by Our Bicycle Lives

‘Bike!’ shouts a wide-eyed three-year-old pointing at my orange singlespeed. He is himself sitting on his own small version of the Draisine* but is visibly pining for more. This is perhaps how each of our individual love affairs with the bike starts but it is anyone’s guess: if we know that the story of the bicycle began in 1817, our own is, for the most part, buried within the faint memories of our early years. Like all motor skills that we never forget, learning to ride a bicycle as a child is accomplished as a matter of course. This developmental milestone is only remarkable for the proud parents and, briefly, for their toddler until it becomes second nature. Even I, a worrier of a child, have no recollection of the anxiety of learning to cycle without stabilisers, of the inevitable crashes that must have followed.

The question is not so much ‘when did we start cycling?’ as ‘when and how do we start being cyclists?’ Even though most of us cycle from an early age, it doesn’t mean we identify as cyclists: we are just young people or grown-ups who happen to be cycling because the weather is lovely, because we fancy an afternoon out on our local mountain bike course or because we’re on holiday. I would hazard a guess: apart from a lucky few who never stopped cycling and for whom it is a non-event, most of us have at some point lapsed and gone through years when it has fallen off our life’s agenda. It is when we re-start that we become fully fledged cyclists, and we don’t look back.

You may have guessed that I am one of those born-again cyclists, a qualifier that I have to embrace with all its connotations of single-mindedness, righteousness and at times intolerance (don’t get me started on cars!). I went through fifteen dark, barren years. I have often reflected on my eureka moment. The decisions I take as an adult involve weighing the pros and cons and are the product of accumulating factors that will one day tip the scales. In this case, I had come into contact with many cyclists but it just never appealed – ‘seek and ye shall find’ said the prophet – and it was ten years before cycling made it onto my to-do list. I now had an inkling I might enjoy it. It took another five years of sharing a house with a cyclist who regularly beat me and the tube home. The turning point, the sign I was waiting for, came when I went for a Sunday spin in Paris and lived to tell the tale. I got back to London and bought my first bike.

I am intrigued as to what gets others into cycling. The haggard middle-aged pedestrian whom I crossed paths with for several years on my way to work turned up one day on a hybrid. Friends have mentioned being given a free, homeless bike; the example of a ‘half woman, half car’ colleague who turned to cycling; or a long run of beautiful summer days. If there is a mathematician out there who’d care to apply the probability theory to the event ‘Resuming Cycling Behaviour in Adulthood’, I can imagine how vitally the research outcomes could inform the work of cycle campaigners. For example, why is a setback – a scare, a fall, a near miss, theft – enough to put some cyclists off for good and not others? Why are so many bikes rusting in gardens and sheds?

To start cycling is also something I do every day. Each time I start off on a journey, I take a little step that feeds into my story as a cyclist. And sometimes setting off on a bicycle after a holiday or an interruption of several weeks (on the whole, away from home I am still a pedestrian) feels like starting all over again. My body is at odds with my bike and my bike at odds with the road: it is not that I have forgotten how to cycle but, for a while, how to relate to the outside world through the medium of my bicycle.

  * the first – pedal-less, foot-propelled – bicycle, as modelled by Buster Keaton in his film Our Hospitality (1923). He replicated the prototype so perfectly that it was claimed by a museum for its collection.