Thursday, 16 May 2013

FREEDOM - The thrill of cycling

What made me take up long distance cycling?

As it says at the beginning of my book, I discovered the joy of cycling at around 4 years of age.
'I realised at the age of four that a bicycle was the key to freedom. The joy I felt as I first escaped down the hill from my home has never left me.'

For many people of my generation, a bicycle was their first real taste of freedom. Back in 'the olden days' parents might have been happier to let their young kids disappear for the whole day in a way that they wouldn't do now, but the fact was we had less money to go off on trips to theme parks or hop across the channel by train or plane, let alone fly to Florida to experience the dubious delights of Disney-world. But what we did have were bicycles. Bikes were fairly cheap, especially if like mine it was second-hand. I soon learned that I could travel quite some distance from home on my old bike (so long as I had a puncture outfit and a bone spanner). My cycling friends and I survived for a day on hastily prepared doorstep cheese sandwiches, an apple and perhaps some 'pop' from a shop. We talked to kindly old ladies, who sometimes invited us in for tea and old men who helped us fix a chain or a puncture. We had no mobile phone to call home if we had a problem. Once we were gone, we were gone for the day, with no real idea of what lay ahead of us.

I look at children of the same age (11 or 12) now, with their i-pads and playstations or sat for hours in front of mindless TV pulp, and I despair. This was why, after years of giving cycling a rest, I began to encourage my 10yr old son to come cycling. I didn't want him to become one of those kids. I wanted him to experience what I had, albeit with me so I didn't need to worry. Yes the thought of allowing a ten or eleven year old to go off cycling all day alone or with a friend is pretty scary. Not because the risks are higher - I'm sure they're not - but because we've changed. Not for the better, in my opinion.

As it turned out, encouraging my son, Sam, to come on a little (40 mile) cycle expedition over a couple of days when he was ten, put something more than a a set of bike wheels in motion. At the end of that 2 day trip, Sam asked me if I'd cycle to Japan with him. I remember chuckling to myself at first. Did he know how far it was, I asked. He didn't but he said we'd have a year to do it if we did it during his 'gap year.' At least he knew what a gap year was. Ten years later, after a few practice trips around southern England, France and Belgium, we set off on the 10,000mile journey to Tokyo. I have never stopped cycling since and nor, I'm pleased to say, has he. You see I still feel that thrill in the pit of my stomach every time I set off on a bike ride. I can't quite believe that with such a simple piece of equipment, it's possible to go anywhere and to have so much fun. You don't need an expensive bike or chic lycra clothing. You don't even need to take much money if you have a small tent that you can put up quickly in a field next to a country lane. It's the simplicity that can be such a breath of fresh air.

So rather than leave that bike in the shed - the one you bought a few years back with the intention of getting fit and losing a few pounds of Christmas flab - give it a service and get out on it this weekend. Take a short ride to a country pub or a tea shop. You'll return home with a beaming smile. Thrilled by the wind having rushed through your hair on the downhills and boasting about climbing up the other side. And people will talk to you. "How far have you come mate?" or "I had one like that." You'll wonder why you left it so long.

Sam inspiring small Vietnamese children to cycle

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