No Hands

by Our Bicycle Lives

In our decidedly tame decade where riding pillion is illegal and my workplace forbids the wheeling of bikes through the office area on health and safety grounds (grudges? who, me?), I think of cycling without hands as the epitome of cool, a defiant gesture to the norms of adulthood and boringdom. It shows confidence, skills, and a certain ‘what the fuck’ attitude that puts one in the same league as, say, cycle couriers, tweed runners and naked bike riders. I have the feeling that it won’t be long until it too is banned by the powers that be and that we should make the best of it while we can. It is reminiscent of an age gone by where cycling was done in everyday clothes and helmets didn’t exist and takes us back to the ‘good old days’ via that melancholic look at history, nostalgia.

No-hand cycling exudes nonchalance and supreme indifference to or disregard for rules, regulations and us average folks. It has a certain smugness about it, but it is a quiet, happy one and I can’t help smiling at the sight of a cyclist passing by, upright and proud, his redundant arms flapping about at his sides or crossed over his chest. I am still to see multi-tasking cyclists, glamorous ones who would apply make-up and nail varnish on their way to a night out or cosy ones who’d prefer doing a bit of knitting in the saddle – other than on film: I particularly like The Man Who Lived On His Bike – but it delighted me immensely to spot a literary one in Milton Keynes Central (of all places!) recently reading his book whilst pedalling home.

Contrary to appearances, it is not, however, an entirely self-contained activity. The no-hand cyclist may appear oblivious of others, in particular of cars and other motor traffic around him but also of pedestrians, to the point of distraction, but in fact quite the opposite happens. Indeed his/her performance relies on spectators: it needs someone’s outside look to accomplish and complete itself. Ideally an amused witness with a twinkle in their eye and the beginning of a smile on their lips, someone who will shout an encouragement from the sideline, while the performer takes centre stage. And it seems such a non-threatening, gentle act – no grand gestures, no big look-at-me signs – that I am happy to oblige and give what is asked of me so modestly. While I am often shy of showing admiration for a skilful bit of cycling, I will stare and grin unreservedly at a no-hand cyclist. Nice one, mate!

Wheelies, on the other hand, are a different matter, bolder, half-way between the testosterone-fuelled, aggressive behaviour of (of course) male mountain-bikers and the acrobatics of a circus number. Doing a wheelie is a self-centred, boastful act and my first reaction is that of slight contempt: it is bad taste. Like a flashy expensive watch, it is a bling bling way of showing one’s superiority and naturally, we don’t like to be put down so we deservedly ignore it. An acquaintance once told me the story of how he saw a teenager cycling down the whole length of a street on his back wheel and thought ‘show off!’, until he noticed that the bike had no front wheel…

A bike on its back wheel has something of the horse on its hind legs: full of its strength and power, ready to kick, bolt or hurt. But a cyclist sitting straight up in the saddle, looking far ahead in the distance, makes cycling look like what it should be: easy and peaceful, graceful, a pure pleasure. Sweat does not even feature in the process, nor does speed. For my own part, I’ve never been able to get the hang of it. I have heard that it is easier on a new bike, when the bolts and bearings are tighter because they are not yet worn, but I also imagine it comes naturally when one is that little bit more laid-back and relaxed than I am. Ah! That says it all!