As a child, my inauguration into the world of two-wheeled cycling was a painful one. My friend David was younger than me, but already he was tearing around the streets on a small bike with large pneumatic tyres. I’d had several attempts at riding on two wheels, but I just didn’t get it.
Then one day I got a machine of my own, and so learning to ride became a priority. Directly opposite our street there stood a huge tailoring factory, in whose employ was a mysterious character known as the Boiler Man. He was a friend of my uncle Charlie, who used to repair and assemble bicycles as a sideline, and it was via this source that my uncle procured my very first two-wheeled bicycle.
My new, and by ‘new’ I mean ‘second-hand’, machine was a Hercules Jeep, which had been built in Birmingham. It was a bright blue mechanical monster that came with a sprung leather seat, moustache handlebars and roller-lever brakes (rigid steel rods rather than flexible cables). It was also, I felt, a bit too big for me, but undeterred, I set about trying to ride the blue beast.
With my uncle holding the saddle, I gripped the handlebars firmly and gave the thumbs-up to his instructions to keep pedalling and not to stare at the front wheel. Several children from the street had lined the pavement to watch the big event, and I imagined them cheering me as I pedalled past unaided.
After a little wobble at the start, we were off. My uncle’s stride got longer as my speed increased, and I nodded vigorously when he told me he was about to let go. A few yards after my uncle’s support was withdrawn, I came a cropper.
There was blood. There were tears. An entanglement of boy and machine lay in a heap on the road under the gaze of a generally sympathetic audience. After the Jeep and I had been unravelled, we saw that my injuries weren’t too severe, and a grazed elbow, a snotty nose and twisted handlebars were all that needed seeing to. I was sent home to be patched up and my uncle straightened the handlebars of my bike by gripping the front wheel between his knees and turning the bars back into position.
After this latest failed attempt to get mobile, it would have surprised no-one if I’d given up on ever becoming a cyclist, and taken the pedestrian pledge. Several bruising encounters with the road surface had served as a hefty dose of aversion therapy to my young bones. Maybe cycling and I were never meant to be, and I should look elsewhere for thrills on wheels. After all, my brother had a pair of roller skates.
Something had happened during my latest failed test run; for a brief moment before my fall, I actually had got it. I had ridden the thing.
Rather than wallowing in my failure, I took the view that hope springs eternal; the darkest hour is just before dawn, and a winner is just a loser who tried one more time. Instead of moping, I was about to enter the third act of a feel-good movie in which grim determination would prevail. I’d watched the family pets find their way to their new home in The Incredible Journey, and I witnessed the wooden puppet become a real boy in Pinocchio. In this spirit of overcoming challenging situations, a young lad on Beecher Street was about to ride a bike.
Working alone, I took my Jeep down to the gable end of the street, and took the handlebars. Gingerly, I pushed off and cocked my leg over the crossbar. I overcame the familiar steering wobble on starting, and I pushed the pedals firmly enough to maintain the momentum required to stay upright. And stay upright I did. Many years later, I still recall that sense of elation as I rode unaided for the first time. As I approached a row of garages in the back lane, I braked, leaned the bike over and hopped to a halt. In a state bordering on euphoria, I remounted and rode back to my starting point. I had definitely cracked it.
A boy called Norman from the next street had, of all things, a Hercules Jeep. His was a much newer model than my old boneshaker – it had straight handlebars and brake cables. In my blog post The Daredevil, I mentioned that I formed a bond with my friend Jimmy because he owned an identical scooter to the one I had. Similarly, Norman and I did lap after lap round the block on our Jeeps like we were best friends. I went home that evening saddle-sore and smiling.
Over the next few years, my friends and I cobbled together several bikes from reclaimed frames and handlebars. I got to know basic cycle repair, and I could mend a puncture with my eyes closed.
Then, one Christmas when I was in my early teens, I got my first new bike. It was a bright red Dawes Zipper I had picked out myself from Sep Mole’s shop in the town centre. As soon as I saw it suspended from the ceiling I knew it was the one for me.
The Zipper was similar to the Raleigh Chopper, and at £34 it cost the same, but with several better features. Whereas the Chopper had handlebars that were welded into position, my Zipper had cool adjustable ape-hangers that I liked to pull right back for that Easy Rider look. My bike also had a curved banana seat and an adjustable chrome backrest that was so long, I could press the back of my head against it. Despite several thorough Internet searches over the years, I have been unable to find a photo of the Dawes Zipper.
Memories of those early painful attempts at learning to ride a bike faded and I became a proficient cyclist. Of course, being able to ride a bike is no guarantee against coming off one, and over the years I’ve had my fair share of cycling spills. In 1988, I had an accident that knocked me clean unconscious and very nearly saw me parking up in that great big bike shed in the sky. I suffered a fractured skull and a shattered scapula, and I spent six days in hospital. It certainly put my grazed elbow in the shade.