Cycling

From my first rides as a kid, I have always been fascinated by bicycles. A free means of going from A to B under your own power has always held a certain hold on me.

So it was with a certain amount of pride that I first rode my Raleigh Chopper down the road at Vittoriosa, after my parents bought me one for my tenth birthday.

By then I had already had a fair amount of riding experience on an old Legnano single-speed ‘fixie’ that I had run to the ground. I vividly recall the scrapes and cuts and bruises that bike had provided me with…

The Chopper though, was a beautiful machine. Loved by many young people (but hated by the purists), I kept this bicycle oiled, greased, and polished until the glare from its’ chrome fenders and high handlebars would hurt your eyes. I rode this bike to kingdom come and back again. It was my constant, unfailing companion. I would race it, jump it, and drive it without holding onto the handlebars for miles.

Wheelies were the norm rather than an exception, and the seat was so delicately positioned you could keep a wheelie without any effort for ages. The sight of a group of youths pelting down the road doing wheelies was quite heart-warming. We were the biker-gang, just harmless fun by a group of young guys letting off steam after a hard week at school.

I loved that bike. I loved it to bits. Then something happened that prevented me from using it too much. I grew up. All of a sudden my venerable Chopper looked old and faded near the new ten-speed racers doing the rounds in the town I used to live.

The Chopper was relegated to the garage, to be used by my younger siblings, who, perhaps, were not as careful as I was with it. Meanwhile I went down to Cospicua to a mate of mine who had a Raleigh Europa 10-speed for sale. It was lust at first sight. Gleaming red with whitewall tyres (Raleigh Record), drop-down bull-horn bars, white cork tape wrapped around easy-brake levers, the Raleigh Europa Racer was simply superb.

I bought it there and then, and for the next eight years it not only became my ride, it became my one and only means of transportation. The frame was just the right size for my height. It fitted me like a glove, and the minimal effort sent this sleek piece of machinery hurtling towards its destination without a whimper.

Whether it was for going to school, meeting my girlfriend, or to visit friends and relatives, or indeed, cycling the thirteen miles to my favourite electronics store, the Raleigh was my friend and companion. I loved and cherished this bike.

I got into innumerable scrapes with this racer. I recall vividly coming out like a bomb from an alley, where a bunch of girls used to hang out. I was swinging the bicycle beneath me, just like a Tour de France sprinter, when my right foot slipped off the pedals. I clattered to the ground in a spectacular explosion of limbs, wheels, and spokes.

I lay there splattered, to an astounding silence, before the girls all burst out laughing hysterically. After a couple of minutes, the sister of one of my mates came over to see if I was okay. The damage to the bike, although extensive, was nothing compared to that suffered by my pride. I limped over to the wall where the girls were sitting, suddenly all smothered in hugs and sympathy.

I looked at my bicycle there, rims bent wildly out of shape, spokes pointing hither and thither. The fork was much the worse for wear. I shook my head as I realised what a bill I was looking at. Undeterred, I repaired the Raleigh to a pristine condition.

The second, and most definitely unforgettable accident was in a summer where I was at my peak of fitness, and already going out long-term with my now-wife Jacqueline. We had a wedding to attend, and my father-in-law offered to pick me up. Now knowing this guy’s erratic driving, I decided to decline.

Wrong move.

So there I was, all dressed up in cream slacks, dark shirt and tie, and a light sand-coloured jacket. I picked up my racer, and started pedalling the ten minutes or so to my girl’s house. Now as anyone can probably imagine, a racer has impossibly thin tyres that were just…made for racing.

Anyway, I was really speeding along when suddenly I realised that a new culvert had been dug and closely spaced steel bars laid in the road. I only saw them when I was upon them and it was really too late to brake or take any evasive action. My narrow front wheel slotted itself easily between the culvert bars, sinking down to the front fork lugs.

The result? The bike somersaulted forward, and I landed on my back in the dirt, oil, and muck left behind by the sloppy workmen’s trademark in Malta. Needless to say, my expensive jacket, trousers, and obviously, the whole front end of the bicycle were ruined.

Unheeding of the pain, I looked at my racer in horror. The front wheel was irreparable, it was no longer a circle, half the spokes were gone, and the lower tube had snapped cleanly three inches down the stem just behind the ‘suicide’ gear-levers.

The cut was as clean as if a hot knife had gone through butter. Meanwhile, a car driver had stopped to help me up after he had witnessed my plight. Thankfully I had nothing broken. A very bruised back seemed to be my worst malady. This guy asked me if I lived close, so that he could take me home. I told him I lived half a mile down the road, so without further ado, he picked up my wrecked bike, and set it down in the bed of his pick-up truck.

I hobbled painfully into the left-hand seat, and gave him directions home. No need to say that my girl was horrified at my accident. Something good did come out though. I didn’t go to the wedding.

Anyway, after a week’s forced bed rest, I went down to the garage to see the Raleigh. I took the bike apart (what was still in piece), until I was left with the frame. I asked my father for the car keys, and took the frame to a good welder in Zabbar. He assured me that he would fix the frame, the joint would be practically invisible, and would be stronger than the original steel.

It happened that he was an ardent biking fan, and had had previous experience with these welds. I picked up the bike the next day, as good as new and the break was practically indistinguishable from the rest of the frame. John wanted no money for his work, saying that he fixed it for the love of this hobby, but I plopped a five pound note on his office desk just the same. I couldn’t accurately gauge his work’s worth, but at least, he could chug back some beers on me.

A wet-sanding, primer, and a bright red coating from an aerosol rattle paint can, and the frame was as good as new. I replaced the fork, rim, tyre, stem and handlebars, and the bike was good to go. The new parts were more expensive than I had initially thought, so I had purchased a donor bike to cannibalize.

At that point in time, I was about twenty-two years old, and despite learning to drive and acquiring a road-license, I had never bought a car. I couldn’t really see the point when my bicycle could do everything a car could, and without paying for fuel, insurance, and other stuff that comes along.

The buses at that time here in Malta were on top of their game, and anywhere I needed to go that the bike could not, I would simply take a bus.

I biked every day to work. A couple of miles there and back, from Fgura to Zejtun. Rain or shine I would take my (very light) bike down the stairs of my mum’s apartment, and ride to work. I cannot deny that the exercise was good for my health. Summers were hell though. Worse than winters. The stifling heat made going home in the afternoon as miserable as it could get. At least in winter, unless it was raining, a rarity here in Malta, I could keep warm by the same pedalling effort.

It was then that my girlfriend suggested that I buy a car. I was taken aback by her suggestion, but then realised that sometimes in winter, just getting to school dry, or safe, was a chore. We used to go out a lot, naturally, but always hampered by the bus time limits.

A car would offer some benefits that gave us greater liberty when we went out. My first car, and probably the one I loved most, was a 1960 Volkswagen Beetle, a dark red with a Starsky n’ Hutch Stripe running across the roof and down the sides. My uncle Joe had dismantled this car completely, cleaned, polished and painted it, then put it back together. It was, in my eyes, absolutely beautiful.

And with the arrival of my car, came, probably the last few times that I rode my Raleigh Racer as a means of transport. It became far easier to just pop out and take the car than to go down to the garage, check the bike to see that all was okay, and go where I needed to.

Sadly, I used the bike less and less, relegating it to a standing position in the corner of the garage, until one day I decided that I would donate it to somebody who needed one. My mate Dan was ecstatic. He gave the bike more years of service and life, being generally more careful with it than I could be. He never was the same frantic, excited pedaller that I was, rather opting for a slow, pedantic pace, safety first and foremost.

And that ended my first stint as a cyclist that used his machine for transport as well as for fun. It was sad really. I can still remember the satisfaction that bicycle gave me.

Along the way I converted a number of people to cycling. My wife Jacqueline had never ridden on a bike, let alone used it. I introduced her to cycling, loading my bike, and a folding one that she had, onto the Beetle’s roof carrier, and going to an old unused airstrip. Plenty of space there for learning! Since then Jackie has become an ardent fan too, and I usually take a day off work just so that we can load the bikes in the car and drive to the country, which we explore on two wheels.

Mark, an old friend, was another convert. He met Gina who lived just down the road from Jackie, and since we were very old pals, used to come up to their town together, then go back home together at night. I urged him to try cycling, and he dug up an old postman’s bike that used to belong to his grandfather.

After some days, he could ride the bike safely on the road, and this started him out on the road to cycling. (I do recall though that after a couple of days he had stumbled into a dark, unlit ditch dug up by road-workers) A number of friends took to their bicycles too, and it is still satisfying to see these same people still going at it.

Years went by without my feeling the saddle underneath me as work pressures, different jobs in different towns took me around our country. Bicycling to work was impossible. I used the bike mainly for fun, but with marriage, and kids, even that became a bleak mirage.

Lately, following a grave (and incurable) malady, I have begun to look at the bicycle again as a means to get fit again. The trials have been beset by fits and starts, sometimes fizzling out, and sometimes shining bright.

I actually bought a beautiful mountain bike, an Atala Replay, not two years ago, but I couldn’t get comfortable on the frame. And that seems to be the problem. I like small frames. Naturally my height (or lack of it) requires a small frame, but it seems that there are not enough of them around. I sold the Replay immediately, happily recouping the cost and then some.

Most bikes I have seen are the 26 or 28 inch wheel variety. While these are comfortable to drive, they give me a high centre of gravity, which is unsafe to say the least. Strangely enough, while servicing and riding my cjildrens’ BMX rides (with 20inch wheels), I find them real comfortable to drive…hmm… could that be a pointer?

At the moment I am busy with my Raleigh Chiltern, which I have turned into a fixie. The frame had rusted with all the moisture and water it was subjected to, and I finally decided to take a gamble and change its’ colour completely. Stripping it to bare steel took me ages, but it was well worth the effort. I have renewed all the chrome fittings, such as the brake calipers, crank, and headset. I sprayed the frame with a matte black coat on the cleaned, brushed metal.

This has given it a great appearance, and I am enjoying the added life that this very old bike has gotten. It rides like a charm, although I might add that both rims are now a little bit tired, and need replacing. I am thinking of adding V-Brakes instead of the old single-side pull that I now utilise. It will be a huge undertaking to fit the pegs on the frame myself, but I will seek professional help.

I am also using a Giant ATX900D (graciously donated by the one and only Etienne Bonello) for having fun with my kids now and then. The Giant is a belter of a machine, and after riding it for some time, switching to the Raleigh for an errand is like going to town on a sardine tin can!

My elder daughter Rachel has a very old BMX that she loves and will probably never get rid of, even though it has become very tatty indeed. Young Roxanne is already an ardent cyclist, and is the owner of an Opal kids mountain bike. Roxy isn’t too tall either, and this BMX/Mountain bike hybrid is just right for her. Rachel’s BMX will be the next project in line as soon as I finish the Raleigh off. I will strip it down and spray it white, with black insets for contrast.

Meanwhile I have taken to going on the cyclists yearly prilgrimage that takes riders from Rabat down to Zabbar, the traditional mecca of riders… thousands upon thousands of cyclists gather every year without fail to make this journey. Following my already stated illness, it will now be my fifth year in a row that I am taking part again. From the age of twelve until I was thirty, it was every year without fail that I took part in this journey of soul-searching…

With the onset of autumn, I begin to have that itch again of a nice fresh breeze blowing in your face while enjoying some country air. It goes without saying that cycling is horribly dangerous here in Malta, and I need not add that a helmet is of paramount importance, as are front and back lights. I also utilise a reflective jacket when possible.

I have already gone on three or four bike rides the last week, adding miles to the Raleigh as I get more accustomed to its’ handling. I have a fixation on these old town bikes, and hope to contribute a bit more to the ecological situation by increasing the use of my bike as transport.

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