Remember that lyric?
Ok so this isn’t about wagons, or Cherokees or anything like. But there is a theme here. In the song, the poor sods keep on going in spite of the fact they’re reduced to two wheels and then less.
That was me. At age 12 my parents upped and moved us to a cottage in the New Forest. Idyllic. The rolling plains of south Hampshire with its abundant wildlife, sumptuous vistas… perfect territory to bring up a child.
Only… if you live on the edge of a grand prix circuit with no pavements, walking anywhere is a no-no. At 12, even a tall 12, the chance of anything motorised in the way of transport is years away. Which leaves the humble, ubiquitous bicycle.
I could ride by 12. After I learnt when I was 8 or 9, my parents bought me a half-sized rusty lump of cast iron with two wheels and brakes with the adhesive qualities of a dog on wet lino. If it had been intended to function as a comic turn or part of the training for some elite troop to battle-harden their nerves, it was fit for purpose. As transport for a pre-teen who would need to cycle four miles daily to the railway station, it was about as useful as a chocolate teapot.
‘We’ll get you something new.’
Which didn’t mean it was new, per se. Just new to me. Why is it that you can have ‘new’ and ‘secondhand’ but the categorisation stops there? What about other ‘hands’? Wouldn’t it be useful to know how many pairs of hands something has been through? I’m guessing that my ‘new’ flying machine had touched more hands that the Monarch touches in a decade.
It was ok, though, because it wasn’t the old one. It was full sized. It had drop handlebars and three Sturmey-Archer gears. My parents even invested in a rack for the back on which I could strap a briefcase with one of those elastic things.
I was all set. My career as a commuting cyclist was about to begin. 1970 had dawned and, on and off I would spend the next near 40 years pedalling from wherever home was to wherever school, university and work happened to be.
And in that time, I proved not only dedicated to the cause of self-propelled transport but also consistently incompetent at cycling. Maybe I was unlucky, even though the number of injuries I suffered were mostly of the scraped flesh sort. But I think a mix of the spatial awareness of loose polythene sheeting and the concentration span of a tired and emotional mosquito played a bigger role.
As I’ve indicated, I have had three commuting careers, so this post will look at my time as a school boy cyclist.
The school run comprised an undulating journey that, for about seven months involved cycling through rivers. The droughts of 1975 and 76 came after I had headed for University. Before that the 1970s were distinguished from the decades before and since by sugar and toilet paper shortages and rain.
There was one especially unwelcome hill that reached its zenith on a blind left hand corner. In the morning you could sail down it on the outside and usually dodge any other traffic. In the afternoon, tired after a school day spent packing in as much physical activity into the break times as possible, the existence of the corner was, essentially, terrifying.
I am now a driver – I’ve had motor bikes and cars – but even I realise that giving a warning toot on the horn as you approach a blind corner is but one part of considerate motoring. The number of utter prannocks who would toot but then not reduce their speed seemed endless in those sodden days. You learnt quickly that acquiring more perforations that a box of tea bags from the hawthorn hedge to the left was the only option if a car horn tooted its merry warning while you were navigating that bloody corner. I’m pretty sure if you DNA tested that hedgerow today, you’ll find it is only partly arboreal, but there are notes of schoolboy in there too.
When I first acquired the bike, it took some getting used to. But since my commute was the only reason I had to use it, I didn’t really test myself on it for a number of weeks until I ventured further afield. That first trip, to a more adventurous friend, led to an expedition that took in several miles including a rather intimidating hill outside Lymington. Said friend stopped at the top. ‘Dare you to go down and not brake.’
‘There’s plenty of space to stop at the bottom.’
‘I’ll go first. See you at the bottom.’
Part of my psyche includes the following flawed character traits:
- I hate being dared
- I cannot back away
- I am over-optimistic about outcomes
- I overestimate my skills
- I overestimate my courage
- I really really hate dares
I set off, counselling myself that said friend hadn’t died because I could hear him calling from the bottom of the hill. How hard could it be?
It’s not that hard, going down hill fast. What is hard is identifying the moment when you have transitioned from an excited ‘whee-heee’ to a bowel-emptying ‘shiiiiit’. Ideally you would be aware of that moment approaching and have a plan B to deal with the urge to abort. Looking backwards at the small window of opportunity as it recedes into the dust of madly spinning wheels is in and of itself terrifying. Your mind goes to those admonishments about over-braking and flying over the handlebars; to the cries of ‘cowardy-cowardy custard’ that will follow you stopping early. So you grip all that is grippable and watch while, if not your life, then some very dense foliage flashes past.
I heard later that what I experienced was called wheel-wobble. It’s a elliptical oscillation that combines an exponential harmonic with a friction-less rotation. Simply put: I was fucked. I did what anyone rational would have done yards before. I yanked on the brakes with all the force I could muster.
Initially this did nothing. But in a rapid sequence the following occurred: the front wheel slowed; the back wheel didn’t, the wobbling increased; I lost any semblance of a linear trajectory; and I began to describe what would later be seen as a perfect left curving parabola. In combination these events can be summarised in two words. I crashed.
Say what you want about the countryside, but during the wettest five year period since Noah was a jobbing carpenter, there was one major upside. The ditches were full of water.
Perhaps ‘water’ is a loose catch-all for the liquid contents of the six foot deep drains. Bovine afters also for a significant part of the contents. It might not smell nice and ingesting any isn’t for the weak stomached but it does ensure a soft landing for the horizontal human.
‘Bloody hell.’ My mate’s face appeared over the edge of my elongated grave. ‘That was spectacular.’ He offered a hand, saw mine and thought better of it. ‘Why didn’t you brake?’
We learn our life lessons at different times and in different ways. That day I learnt a very valuable one. No, oddly it wasn’t that I needed to become a n,more cautious cyclist – I never managed that – but that friends, good friends, can also be duplicitous little toerags at one and the same time.
This post is part of Irene Waters ‘Times Past’ series. Please click the link to find out more. I will explore my later exploits in further posts.