While we were away on our travels, I ended up riding a bike quite a bit. No big deal? Actually, it kind of was.
I had a fairly normal childhood attitude to bicycles. I remember learning to ride a bike in the park, just like anyone else. We spent most of our holidays at campsites, either in the UK or abroad, and my trusty white Raleigh was always strapped on the back of the car for campsite biketimes. I collected spoke beads like any others 80s child – I even had a Frosties bike reflector. although I’m not sure how as that kind of cereal wasn’t allowed in our household. Growing up in suburban Sheffield, ‘playing out’ inevitably meant whizzing around on your bike on some cul-de-sac or another and if someone invited you to build a rope swing in the woods, your bike was the natural mode of transport.
It wasn’t until I reached the grand old age of 11 that I developed my bike ‘issue’ – indeed, my first neurosis proper. We lived on the very edge of Sheffield and the Peak District national park was a big part of everyone’s life – we could see the moors from the playground and sunny summer nights meant being picked up at the gates for an evening at Padley Gorge. Perhaps because of this, we were all roped in to undertake the Cycling Proficiency exam in year six – no exceptions.
I don’t remember having any issue with this. I mean it was a long time ago, but I’m sure that I assumed that a) I could ride a bike and b) I had a bike so… how could it be a big deal? I soon found out. My bike had one gear; everyone else had… well, a lot. Again – I don’t recall this being a problem. I felt quite content to whizz around some cones and do whatever else we had to do to get our certificate. How hard can it be to ride a bike?
Except, it wasn’t quite that easy. I remember having to indicate at some point and falling off. Anything involving hands off the bars or concentration threw me. I legit had no idea about gears – someone joked that I had two; stop and go. How I lolled! Still, I figured it went OK. And then… and then. We had an assembly where every single person in my class was given their Cycling Proficiency certificate – except me. I was given a ‘special effort’ certificate which I had to get up in front of everyone to receive. I’m sure in this day and age of welfare, such a thing would be classed as bullying because I remember my burning red cheeks to this day. It was the worst thing that had ever happened and remains a source of mental anguish to this day. The only one in school who couldn’t officially ride a bike. FML.
I’m sure I rode bikes again during my teenage years – we still went on family holidays and I can’t imagine I was allowed to opt out of anything due to the small matters of my shame and self-loathing. However the next bike excursion that I vividly remember was eight years later, at university. I lived with three boys who loved their BMXes and, one drunken night, I hopped on one of the things and razzed up and down our cul-de-sac – what is with cul-de-sacs and cycling? I remember feeling happy and free and amazing and utterly thrilled at the experience; you never forget how to ride a bike, after all.
I moved out the next year, then came down to London the year after. I don’t remember riding a bike at any point in between then and this holiday – which is a good seven years. I don’t want to blame my failed Cycling Proficiency test or my teenage awkwardness for all of this, but as a being that is extremely sensitive to humiliation there’s no way that I would have sought out bikes as something fun to do in my spare time after the traumatic mental scars I’d already endured. Can you seriously imagine being pulled up in front of the whole school to get a ‘you tried hard, but ultimately failed’ certificate? I swear it’s the only childhood momento missing from my mum’s house. Also there’s the practical fact that London in those early days of my arrival wasn’t especially bike-friendly; no Boris bikes making it accessible, and no beautiful people like my BFF Iso showing us that cycling is a cool thing to do.
Bikes just fell off my radar, and it became a thing like snorkelling in my mind; a cool skill to have, but not something that was relevant to my life Who me? Nah, it’s just not something I’ve ever thought about. Especially not in London. The roads! The traffic! The bike thefts! Are you mad?
…And then we went to Austin! Austin is so hipster. So bike-friendly. Our Air BnB came complete with about six bikes for the three people that could fit in the flat and there was no doubt in the mind of Andy or our friend Robin, who stayed with us, that bikes weren’t going to be part our trip. They’d save money! They’d be fun! It would be like being a real Austinite!
I was, naturally, terrified, but I think Robin’s presence actually helped because having a friend there meant that I couldn’t just baby out of doing it. I just had to say yes and get cracking. On our first afternoon we wheeled the bikes out of the garage and, well, that was that. While the boys spent a while deciding who was going to have what, I’d been assigned mine and went out into the streets to check I could actually stay upright on the bastard thing.
Austin is basically dedicated to bikes, and our Air BnB was in a very quiet area where I could razz around the block without seeing anyone. Even so, that first ride around was terrifying. Eight years out of the saddle and now I’m just pretending it’s no big deal? Well, Austin couldn’t have been better. We spent the best part of four days cycling everywhere; hours at a time, up hills, down highways, drunk and in the dark – no problem! Bikes? Me? Bloody love them.
The next time I got on a bike was in Mexico. They had no seat adjustments on the hotel’s fleet (I am 5’1″ and my legs are about 10% of my body height) and brakes don’t exist in those parts. But still… the roads were flat and by the sea and totally glorious; pelicans swooping ahead, pyramids on the horizon. We even cycled home one night in the pitch black, with Andy rotating our shared torch down a pitch-black lane to make sure I could see where I was going… which was inevitably over a giant scorpion. I fell off in the middle of a crossroads at one point, with traffic coming at me from all angles. The familiar humiliation set in and I was a massive baby for about an hour, refusing to get back on the sodding thing and scowling like only I can. A few beers was deemed as the solution and worked fairly nicely… I didn’t fall off again after them, anyway.
I was back in the saddle in Canada, where we picked up the Toronto equivalent of Boris bikes for a day in the city. I was basically confident by this point and enjoyed all of it. Toronto is hugely bike-friendly and you can razz down the pavements in the university district without annoying anyone too much. I think we took about six pairs of bikes that day and I loved every minute of all of them. You know, there’s a lot to love about this mode of transport, as I quickly discovered. Cheap, fast, easy; way better than public transport. THIS IS THE NEW ME!
Except.. is it? No, I doubt it. I wish it was. I’m terrified of traffic; buses and lorries in particular. I don’t like other cyclists being near me. I don’t like traffic lights and junctions. I don’t like bikes where I can’t put the peddle to the specific angle that I like to push off from.
I love riding a bike. I love the breeze and the freedom and the speed. I love getting places fast and feeling powerful and seeing the city fly by. I love a tipsy ride home with your friends en masse and the feeling of (occasionally) managing to overtake something.
I’m terrified of junctions. I need to follow someone because I’m concentrating so hard on being on – and staying on – a bike that I pay no attention to traffic lights, cars pulling out, or tram doors opening. I am convinced I’ll get hit by a car and die. I have to get off and wheel the bike over hard bits.
I want nothing more than to bike around London – after lots of meetings recently I’ve thought about getting a Boris bike instead of the tube. But I’m still too scared. If I could just ride on the pavement at all times, I’d have no problems. I love being fit, riding in the open air, not sitting on a sweaty bus and moving FAST! But still…. but still..
Bikes, I’m glad I relearned to love you. I’m glad our trip quashed my Cycling Proficiency misery and general feeling of incapability. But you might have to wait til I buy that dreamhouse in Sheffield before I really embrace you.