Updated: Jan 13, 2021
Think back to your first bike. Well perhaps not the first one with stabilisers or the one that you rode around your garden, street or nearby park. No. Think of the one that took you on your first independent journey. No parents, but maybe just a sibling or friend. The one that opened up the possibility of adventure. I think we all had that bike or at least the people who read this blog do. The one that made our word bigger. That released us from under the constant gaze of parents.
I got my first proper road bike for either my eleventh or twelfth birthday, I forget which. It wasn’t new. It had been built by my older brother from a collection of parts attached to a frame that was too big for me. My brother worked in a bike shop at the time as a mechanic on Saturdays and it never occurred to me to ask where or how he acquired the parts at the time. Not that I am accusing him of anything. Well I am, but I know he’s the only one of my three brothers who reads this. He had sprayed the frame gloss black because that was 'cool' and in no way was that a tactic to cover up the origin of the bike. Sadly I don’t have any pictures of that bike and thank goodness really because I was so skinny at the time I must have looked like I was part of it.
Anyway I have a very clear memory of heading off on a ride on my own on that bike. I didn’t go far. Probably just from my home village in Chalfont St Peter to Gerrards Cross which must be all of three miles. But I recall taking packed lunch with me and orange squash in plastic bike bottle that had a chequered flag on it that I thought was incredibly cool. In my own head I was racing everyone else on the road and I loved going through the gears using the shifter on the downtube, which was skill that required precision movements. I had lots of adventures on my own or at least that’s my recollection, it was probably just nine or ten. I wasn’t put off by my experience of riding the wrong way down a dual carriageway with tears in my eyes because of all the cars beeping at me. I wasn’t put off either when the local louts chased me on scooters and I almost got away except for dropping my chain when my shifting skills failed me. For a couple of summers that bike was the gateway to freedom and adventure. And then I stopped. I can’t recall why. But I just did. I never rode a single pedal stroke from 14 to 37 years old which seems crazy to me now. Today I get arsey if I haven’t ridden in three days and how Rachel put up with me for the year I was forced off my bike through injury in my 40’s, I will never know.
All of this was going through my mind this evening as I struggled to get going on my ride. I am training for this year’s Riding The Long Way Home trip from Hamburg to Home. As part of that training I have been trying to complete a challenge set by local bike fitting company Velo Atelier* to ride every day of the Tour de France. No specific distance or time, just ride 21 days. I am 11 days in and struggling to fit the rides in with work, but I love the fact that taking part gets me out. Just like the Festive 500 does, but in nicer weather. This evening was slow, but something triggered those childhood memories and all of a sudden I didn’t care about speed.
The Tour always inspires people to get out and ride. I absolutely love it and have been watching it since the days when there was a just 30 minute highlight programme on Channel 4 in the late 80’s, which is weird given that I didn’t ride a bike as I already mentioned (if you are of a certain vintage then you can hear that theme tune in your head right now). What really sealed it for me though was when I was out of work one summer and got in to watching it every day on Eurosport in between searching for job ads in newspapers, posting off my CV and going to interviews. Almost all of that seems so ancient now. Except the Tour doesn’t. It brings new inspiration and new stories every year. I have never once been tempted to race though, which goes to show you that my capacity for self awareness isn’t completely broken. I love the stories of suffering, epic lone breakaways and the spectacular views of France brought to you every day. There’s a real sense of loss when it finishes. But rather than the racing itself, it’s the lingering desire to get out and have my own adventure that I am left with at the end.
Just like when I was a kid, getting on my bike offers the possibility of adventure and I am just two weeks away from my next big one.
*Calling Lee Prescott from Velo Atelier a “bike fitter” is like calling Chris Froome a cyclist. Technically correct, but offers no idea of the breadth and depth of his skill. I am planning to write about this more in a later post, but for now let's call him a ‘bike whisperer’.