On Yer Bike! A Brief Flirtation With Cycling

When I was a little lad, Santa brought me a tricycle for Christmas. It proved to be a great favourite. I used it to patrol Fairfax Street and Orchard Street, but I went no further because beyond that were busier roads, and places where other kids held sway.

The tricycle, I learned some years later, was bought second-hand. One autumn night, Dad had walked up the steep, narrow, unlit road that crosses the face of the Chevin to make the purchase from a house at Chevin End. He then boldly sat on the saddle, tucked his knees under his chin, and rode perilously down the unlit, potholed road with nothing but the soles of his shoes to slow the descent. The tricycle was hidden in the cellar and brought out at night for brake refurbishment, fettling and painting pillar-box red, and it served me well until I outgrew it. I still remember the pleasure of one warm summer’s afternoon, riding in circles through the sludge expelled from the gulley cleaning tanker, steering one-handed with a nonchalant air as the front wheel splashed stinking mud up my legs. On the other hand, I have no recollection, though I am assured there was such an incident, of going over the handlebars the first time I applied the brake, which Dad had endowed with fierce effectiveness.

After the tricycle had passed to another owner, I had no immediate longing for a bike. When my classmate Philip Coventry offered me the chance to ride his, I couldn’t get the balance, and I walked away rather than fail repeatedly. But a couple of years later Michael Hardy and Peter Hopper both acquired shiny new bikes. Michael was an only child whose parents sold toys, models, games, bikes and fireworks. Peter was also an only child, and he always seemed to have more things than me. I decided I’d like a bike too.

I learned the specification of their bikes by heart, and Dad took me to Mr Hardy’s shop. I recited my requirement for a seventeen-inch frame, Derailleur gears, drop handlebars, racing saddle and goodness knows what else. When I’d done, Dad and Mr Hardy exchanged a few words above my head, and we headed home. On Christmas morning I took possession of a red bike with a seventeen-inch frame, single gear, straight handlebars and conventional saddle, and I couldn’t have been more thrilled. I rode it round the streets all day, pausing briefly for lunch and resting only when darkness fell. Like the long-departed tricycle, it was a top grade present.

The only bad thing about getting a bike for Christmas is cold hands. A few weeks later, Dad – on a recently acquired second-hand sit-up-and-beg bike - cycled with me along the main road towards Harrogate on a chilly morning. Traffic was light, and it felt safe to be on the highway. We made our way to Almscliffe Crag, a Millstone Grit outcrop visible from the Chevin which, being seven miles away, was beyond our walking range at that time. As we pushed the bikes up a steep hill near Huby I picked up a two shilling piece (10p), which was double my weekly pocket money and therefore a huge windfall.

When we got home, Dad showed me how to mend a puncture, and thereafter I made nearly all my cycling trips with my pals. We often rode to Almscliffe Crag and climbed on the rocks. We discovered the deserted village of West End, with a wonderful place for skinny dipping above a weir in the pine woods. Another favourite destination was the Valley of Desolation near Bolton Abbey, where we swam in a rock basin between two waterfalls. As we grew older, we smoked, compared the development of our naked bodies, talked a load of old rubbish, and occasionally we even met girls. Despite all that, cycling was only ever a means of getting somewhere, rather than a pleasure in itself, but through cycling I was introduced to the magic of maps.

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