I HAVE OWNED ONLY ONE bicycle. My parents gave it to me as a gift when I was about twelve. My late mother, who was somewhat over-protective of my sister and me, restricted my use of the cycle to our not over large garden in northwest London. Cycling around in this confined face was hardly much fun. The bike fell into disuse.
In the early 1970s, I met a friend in Luxembourg a few days before he was to be interviewed for a job in the administration of the European Parliament. We spent a night in a youth hostel in Echternach. On the following day, we hired cycles to do some exploring. We cycled over hill and dale, mostly uphill it seemed, through attractive forests until we reached the small town of Vianden about 18 miles away to the north. The bicycle, which I had hired, had a gear change lever attached to its handlebar. I kept fiddling with this as we rode through the summer heat, but it seemed to make no difference to how the vehicle moved.
When we arrived in Vianden, we headed back on our return journey via a different route. We followed minor roads close to the River Sure, which forms the boundary between Luxembourg and Germany (in those days it was West Germany). There were many small bridges crossing the river and connecting the neighbouring countries. At each bridge, we moved from one country to the other, flitting through short tracts of, say, Germany before the next in Luxembourg. This was long before the Schengen Agreement was signed in 1985, but we were never stopped by border officials on either side of the river. That was lucky because both of us had (maybe unwisely) left our passports with our baggage.
When we got back to Echternach, we were both extremely thirsty and I was exhausted. We found a refreshment place with outdoor seats and tables and ordered chilled beers. I sat down and then promptly stood up again. Having sat on the saddle for so long, my backside had become bruised. It was at least three days after our excursion that sitting became comfortable again. It was only when we returned the cycles to the hire place that I noted that the gear adjuster lever was not connected to anything apart from the handlebar; the bike had no gear mechanism.
A few years later, in the early 1980s, I decided to go to the north of Holland, which was a part of the country I had never visited before. My plan was to cross the sea from Sheerness to Vlissingen on the luxurious Olau Line ferry, and then to travel from nearby Middelburg to various places in the north of Holland. At each place, I had decided to make use of the cycle hire service that was offered at Dutch railway stations.
My first cycle excursion was around the peninsula on which Middelburg is located. On this first adventure with Dutch Railway cycles, I discovered three important things. First, the bicycles had no gears. This is not in itself a problem because Holland is not a hilly place. Next, the braking system is not operated by leavers on the handlebars. To slow or halt the cycle, the rider must reverse pedal. Thirdly, Holland can be a windy place. Cycling into the wind is as difficult as cycling up a hill. Well, the first outing was a useful learning experience.
Another thing that I learned but did not make use of was the fact that in those days most Dutch people woke up earlier than me. This meant that when I reached the cycle hire offices at railway stations, there were few cycles left for me to select. Most of those available were far too large for me. I was able to ride them, but unable to reach the ground with my feet when I was perched on the saddle. The only way I could cope was to cycle up to a lamp post or telegraph pole, and steady myself by putting one of my hands against it.
I stayed in Leeuwarden in the far north of Holland, a place that I had long wanted to see – why, I cannot recall any longer. I rented a bike to visit the picturesque coastal town of Harlingen. I returned in the early evening and had a brief rest at my hotel. At about 7.30 pm, I decided to look for somewhere to eat. Almost everywhere had stopped serving dinner because people dine early in Leeuwarden. After eating a pizza in a non-descript place, the evening was still young, but the city seemed deserted. Where was everyone, I wondered. Surely, they had not all retired to bed so early. I strolled the empty streets for a while and found a pub that was open. I entered. It was full, but far from lively. People were either chatting quietly or sitting in chairs reading books or newspapers. The pub felt like a rather crowded cosy sitting room.
One highlight of that visit to Holland was cycling along the Afsluitdyk, a man-made causeway constructed between 1927 and 1932. It is over 20 miles long and separates the North Sea from the Ijsselmeer, now an inland lake but once a huge inlet of the sea. The ride, like most others I made in Holland, was windy.
Since my Dutch cycling adventures, I cannot remember pedalling a cycle again until 1993, when I was ‘courting’ my wife. On one occasion when I visited her health club, she encouraged me to try an exercise bike. She sat on the machine next to mine and an athletic fellow sat on one on the other side of mine. My wife pedalled away energetically with the book she was reading balanced on the handlebar. My male neighbour pedalled as furiously as he might have done had he been chased by a cheetah or a jaguar. Meanwhile, yours truly was unable to get the pedals to move at all. Clearly, I had either reached a stage in my life cycle when my strength was ebbing or a previous user of my machine had set the pedal resistance at a very high level (and I had no idea that it was adjustable).