Here’s a conversation I’ve had more times than I care to remember. Me: I feel a bit porky. Chum: why don’t you get a bike? Me: well, that would be fine but I can’t actually ride one. Chum: (faintly puzzled smile) what do you mean? Me: (inward sigh) that’s what I mean. I can’t ride a bike. I’ve never learnt. Chum: what, how can you not know how to ride a bike? You are 26! That’s so weird! Can you swim? Etc.
After the last humiliating, particularly derisory version of this exchange, with someone who, mark you, I’d never even met before, I decided that was it. Enough. I was going to learn to ride a bloody bike. And so I found myself a couple of weeks ago on a street corner in Hackney, East London, waiting for a sympathetic man to come and lead me meekly into the park and away from prying eyes.
David Dansky, 45, has been an accredited cycling instructor with Cycle Training UK, a London-based organisation, for three years. And for those who cynically believe that riding a bike is something anyone can learn to do without assistance, cycling is now a professional qualification with a fixed national standard. To calm my nerves Dansky divulges that the first thing they teach on the instructors’ course is empathy with the nervousness of the student. This is generated by presenting the instructors with a unicycle on their first day and telling them that they are going to have to ride it. “It makes you empathise with the feeling of panic that a first-time cyclist experiences when they initially try to get on a bike,” he says.
The reason I have not embraced cycling earlier is simple and, Dansky assures me, not uncommon; it’s fear. I have been afraid of falling off, of scraping my tender flesh across tarmac and of having my head crushed like a fruit by a yummy mummy in a Land Rover. The discovery that I am one of just over 1,000 adults a year, in London alone, who seek cycle training is a huge comfort. I feel much vindicated, though, it must be said, the majority are not complete beginners but sometime cyclists looking to gain confidence. “I hate to think what a rotten bloody cyclist I would have been without training,” says John Fullerton, 56, who took a one-to-one lesson despite having learnt to cycle as a child.
Dansky believes that maybe as many as 70 per cent of his adult clients are women, aged between 25 and 50. He hardly ever teaches any men, which is a shame, he says, because “loads of blokes are lousy at cycling; they’re too macho to admit it”. Every man I have relayed this remark to since has been decidedly defensive about it. Dansky quickly puts me at ease while I sign the requisite form saying that I can be abandoned if my behaviour is “deemed unsuitable” and that since I’m not wearing a helmet any mishaps are my own fault. The last time I tried to mount a bicycle it careered skittishly off the track and deposited me in the only holly bush for 20 miles, so this does not thrill me. But Dansky explains that they have a “No Falls policy”. So that’s all right.
We spend the first ten minutes looking over the bike while Dansky explains the mechanics of it, which turn out to be amazingly cool and clever, as you might expect from a piece of engineering that hasn’t changed much in about 150 years. Leonardo da Vinci sketched an almost perfect facsimile of the modern bicycle in about 1490, but no one did anything about it. I wonder, aloud, why it doesn’t have stabilisers. David is incredulous: “Would you want stabilisers?” “No, I’d be insulted.” “Well, there you go. And they only teach you how to ride with stabilisers; not how to ride a bike.”
He then shows me how to use the brakes. “You have control over the bike now, rather than the other way around,” he says. As the lesson continues, I’m astonished at my progress. Once I’ve figured out how to get both feet on the pedals, a problem that flummoxes most beginners, I’m thrilled to discover that I can go places, albeit with an alarmingly wide berth. I find myself yelling from the far side of a vast circle in the park as Dansky — now a tiny distant figure who was beside me a minute ago — shouts encouragement By the end of the hour-and-a-half lesson, I can stop quickly, ride in a tightish circle, swerve — more difficult than it sounds, you feel like you are going to either topple off or run over your smiling instructor — and I am feeling spectacularly pleased with myself. I want to carry on, but the fun is over for now.
I no longer feel like an absolute beginner and my fear of falling off has almost gone. Every cyclist I see from my seat on the bus fills me with envy and I’m desperate to get a little more confidence so that I can embark on life as a healthy, happy, evangelical two-wheeler. I have another lesson booked and then I think I will be ready to take on the yummy mummies and their four-wheel drives. Oh, and in case you were wondering, yes, I can swim, thank you very much.
Cycle Training UK, London, is one of five organisations which can award accreditation to instructors. To book a lesson call 020-7582 3535 or visit www.cycletraining.co.uk. Lessons cost £27.50 for an hour
Page 2: where to get instruction around Britain
()BREATHING SPACE: BICYCLE LESSONS
Into action Cycling on some of Britain’s roads can be daunting, even for experienced riders. Negotiating traffic, while trying not to wobble as you glance over your shoulder to check for oncoming cars, can feel as though you have a death wish, rather than trying to get fit. But you can easily brush up your skills and learn new ones by attending a cycle school. The organisations below welcome both adults and children of all abilities and meet the new government-approved national standards for cycle training. Some also hold cycle tours, teach bike maintenance — and will help you to plan your route to work.
LIFECYCLE UK, BRISTOL Lifecycle offers its service throughout Bristol, Bath and the Forest of Dean, as well as Gloucester and Cheltenham. And thanks to the Big Lottery Fund and Heart Research UK funding, there is no charge for over-55s, those with health problems or those who are on a low income. Once you’ve mastered your wheels, Lifecycle will supply you with cycle maps and even help with maintenance.
Cost For adults, a one-hour lesson, £25. Child training tends to be in small groups and takes the form of holiday courses, which cover six and a half hours of tuition, at £45 per child.
Contact 0117 9290440; www.lifecycleuk.org.uk
BIKERIGHT, MANCHESTER This cycle school offers individual and group lessons in basic cycle skills and road awareness. If you’re worried about riding to work, Bikeright will help you to plan your route and take you for a practice run. It also offers bicycle-maintenance tuition.
Cost A one-hour session costs £25 for adults, while the bulk of child training is done in groups, about £100 for five children.
Contact 0161-230 7007; www.bikeright.co.uk
CITY OF YORK COUNCIL, YORK York is one of the few local authorities that provides its own cycle training, as well as miles of cycle lanes and traffic-free routes. Lessons are one-to-one, with a same-gender instructor, and are available any time, including weekends and after work, as long as it’s not dark. Family tuition is also on offer.
Cost £15 for one hour and £20 for two hours. Two-hour sessions are recommended to cover everything.
Contact 01904 551646; www.york.gov.uk/cycling
RIDEWISE, NOTTINGHAM Funded by the Greater Nottingham Transport Partnership, Ridewise is in the rare position of being able to offer free individual training to both adults and children. Most sessions are one-to-one, but you can also make it a family event. All levels are taught up to advanced, which includes learning how to cycle in heavy traffic and coping with articulated lorries and buses. And you don’t need to bring your own bike, as Ridewise loans its bicycles.
Contact 07818 263738; www.ridewise.org.uk
HAMPSHIRE CYCLE TRAINING Hampshire Cycle training holds numerous courses for adults and children, including road safety skills and ride-to-school courses. For those who would like to take up cycling to improve their health and fitness, there is a rides-for-health programme, which is led by a qualified cycle trainer. Or you can participate in a three-hour leisure ride on country roads, which includes a pub lunch.
Cost £20 an hour for adults and £15 for children, which goes down to about £7.50 each if part of a group of up to five.
Contact 07963 237619; www.hampshirecycletraining.org.uk
CAMBRIDGE CYCLE TRAINING Cycling in a city where it often appears that there are more bicycles than cars and pedestrians on the road can be daunting, particularly if you lack confidence on two wheels. However, the road safety department of Cambridgeshire County Council offers adults the opportunity to improve their skills, plan their route to work or just explore the city. Children are also catered for, with the emphasis on learning to cycle safely to and from school.
Cost A one-hour individual lesson costs £12.
Contact 01480 375105; www.camcycle.org.uk/ resources/training will direct you to the correct page on www.cambridgeshire.gov.uk
BIKE STATION, EDINBURGH Providing one-to-one training within Edinburgh and the Lothians, the Bike Station’s roots are as a community organisation, recycling donated bikes for use by the long-term unemployed. As well as cycle training, the organisation, which is run by volunteers, also offers maintenance training and every Wednesday evening and Sunday afternoon there are trained mechanics on hand, for £2 an hour, at its workshop, so you can have a go at fixing your bike.
Cost £20 an hour; the first lesson is an hour and a half.
Contact 0131-558 8580; www.thebikestation.org.uk
TRY CYCLING! TAYSIDE Set up by the Cyclists’ Touring Club Scotland three years ago with lottery money, this voluntary organisation offers one-to-one tuition and cycle maintenance, as well as regular short guided rides with qualified leaders. If you cycle to work, one of its guides will recommend a safe route or, if you just want company while exploring the countryside, you can request a guide to accompany you. Its main focus is on community groups but individuals are welcome. The areas covered are Perth and Kinross, Dundee and Angus.
Contact 01307 469880; www.trycycling.ik.com
ROAD SAFETY DEPARTMENT, WARWICKSHIRE COUNTY COUNCIL Warwick has few dedicated cycle lanes, but an increasing number of people are taking advantage of subsidised cycle training from Warwickshire County Council’s road safety department. Group or one-to-one sessions are on offer for cyclists seeking to boost their confidence and skill. However, the training is also useful for those new to the area who may want to plan a cycle route to work. Bicycle maintenance is an essential part of the training and both children and adults get advice on how to maintain their bikes’ roadworthiness, from mending broken chains to basic stuff such as how to change a tyre. The road safety department offers training to all the schools in the county for children from the age of 8 upwards, including those with physical or learning disabilities.
Cost Group, £18 a person for 3 sessions; one-on-one, £25 for a 2-hour session; children aged 7 to 9, from £12.50 for a two-day course.
Contact 01926 412776; www.warwickshire.gov.uk/cycling
The Cyclists’ Touring Club, the UK’s national cyclists’ association, manages a database of cycle trainers nationwide. Call the National Cycle Training Helpline on 0870 6070415, or visit www.ctc.org.uk for details of trainers in your area