Magazine | August 16, 2010, Issue

On Thy Silver Wheels

The recent political ructions over the extension of unemployment benefits brought Norman Tebbit to my mind. Tebbit was Margaret Thatcher’s secretary of state for employment in the early 1980s. There was some urban rioting, and it was suggested to Tebbit that these disturbances were a natural response to the indignity of unemployment. Tebbit, whose origins were humble, replied briskly: “I grew up in the Thirties with an unemployed father. He didn’t riot. He got on his bike and looked for work, and he kept looking till he found it.”

This was a key moment in Tebbit’s career, a sort of political aristeia. He was known forever afterwards as the chap who’d told the unemployed to get on their bikes — loathed by the Left for his supposed heartlessness, loved by the Right for his appeal to lawful, self-sufficient striving.

Apt as it was, Tebbit’s remark came to my mind for another rather particular reason: I have become a cyclist. This I owe to a next-door neighbor who sold up and moved to Georgia. Cleaning out his garage prior to the move, he unearthed two bicycles he and his wife had bought with some idea of taking exercise together. The bikes were grimy and a tad rusty, but he offered them to the Stragglers and we, in thrall to the same joint-exercise fantasy, took them. The bikes then rested undisturbed in our garage for five years.

Those two bikes might have gone on being passed from one self-deluding suburban couple to another for decades had not my daughter learned to drive. I now share a car with a busy 17-year-old. Since I work from home it’s no great hardship, but now and then I need to go somewhere beyond walking range. A bike would be just the thing! And I’d get some exercise!

I extracted the bikes, wiped off five years’ worth of back-of-garage Spanish moss, and took them to a local bike store. They replaced the tires, which had perished, tuned up the cables, and sold me a bike rack to fit my car. The Stragglers are now a biking family.

Well, in part. I am making the modest excursions I planned to make, but Mrs. Straggler has yet to set foot to pedal. Her bike has been taken over by Miss Straggler, who has scrambled the entire logic of the enterprise by daily biking the two miles to and from the railroad station whence she embarks for her summer internship in the city. That leaves me with the car as a daily temptation not to bike. On the other hand I find satisfaction in seeing my daughter enter into the spirit of Norman Tebbit’s injunction, albeit in reverse: She has found work, she has got on her bike.

#page#Biking, I have learned, is not what it was. As a child I inherited my father’s bike, an all-steel Raleigh “Sports” with a three-speed hub gear. I can dimly recall Dad actually riding it to work Tebbit-style, 60-something years before his granddaughter followed suit. Once Dad got a car, though, the bike went into the family shed. It came out when I was big enough to ride it. I cleaned it up and it became a source of much pleasure to me. My friends and I must have ridden hundreds of miles through the countryside of the English East Midlands in the late 1950s, through drowsy villages with names in Domesday Book, sometimes on roads first laid out by the Romans.

Though I loved that bike, I didn’t get far as a mechanic. The pons asinorum here was the gear assembly, packed away in the rear-wheel hub. If you tried to dismantle it, which of course I did, at a certain point a sort of jack-in-the-box mechanism kicked in. The mechanism emitted a loud PING! and fired 20 or so little greased ball bearings, rockers, and screws all over your back yard.

I could fix a puncture, though. In those innocent times your bike came with a hand pump attached to the frame, and a repair kit that lived under the saddle. Fixing your own punctures nowadays would be as eccentric as churning your own butter, and your pump and repair kit would swiftly vanish in our casually criminal society. In respect of which, I have purchased a security chain — a thing unknown in my childhood, when citizens were much poorer, and bikes relatively much more expensive, than today.

I’ve also become attentive to bike news, of course. Here’s an item from the London newspapers: couple warned over allowing children to cycle to school alone.

Oliver and Gillian Schonrock let their daughter, eight, and son, five, cycle a mile unsupervised from their home in Dulwich, south London, to Alleyn’s junior school. They believe cycling to school is good for their children’s independence and self-confidence. But other parents and the headmaster have said it is irresponsible. . . .

Mr. Schonrock, who walked alone to school as a boy in Germany, and cycled to swimming club from the age of six, said: “We wanted to recreate the simple freedom of our childhood. . . . These days children live such regimented lives.”

A later report on the situation tells us that the headmaster threatened to report them to London’s Social Services. By the time you read this the Schonrocks are probably in jail. “The simple freedom of our childhood,” indeed! If there are freedoms to be had, you will be notified by the proper authorities, and sent a form to fill out.

Oh, you want bike humor? I got bike humor.

Through the middle decades of the 20th century bikes were the vehicles of choice for undergraduates and staff at England’s grand old universities. Thus two Cambridge students are walking to class when they spot the professor of Greek verse kneeling down beside his bike, which is propped against an ivy-covered wall. Approaching, they see that he has a flat tire, and is vigorously working his bike pump. However, he is pumping away at the wrong tire, the one that is not flat.

When they point this out to Professor Murgatroyd he stops pumping, stands up, scratches his head, and looks at the bike in bewilderment. “Wrong tire? Then do they not . . . communicate?”

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