This time five years ago, I was in a park in Walthamstow holding a granny bike with the pedals removed, trying again and again to coast down a small slope without falling over, and invariably landing in a heap at the bottom. I was covered from head to toe in bruises and convinced that bicycles were just an elaborate hoax because I could not see any way that the bloody thing could stay upright and motionless long enough for me to get my feet on the pedals and move away. I hobbled home and googled “how does a bicycle stay upright” and I landed on this page. A bicycle balances like a broom handle. The penny dropped. The very next day I went back to the park and rode a very wobbly lap. I was thirty-six years old and I had been trying to ride a bike for the last thirty years. Various school friends had tried and failed. Once the stabilisers came off my childhood Raleigh bike, it was never ridden again. I used to have dreams about cycling and wake up with the same bitter disappointment one gets after a lottery-win-dream. I couldn’t quite believe I had finally got the hang of it.
Five years later, however, and my cycling hasn’t really progressed far from that day in the park. There are all sorts of reasons for this but the main one is the fact that I am absolutely terrified of cycling, especially on the roads, where half the drivers in London seem to resent the existence of cyclists and make life as difficult for you as possible. I feel like I have “incompetent cyclist” branded on my head and that people will shout at me to get off the bike because I am clearly not qualified to ride it. I fall off from time to time, and the thought of doing this in public strikes fear into the depths of my soul, even though I know all levels of cyclists, even professionals, fall from time to time (particularly in triathlon transitions, it seems), and even though I fall over whilst running all the time and don’t care if anyone sees that.
So when Rob suggested organising a “gentle beginners bike ride up the canal to Broxbourne” as far as I was concerned he was suggesting I change my name to Bradley Wiggins and enter the Tour De France. I will admit that there was part of me that was hoping that he would forget the whole thing, or that the canal route to Broxbourne might be destroyed by a freak earthquake or stampeding cows. This feeling intensified when he decided that it would be a great idea to stop off for a parkrun on the way, and pointed out that the route to Broxbourne contained a hill which was definitely neither teeny nor tiny.
Unfortunately the cows did not stampede and I found myself waiting under the North Circular with my bike at seven o’clock in the bloody morning, soon to be joined by Rob, Ken, Susan and Jara from viewtube. The first big challenge was getting on my bike surrounded by all these people I knew. I had a bit of performance anxiety and insisted everyone look away as I began pedalling, then angled for being at the back constantly, which no one else seemed to like much. I found keeping up with the others on the move wasn’t too problematic but when they stopped they could just start again in a whisker whereas I needed to shuffle around and get my feet in the right place before wobbling off ungracefully. As no one really knew where we were going, we took a couple of wrong terms which was more of a problem for me than the others because I can’t do a U turn in a narrow road. (“We’re just going to have to go this way now, I can’t turn round” I proclaimed, but this didn’t seem to wash so I had to stop and get off the bike and turn it round…)
We arrived in Waltham Abbey in good time for Gunpowder parkrun. I don’t think I’m going to be able to do this parkrun justice with my blog post because to be honest my brain was full of bicycle gears and I wasn’t paying it a lot of attention. I am pretty sure it had two laps, a lot of tall grass and a very small hill which seemed a lot bigger when I was on my bike. The volunteers were quite impressed when we told them how far we’d cycled. Running seemed like quite a reprieve from the mental exertion of cycling but my legs were less happy and I discovered my knees had actually turned to jelly (quite the opposite of last week when they turned to lead). My time was 40:29. I wasn’t particularly bothered about this because all I could think of was the H-I-L-L approaching. Rob came fourth in 19:55 after telling everyone that he was “just going to take it easy today”. What a show off.
Soon it was back on our bikes and after an unfortunate interlude where Ken and I got lost in a suburban cul-de-sac, nearly cycled into a river and had to have a search party sent out for us, we carried on towards Broxbourne. The next section took us through Cheshunt Lakes which is an absolutely beautiful place – I should have stopped for a photo. The paths here are great for running or cycling and I think I will return when I get a chance (though maybe by train…) Unfortunately this bit was over too soon and we came to The Hill. I really struggle with cycling up hills. I never seem to get the gear right and then it just becomes a tremendous effort and I lose control of the front wheel, and then I lose my nerve and put a foot down and of course once you’ve stopped on a hill it is almost impossible to start again and you just have to push until you’re on the flat again. I generally avoid all this palaver by either getting off and pushing at the first sign of the hill or going a different way. Or leaving the bike at home and walking it. Anyway, I really did give it my best shot but I only got a little way up the hill before it all fell apart. Ken very kindly dismounted too and walked with me up the hill and we met the others at the top and got a random passer by whose dog I’d just nearly killed to take a photo of us.
We were nearly there. It’s all downhill from here! Except downhill was nearly as scary as uphill – a steep slope with hairpin bends. I was really worried that I wouldn’t be able to control my bike but I just about managed it with copious use of the brake. I was very glad when we got to the bottom and started pedalling again.
I had just about had enough by this point. Cycling is, in a way, the complete opposite of running to me. Running can be physically difficult, but mentally I find it very easy. When running, I can just tune out and worry about nothing, plodding along at my own pace knowing that I can handle anything the course throws at me. I don’t have to psyche myself up to go for a run – I find it harder not to go for a run. Cycling, however, requires intense concentration. Which gear do I need? Is my bike ok? Am I going to fall off? Can I stop? Should I stop? Which way are we going? Can I get up that hill? Will everyone know I am an imposter? It is exhausting.
The final section was along as busy road (I got off and pushed) and then a quiet road (I cycled) and then the pub appeared in the end and I punched the air with one hand like a right dickhead which is also a bit of a milestone for me because I don’t usually take either hand off the handle bars in any circumstances. It would have been really hilarious if I had fallen off at this point but amazingly I didn’t and we went for a lovely vegan lunch and several beers without further ado. I am going to spend the next five years telling everyone that I cycled to Broxbourne. So proud of myself.