Cycling may be good for you but I’m still terrified all my friends are going to die

There’s a quiet sadness to being a bike-hating dyke.

NS

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

I’ve never even cycled on a main road and, if I had to, I’d do it with strips of mattress duct taped to my limbs.

When I was six, my brother, then fourteen, took me to a local park, unscrewed the stabilisers from my bike and put them in a bin, into which they clanked stupidly.

“We’re not going home until you can cycle home,” he said.

Twenty years later, I’m at Old Street Roundabout, watching a peloton of cyclists being chased by an irked bus. At least that’s what it looks like to someone who – like me – is scared of bikes. I’m so scared of bikes that I just misspelled peloton (my best guess was “pellaton”), for which I was derided by the red zigzag of shame.

“Err, I think you meant “peloton”, you utter swimming pool of gauche,” said Microsoft Word.

There’s no coming back from being bullied by a piece of software. Just like there’s no coming back from having an older sibling terrify you into riding a bike. My brother was bequeathed every bit of coordination reserved for my family. He could moonwalk and play guitar. I, having inherited what my dad refers to as his “oaf genes”, could barely tie my laces. My brother was, I think, exasperated by my clumsiness, while I was exasperated by his insistence on trying to cure my clumsiness. So we were at an impasse. He wanted me to ride a bike. I wanted to eat crisps and read Horrible Histories. The crisps and Horrible Histories books were at home. We weren’t, as we’ve established, going home until I could cycle home.

His methods were cruel but effective. I can’t remember how many hours it took, or how many times I fell off, but I learned – depleted of any remaining joy – to ride a bike. Although I didn’t want to, ever again. And in Year 6 at primary school, when I opted out of the cycling proficiency programme, a rumour got out that I couldn’t ride a bike. Which was, for some reason, extremely funny to everyone in my class. I didn’t get the joke. And I didn’t get why Miss Watson, my teacher, couldn’t think of anything more constructive for me to do than sit through the same lesson twice, while the rest of the class went outside to ride bikes, one half at a time. This was my first proper taste of outsiderdom. No one knew I was a lesbian, at least, but they all knew (or thought they knew) that I couldn’t ride a bike. It’s a shame I was too young to appreciate the irony of being a bike-hating dyke. I was just “Ellie M who can’t ride a bike” and a secret gay to boot.

As I watch the peloton (which I just spelled wrong for the second time) skirt the roundabout, I get this pang of both envy and stone cold bafflement. How anyone could be so unafraid of death is something I may never properly understand. Every time I’ve ridden a bike, I’ve fallen off. So logic dictates I should stop riding them so as to protect myself, thereby perpetuating the human race. Within this murmuration of oncoming bikes, I notice that about one in three riders are helmetless. I’ve never even cycled on a main road and, if I had to, I’d do it with strips of mattress duct taped to my limbs. A friend of mine recently joked about how her bike brakes are knackered, but she’s still cycling to work every day. She just has to second guess when she’s thirty seconds from a careering lorry and hope for the best. I told her how hard I’d kill her, if she died. I don’t think it penetrated her unhelmeted skull.

There’s a quiet sadness to being a bike-hating dyke. Lesbians freaking love talking about how much they cycle. And how they once cycled from Buenos Aires to Minsk. For fun. On dates, a lot of women have used words like “spokes” and “horrific knee injury”, while I’ve sat smiling, nodding and wondering what flavour crisps I’m going to treat myself to, when I’m discovered to be insufficiently bikey and ditched for someone who can spell “peloton” on the first go.

I’m just going to carry on fearing death, for now. 

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist.