What I knew before I was old enough to know anything properly was that my parents were bike people. I knew this in the hazy, indistinct way that a child understands the world: through shapes and forms and associations, and from riding in a little trailer my father had bought and hitched to the back of his bicycle. We climbed mountains together, he, and I, and my stack of books. Only as an adult have I come to understand that the six or seven hardback picture books I insisted on taking with me (I was four or five at the time) weighed nearly as much as I did and probably didn’t speed up the process of chugging uphill.
Still, as much as they were bike people, they were also book people, and they allowed it, despite the fact that mostly, I would promptly fall asleep, and if I didn’t, I would spend most of the time feeling the wind on my face and saying, “can we go faster, Daddy?”.
There were lots of us who were children of bike people and didn’t know what this meant. All we knew is that our thirty-something parents, all toned and fit and not at all like thirty-somethings with children were supposed to look like, took us on holidays to Baja, California, where we sat around bonfires in the desert and took long hikes before the midday sun had got to its hottest point; or to Brianhead, Utah, where the altitude gave me a headache worth crying over, where the moutaintops even in summer still sparkled with snow, where we went on more long hikes and then napped while the adults, after a morning spent walking, went out on their precious bicycles.
I didn’t know an existence without bicycles strapped to the back of cars and the promise of long rides in lonely locales. This didn’t seem strange to me; we had photographs in our house of my father, in younger years, racing bikes, or standing proudly beside one near (inexplicably) a train track somewhere in Northern California. And I had never known an existence without a bicycle of my own, either: where other children save up pennies to buy their first bike, or are surprised on their tender 10th birthday by the appearance of a shiny new apparatus in the garage, my parents didn’t think any young person could properly develop without a bicycle, and I don’t even remember learning how: perhaps it was ingrained in me already. Probably I fell and squealed like the rest of them, but the process was quick and relatively painless and soon I was cycling confidently down the block like I had never not known how.
So it came as a bitter surprise to the adults in my life when my interest didn’t develop, I think. I rode my bike on the ranch sometimes, but only to make getting to the horses faster, or to quicken the trip to the beach, and it accrued dust and cobwebs in the garage, and I lost the confidence I had as a youngster. By the time I moved away from home, to a real East Coast city, bicycles were as far from my mind as the deserts and mountains of my active rural youth.
But Oxford. You cannot live here and pretend that the bicycle does not exist, as you could, if you chose, in Boston or New York or Los Angeles or even probably London. You have to acknowledge it–first, probably, as a picturesque remnant of the academic city’s glory days: students riding past with gowns flapping and red carnations sparkling look today exactly as they did, I imagine, in the time of Max Beerbohm, or Evelyn Waugh or Dorothy Sayers, especially in the remote corners of Queen’s Lane, which feels positively medieval. Then as something that never goes away: creeping in on your consciousness–for you are never very far away from a bicycle in Oxford, even if you don’t notice it. And if you look with the right eyes, you’ll see that Broad Street is positively crowded with them, and that they are chained to every protrusion in the city, and that their skeletons are strewn about on sidewalks and that there is always, no matter the hour, a cyclist with blinking lights peddling down the road.
So when I moved here, I was given a beautiful, perfect road bike to ride, because over the course of a summer, my interest in the bicycle, which had lain dormant for so many years, had been revived. “When I move back here,” I said flippantly, “I want to buy myself a bike.” And someone listened and gave me the bike of my dreams: sleek, dutch-built, black with a golden wicker basket in front and sloping silver handlebars.
We picked it up from the shop on Valentine’s Day, newly polished and fixed and ready to go. They lowered the seat for me and said, “give it a go,”—and I suddenly found myself with stagefright. I whispered, to the wonderful buyer-of-the-bike, “but I haven’t gotten on a bicycle in literally about four years!” and waited anxiously for the shopkeeper to disappear back inside his lovely shop. It seemed to take him a very long time, and didn’t seem to occur to him at all that I might be terribly, debilitating nervous.
“Go on,” the buyer encouraged me, so finally, I did. It was an awkward and ugly process: I straddled the bicycle, and it leaned this way and that, and I squeaked with fright and nearly toppled off, bouncing from foot-to-foot-to-foot-to-foot; but then suddenly I was off, riding down Magdalen road; and then I was turning on to my own precious little street and going faster down it than I ever could by foot, even if I was sprinting, and I suddenly had a new sense of the street and my worldview shifted completely and I turned off at my house feeling like a new woman. The whole ride lasted approximately two and a half minutes, and the bike buyer wandered up behind me, having followed on my heels with my purse.
“How was it?” he said. All I could do was grin.
Still, the act of riding a bicycle in a city—even in Oxford—requires care and attention. I spent the next few days scoping out my route to work, watching cyclists and memorizing their actions so I could ape them later when I built up the confidence to do so. There were bits—right-hand-turns, for instance, on major thoroughfares—that scared me and I knew I wouldn’t be able to do them right away. I tentatively took a spin down my street, around the block, but was instantly put off by a pair of boys in a roaring yellow sportscar who drove too close and too fast and honked at me when I veered off onto the sidewalk in alarm. “Careful!” they shouted, laughing not at me but in that predatory sort of way that makes them seem like very small and scary boys, and revved their engine heavily. I comforted myself with the fact that they are clearly sufferers of Small Penis Syndrome, but my confidence was still shaken.
Finally I figured the only way to do it was to, well, do it—so I hopped on my beautiful bike one morning like I had been doing it all my life, and rode to work. I walked the scary bits—I figured I was allowed—but by the time I got to work I was so exhilarated that I spent the entire rest of the day in the happy haze of my own grinning glow. And each day, I tried to take more of the route by bike, and less by walking; until one day, I rode the entire way, even the scariest right-hand-turns where you have to pretend, more or less, to be a car—and didn’t even notice it until I’d gotten home, and climbed off the bike, and locked it safely up and understood that in this city, it doesn’t make sense not to ride a bicycle.
I save money; I save time; I have a happy glow of mild exercise every day at work, and a beautiful, sleek bicycle that I want to show off to everyone I see. I know the bike is different from the kind that my father, who was a father also to the modern mountain bike, used to build and ride; but I can’t help thinking, with pride and gratefulness, that I, too, at last, am a bike person.