Michael Church: Ageing centaurs are retaking the roads of youth

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Move over, late fathers: this is the age of the late cyclist. Once upon a time I had a symbiotic relationship with my bike: it being the only affordable means of travel, I went everywhere on it. Then came the motorbike, then the car, and for 30 years that was that. But three months ago, in a fit of nostalgic curiosity, I found myself walking into a bike shop and asking the price of a basic machine.

Move over, late fathers: this is the age of the late cyclist. Once upon a time I had a symbiotic relationship with my bike: it being the only affordable means of travel, I went everywhere on it. Then came the motorbike, then the car, and for 30 years that was that. But three months ago, in a fit of nostalgic curiosity, I found myself walking into a bike shop and asking the price of a basic machine.

What I walked out with was perfectly tailored to my requirements, and looked beautiful. But I looked a fool on it: that old adage – about never forgetting how to ride a bicycle – is a lie, and I wobbled so dangerously that drivers took evasive action. The half-mile home was a bad dream.

Since then I've recovered the old symbiosis – cyclists are modern-day centaurs – and I'm obsessed with a whole new set of practicalities. I study other people's machines for clever wheezes. It didn't take me long to acquire the three-mode rear-light, or the fluorescent Sam Browne; I'm not sure I want fairy-lights on the back of my helmet, though they may come too.

The crick in my neck – from looking over my shoulder – has impelled me to buy a rear-view mirror, but I can't shake off that feeling of vulnerability each time I set off, as my body issues its subliminal warning: You haven't fastened your seat belt!

I have not yet worked out how fanatical to be about theft: will one U-lock do, or should there be two? How much of the bike should I dismantle and take into whatever smart function I'm attending? The lights? The saddle? A wheel? Two wheels? When I get my first puncture, I just know what'll happen – I'll call the AA.

These may be weighty matters, but they're not what it's all about: what we're dealing with is two diametrically opposed worlds. If I've changed, during my 30-year absence from the saddle, so has life on the road.

As a driver, I've often resented the archetypal angry cyclist, whistle clamped between his teeth, right hand ready to bang on the roof of anyone whose driving he deems offensive. I now know the fear which underlies that anger, for when push comes to shove, the cyclist is always the underdog. I too am now part of that obscure freemasonry which arises among every clutch of cyclists held up at the lights.

I'm learning the cyclist's view of the world, which is the reverse-image of the one I'm used to as a driver. But that doesn't mean I agree with two letters published in this newspaper last Friday. Bill and Heulwen Evans cycle on pavements, and are happy to admit it.

"Who ever heard of a pedestrian being killed by a cyclist?" they ask. Meanwhile another pavement-cyclist would rather risk "upsetting a few pedestrians" than lose her life. Well, so would most of us, but nothing is solved by partisan pleading of this sort, which demonises yet another alternative world. Two wheels good, four wheels bad; two legs can go take a running jump.

Cyclists hate drivers because they fear them; drivers hate cyclists because they envy them their freedom to manoeuvre, and to flout traffic laws unpunished: the hate comes with the territory, as it does in politics. And as in politics, so on wheels: when you move from one camp to another, you adopt the appropriate mindset.

Behind the wheel of my car I still feel a surge of partisan rage when some Lycra-clad lunatic shoots the lights across me. On the other hand, when I find a parked van blocking my path in a bike lane – forcing me out into the maelstrom – I reach for my metaphorical gun.

I have no desire to star in the high-speed free-for-all on the six-lane race-track at London's Hyde Park Corner, but I'm going to stick with this two-wheel lark. On side-streets where possible, and particularly in fine weather, we late cyclists may seem a sedate bunch; but we're multiplying fast.

m.church@btinternet.com

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