It was the long hot summer of 1976 and I was four years old. On this particular day, my Uncle John (I didn’t know he was crazy back then) had let me play in his car, parked as it was by the kerb outside our house. With no key in the ignition I could sit there and pretend to drive for hours and the family knew just where I was.
I don’t know how long I’d been out there, but the kid who lived next door, Tommy McLaren, wandered over after spotting me in the car. Tommy was a few years older than me and he was really into cars – cars and The Fonz. He was a good kid – his parents were friends of the family by virtue of our houses sharing one big back garden. He always had time for me and I never felt threatened by him like I did with most of the other older boys around the estate.
He was cool too, I suppose, but then at that age I guess all older boys appeared to be cool because they had better toys and bigger bikes. That last part was a sore spot because, being four, my bike had a little red saddlebag and stabilisers. Back in those days the cool bike of choice was a Raleigh Chopper and they were much too big for me. Tommy had one of those – I was never really keen on them, but I could appreciate why they were cool – with a big red gear lever in the centre console and a fat rear tire, it looked like a man’s bike. His also had a CB ariel sticking out from the seat pillar – bikes didn’t come much cooler than that in the mid 70’s.
After I wrestled down the window, Tommy asked if he could play in the car with me. I was delighted, but the problem was he wanted to do the pretend driving. I told him that Uncle John had let me be in charge of the car and that although he could join me, he couldn’t drive it.
“If you let me drive, I’ll teach you how to ride your bike without stabilisers.” Tommy said.
I don’t know what Tommy does now – probably selling snow to eskimos – but that was as fine an opening offer as I’ve ever heard. Despite my tender years I knew that was a golden deal – he would gain an hour or so of fun before Uncle John took the car away, yet I would gain a skill for life.
“Okay, you can drive.” I said and shuffled over to the passenger seat. Tommy jumped in and did a pretty good impression of driving. I figured he must have a license or at least be close to it, because he knew to press different pedals, change gear, and to look over his shoulder for other cars. It was an impressive display, but soon I wanted my cycling lesson.
I’d had a few attempts without stabilisers before, you understand, so I knew the fundamentals of it. I just had to gain some confidence and I don’t think the family had the time or patience to spend time teaching me. Tommy was a kid and it was the summer holidays – time doesn’t come much more free than that.
Now, as far as I’m aware, Tommy did not have some magical cycling instructor license that slotted into his wallet right beside the driving license I was sure he had, but he had me riding that bike without stabilisers within an hour. I couldn’t turn at first – keeping it going in the right direction was hard enough, but I could whizz along the path outside my house, stop at the end of our other neighbour’s driveway, turn the bike around and come back again with the aid of a push start.
It didn’t take that much longer before I could start myself, which was just as well, because Tommy wanted to play in the car and he was due his reward for bestowing such a gift upon me. While he pretended to drive, for the first time I rode my bike for real – up and down the pathway, going further in each direction as my confidence swelled.
I know I went to my bed with a huge smile on my face that night, excited about getting up the next day and riding my bike again.
From that point on there was no stopping me. I graduated up to a bright orange racing bike a couple of years later that was much too big for me. So much so that I couldn’t get off it without falling over and, one time, ended up cycling around the block all day while my mum was at work, because I knew if I fell off I might not be able to get back on.
Tommy would move from the Chopper onto a racing bike of his own that he’d cut up our garden path on. Twice he managed to smash into me as I rounded the corner of the house, shattering my teeth on each occasion – an unfortunate consequence of my head being the same height as his handlebars. The second incident brought about the construction of a fence running down the middle of the back garden our two families shared. It changed things a little, I think – even though it was a mesh fence that you could see right through, it was still a clear division.
After that orange bike I’d move on up to a cracking white racing bike with lots of gears, as well as saving up to buy a BMX in the summer of 1984. Since then I’ve had other racing bikes and a couple of mountain bikes – I can’t really remember a time when I haven’t had a bike and enjoyed going for a cycle.
Thanks to Tommy for teaching me a skill you never forget.