Here's another post in my A Letter from a Merry Go Round series.
After a gap of mumble-mumble years, I went out the other day and bought a secondhand mountain bike. A few days later, I still hadn’t ridden it, and on Saturday, I took a sideways look at my old cycling helmet and declared it unworthy, obsolete, and possibly lethal. A trip to Exeter was called for, and I headed directly to the aptly named Bike Shed, a slightly overwhelming experience to the uninitiated, but the staff were friendly and helpful, and most importantly, they seemed to know where everything was kept. I presume the Bike Shed was converted from an old warehouse or something similar, because apart from being a temple to the noble bicycle, it is also a cavernous building with a pleasantly post-industrial aura of carefully polished grunge. Bikes of all shapes and sizes stood in patient ranks as if awaiting the call to arms. Some of them were almost as large as motorbikes, and these were the electrically assisted bikes that are gaining popularity. A few years ago, I’d have said that e-bikes were best suited to the gentle commutes enjoyed by those of a certain age, and I may also have suggested that they were not real bikes and possibly fraudulent in some way. Now, having seen them close up, I’m only sorry that I can’t afford one. The electrically-assisted mountain bikes look seriously cool. In fact, I suspect that if I were to own one of these fearsome machines, I would soon wrap it neatly around the nearest available tree, or send it, and me, plunging into whatever kind of ditch, dyke, gulley or steep-sided trench I could find.
So I’ll stick to my secondhand hardtail for the moment, and we’ll see how we get on.
On Sunday, the promised rain decided not to turn up after all, and it was time to take the bike out.
We live halfway up the side of a valley, so any journey from home involves a climb and a descent, the only significant choice being the order of those two inevitable events. I opted for the downhill start, hoping that I’d be warmed up when the time came to make the climb back to the village.
I spent half an hour digging out all my old cycling gear, robed myself in the padded baggies and tight yellow top that are required for this sort of venture, then it was time to extract the bike from its sturdy lock and check the brakes and tyres. All seemed good, so I donned the new helmet and launched myself into sedate and slightly wobbly motion.
And I remembered what I loved about cycling.
When you press down on the pedals and feel the bike surge forward beneath you, you get a sense of what it is to dart across the ground like a cheetah. I know that sounds fanciful, but on a bike, you power yourself forward without all the laborious thudding and pounding of the long-distance runner. There’s no impact, no strain, no grinding of the knees and the ankles. You don’t need to hold your arms against your sides and pump your fists as if attempting to impersonate an infuriated but exhausted T-Rex. Your body is relaxed, poised, balanced. And best of all, compared to jogging, cycling is so much faster.
The tarmac burns away beneath you, the wind whistles past your ears. And you smile.
You smile because you have beaten gravity, beaten the limitations of your muscles, beaten the terrain into submission. Pedals turn, gears click into place, the wheels spin on the elegant simplicity of tiny steel spheres, and by some combination of mathematically precise geometry and lubricated metal, you are free. Free to travel where you will, with no need for fuel other than for your own nutritional needs. Free to choose between left and right, to follow a cycle path or bridleway, to go off-road, to get lost. It’s up to you. You are the captain, the navigator, the chief engineer, and the engine itself.
I won’t say that all these thoughts were expressed so clearly in my mind as I pedalled along the country road, but I’ve tried to bottle the essence of the experience. And it’s important that I explain what a great time I was having, because suddenly, it all came to an end.
With a pop, the rear tyre blew out, and my roaring progress became a rattling shambles. Thankfully, the bike’s wheels are strong, and I stopped under full control and inspected the damage.
I could see no thorns or other sharp fragments in the tyre, but a feel around the wheel rim was enough to tell me that this wasn't just an ordinary puncture. The inner tube had split apart. Why this should be, I don’t know. It was a secondhand bike, and the inner tubes are one part of a bike that you can’t reasonably examine before you buy, so perhaps its time was up.
I’d stopped just short of some ugly spoil heaps that sit alongside the road, so I pushed the bike onto their foothills to get safely away from the passing traffic. The valley is mostly very pretty, but these spoil heaps are a hangover from Devon’s mining history, and I guess no one has ever quite figured out what to do with them. Coincidentally, spoil heaps feature in the mystery novel I’m writing, but this is a piece about cycling, so I’ll leave you with that intriguing hint before I’m tempted to make some remark about spoil heaps and spoilers (too late!).
So there I was, going nowhere. As I mentioned earlier, I had rummaged around for my old cycling gear, and thankfully, that included a spare inner tube that I’d found at the last minute. It was very old and I wasn't sure if it was any good, but it looked okay. Unfortunately, I wasn’t carrying a set of tyre levers, and my memories of wrestling with tyres told me I’d need these. I checked my mobile phone, thinking that Mrs C would come along and pick me and the bike up, but the valley has notoriously bad coverage, and there were no bars of signal to be had.
Resigned, I started walking.
At this point, an engine whined behind me, and I turned to see a van reversing toward me. The driver wound down the window and asked if I needed help. I explained the situation, and he said that if I went back to the spoil heaps, he’d give me a hand.
Grateful, I agreed, and a minute later, he assessed the damage. Clearly a cyclist himself, he marvelled at my shredded inner tube, then he offered to fit the spare tube. He flipped the bike over and went to work, whipping off the rear wheel in a second. I must confess that I worry about doing this myself. The rear derailleur always looks decidedly fragile to me, and having once messed up the adjustments of a derailleur so badly that I needed to take it to a workshop for repair, I’ve been loath to interfere with them ever since. This man had no such foolish fears. Releasing the tyre from the wheel with his bare hands, he extracted the damaged inner tube, so it seemed that tyre levers weren’t needed for the broad tyres of my mountain bike after all. Lesson learned.
The new inner tube was carefully seated, and when I offered my pump, the kind gentleman demurred, hooking the tyre up to the electric inflator he had ready in the back of his van.
I watched all this efficient activity in grateful awe, and from its cosy bed on a raised platform in the van’s compartment, a venerable terrier watched with mild interest.
I must point out that apart from the terrier, this gentleman was travelling with a young boy and a lady, so they were probably on the way home from a family outing. This makes it more than doubly kind that he took the time to help me, since in my experience, young kids and partners, no matter how patient, both belong to groups of people who are keen to get wherever they’re going. Fortunately, this young lad was happy to have his journey interrupted, because the spoil heaps looked like a great place for a clamber, and he set about his business in earnest. Like father, like son, perhaps, because before you could say, “Look at me, I’m climbing a mountain,” or something similar, my bike was restored to working order.
I thanked the man profusely for his help, and he simply said that he hoped someone would do the same for him if he was ever stuck. I’m sure I will help someone else – I would have anyway, but this makes me even more determined now that I have something to pay forward.
Sadly, I never got the man’s name. It all happened so fast, and the curious reserve so typical of the English came into play. We chatted, but we respected each other’s boundaries. It was all rather wonderful.
He fixed my bike up, then he drove away to get on with his day, and I pedalled home, thanking whatever lucky circumstances conspired to send a helpful chap along at just the right moment. The sun stayed out, and despite it all, I still enjoyed the short ride home.
It was an adventure, and one that gave me a little more faith in human nature. What more could you ask for a Sunday afternoon?
So, I shall be buying more spare inner tubes and brushing up on my bike maintenance skills. There’s a series on YouTube from Park Tools, and the presenter explains things so clearly, you quickly come to believe that you could build an entire bike from paper clips and glue. And it’s all good because cycling isn’t just about journeys, it is a journey.
Keep turning the pedals, people. And whatever else you carry, include a spare inner tube (unless you’ve gone tubeless, which sounds suspiciously like some kind of unpleasant biological affliction).
And if you see someone in a fix, give them a hand. You’ll be making the world tiny bit better. And maybe, just maybe, that’s what we’re here for.
I'm not affiliated with Bike Shed in any way, but I do believe in supporting local businesses, hence the link.