On My Bike: A Pandemical Reverie Of Pedalling

Nigel Jarrett won the Rhys Davies short fiction award and the Templar Shorts award. His collection, Funderland, was warmly reviewed in the Independent, the Guardian, and elsewhere. He's written a novel, poetry collection, and two collections of short fiction. In 2019, Templar published A Gloucester Trilogy.

Among its few benefits, apart from adding ‘lockdown’ to our word hoard, lockdown itself has encouraged the re-unification of bicycle and cyclist. This would be all to the good if the result did not illustrate their incommensurate decline, the bike still slim and more or less serviceable but the rider about as poised in the saddle as a bag of potatoes.

When I was on the move again four years ago, I had to get rid of my bike, a Raleigh Resonator. In the new place, an apartment, I don’t have anywhere to store it, unless I establish a reputation for mild eccentricity and carry it up and down the stairs. It would come in useful now. Instead of cycling I go for a daily walk, and while locked down recall my long life on two wheels.

When I passed the eleven-plus exam – that dates me – my parents bought me a Vindec racing bike. A what? I hear you ask.  A Vindec. I hadn’t heard of it either, and I had a choice: either covet my friend’s Claud Butler (everyone knew what that was) or claim that I’d been gifted an exclusive machine, so exclusive that no-one I knew had ever encountered one before.

The latter option was soon eliminated. Hurtling down the hill into my village like Tommy Simpson, a near contemporary and famous for convincing the Continentals that a Briton could compete honourably in the Tour de France, my front brake blocks slipped down and were re-united beneath the wheel rim, tearing through the spokes like a machete through the strings of a harp. My reservations about the bike were thus Vindec-ated. (Sorry about that.) I still have the scars.

From our domicile, my friends and I pedalled into deep countryside, then a land of yet-to-be-discovered content. Those were the days when parents let their children go out to play on weekends and in the holidays at nine o’ clock in the morning and didn’t expect to see them again, unmolested, till after six.

We cleaned our bikes by turning them upside down. While they were thus pedal-over-saddle and free-standing, we repaired punctures with our puncture repair kit, a collection of odd and seemingly unrelated bits and bobs in a tin.  Like geometry sets, they can still be bought. Our machines primped and pumped, we made for verdant acres. We must have ridden on main roads but I don’t remember. Kids equate danger with adult apprehensiveness and stricture. I never rode my Resonator on a main highway, only on the pavements that flank them. Illegal, of course, but safer. I opted for lanes and cycleways, where I’d complete a few circuits rather than venture on to an A road, that province of turbo-charged Fiestas with young drivers shorter than Bernie Ecclestone and wearing baseball caps back to front. Which reminds me: outside my local police station there’s a poster illustrating the correct speeds for different vehicles on different kinds of roads. I was shocked to be reminded that the speed limit for a car on a single-carriageway road is 60mph. That’s any single-carriageway road, except in built-up areas, where it’s 30mph. Mental.

Like most laws meant to make life pleasant and hazard-free, speed limits are a joke. It always amuses me to come across that de-restricted sign – the white circle with a black diagonal through it – on country roads where only the deranged would think it safe to drive faster than 40mph. The worst thing that could appear in front of you when I was riding my pre-tumble Vindec in the sticks was a Ford Zephyr with half-hearted fins that could nevertheless take your eye out.

Pedalling across the internet, I discover a site called Cyclebanter.com, which proves to me at least that cyberspace is full of drongoes, but which also has lots of queries about the Vindec, clearly proof that my prize for getting to grammar school was a short-lived marque. For some weird reason to do with the mystery of how the brain works, I recall that it had 27-inch wheels.

My locality is full of those signs indicating which part of the national cycle network you’re on, or how close to one you are.  Aboard my Raleigh, I’d avoided them as if they were freeways to hell. They promise voyages into sylvan fastnesses but only if you’re prepared to fight it out on stretches of road inhabited by drivers doing passable impressions of Lewis Hamilton.

I hope my bike and my bunch-of-bananas helmet went to a good home.

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