In my youth I was committed but I lost my faith for a number of years. Now though, with the planet in peril, I have become re-cycled.
It was the 1980s Famous Five TV series that first pedalled/peddled the cycling philosophy to me. You may remember its iconic title sequence:
As the soundtrack bounced along: “We are the Famous Five De-De-De-De De-De JulianDickAndAnneGeorge AndTimmyTheDo-o-o-o-g”, each of the Five was involved in some sort of adventurous mode of transport. Julian swung across the river on a rope (the spanner); Anne rode a horse (slowly though, as it was far too dangerous for girls), Dick fell into a lake while rafting (how we laughed), Timmy skulked along the bottom of a lawn, bored out of his mind but George was the coolest. Don’t- Call-Me-Georgina raced along a dusty road on a BMX and then skidded to a halt as if she’d made an alarming discovery (possibly her gender).
Positive attitudes to cycling were reinforced throughout the show as the Famous Five adventured their way around the southwest of England while criminals drove. When one of the Famous Five cycled off to get help, they arrived back at the same time as the police car. Devon knows how they managed that. Either way, I was hooked.
My first bike was a Raleigh Triumph. In some ways it was the Mini- Cooper of bicycles – small, sturdy, reliable and then over- romanticised by thirty-somethings. It had a Sturmey-Archer gear changer. Three speeds – all you ever needed. One was for hills, one was for landscape that was in between hillsy and flat and third gear was for everything else. My current bike has 21 speeds. I use No. 21 and No. 7 and have no idea what happens in between.
As National Bike Week draws to a close, some of you may have been tempted onto a bike for the first time in many years. If you’re newly saddled-up, here is a quick guide to a modern Famous Five: a quintet of cyclistypes you will meet on your travels.
Ms McQuirk cycles a bike decorated with stencils of butterflies, with white tyres and a front basket made of woven oatmeal. The basket will contain some notepaper on which is written the lyrics of a bittersweet song about two strangers who meet and fall in love in a park over the course of one afternoon but never find out one another’s names.
McQuirk’s clothes will be ‘boho’ in style. Many of them salvaged from jumble sales (to which all attendees will cycle on similar bikes).
McQuirk struggles with the privations which modern life forces upon her. The disgustingly modern, expanded polyurethane foam in a bicycle helmet is an affront to her sensibilities but cranial experts assure her that her original one –made of distressed walnut – is impractical.
Similarly, in order to listen to albums of singer-songwriters with a distinctive vocal style, she would much rather use a gramophone while cycling but has to settle for an iPod (though both iPod and helmet are decorated with stencils of butterflies).
The average young urban warrior is not often seen on a bike. ‘Yoofs’
generally saunter into town on the bus, hands down the tracksuit bottoms which are themselves tucked into socks. Every now and then though, the gang will include one ‘soldier’ on a bike. A bike so big he is standing on the pedals, a bike so big he looks like a boy who has rescued a mystical metal horse and is now about to ride him to the western coast.
Note: It is rarer to see a child riding a Whimsy McQuirk style bike, thus proving that butterflies do indeed have magical properties. Also, if your bike is stolen, it’s not necessarily a good idea to walk around the nearby estate looking for children riding outsized bikes while cradling a hurley in your hand. The vigilante laws in this country are, unfortunately, not old-fashioned enough.
Some people are really fast and daring on bicycles. And boy do they want you to know it. They ride machines whose frames are so thin and light their very existence is a matter of conjecture. If you see them at traffic-lights, they’ll be the ones who can stay upright without resting either foot on the ground – because a) it looks cool and b) the valuable seconds lost in putting a foot on the ground could be the difference between someone receiving their package at one time or at another time two seconds later. Not all are couriers. Some are just permanently off their heads on Cyclist’s High – a heady (literally) combination of exercise-induced endorphins, smugness at passing all the slaves in their cars and the rage induced from over-reacting to all infractions by other road users. (It’s an old maxim that pedestrians hate motorists and motorists hate pedestrians but EVERYONE hates cyclists.)
If you encounter Courier-ous in a pub, do not dawdle over your order at the bar, otherwise they will nip in ahead of you through the tightest space imaginable, leaving you floundering in a sea of dreadlocks.
Travelling at the same speed as Courier-Serious, the NINARB is a different animal. He or she passes you effortlessly while you are out of the saddle puffing away. The muscles you see on their calves look like they are smuggling a cantaloupe underneath their skin. However there is nothing cool about a NINARB – perhaps because they wear outfits so tight, their genitals have to be detached and sent ahead of them by cycle courier.
There is a little bit of the JnR inside of all of us. Something changes for many when straddling a saddle. The city is a jungle and we’re the Human Beings of the jungle – rude, moany and ignoring warning signals. It’s not clear what happens to us – perhaps it’s Cyclist’s High – but something turns outwardly nice human beings into bolloxes – snarling at parkers who dare to get out of their cars, barking at pedestrians and vying with drivers for space on the road.
The antidote for the Jekyll-n’Ride is to cycle with someone else.
Someone who’s not a lunatic. Someone who says: “Colm! I’m not cycling with you if you’re going to be like that”. She’s right. Time to change down a gear.