My first bicycle appeared when my family were living on Sweet Knowle Farm in rural Warwickshire. It would have been the early seventies, possibly even late sixties being as all I can recall of the bike was that it had stabilisers which came off once I was old enough to ride unassisted. This bike was followed at some point by a Moulton Midi, possibly made by Raleigh - a gangly frame in metallic blue resting on two peculiarly small wheels. I went everywhere on my Moulton Midi, everywhere mostly being the villages of either Ilmington or Quinton, respectively homes to my best friends Matt and Sean.
Then in either the early eighties or very late seventies, my dad won some money on the premium bonds and treated me to a racing bike - a British Eagle. I was at secondary school by this point and we all had racing bikes, although racing was never particularly high on the agenda. We were kids and we lived in the country and you really needed a bike to get around. Mine was purple, as Barbara Moran noted during a bewildering attempt to take the piss out of me as we all hung out at the sportsfield one evening. She was never a friend, but we had reached the age at which we became enemies for no reason I ever understood.
'I like your purple bike,' she sneered, placing particularly sarcastic emphasis on its colouration. To this day I remain bewildered as to why she should have viewed that detail as some hypothetically vulnerable chink in my armour.
Ooh look at me with my purple bike. I'm so fancy.
The purple bike got me around during school, then college, and eventually art college once I moved to Maidstone in Kent. I had it fixed up a couple of times following brief periods of neglect, up until moving to Chatham in 1987 at which juncture the guy in the local bike shop pointed out that what I had just brought to him was mostly rust, and was therefore regrettably beyond repair.
A year or so later I joined Royal Mail as a postman and was thus allowed sporadic use of a succession of Post Office bicycles, just three gears but bright red and sturdy with a basket on the front as made by Pashley of Stratford-on-Avon. The great advantage of the Royal Mail bike was that occasional repairs and maintenance came with the job, and by the nineties it was my company car - work six days a week and then handy for doing the shopping at the weekend, particularly with that basket on the front.
I left Royal Mail in 2009 and moved to Coventry. Deprived of my company car, my dad allowed me to have one of his bicycles on semi-permanent loan. He had three, and this was one he'd bought for twenty quid in the pub then done up. I rode it around that corner of Warwickshire for the next year and a half in the name of staying vaguely fit, clocking up just over three-thousand miles in total - which I knew because my dad had fitted the bike with an odometer.
In 2011 I moved to San Antonio, Texas, and naturally one of the first things I had to do was to get myself a bike. I went to Walmart because it was cheap, and happily the bike I picked up for a couple of hundred dollars turned out to be made by Schwinn, a manufacturer with a fairly decent reputation.
The first six months of riding around in this new land were a little weird, characterised by tires punctured with astonishing frequency - a couple of times a week on occasion. Everything in Texas is covered in thorns, I told myself - that has to be the reason. Up until that point I'd suffered punctured tires on average maybe once every other year and had consequently never developed any real aptitude for puncture repair. Usually I would re-puncture the inner tube several times whilst trying to force the tire back onto the wheel; so was in the habit of taking the bike along to the shop and having them do it for a couple of quid.
I went to Bike World in Alamo Heights, this being my nearest bike shop. Yes they undertook repairs, a bearded nineteen-year old told me as though grudging the time my enquiry had taken away from him alphabeticising his Neutral Milk Hotel vinyls. He glanced at my bike and informed me that my inner tubes were fitted with Schrader valves, an obsolete type. His colleagues would be able to effect repairs but it would be a pain in the arse because I had walked into a store selling top of the range stereo equipment asking for something upon which to play my Edison cylinders of Arthur Sullivan speeches. Bicycle inner tubes traditionally come fitted with either Schrader or Presta valves, except no-one who is serious about cycling has any truck with Schrader valves.
Of course, I've subsequently found this to be complete bollocks. Up until that point, valves were valves so far as I knew so it had never been an issue. Presta valves seem to have been designed for the benefit of lycra-clad racing types who take themselves far too seriously, who just really need an alternative to something which already works perfectly well; and Wikipedia describes the Schrader valve as a type of pneumatic tire valve used on virtually every motor vehicle in the world today.
Nevertheless I handed over the bike, then returned when the work had been done. I also needed a water bottle so took one from the rack next to the till and paid up. Once out of the shop I realised the repairs hadn't actually been that expensive, but the plastic water bottle had cost me twenty dollars. This was because it had the logo of a company called Dude Girl printed on it. Dude Girl make clothing for the benefit of female lycra-clad racing types who take themselves far too seriously, who just really need to wear something rooted in the old west cowgirl spirit and repurposed with the modern sensibilities of today's active women, and who need to make a statement with the vessel from which they drink their water. This is what happens when you shop too quickly, and when you make assumptions about how a water bottle will probably cost a few quid at most because it's just a fucking water bottle.
Lesson learned, I decided to look for an alternate bike shop to which I could take my custom in future, and so I found Performance Bike at which the staff seemed friendlier and less self-consciously edgy. Additionally, given the weekly punctures I had resolved to learn how to effect repairs myself without screwing up, deciding that surely it couldn't be that hard. Bizarrely, it wasn't, and I even worked out how to change tires. From this I discovered that the tires with which my beloved Schwinn came fitted had probably been crap because suddenly I was no longer getting flats every few days; and I was further inspired to wonder why I'd never got the hang of such a piss easy task before, considering all the time, money, and agricultural language it might have spared me.
So that was 2011, since which I've clocked up some eighteen thousand miles on the Schwinn. It went back to Performance Bike for repairs a couple of times, but never for flat tires. Everything was fine up until the most recent occasion. Something peculiar had happened to the array of gears on the rear wheel, causing them all to spin around independently of each other.
'You really need to take this to a repair shop,' the guy told me.
'I thought this was a repair shop,' I said, peering cautiously past him to his two colleagues who both looked one fuck of a lot like they were engaged in repair work on other bikes.
'Well see, it's not just the cassette. You're going to need a new chain otherwise it ain't gonna be worth repairing anyhow.'
'I need a cassette?'
He picked up a little spindle of cogs of varying sizes to indicate, this being the thing which had gone wonky on my own bike. 'Now if you buy yourself a chain-breaker, then you can get in there - take off that chain, and - let me just see.' He strolled across to a store display, bike chains vacuum sealed onto card. He began reading the sizes.
'Couldn't I just pay you and have you do it?'
'It's gon' be like a month before we can even look at it and tell you just what needs doing.'
'I'm not bothered. I just want it fixed.'
So, having agreed to a wait of at least six weeks without a bike, I at last managed to force the man to take my business.
Six weeks dragged past. I was in the habit of cycling fifteen miles every morning, and being unable to do so was weird and unsettling. I needed regular exercise but didn't want to have to think about it, which is why I like a routine. Recalling that my dad owns a number of bikes, I went to the pawn shop on the corner and bought a mountain bike for fifty dollars. It was a Genesis GS29, a type apparently made for sale in Walmart. Online reviews range from cheap and cheerful, to good for the price, to just don't bother. On the other hand, it seemed okay to me from what I could tell, and it's not like I could afford anything too fancy, particularly not for something which was essentially a back up to be ridden when the other is in the shop for repairs.
The first problem I encountered was that the seat was too low, so I raised it up, then discovered that the handlebars were at a fixed height and therefore could not be raised up in relation to the seat. I made do, and eventually got around this when I found cheap handlebars for a kids bike, just a tube of steel bent into a w-shape. I mounted these where the old handle bars had been, bringing the handgrips up to exactly the right height, although this meant I also had to replace the cable for the front brake with a longer one. Also, because the gear-change thing and brakes could only fit so far onto the handlebars before the curve of the w-shape got in the way, this left the rubber hand grips with only an inch or so of steel tubing inside, leaving a weird floppy overhang. I got around this by replacing them with solid handgrips which clamp on, additionally extending the length of the handlebars. Finally I added a rear-view wing mirror ordered from a scooter supplies store in England, having been unable to find one I liked anywhere local.
I rode the mountain bike for the next six weeks, fifteen or more miles a day, five days a week. It was fine, and even felt kind of sexy, although I noticed some vague problem with the wheels, albeit a problem so vague as to make it difficult to properly identify. It felt as though there was some resistance to the smooth turn of an axle, as though a brake block might be rubbing as I rode along, an impression fostered by a constant high-pitched whine when the bike was in motion. Nevertheless, no brake blocks were rubbing against the rim of the wheel, and both wheels spun fine and freely from what I could see. My father suggested the possibility of wheel nuts being too tight, but it didn't seem to be that either. The most definitive statement I could make was that the mountain bike was somehow not so easy to ride as the Schwinn.
Eventually the Schwinn came back with a new chain and gears so I resumed using it for my daily fifteen miles, now increased to twenty. Reluctant to neglect the mountain bike, I kept it in the garage and made a mental note to take it into Performance Bike for a tune-up at some point before the next occasion of my needing the Schwinn repaired. They would no doubt be able to pinpoint the problem and tell me what was up.
'It's probably those wheels,' the unfamiliar teenager told me, pointing to where the spokes met the axle.
'What's wrong with them?'
'Where did you get it?'
'I bought it from the pawn shop down on the corner. It was about fifty dollars.'
'Yeah, you see it's a department store bike.'
'So I need new wheels then?'
'Well I don't know, but it's about forty dollars a wheel, and then there's the work. You might be better off just saving up for a superior bike.'
'Is it really that bad?'
An older guy came over to see what the problem was, and so once again I described the sensation of riding along with a brake block in contact with the wheel, then adding 'although in all other respects it's a great bike.'
'It's a department store bike. How much did you pay?'
'Fifty dollars, but that was from a pawn shop.'
He got on the bike, rode it around the store in a little circle. 'I can't see anything wrong with it.'
'Well can't you take it in and have a look?'
'You'd be better off saving your money and getting another bike.'
So there was nothing wrong with my mountain bike, but I probably shouldn't have bought it in the first place and needed to think about replacing it. Once again I was the last man on earth metaphorically clinging to his beloved Schrader valves. Here I was trying to give these unhelpful fuckers my business whilst they looked at me as though I'd found a rusty tricycle on some waste ground, and flung it at them giggling fix this, yeah? I had bought the cycling equivalent of an album by Insane Clown Posse into their store, and not even one of the good albums by Insane Clown Posse.
Unable to think of anything else to add, I recalled that I had intended to buy a set of extra tires for the mountain bike. The teenager showed me a pair for twenty-seven dollars per tire.
'You know what,' I said. 'I think I'll leave it.'
He glanced at my tires. 'Those are wearing down, you know. You'll be getting punctures soon.' He said this as though the thought might not have occurred to me, like I might just be trying to buy new tires due to a pathological need to just buy something. Maybe I was buying tires so that the guys in the store would like me.
'All the same...'
I made my exit of the shop with no plans to return ever again.
I will find another repair place, and order my spares online.
I've ridden bikes all of my life, and ridden them great distances, and ridden them so as to get from one place to another. I've never regarded cycling as a hobby, an activity by which to fill some existing void as characterised by money I don't have spent on shit I don't need - luminous body stockings, Dude Girl water bottles, inner tubes fitted with a more prestigious pedigree of valve, or any of those ridiculous designer bikes I see ridden on the Tobin Trail by lycra-clad racing types who take themselves far too seriously - two and half wheels, seating effected by a butt plug mounted at the end of a horizontal armature and you pedal with your fucking elbows, you middle-class wanker. As an industry, cycling now seems dominated by the needs of those with too much money who may as well just be doing a jigsaw puzzle, and it is unfair to persons such as myself; but apparently this means I'm not serious about my cycling.
The day after my last ever visit to Performance Bike I take my fifty dollar pawn shop jalopy out on the Tobin Trail and it is, as ever, a pleasure to ride, regardless of the issue described above, whatever it is. Maybe, I think to myself, that's just a thing with mountain bikes given how they aren't really designed for flat surfaces.
Perhaps we will never know.