Last week, just before the half-term holidays began, my 11-year-old daughter passed her Cycling Proficiency Test. She has proved that she is capable of riding a bicycle on the streets of West London. It’s a test that I never took in my childhood. I switched schools just before my 9th birthday and my new school did not run the Cycling Proficiency programme. Until the age of 13 I cycled on the path rather than the road, and usually rather sedately. I didn’t attempt wheelies or pedal especially fast. When challenged and told to ride on the road, usually by some old woman, I would say, in all seriousness, “But I haven’t passed my Cycling Proficiency Test”. It worked every time. I was never ordered off the pavement after this response.
Aged 13 I decided to risk cycling on the road, without any guidance. During the summer holidays I went from tentative short journeys down quiet streets to more confident longer journeys on main roads. The most challenging part of this progress was a steep downhill ride on one side of a bridge over the Overground railway line. Like most bicycles I have ridden, the one that I shared with my brother as a teenager had a weak back brake and a strong front brake. If you had to brake suddenly you were likely to somersault over the handlebars; heading down the other side of the bridge there was a point where braking would guarantee such an outcome. At the highest point of the bridge you could not see the junction at the bottom of it, but as you approached the junction you had a 180 degree view of several turnings and could steer, without braking, down whichever was clear. Usually all of them were clear and I could use the momentum from the downhill ride to travel 200 yards without having to pedal or brake. My first attempt at this manoeuvre was terrifying. By the end of the summer it held no fear.
Last summer I tried to teach my son (then aged 12) how to cycle on the roads. He too switched schools before the age of 9 and missed out on Cycling Proficiency training. Road cycling round here is now an entirely different prospect from 40 years ago. There are so many more cars about, not just those speeding along at 30mph where the limit is 20mph, but parked on both sides of every street. In the 1970s those quiet roads on the other side of the railway bridge were clear. There might be half a dozen cars parked on a 200-yard stretch of road. These days there is an unbroken line of cars parked on both sides of every street. Back then the moving vehicles that you were most likely to encounter were occupied by learner drivers, earnestly practising 3-point turns with their instructors on the least busy stretches of road. Nowadays you are likely to meet 4WDs with drivers preoccupied by their mobile phones. At the end of the summer holidays I locked up the bikes for the autumn and refused to take my son out on the roads again. I was relieved to have given him 50 or more outings (including road cycling on our trip to Spain last August) and returned safely every time, but he was more interested in taking his hands off the handlebars than paying attention to all that was going on around him. He always rode behind me and the final straw was some old man shouting at him to put his hands back on the handlebars. Again. I was also at the end of my tether with the amount of inattentive and downright dangerous driving that I had encountered close up. Feelings are heightened when you’re trying to keep a 12-year-old safe as well as yourself. I made it through the whole summer without any outbreaks of Bike Rage, which was quite an achievement, although an incident with a pizza delivery guy, checking his phone while motorbiking down a local street, came pretty close.
My son might be ready for cycling on the roads when the summer holidays roll round again, and I might be ready to accompany him. In the meantime I have been taking him to BMX sessions on a full-size circuit about 10 miles away (most Saturdays since last November). There is no danger of him encountering Four Wheel Drivers on their mobile phones while he pumps the jumps and pedals to the finish, and he has been sensible enough to keep his hands on the handlebars at all times.