how to ride a bike

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When I discovered that the shiny new bike under the Christmas tree was for my big sister and not for me, I went on bike strike; two wheels, who needs them?

Who indeed? Well, cycling is one of the best forms of leg exercise and as a mode of transport it's as green as can be, with no nasty fumes to add to the smog. Good for the thighs, good for the skies. So I decided to put aside my doubts and have a lesson.

Considering the surfeit of driving instructors, finding a professional who teaches cycling is surprisingly difficult. However, I was lucky enough to come across Patrick Field. A founder member of the London Cycling Campaign, he has been teaching for three years and has had more than 100 successful pupils.

Field maintains that 20 to 30 per cent of women in London and five to 10 per cent of their male counterparts can't cycle.

Field has six bikes. "It's like shoes - different kinds for different purposes," he explains. Lessons begin in the bike shed with some theory.

After demonstrating how the laws of physics conspire to keep a bike moving in an upright position, along a straightish line, he said, "OK then, let's go to the park." The park? The public one with people in it? "You've no need to feel embarassed - everyone has to learn."

We set off for a concrete play area, at one end of which a group of kids were playing some sort of ball game. They looked like the kind of kids who would laugh at a 26-year-old learning how to ride a bike.

Holding on to the saddle, Field told me to put both feet on the pedals. The world suddenly seemed a hostile place with hard, gravelly surfaces looming up at all angles. "You won't fall, I'm holding the bike," my teacher pointed out. I tried. "Look, please, just trust me."

Then Field, still holding the bike, told me to pedal. As I started, he let go. I managed four revolutions.

Field said, "Now you can balance, your only barrier to cycling is social. You mustn't feel silly." At this point, one of the kids came over to our side of the court on his bike and rode around in front of me, showing how easy it is. It must be time to go home now, I thought.

"Push your right foot down and then bring your left foot onto the other pedal," was my next instruction. My foot/pedal co-ordination is not too hot. But then I found the pedal, pushed, cycled, wobbled. "Look at the horizon to achieve balance." I was just beginning to wonder whether he was the most optimistic man in north London, when the bike stopped behaving like George Best on a chat show. Suddenly I was cycling in a straight line, off towards the grass, wind in my hair. Quickly mastering left-hand turns, I made wide, circular sweeps. Too wide. I found myself heading into the ball-game. Squeezing the brakes hard and slamming my feet onto the ground, I stopped the bike in time, but was told my braking technique needed practice.

I re-mounted and in my path was a lamp-post. "Don't put your energy into avoiding the obstacle. Concentrate on where you want to go, not where you don't want to go." Mesmerised by the lamp-post, I managed to drag my eyes as far away from it as six inches to the right, which is where the bike ended up.

"I'm afraid you've now lost the part of your identity which is a non- cyclist," Field said, finally. I wanted to protest. "You mean, if someone suggests a cycling holiday, I won't be able to say, 'I don't ride a bike, let's do something slobby instead.'"

However Field was right. There is now no excuse for me not to do all the things cyclists do, although I was warned not to go on the road until I had practised in the park.

"Cycling is the pinnacle of civilisation," the self-confessed cycling dilettante insisted. In my post-triumph euphoria, I was inclined to agree.

Patrick Field can be contacted on 0171-249 3779