Sunday, 5 February 2012

Why family, for me, is a bit about the bike

Watching television some years ago, I happened upon an advert that used home video footage from the childhood of Lance Armstrong, the winner eventually of more Tours de France than any other cyclist. Young Lance was receiving a birthday present of his first-ever bicycle. I am no doubt a sucker for this kind of thing. Given the hostility Lance Armstrong seems to arouse, there will probably be people who allege the footage was in some way faked. But I suddenly found myself feeling overwhelmed.


The emotion came partly from the knowledge of what was to come. This was the moment Lance Armstrong, author of determined, gritted-teeth time trials and numerous audacious attacks, became a bike owner. But it was the thought of his family that choked me up. Lance’s parents had decided he was old enough to experience the freedom and responsibility of owning a bike. It was time to pass on the precious, thoroughly grown-up gift of cycling that they had presumably enjoyed in their own youths.

It is surely one of the unalloyed joys of riding bicycles that the habit tends to run in families. My father taught me the way to handle myself on the road, to load luggage and the best way to fix a puncture. He, I know, learnt many of those things from his own father. I recently had the pleasure of explaining to my 10-year-old daughter the workings of a derailleur gear, surely one of the world’s most beautiful marriages of mechanical simplicity and efficiency.

It’s not, however, only that cycling is something we learn from our parents and pass on to our children – it’s the time of life at which we do it. We nurture children in the habit of cycling when they’re past the point of childish helplessness but before the sourness of adolescence. It’s a point at which parents are still heroes to their children and children still distinguished by their potential rather than their shortcomings. I can’t be the only one who experienced some of his most intimate moments with his father while cycling with him.

The day of my tenth birthday was not normal. My parents were being presented to the Queen during a visit to Glasgow and mum and dad decided my sister and I should take the day off school to see the royal walkabout. The next day my sister, aunt and I were on the front page of the Daily Record, my sister having just thrust a bunch of garden flowers into her majesty’s hands. “Happiness is talking to the queen for these youngsters,” read the caption – ironically, since even then I think I harboured some republican sympathies.

Yet it was the present waiting at home that made it a red-letter day for me. It was a sit-up-and-beg Raleigh bicycle, with metal mudguards, not-very-impressive brakes and Sturmey Archer three-speed gears. For neither the first nor last time, I failed to cut a dash amid my peers. They were either contorting themselves to fit the drop handlebars of cheap racing bikes (rrayssurrs, in Glasgow parlance) or strutting their stuff on the ubiquitous and absurd Raleigh Chopper. “Robert’s got a granny bike,” a group of boys taunted me at school when I described it.

Never mind. My dad forced a wooden mallet underneath the saddle for a handle and would run behind me, holding me upright, while I learnt to ride. The skill mastered, I took to pootering around the neighbouring streets and, every now and again, heading off on longer rides. My dad would come with me, reaching down to the handlebars of an ancient Dawes tourer.

That bike – a present to my dad on his 15th birthday 30 years before - had the same, inflexible three-speed Sturmey Archer gear arrangement as my bike. My dad, I’ve since discovered from an old photo album, once rode it alongside his father from Edinburgh to Cheltenham. It wouldn’t look much of a thing now – but, to us, its classic road bike lines made it possibly the coolest, most authentic bike ever.

I remain wary of being forced too close to the road edge after catching the kerb on a down hill during one of those rides and somersaulting head-first into a gravel driveway. My dad, far more anxiously and tenderly solicitous than normal, bought me an ice lolly from a nearby shop. He wanted, I think, to get the swelling in my upper lip down before my mum saw me.

I also remember receiving some of my first anti-cyclist abuse. My dad, sister and I were out on our bikes one Sunday afternoon looking, to the disdain of a local youth, unbearably middle-class. “The family ones on bikes,” he sneered, in a la-di-dah voice.

Yet, even though my cycling tailed off for a while once I outgrew that first bike,  something picked up on those outings told me bikes and I – and my family and bikes - belonged together.

I took that old Dawes tourer to university when I started and gradually destroyed it, testing components nearly 40 years old and finding them wanting. I remember bowling down a footpath in St Andrews and screaming other students out of the way after the brake blocks had failed and flown off. I replaced it with, at last, a drop-bar road bike and rode it all over Scotland, particularly the summer after my grandfather died. Some days I’d take my bike through to Edinburgh and cycle to his old house to get on with the clearing up. Other days, I’d head off in the morning and ride 70, 80, 100 miles, heading up the side of Loch Lomond, across to Fife or down towards the southern uplands, slogging my way through mile after mile of what seems looking back extraordinarily uncomplicated, enjoyable cycling.

Szentendre: I cycled a fair bit
of the way there
Another Raleigh road bike, cheap in a sale because of its nasty pink colour, came along after that first bike was stolen. It was with me when I married and later when I moved to London. Badly bashed about during my move to Hungary, it sat unused for several years until I could face foregoing cycling no more. “Csonkott a vaz,” said the men in the bike shop: “the frame is broken”. But, doing a very eastern European job of patch and mend, they got me back cycling. Speaking one Sunday evening shortly afterwards to my father, I intended to mention I was riding again – but kept forgetting. The pride of my 12-year-old self in my achievements wanted to share with him my excitement at my accomplishments. I rode to an appointment up in the Buda hills! I followed the Danube path most of the way to Szentendre!

It was the last time I spoke to him. Later that week, his already serious illness took a turn for the worse and, much faster than any of us had anticipated, he died. Had I known we were saying goodbye, I would of course have told him how, without my realising it, he had become my template for how to be a man: I was as fixated as he on trying to do what I, in my stubborn mind, saw as the Right Thing. I was trying to emulate his gentle kindness towards the vulnerable. But, given that I would never have said such things in what seemed like a normal, Sunday night telephone call, I still regret not having mentioned the cycling. It was an activity that, whenever I discussed it with my father, always seemed, even when we saw life very differently, to revive the glow of those early rides together.

Why that particular regret nagged at me, however, wouldn’t be entirely clear until my own children had bikes. Then, this past Christmas, my daughter, having been given cycling clothes, demanded, at five o’clock on Christmas Day, to go out for a ride. It was a demand that my dad, with his stubborn individualism, would have well understood. Some weekends at present, I run round the pavements behind my four-year-old son, holding him upright as he, as I did before him, tries to learn to ride. Most weekends, we head off on some trip, my son in his trailer behind me, my daughter behind that and my wife bringing up the rear – a procession of a certain kind of British middle-class eccentricity.

But cycling is a family activity for me at other times too. My father barely ever cycled in his final decades but I still recall how he set himself over his bike, pushed down with his right leg and set off. It’s much the same way, I suspect, I do the same thing. His voice and attitudes echo around my head. Even on the loneliest country roads and dark south London streets in the early hours, I never seem to cycle entirely alone.

Was it your family that started you riding? Are your children following you? Let me know with the comments form below.

12 comments:

  1. Greetings. You may not get many comments on these posts but I for one would like to thank you. I am sure that they are being read and enjoyed by many more people than you might think.

    FWIW, I started riding at four, although my son did not manage without training wheels until he was eight. I was quite worried about this. After I had spent almost four hours in the street trying to help him find his balance, I took a five-minute break -- during which he succeeded with the aid of our helpful neighbour. I was robbed!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. xchopp,

      I'm sure you'll have many more happy hours with your son on his bike. It's just a pity about his first time.

      I took my son out for the first time a few hours ago on the Burley trailer bike that his older sister used to use, so I particularly appreciate getting your comment on this post today.

      All the best,

      Invisible.

      Delete
  2. My mum actively dissaded me from riding a bike. She lost a friend at college to a bike accident, and has been scared of them ever since. The first red folding bike I rode was actually meant for my sister, but I learned (at age 12) and then was unstoppable.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Robert, that was beautifully written and I am now sitting with tears running down my face. My first memory of him cycling was when the Morris Traveller was stolen and he spent several weekends riding around the city trying to track it down and carefully marking in an A to Z where he had looked. He was such a fine man.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I remember his riding around looking for the stolen car, too, Jane. I'm really glad you like the piece. Sorry it's reduced you to tears, though.

      Delete
  4. Having just started commuting after a false start 2 years ago I recently dug into some cycling blogs. Thanks so much for this entry which brought a long-forgotten memory back to me of cycling down the side of a field with my dad, going flying headfirst over an old gate lying under the wheat and fracturing my arm when I was about 10. Now to hunt google for 1980s Argos catalogues to find out what bike it was I had.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Alan,

      Thank you so much for your comment. The fracture sounds nasty - but I guess you got to have everyone at school sign your plaster cast, no? I'm glad to hear others have such fond memories of starting out cycling with their parents - and relieved that so few of them avoid injuries as serious as yours,

      Invisible.

      Delete
    2. Thankfully it didn't need a plaster cast, but I think I did get to not write anything at school for a week or two. After going home I had a think about other cycling memories I have and chucked together a quick blog post http://agraham.org/blog/2012/08/29/memories-of-cycling/

      Delete
  5. Sorry for your loss. Yes - I went out on family bicycle rides with mum & dad; which eventually extended into whole evenings out by myself as a teenager (riding continuously, not just to a hang-out spot!). Both my parents continued cycling for fun and work off & on. My mum cycled to work - about 3 miles - often. I did make a point of thanking both of them for getting me interested, then going out for rides; here's bit I wrote about my dad who passed away in March 2013... http://www.reeves-hall.net/2013/03/07/in-memory-of-brian-henry-my-dad/

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Andrew,

      Thanks for your comment - and the link to your touching tribute to your own dad. I'm sorry for your loss too. Your dad was 15 days older than mine. Parents mould us in so many ways and it's only when we lose them that we recognise how much they're a part of us.

      All the best,

      Invisible.

      Delete
  6. Sorry to hear of your loss

    Memories of cycling with my dad are pretty non-existent as he was never a keen cyclist. He did teach me to ride fairly young though at about 4/5 and I still distinctly remember the moment I got it.

    We were caravanning in France at the time and my dad was running along behind me on my little 12" supporting me. He stopped to talk to someone and obviously (him being a grown-up) it went on for hours (probably only a few seconds actually). I thought "I'm bored, I'm off to get some Ribena off my sister" and pedalled off without even realising that no-one was supporting me.

    It is one of my only memories of childhood and a very fond one. In fact most of those few memories involve a bike. Now many of my favourite times with my own children involve our bikes. I recently even persuaded my wife that actually cycling is not dangerous (after 6 years of me commuting to work by bike everyday) so soon we shall be able to do proper middle-class activities (albeit with a franco-anglais twist).

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Chris,

      That's a beautiful story about how you learnt to ride. My dad gradually started letting go of the mallet he'd put under the saddle. Like you, I started riding unsupported without even realising I was unsupported.

      My son (who's five) is currently learning to ride himself. He's pretty much there. And my daughter, 11, is just about to get her first proper road bike. It's great when we all head out cycling together.

      All the best,

      Invisible.

      Delete