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Ride of my life

When I was young, much younger than today, I drank Baileys by the pint.

I also once ate thirty-six Weetabix in a single sitting.

And I went barefoot for most of my first year at university.

In a recent TED talk – ‘The mysterious workings of the adolescent brain’ – cognitive neuroscientist Sarah-Jane Blakemore explained that the part of the brain responsible for insight, judgment, impulse control and empathy is somewhat lacking in teenagers.

In other words, there’s a deficiency in their operating system.

Together with Trevor, my schoolboy partner in crime, I converted the loft in our boarding house into an illicit smoking den, re-wiring the electrics to provide a sophisticated lighting system and power the record player. That this might have been a major fire hazard didn’t occur to our under-developed minds.

Illicit den of iniquity

But from these moments of madness come the strongest memories. My recall of my five late teen early twenties years is much more vivid that anything before or since.

One such memory, the teenage achievement of which I am most proud, came on my bicycle.

I used to live in a village called Bassingbourn on the Cambridgeshire Hertfordshire border. My girlfriend, my football team and The Eagle Public House were all fourteen miles away in Cambridge.

Sometimes, after an evening at The Eagle or with my girlfriend, or both, I would take the train and then cycle three miles back from Royston station. Many times, though, after the last train had long since departed, I would cycle all the way back home in the dead of night.

(It was after one such ride, and a severe case of the munchies, that I polished off thirty-six Weetabix.)

My proudest achievement was that I once cycled all the way home hands-free. I didn’t touch the handlebars at all in during the fifty-five minutes it took to complete the fourteen mile journey.

Thanks largely to the Romans, Cambridgeshire is geared up for hands-free cycling. It is flat and straight. The fourteen miles contain one roundabout, two junctions, ten bends and one hill. It presents only three significant challenges for the hands-free cyclist.

The first being the solitary hill between Cambridge and Bassingbourn. Only two hundred and seventy-six feet high, to a native of East Anglia like myself it was a mountain. In the Doomesday Book the neighbouring village is called Ord Wella, which means ‘spring by a pointed hill’.

It’s not easy cycling up a hill, even a relatively small one, without hands. You need to keep your speed up, otherwise the balance goes. The thing about cycling up a hill is that gravity takes a firmer grip and starts to pull you back down. I had anticipated this (even as a teenager I tended to think ahead) and so had steadily built up speed for the preceding half a mile. I don’t know how fast I was travelling when I hit the incline, but it was fast enough to get me to the top without even the slightest wobble.

I fair flew up that mountain and was still moving at a fair lick by the summit.

This presented a new challenge. Something that I had failed to anticipate. Something I hadn’t properly thought through. Something that came into sharp focus the moment I flashed over the top of that pointed hill.

As I began to pick up even more speed, I remembered that gravity works the other way round when going down.

A downside of hands-free cycling is the lack of access to brakes.

It is remarkable how much speed one can pick up when descending a two hundred and seventy-six foot pointed hill.

The village of Wimpole passed in a flash.

Thankfully, the village of Wimple was fast asleep when I exploded through it like a meteorite entering Earth’s atmosphere.

Thankfully, the village of Wimpole didn’t have speed cameras in those days.

Thankfully, neither did it have speed bumps.

It was just over two miles from the hill to my next challenge, one that I was approaching rather faster than I would liked despite not having used my pedals since the summit.

The next challenge was the junction that connected the A603 with the main road from Royston to Huntington. Executing a sharp left turn from one major road on to another requires a not inconsiderable amount of skill and a dollop of luck. Luck that no other cars are passing at the same time.

To a fully-formed adult brain, the consequences of a being hit by a car travelling at 50mph would constitute a risk not worth taking. In fact no-one in their right mind would contemplate bursting on to a major road in the gamble that it might be empty. Even in the early hours of the morning. But as Professor Sarah-Jane Blakemore has already established, I wasn’t in my right mind. My teenage brain, with its under-developed pre-frontal cortex, lubricated by a couple of pints of Greene King, and stimulated by the challenge of a record-breaking hands-free ride simply didn’t have the capacity for assessing reasonable risk.

As it was, there were no cars passing that junction on the A1198 at the very moment a high-speed hands-free merchant joined it with what nowadays would be recognised as a sweeping snowboard-like manoeuvre.

Had there been, you wouldn’t be reading this blog now.

At no point did it occur to me that my life might have been in danger. I was a teenager. I was immortal. I was giddy with the success of having first held my nerve while travelling at high velocity down a pointy hill without the assistance of brakes and then, secondly, having completed a sharp left-hand turn on to a major road without having fallen over.

The last four miles were a breeze. The remaining challenge was relatively easy. It involved a sharp right turn, but this time from a major road on to a minor road, and with no oncoming traffic.

Nothing could stop me from the triumphant completion of the ride of my life.

    Gerry Miller
    2015-02-14 17:14:36
    "Caution literally to the wind. I'd doff my hat to you if I was wearing one. Many things to note here, starting with the 14 miles in 55 minutes, at night no less. And after the unmentioned beer. And no mention of wind. I don't care how flat Cambridgeshire is, it's not. No place is. I rode across Iowa, which is famously flat: not a bit of it. You must have been working as if one a bet. The hands-free thing, the bravura bit, I take your word for it. And junction details back up your claim that a significant bit of brain was yet to see daylight. That ride would make a good video, maybe for the opening credits of a film. A biopic? Or to be shown at your memorial. No wonder you are fearless on London streets."

    Andrew Denison
    2015-02-12 13:39:14
    "The only piece of this story that is, frankly, highly unlikely is your reference to 'a couple of pints' of beer. I suspect that other substances were involved."

    Zena Sanders
    2015-02-08 20:26:02
    "A terrifying read! The cycling, hills gravity and road junctions - less so the weetabix - did you have them dry or with hot or cold milk? And how far can you now cycle hands free?"

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