The Accidental Cyclist
A modern fable about flying without wings
The lessons of riding a bicycle are the hardest to teach, and the easiest to learn. There is no right way of learning to ride, and no wrong way. There is no time of life when it is right to learn, and no time when it is wrong. When it comes to the process of learning to ride a bike, only two elements are essential: the learner, and the bike. All the other elements – environment, training wheels, cycling instructor, daddy running along and hanging on to the saddle – are peripheral, of minor importance. If the student truly desires to master this most basic means of locomotion, he (or she, of course) will find a way of doing so. You’ve probably never noticed it, but no one ever says they’re going to teach someone to ride a bike, because riding a bike is not really something that can be taught. The accomplishment of riding that bike can be learnt, but not taught. In these circumstances, having a teacher can often be more of a hindrance that a help, because the teacher cannot participate actively. They can only stand by, passively, hands on hips, and watch as the subject in question learns to master the art of cycling.
As Icarus ran across the road from his flat to the park he carried none of these thoughts in his head. At the park gate he stopped short, held back for a moment by his fears. His first ride across the park, but a few weeks ago, now seemed like another lifetime, another world that he had dreamt of, nothing more. That ride, as exhilarating as it had been, was no more than an accident, a fluke. Now he faced the reality of climbing on the saddle, setting off under his own steam, balancing, turning, stopping. Yes, stopping before he rode into the rhododendrons. Icarus realised he was taking on a great responsibility – he had set himself this task and had no idea whether he could succeed. He was not afraid of falling. He was afraid only of failing. He could turn back, before the Grey Man saw him, go back to his flat and his mother and the certainty of a life unchanging, and pretend all of this excitement had never happened.
Fate, as we know, is a cruel god. Often she leaves us hanging in the wind, tormented by our own indecision, unable to decide which course to follow. Today she intervened before Icarus stumbled to his own indecision, and she turned the Grey Man’s head, so he saw Icarus standing at the gate before he had time to turn and run.
“Ah, there you are,” he said to Icarus. “Don’t just stand there gawping at it. Come on and give it a go.”
“You knew I was coming?” asked Icarus.
“I was pretty sure of it.”
“Well, I’m glad that you were so sure, because I wasn’t.”
Icarus stood beside the bench and admired the gleaming machine. He ran his fingers lightly over the drop handlebars, the classic steel racing frame. “It’s hard to believe that just a couple of days ago all this was just a heap of junk,” said Icarus.
“Junk doesn’t mean that it’s rubbish or useless,” the Grey Man said, “it just means that it’s been discarded, and is no longer wanted by one person. But it can always be of use to someone else.”
Icarus took the bike and pushed it back and forth in front of him, listening to the distinctive click-click-click of the freewheel. On the down tube the shining derailleur gear changers appeared to be of burnished gold, matching the cranks and big chain ring. The bright yellow saddle appeared to contradict the subtle, classic tone of the rest of the bike. The Grey Man seemed to read Icarus’s thoughts: “It was the best saddle of the bunch.”
“It looks … just wonderful,” said Icarus. “I’m just sorry that I couldn’t help you to put it all together.”
“That’s okay,” said the Grey Man. “Your friend was really helpful. I think he’s got a knack for this type of thing.”
“Yes, short, squat, stocky little fellow – got a bit of a temper on him. Helped us out in the basement of your flat.”
“I know who you mean, it’s just that I never thought of him as a friend. He’s the one that landed me in jail.”
“Perhaps it was a twist of fate,” said the Grey Man. “But he did help us out, didn’t he?”
“Right enough. So I suppose he is a sort of friend then. I don’t think I’ve ever really had any friends before.”
“Well, they’re a rare and precious commodity, and you don’t come across them every day. When you find one, take care of him, because some day you may need him as much as he needs you.”
Icarus heard the Grey Man’s last statement without formulating its meaning, so the seed of its import lay dormant at the back of his mind as he turned his attention back to the bicycle. The two of them, man and almost-man, inspected the gears, the brakes, the wheels, the yellow saddle. Around them in the Sunday-afternoon park were adults and children on all size and shape of bicycle – mothers pedalling sedately, fathers encouraging their little ones to ride – little ones who whizzed about so quickly, darting this way and that, and never falling, that it looked as if they had been born in the saddle. It all looked so easy, so natural, as if, to all intents and purposes, it was what humankind had been born to do.
“Well then,” said the Grey Man, “aren’t you going to take it for a ride?”
This was the moment that Icarus had so desired and so dreaded. He had to tell the Grey Man that, after all his efforts of building this bicycle, he did not know how to ride.
“It won’t bite you,” the Grey Man said.
“Actually,” said Icarus, a little nervously, “I don’t really know how to ride a bike.”
“Of course you do,” the Grey Man retorted. “Everyone knows how to ride a bike. It’s just that you haven’t had the opportunity to put it into practice.”
Icarus looked at the Grey Man, at his grey eyes, his grey hair. He realised what a gentle person he was beneath that hard, steely exterior. He was so gentle, and so wise. And at this moment it was as if all the wisdom in the world was being filtered through him, and he knew everything that Icarus needed to know.
“Here,” the Grey Man said, holding the bike, “just stand over the crossbar, hands on the handlebars.”
“Just trust me,” said the Grey Man.
And, trusting him, Icarus did as he was told. It was just like the incident with the Condor Paris Galibier a few weeks before. He looked down and saw that there were no toeclips on the pedals, so that his feet would not be strapped to the machine.
“I thought it would be too soon for toeclips,” the Grey Man said in response. He made Icarus use the brakes, and get the feel for them. He adjusted the height of the saddle so that Icarus could sit on the bike with his feet just touching the ground.
“Now,” he said when he thought Icarus was ready, “scoot along with your feet still just touching the ground.” Icarus did so.
“Now brake.” Icarus braked.
“Let go the brakes, and just glide … lift your feet a bit off the ground … a bit more … now lean into the turn, don’t use the handlebars, just lean …”
Icarus could feel the rising sense of exhilaration that had filled him before, and in just a few minutes he was gliding along with enough confidence to put his feet on the pedals. As the bike slowed down he turned the pedals, one revolution, then another, then several more. Self-propelled, he was moving across the grass, weaving between the scattered picnickers. The smile on his face grew. He did not want to stop in case he could not get going again.
Eventually he noticed the Grey Man back at their bench, gesticulating for him to come back. Alongside the Grey Man was Icarus’s mother, anxiously biting her apron’s hem. Reluctantly Icarus steered back towards them, braking slowly as he neared them, and carefully coming to a halt right in front of them. Slowly, in a seemingly deliberate movement, he keeled over sideways and fell flat onto the grass.
“Oh, Icky, are you alright?” his mother shrieked, bending down and trying to lift the boy. Icarus lay quite still on the ground. His body shuddered once, then again, then he rolled over and the Grey Man and Mrs Smith saw that he was convulsed with laughter. Quickly the two older people became infected with his laughter, and were holding their sides as they rocked, laughing as if they had never laughed before. Mrs Smith could not remember when last she had felt such unbounded happiness, such joy, and all because of a bicycle. She found it hard to believe.
When finally they were able to speak again, the Grey Man said: “Oh, that’s something I forgot to tell you. When you stop, you have to remember to put your foot down.”
“I don’t think I’ll forget next time,” said Icarus.