honey I’m off”. But in the space of a nap, which is anywhere from an hour and a half to two hours long if you’re lucky, you can get on and really fang yourself on a trainer. If I didn’t have the trainer, by the time I’d got my shoes on and have charged everything, “Oh, where’s the LED? Oh, it doesn’t fit. Oh, it’s the wrong one, oooh the mold … eeww”.

By the time you get on the road, you ride four Ks turn around and come back, I just don’t have time for that. That’s why now, I guess I cycle virtually more than anything because I’m very busy with work, but there’ll be time for getting out on the road again shortly.

MR: You studied in Amsterdam for a while?

Osher: I did an 18-month course there at a business school in Amsterdam and I would spend four to six weeks at a time there over those 18 months. It’s the promised land; 40,000 kilometers of bike infrastructure and what a lot of people don’t realise is that it wasn’t always that way. It’s only been that way since the ’70s and it totally transformed the country and it’s just amazing.

I was this close to moving there and then I met Audrey and Georgia. I moved back to Australia but I’m particularly fascinated with how the bike infrastructure came along in the Netherlands.

After World War II, the Netherlands had colossal economic turmoil. Like a lot of Europe, it was just rubble that had been occupied, they were stuffed. When prosperity started to happen and people started getting more economically prosperous, they started to buy cars and it’s a European country. It’s like tiny little horse and cart roads that had been tarmacked over, village squares, this sort of thing, with a lot of traffic on roads that just didn’t have the space for it.

The village squares, which were once open plazas for people, became car parks because that’s where all the shops and the villages were.

A child a week was getting hit and killed by cars and the public were just: “We cannot have this. There are kids dying. We need infrastructure.”

This was in the early ’70s, during the oil crisis when prices went through the roof. In an effort to combat energy usage of the country, the Netherlands went “Okay, we need to figure out how to ration this petrol. No one drives on Sundays.”

So on Sundays people are like, “we’ve got bikes. We’ll ride around”. They started to rediscover their land, started to rediscover the streets, started to rediscover these beautiful plazas.

The Netherlands started to build separated bike lanes. Now it’s 40,000 kilometers of separate bike lanes. You just don’t see overweight people on the streets of Amsterdam because everyone rides everywhere, always. I saw people as old as my mum in their mid-70s, on bikes with their groceries. You can’t tell me that would not be good for a country like ours, with a public health system where ultimately it’s the taxpayer that bears the burden of diseases that are caused by morbidities, around not being physically active.

MR: You could perhaps argue Germany, Denmark, certain other countries to maybe a slightly lesser extent, also made that decision, but certainly not Australia, not the United States, not Canada, not the UK. Why not? What does Australia need to start that sort of thing?

Osher: I don’t know. I think it was the magical, political will of ‘it doesn’t matter what side of economics you come down on, children dying in accidents between a bike and a car is a bad thing’, and so there was the political will to just get it over the line in that situation. But when you look forward from where we are today, I firmly believe that the lifestyle outcomes, the economic outcomes of our cities could be so vastly improved by separate cycling infrastructure.

As someone who drives a car, rides a bicycle and rides a motorbike, I get why sometimes people don’t want cyclists on the street. I get that. I get a 1000% why some people just don’t want to ride to work because they just don’t feel safe with cars. I 100% get that, and it’s really, really important to make people feel safe.

The economic benefits, the health benefits, the lifestyle-related disease benefits are just so vast for the community at large and as we look forward, what are simple ways that we as a community can bring our carbon imprint down in Australia? That for me is just a no brainer.

MR: I want to touch on two aspects of your own health where cycling has possibly played a role. I understand that you had a hip replacement just before Christmas.

Osher: I need both hips replaced but I got the right one done first because it was the more painful one. When I used to ride, my bumpy head of my femur would go ‘conk conk, conk conk’ on my labrum and I could feel it every time I peddled. Now, it’s like this super smooth – [laughs], it’s really, really weird, at first, it was very strange.

My bike felt differently underneath me, so I got another bike fit and it’s amazing. The rehab is very humbling because I had gone from up here as far as fitness goes and functional threshold power and things like this, to like I could barely keep 55 watts for 10 minutes. But then I think, hang on, they carved open the front of my leg, pulled my quads out, pulled my psoas out, chopped the top of my femur off, hammered a thing in and shoved it [laughs] … fair enough.

It’s just coming to terms with how long it’s taken to recover, but the good news is I have no arthritis pain, none at all. I can sleep. That’s brilliant. I used to have to build a pillow fort under my hips because I was in so much pain. I couldn’t sleep without medication.

Our eldest is 17, but our youngest is a year and a half, and I’m like, “I’m going to be chasing you down Thredbo on a mountain bike when I’m 60. I’ve got to keep moving, I better get this done now before it’s too late. I’m cleared to go back out on the road, I just don’t have time, but the bike’s really great for rehab.

MR: The second area that you’ve been very open about and written about – and even changed the name of your podcast to Better than Yesterday – is your mental health struggles. How have you found cycling in relation to that issue of mental health?

Osher: I think the big misconception is that mental health is somehow different from physical health. Mental health is the same as physical health. It’s just health. You don’t accidentally have great functional threshold power. You have to work quite hard to get and maintain it.

Similarly, if you don’t take care of your mental health, you start to slide and that’s just the fact. Taking care of your mental health or keeping a maintenance program for your mental health is just as important as keeping a maintenance program for your physical health.
But it is worth it.

MR: So cycling – Is it a small part of that, a key part? Just one of many parts?

Osher: Exercise is a part of it. We are human beings that manufacture certain hormones that only get released when we exercise to a certain point of intensity. Dopamine, norepinephrine, serotonin, endorphins, these things get released when we cycle, or weightlift, or work out to a certain intensity. These are essentially the chain lube for the gears in our brain. They allow us to shift mood states a lot easier through the day.

If we don’t use our body to this intensity, those things don’t get released as well and we find it a lot harder to shift from mood states. If you are pissed off at being cut you off on your way to work, 15 minutes later you could probably walk into work, into your first meeting of the day, still pissed off and that could blow the deal. Whereas if you are keeping a good mental health regime, you will be able to recognise, “I’m pissed off” and you’ll be able to emotionally regulate far, far better.

I’m not saying don’t get pissed off, but you’ll be able to emotionally regulate far easier if your body is flooded with these hormones that allow you to shift mood states.

MR: Last year you joined We Ride Australia, the peak Australian advocacy body, as a director. What motivated you to do that and what would you hope to achieve or see the organisation achieve?

Osher: I had previously served on a board of SANE Australia. They work very hard on the mental health space. They have three-year board terms and after my first term, I stepped away because we had a new baby and I wanted to dedicate the right amount of time for things. When the We Ride opportunity came up, I talked to my wife about it and we figured that we could make it work.

Why We Ride is important to me as they tick all the boxes: a focus on infrastructure, a focus on mental health, a focus on advocacy. It’s not about racing, it’s not about elite sport, it’s about people using bicycles to get from here to there. Don’t care what kind of bike it is, put a motor in it, I don’t care. [laughs]

It’s not middle-aged dudes in Lycra, it’s people just getting to work, people doing their groceries, people picking their kids up from school, kids riding to school, people using that as their main form of commuting. Supporting those people, therefore supporting the health of our community – not only the physical health, but also the atmospheric health. Less cars on the road, less carbon in the atmosphere, better for everybody.

MR: You’ve become an ambassador in Australia for World Bicycle Relief. What was your motivation for that?

Osher: I remember when World Bicycle Relief started. I remember just being so transfixed by the story. For me, it’s a piece of metal with some rubber and, if I’m fancy, maybe some carbon fibre. For another person, it is literally life changing. It is literally the difference between going to school, getting educated or being married at the age of 12.

It can change the outcome of someone’s life completely.

My eldest did an exchange trip to Cambodia a couple of years back. They raised some money and they gave a kid at this school a bicycle. From what I remember when World Bicycle Relief launched, the same story was so completely true for this kid in Cambodia. She lived so far from the school, she could only go a few days a week because they were the days a truck was coming this way.

Had she not had this bicycle, her outcomes would’ve been pretty limited, yet just this 20-kilo piece of metal and rubber can change this person’s life. That is amazing.

It’s the difference between getting by economically, or getting ahead economically and therefore, trying to improve the outcomes for your kids.

We’re looking at these bicycles around us. Some of them are so expensive. I don’t know how people stay married after they buy them, I swear, but when I look at the work that World Bicycle Relief does, when I see how transformational that Buffalo bike can be for people, I just really, really, really wanted to support it because it’s so what I’m all about.

Because of my hip replacement, I wasn’t able to raise money by doing massive charity rides, or anything like that. I’m raising money for World Bicycle Relief by singing people’s songs on Instagram. [laughs]

There’s an app called Cameo, and if people want me to sing them a happy birthday, all that money goes to World Bicycle Relief. I’ve raised a couple of grand, just playing silly songs in my little office and it’s great.

MR: What a brilliant idea.

Osher: It’s fun.

MR: Of all the things we could do to grow cycling in Australia, what do you think is the most important one or two things we could or should be doing?

Osher: First and foremost, a focus on separate bicycle infrastructure in key inner-city areas, and key linking routes between high-transit parts of cities. Not a painted white line, like a kerb. You start making people feel more safe riding to work, you’re going to have to stop spending billions of dollars tunnelling under the city building four-lane roads.

If you build enough cycling infrastructure, and support that with public transport that can have a bike sitting on it, like separate cars seen in some parts of Europe, you save money on roads. There’s some really simple things economically you could do that wouldn’t take anything to do, and we have the capability to do right now.

If you have a verified source, for example, a GPS on your phone or a bike computer, if you can prove that you, during commuting times, rode a certain number of kilometers per year, there’s discount on your rego. You’re giving people an economic incentive. Perhaps that could come off the cost of a new bike. If you want to save money on building road infrastructure, build bicycle infrastructure. It’s that easy.

When you look at the lengths of people’s actual commute, that they actually drive in cars, it’s really not that long. It’s less than an hour on a bike. Sometimes in traffic, it’s quicker on a bicycle, yet people just don’t feel safe on a bike. That’s completely fair enough. I’m terrified of white utes with P-plates. Terrified of the big white van. Why would they look for me? They don’t. I’m on a motorbike and they still don’t see me.

But I am prepared to take that risk, though I know I’m a tiny minority. There are so many people that if they had that safe option, they would 100% do it because you could pick up an e-bike for a third of the cost of a car, you never have to pay car insurance, never have to pay rego on it, arrive to work without being sweaty, which is a big worry for people, don’t have to worry if your work’s got crappy end-of-ride facilities, though I would love to see an economic incentive for that.

How many cars would you take off road? How much pressure would you take off the public transport system? It’s a no-brainer. For people who are in power that claim to be economic-rationalists, the numbers are just so starkly there.

The solution is there, and the people are willing if they feel safe.

You’re not going to be building 40,000km of it, like they have in the Netherlands. You don’t need that much, but it’s enough to make those people feel safe – and there’ll be a tipping point.

MR: Let’s talk about that: the tipping point and you as a family man. To take Wolfey and Audrey out on the road, what’s the threshold before you would feel comfortable to– or have you ever done that?

Osher: I’ve taken Wolfey out with me but my wife’s not a fan of that.

I see people in my neighborhood, they have cargo bikes; the big bench seat in the back, they’ve got the electric capability. Brilliant.

I’d be very comfortable taking the kids to school like that. I don’t know how comfortable my wife would be, and that is totally fine. Unless everyone’s cool with it, it’s not going to happen. I totally appreciate that. It would take a separate lane. It’s not hard to do. There’d be city councils that could pop it in and brag: ‘Look at what we’ve got. Come and live here, we’re a cycling friendly community!’

MR: Your family is no different to the majority. Women are really the canary in the coal mine in terms of threshold of acceptability for risk when cycling. Would you agree with that?

Osher: Well, because they’re far smarter when it comes to assessing what’s a good or a stupid idea. I have three neurons that jump together and if I get two out of three and one of them ticks “That looks exciting”, I’ll do it. Hence why I own a motorbike, but Audrey has the ability to go, “Hang on a second here. Really? At tradie o’clock? You want to take the kids out on bikes when the boys are fanging to smoko?”

There’s three blokes in the front of a crew cab, going through Tinder while they’re trying to drive. They’re not going to be looking for us and nobody wants that. Those guys don’t want that. They don’t want to go through their life having hurt someone on a bicycle.

I think cyclists can play victim to a point where people just write them off and that’s not helping anybody. Think of the last time that someone said, “Oh my God, vegans, they never shut up about not eating meat”. That’s how you sound and you’re turning people off. You just have to appreciate that, if you’re driving in a car and you hit a kid on a bike on the way to school, that’s going to destroy the rest of your life and the person driving the car doesn’t want that either. It’s not just about protecting cyclists. It’s about protecting people in cars from doing something like that accidentally.

So how do we protect everybody involved in the situation? I understand that riding a bike isn’t for everyone, but research has shown there’s so many people that would be willing to do it if they felt safe. I can’t see a more easily implementable, vastly, profoundly changing solution to our transportation needs in the cities of our country than just popping that extra cycle lane in.

It will take political will, but once people feel safe it’ll change. I’ve been in television a really long time, since it was in four by three, you’re watching this in 16 by 9. There was a point when we shifted from analog to digital and everyone was like, “Oh, digital TV. Amazing”.

Then there was a confluence of when mobile phone screens got bigger at the same time as data caps went up and now it was viable to watch entire TV shows on your phone.

What happens to the ratings my industry relies on? [plummeting whistle]. Why would I walk to the living room when I can lie in bed watching the same show? Similarly, there’s going to be a point when the technology of these e-bikes drops, the price drops so far that they are quite easily accessible to people who are going, “Well, how much does the train cost me every year, how much does the car cost me every year? These things are only a couple of grand, I’ll have paid for it by June and then it’s free because that’s what I would’ve been paying on train tickets or bus tickets – or rego or petrol”.

Then there’s suddenly going to be all these bikes on the road and I would like to see this infrastructure in place before that’s going to happen because it will happen. People looking for a cheaper easier way to get to work, e-bikes, it’s going to completely change everything.

MR: What sort of physical and cultural landscape would you like to see around cycling and active transportation in 10, 20 years’ time? What’s your vision for the future?

Osher: It’ll be like, “I can’t believe we used to think that way about riding”. Suddenly it will just be everywhere because even your mum can get on an e-bike and feel safe and realise that she can ride 15km to go see her friend and park right in front of wherever she wants to go.

That’s the other thing … you never pay for parking, it’s amazing! And then ride home.

You’ll feel okay about your septuagenarian grandparent getting on a bicycle and being fine with it because there’s an electric motor that’s pushing them along. I would like to see Wolf live in a world where at the same time as the electric vehicle revolution comes to our streets, there’s a large amount of, if not autonomous, semi-autonomous rider identification.

There’s already quite a fair bit of that, there’s some really interesting LiDAR technology that’s coming on. Dare I say it won’t be long before the internet of things technology has bicycles pinging all the other vehicles around them in the same way that the vehicles talk to each other.

It will be a part of the overall system.

Never before in history has an economic externality been so intensely visible as the carbon in the atmosphere. It’s absolutely terrifying. Last week, the high observatory in Hawaii registered 420 parts per million of carbon in the atmosphere, carbon dioxide. Pre-industrial revolution was 280. 100 parts per million of carbon dioxide is the difference between us being in an ice age and not being in an ice age.

Within 20, 30 years, de-carbonisation of the atmosphere is going to be the only thing we talk about.

Bicycles are the future transportation.

Don’t forget how much fun it was when you were a kid to feel the wind in your face when you’re riding a bike. It still feels that good, and I’m nearly 50 and I’ve got a false hip.

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