Sunday, November 27, 2011

Learnt to ride a bike from a single sentence in a book!

The Bike, by Robert Penn, is a brilliant paean to the bicycle and it brought back some great memories. Above all it made me think of my late, great, lifelong friend Frank Gormley, who hilariously learnt to ride his bike from a book. He came from a large, poor family in Barrhead (or Barrheid as he would pronounce it) in Scotland and never had a bike as a child. So when he bought one later in life, he couldn’t get the hang of it. Eventually, he went to the library, found a book and learnt to ride from a single sentence, ‘Turn the handlebars in the direction in which you feel yourself falling’. With this one piece of advice off he sailed. In fact, off he sailed, on his own, across Europe and through Turkey. Tragically, he died on his bike, coming off going downhill on his own in northern Spain. I like to think of him enjoying those last moments with the wind in his hair and the warm sunshine on his face. He was always an independent sort of guy, the sort I admire.
Despite the fact that I have fallen off, shattered my wrist and lay in agonising pain waiting for the ambulance, needing a full-anaesthetic operation and titanium plate, I also love cycling.  Like Frank I took to cycling late in life. In this, my 54th year, I’ve cycled the whole Hadrian’s Wall on a sort of ‘Four Men on a Bike Run’ trip, and loved it. Later in the year we cycled down the Danube through vineyards and orchards visiting the castle in which Richard II was held, Baroque monasteries and Vienna. Above all, I love to ride along the sea cliffs of Sussex and in my local woods where for the last two years I’ve seen the seasons change close-up; butterflies in summer, mushrooms in Autumn, snow and ice in Winter and wild flowers in Spring. I’ve even taken the plunge and bought a mountain bike (Andy tedd was the spur for this), and now relish the pleasure that roots, mud and weaving through single path routes in Stanmer Woods can bring.
I’m not a road bike sort of person, none of that lycra and drop handlebars for me. My good friend Ken is such a creature. It’s all sweat, effort and speed for him, on his Harry Quinn frame (rebuilt twice) and Brookes saddle (he’s a traditionalist). I admire this but it’s not for me. I don’t drive and prefer to avoid the manic world of roads, drivers and cars. When my other cycling mate, Ronnie, asked me what improvement I’ve had on my clock times around Stanmer Park, I replied. “Don’t know, as I often stop for a picnic!”
A bike even featured in a quite unusual family affair. My son's bike was stolen by a bare-chested, tattooed thug, who didn't reckon on him, his brother and mother's perseverance. After driving around Brighton for half an hour, in a long-shot attempt to spot the thief, they did. Gil operated a SWAT team swerve, cornered him on the bike  my two boys leapt out recovered the bike, and saw him off (they're both second degree Black Belts in Taekwon Do). As my son said in the article that appeared in The Sun, headlined 'Boys Belt Thief' "My mum;'s quite scary - she's Scottish!"
In any case, whatever your cycling proclivities, gentle rides in the country, hard road riding, mountain biking –especially if you’ve ever had that feeling of being king of the world when in the saddle or that rush when you’re hammering downhill, you’ll love this book.
Penn interleaves the history of the bicycle with personal memories (he’s cycled round the world) and his goal of building his perfect bike, one that will last the rest of his life. For the techies, there’s lots of detail on tubes, spokes, rims, tyres, handlebars and gears. He travels the world, at least the US and Europe, to get the perfect components and meets the people who make them and watches their often hand crafted manufacture.
But the real joy of the book is the sheer pleasure he (and others) get from this simple self-propelled vehicle. There’s nothing like a simple book where the author’s passion for a subject is just overwhelming, especially if it’s a passion you share.
Lessons learnt? It’s never too late to learn, don’t let adversity stop you, teach your kids to stand up for themselves, and (in learning) less is always more (even a single sentence can teach you a new skill). God bless you Frank.


The upsycho said...

Lovely post, Donald, containing some great insights into your family members... and your gentler side!

I also only learned to ride a bike as an adult and really struggled to get the hang of it. I enjoy cycling, but I'm not very brave on the roads. I got knocked off my bike once on the narrow roads in Sevenoaks, Kent, when I couldn't get my feet free of the straps in time to prevent thudding down onto my shoulder and compressing the right side of my skeleton, requiring 6 months of osteopathy. As maligned as Milton Keynes is, I loved living there for 6 years, at least in part because of the wonderful 'red ways' allowing cyclists and pedestrians to travel around the town without ever having to share the road with motorists.

Norman Lamont said...

Good read, Donald. I thought I was the only adult in Britain who can barely ride a bike. When I was young someone tipped me off that ' when your Dad says he'll hold on to the bike, he'll actually let go! '. So I never had enough trust to learn as a child. When I was 21, bored after a long Spanish lunch with lots of wine, I found an old bike in the villa and discovered how to ride it round and round the villa. OK I nearly fell over a cliff but it was fun.
Since then, however, I've always just found it too humiliating (and dangerous) to be wandering all over the road trying to control my direction.
That's why I'm curious about the 'turn the handlebars' instruction. That means you go in whatever direction you were about to fall. Which may be into the oncoming traffic. Anyway your article did make me wonder about trying it again. Great read.

Donald Clark said...

Thanks Norman - this instruction really does work, as it's counter-intuitive. Most learners tend to do the opposite. I'd also recommend practising off-road! It's like juggling - practise over a bed so you don't have to lean down for the balls all the time!

Kaiser Sozay said...

Reminds me of another memorable line, by the character of the Tutor played the great Peter O'Toole in the Last Emperor, when teaching his young charge to ride: "Head up, eyes forward; as in life."