Belfast Telegraph

Get on your bike

Cyclists are in the headlights with the Assembly debating a Bill to make wearing helmets compulsory. Malachi O'Doherty remembers a gentler two-wheeled age

I hadn't ridden a bicycle for about 15 years. I was the wrong shape. With a largish stomach in front of me, my knees acted like a bellows, pumping the air out of me when the turn of the pedals lifted them, which was just when I would need that air most.

Then last year I shed some weight. I am now 15%, or two stone, lighter and can ride a bike, but which bike?

The whole market changed when I wasn't looking.

My father's bicycle was the standard ride of the working man in his day. It was black, of course; the handle bars were level and turned in parallel to each other; it had three-speed Sturmey Archer gears and a dynamo for the lamp.

Then when I lived in India, 30 years ago, nearly everybody there had one.

It didn't matter that they were heavy. Northern India is as flat as a table top, so weight provided for momentum, not struggle.

Here, this bike gave way to the racer. My bike had racing-style handlebars. Most people would have called it a racer, but it was actually a touring bike. It had mudguards which, it seems, are only for wimps now.

I rode down the west coast of Ireland on it twice, carrying all my luggage, a tent and a couple of paperbacks. I fancy doing that again. Mid-life crisis? No, I had that 20 years ago.

In the years when I didn't cycle and grew fat, Belfast actually adapted itself to the bicycle better than it ever had before.

We now have cycling lanes and some wonderful bike shops like McConveys, Slanes and Bike Dock. Thousands of people are out on bikes every day, going to work, but none of them are on bikes like the one I had, the bike I want.

For there is a truth that cyclists might not want to own up to, but it is dead plain to anyone who looks at our thriving cyclists and the stock held in the bike shops. Cyclists are providing for a fantasy life when they choose their wheels.

There are two types of bicycle that prevail over all others here: the first is the racer, now called a road bike. This is the last kind of bicycle you would want to ride on a road.

It has pencil-thin wheels and can only be comfortable on a smooth surface like a racing track. It has no mudguards, so when it rains the rear wheel picks up the mucky water and slashes it up your back.

It has no carrier, so you often see men riding these to work with rucksacks on their backs for the clothes they will change into when they get there. This is daft. Would you wear a rucksack while riding a horse? No, you'd let the horse carry it.

Some of these riders are weekend racers who know this is the wrong bike for city streets, but can't afford a second, more suitable one. Most of them, I guess, are fantasy racers and feel better riding the worst possible bike; the way children here feel better carrying their school blazers in the rain rather than wearing them, confusing the concept of cold and wet with the concept of cool.

Anyway, I don't want to race. I don't want to go fast. I don't understand the men in lycra, zipping downhill with no view in front but the black-clad bottoms of the men ahead.

The other most common bike here is called a hybrid. It has evolved out of the mountain bike. It is for the grown-up generation of children who played on the BMX. Straight handlebars, low frame, thick tyres.

It was the favoured bike of city couriers. It's a great bike for coursing through narrow streets while indulging the fantasy that you are out in the hills. But it must be boring to ride 50 miles along a country road on it.

A friend says he loves straight handlebars because they are good for his back; no, drop handlebars are good for your back because they allow you to change position. Then down in Bike Dock I saw a bike that was nearly what I needed. It had drop handlebars, a longish frame and thick tyres.

"That's a nice touring bike, now."

"No," said the man. "That's a cyclo-cross bike."

It's a bike built for people who race through mud, carrying it on the back half the time. You can see videos on YouTube of men sloshing in filth and apparently enjoying themselves.

The latest version of this bike doesn't even have gears, for the objective of the sport is that one must suffer.

But it looks, feels and acts like a touring bike, so it seems even riders of sensible bikes now need to have their pursuit garnished with a marketing image that says they are real, rough men and the more practical the bike, the madder the image has to be.

In the fantasy world that is modern cycling, if I was seen on one of those cyclo-cross bikes, cruising between Clifden and Galway, people would take me for a masochistic mud-bather.

But, no, they wouldn't; they would see me doing what every other cyclist out there is doing - not riding the dream, but dreaming the ride.


From Belfast Telegraph