Robert Elms: How I got on my bike
As a child, he longed for a set of wheels, but he was thwarted by an over-protective mother. Now that Robert Elms is a grown-up, he can do whatever he likes. And he can’t imagine life without his bespoke dream machine
Saturday 12 May 2007
I was a late starter on two wheels. I can definitely remember haring round on a tinny tricycle as a very small boy, ginger hair bobbing along behind me, avoiding the furniture in our cramped little north-London council house. But when it came time to progress to a proper big boys' bike, my mum was having none of it. My eldest brother, Barry, had broadsided a number 52 bus on his Raleigh a few years earlier and ended up under the wheels and in hospital. As a result my mother had decided that no precious son of hers was going to risk his life on such a perilous and foolhardy endeavour as cycling. So despite hours spent ogling the gleaming frames in Pegglies, our local bike shop, and pleading and reasoning with my adamantly paranoid mother, I never got a bike as a boy.
I've often thought that the lack of a bicycle at such a crucial stage in my development accounts for my obsession with clothes. As a 10-year-old kid back in the late Sixties, the only things which gave you kudos and standing among the local Herberts on our estate were an ability at fighting or football – and I was useless at both – or owning a good bike and the right clobber. While others had Choppers and racers, cow-horn handlebars and dynamo lights to show off, I had to win approval by acquiring an enviable collection of Ben Shermans, Harringtons and brogues. All the while, though, I desperately wanted to pull on a high-necked, zip-up merino wool sweater like those cool continental racers, climb on board a sleek machine and fly like the wind.
Somehow, despite the embargo, I managed to learn to ride one of the things, cadging a go on mates' machines; I think I even did the cycling proficiency test on a borrowed bike without telling my mum. But it wasn't until I got to 16 or so that I was adult enough, and unconcerned enough about the parental response, to spend the money I'd saved up from various Saturday jobs on a second-hand two-wheeler of my own. My mum didn't approve (in fact she still winces theatrically every time I turn up at her house clad in Lycra and proffers dire warnings about collisions with double deckers), but at last I had a bike of my own.
The problem was that I got it just at the time when everybody else was getting rid of theirs and acquiring a car. Ian Croll, a guy in my class, actually owned a soft-top Ford Anglia before I owned a bicycle pump, and it didn't take long for me to realise that girls might not be quite as excited at the prospect of a ride on my crossbar as I had once hoped. But it didn't make me want to swap it for an infernal combustion engine. My delayed cycling history had a knock-on effect and I didn't learn to operate a motor car until I got married, aged 36, and even then with great reluctance and threats of divorce if I didn't do my share of the family ferrying. To this day I am a reticent and avowedly rubbish driver. I'd found my vehicle of choice and I still believe in the mantra: "two wheels good four wheels bad".
It's not that I'm anti-car, it's just that I don't much like being cooped up in a metal box in a traffic jam when I could be swooping and swerving through the morass under my own propulsion. I enjoy the adrenalin buzz of inner-city cycling. And if it's pouring with rain, I'll be ensconced in the back of a black cab with somebody else doing the raging. Basically, I'd rather ride than drive. Cars have always seemed like essentially rural devices to me – necessary only if you live miles from anywhere – while a push bike is the ultimate urban transport; swift, sinuous, silent and wonderfully adroit at the twists and turns of metropolitan navigation, perfect for shooting round back alleys or nipping up one-ways. A bike is ideal for bobbing and weaving and as I've lived all my life in cities, I've always cycled.
Admittedly, there were periods when my steed didn't go out as often as I did. During the punk era it was terribly difficult to pedal with my legs tied together by the straps of a pair of bondage trousers. And a new romantic just doesn't look suitably arch and dandy mending a puncture in his kilt. Also, it has to be said that back in the Seventies, bicycles were chronically unfashionable, the machines were still stuck in a bygone age and the image of cyclists was that of grumpy old men with ankle clips and fluorescent jerkins. Despite my addiction to all things trendy, and a nascent career as a style chronicler at The Face magazine, I still kept a bike; I just kept rather quiet about it.
But with the advent of mountain bikes and courier chic in the mid-Eighties, cycling became cool again and I could pedal with pride once more. My heavy, thick-wheeled Marin, with a remarkable 21 gears, was the first bicycle I owned – a trophy machine. I soon got used to the cycle of buying a bike, getting it nicked, then getting another even flashier one. I was out there with the quasi-Californian dudes, hopping rocks and dodging pot-holes. This was when I first discovered the considerable thrill of pulling on extremely tight, padded shorts. It was also when I came to the painful realisation that my mum was right – it's a risky business being a city cyclist. But a broken collar-bone, a mashed-up foot and a regular supply of bruised and bleeding knees didn't put me off. In fact I got more into it, and began to take an interest in the real hard-core stuff, following from afar the Tour de France and those sleek, chic men I'd first admired as a small boy. If only my mum had let me, perhaps I could have been a boy racer.
And then, as a man in his mid-forties, suddenly I was. Clearly my cycling history follows a pattern and I was way too old to walk into a shop and order my first-ever proper road bike, but a couple of years ago I did just that. A close (and much younger) mate of mine bought himself a beautiful, svelte Italian job, and all the sumptuous gear to go with it and when he let me have a go I was hooked. I just had to get one too. So I did a bit of research and ended up in Roberts Cycles, an old-school British bike builders, whose workshop looked just like Pegglies all those years ago. I ordered a handsome, hand-built, bespoke steel-framed machine in Italian blue with all the requisite shiny bits. This was simultaneously a mid-life crisis bike, and a thwarted childhood dream.
Having finally tasted the thrill of handling a real thoroughbred, there's no way I could go back to lumpen mountain bikes. I also discovered that I could combine my abiding style obsession with my love of cycling. A hip new British company called Rapha specialises in making beautiful, slightly retro, splendidly expensive cycling togs, for men like me who want to look cool while working up a sweat. And there's a surprisingly large number of us out there. Cycling of all kinds is on the increase for all sorts of reasons, but one real growth area is for men of a certain age to defy gravity and gradients by taking part in punishing rides for fun. So now, as well as my daily commute, I also get out early in the mornings and join the peloton as it whizzes round Regent's Park, and even occasionally venture into the country for some serious hills. I'm never going to win any races, but I can keep up for a lap or two.
Last year, all this culminated in me being invited to take part in a stage of the Tour de France, riding 90 miles across Brittany in about four-and-a-half punishing yet enthralling hours with a group of guys, most of them a similar age to myself, and all of them fantastic riders. My mum would have been appalled no doubt, but I was thrilled beyond imagining to even be in such exalted company. The fact that they had to virtually drag me across the finishing line didn't diminish my joy at all.
I can't ever see myself stopping. Riding a bike is such a life-affirming thing, a perfect form of transport, a marvellous sport, a terrific way to keep fit. As long as you avoid the buses.
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