Monday, 4 May 2020

My Life in Bikes (part one)

Bikes have always been very important to me. My first was a tricycle, which I got when I was 3. I think I was only allowed to ride it on the lawn, as I am in the picture, with my brother Rob (now deceased) on his rocking horse with Patsy (a neighbour’s daughter). But I’m pretty sure I also rode it down the lane beside our house. I had to walk a mile to the local school and pestered my parents for a proper bike, which I finally got aged 7. It was a gold and white Raleigh with three gears and whitewall tyres. I soon set off on rides along the towpath of the Stroudwater Canal, which our house was beside, and then went on to explore the local lanes, many of which had gravel surfaces. After all these years, I’ve never lost that love of the air flowing across your face and through your hair; that sense of freedom and self-reliance.

I had several other bikes until 16, when I bought a scooter: a Vespa Sportique. I had worked on a local farm from the age of 14 and saved up the money to buy it. I think it cost me £30. It was red and black with plenty of chrome. I can still remember the registration number: 724 BFH. I wore a parka and had Levis and a Ben Sherman shirt. I rode the scooter to school and at weekends around the local town, Gloucester, thinking I was pretty cool. Not everyone agreed. Once I was pursued by four local yobbos in a Ford Zodiac who threw empty cider bottles at me, trying to burst my tyres.

My sense of adventure and love of the open road transferred to a series of motorbikes in my 20’s. Being a self-funded postgraduate student, I was pretty poor at this time and could only afford cheap bikes. I had an old BSA with sidecar and a MZ. After reading an article about the remotest area in Britain, Knoydart in the Western Highlands, I strapped my camping gear to my bike and set off on a 500 mile journey to explore it for a week. I didn’t earn enough to buy a car until I was 30.

Climbing and mountaineering were my main pursuits until 1987, when my first wife, Gill, was killed in an accident in Snowdonia. This crisis, which I only survived by the skin of my teeth, changed my life completely. When living with my kind friends Phil and Jean in Poole (I couldn’t bear to stay in the house Gill and I had just bought in Southampton), I bought a second-hand Dawes Galaxy. It was a life-saver; cycling and running helped to give me a temporary sense of purpose in a world that was undeniably bereft.

I lost my job, moved to Scotland and met my second wife on a cycle-tour of the Western Isles. The cycle-tour was brilliant, but the marriage was ill-advised (too soon after the death). I became workaholic, runaholic and restarted hill-walking. Then a bad back injury meant I had to give up running. This happened around the time I moved to Yorkshire for a better job. At weekends I took my trusty Dawes Galaxy on long rides through the Dales and Moors, rekindling my love of cycling. A couple of years later I got the Chair at QUB and moved to NI. My then wife didn’t come too. It was a shock, but for the best in the long run.

Strangely enough, moving to a place where I knew nobody has ended up being the most significant change in my life. I finally got to grips with the problems from my past and I settled down in a house in the country that reminded me of where I was a child. 

I can also say that this island is the best place I’ve ever lived for cycling. There are so many wee back roads with light traffic. I’ve travelled the entire coastline of the island in four long cycle-tours and written a reflective journal during each. I began in the North-West in 1998, the first summer after I arrived here. I’ve also explored each of the 32 counties by bike. Eventually, my faithful Dawes Galaxy had to be retired. In its place, I bought two new bikes: a Dawes Audax for day-rides and a Dawes Sardar for cycle-tours.

To be continued...


  1. That’s a great paean to cycling Paul and also shows what a rich and varied life you have lived. Not many would have survived the trials which you have endured.

    1. Thank you Paul. It's certainly been a rollercoaster at times. I'm glad I survived the trials and I have learned a lot: resilience and self-reliance are valuable skills.