Thursday, 23 May 2019

My life in bikes


My life in 10 bikes:
  1. Saxon
  2. Muddy Fox
  3. Specialised Hard Rock
  4. Specialised Rockhopper
  5. GT Avalanche
  6. Grolsch Dutch Cruiser
  7. Yung Steel Frame road bike
  8. Surly Cross Check
  9. Brompton 
  10. Swapfiets

I learnt to ride a bike in South Warnborough in the mid-80’s in the layby by the never despair garage. My Saxon ‘BMX’ took me up Gaston Lane, around the block, over to Upon Grey or Long Sutton, round to the River Whitewater, and on longer rides for my little legs to King John's Castle along the Canal. Parks, woods, fields and friends were all brought closer by the simple act of peddling.

My first Mountain Bike was in the early 90’s. Ostensibly better suited to the terrain of tracks and bridleways, while following the trend of the times and radical day-glo adventures. This more robust ‘big boy bike’ was an extension of my world as I grew to seek further flung places, over county boundaries to unexplored hills.

I feel I should know better the chronology and types of bikes in the interim. But then, as now, they were tools for travel and adventure rather than objects to be fetishised. The rockhopper of my late teens was a statement that I rode a mountain bike. Or a bike at least. Twenty-one gears was what was important to prospective bike buyer (or more accurately, present receiver) Ben then. This is the era where I started to actively identify as a person on a bike. Staunch that I could get myself where i needed (and back) by bike. Jobs, school, parties & pubs (many of these often in the same places). Whilst relying heavily on lifts in Golf’s, Uno’s. Polo’s and Peugots of my peers to get around the rural hinterlands I was staunch that, when needed, my steed could get me where I needed to go when I needed to.

Concurrently the dedicated exploration of muddier tracks, still further hills and remoter pubs continued apace. With a mini-disc and backpack of sausage rolls and bananas. Hampshire Explorations. Solo cycling through the South Downs through all seasons, the end of each journey brought me to the same point from where I started, but the joy was in the journey. Before mobile phones there was a sense of adventure just to be in an unknown village not 20 miles from home. That could feel a long way with only road signs to follow home hopefully along meandering lanes. It was space, such space and freedom to explore, escape and adventure.

Approaching 21 I floundered for a meaning to my adulthood. Surely joining up to a sponsored bike ride to the Grand Canyon would give meaning. It would be a springboard to my adult life of cycling all over the world for a good cause. It was irrefutably a brilliant adventure for me to see in the new millennium. Raising money for a good cause, meeting some great people and experiencing properly awesome places. The bikes we were supplied with then were not top grade, but that wasn’t of concern to me then. I was fit enough and unconcerned about bells and whistles or features that I didn't yet have on my own bike. It was the act of taking part that was important. I don’t recall much of the actual riding, I recall the incidentals of where we stayed, seeing the Grand Canyon, celebrating each day and the iconic road trip after. That trip didn’t springboard the the life I could have taken for myself in the saddle. But is was a great formative memory of how to celebrate ones 21st birthday and solidified my identity in the minds of others that I was ‘Ben on a bike’.

In 2003 a need for further, more heroic, exploration led to a credit card splurge on a Specialised Rockhopper and KE Adventure Travel trip to Nepal. Hydraulic disc brakes, fresh front suspension, thick tyres and heading toward 30 gears. That was the gear in 2003. I took training for this seriously, pushing a young, fit body to be ready for ‘proper mountain biking’. Aside from the trails of Pokhara to Kathmandu that rockhopper scaled much of the South Downs and became a battle bike on the streets of Brighton; the first city I lived in. Up and down the hills, back and forth along the seafront. Up Elm Grove to the pub and home and round the odd muddy track. It came on holiday to France and provided solace, exploration and identity. I was Ben with the bike in Brighton.

Arriving in Sydney in February 2006 the first point of order was a new steed for my antipodean adventures. The logistics of bringing a bike by flight rather than riding was too much to countenance then. Besides, it’s always nice getting a new bike isn’t it. After exploration and interrogation of every bike shop on the Northern Beaches from Palm Beach to North Head I went with a GT Avalanche from Favourite Cycles in Manly. Another disc brake hard-tail. Suitable for my daily needs with the potential for my planned off-roading and multi-country touring. We explored Sydney and had some good times. Though I wasn’t so defined by my bike in Sydney with all the harbour traversal required and some dodgy knee complaints. But there were city battles and joyful hauls round nearby National Parks, linking up with like minded mountain bike aficionados. 

Arriving in Melbourne by train and unpacking the bike was significant. From my first steps out of Southern Cross Station my whole understanding and relationship with Melbourne was from the saddle. Immediately gathering maps, riding all and any available cycle routes. Negotiating tram tracks and revelling in discovering this beautiful city beyond the limitations of foot and tram. Though still unskilled in the way of the wheelie, my bunny hopping and track stand game came on strong. Skipping across the tracks in the road and lots of leisurely dicking about.

That GT was even more a statement of identity. This was going to be my full-on adventure bike. I was cycling places. My first solo cycle tour was on the relatively safe and surprisingly familiar terrain of Tasmania. Top to tail via the East Coast through the middle of January.  Here was where I coined the phrase “Adventure is not adventure without adversity”. So a puncture or two, some poor navigational choices and a suspected snake attack were all experienced and exaggerated for future anecdotes. Now my bike really was taking me somewhere else and I was intrinsically defined by my act of propulsion by bike. I was a cycle tourer, a bike packer, and international adventure cyclist. But a week or two later I was back where I started only to take a new adventure to a new start.

From an inauspicious start commuting the cruddy roads of Parnell to New Lynn in Auckland, my biggest adventures, and indeed all my time in New Zealand, was even more defined by the bike. From Auckland to Wanaka through a pedalling paradise. That was a time. I am quick to dismiss it now as a piffling part of my life in my 20’s. It doesn't measure up to the grand cycle touring so many books are written about, which helped inspire me. But it did on those days. I really was cycling toward a destination. Even if that was sometimes the same place. If I am so concerned about a ride not taking you anywhere then why was I such a keen proponent of the round the bays ride in Wellington? Well I guess, because it's beautiful, accessible, and a wonderful way to explore the outer parts of that wonderful city.


I rode through a slice of those islands. Revisited some, and I still maintain that riding the Queen Charlotte Track in November is one of life's particularly special experiences. I took gratification from the fact that I was out and adventuring with no particular place to go, other than where I was going. Like the rides of my teens where I’d flip a coin to decide the route at each junction; I could choose my own adventure. A bike and tent, some cash and water. The open road or treacherous but dutifully maintained tracks. The whole of EnZed was open to me and my bike.

I returned home to Hampshire, via a quick hot jaunt round the Blue Mountains at the start of 2009. Introducing the GT to the lanes I thought I’d left behind. That’s when I started efforts to combine cycling and work. Barrelling toward 30 with ‘what am i doing with my life’ angst buffeting against the certainty that one wholesome way I was happy to identify was as a person on a bike. No discernible pride in my nationality as a fate of birth, confusion over class and belonging, dubious of academia, stringently without religion and not ready to lean on alcohol and drugs as a personality. Being a person on a bike, was something I could live with and would like to be paid for.

A few dead ends and educational explorations brought Ben and his bike to Bristol. Town planning was the way forward and I was going to figure out how to make the world a better place. With bikes. In 2010 my stable was augmented by a ‘Dutch style’ bike won in a text competition on the side of a box of Grolsch. Me being awarded a free bike for drinking beer is possibly one of the most on-brand stories of my life thus far. It had evidently been built for style over functionality. Though pretty with the wicker basket full of books, it didn’t last longer than a winter and a half slogging up to Frenchay and back, darting round the hills of Bristol, along the Bristol to Bath bike path, perched waiting for me after various bar shifts or library learnings. Useful in its time as I explored what had been dubbed ‘The UK’s first cycling city’ but ultimately had to be donated for parts when it started falling apart. Maybe blame my heavy feet and big brain for its swift decline.

For narrative purposes I could do more with the tale of how I brought my Dad’s old steel frame Yung back into service after rescuing it from the shed in the clear out. Riding on a wave of deferring grief and hipster imitation I had his bike somewhat lovelessly converted to a single speed. Too small and probably more valuable as an artefact than mode of transportation or sport, but after scrapping the Grolsch the Yung was nippier and more compact for flat-share purposes. The crossbar still had the scars of chipped paint where a child's seat had been affixed in my infancy. This would have been the first journey I took by bike. Protected by my father up above. Now he was gone I could at least take his bike and recreate one suspected reason for my affinity with this mode of transport.

In 2012 I moved to London with the GT and the Yung. Although consistently contentious in shared flat hallways the need for a new bike presented itself. Olympic buzz, expanding cycle superhighways, MAMILs in the news and a pan-continental bike ride pushed me toward a road bike. I settled on the Surly. Another bike to take me places, and boy, did it ever, and it continues to do so. Across America by bike was where it took me most significantly in that first year, which is well documented elsewhere. On that journey I was identified within a cohort of people on bikes by my heavier frame and sturdy attitude. We rolled in and out of towns and cities, over mountains and searched out cycle paths and sharrows, learning from locals. And fellow Surly riders always showed appreciation for my choice, even if the other bikes in the pack got more coos and ahhhs. 


My bandying about the term ‘utilitarian cyclist’ was solidified by the surly in shorter cross country traverses after our return home. By the time we were done on P2P a 50 mile journey was nothing to me, there and the same again back. Beers in Hampshire, or a jaunt to the sea, and back, was staunchly making sure my bike could always get me to my tea. Even a ‘micro-adventure’ riding every borough in London in a day didn’t stop me continuing into the evening in Hootenanny's.
A Brompton for a days work in 2015 is probably the best labour exchange I have been involved in. I was welcomed into the Brompton fold the weekend of Cycle London and the Brompton Urban Challenge. I hobnobbed with the Brompton stars of track and town beside the Mall with more on-brand complimentary gin and beer. Perfectly suited to my life in London I was a proud Bromptoneer, but increasingly aghast at the actions of other Bromptoners. 


Placing as a runner up in the 2016 London Nocturne Concours d'elegance provides a neat illustration of where I sit in the cycling hierarchy. Against all others, identifying a s a Brompton rider was such a transferrable label, in particular when one chooses to take that folded bike everywhere one goes. The train, the tube, to the bar or gallery. Sliding it under the hot-desk or deftly flicking the back wheel out front of a coffee shop. God those Brompton wankers are insufferable. And I revelled in Brompton wankery. Into town, and on the train, out to Eltham every week, popping across the North Sea, sticking it on the Eurostar in an Ikea dimpa with a 4 pack of M&S IPA. It opened everywhere up without the need for a uniform or lycra and alliteratively melded more to my identity. From Ben on a bike to Ben on a Brompton.

Now I’m sitting within the sound of the bells of the peace palace in the Hague, resting my crossed leg on the fender of my 4th or 5th Swapfiets. It’s a product/service well suited to its surroundings. Simple and worry free in getting where I need to go. Slightly anonymous, with connotations of transience. If my identity is so intertwined with being a person on a bike, then shouldn’t I be riding something that shows that more emphatically? The Surly and Brompton have had scant outings since I started to settle here. The last time I saw the GT or Yung where when I carelessly abandoned them in parts chained to a fire escape in SE24. The specialiseds were handed off and handed down to be someone else's responsibility to leave in a shed to disintegrate. What may have happened to the Saxon and any forgotten other intermediary bicycles is long forgotten. If I were to choose one of my historical rides to redux it’d have to be the Muddy Fox, an original of that in pristine condition is probably what I’d covet the most. Partly because the 30 year fashion cycle means the artefacts of the early 90’s are in prime right now. But more personally because it is loaded with the memories of freedom and tentative exploration and boundary testing. But all in all it would just be pretty rad rocking up on a 90’s mountain bike. 


So if I identify as a person who rides a bike in a country where everyone rides a bike, what is the point of me? What is my identity? What are the chances of getting paid to be a person who rides a bike here? But I’m not just a person who rides a bike; it's just because I’m at the end of a short story exploring how my story is told through my bikes, forgetting even about all the hires, borrows, tests and swappers in between these core few.

All these bikes brought me here. I went around in circles a little bit. But there’s nowt wrong with heading out just for the sake of getting a bit of fresh air once in a while. I’ll jump on my swapfiets and ride around for a bit, then go home. Again.  Does living somewhere that cycling is so (comparatively) easy represent my utopia? Yeah, kind of, so the problem is with utopia that it immediatly has to change. No-place can’t be a place. The problem with attaining utopia is the boredom of nothing needing to change. So just riding around utopia on this perfectly serviceable steed won’t quite cut it for much longer. I understand policy. Slightly less so engineering. I know a fair bit about politics and people. How do I combine all those to share my story for good? Through the phases of learning I have in turn been convinced that a life of dedication to the furthering and normalisation of cycling would be the thing to do. Then realise that it is such a small factor in urban planning, energy policy, commercially, politically it is too insignificant in the face of methane burps, global political meltdown car dominance and selfish individualistic motivations. Maybe, but then maybe isn't everything? Is it just because being a person on a bike is too personal to me. Memories of that childhood freedom, wanting to keep that memory and feeling knowing that incessant interrogation of policy and plans can rip the romance out of any act. Sure, I’ll still be able to enjoy a ride, but do i fetishise the bike too much. Not as an item or artefact, but the association with my own freedom?

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As a postscript to these notes I wrote a few months ago, it is quite gratifying that I am becoming known as 'Ben on the bike' even in the land of the bicycle riders thanks to my community minded veg delivery on behalf of Lekkernass├╗h. Carting 100's of kilo's of veg around on a Wednesday on a big ol' e-assist bike & trailer. 


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