The light had that pale washed out morning feel to it, as though it couldn’t quite be bothered to wake up properly. The grey clouds congregated above the hills and down by the waters, in the shadows of the neo-gothic damn towers, the rain settled a slight sheen onto our cagoules.
Well, my internal monologue helpfully pointed out, six months ago you never would have imagined being here.
First date conversations are difficult to get right. There’s a fine balance to hold between not letting the talk drop into awkward silence and – if you’re me– not relentlessly babbling from nervousness until something utterly inappropriate slips out. But that evening it all felt rather easy. The narration sustained itself naturally without any need for repetition, hesitation or deviation.
Well, at least until she said: ‘Have you got a bike?’
By this point I’d already established that she was a keen cyclist – the hefty panniers stashed under the table had been one of the give-aways – but I liked her lot none-the-less. Unfortunately the question felt like a stepping stone into chatting about bikes and cycling.
‘Not at the moment,’ I replied truthfully.
‘Oh. Why not?’ she asked before I could finish diverting the subject.
Fair question, I thought.
‘Um, to be honest, it’s been a little while since I’ve ridden,’ which was technically true as well, ‘but the main reason is that my flat’s really tiny.’ And with that more or less honest explanation I veered us into a discussion about homesteads before I accidentally cornered myself with a complete untruth.
Fifteen years previously:
I sat on the back steps of the mini-bus as the others swooped in off the Lake District hillsides; their faces splattered with mud and their grins smeared wide. Whilst I would never have said so, I was slightly jealous to have been left behind. Again.
‘I can’t believe you don’t know how,’ someone might have said.
‘Never learnt,’ I shrugged.
‘But it’s easy.’ And so for the umpteenth time I was cajoled into sitting atop a narrow metal frame in a car park. ‘You just need to try harder.’
I did. I tried really hard. I lifted my left leg up and pushed down on the pedal; my right foot had barely escaped the tarmac before I tilted to the left and landed down in an oily puddle entangled with the bicycle.
‘What is the point in learning to ride a bike aged sixteen?’ I grumbled from the floor, using spite to hide my shame. ‘I’ll be able to drive soon.’
I sat down in the Battersea pub, my face flushed from an afternoon’s Greenwich sun.
‘I think…’ I trailed off and bit my lip, apprehensive at the enormity of what I was putting myself up for. ‘I think I might need to learn to ride a bike.’
‘Oh, really?’ replied Google-Steve and his face lit up. He likes a challenge.
My friends had gathered themselves from around the country to the centre of the Peak District on a drab October morning. I worried that I might let them down. I worried that I wasn’t ready; that I wouldn’t be able to do what was expected of me.
‘How far is it again?’
John looked at the map on the information point. ‘Er, about twenty-six miles.’
Oh God, I thought.
‘So,’ I straddled Steph’s bike whilst sunshine blessed itself upon Stratford Racecourse, ‘where’s the ignition on this thing?’
My audience chuckled appreciatively, but they didn’t realise quite how scared I was.
That’s right, my internal monologue chipped in, make stupid jokes. That’ll hide the crushing disappointment when you can’t do this.
Shut up, I told it. I don’t like not being able to do things. I tend to avoid, to circumnavigate, the difficult. I was afraid of failure.
‘Just give it a go,’ said Google-Steve.
‘Except, that’s kind of the point,’ I replied. ‘I don’t know how.’
‘Okay, well push down on your right foot, give the pedal an almighty shove and then… Well… I don’t really know how to explain it. It’s kind of instinctive. You just ride.’
So I did. I went about six inches before the wobble dragged my foot back down to earth. The innate need to be balanced was overpowering.
‘Okay,’ Google-Steve scratched his chin. ‘Perhaps we better start with the basics.’
And so he got me skirting along without using the pedals, trying to get a feel for the balance of the bike. He explained the physics of taking off and gaining momentum and yet, despite the fact I desperately wanted to succeed, the voice in my head kept telling me to stop wasting my time.
‘At work,’ he said ‘there’s an email conversation by Dads about how the best way to teach their kids to ride a bike. I wonder if I could ask for tips in teaching my thirty-one year old friend.’
I slumped over the handlebars, sweat from stress and anxiety (if not actual physical exertion) stained through my pale t-shirt. I managed to raise a sarcastic eyebrow, but no words came.
‘Why the sudden urgency anyway, Dave?’ asked Steph.
I went back to the beginning and explained the whole thing, stressing that strictly speaking I’d been honest throughout. ‘But now, bloody Boris has launched this bike hire scheme and I’m not sure how long I can keep the ruse up without being exposed.’
‘You have to tell her,’ gushed Lucy. ‘It’s so romantic.’
‘Or alternatively,’ chimed in John ‘a desperate attempt to dig yourself out of a hole of your own making.’
The most excruciating thing wasn’t the bad jokes and scorn of my friends (I was used to them), but the puzzled stares from children. Children who sat on bikes.
Children who sat on bikes and then rode said bikes along without the aid of a friend running along behind holding them upright by the saddle pole.
Eventually, as perspiration streamed down my brow the blood from the gouged flesh on the backs on my calves seeped into the tops of my socks, I realised that Google-Steve was running, not behind me, but alongside me.
‘Keep going,’ he shouted. ‘Keep looking straight ahead and pedal like hell.’
I was doing it. I was actually riding a bike. Albeit at just above walking pace, but it felt amazing. Yah-boo defeatist internal doubts, I thought. And promptly crashed into the plastic barriers that form the edges of the racetrack.
‘Ouch,’ I said from down on the grass, underneath a mountain bike. ‘That didn’t actually hurt after all.’
Huh, my internal monologue was surprised. Perhaps there wasn’t so much to be afraid of, after all.
The months flowed past briskly. We went to galleries and restaurants and pubs and parks sharing each others London. Long warm afternoons became entangled with life as we peeled back the layers of who we were; prying and revealing in equal measure and still I didn’t say anything.
Yet bikes seemed to be everywhere that summer. I started to take more notice of people and how they rode. The lycra clad men who tucked their elbows in and hunched up into themselves. The daintily poised ladies who sat bolt upright and whose legs moved at a singular pace. The transient cool types who couldn’t wear a helmet for fear of their hair. Those who found it second nature and those whose wobble suggested it was harder than they remembered.
The Barclay’s branded terminals sprang up around central London. Ports without vessels, they haunted my future. Time was running out.
The rain lashed down more enthusiastically as Architect Steve finally turned up and we set off. We took a couple of laps of the car park to warm up and then launched ourselves towards the steep ascent.
The others powered their way up easily enough, but I felt the hill winning.
‘Ngah,’ I grunted, but it was insufficient and two-thirds of the way up my foot came down and the bike stalled.
This is going to be fun, the voice in my head adopted sarcasm for a change. And it’s such a delightful day.
At least I didn’t fall off, I reassured myself.
‘And turn here,’ Google-Steve jogged across the Hyde Park grass, squatted momentarily and slapped the ground. I leant into the racing curve and missed the bruise he’d made, but not by much.
‘Right,’ he called over his shoulder. ‘I’m going to run and zig-zag as fast as I can. Try and follow my line as closely as you can. But try not to hit me.’ And in an instant he shifted gear and accelerated away.
For a moment my feet wheeled in the air before I remembered to change gear, but even then I struggled to catch Google-Steve. He could run than I could cycle. My embarrassment was distracted though as I careered straight into a low-hanging branch.
I pushed on as hard as I could and for a second it felt like I might catch him before he broke left. I turned to follow and nearly span out of control. Nearly, but not actually. I recovered and made the turn.
‘You know,’ I called, ‘this must look pretty strange.’ I nodded to the couple walking along the path eyeing us suspiciously.
‘Yeah, this guy stole my bike and now he keeps chasing me.’
As we walked through the back streets of Pimlico, between Tate Modern and Hyde Park, we passed an immaculate line of Boris bikes. Still sparkling and new their metal hides glinted in the sunshine. They were neatly aligned, like riderless cavalry horses at the water trough.
‘I don’t think they look too bad,’ she said. ‘You should register and we could go for a ride.’
‘Um,’ I scratched the back of my head. ‘I should probably make a confession.’
Later she told me her immediate thought was: ‘I wonder if he’s going to tell me about that blog I found?’
I stepped closer to her, ran my hands along her forearms and stopped at her elbows.
‘You know how I said I hadn’t ridden in a while? Well it’s been fifteen years really.’
‘And you know how I said I didn’t have room for a bike, well you know that’s true, but the real reason I don’t own a bike is that fifteen years ago I was trying and failing to ride.’ She looked a little confused. ‘I can’t actually ride a bike.’
‘But I’m learning.’ And I went into great detail about Google-Steve’s training programme and the progress I appeared to be slowly making, before concluding with: ‘And I can ride upright on my own now, although my control is still a little random.’
There was a pause and I held my breath.
‘That is so sweet.’
As the day wore on I started to catch myself doing things instinctively. Minutes would roll by and I would realise that I’d been distantly gazing at the view rather than agonising over staying upright. And just for a short while, the clouds broke and the sun peeked out, yawed its lazy way across the valley and all was beautiful.
The Pembrokeshire coast gently soaked up the wind at the bottom of the cliffs as I rode in circles around the tents.
‘Bloody hell,’ said Beagle. ‘Dave Marston riding a bike. That’s something I never thought I see.’
I grinned and accelerated across the field, stretching my legs out to let the momentum carry me until out of sight behind a Landrover, a gust of breeze caught me at an odd angle and the ensuing wobble veered me off course towards a bush.
Still lacking complete control there, my less than optimistic voice reminded me.
‘We’re just going to ride around for an hour or so,’ said Google-Steve as we mounted up on the edge of Battersea Park. ‘No-one can stay that tense forever.’
Off we went doing laps of the park building up endurance. Plod-plod I went as joggers and small girls undertook us, but Google-Steve just patiently wheeled along.
‘Just keep looking where you want to go. You’re doing great.’
We rounded the corner on the approach down to the river. Chanting berobed people clustered around the giant golden Buddha in his veranda.
‘Don’t look at the hippies, don’t look at the hippies.’
The air rushed past me on the descent. It flooded into my lungs and made me feel alive. That sensation of being airborne, of gliding almost out of control yet just a tweak would tame the momentum was triumphant. I took the corner at the bottom in a sweeping controlled arc and I felt like I could do whatever I wanted.
Until, moving almost faster than I could see, Google-Steve overtook me.
You’ve a way to go yet, moaned my internal monologue and whilst I agreed with it, I didn’t mind. It was going to be great fun.
With thanks to everyone who supported my biking adventure, but especially Google-Steve, patience of a saint.