My Bicycle Life: part 1

by Our Bicycle Lives

By Stevie Russell

I’ve ridden a bike for as long as I can remember. As I turned fifty last year, that’s near enough fifty years.

I have only vague memories of my first ever velo, a red and blue tricycle. This was probably handed down to me when my brothers got their first bikes. Murray had a Triumph Sunshine, Andrew had a Raleigh Rodeo. In time the boys grew into bigger bikes, and the Rodeo came to me. I named him Roddy. My mum taught me to ride that bike by taking me out to the green at the end of our road and holding on to the back of the saddle while I gradually found my balance. When I felt confident enough, I told her she could let go. ‘I already did that a few minutes ago,’ she said. I could ride a bike. I never looked back (except when pulling out, of course).

I spent a very happy childhood cycling all over Barnes Common and Richmond Park with my best friend Briony. Sometimes we would take a picnic or our swimming togs and spend the whole day out at Chiswick Lido or Richmond Baths. By the time I started secondary school I had another bike, a small-wheeled red Raleigh Shopper bought, like all our bikes, from Strattons in Wandsworth, which is still a family business today. In my horse-mad teenage head this bike was a strawberry roan pony called Firefly with whom I had many imaginary adventures. Firefly took me to school and Girl Guides and when I was fifteen, to my first job: a paper round.

Ponies and bikes gave way to rock’n’roll and pubs, and by the time I left home at eighteen, Firefly was already rusting neglected in the garden shed. I didn’t think about bikes again until two years later, when I changed my job and my flat. My new rent in Putney was slightly higher than before, and my new charity sector job in Baker Street slightly lower paid, so I had to find a way to economise. Tube fares had trebled thanks to the House of Lords having abolished Ken Livingstone’s GLC’s Fares Fair scheme. I remembered my old bike rusting away in my parents’ shed and decided to try cycling to work. The bike was in a bit of a state but my dad helped me get it roadworthy again, and the following Monday I tried the route I had worked out with the help of a booklet called On Your Bike. On Your Bike was produced by something called the London Cycling Campaign; I think I had picked up a copy in the bike shop. It had street maps showing the best cycle routes and tips for cycle maintenance and safe cycling. My route took me over Putney Bridge, through Bishop’s Park by the river in Fulham, across Hyde Park, and through the back streets to the RSPB shop in Baker Street where I worked. By the time I arrived at work that day, fully awake and alert with all my senses tingling from the exhilaration of the ride, I knew I wouldn’t be taking the tube again even if the fares were free. That was my ‘eureka’ moment.

The freedom! The feel of the wind in my hair, and seeing the city all around me as I rode: the river, the parks, trees, birdsong. Being able to stop wherever and whenever I felt like it. The independence! Knowing exactly how long my journey would take, door to door, and never having to wait around for anything or anyone else: pure self-reliance. I knew how to fix a puncture and carried the bare minimum of tools. And it was free. I was hooked, and my parents (who had spent their honeymoon in 1952 cycling around France) bought me a new bike for my twenty-first birthday.

Cycling Honeymoon, 1952

Re-discovering cycling at the age of twenty changed my life in many ways. I lived for music, going to see bands playing in pubs (I still do), but I had had two bad experiences of being attacked as I walked home alone, which had made me afraid to go out if I couldn’t be certain of my transport home. Now that was sorted, there was no stopping me. I cycled all over London to gigs. At a Juice on the Loose gig in Putney, I met two friendly long-haired guys who were also on bikes, Tim and Steve, and a few days later I met Tim again, as my daily commute took me past the end of his road in Fulham. I kept bumping into Tim and Steve that summer, usually at the live music in Ravenscourt Park in Hammersmith, and we’d cycle down to the river for a few more pints. Tim and I became an item for a couple of years; we cycled everywhere together and even had a cycling holiday. (Well to be honest it wasn’t a proper cycling holiday: we just took our bikes on the train to Hampshire and cycled to the camping site. But we did ride around a bit). I am still friends with both Tim and Steve, but they don’t ride bikes any more. I do.

Another vivid memory from this time (the early 80s) is the Round London Bike Ride. I was handed a flyer about it on my way to work one morning and it sounded like fun: a call for all London’s cyclists to gather together and take over the roads in a mass show of solidarity, and to campaign for better awareness and facilities for cyclists in the capital. A proto Critical Mass, it was an annual event organised by the London Cycling Campaign. I went along, had a fantastic time, and joined the LCC. I’ve been a member ever since. The LCC was a much smaller organisation then; the magazine was a folded A4 sheet called the Daily Cyclist which came out every other month. It was quite radical and very funny. I miss the humour of those days. I joined my local Wandsworth group and took part in many events, from the Bicycle Jumble Sale (very successful) to rides in the country.

I ought to mention my little eccentricity. From the age of fifteen to about forty, I never wore shoes in the summer. As soon as the weather started to get warm in about April, I couldn’t stand to have anything on my feet and went barefoot until the cold weather came in late September. And, yes, this included cycling. It’s hard to describe but I just felt much more comfortable, and somehow more ‘in touch’ with the bike, if I could feel the pedals with my bare toes. People often commented or remonstrated with me about safety but to me it was just natural, and I never came to any grief because of it (although I did have many minor injuries and black eyes due to heavy drinking and cycling – I don’t do that any more). The barefooting stopped when I did have a serious accident (not cycling or barefoot-related) and sustained a broken right ankle and cracked left heel. I had to walk on the injured heel while the ankle healed so I got used to wearing sandals in the summer and never went back to bare feet. But for a long time I was the infamous barefoot cyclist of Brixton!

Barefoot Cycling

To be continued: read more about Stevie’s bicycle life in two weeks’ time.