The mantra of four-wheels bad, two-wheels good is getting ever louder with us all being urged to get on our bikes to be leaner and greener.
Just look at the city regeneration masterplan unveiled this week, with its emphasis on cyclepaths to rejuvenate Aberdeen – and Aberdonians.
So compelling is this social nudging that I’ve even taken to looking in the window of the groovy bike shop in Stonehaven – despite my extremely chequered history with cycling, what with the near-death experience, mysterious blackouts and that niggling arthritis in my right elbow.
But before any of that let’s go back to my childhood memories of my first bike. There aren’t any.
That’s because my mum figured out that if I was so clumsy as a kid that I could barely walk in a straight line without falling over my own feet, putting me on a bike on the road was a recipe for disaster and more trips to A&E.
We made our own fun
We did have an ancient tricycle, a big heavy-affair with a bright red boot on the back, ideal for holding your Action Man or an assortment of interesting sticks found on your travels up and down the street. Aye, we made our own fun in those days.
Mum figured that I couldn’t fall off something with three wheels – actually I could – but that was it as far as I got with anything you pedalled. That didn’t put the brakes on my pleas for something with two wheels. She got me a scooter.
Always resourceful, I got over that by persuading my mates to give me backies around the place on their bikes.
Often I wonder what mum would have thought if she had even caught me clinging perilously to the back of a Raleigh as double-deckers screamed past on Gorgie Road, leaving us weaving and wobbling in their diesel-fume wake with another one barrelling down on us, horn blaring. Oh, the near misses you never gave a second thought to as a child.
This meant as my generation of kids marvelled at, clamoured for and got, those funky Chopper bikes, I just sat on the sidelines and pretended I didn’t care. But I did. Well, I did until the first time I saw one of my pals brake sharply on his Chopper and saw where the gearstick ended up. Oocha.
Power slides on gravel make you wary
As a result of mother’s mollycoddling, I got through childhood without any cycling mishaps. But I also got through it without learning to ride a bike properly. Not to say I couldn’t. I had shots on my mates’ bikes, but was never that confident. There’s nothing like an involuntary power slide along a gravel path in the park to make you wary.
Cycling in earnest actually started for me as an adult when I was living in Ottawa. With its network of cycling networks, everyone had a bike so I decided to join in the fun. I was pleased to discover I was even reasonably proficient, mainly because of not having to dodge traffic.
This was when I discovered the joy of trail cycling through some of the beautiful national parks in and around Ottawa. It became quite the hobby and I would boast of how much I enjoyed it and how far I was going.
Remember that old thing about pride coming before a fall?
I was cycling down a steep hill in a forest idly wondering if I should take off my sunglasses because the thick trees made the path quite shady. Which was when I hit a rock, flew into the air and came down on my head. Thank goodness for helmets. Dazed, I tried to pick up the bike and pulled a whitey at the pain in my arm.
I wheeled my bike down to my car and tried to lift it into the back. Whitey time again. A friendly passer-by helped me load it in and suggested I go to the first aid station at the beach across the way (Canada is organised like that). The caring first aider tugged at my arm and watched all the colour drain from my face before suggesting I might want to get that looked at.
Cue a trip to the hospital where every time they tried to get me to straighten my arm to X-ray it, I swooned. It was decided I needed to get a general anaesthetic so they could properly get a look.
Woke up minus a bit of bone
I woke up to discover I was now minus the bit of bone that connects up my elbow (right radial head if that stuff interests you) as I had shattered it in the impact of the fall. The surgeon gleefully told me “it was a real mess” and how he had to pick out bits of bone before sawing off the busted bit. Which was nice. I was also told I could expect arthritis to give me problems at some point in the future, but that was 26 years ago, so didn’t give it any thought.
It did, however, curtail my cycling. That was until I moved to Stonehaven a couple of decades back and was moaning to my mate about getting out-of-shape. We were having this conversation over bags of McCoys and pints in the Marine.
The pints part probably explains when I agreed to him training me up to go on a 250-mile round trip, taking in Braemar, Pitlochry and a few tricky hills over four days.
Seemed a good idea at the time and it was actually fun – apart from twanging knees and cycling into the teeth of a howling gale. I even cycled up the Cairnwell Pass – apart from the bits I pushed.
After that, I had the cycling bug for a good while, regularly whizzing on the rolling highways and byways of the Mearns. Coming down the Slug Road is the closest you get to flying. I was so enthusiastic I even took the bike from Stonehaven to Mastrick on a Cycle To Work Day.
One minute, I was congratulating myself on being almost at the Aberdeen Journals building in good time, the next I was being helped out the gutter, with a fine collection of cuts and grazes. Hubris, it’s called – that pride before a fall thing.
I have no idea what happened, or how I came off the bike. I didn’t know what day of the week it was, where I was, or how much time I had been on the ground for. I managed to get in to work, write a column for the Evening Express, then got sent home to seek medical help for my concussion and cracked ribs. Not before they took a photo of me first to go with my column. Trooper and all that.
Spent weeks looking like Quasimodo
That still didn’t put me off the cycling bit. Falling off was as much a part of riding a bike as getting places, my cycling guru had told me. Just get back on.
What actually brought my cycling escapade to a halt was a Bells’ Palsy. That’s the thing where one side of your face suddenly droops. Seeing as how I couldn’t close my right eye, getting on a bike wasn’t the wisest.
I was lucky that I recovered, even if I spent several weeks looking like Quasimodo and occasionally dribbling my beer. But I never, properly, got into cycling again. That was 18 years ago.
The legacy of my cycling career is that my right eye still waters in the wind, and my right elbow is increasingly aching and tender and occasionally makes a horrific clicking noise that sets my teeth on edge. There’s the arthritis I was promised a quarter of a century ago.
But despite all that, there is still the lure of getting back in the saddle and the freedom of just taking off with just you and the bike to get you where you want to go. That and the fact so many of my mates are really into their cycling and have a lot of fun doing it – even the uber-serious ones.
I might, just might, give it another rattle at some point.
Although this time I will be sure never to think I’m doing well. That’s how you fall off.