I was seven, so I had suspicions about the factual status of Santa, but here she was wheeling something into the bedroom, backlight by the hall light. She did not have a beard. She looked a lot like my Auntie Sandy. So unless Auntie Sandy was keeping a secret, Santa was history.
The thing she was wheeling made a soft ticking sound. She leant it against the wall and closed the door, taking the light with her.
Santa was lying face-up on an icy slab, a paper ticket wrapped around his toe. ‘Deceased’. And did I care?
I did not. This was much more important, this was My First Bike.
No matter how excited I was I knew I couldn’t get up and ride it immediately. Technically it was past midnight so it was the 25th of December but I knew that was the kind of perfect reasoning that adults failed to appreciate.
I didn’t know what kind of bike it was, what colour it was, what it looked like. And these things were very important. I spent a long time gazing at the few faint glints of chrome that I could make out in the dim light, trying to will it into a solid presence, but it remained an idea of a bicycle, a friendly ghost that made it into my dreams.
In the morning there it was, across from me, in clear, glowing colour.
Bright yellow. Loads’a chrome.
Wake up boy - come out and ride!
If I close my eyes I can remember the bike standing bright against the black and red chessboard of the chenille bedspread on the spare bed, the ticking of the house as the wood warmed and expanded in the sun, and that peculiar stillness that surrounded my Grandparent’s house, as if time had stopped some years ago and was gazing fondly back on the nineteen sixties. My grandparents, June and Tom, lived in a house at the end of a dead end street on the outskirts of a small town in New Zealand.
If you’re a New Zealander you might know Taumarunui. Back in the day it was ambitious enough to have a museum, and was useful enough to have one of everything – a hospital, a police station, a rotary, a masonic lodge, an amateur theatre, a golf club, a high school, a real estate agents (Grandad) a haberdashery (Grandma). And on that bright and clear christmas morning it had one very happy boy in it.
A bike, brilliant!
Xmas down underI should note that we are taking about the southern hemisphere here, and that Christmas is a time of sunshine.
The days were scorching hot. The grass would make your skin prickly with heat, the adults couldn’t do much beyond slouch in easy chairs following a traditional Christmas meal – lamb roast, maybe a turkey, plum pudding – all taken in twenty five degree heat.
It was called a Mustang. A bike named after a horse. A wild American horse. And the added tang of the Mustang muscle car. It had a touch of both. Bright yellow with everything chromed. A single coaster brake, and a banana seat. The stickers were small pictures of a cowboy rounding up a horse with a lasso. I guess that was meant to be me, the free spirited cowboy taming the wild beast and submitting it to my will.
There was only one problem - I didn’t know how to ride a bike.
I told my son this recently and he was amazed. “You didn’t know how to ride a bike – at seven!?” Like most bike-mad parents I inflicted a strida-bike on him at 18 months old and he was riding comfortably at three. He was on his third bike by the time he was seven.
So christmas day was spent learning how to ride a bike on the back lawn. It was sunny and warm. There were lots of family there and I remember my cousin Sonya feeding a lamb. A lamb that became a sheep that, a good few years later, I would watch my grandad gut. That I remember well too, the blood draining from the neck and the sudden spill of steaming intestines slopping down into the wheel barrow.
It’s like that, the country. Things can be cute, but they also had to grow up and be useful. There’s little room for beauty for it’s own sake, everything had to have a degree of the great kiwi virtue - utility.
Most people at the time thought of bikes as a way of learning how to be on the road so that you could be a better driver later on. There was certainly no one I knew who rode a bike as an adult. Such a thing would have been ridiculous. No adults I knew owned a bike. This was pre-oil crisis seventies, there was simply no need to own a bicycle. More than that, bicycles were reminders of WWII and rationing, and before that the depression. Bicycles were something you had if you were deprived.
I didn’t feel any of that. I was having too much scary fun. From tumbling onto the grass I quickly graduated to the concrete drive and the next day onto the road. I was allowed to ride up to the end of the road, which terminated in a farm gate, and back to the house, perhaps fifty yards.
After a few good ‘look at me, look at me!’ ride-bys I was allowed to ride out of sight, right to the end of Rangaroa Road.
It was here that I discovered two of the abiding joys of cycling: 1) going down a slope, and 2) riding up the other side.
It was the smallest of dips, maybe five seconds of freewheeling and picking up speed before scraping the bottom of the parabola and having to really press the pedals to get up the other. I repeated it, endlessly.
The layout of The Mustang and its single gear made going up hill pretty much impossible. You sat a long way back on that banana seat, the handlebars’ backwards sweep pushing your hips a long way behind the axle. There was no way to get your weight forward on the bike other than awkwardly standing up and putting up with the handlebars bashing into your thighs.
I wasn’t concerned with such things at the time. The next few days I was off riding around Taumaranui, out of sight of the adults. A real taste of freedom and adventure.
Being a parent now I know the simultaneous relief of having found something that a boy can wear themselves out on and the minor terror of letting them out of the house by themselves. Living in London I would be insane to let a seven year old out on a bike without a helmet and roam the suburbs unsupervised.
Taumaranui was perfect for such things. At ten I learned to ride a trail bike on my auntie’s farm, up and down the lumpy back blocks around Ongarue. When I was thirteen, Grandad gave me my first taste of driving, taking me out in his Austin Marina on the grassy Tuhua Domain, bumping around amongst the grazing sheep.
My family was saturated with moving machines. My cousin turned out to be a national level enduro rider, various uncles looked after jets for Air NZ, my father raced cars for fun before giving it up shortly after meeting mum. These days everyone is still into their motors. Now members of the family restore vintage cars, ride 1200cc motorbikes, work as mechanics. One uncle once said that the only good horse was one with two wheels and a motor. No one laughed, this was a matter of fact.
I felt like I had been given a bike as a present and stolen unseen the real gift – the physical thrill of riding, the palpable sense of being unshackled. The bike was ‘mine’, but the sensation of riding quickly became part of me and has never left.
Gleefully punting my new bike endlessly up and down the same piece of road, feeling the difference between smooth tarmac and chip, bumping onto pavements, repeating an arc again and again to explore inside the perfection of force that is a bicycle in motion. To be in the middle of this array of forces and to strive to understand them. That is what makes this Mustang my thing – not a horse, not a car – a bicycle.
Cycling has a particular meaning for children. Aside from the sampling of freedom it has something to do with the very adult notion of having machines that amplify our actions. It’s the first taste of machines that take an intention and magically exaggerate it with levers and gears, tipping our desires out of the improbable and into the possible.
Cars, boats, planes.
What they say is Look, I can run at sixty miles an hour, watch me as I, literally, fly. A child learning to ride a bike is getting an early taste of being allowed to self-power through life - to apply will to a machine and have it obey.
But if cycling is partly about finding the adult inside childhood the opposite is also true. Our bikes let us experience an innocent joy inside our adult life. The direct experience of force and motion is a rare thing for the modern city dweller. We are so often on other people’s timelines and KPIs that it is a singular pleasure to propel yourself along the road, to use your own energy to get somewhere, in your own way.
Between the first turn of the pedals over forty years ago on a baking hot day in Taumaranui and the last one I took this morning on my way to work on a gloomy autumnal morning in London many things have changed. But the feelings have not.
Each time I set off on the stressful morning commute into the dark heart of London’s ancient, crumbling infrastructure accompanied by ignorant tin-tops and other, suicidally terrible, cyclists I wonder why I bother.
A hundred yards down the road and I come back to the basics - this is me, sitting on 20lbs of metal, invoking the forces of physics to conjure delight.
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