Monday, May 21, 2012

The passing and turning of wheels


Albert Winstanley is dead, and so is Alan Oakley. I'd bet very few readers will have  registered the former (Albert died this March), and whilst you might have heard the news about Alan, I doubt you knew his name before today.

Alan Oakley was the chap who designed the Chopper bicycle: the best selling bike that Raleigh ever made. It was a Seventies icon that saved the business and wrought havoc to the testicles of twenty thousand teenage boys. I was never allowed a Chopper - they were for 'bad lads', my father used to say - and my pleas that it would be good for the paper round made no difference. Instead he got me a twenty year old three speed roadster which weighed a tonne and was laughed at the first time I rode it to school.

Albert was from a generation previous, and a writer not a designer. He rode a touring bike with a cotton duck saddle bag, a rolled cape strapped on top; the old photos show him in brogues and baggy shorts, about as far from the street-cred of Chopper riders as it's possible to imagine. Albert had toured  across Europe when most folk were still heading to Blackpool for holidays - but he was best known for his forays in the North of England. In the unassuming columns of the Cycling Weekly and Cycling World his recollections of 'golden days awheel' captured a delight in the outdoors that was keenly felt by many of the post war generation.

I was twenty five before I could afford a decent touring bike. That hadn't stopped me cycling camping as a kid, or riding the hundred mile round trip to see my girlfriend when I was at university. My most vivid cycling memory is riding in Leicestershire through fields of oil seed rape. It was a new crop back then and I remember marvelling at the acid lemon landscape - and feeling more free and less troubled than ever before. I still love rape fields; I know they've replaced swathes of pastoral countryside, but I can't help it - every time I see them, I remember that day.

This evening, in the park near my house a group of teenage lads were skulking under hoodies and baseball caps. They came to sit by the bowling green, some way from the club house but near enough to provoke discomfort. 'Here's trouble,' said one of the members as the bowlers finished their twenty first end. In the event, nothing much transpired; a bit of swearing, the odd kick to a litter bin, and then they departed, two of them on BMX bikes - the modern equivalent of a Chopper. Jane was annoyed they'd spoiled the peace. Bad lads, I thought, and though I know that's unfair for it's only youthful rebellion, I couldn't help it either.

It's stretching things to say that cycling has defined my life. But it's been a constant presence, and in different ways my bikes and the joys they've given me, mirror my journey too. There's a part of me will always wish I'd had a Raleigh Chopper; and another that knows they were never for me. There's a part that's delighted to see the thousands of enthusiasts riding cyclo-sportifs each weekend; and there's another that thinks they should travel more slowly - like Albert, with a saddle bag and a rolled cape - through fields and fells that would harvest memories of gold.

11 comments:

  1. My father toured Scotland by bike in the thirties...your post reminded me of his tales.

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  2. Lovely post ...a great share. I miss being younger and biking on my ten speed with it's narrow tires that seemed to turn on a dime riding through the city...light as a feather.

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  3. I never feel more free and more relazed and more myself than when I am in the middle of nowhere on my bicycle.

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  4. Hello Mark:
    Oh how we love the idea of taking a leisurely cycling holiday through the countryside and camping as the mood takes. However, when reality strikes, we know that we could not manage even the tiniest of inclines when we once had bicycles in Herefordshire and a night under canvas is a true horror for us.

    However, we have been very pleased to see that in Budapest at least the cycling lanes are proliferating and the numbers of two wheel riders are increasing each day. Perhaps you may be tempted to cycle through Eastern Europe one day!

    This is a beautifully penned nostalgic tale. We have enjoyed it very much.

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  5. There were a lot of choppers when I was growing up. I couldn't see the appeal, not being cool or hip or male, and it's true that all the boys who had one were that bit naughtier than the others.

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  6. I have great memories of a cycling/camping trip to Land's End and back (from Fareham) when I was a teenager, with my best pal. It took us six days and cost me 13 shillings and tenpence.

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  7. Yest again your fine writing has made me wish I'd learned to ride a bike when I was young, Mark. I'm nostalgic for something I've never experienced. :-)

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  8. This is such an engaging piece of writing that would appeal to the Chopper 'bad lads' and the more sedate roadsters alike. The allegorical feel of this tale appeals to non-cycling enthusiasts like me. So well crafted, with vivid images of the rape fields and the anecdote about the rebellious lads. You weave together so many threads in such a concise yet powerful way, Mark. I do enjoy reading you and your writing inspires me to try to find the time to write again. With great admiration and gratitude.
    Cinova

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  9. I have never really got on with bikes. I can ride but don't really enjoy it. My Gran once cycled from Glasgow to Cornwall to see my Grandad before he was shipped off to war. She went on her own and stayed in hostels along the way...I always thought that was an amazing thing for a woman to do in that day and age. She was a plucky woman my Gran.

    C x

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  10. This was a beautiful post. Like Perpetua, I never had bikes growing up and always wanted one. As an adult, I can use a very specialised bike, but they are prohibitively expensive and I have no place to ride safely. I hope all is well with you and your family.

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  11. a wonderful post. which inspired me to dig my bike out of the cupboard and get going

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