New Year Reflection

The year has began splendidly: the sun is shinning, the sky is blue, the hills around caped in snow, the reservoir part frozen, and under my wheels the satisfying crunch of hard ice. I turn onto the minor single track road that takes me over the hills. Here in the shade of the frost decorated evergreens it’s noticeably colder. I leave behind a stuck 4x4, pedalling out of the trees into the sun, grinning. At this moment there is nowhere else I’d rather be, nothing else I’d rather be doing.

Deciding to get a road bike again, after some 25+ year pause, was one of the best decisions of 2020, and today is the best thirty miles I have done on this bike yet. Here in the relative solitude among sheep and cows, the hum of my tyres echoing the hum of the wind turbines on the hills, as you do on a New Year’s Day, I reminisce about the years (and bikes) gone by.

My first bike was a birthday present, I think the year before I started school. It had 22" wheels, coaster brake, the frame was of the girl’s type and it was pink, but it was mine. My parents didn’t believe in stabilisers. That day Dad simply took me up to the top of the gentle hill that was our street and said ‘I am going to hold you by the saddle’ ... and then let go off me. And that was that.

My second bike came a few years later. A standard 700c, alas also of the girl’s type; this time I did mind, but at least it was blue (it was only years later I came to understand how hard bikes were to get in 1970s Czechoslovakia, plenty were made, but majority were exported).

During those years, the bike was primarily a means to an end, which came to its own during the summer holidays: a way to get between the grannies and aunties, to the forest hunting for mushrooms, to the river for a swim. But my real interests lied elsewhere, and on foot.

That changed in the year of my 20th birthday. The autumn before I was diagnosed with an early onset arthritis in my knees and was told to, for the rest of my life, forget about sport, except for swimming and cycling. It wasn’t what I wanted to hear, but the pain was unbearably real. And so that January I scoured the For Sales ads until I found a ‘real’ bike I could afford.

I took three buses across the city, expecting to cycle back. The seller wasn’t in, but his wife took me to a barn where the bike was kept—neglected, long unused, the pedals not even attached. I knew nil about bikes at the time, but all in all I thought it could be fixed up, and so the bike and me took three buses back home.

As I realised later, the frame came from a track bike that someone (not too gently) spread to accommodate a 6-speed cassette; this resulted in the wheels not being entirely aligned, but that didn’t bother me too much. The frame had super short chain stays and to match the fork had a zero rake, so that my toes overlapped the front wheel by more than an inch—that took some getting used to. But the whole thing was stupidly light compared to even the top end bike that could be bought in a shop.

I spent that winter fixing it up—hand painted it with white enamel paint, fitted hooded brake leavers, nice bar tape, new skinny tubulars, new pedals, and, with particular pride, new aluminium crankset. Then I saved up for a proper pair of cycling shoes; they gave me a few scary moments at traffic lights to start with, but I got the hang of the toe clip straps in the end.

As I said before, I knew nothing about bikes at this point, so I didn’t know tubulars had to be glued onto the rims. Fortunately, there was enough glue residue left on the rims from the original tyres to keep me in one piece until a friend set me right.

That bike took me to new places and friendships, provided means of keeping sane, of escaping bleak industrial landscapes; I rode it on our first date with Linda. Then in my late twenties my knees problems went away, and I turned back to my old passions, and to mountain bikes.

Over the years that passed I have forgotten what a simple pleasure there is in riding a road bike, but like my early bikes, this bike is more than anything else a means to an end, a bike ‘to ride to somewhere’ rather than just ‘to ride’. It’s about maintaining sanity in a world where a car is suddenly not a viable option: an old fashioned steel frame, mudguards, a rack to take my cameras and sandwiches, a flask of coffee. And just now it’s time for a cup.

[Just found this in drafts folder :-)]