I last owned a bicycle in London in 1995. Well, I didn’t own it really. It was more on permanent loan when I lived in a semi-illegal rental in Chiswick. Yeah, that’s another long story. Buying a bike in Amsterdam was therefore an interesting thrill and a wonderful reversion to childhood.
I grew up on a bike. I am not sure when I got my first hand-me-down (a weird blue thing with small wheels and a very upright frame) but I think it was around 8. Before than I have clear memories of tricycles back in England before we went to South Africa.
Once I got my prized bright green racing bike when I was ten, my life changed. I could go anywhere. And with a group of neighbourhood friends also on bikes, we did. After I got that green racing bike, BMX became huge. I didn’t trade it in, but, well, let’s just say that racing bikes can do some surprising things.
The racing bike eventually died a death in my final year of high school in Port Elizabeth. Nothing major, just a slow decline in use, care and the mounting up of wear and tear by a reckless male child intent on going any and everywhere.
When I got my hands on that loan bike in London, it was like rediscovering part of myself. Up until that point, London had seemed like a weirdly disconnected maze. Largely because I went most places on the Tube. Learning the above ground world was a revelation and I began to realize that, despite its busy-ness, London as a city, was not all that huge. Greater London and the suburbs are a different matter. But on a bike, you could get across town pretty easily.
I read the accounts of cycling in London now by present day bikers and I shudder a little. When I was doing it in 95
there were very few bikes around. Mainly only cycle messengers who were just a menace to everyone. But being the exception kinda of meant that people kept an eye out.
It was nearly another 20 years before I owned another bike. I bought a second hand black town bike the day after I moved to Amsterdam in early 2014. Again, the immediate sense of freedom of joy leapt out at me, easily remembered.
They say you never forget. It’s like riding a bike. And that’s true. Sort of. I mean, I never forgot how to ride the things, but you do forget all the subtle little tricks and tips that keep it comfy, easy and elegant. Took a while to get used to the chain and padlock, to dismounting smoothly, to punting along, riding with no hands… it was all there. Some of it has just taken a year of riding to come back.
Now that I am back on a bike, I wonder why I ever left. Of course Johannesburg’s hills, heat and vast distances are not suited to commuting by bike, but there are always other uses too. I love my bike.
When all is said and done, my favourite thing is the big carrier frame on the front which perfectly fits a crate of beer.