It starts when I get my leg over.
And it’s always my left leg due to whatever odd reasoning of biometrics and learned habits dictates such things, always the same one I swing up and over the saddle and, after a quick re-positioning of the pedals, we’re off. After the first few metres of making sure shoes get clipped in and the right gears are selected we are soon on our way and, without fail, a smile spreads across my face.
I always get the same feelings of nostalgia when I get on my bike, the simple childhood pleasure and sensation of speed all come rushing back, and isn’t it funny how we don’t remember all the scrapes and bruises we endured trying to learn to ride the damn things? Although not every child is the same, whilst I distinctly remember having stabilisers for a while, one of my friends was put on his new bike by his big brother, shoved off down the driveway and off he went!
My first bike was a blue Raleigh Boxer. It was a solid little thing, almost like a small BMX (which were still a couple of years away from becoming mainstream) and with no gears it went as fast as my little legs would go. It was small enough that I could cycle round the back garden, round and round the large concrete slab that was the base of the old garage. At one end of the concrete was a grassy slope and my wonderful father added a small concrete slope at the other end so I could spend my summer evenings spinning in circles.
Many years later I’d help my Dad smash up that old concrete base with a sledgehammer. It was about then as a gangly 14 year old that I started to realise I was going to be bigger and stronger than him, an odd realisation for a boy who was still learning about his own body. I was already a little taller than him and had longer levers with which to swing the sledgehammer, sure it’s simple physics but it’s stuck in my brain as a ‘moment’.
I’d moved on from the little Raleigh Boxer by that time, with my first almost full size bike being a Raleigh Enterprise*. A big black straight handled touring bike with three gears. Looking back it was a great bike, but at the time it was highly unfashionable with all my friends on Choppers or BMXs. Yet with thin tyres, a solid frame and three gears to use, I quickly started to appreciate the sense of speed it gave me as I weaved my way round deserted early morning streets, leaning into corners just like I’d seen the riders on Le Tour do, on my way to my piano lesson.
It was probably my first real sense of speed, self-powered and fully under my control. The sound of rubber on tarmac, the noise of air rushing past, clothes rippling, every sensation heightened with the threat of a sudden spill looming larger and larger the faster you went, the further you leant into a corner. I still get the same sense, with all the added weight of adult responsibility, when I’m out on my bike.
That bike gave me love of speed and I started to read up on bicycle maintenance, techniques on how to ride faster (keep that inner pedal up when leaning into a corner) and as I got more engrossed in the sport so my next bike was an obvious, if not fashionable at all, choice. My friends moved from BMX to early Mountain Bikes, but for me it was all about speed, and so it was I got a 21-speed Falcon. I moved from three thumb controlled gears to 21 gears controlled by two frame mounted levers, and from straight handlebars to drop handlebars with two additional brake levers. It was a revelation and my cycling got much more fun and MUCH faster. Sure it helped I was growing bigger and stronger but once I figured out the fancy gears, and stopped flicking the levers too far and knocking the chain off the cogs, I was a veritable flying machine, at least in my own head. Trips to the town centre (slightly downhill) flew by, and the journey back was a breeze, that summer I spent a lot of time just cycling around and a recently opened local cycle path was perfect.
It was this same cycle path that I cruised down last weekend, it runs the length of the Forth & Clyde canal and winds its way through my home town before following the River Leven to Balloch (my destination on Sunday). The stretch from Bowling to Dumbarton always brings back memories of my childhood and that 21-speed Falcon flying machine.
I’d set off on a summer evening. From my house I’d have to make my way along quiet streets before I reached the sanctuary of the cycle path at the far side of town. Then it was a few miles of newly laid tarmac, only open to walkers, runners, and a young blond haired blur on his bike. The far end of the path at Bowling crosses a road, so that became the turning point as the path rose up to that junction. I’d stop at the top of the climb (it was a small incline but I hadn’t really yet figured out how to properly gear things) before turning around and tucking in for the descent, seeing how long I could free-wheel with the wind ripping past me, mindful to keep mouth shut after the ‘bluebottle incident’… .
And so it was again when I got to that spot on Sunday, as soon as I set off down that hill I was taken back to my childhood, the hot summers spent doing nothing of anything, cycling around the town and only stopping for a Fab lolly or a bag of chips. As I sped down the hill I could easily have been heading to my childhood home, turning up the driveway, bumping the gate open with my front wheel and dumping my bike in the back of the garage.
I’m wary that my increasing nostalgia is a sign of my advancing years and that all of these memories are tinged with the hue of fondness but I really don’t care. All I know is that when I’m on my bike with blue skies overhead, the world seems like a better place and for a couple of hours I can recapture that sense of naivety and innocence. Perhaps it’s because when you are on a bike that’s all there is, you, the bike (I will save my dislike of those who cycle with headphones in!) and the world around you. It’s an easy way to disconnect for a couple of hours and just enjoy this amazing world we live in, putting everyday life aside.
The bike I own now is far more complex and modern (and expensive) then any of the ones I had growing up but the real value of any bike, be it a carbon-fibre, razor saddled flying machine or a rusty old banger that creaks when you brake, is unlocking that feeling. As the tyres whirr on tarmac and the wind buffets your face, it’s hard not to smile. The best bike is the one you are using.
I really need to get out on my bike more often.
* I’ve always thought this is what it was called but Google suggests otherwise. I’m leaning towards the Executive but from photos it looked more like a Raleigh Sport… hmmmm