by Our Bicycle Lives
Do you ever wonder whether bicycles and people are a good match? We seem to uneasily accommodate each other at times, the hard metal frame and its exact angles coming into conflict with our less than geometric bodies. But despite the bicycle’s intrinsic stability (when in motion, it can balance without a rider), and even though other mammals such as monkeys have been known to ride bikes, all evidence points to the fact that bicycles are human-made machines for human enjoyment, that bikes are indeed made for people. And at first glance, notwithstanding bicycles which are adapted for wheelchair users, it is obvious they will only fit creatures with at least two gripping limbs, two propelling limbs of a certain length and a posterior: so, that’s us!
But what bikes for what people? Growing up in the seventies and eighties, bicycle lives were simple: there were boys’ bikes and girls’ bikes, men’s and women’s. Boys’ bikes had drop handlebars, girls’ bikes didn’t. Of course, my deepest heart’s desire was to ride a bike with drop handlebars, even if they’d been added onto a folding bike that was too small for me. My grandfather complied. So an obvious mismatch, but to my proud eyes a perfect fit. Hence the analogy with relationships: it may well be, to the outside world, an unsuitable pairing (‘she’s way too tall for him’, ‘he doesn’t even like cycling’), but if your innermost voice tells you otherwise, whatever others think, it is a match made in heaven. Today, people’s bicycle choices are more fluid, from the self-explanatory to the unexpected and the downright bizarre, and I am in for some surprises. When I did a spot of leafleting for a family cycling event last summer, I had to guess which bicycles were most likely to have an owner with children. It turned out I was a lot more inclined to tag a prim bicycle with a basket than a battered mountain bike. Stereotyping, moi?
A perfect fit is beautiful to behold, the bicycle and its rider moving smoothly as one, a duo who complement each other, a team that works. It could be the product of a long acquaintance, years of companionship through thick and thin supplying a closeness and understanding that may not have been there at the start. Or it could be down to planning, the reward of purchasing a custom-made machine that is just right. In any case, a good match looks like it was meant to be. But a bad fit . . . oh dear! We’ve all seen cyclists stretching beyond belief on a frame way too big for them, their arms looking ready to burst, or tall riders crunched up on small bicycles, their knees almost reaching the handlebars. I find these characters comical but also touching in their delusion, like two comedians of different build who mistakenly put on each other’s clothes but persist in making them fit. The belief that ‘where there’s a will, there’s a way’ is admirable and I have seen some unlikely pairings live on. I am left to wonder, though, whether the odd matches I come across on the road are the result of happiness against all odds, of indifference, one bike being after all much like another, or a sign of thriftiness that I cannot help but admire in our disposable decade. I also feel a touch of commiseration for cycling which looks more hard work than it really should. In children, I look on a poor bike fit with fondness, as the promise of things to come, growing up, adulthood, a whole life ahead: they will grow into it. Adults won’t: they endure it for the lifetime of the bicycle for reasons best known to themselves. This is one of the great mysteries of life, like abandoned bicycles or France’s reverence for Jerry Lewis.
Then there are the eclectic in taste, who go from one bike type to the next: so did a friend who first owned a mountain bike, then a hybrid, and finally a single-speed which caused him to shed his helmet and hi-viz vest as not suited to his new bike style. Or the versatile, who own more than one bicycle and the gear to go with it and change personality to match each one. I like to think that, regardless of what bicycle I use, a grey sturdy hybrid or a light orange single-speed, I remain true to myself. One may be a tad faster than the other but I am still the same slow, oh so reasonable, risk-averse cyclist. Which is a fitting reminder that people don’t switch personae when they switch modes of transport and go from bike to motorbike or car: they are still the same decent – or inconsiderate! – human-beings.