The list of silly things I have done for men is a long one, and includes: pretending to believe that donkeys are a reasonable, even appealing, animal to keep as a pet; learning the entire Muse back-catalogue because I’d been invited to a Muse gig by a Muse fan whom I’d told I was a Muse fan; and eating a lot of yoghurt because I thought doing so would make me thinner (I was still a child, and hadn’t yet grasped how weight loss works, or how little it matters). The best of them, though, is learning to ride a bike.
I was seven, which is really quite old not to be able to ride a bike – especially when your younger, more athletic brother has taken to it as though standing upright on solid ground is an inconvenience to him – and perhaps quite young to have a crush. We were camping in Yorkshire, and I had taken a liking to the eldest boy of another family on the campsite. I vividly recall feeling too embarrassed to admit to him that I could not ride a bike – and so I rode one.
Fast forward a few years and I was cycling to secondary school, panniers packed with textbooks and my very first mobile phone, a Nokia 3210, lovingly enclosed in a horrible silver case. (I’d been allowed it only because I was cycling alone, in case of an emergency.) My mother had worked out the quietest route for me through the London suburbs – these were the days before Quad Lock and Citymapper – and we’d practised it together the weekend before I started school. To my memory it was a long, intrepid journey, but Google informs me it was only two miles, and should have taken around 12 minutes.
I cycled the same route for years, drying my skirt and tights on the radiators during registration on the mornings it rained, and idling through backstreets home with my best friend, singing Blink-182 at each other across the road. In year seven we were made, in a Jacqueline Wilson-esque turn of events, to carry flour babies for a week, supposedly to dissuade us from getting pregnant. I took my newfound motherhood so seriously that I borrowed a baby carrier and cycled to school with a kilo of flour strapped to my front (but not so seriously as to realise that cycling with a newborn strapped to your front is a terrible idea).
But then I became a teenager, and my cool friends were getting the bus to school, and I wanted to sit on the back seat with them and discuss the previous night’s episode of Hollyoaks. And so my bike was abandoned to rust.
Last week, I thought of 11-year-old me cycling through the residential streets of Kingston upon Thames, diligently avoiding the main roads and treacherous crossings, as I worked out the quietest, most cycle-lane-heavy route to the office on my new Brompton bike. Anticipating public humiliation, I fold and unfold it again and again in the privacy of my flat, assisted by YouTube, before attempting it outside a Tube station for the first time (though nothing could top the time I slipped on a literal banana skin outside Holborn).
It turns out that cycling in central London is not quite as terrifying as I was led to believe when I worked on an east London news website in the winter of 2013, when six cyclists were killed within two weeks. As I cycle, the city opens up before me and joins together in ways it never did before. Even the already-convenient streets of Islington around my flat become more so: a 25-minute round-trip on foot to Waitrose at 8.30pm on a Tuesday in hunt of Coke in a glass bottle, unjustifiable; but a ten-minute loop on my bike? Cheers. (I don’t very often have cravings these days, so when I do I heartily indulge them.) When I get home I spend a long time googling cycling shorts to preserve my modesty, and wonder whether I should invest in some padded ones so that it is only my heart that is bruised.
I am learning, slowly, the things, the people, that make me feel better – and those that don’t. Writing is one such relief; another is the cinema, which has long held a church-like sanctity for me. And now, I have my bike. On it I feel, if not exactly happy, free. How grateful I am for the push of that first crush, how eager I am for the next.
This article appears in the 10 Sep 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Labour's lost future