I can’t ride a pushbike. I’ve got two fully working arms and a couple of legs that seem to do the job, but when they handed out balance I was just behind Charlie Chaplin in the queue. To be fair this is probably due to nurture rather than nature: as a nippa I wasn’t allowed a bike, a skateboard or roller skates. The only time I’ve given my feet rest was for a brief period of horse riding, but this usually involved me falling off in a spectacular, comical fashion and hence has given me a fear of mounting things that could move forward quickly.
It wasn’t until my teens that I realised I was the only kid, not just in my school but in the whole of Berkshire, that hadn’t taken off their stabilisers. It dawned on me this was a ridiculous scenario and I looked for answers. My parents had both suffered nasty bike accidents in their youth and they were anxious that if I peddled off into the perilous ghettos of Slough I might never return.
I needed to concoct an excuse to swerve the ritual humiliation I suffered when new acquaintances learned of my faux pas. I once saw a documentary about people who couldn’t walk in a straight line because they had an imbalanced inner ear and adopted this as my sob story. I used this elaborate explanation for many years until a so-called best mate (you know who you are) exposed me.
If I had a fiver for every time someone has offered to teach me to cycle I’d be lounging on a pedalo in the Bahamas. Instead I sit at a laptop in Brighton wondering how the SOURCE editor persuaded me this was a good idea. But despite the many offers of cycle tuition, I’m not sure I can trust my friends. I suspect that they’re probably in it for the comedy value and turn instead to my good chum Google. Typing in ‘learning to ride a bike’ I discover a plethora of websites all aimed at parents teaching their toddlers. I swear a bit. I take a deep breath and type in ‘learning to ride a bike when you’re quite old.’ Three pages in I find an article on coaching two-wheeled travel to an 18 year-old couch potato from Toronto. I elect this person as my mentor.
The author suggests a rubberized surface for safety. I type in ‘Brighton rubberized surfaces’ and get a selection of companies who make those really nice rubber stamps you press in ink and then stamp all over stuff when you’re a kid until your mum yells at you. This seems like a lot more fun but there’s no getting away from the moment of truth: I’m going to have to get on a bike.
I can’t get much further without finding a bike owner foolish enough to trust me with their wheels. I consider calling around all the really short people I know, figuring the smaller the bike, the lower I am to the ground and the less chance there is of injury. I don’t get very far with this and end up with a cycle belonging to a man whose legs are nearly twice as long as mine. I pop round to pick it up and enlist my good friend Martha as my teacher. It’s a handsome fella but the bicycle is obviously far too big for me. I push it up the road nearly taking out the postman and getting entangled in a recycling bin. I don’t hold much hope for remaining vertical when actually on board this thing.
We spot a piece of mossy wasteland, perfect for soft landings. First step is getting me on the seat, which isn’t particularly graceful. We push off with Martha holding the back of the bike and I scream like a banshee whilst careering dangerously in both directions. I scuff my shins on the pedals and bash my knees on the handlebars. This isn’t going well.
A few more attempts and miraculously I get to grips with pedalling and balancing at the same time. Next step is going solo. I’ve mastered the initial pushing off business – now I just need to keep going in a reasonably straight line. This is actually much easier than I thought. I steam ahead for about 100 yards, whooping loudly, before braking too hard and falling off the seat onto the frame. Oh my god, it hurts bad, but only briefly as I’m flooded with victorious feelings. I have actually ridden a bike. The cycling world is now my oyster. Its definitely work in progress, but a few more lessons and, Amsterdam, Centre Parcs and Tour De France, here I come.
I drop the bike home and decide to put my feet up with a good book. Now this, I can do. I learnt to read years ago, and as someone once, said you never forget. It’s like riding a bike.
WAS IT WORTH IT?
Although I hardly feel that I’ve mastered cycling to a point where I’d be safe on a busy road, I do feel a bit closer to something that has totally escaped me all this years. Martha said I was a brave soldier and I’m a little bit proud. I picture myself after a few more hours practice, biking around town on a BMX, ringing it’s bell and doing wheelies with a big fat smug grin on my face.