Like many of you, no doubt, my inauguration into the world of cycling as a child was a painful one. My friend David was a year younger than me, but already he was tearing around the streets on a small bike with chunky pneumatic tyres. I’d had several attempts at riding on two wheels, but I just didn’t get it.
Then one day I got a machine of my own, and so learning to ride became a priority. Directly opposite our street there stood a huge tailoring factory, in whose employ was a mysterious character known as the boiler man. He was a friend of my uncle Charlie’s, and he used to repair and assemble bicycles as a sideline. It was via this source that my uncle procured my very first bicycle.
My new, and by new I mean second-hand, and by second-hand I mean ancient, machine was a Hercules Jeep, which had been built in Birmingham many years earlier. It was a blue mechanical monster that came with a sprung leather seat, moustache handlebars and rigid roller-lever brakes. It was also, I felt, a bit too big for me, although I kept that suspicion to myself. The desire to ride my very own bike overruled any objections from my legs regarding their lack of length, and I set about trying to ride the blue beast, with a little assistance.
A Painful Lesson
With my uncle holding the saddle, I gripped the handlebars firmly and gave the thumbs-up to his instructions to keep pedalling and not to stare at the front wheel. There were children playing in the street, so I had the added incentive of not falling off in front of an audience. Instead, I imagined them watching in admiration as I pedalled past unaided. I might even give them a wave.
After a little wobble at the start, we were off. My uncle’s stride got longer as my speed increased, and I nodded vigorously when he told me he was about to let go. A few yards after my uncle’s support was withdrawn, I fell off.
There was blood. There were tears. An entanglement of boy and machine lay in a heap on the road under the gaze of generally sympathetic observers. After the Jeep and I had been unravelled, we saw that my injuries weren’t too severe, and a grazed elbow, a snotty nose and twisted handlebars were all that needed seeing to.
I was sent home to have my graze patched up and my nose blown, and my uncle straightened the handlebars of my bike by gripping the front wheel between his knees and turning the bars back into position.
After that latest failed attempt to get mobile, it would have surprised no-one if I’d given up on ever becoming a cyclist, and taken the pedestrian pledge. Several bruising encounters with the road surface had served as a hefty dose of aversion therapy to my young body. Maybe I should look elsewhere for thrills on wheels, I thought, after all, my brother had a pair of roller skates.
Determination Wins the Day
Something had happened during my latest failed test run; for a brief moment before my fall, I actually had got it. I had ridden the thing unaided.
Rather than wallowing in my failure, I took the view that hope springs eternal in the human breast; the darkest hour is just before dawn, and a winner is just a loser who tried one more time. Instead of moping, I was about to enter the third act of a feel-good movie in which grim determination would prevail.
I’d watched the family pets find their way to their new home in The Incredible Journey, and I witnessed the wooden puppet become a real boy in Pinocchio. In this spirit of overcoming challenging situations, a young lad on Beecher Street was about to ride a bike.
Working alone, I took my Jeep down to the gable end at the bottom of the street, and gripped the handlebars. Gingerly, I pushed off and cocked my leg over the saddle. I overcame the familiar steering wobble on starting, and I pushed the pedals firmly enough to maintain the momentum required to stay upright.
And stay upright I did. Many years later, I can still recall that sense of elation as I rode unaided for the first time. As I approached a row of garages in the back lane, I braked, leaned the bike over and hopped to a halt. In a state bordering on euphoria, I remounted and rode back to my starting point. I had definitely cracked it.
A boy called Norman from the next street had, of all things, a Hercules Jeep, and sharing the same brand of bicycle was enough for us to form a bond. His was a much newer model than mine; it had straight handlebars, a padded saddle and flexible brake cables. To give you an idea of how much more advanced Norman’s machine was compered to my antique, picture a Model T Ford parked next to Kit from Knight Rider.
Nonetheless, Norman and I did lap after lap round the block on our Jeeps like we were best friends. I went home that evening saddle-sore and smiling.
My First New Bike
Over the next few years, my friends and I cobbled together several bikes from reclaimed frames and handlebars. I got to know basic cycle repair, and I could mend a puncture with my eyes closed. I’d had several bicycles in varying states of dilapidation, but I’d never taken ownership of a new bike.
Then, one Christmas when I was in my early teens, I got my first brand new set of wheels. It was a bright red Dawes Zipper I had picked out myself from a local cycle shop called Sep Mole’s. As soon as I saw it suspended from the ceiling I knew it was the one for me.
The Zipper was similar to the Raleigh Chopper, and at £34 it cost the same, but I chose the former because of some fab features. Whereas the Chopper had handlebars that were welded into position, my Zipper had adjustable ape-hangers that I liked to pull right back for that Easy Rider look. My bike also had a curved banana seat and a long chrome backrest.
It was a long time coming, but I considered that shiny new machine to be a delayed reward for picking myself up, drying my tears and getting back into the saddle of the bike that had thrown me to the ground so painfully some seven years earlier.
(originally published in Medium)