Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Bikes can be hard to overtake - especially if they're faster than your car

It was one morning in December that I came across the driver who, because I wouldn’t let him overtake me, came close to driving over me instead. I had turned into a short, one-way street near my house when he swung in menacingly close behind. I felt no special worry, however. The road’s speed humps, which slow cars more than they do my bicycle, mean that, even when pulling my son in a trailer, most mornings I pull away from cars behind. I’m far more often stuck behind slower-moving cars in front.

But that was reckoning without this driver’s deep-seated need to overtake. Keeping his foot on the accelerator and the car in a low gear, he maintained his speed, unslackened, over the first speed bump, staying a metre or so behind me. I quickly found myself trapped in an urban cycling version of the film Speed. The road was so narrow, and so clogged with parked cars, that I couldn’t get out of the driver’s path. He was so close, however, that, if I’d slowed down to turn into the few vacant parking spaces, I could easily have gone under his wheels. Just as Keanu Reeves’ character in Speed has to keep a bus travelling at more than 50mph to stop a bomb going off, I had to stay riding fast enough for long enough, without skidding on the slippery speed bumps, that my pursuer wouldn’t hit me. He underlined his point by leaning out of his window to yell abuse.

A cyclist on Copenhagen's generously-proportioned
cycle lanes: the Irate Minivan Man of Brixton Hill
might not appreciate this charming Scandinavian city.
It’s one of motorists’ most common complaints about cyclists – along with the perennial (inaccurate) claim that we all ignore red lights – that bikes hold them up and get in their way. But my encounter highlights how some motorists feel something far stronger than a desire to avoid delay. My pursuer put himself close to me only by a deliberate, provocative, highly dangerous effort. It’s not hard to read into his behaviour – and that of quite a few other motorists and pedestrians I’ve encountered – a deeper set of reactions. It’s inherently unlikely, after all, that bicycles – vehicles that take up little road space and form a minority of road vehicles in most developed countries – are a genuinely significant cause of delay. I have certainly heard more cyclists complain about a journey’s being prolonged by the volume of cars than I have motorists complain about the same because of the volume of  bikes.

Cyclists, it seems, don't actually have priority on this
cycle path in Hyde Park,according to the sign.
But, well, why would they?
Some people’s existential irritation about sharing the road – or a cycle path - instead takes me back to my meeting with an embittered Protestant 14 years ago in a field outside Portadown, one of Northern Ireland's strongholds of Protestant loyalism to the United Kingdom. The man, who was protesting against the police and army’s blocking of a loyalist parade through a mainly Roman Catholic-Irish Nationalist area, described to me how, as a member of the Protestant majority, he felt downtrodden and oppressed by the Roman Catholic minority. The Catholics, who account for 40 per cent of the population, were getting more and more say in how things were run, he said. The province’s most influential jobs, I pointed out, remained in the hands of Protestants. Catholics remained, on average, poorer. Catholics, I also pointed out, had faced systematic discrimination until the 1970s, excluded from many jobs, from public housing and consequently from voting, which was restricted to householders. He hadn’t known anything about all that, he said. He hadn’t been aware of any problems.

His complaints were similar to ones I've heard from Serbs in Bosnia-Herzegovina about the country’s being controlled by Bosniaks, the country’s Muslims. A colleague once told me with distaste about how a white South African mining executive bitterly suggested to her that, given another life, he’d come back as a black woman. His theory – not, I suspect, based on a thorough investigation of women’s lives in the rough bits of Soweto – was that positive discrimination now made black women’s lives easier than those of white South African men.

All such complaints reflect, it seems to me, the powerful human instinct for those who belong to privileged groups to believe their status a reflection of their own group’s merit. If those privileges are reduced – or extended to another, excluded group – the reaction is often similar. The formerly-downtrodden – whether of a different ethnic group or simply using a different kind of vehicle – are seen as bumptious, difficult, undeserving usurpers.

Which brings me back to the Irate Minivan Driver of Brixton Hill.

 A bike lane on Southwark Bridge: many London motorists
have concluded, the Invisible Visible Man can exclusively reveal,
that the bike pictures in such facilities are a new form of pavement art.
It can hardly, they've decided, be as if cyclists should be given
all this road space.
I can only imagine that my pursuer, if he has been driving around central London for any significant proportion of the last ten years, has felt “his” share of the road shrinking around him. Cyclist numbers have doubled or more on many central London streets, meaning that he will increasingly often have to moderate his behaviour to cope with bicycles. There have been similar increases in other big rich world cities. The issues surrounding cycling are less all-encompassing than the questions that face Northern Irish Catholics or South African blacks. But, in many metropolises, drivers like the Irate Minivan Man feel, it seems to me, a nostalgia similar to that of the man I met in Portadown for the says before a resented, encroaching group started to get ideas above their station.

Even for those drivers I genuinely force to slow down, however, it is rare for a delay to stretch beyond milliseconds into seconds. I have, as I have detailed in a previous blog, been abused by an angry motorist because I had delayed her arrival at the end of a traffic jam. The sheer numbers of motor vehicles – which really do cause congestion – have risen sharply in recent years in many big cities at the same time as cycling numbers. The vehicles, both parked and on the move, have also grown steadily larger, exacerbating their congestion-causing effect. In a rational world, my minivan-driving hunter would have been just as angry with the parked cars, the real reason it was unsafe to let him pass. Any doubts I might have had about motorists' attitude on this matter were dispelled when I read a comment on a (since deleted) post on the excellent Cycling Lawyer blog. The commenter complained about how s/he particularly worried about passing the biggest, fittest cyclists because they tended to outpace his or her car up hills.

Clapham Common: pedestrians can get
just as angry as minivan drivers
Yet an incident a couple of years ago on Clapham Common, a couple of kilometres from where I encountered the Irate Minivan Driver, suggests the real root of some of the resentment. I was cycling across the common, on a designated cycle path, when I encountered a man, with his back to me, pushing a baby buggy. I slowed down and, because he was turned away, rang my bell several times, to no effect. “Don’t worry – I heard you,” he eventually shouted over his shoulder, refusing even to look round. There was a whole common for me to cycle across, he suggested. He wouldn’t get out of my way.

London's Paddington Station: The Invisible Visible Man's bike is in
here somewhere (though, predictably,  not visible). Network Rail,
the station's owners, seem as reluctant as others in London
to give bikes the space they need.
The parallel pedestrian path, nevertheless, was only a couple of metres away. There was only one designated cycle route the way I needed to go. The man seemed as infuriated at the devotion of space to a cycle path as Irate Minivan Man was at my taking up space on the road. It is one of several similar incidents I’ve encountered on paths across the Common.

On a road just by the common, meanwhile, I pulled in one Saturday to the space devoted to bikes at a set of traffic lights. I was pulling the Invisible Visible Boy in a trailer and pulled towards the centre of the road to let the Invisible Visible Woman into the area with the Invisible Visible Girl and her trailer bike. Incensed by my using the space for its designated purpose, a well-spoken, middle-class motorist pulled forward beside me, rolled down his window and said, with an air of deliberate threat: “If you stay at the side of the road, you won't get hit.” When the lights turned green, he accelerated away so fast his tyres squealed. Interestingly, pedestrians generally avoid obstructing the several roads that cut across and spoil the Common the way some feel compelled to do on the cycle paths.

Yet such bizarre, ingrained attitudes aren’t immutable. It was once held axiomatic that very little could be done to reduce drinking and driving – a problem that has been sharply reduced in many countries through consistent, unequivocal public information campaigns. Only a few years ago, prejudice against gays and lesbians went unchallenged. Before that, broad generalisations about blacks or Asians were accepted in polite society.

Such progress looks some way off for cyclists, however. Until it arrives, I’ll have to hope encounters with the likes of Irate Minivan Man end as relatively harmlessly as that one eventually did. After around 150 frantically-pedalled metres, a long break in the cars let me pull over. He accelerated past me and screeched off round a junction. He was, I imagine, frustrated. It requires self-discipline for any group to tolerate ceding territory to another. But nothing I did could have cost him more than a few moments. Had I slipped on one of the speed bumps or otherwise lost my nerve, the consequences of his driving for me could have been many, many times further-reaching.

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

What have the Romans ever done for us? Well, given us Cycle Superhighway 7, for a start


It wasn’t until recently that I discovered why, on a good night, I was able to cycle so fast for a lot of my journey home. I’d previously noticed only that south London boasted a striking number of wide, straight roads that let me, when traffic was light, put my head down, slip into higher gears and cruise at around 30 kilometres an hour. Then I happened in Nikolaus Pevsner’s Buildings of England: South London on a casual reference to Kennington Park Road’s having started as a Roman road. When my bike’s wheels rolled along Cycle Superhighway 7, I realised, they were going where legionaries once marched in plumed helmets between the camps of Londinium and Sussex.

It has been one of the joys of my ten-and-a-half years of cycling in London to have gained a far clearer sense of how the city fits together. When I arrived mole-like at my destination from the underground, I used to peer myopically at each area in isolation from its neighbours. As a cyclist, I no longer feel Covent Garden is cut off from Holborn or Old Street from Bank.

Cycling has also, however, led me to encounter so many ghosts from the city’s past – from its foundation under the Romans to its last hundred years of struggle against adversity - that it feels almost human to me. Londinium, Lundenwic, Lundenburh or London has been knocked down, slaughtered by disease, moved, neglected, shaken by violence, burnt and bombed. But it has consistently struggled back – a stubborn, punch-drunk heavyweight willing himself back into the ring.

The story began in periods of history that archaeologists’ trowels are only slowly unearthing. It has continued up until events that I have witnessed and reported upon. It will continue in all likelihood when I am as forgotten as the millions of others who have come to London to make something of themselves, enjoyed the city’s excitements, cursed its frustrations and died.

Westminster Abbey: inspires awe, but
not much reverence
It’s probably fitting that I never come across much from a while after the era of London’s Roman founders – they were the dark ages, after all. Nor do I get particularly worked up about the great monuments from just after 1066’s Norman conquest. Westminster Abbey certainly fills me with the intended awe. The oddness of my pedalling past the still-solid, 900-year-old Tower of London – a fortress built amid a still not wholly-tamed England – occasionally strikes me. But it’s the less obvious monument of Charterhouse Square, by Smithfield Market, that gives me the fullest sense of encountering my medieval London forebears.

I often swing to the right near the square when returning to the office from north of the City. It’s one of the tranquil, genteel oases still hiding among the office towers and bustle of the world’s leading international financial district. But the square has properly occupied my attention only since I read, a few months ago, about its role in the Black Death. The site of the square, I discovered, had been a mass grave, filled in 1348 with the bodies of tens of thousands of  Londoners. Half the city’s inhabitants died.

The Barbican:full of Black Death ghosts
trapped, possibly, in the impossible-to-navigate
walkways
I was seized with a mental picture of some prosperous woman, just widowed but feeling the disease’s first symptoms herself, knowing she might have as little as a day to write her will. The story didn’t play out in my mind, however, among the muddy, chaotic streets of plague-ridden, 14th century London but somehow amid the 1970s concrete of the Barbican Centre, just across Aldersgate Street from the plague pit.

The city would heave itself up on the ringside ropes after the Black Death, nevertheless, suck in more newcomers and carry on. The neat Tudor brickwork of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lambeth Palace, which I swoop past on my way from home to central London, reminds me of a high point – when England’s new self-confidence first led the country to look far beyond its shores.

Yet the ghosts of the people have more power to surprise my unwary emotions.

St Paul's churchyard:look closely and the New Model Army is
trudging up the hill towards you


It was outside my son’s nursery that I suddenly found myself amid the English Civil War. I haul him most mornings in a trailer to the nursery, in a Clapham church. I detach the trailer for his nanny to bring home, kiss him goodbye and prepare to head off. Then, as I retrieved my bike one morning, my eye happened on a new notice. It explained how the churchyard had received the area’s plague dead. It had also subsequently expanded to hold the Roundhead dead from the Civil War battle of Battersea marshes.

Battersea Power Station: art deco amid Civil War ghosts
I could see from where I stood modern Battersea, below the hill I sometimes freewheel down en route to Chelsea. The famous power station casts its art deco bulk over the whole area. The Telecom Tower punctuates the skyline. I could nevertheless suddenly sense the parliamentary army’s remnants slogging their way up the hill towards me, their breath hanging in the air over their severe, round helmets, their dead piled in carts behind. This place – the first dry, flat place they reached – would not permit a very dignified burial for the fallen. But it would have to do.

It’s not the only reminder of 17th century tragedy I encounter. A pedal up the steep cobbles of Pudding Lane brings me to the monument to the Great Fire, the destroyer of vast tracts of the city. In 1665, the year before the fire, the bubonic plague for the last time had killed thousands of Londoners en masse.

St Paul's: Sir Christopher Wren gives
possibly the finest two-finger salute in history to fate
However, London not only recovered from those twin catastrophes but showed it with the monumental bulk of St Paul’s Cathedral. I cycle in its shadow to meetings with the City’s bankers and lawyers, marvelling at how my forebears showed such a magnificent two fingers to fate.

Then again, a lot of what I encounter from the next two centuries reeks of audacious confidence. The neat Georgian terraces I cycle between on Kennington Road; the mile after mile of Victorian villas I pass with my family at weekends: they all suggest a robust optimism about the future impossible to imagine feeling now. The wonder is perhaps that it survived so long in a Victorian London occasionally swept by cholera and continually disgraced by some inhabitants’ poverty.

The Cable Street mural commemorates the battle: you have
my permission to think it sentimentalises a complex event.
The buildings constructed after the shock of the first world war puff their chests out far less. A mural that I pass on my way down Cable Street towards Canary Wharf is a reminder of how the clouds started gathering again afterwards. It commemorates how Communists and other anti-fascists in 1936 violently resisted efforts to push through the mainly-Jewish East End a march by fascist blackshirts. I still come across partially unhealed second world war wounds. Whole communities were smashed. In exchange for their ruined houses, they got either the grim, poorly-built postwar housing I often cycle past, or exile to new towns.

Nevertheless, it’s the smallest scars – the points, like the ones on my own street, where one or two post-war houses intrude into a Victorian terrace – that bring home the human drama. As I pedal past such spots, I imagine how  a bomber, full of frightened young men desperate to make it back to Germany, dropped its unused bombs there to escape faster. On their tails would have been young British or Polish or Canadian fighter pilots – just as scared, presumably, but fired up with the need to defend Europe’s last big, free, democratic city. It must have been impossible for the bereaved not to wish that the bomb had fallen somewhere else, on a house not full of their loved ones or their possessions.

Those events are easier to understand, of course, because they remain in living memory. A video showing at the Museum of London includes one woman’s account of how her 12-year-old brother went to buy a drink in the local Woolworth store in New Cross in 1944. He was one of 168 killed when a German V2 rocket hit it. “They didn’t find much of him,” she says, sadly. An older friend has told me how her house was destroyed by a German bomb – and the disorienting sensation of seeing her bedroom exposed to the elements.

But I appreciate the past traumas all the more because of a memory of my own. I was standing in the street by Edgware Road underground station, my bicycle in one hand, peering at a television in a shop window. I had been assuming, as I cycled over there to investigate reports of explosions on the underground, that they were down to some problem with the underground’s power. Immediately I saw a bus had exploded, I knew instantly, in my head and my stomach, what must be going on. Near me dead in the underground station lay seven of my fellow Londoners – a handful of the 52 who would die – and Mohammad Sidique Khan, one of four suicide bombers.

It made me warmer towards London, I think, to cycle round that day and take in the dazed looks on my fellow Londoners’ faces amid the echoing sirens and the beat of the helicopters overhead. London’s tolerance of diversity may be expressed in a cool, arm’s length fashion rather than a fuzzy embrace. But, as more cyclists joined me on the roads in the coming weeks, scared of the underground or facing disruption from line closures, I valued the city’s live-and-let-live tradition all the more for knowing how others hated it.

This isn’t, I hope, to sentimentalise a city that’s probably been hard work since the Romans first spotted a good place to cross the Thames. Londoners rioted murderously against giving Roman Catholics civil rights, backed the blackshirts as well as the resisters at Cable Street and used sometimes to hang signs reading “no dogs, no blacks, no Irish” in boarding house windows. Many of my fellow Londonders, as I’ve argued before on this blog, currently need to revise their attitude towards cyclists.

But, even when the streets teem with the super-efficient bikes of the future, such a big, intense city will never achieve perfection. There were, presumably, rows once between Roman wagoners and charioteers over priority in Londinium’s cramped streets. The first cyclists, I imagine, were abused for scaring the horses.

Yet, if it’s a flawed work in progress, it’s at least a work in progress built by now on the rich experiences of tens of millions of my forebears, people whose traces are there for anyone who pays attention to see. I shall look around, next time I’m the target of some taxi driver’s or white van man’s rage, for such a sign and imagine the person who left it. “Forget it,” he or she will tell me, “the city will long outlive you both.”

Monday, 13 February 2012

Why no man is an island - even in his car


One day in 2001, I was standing by an intersection in Pristina, the monument to dingy Yugoslav urban design that serves as Kosovo’s capital. A souped-up saloon car squeezed inside a vehicle stopped by a set of traffic lights. Then, the moment the lights showed amber, the saloon car’s wheels screamed. It accelerated forward, then swung round in front of the other vehicle. The driver wanted to get ahead as the two cars turned left. The overtaking driver could easily have lost control of his vehicle and spun off the road; he could have hit the other driver as he swung round – and he moved himself only one place up a line of traffic that was probably just going to join a traffic jam further on.
A KLA policeman: tellingly, not looking eager
to tackle Kosovo's traffic culture problem

The following year, I was cycling through the centre of Budapest, then my home city, when a car cut suddenly across my path. Shocked and thinking the driver might simply not have seen me, I slapped a side panel of his car. When the window wound down, the stream of words that issued started “a büdös anyád” (your stinking mother). A general tone thus established, the driver went on to suggest that I shouldn’t be on the road - and that he was well within his rights to act like a homicidal maniac.

The incidents in Pristina and Budapest helped to germinate the seed of an idea that was already planted in my mind. I began increasingly to pay close attention to what light the culture of a country’s roads shed on its wider society. It was illuminating precisely because, to people sitting inside cars, using a road often feels like a purely private enterprise. On busy roads, it is in fact one of the most complex social interactions many human beings undertake.

Budapest: beautiful - but one driver was
misinformed about my mother's personal hygiene
It perhaps wasn’t surprising that Kosovo’s road culture was fairly nihilistic. On a previous visit to Kosovo, shortly after the 1999 war, I had found a farm in western Kosovo whose courtyard was scattered with human ashes and bodies left for the dogs. According to local Albanians, it was the aftermath of a massacre by Serb forces. By the time I saw the bad driving just under two years later, most Kosovo Serbs had left either because of revenge attacks or the expectation of them. The callousness towards others and contempt for the rule of law that had marred Kosovo’s recent history carried straight over, it seemed to me, to how people drove.

Hungary was nothing like as damaged a society as Kosovo – despite the horrors of decades of first right-wing dictatorship and then Communism. But I would regularly report on the miserable living conditions of those who lived in dirty hovels on the edges of towns or run-down bits of Budapest – the country’s gypsies. My experience with the angry motorist – and the boorish tendency of drivers of the most powerful cars on the country’s motorways to drive at speeds that seriously endangered older, slower-moving cars – suggested vulnerable road users attracted similar contempt.

But in Hungary, Kosovo and many other long-misgoverned parts of the world, decades of misrule have discredited both the rule of law and any sense of a wider social good. In such societies, it became heroic to defy even good laws because those imposing them were so distrusted. The negative examples nevertheless suggest something about how road users should conduct themselves in healthier societies. Members of a well-ordered society abide not just by its agreed laws but also by the higher principle that they seek, as far as possible, to respect each other’s interests. They pay particular attention to the interests of the most vulnerable, who are least able to stand up for themselves. They restrain their exercise of their own rights to enhance others’ ability to enjoy theirs.

So we shouldn't be constantly worrying, it seems to me, what others might do to us if we break the rules or behave discourteously. We should all be thinking what our behaviour says about ourselves and our society. If we behave rudely or flout the rules, even if it does no direct harm, we tell those that see us that we are uninterested in their wellbeing. Every time we break road rules, we tell those that see us that we despise the rule of law generally. We’re slowly but surely corroding the bonds that ought to bind us together as a society – and as people who share the limited, precious space our society devotes to roads.

Those who regularly follow the developed world’s controversies over the role of cycling will by now think they know what’s coming. This could easily be the point where I start to bemoan the behaviour of some of my fellow cyclists, shaking my head metaphorically over how those that jump red lights, ride on pavements and so forth besmirch the good name of the rest of us.

My point is, I hope, a bit more subtle. To protect vulnerable road users, it's vital to pay most attention to the vehicles that do most harm. Politicians, police forces and journalists in many countries express outrage at cyclists’ alleged general disrespect for the law. But the less conspicuous law-breaking of motor vehicle drivers – the breaking of speed limits, the driving while distracted by a telephone and the contempt for measures meant to keep cyclists safe – kills thousands of people each year in most developed countries. Many motorists would be surprised how often their fellow motorists even ignore red lights - the failing often, in Britain at least, assumed to be particular to cyclists. I have twice narrowly avoided cars that were simply driving too fast to spot stop lights when I was heading across their paths. The depressing reluctance of many police forces to regard such behaviour as serious and criminal surely leaves vulnerable road users who try to stand up for their rights more exposed.

But there is no point pretending that some cyclists’ behaviour contributes nothing to the malaise. As I argued in a previous blog, cyclists generally harm no-one but themselves if they run red lights, ride on pavements or head the wrong way up a one-way street. Yet motorists or pedestrians seeing such behaviour must surely, to some extent, feel freer to disregard the rules or behave intolerantly themselves. Cyclists have so much potentially to gain from an improvement in road culture that it is surely worth each cyclist’s pondering which way his or her behaviour shifts the delicate balance between tolerance and intolerance on the roads.

It will not solve everything for cyclists to follow the rules. I have previously argued – and still believe – that much anti-cyclist behaviour stems from a simple irritation at cyclists’ choice of an obviously different way of doing things. I have also often been abused for alleged rule breaking when riding (perfectly properly) on on-pavement cycle paths or using one-way streets with a contraflow cycle lane. Some motorists fly into a rage at seeing a cyclist pulling ahead of them into the boxes that are meant to let cyclists leave traffic lights in most British cities ahead of the cars.

But there is a tendency on the part of all road user groups to criticise others for their failure to adhere to the fixed rules of the road – then make up their own minds which rules seriously apply to them. It is a system few people think appropriate with regard to the rules about assault or theft – and one that is no more appropriate about the rules for how people share the roads. Consequently, when I get on board my bike today, I will be looking out for - and trying to obey - traffic lights, one-way street signs and all the other myriad traffic symbols I see about me. It may not directly make my day better. It may not even make me directly safer. But it will reflect my conviction that, because my actions affect a far wider circle of people than myself, I have to respect the only commonly-agreed set of rules that we have.

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.