My Life: The joy of cycling

Story by Sean Perry. Photo by Pietro Pesce

It’s hard to say exactly when I started riding a bike….

Like many people, I have vague memories of being pushed along with encouraging words being shouted behind me, followed by a head turn to see where my parents were, followed by a wobbly crash.

Somewhere between then and now, and a few crashes, I’ve ridden a lot of miles. I remember riding in Bicester in the early 1970s on a KHE Highriser (a German version of the Raleigh Chopper), complete with plastic tassels hanging Easy Rider style from the bar grips. Grunting every time I hit even the smallest incline on my Raleigh 3-speed racer that I pedalled to school, on my paper round, and everywhere else I wanted to go around Maidenhead. Zooming around Sydney in the late 80s on a slightly too small Pinarello, but feeling oh so stylish. Cycling in the Rockies, where some of the hills seem to never end, but are worth it for the freewheeling speeds reached on the way back down.

My first experiences of mountain biking on a Specialized Stumpjumper in the Forest of Dean in the early 90s, once crashing into a deer (I still don’t know who was more startled). Arriving at the end of Land’s End to John O’Groats, wondering if cycling some 900-plus miles was what normal people did to celebrate their 40th birthday.

But even now, whatever the bike, wherever I ride, the sensation is not that different. That exhilaration I felt as a young boy, that sense of freedom, the sense of achievement, not to mention the smile it puts on my face. It’s as natural for me as, well, breathing. Okay, nowadays I ride with a helmet, so I don’t have that wind in my hair feeling I had as a teenager – mind you, nor do I have the same bushy head of hair. Riding a bike as a kid, I realised that I no longer had to stay within earshot of my parents. I was free to go further afield. At first, just on the same estate, then out to neighbouring villages, then to the nearest town. As I grew, so did the miles I could pedal, and the freedom that comes with distance.

I’m lucky enough now to live in Rome, where cycling is best described as a combination of exhilaration and fear. I challenge the New York Times writer who wrote that cycling in New York was like ‘meditation at gunpoint’ to try cycling in Rome. But aside from the chaos, cycling in Rome is like cycling anywhere. I can stop anywhere I like, park where I like, and get pretty much anywhere in the centre quicker than anyone in a car. On the plus side, in less than an hour on the train I can be in Umbria, where I can cycle through hills full of olive trees and sloping vineyards, stopping for a gelato mid-afternoon of course.

In Britain and many other countries cycling is once again becoming not just a leisure activity but a viable means of transport for many. Apart from a brief period in my early twenties, I’ve always cycled. As the saying goes, you never really forget. It doesn’t matter what you ride, or how far you ride it. It doesn’t matter when you last rode a bike. Try it.

A quick pint at the local, no problem, go on the bike. Cycling to and from work, easy – and a morning ride through any major urban conurbation will often throw enough surprises your way that you’re sure to arrive in the office wide awake. But then there are the things that you didn’t expect, but just add to the charm: hearing birdsong as you pedal along on a spring morning; stopping at the traffic lights and exchanging words with a complete stranger; tinkering with your bike; taking a wrong turn but discovering something you never knew was there; listening to the sound of your newly cleaned chain whirring along (okay, maybe only I enjoy that one…).

But now, after a lifetime of cycling, I find that it has done me good. Papers regularly regale me with the news that because I cycle I will live five years longer that I expected – although I never really expected anything, so I’m not sure where that extra five years takes me. I’ve never had to think about what I eat, so at the age of 49 I find myself, if I may say so, in fine fettle. Cycling is the new gym.

At the time of writing, I’m getting over another crash. The difference between a wobbly crash at the age of five and coming off your bike at the age of 49 is, well, painful. This time I broke my left femur and wrist (last time it was my back). But despite these painful mishaps, I wouldn’t give it up for the world.

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