Somewhere in the dim and still-fading annals of my adolescence, for a birthday which I supposed (about a decade prematurely, I now know) to signal the proximity of my adulthood, I was bought a bicycle which fundamentally changed everything I understood cycling to be about. Like many kids, I’d spent countless formative hours charging round the estate roads and up and down the big hill on the school fields. (Fields now bounded by a secure 10 foot fence. An agonising imponderable this – further liminal angst – who is bounded from what?) Doing myself injuries and discovering thrills. Pleasure and pain, mingling like blood with dirty water.
But this new bicycle was different, and my world was changed with it. It was a bicycle that allowed me to ride anywhere – everywhere – and with it I gained a freedom, and access to a source of adrenalin, that I had not previously known to exist. I could go anywhere with this bike so I believed – out of sight and mind, over the hills, on, on. I was free then, to cover myself head to toe in cloying mud, to hurtle the thing headfirst down whatever slope i could find, to be flung from it into trees, over fences, to dash myself onto rocks, to scrape myself up, and to go again. Life lessons perhaps. But more importantly, my new (second-) favourite thing to do.
Much later now. Twenty years and more. Eight in the Choke. A learned sarcasm. A practiced cynicism. Wilful abandon willfully abandoned. Well, almost. Wood and stone become concrete and brick. A bicycle a different object, a ride a different story. I love to ride here – the constantly shifting landscape – the ever changing lines. There is a smoothness and a sharpness to find, entirely analogous to riding taller, rougher terrain. There are as many points of focus and as many missed heartbeats. But this is an essentially different joy and I remain a country boy. I miss the woodlands. The close darkness. The autumnal rot and the creeping things. I miss the open expanses – the high moorlands where the world is open to the sky – the rolling hills and open fields and sightings of hare. The swooping and chattering of birds – I forget about birds, in London. I forget about birds! But I also digress.
In London the mountain bike is an object apart. It is a foreigner – at best a visitor. Worse an expat – or a victim of trafficking. Happy though that it is an adaptable beast, and treated right, it can make a life here. Indeed the mountain bikes of the early- and mid- 90s are some of the most versatile bicycle frames ever produced. But, true, and undeniable, they are happiest, and make their riders happiest, when thrown at a hill – to climb, steadily, spinningly, breathlessly, through rocks and bracken and mud, long past the wondering why, long past an awareness of gashes, numbness in toes – onwards ever until the open sky is visible through the trunks of trees – the final push, and the summit attained – a pause for breath, and then headlong, down as you dare, consciousness narrowed, sharpened, and rarefied. Until the track eases, you slow and stop, and your minds opens again, and you take in the world through childhood eyes and respond to it with a childhood grin, and you catch your breath, and do it all again.