As I get older and think about who I really am, I am reminded of some of the-things-I-have-done-more-than-others. Consciously or otherwise some things get done more than others, and I have identified a few things I have consistently done for the majority of my life. Riding a bike is one of them.
I got my first bike when I was about 6 years old. Some kids from school had got brand new bikes, but that was out of the question for a cost-conscious family like mine. However, when my equally not-very-well-off neighbourhood friend Matthew got given one, then I really wanted one! Being the littlest child of four in not very well off family, I couldn’t just have one like that. But my brother decided I could have his, and suddenly I was on the road.
That first bike was a funny little unisex thing; my mum had bought a pair of them for my oldest brother and sister back in the sixties. Like clothes and toys when they’d outgrown them they went to my cousins Dick and Dave before coming back to my brother and me (although at some point one had been parted out for spares to keep the other one going). The one I ended up with had some sort of purply psychedelic paint job, rod brakes, and was single speed with probably only 10″ wheels. I mastered riding it without stabilisers pretty quickly, and ended up painting it green with the help of my dad.
My mum used a bike to get around, and my kindly donating brother ended up with another bike of his own from a family in the neighbourhood (which he painted blue), so we used to ride around together as a little trio to go to visit my aunties and uncles in the town.
The little green bike really came into its own when I started to go out exploring by myself. My brother and I went out one evening to play with local kids on our bikes. There were a number of factories and warehouses in our neighbourhood and in the evenings when they were quiet they were safe(ish) places to ride around without having to worry about traffic. I only rode on the pavement anyway but one night I noticed a kid from my class kept riding off and coming back about 10 minutes later. I asked him where he was going and he showed me his route up the street, into one of the factories and the loop through their road system back to where we had set off. It seemed totally amazing that we could go off adventuring like that, going further than we’d ever dare walk on our own for example, but always coming home safely, and we did it several times before having to go in for that night.
Something must have clicked within me that evening because after that my bike went from a plaything to what it would end up being for the rest of my life – a tool for stretching my boundaries and something that would become a part of my everyday life, as much as food and water and walking around.
I guess I must have got permission from my parents to start riding around the neighbourhood as I recall not long afterwards doing that same factory loop all by myself on Sunday afternoons and evenings. I had a little satchel which I kept a three pack of Jaffa Cakes in and I just used to ride round and around that loop, looking at all of the things to do with the factories, different views of the neighbourhood and the multitude of things that make up where I lived – gates, latches, gardens, cars, litter, kerbs, driveways. Every lap revealed something different and I was fascinated.
Once my parents could see I was devoted to cycling they got me a new bike, a red Raleigh Chipper. This was a smaller version of the ultimate 70’s kids bike, the Raleigh Chopper, and I rode it so much the first weekend that I got it that I ended up saddlesore. I had that for about three years before outgrowing it and giving it to my cousin when I upgraded it to a Puch-Murray BMX, straight out of Halfords. With chrome forks and a plethora of reflectors this was a seriously cool bike. I started to get a bit crazy at this time, riding further and further away from home and racing other kids around the local factory roads (it was seriously fast and left the ubiquitous Raleigh Grifter in the dust) as well as mucking about with trick riding. As a result I crashed it more than once and was even knocked off it by a careless driver, but there was literally no stopping me until, again, growing up meant a new bike.
In my very early teens I got a Vindec Trekker. This was a sort of early ATB (all terrain bike), with a three speed hub, 700c wheels and “stag” handlebars. I remember it was cheaper than a Raleigh Burner and, again, faster, and with the start of Grammar School it became a means of getting both to school and to friend’s houses which were far away in the countryside. My memories of my early teens are hard to pin down with accuracy any more, but the sensation of riding home in the dark along country roads with the smell of leylandii, the ticking sound of the Sturmey-Archer three speed hub and the yellowy illumination of my Ever-Ready bike lamps has left a distinct stratum in my grey-matter. In the holidays one year I made a bracket for a radio and used to roll around the droves and banks of northern Boston (Lincolnshire) listening to Laser 558 and thinking about girls when I should have been revising for the end of term. I didn’t even have to be going anywhere, and since it was my only personal means of transport at the time it didn’t even matter if it was siling with rain; when it was time to ride, I went out. I remember as much time in the saddle being soaking wet as I can when it was dry, and as much time just riding around trying to deal with the flood of teenagerdom as I can actually going somewhere to visit people.
I took over one of my brother’s racing bikes by the time I was a sixth former and had straight bars fitted to it, and went on my most epic rides yet, journeying deep into the fens to see where out-of-my-league High School girls lived and attending (and sometimes not getting into) teenage parties in other bits of town. I ratcheted up miles on the clock as a solo rider, travelling for the sake of experience rather than endurance and for soulfulness rather than speed. Long fenland droves often meant riding with the sun in my eyes all the way in one direction, and its reflection burning back at me in handlebar chrome on the way back. When I wasn’t doing that I was riding up to college each day, knowing exactly which way to throw the derailleur shifters to negotiate the traffic lights and junctions with ease. I remember fixing a film canister to my cranks with cable ties in an attempt to harness my everyday commuting energy to tumble-polish stones. It didn’t work but it made for an interesting talking point at the college gates.
I learned to drive around this time and although cars meant I could travel further and do “other things” in them, I never lost my passion for “the wheel”. Come 1990 the mountain bike ruled and my brother gave me his Raleigh ATB when he got a green Marin. The straight-bar racer went to my uncle Norman who loved it as much as I did. Laser 558 had given way to Atlantic 252 but the need to ride remained, especially when I dropped out of university, and I trawled the fens endlessly, sometimes with my girlfriend (who had a Diamond Back). Once, prompted only by the boredom of the dole, we took off for Horncastle with no supplies at all. When we got there we bought Philadelphia cheese and bread and, having no knife, ate ice-lollies to use the sticks to make sandwiches. On the way back we stopped to hang out with some cows in Carrington and when one thought my bar-ends was some sort of feeding tube I had ride back with dock leaves wrapped around the foam to avoid the generous gift of bovine saliva.
Twenties and thirties
My family moved to Oxford in ’92 and despite my best attempts I struggled to find anywhere as epic as the fens for recreational riding. I went to all sorts of places and although that resulted in some interesting adventures the bike reverted to just a means of transport, for the nineties in Oxfordshire could not match the eighties in Lincolnshire. I put in hours and miles of travel as a commuter of course, but the hills and flood plains of the Dreaming Spires could not compete with the romance of the fens and “a wheel part of me” was lost for a long time.
The Raleigh ATB was stolen one Saturday afternoon in 1998 from outside the art gallery I was working in at the time, and I replaced it with a Dawes Kokomo which I still ride today, although my body would not forget the Raleigh for a long time and there were many tiny tweaks made to the seat, bars, shifters and brakes before I felt at home on it. The Dawes started as an ATB with a “Megarange” cassette but it slowly got hybridised with skinny tyres, regular gears and racks and guards more suited to commuting. It took me to nearly every job I’ve ever had and at the start of the millenium I did a few longer, leisurely rides on it. Over the years the landscape had slowly opened up for me and with Lincolnshire left so far behind I accepted “the call of the road”. I’d also started going on holidays overseas and had rented bikes in Majorca, Greece and Mauritius, and the fun of riding around in different landscapes had reminded me that this was something I should do back home, even if I always felt like I was “on my commuting bike”. It would take more years and many life changes before I really started riding again like I did when I was young.
In 2008 a colleague from work gifted me an old Dawes Super Lightning road bike. He’d bought it for his son from a car boot sale but it needed some fixing up and this had never happened, so he brought it round to me one evening. It got stored in the garden down the side of the house where I parked my commuting bike and although there was a great plan to restore it and start riding it, I almost forgot about it until the following Easter when I was clearing out that space and moved the bikes into the yard. I tried the brakes on the road bike and they worked and I realised in a split second that half the battle with restoring it was over if the brakes worked. I immediately pumped up the tyres and on seeing that they held up I rode it around the block.
It totally worked, and from that day on I became determined to start riding the bike. Immediately! (But I know that I had to go out that afternoon). By the end of the week though I’d replaced the tyres and tubes, and each subsequent bit of fettling and tweaking resulted in me needing to test it each time. Each test ride got longer and longer and with summer evenings approaching I realised I was riding around my neighbourhood like I had done as a kid back home, thirty years earlier. I found myself buying new brake blocks, bottle racks and even upgrading the wheels with a pair donated by a friend. I chopped and flipped the bars in a brief-but-irreversible flirtation with hipster bikes (praise be that I didn’t go fixie) and soon I was riding away from home as often as I could.
I was still commuting on the Dawes Kokomo in the day, but in the evening and at weekends I took the Super Lightning out, exploring my neighbourhood and loving being back out on the bike. I got the same thrill from coming home and getting a drink in the kitchen as I did as a kid, knowing I’d been somewhere. But at the same time I know I was seeking refuge “in the wheel”. My dad had been ill for years and had died a few months earlier and I was beginning to feel the bite of bereavement. I was unhappy in other areas of my life and didn’t know what to do most of the time. But if I got on the bike…I was doing something, and going somewhere, and I had to stay upright and going forwards and somehow that gave meaning to the desolation that seemed everywhere else. My rides got more and more intense and became logical and goal-like. 10 milers became 15 milers. I rode around the city, both figuratively and literally (I did as much as I could of the paths parallel to the ring-road one evening) and soon I was visiting other towns, going to festivals and leaping to 50 miles in about six weeks of first pulling the bike out.
The zenith of all of this was an exhilarating 75 mile round trip to Milton Keynes one Sunday. It was literally bonkers, since although it was easy enough to do (set aside enough time and just keep riding and eating and drinking and eventually one arrives there) it was a sign that I wasn’t coping with the rest of my life. Suffice to say something had to give and in the end I had to make the sort of big decisions which people approaching 40 do all the time (and which I won’t go into any more about here).
Needless to say although I never rode quite as crazily in the remainder of that year as I did that summer, nothing was quite the same again. I did not get off the bike, and continued commute and to ride away recreationally whenever I could. Over the next year I planned a 100 mile ride and also a trip back to Lincolnshire too – the Milton Keynes ride had showed me I could manage nearly 80 miles in a day and I reckoned I could do it in four legs of 60 miles each.
Forties and more
True to form this sort of reckoning wasn’t entirely sane and in truth I was trying to deal with more life challenges – not only did I turn forty, but at the same time my mum was dying of cancer. I had to test my theory of course, so I set off one afternoon in 2011 to see friends and stay overnight in Birmingham, which would bring me close to two legs of 60 miles, and I could ride away from my troubles again. I made it in the end, but not without a major crash en route which saw me smash up my leg and sustain an infected hematoma that was probably proportional to how crazy I was feeling at the time.
That was the last of the big rides; other bits of life got in the way, including my mum dying, and the challenges of “the Brum run” tempered my crazier ideas about centuries and hometown trips. I still commuted until winter 2012 when I got whooping cough and then pleurisy and the bikes got put in the shed whilst I recuperated. I started taking the bus to work and walking back slowly, and realised the journey on foot wasn’t too bad. Until I got plantar fasciitis! That really got me down, but it was a reason to get the bikes back out to regain my fitness. I spent much of the summer of 2014 riding to Witney and back since it’s a nice 20 mile round trip, and it was all going so well and then…the Dawes Super Lightning got stolen one autumn evening outside a pub I was in. Despite my best efforts to find it, I know it has gone forever and I don’t know how I feel about replacing it.
Even so, I know I’ll ride again someday, and it’ll be great. The wheel just keeps on spinning.