|From Retro Raleighs|
When I was very young, maybe eight or ten, my dad came home from one of his TDY (temporary duty) overseas trips with a shiny black English Racer bicycle for me. It looked a lot like this one, as I remember. Nobody else had a three-speed bike with brakes on the handlebars; all my friends' bikes had coaster brakes and only one speed. I was terrified of it.
I've since learned (after doing a little research on line) that the Raleigh English Racer was built in Nottingham, England beginning in the 1930s. I found a cool website called "Retro Raleighs" and found the picture from Raleigh's 1951 catalog. The bike was too big for me and had the bar across the top, so it was a boy's bike rather than a girl's. I've actually only owned one bike that didn't have that stabilizing bar. It also didn't have the carrier bag in the back, that I remember anyway. When I looked at the picture in full size, I was amazed to find that the bike was pricey, costing £13 even back then! (That would have been about $600 in today's dollars.)
The bike stayed outside propped up against our house in California for a long time before ever being used. Every once in awhile my father would take me out and sit me on the seat to see if my feet reached the pedals. I remember scrunching up my leg so it wouldn't get anywhere near the pedal so I wouldn't be forced to learn how to ride it. Owning and riding a bicycle was nowhere near as common in my world back then. Today, a ten-year-old child has probably had a bike for years.
Daddy would try to encourage me to give it a try, and I loved my dad so much that I wanted to please him, but this was beyond scary. "How does it stay up?" I asked. When he explained the concept to me, it sounded like magic, not logical at all. I don't remember if he tried to ride it (the size disparity makes me dubious) to show me how it all worked, but I was sure there was a trick I didn't know about, and I kept my distance.
Then one day, I was looking at the bike, I don't know what made me finally decide to try it, but I propped it up next to the house and got on. My feet touched the pedals just fine; I was no longer given that excuse. I sat there, propped against the house and imagined myself going down the street for a long time before I finally worked up enough courage to try moving it. But curiosity and a kid can surmount many an obstacle.
Even though I have lived almost seventy years and have been on the planet for more than 25,000 days, that day stands out in my memory, bright and vivid. I learned through trial and error, and many spills, to ride that bike. It was exhilarating and empowering. Nobody was helping me, and I remember learning to keep it upright before I learned to stop it with the brakes, and I ran smack into a telephone pole. Fortunately neither of us were hurt very badly, but I remember that crossbar hit really hard in my private parts. I was sore for days, but I never told anybody about it until today, afraid that if I told my parents they might take my bike away from me! Plus it was a silly mistake, once I learned to coordinate riding AND stopping. Necessity is the mother of invention.
By the end of the day, I was riding the bike as if I had known how all along, and I only came in because the sun went down. I was in love. The magic of the bike staying upright thrilled me, and it still does to this day. The old saying about never forgetting how to ride a bike once you've learned is true, I find. Just last week I purchased a used bike and took it down to the local bike shop for a tuneup. I rode it to the bus stop (less than a mile) and put it on the bike rack at the front of the bus. I've watched people do this for years, but it was my first time. I made a couple of mistakes and was nervous, but the bus driver was helpfully shouting instructions out the door as he watched me attempt to secure the bike. A total of three bikes can be placed on the bus.
As I sat on the bus, proud of myself and holding my bike helmet in my hands, I realized that I have come full circle in my bicycling journey. The young girl who learned to love her English Racer, and the senior citizen who wheeled her newest purchase into the bike shop six decades later, are both proud bicycle riders. There might be yet another bike purchase in my future, if I catch the bug and find a community of riders that entices me into buying a fancy-schmancy bike with all the bells and whistles. I was a bit shocked at the price of the fancy bikes in the shop: well over $4,000!
In my years as a bike rider, I have used a bike to commute to work, went without a car for years and only used a bike, and have ridden my bike from Boulder to San Francisco (in 1974). I've replaced many a flat tire and knew enough to keep my bike in good working order. I've forgotten all that, but I guess I'll learn again. Bikes get flats and need regular maintenance. If you see a white-haired lady wrestling with her bike by the side of the road one of these days, you might stop and see if you can give her a hand. She may be old but she's willing to learn. And re-learn.