My first bike
Following my self-inflicted enforced (and, hopefully, temporary) retirement from running, my two bikes have been restored to an acceptable level of road-worthiness after some years in mothballs.
“Two bikes?” I hear you think. “Who does he think he is, a pedalling Prescott?”
No this isn’t a clue to my alignment with (now deceased) New Labour and it’s thinly disguised commitment personal gain defined as faux capitalism.
I have a mountain bike that was purchased in 1992 – now a collector’s item – for the cognoscenti, a Klein Attitude in Gator Linear Fade with front Rock Shox.
My road bike is a Somec Atom frame with good kit, dating from just three years ago and built with the priceless advice of my friend Alex Jones.
In both cases I am lucky to be able to ride top quality machines but I’m going to claim the 20-year gap between the purchases as a sign of some moderation in the man-toy department. My next door neighbour has 8 road bikes in his shed.
The motivation for these resurrections has been my need for endorphins (I’m told by my physio even more addictive than heroin?).
On the evidence of my first week back on trail and road, the activity is feeding the habit and I’m less like a dangerously sadistic prison guard than in the middle of August.
There has been a temporary setback this week (here comes an aside).
On Tuesday I enjoyed a night out with 4 out of 5 of my adult children.
In this context, adult is a term describing performance (pay for your own meal and ticket) rather than behaviour. I’ve always avoided any expectations of the latter on the basis that I’m the most badly behaved of us all.
We caught up on news in Nando’s, thrilled to Everest in IMAX 3D (you have GOT to see it) and I shared for only the 500th time the story of my own trip to Base Camp in 1998.
I emerged from the cinema under the Manchester night sky and promptly tripped up a flight of steps, stuck my left leg out involuntarily to counter my forward fall (2.5 million years of evolution at work there) and gasped as a hand grenade seemed to explode inside my left knee.
Tuesday was a night of tortured tossing and turning as every possible position in bed was nothing but excruciating. I must have eventually fallen asleep because the alarm at 05:45 had me leap out of bed, attempt to stand and shout “oh shit” so loud that Annie B literally jumped into the air and responded with “I’ll drive you to hospital” before she had actually woken.
Having declined her mercy trip (I daren’t show up at Wythenshawe out patients AGAIN), on Wednesday I was a sad sight, limping around in London’s monsoon weather like Kevin Spacey in The Usual Suspects, pulling behind me a large overnight bag with a few bits of clothing and 60+ handout packs for my Practice Plan Practice Management Conference the following day.
It remains to be seen whether the bikes will have to go the same way as the running shoes this weekend. Plan C will be beer and red wine.
Asides aside, all this activity around bicycles has me reminiscing about my first bike.
To set the scene, the year is 1961, the place Whalley Range, Manchester and 8-year old Christopher Barrow is the only child of Charlie (a poorly paid police constable) and Norma.
My dad’s wages are so bad that he has a part-time job as a gardener for Mr & Mrs Glaser, Austrian Jews who escaped before Hitler invaded their homeland and who built an affluent life for themselves, he as an insurance broker in Central Manchester (Bleichroeder Bing and Co – why can I remember that?).
A time when political refugees are welcomed and able to take advantage of our freedoms, the payback in this case, a lifeline for my family.
The Glaser home is at the top end of Burford Road, we live in a police house (read council house) at the bottom end.
My mum also works for the Glasers as a part-time housekeeper.
Many was the time that I would sit and wait for mum to finish the cleaning and Mrs Glaser would treat me to confectionaries bought from the basement delicatessen in Kendals (now House of Fraser) on Deansgate. The smell of Viennese coffee would constantly pervade their home and gave me an olfactory glimpse of an unknown world.
In spite of 3 jobs between two people, my parents never seemed to be able to make ends meet and arguments about money were a regular theme of our dinner (or should I say, tea) conversation, me sat between them as we waded our way through chip butties.
You can, therefore, imagine my surprise and delight when on Christmas morning 1961 I awoke to find a bike sat squarely in front of the fireplace in our living room.
It was a three-wheeler, small burgundy frame, no gears and rudimentary fixtures and fittings.
I was transfigured by happiness.
On Christmas day afternoon it was traditional to see kids out on their new bikes, usually with streamers, ribbons or some other vestige of the festivities to signify their parent’s largesse. One of these gleaming objects had been on my own wish list for some time.
I assumed the lack of such decoration or gleam in the case of my new acquisition was a sign of my parent’s pragmatism – and thought nothing of it.
For once, the Manchester weather was kind to us and, after opening the rest of my presents – chemistry set, comic compendiums and the inevitable selection box, it wasn’t long before I was asking to be let out of the door to adventure.
In those days and in that location, we had no fear of road traffic or kiddie kidnap (even though Ian Brady and Myra Hindley were about to change all that) and so, sans helmet, I soon found myself speeding to end the of the road and turning left onto the pedestrian cut through to Clarendon Road.
I decided to ride over to the house of my best (only) close friend, Keith, whose family lived a couple of streets further on.
Down the side of his house ran a cobbled entry and, as I raced towards the front door, the bike rattled furiously on the cobbles as I pedalled with determination.
Until the frame split in the middle.
My journey came to a sudden halt and I found myself standing with the handlebars in my hands, front wheel before me – the rear of the bike, saddle and pedals thrown backwards and pointing into the air.
What I didn’t know was that my dad had bought a second-hand bike on the cheap from a local shop in Chorlton-cum-Hardy.
What my dad didn’t know was that the shop-keeper had welded two knackered bikes together to make a saleable product at that price point.
The welding clearly wasn’t very sound.
My first thought as I stood in the entry was that I would get a massive telling off for breaking my bike. Riding too fast, riding in the wrong place, riding the wrong way, my guilt mounted. I assumed the responsibility was mine.
Almost as a premonition for my future approach to catastrophe, I stayed calm and focused my thinking on solutions – which end of the bike I was going to take home in explanation?
With an early on-set of Vulcan crushing logic, I set off back the way I had such a short time ago travelled, this time with no wind in my face but walking slowly with a set of handlebars attached to a solitary wheel – perhaps a premonition of some future mobile Zimmer that may accompany my end of days.
Arriving home with some trepidation I embarked on an explanation but I’m glad to say that mum & dad saw my plight and quickly offered sympathy.
I don’t remember crying but looking back this may have been the start of my relationship with all things mechanical – the limiting self-belief that I will never understand, that I’m ham-fisted and that stuff will break. A curse with which I travel through life to this day.
My dad left the house and returned some time later with the back half of the bike. It was Christmas Day and, clearly, there was nothing he could do about the situation for some time.
The two estranged but never truly connected segments were consigned to the back yard and we settled down to our annual tradition of over-cooked dry turkey meat (my mum never did master that), all the usual trimmings, pudding and an evening of Christmas television (not much to shout about there – Bing Crosby singing White Christmas, Lassie, The Rag Trade, Rawhide – we were 10 years away from Morecambe and Wise).
My Christmas wasn’t ruined – there was plenty of fun to be had mixing colourful chemicals in test tubes, reading the latest adventures of super-heroes and scoffing more chocolate bars than the rest of the year combined, without fear of reprisal.
Sadly, for the purposes of this storytelling, I can’t remember in any detail what happened when the shops re-opened.
I can only surmise that, back in ’61, selling a duff Christmas bike to a Manchester copper was probably one of the shop-keepers poorer decisions.
I think my dad got his money back but I can’t recall whether a replacement bike turned up there and then or some time later.
Either way, they did eventually find me a two-wheeler and then began a long and happy childhood of riding all over the place, to school and as leisure.
Perhaps the precursor of a lifetime of wanderlust.
So my first bike was a disaster from which I recovered calmly and quickly and rose to greater heights – hmmmmm….