MY CYCLING LIFE
For the first ten years of my life, riding my bike was something that I could not do. I had a bike – a blue BSA – but no-one taught me to ride it, and nobody encouraged me to teach myself. It sat in the garage gathering dust while the tyres went flat. This did not bother me greatly; all my school friends lived miles away, and there was nobody of my own age to go on bike rides with. Besides, I was perfectly happy being driven round in my father’s car.
This all changed when I went away to boarding school. Everybody else could ride a bike, which left me at a severe disadvantage. On Sunday afternoon they all rode off to have fun, and I was left behind. When the long holiday came round my bike was retrieved from the garage and the tyres were blown up. My dear sister Tiggie entered into the task of teaching me to ride with gusto. She would run down the lane outside our house, hanging onto the saddle to balance me as I pedalled along. At first I used stabilisers, but I found than when I fell off my bike they tossed me up in the air, instead of gently falling over. A real human stabiliser was much better. Eventually I would pedal too fast for her to keep up, and she would have to let go, whereupon I would come crashing to the ground. I got a few grazes on my knees.
Things really got going when we went on our annual holiday to Southwold. My bike came too, and I would ride it along the old railway line on the far side of the common. This was all done under Tiggie’s watchful eye, but I was improving and did not fall off so often, and she no longer had to grab the saddle. By the time I went back to school that September I was a fully fledged bike rider, or at least I thought I was.
At the age of eleven-and-a-half I was already growing up, and my blue BSA was getting too small for me. Besides, it was old-fashioned, with lever action rod brakes and no gears. Several of my mates had bikes with Derailleur 6 or 10 speed gears, and drop handle bars. My father bought me a new bike for my twelfth birthday, a red Raleigh Palm Beach. It had cable brakes, a Sturmey Archer 3 speed and a saddle bag; it was my pride and joy. Although I regarded myself as an accomplished rider, drop handle bars were a step too far. Neither have I ever fully mastered the technique of changing gear on a Derailleur bike; whenever I have tried the chain comes off sooner or later.
My Palm Beach saw me through my schooldays and went to University with me. I rode it for two or three terms, but then it was stolen. I was without a bike for a few years, and when I got back in the saddle it was on my sister Christine’s old bike, that she had left behind when she moved to Canada. This was an ancient but elegant Sunbeam, which I had to restore to working order. It was one of the first bikes to have an oil-bath around the chain. Unlike later bikes which had just had a cover over the chain, this was completely leak-proof, and was filled with oil. This lubricated not only the chain but the rear hub as well. In the days when rod operated brakes were the norm, the Sunbeam had cable brakes, but they were not like the cable brakes on later machines. This model was probably made before the First World War, but they were made to last a lifetime.
I married in my late thirties and inherited my wife Molly’s green Raleigh; this was available for me to use because she needed the car to ferry our two young children about, and the bike was of no use to her. When she did return to cycling it was a tricycle she bought, with two child seats at the back. The only trouble was she could not see them as she rode along, and they fought like tiger cubs behind her. I had to ride along behind to keep them in order. When they were old enough to ride their own little bikes she returned to riding a bike. She bought a ‘sit up and beg’ type made by Pashley, rather like the old bike at the top of this article, only brand new. She has since purchased a rather more modern design.