SEPTEMBER 2, 2022
THE RED BIKE
By Jim Clarkson
The little red bike, rolling through autumn leaves in a small wood. Pedalling hard. Breathing hard. Any other details float loosely on the periphery, hazy and of no real importance. Just the red bike. And the feeling. The simple joy of forward momentum. No specific destination, just lost in the moment. I’ve grown immeasurably since then, no longer in any way resembling that little being, pedalling frantically away. But the memory - the feeling of it - still sits clearly in my mind.
Bikes have given me near-constant levels of fun ever since I could turn the pedals. It’s mattered neither what nor where; from the red bike, with its ankle bashing cranks, ridden in eternal golden hour sunset light, always skidded to a halt a la Goonies (and, more recently, Stranger Things), to the seaside summer holiday rides along picture postcard coastal roads, racing into headwinds, seeking fish and chips eaten to a backdrop of clanking sea vessels and salty air.
Then, to the mountain bike, the road bike, the cyclocross bike, the commuter. Each with its own unique scent of ‘bike’, its own particular pull. The speed of the road, the challenge of the off-road, the practicality of the commuter, the visceral thrill of BMX.
Progression and diversity were always key components and companions to the fun, and as freedom (in the form of teenage years) beckoned, so too the first realisation of bikes as more than just a childhood fad, as Le Tour flew past my local hill, showering us in Coca Cola caps and random French logos on cheap plastic bidons thrown from the carnival of support vehicles.
Bikes were officially ‘a thing.’
HEARTS AND MINDS
Moving under blue skies, with broken clouds throwing shapes and shade across hill and valley, the sound of my own laboured breath ringing out in my mind. That lost-in-your-head kind of joy. Pure escapism and release. Sometimes solo and reflective, sometimes with the company of others. The inexorable, ever-changing sound of tyre on tarmacgravelgrassmudrock.
All this reminiscing hints at an overly-romanticised view of cycling. And yet, as riders we know it can transport you somewhere else, not just literally, but also in your heart and mind.
For many cyclists this quasi-spiritual connection can sometimes be eroded by the self-imposed constraints of training and numbers. During the Covid lockdown I dropped the habitual recording of rides on Strava. The constant unflinching comparisons (both inward and outward). The numbers game. It became a clear and harsh visual display of how stuck I was, both literally and metaphorically. I’ve gone analogue now - I keep a ride journal. Sure, it includes distance and height gain. But it’s plotted manually after the ride, with no times or KOMs. I found in this a reminder of riding from my earlier years - the bike as freedom, a mode of escape. But also as a way to define myself. The joy of knowing this was me.
Fun is perhaps only really ever defined as the thing you say it is. It’s not an emotion found through the validation of others. Unless, of course, you really want it to be. I can’t define fun for anyone but me. I can scratch around the edges, but to define it would exclude many, and miss key parts for others.
THE JOY OF FREE
Fast forward to now, and the red bike has changed colour and style. A new generation has grabbed the bars. Both of my kids ride, and both approach it with an instinctively playful nature. No set way of doing things - what they should wear, what they should call it, what products should or shouldn't be on their bikes.
Watching my son hop his front wheel over holes in the road, laughing as the bike shakes upon landing. He always pedals hard into the climb that marks the halfway point on the way to school, feeling the pressure build on the pedals and chain, his own tiny personal fight against the planetary might of gravity. There is unspoken contentment in the natural understanding of bike as machine, and our essential physical interaction with it. Cycling starts and ends as a relationship between physics, physicality and engineering.
Of course, the underlying stimulus for riding has always been fun. The simple joy of being free. It’s possible to be more than just a label or definition. We write our own script. We define our own paths. Our reasons and motivations should be the things we discover, and keep discovering through our use of bikes. All the layers on top - the numbers, the data, the rules - seem to be falling away, at last. Back to that simple, core reason: fun. It feels like a return. The layers have been pulled away, evaporated, like the sun burning off mist, revealing the world.
It’s good to be back.
Jim Clarkson is a graphic designer, illustrator & bike product tester (amongst other things)