Bicycles

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For most of my life I’ve been riding bikes. I learnt to ride when I was 4 years old with my playgroup friend Philip. He had three older sisters and I’d been taken to stay with them in their house in the Norfolk countryside. The house and its location in my memory seem almost dream like, as if my younger imagination has given the place a quality that never really existed, a setting that a child might want to make up. Beyond the fences of the house’s large overgrown garden, was both a section of a disused railway line and the remnants of an ancient earthwork fortification. This earthy hill had a spiralling footpath that circled up to the crest of the wooded mound which Philip and I explored extensively. The railway track was in a small cutting, behind the fort, with a derelict siding and platform with ramped approaches. There was no sign of the tracks or sleepers and the remaining gravelled ground, along its flat length, was hard, dry and compacted. It was ideal for a small boy to learn to ride a bicycle.

At the house there was a small fleet of children’s bikes which had been discarded by Philip’s siblings who had out grown them. Philip could ride two wheels and I could not. I recall there being no adults about as we scrambled up and down the old fort and ran about the disused railway track. It was just Philip and I playing in what felt like an enchanted landscape. Philip found his bicycle from the stacked pile in the shed and we then found another one of his sister’s small bikes that I could try to learn to ride on. We headed out to the old railway and very quickly, without to much difficulty, I found myself able to follow Philip up and down the track.

As I pedalled and free wheeled behind I realised this was an important moment. Firstly, because it felt like we’d done this ourselves without grownups, even if this probably wasn’t true; and secondly, because riding the bike felt so free for a small child. I could go anywhere, steer myself without any help, ride up and down the track interminably, following Philip onto the high ramped platform sidings and off again, picking up speed as we dropped to the gravel below. At the end of this short holiday Philip’s family very kindly gave me the tiny bicycle I’d been riding and with that same bicycle both my sisters subsequently learnt to ride too.

I continued to ride bicycles for the next 30 years until there was a time in the late 1990’s when I stopped altogether. I was working as an architect with a small practice in Great Titchfield Street, just north of London’s Oxford Circus, to which I’d been commuting from my flat in Stoke Newington. I was riding my old Specialised Rock Hopper mountain bike to and from work and then I got ill with a urinary tract infection. I had to spend some time on antibiotics and drinking pints of cranberry juice to clear the condition but was convinced that my exhaustion from late working and cycling home on cold wet nights had triggered the illness. So many times I seemed to be pedalling back through the freezing winter weather on the wet cambered roads of north London after having spent the evening making drawings for yet another design competition. As I took my pills and recovered I stopped pedalling entirely. The thought of the those late nights and chilly streets simply put me off and I didn’t to get back on my bicycle.

As I recovered mine and my neighbour’s flats were all burgled. My precious mountain bike was stolen from the communal hallway along with some other electronic rubbish from the flat. This bicycle had carried me around Romania before the fall of communism with my friend Dickon. It had taken me along the West Highland Way in Scotland and then to, the very amateur, 1988 Shimano UK Mountain Bike Championships. The frame was bright blue with bold pink lettering. I’d loved it and now the theft had left me ‘pedal-less’ for the first time since the generosity of Philip’s sisters, who had unwittingly sent me on this pedalling journey. I was heart broken over the loss of this inanimate object that had been such a physical accompaniment to me for so long.

I finally decided to change jobs. The thankless late nights had finished off all my goodwill working in Great Titchfield Street and I realised it was time to move. The new architectural practice was in South Kensington, much further away in my head than Oxford Circus, so I continued to commute like everyone else on the buses, trains and tubes from north London. Despite becoming a commuter, and the fact that my insurance had paid out for a new Marin Hawk Hill mountain bike, I continued not to cycle to work. It just seemed too far despite the new work’s offices having both a shower and bike store. Neither tempted me to ride from Stoke Newington to work. Instead I’d walk or catch the 106 bus to Finsbury Park dreaming of hiking the Pacific Crest Trail or anything else other than cycling.

Then I met Tim who briefly joined the practice for work in South Kensington and we quickly became friends. He was a serious and very experienced road cyclist and talked about cycling in a way that immediately reawakened my interest in riding. Tim could explain the subtle aesthetic design differences between the varying group sets of say, Shimano and Campagnolo, the respective gears and bearings of the moving parts of a bicycle. He wasn’t just interested in the technical performance of the components, it was also about how they looked. For example, the esoteric merits or not of the way Shimano gear gables stuck out from the side of brake lever shifts on the dropped handle bars of a road bike, verses the hidden cables of the Campagnolo gears which were concealed beneath the bar tape. Not only was the latter neater, with the front end of the bike looking cleaner, un-cluttered and more aerodynamic, it was also a more efficient ride Tim was able to explain.

Tim had many bicycles and subscribed to lots of cycling magazines which he’d pass on to me for my general cycling improvement. He had two bicycles in London, one always in a state of reconstruction, as he dismantled it to tweak some element of its performance, the other was always ready to go. There were other bikes in his parent’s garage with which he’d rotate his London fleet. They were all meticulously cleaned and I marvelled at how he managed to do this in the confines of his tiny apartment.

Tim encouraged me to supplement my very underused Marin with a proper road bike, explaining that I’d be amazed at the change in comfort and speed it would give me. I resisted but after we’d both completed the Dunwich Dynamo, an unsupported 120 mile night ride from Hackney to the Suffolk coast, I could see the wisdom of his words. Nearly everyone was on road bikes and I was one of the few still pushing the big tyres and small wheels of a now very dated bicycle.

I began in earnest to look for a new ride. I could see immediately how bicycle design had changed since my teenage years of riding my 5 speed Raleigh and the dreaded 10 speed Falcon ‘racing’ bike. The latter, despite being a beautiful  metallic lime green with black lettering, was truly awful. The brakes never worked and you always had to rely on your feet to try and stop. The rims of the wheels were dimpled, I guess to make more friction against the brake blocks, but the dimples only gave less surface area for the rubber to make any stopping contact. In the wet it was almost impossible to ride with any safety.

New road bikes, I was to discover, had indexed gears controlled from brake levers; brakes that were powerful and could stop; pedals with clip-in shoes making cycling easier and safer. I finally selected a Condor Acciaio, a steel frame road bicycle with carbon forks and a Campagnolo Veloce group set. The frame was a warm brown amber with discreet white lettering. I could now accompany Tim on his rides out from Hertford via a short train journey from Finsbury Park. The speed, lightness and handling of the Condor were a revelation, as was the fact that I could now just about keep up with Tim. The bike felt ‘sprung’ and lively, able to pick up speed with the more energy I spun into the pedals.

The office in South Kensington moved northward to Kings Cross and I could now get out the old Marine and start to commute to work. Tim had got me back into cycling and the work move made the transition ever easier. Yasmin, my girlfriend, then upgraded her bicycle and we started to spend our holidays cycle touring. Initially these were modest trips around the Suffolk coastline staying in B+Bs but were quickly followed by more ambitious excursions to the French Pyrenees and crossing southern France to a friends wedding in Aix en Provence. Another trip was on the Spanish side of the same mountains, travelling between Biarritz and Barcelona, camping and staying in small hotels.

Cycle touring was a real eye opener. As we pedalled we came across unexpected landscapes and scenery that the small quiet roads we’d chosen, showed us. I remember on the Spanish trip, as we headed west towards Barcelona, a moment when we found ourselves riding a road into a dammed gorge and then onto a bridge and small causeway over and across the large expanse of the reservoir’s emerald green waters. Above and beyond, tall red limestone cliffs soared with birds circling on the thermals high above the rocky buttresses. The red cliffs glowed in the evening’s light and it seemed momentarily as if we’d discovered this magical section of road all by ourselves. There was nothing in the guide book or anything particularly on the map that indicated the scenery we now found ourselves in. It was as if all our efforts in cycling and choosing to travel this way had revealed something of the place to us that would be denied to other travellers in their cars and vehicles. They could not have seen or appreciated, from their interiors, the beauty of the place they were passing through. We were outside feeling the road’s surface beneath us, enveloped in the light, air and fragrances of the land through which we pedalled, moving with the road as it turned and climbed. There could really be no better way to travel and these first trips were quickly followed by many others, with our two wheels purring beneath us.

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