1st August, my 61st birthday. I take my e-bike out on the road for the first time.
It’s actually been more than a decade since I’ve been on a bike, and the last time was only to get help when the car broke down in France. Before that, the last time I rode a bike was at University. That was in the early days of Thatcherism.
The first thing to know is that you really don’t forget how to ride a bicycle. But the world has moved on since those days of heady innocence when you could jump on the bike bare-headed and even bare-foot and just drive off without a care in the world.
Nowadays, a helmet and high visibility clothing are de rigeur. And I have been warned repeatedly that locking the bike is essential.
Luckily I have invested in a helmet, but the high viz jacket is lacking, so I head upstairs and put on my bright orange tee-shirt over my favourite grey “Cretan sun” top.
Now I have to think through the logistics of security. I have bought a huge iron manacle at the same time as the e-bike, but I hadn’t considered that I would somehow need to carry this along with me if I was going to secure the bike at the end of the journey. Taking a ruck-sack for this purpose seems over the top, so I find a cross-chest bag that I bought the previous year in France and put the lock in that. It only just fits, and the bag doesn’t quite zip up with it in. I say to myself, “Not to worry, it’s only a short journey. Down to the allotment and back. It’ll be fine.”
I pause. “Alles in ordnung”, says my inner Austrian. Nothing can go wrong. For some reason, the phrase: Vorsprung durch technik pops into my head. Stalling for time somewhat, I put in a quick order for a green Rainwear top on Amazon. So, everything now ready. I do a quick mental checklist: helmet, high viz vest, lock, keys…
Before I head off, I look in the mirror. I wince inwardly.
Getting on and off the bike seem more difficult than I remember. I try to look nonchalant. After a couple of false starts, my limbs creak into action and I start to pedal. The first complication occurs at the junction on the main road. In the old days, it never occurred to me that positioning oneself in the road was an issue. But now, as I slow to a stop, thankful that the lights are a merciful red colour, I wonder where on earth I am supposed to be. A couple of nights before, my son had asked me with a look of mild concern: “Dad, have you done cycling proficiency and all that kind of stuff?” I had to admit that I hadn’t, but I had been driving a car for forty years. He looked skeptical.
I remember hand signals, but the bike is in 7th gear, and I cannot quite imagine how to get down to first gear and signal that I am turning right. Not to worry, I say to myself. Only a short journey. Not much further to go…
Somehow, I clear that hurdle. No-one toots me, no-one winds down their window to shout. Things are going well.
It feels very odd indeed to be driving in traffic without having sight of the cars behind you. I keep glancing up, down and sideways to see how far the cars behind are, and there are no mirrors.
The cars vary greatly in how close they approach you. Some cars swerve to the other side of the road, elaborating a giant virtue-signalling protective arc around you. Others, mainly vans, zoom straight past with clearance of just a couple of feet. Each time, it is like a blunt reminder that this is their party, and you are not welcome.
I keep reminding myself that my journey is only to the allotment, less than a mile down the road. Mid way through this ordeal, I hear a loud pounding noise behind me. I glance over my shoulder, swerving somewhat as I do so. It is a large bus, empty but for a few sad souls wearing face masks.
The bus driver is clearly a patient soul, and is quite happy to trundle along behind me as I pootle along. But I can feel the glare of the passengers who are being held up my my slow pace. I reach down for the gears, ratcheting up from 3rd to 7th gear, and as I do this I flick the electric dial on the left from Eco up to Sport.
The bike leaps forward, and for a few brief seconds I feel a kind of elation. Woo-hoo! But as I gather speed, and the digital speedometer ratchets up to 20 mph, I feel the iron lock in my cross-chest bag slip forward. I glance down and it is balanced precariously in the pocket of the bag parallel to the road. Suddenly, I imagine this going very pear-shaped indeed. I imagine the iron lock slipping out and then clattering along the road. In a slow motion vision, I see myself veering off sideways, and the bus veering to avoid the lock, into the path of the oncoming traffic.
Noticing a layby, I swerve off the road suddenly, and the bus thunders past. Again, I try to look nonchalant. Making way for other vehicles is, I suspect, the behaviour of a complete rookie. I spend a few minutes tucking the lock back into the bag.
Only a few hundred yards now to the allotment. I take some deep breaths.
A few minutes later, I am there. Only a short journey, but even so, I feel quite pleased with myself when I arrive safely at my plot. Diligently locking the bike, I hang my helmet from the handlebars. I feel this is the beginning of a new era. We have always made this journey by car, even though we could quite easily walk.
I feel a certain smugness as I unravel the hose and hook it up to the tap. Bits of Lou Reed pop into my head as I water the plants, and then do a bit of weeding.