So the Women’s Cycle Forum Scotland wants your stories of cycling and liberation, in honour of International Women’s Day and Susan B. Anthony
I was actually scratching my head about this one because I couldn’t think of a time when I felt that riding a bike had particularly set me free mainly because it feels like I’ve always ridden one. But then someone mentioned the joy of switching to a bike from the bus and I remembered how I first started cycle commuting, back in the last century.
I was working at Kew and living in Maidenhead and my journey to work meant the train to Ealing Broadway (relatively painless but expensive) followed by the dreaded 65 bus from Ealing to Kew. The bus company had a ramshackle fleet of double decker buses, including one which smelt strongly of mould and leaked so badly in the rain that there would be water sloshing about on the top deck (hardened bus goers knew to lift their feet up as the bus accelerated or braked heavily and the resulting pool of water raced the length of the bus). The buses turned up when they felt like it, and then inched along the South Ealing Road so slowly I reckoned that I could probably halve the journey time by getting off, walking past the queue of traffic, and getting onto one of the two or three other 65 buses that would be inevitably stuck in the same jam ahead of it. There was a Jehovah’s Witness who would come and sit next to you and engage you in conversation if you weren’t careful, although she was often drowned out at the end of term when the bus was packed full of school kids about to go on a day trip to Chessington World of Adventures and whose voices reached a starling pitch of excitement as a result.
I don’t know why it took me so long to realise that I could lock up an old bike at Ealing Broadway station and just cycle the three miles or so to work instead, even when we had an old bike in our shed, which we had inherited from the former owner of our house (the shed key had been lost and Arthur had sadly died, so we just took over the contents lock stock and barrel, including his collection of tobacco tins with assorted screws in them). Arthur’s bike was an old black three-speed Raleigh and probably a classic although at the time I saw it as a bike that was simply too ramshackle looking to steal. After about a year of humming and hawing, I took the plunge, bought a backpack and a yellow Sam Brown reflective belt and transported Arthur’s bike by train down to Ealing. I had calculated that if I managed to ride just three days a week, it would save me money on a weekly bus pass, which I reckoned I could probably manage. I worked out a route using back roads and through a park that didn’t seem that likely to kill me and with some trepidation, I gave it a go.
Anyone who’s ever swapped a bus commute for a bike knows what happened next: I basically never got the bus again. Far from having to push myself to cycle, I positively relished it. The only tiny fly in the ointment was looking back on all those hours I’d spent waiting on the bus, stuck on the bus, inching down the Ealing Road, missing one train home after another. What had I been thinking?
Arthur’s bike didn’t survive the experience, sadly. After a year of faithful service, its chain broke and nobody I knew could fix it (the local bicycle repairman had already declared it unsafe to ride and refused to touch it), so I wheeled it to the dump (I know, I’m sorry, I’m an idiot – in my defence, I left it outside the gate so hopefully someone salvaged it). It didn’t stop me cycling though – I kept on riding between Ealing and Kew right up until I went on sabbatical and we sold the Maidenhead house (including the contents of the shed, having once more misplaced the key – I’m rather sad now that Arthur’s bike wasn’t in it) and moved to Hackney, which wasn’t the cycling hotspot it is now.
Perhaps it’s not quite in the spirit of Susan B. Anthony to be dependent on an old boy called Arthur who I’d never met for my moment of liberation, but I like to look back at myself on that very first ride as I realised just how easy it was going to be, relishing the feeling of freedom and self-reliance, the very picture of free untrammelled womanhood.
I’m just sorry I didn’t take better care of your bike, Arthur.