Tuesdays With Wilcockson: Learning to ride (and write!)
Just as bike racers sometimes get jaded—they call it over-training—so busy journalists occasionally experience writer’s block. And this autumn, for cycling writers in particular, the repeated need to comment on yet another doping revelation has taken us close to burnout. So when I sat down in front of the computer this past weekend to begin this column, nothing came out. I sat looking at the blank screen for what seemed like hours, but was really just a few minutes. No thoughts. No words. Nothing.
I then did something I can’t remember doing for a very long time: I closed the laptop with zero ideas of what I was going to write about. I then headed over to my daughter Emma’s place to spend most of the day with her and my two-year-old grandson, Jordan. This was a lot more fun than struggling with a column, especially when we decided to head over to the park.
Once there, I pulled Jordan’s little Strider bike out of the trunk while Emma put his very cool white-and-yellow helmet over his blond curls and clicked the strap under his chin. His legs have only recently grown enough to enable him to safely straddle his little balance bike with both feet firmly on the ground, but he doesn’t yet have the confidence to stride the bike under his own power. He told us to walk (or run) behind him and hold the ends of his bars while he was striding—and he still much preferred putting his feet up on the frame and being pushed at a faster clip. That was much more fun!
To encourage him to stride along the concrete path to the playground, Emma told her son that he could put his feet up for a short distance, then he had to stride as far as the next lamppost, and so on. On the way back, she told him that every time he put his feet up was an automatic stop: no more pushing, and he had to start striding again. By the end of our time at the park he was merrily striding along, still with our support and with a happy smile on his face. I’m sure by the next time I visit he’ll be striding under his own steam—and probably coasting down the hills with his feet up!
We didn’t have no-pedals bikes when Emma was little, so it wasn’t until she was five that we bought her a first two-wheeler. And it took endless running up and down the street, holding her saddle, before she got the hang of pedaling, balancing and steering all at the same time. Her laughter acknowledged the freedom of riding alone, knowing that her parents weren’t holding her up anymore. But, inevitably, she wiped out on one of her early test runs, hit her chin on the rough road surface, screamed from the shock of it all, and sobbed through thick tears as we came running to help.
I was lucky to take my first pedal strokes on a no-risks tricycle that my sister and brother had ridden before me. My first bicycle would also be a hand-me-down. While I was waiting to grow into it, an older village friend, tastily named Trevor Cakebread, would take me riding on the crossbar of his adult-sized machine. So I got an early feel of being on two wheels. But that didn’t help me much when my brother let me borrow his little black bike for my first-ever solo ride.
We were on Holmwood Common, a vast area of scrub, trees and grassland behind the village church where commoners once grazed their sheep and cattle in centuries past. From the top of the common, there was a rutted, sandy single-track trail that snaked down the hillside between brambles, ferns and holly trees. I set off from the top and, without having to pedal, I was totally focused on staying upright and keeping on track as I started to go faster and faster. It was a total blast—until the inevitable happened. I couldn’t control the speed of the bucking bike when I had to turn to the left and I careened off the trail into the middle of a bushy holly tree, landing heavily among its sharp, spiky leaves.
The scratches on my arms and legs were a reminder of that first ride until my dad took me up to the top of a local hill and taught me to balance on that battered black bike, freewheeling down the gently sloping road time after time before I could ride it on my own—without falling.
Emma’s early, nasty crash didn’t deter her from doing longer rides. When she was eight, she joined me on England’s then largest fun bike ride, from London to Brighton, with more than 20,000 cyclists of all descriptions. When I asked this past weekend about what she remembered from that hilly 50-mile ride, which takes in the double-digit gradient of Ditchling Beacon before a last drop down to the seaside destination, she offered: “I had one of those ‘I can’t go any more’ moments, right?” She did. But she still valiantly pushed on and made it to the finish before going home by train, sleeping most the way.
Encouraged by that experience, I thought Emma, still only eight, would enjoy a camping trip across the English Channel and along the French coast. When I think of that short vacation, I remember stopping for a snack at the beautiful fishing port of Honfleur, and walking in sunshine along the sandy beach at Deauville—the Normandy town where Ian Fleming set his original James Bond novel, Casino Royale, in 1953. What Emma said she remembers is “rain, a dripping tent, a muddy campground” and “being scared riding down that metal grid ramp from the car ferry.”
I’m now starting to wonder whether, one day, Jordan will have any memories of his first bicycle rides. Given his early start on a Strider bike, he should have an advantage over his mum and grandpa. No landing in holly bushes or crashing on gravel-chip streets for him. I know what I’ll most remember of his initial two-wheel experience is giving me something to write about at a time when our beautiful sport is having some nasty crashes and crises of its own. Thanks, Grandson!
Follow me on Twitter: @johnwilcockson