For some members of the older generation, cycling is one of those things like Marmite and Lyle’s Golden Syrup, that hasn’t changed in a lifetime.
You can forget your garish lycra, your fancy Pinarellos and your Eddie Merckx racing bikes, your knobbly tyres and your crud-catchers and your twenty-one gears and £150 lights sets for scorching secret trails in the dark.
You can also forget your tricksy BMX bikes and your iconic Moultons and Pashleys.
Many of the older generation stoically make their way to work come rain or shine on a bog-standard, sit-up-and-beg bikes which are simply the means of getting from A to B cheaply.
These folks have never seen the need to change their bikes. They’ve been riding the same one, with a dynamo light, mudguards and the same old pump for forty or fifty years. The only thing that’s changed is the plastic carrier bag for the saddle and the elastic band to keep it on and dry when it’s raining and the bike’s propped up outside Morrisons. Oh and they might have treated themselves to a new pair of bicycle clips. And if you insist, I suppose on a Sunday they might go for a jaunt down the canal path wearing the same woolly yellow socks they wore in their youth when they were courting.
For them, as for millions around the world, they don’t have any kind of relationship with the bike other than it’s a practical piece of kit which doesn’t go wrong apart from the odd puncture and is kept in the shed or the porch until its needed to get to work or a shopping trip. The shopping is carried in a supermarket carrier bag dangling from the handlebars.
I never included myself in this cohort of very practical cyclists until recently. Up to now I’ve been a bit of a spoiled brat cyclist. I want to cycle light, fast and free. I’ve always hated the thought of panniers, even. Sure I’ll go shopping but only for the kind of load I can fit in my rucksack (it’s a cycling rucksack with a netty bit at the front for your helmet so you don’t look a prat in shops but actually I’ve got to the age where I don’t mind looking a prat, so sod ‘em).
That was all until the Argos trip recently. I reserved some stuff on the internet for an early foray to the shop in Gloucester. Bike seemed suitable. Any excuse to get as much riding in at weekends as possible.
So I zipped down to the retail park where to cycle is a special joy when most of the other shoppers and kids are looking gloomily out of windows at you while their vehicles crawl around in a fug of exhaust fumes. Funny how parking always has to be as close as possible to target area to involve absolute minimal use of legs. To be charitable, they are probably saving their energy for B&Q. It’s common knowledge that it’s is the biggest in Europe and they really should provide emergency Kendal mint cake for the poor souls who find themselves isolated in Plumbing or hidden behind plaster bag mountain in Building Supplies.
Whenever I see a traffic jam and I’m on the bike, I have an exhibitionist fantasy of doing circuits on my bike in a spangly pink circus costume, perhaps performing unlikely tricks like cycling no hands (I’m still at only 18 seconds max so that would be quite brief), perhaps standing on the saddle, sitting on the wrong way round and pedalling backwards – just a few stunts to demonstrate how much fun it can be on two wheels instead of four.
So, I picked up a few bits and pieces from other shops before heading over to Argos where the guy handed over a box that was about three foot square. Oh ok, 30″ square.
“You sure that’s mine?”
He indicated the number on the box and pointed a stubby bitten fingernail at the number on the ticket, as if I was a moron. Things have changed in Argos. The morons used to be on the other side of the counter, surely?
“But hair straighteners can’t be that big…”
Turned out there was a hairdryer in there too. That’s the drawback with perusing the Argos website at 2am. You tend to miss the small print or even the second screen proclaiming the virtues and dimensions of the hairdryer which is part of the package.
It was still a huge box – if it had been any bigger I’d have suspected I’d bought the kind of Sweaty-Betty hairdryer loved and preserved by the kind of local hair salon that caters for local people. Outside, there was no point in trying to load it into the rucksack. It was obvious even to a moron that it wasn’t going to go. I wondered briefly about buying some bungee cord from somewhere and fixing it to the rack on the back of the bike but, hey, it was already in a carrier bag so I decided I would just carry it. I mean, how hard could it be? I can ride one-handed. I can ride no handed for an average of nine seconds.
Then I got a mobile call from Mr Incredible in Hong Kong (son no2).
“You around for a Skype?”
“Yes! Give me 20 minutes.”
I’m always optimistic with timings so I had to inject some urgency into the ride home. I found riding one handed restricted gear changes somewhat, but it was the traffic getting in the way that necessitated two hands – that and the roundabouts. Oh, and the traffic lights. The big orange bag with ARGOS on it was excellent for making extravagantly signed left turns but in the gyratory system, the plastic bag kept twirling and changing direction. It became quite animated and determined to tangle itself in the spokes of my front wheel. When contact was made, it sounded like a kid with spokey-dokeys. But the worrying aspect was that the getting stuck in the spokes thing would destroy the flimsy plastic carrier before I arrived at my destination.
Cycling with a large box without the bag would have been much more challenging. I did consider maybe balancing it on the handlebars with my hands on the bar grips underneath. I briefly thought that actually if my cycling helmet was a different shape, one could carry things on top, like those African women who balance pots of water on their heads. Easy for them, they don’t have to worry about wind resistance.
Once out of town, it was the wind that became the problem. The box and the bag turned out to be very wind resistant, which affected my steering, which was already wobbly because of the bag thing anyway. So I was cycling along, trying to make haste while correcting the veering to the left created by blustery east wind blowing against large flat object while attempting to hold the bag far enough from the front wheel to avoid the spokes.
Yes all right, I admit it – it looked inept. Anywhere but Gloucester it would have been very embarrassing to have been caught looking quite so inept. In China people would have been pointing and holding their aching sides from laughing. There – apart from the ex-pats with shiny American mountainbikes panting up remote hillsides in smog masks scaring the living qi out of meditating locals – bicycles are vehicles of some considerable burden.
Any single living Chinese person would have been able to handle that box better than me. In Beijing, it wasn’t uncommon to see chaps transporting themselves, the wife, the baby and a couple of chickens. I’d seen another guy cycling along pulling a trailer loaded higher than him with timber. Almost everyone had a trailer for the serious stuff.
There must be a website somewhere on How To Load Your Bicycle. It would probably be sensible to forget the commuting bike with panniers and just opt for a proper flat-bed trailer.
I chatting with a cycling pal about my difficulties when I asked him “What’s the biggest load you’ve ever carried on a bike?”
I was expecting something like “Forty kilos in four panniers crossing the Namibian Desert.”
Without missing a beat he said “Caroline and Emma. Caroline on the handlebars and Emma on the saddle.
“It was a long walk; they were whining.”