Our favourite storyteller Simon Vincent has been around the world and back again, and returns with a bit of whimsy that he sincerely hopes doesn’t seem like flogging a dead, er, bicycle…
Our family recently undertook a long haul trip to visit family and friends. The opportunity to see new or old places, catch up with friends and wallow in nostalgia is one I enjoy, of course, but the flights themselves can be tough.
On long haul flights you need sleep or distraction. On our first leg – Auckland to Hong Kong – I found something that provided both. I read an article about the old bicycle vs. horse races that were a feature of ‘Wild West shows’. Finally I drifted into sleep, and curious dreams – horse, bicycle, horse, bicycle, horse-bicycle… I awoke to a world seemingly populated by the horse-bicycle, and wherever we went, I stumbled across examples of this most utilitarian of beasts.
The bicycle has often been used as a workhorse. Particularly in Asia you see overloaded bicycles, carrying much more than seems possible or practical. Bicycles are put to work in a manner that appears to defy gravity.
Surprisingly for me, the bicycle as a laden workhorse wasn’t that common in Hong Kong. Yes, I saw the odd example; but it appeared most of the old two-wheeled workhorses had been put out to pasture.
But then I realized, why should the bicycle remain the last remnant of old-fashioned labour? Bicycles had up-skilled, found their place in the new dynamic workforce. They had moved into sales and marketing.
Everywhere you look, there is an advert using the bicycle as shorthand for fun, freedom, adventure, success or style. When advertisers include a bicycle, they are appealing to our aspirational self. The workhorse bicycle may have found a new role – but it’s still useful, durable and dependable.
Ah, Paris. Well, not exactly; after leaving HK we overnighted at CDG airport before taking a wonderful train south to Montpellier. And bicycles were everywhere – but in France less workhorse, and more clothes horse. The French know how to use their bikes as an extension of their look. We saw tres chic, bohemian, arty, urban and edgy, and all accessorised with a bike. For me, though, it was the old-fashioned steeds that caught my eye. As they say: a classic never goes out of style.
Of course bicycles are also sporting beasts. Riding as sport doesn’t appeal to everyone – too much lycra about – but there’s also a lot to like a-bout it. We had timed our trip to coincide with the Tour de France and were soon in the heart of the action. ‘Le Tour’ is amazing; a moving postcard, a sporting spectacle, a soap opera, a multicultural Coronation Street on wheels.
There is a real carnival atmosphere to the tour. Families spend the day awaiting the ‘Caravan’ – a long distance parade of floats, music and a countrywide lolly scramble. Finally the peleton arrives and, in a blur, passes. Children rush to get on their bikes, families talk about going for a casual ride on the weekend, and still others plan a grand tour of their own – with a bicycle you can go anywhere. And as with sport, the more practice you put in the more benefits you gain.
Sea horse (okay, pretty-murky-water-horse actually)
British canals have re-emerged from years of decay and neglect. Now they are no longer primarily a service and supply network but recreational pathways. On the water, houseboats and cruisers proliferate; on the towpaths, walkers and joggers and anglers angle for space.
But the bicycle has really opened up the canals. The towpaths alongside the water have been reappointed as cycle paths, and the pubs and cafes cater to the new visitors with ample bike parking. And most barge owners have a bike onboard, recognising the versatility they offer. Quite often, these sea horses are folding bikes, painted in the livery of the barge.
Trojan horse (okay, a real stretch this one!)
Bikes are great for getting around, but they can also be used to breach the security of a fortification. Getting off the train in an area well known for its fancy mansions – the homes of highly paid footballers – we witnessed the Trojan horse bicycle in full effect. I didn’t get a photo, but: a group of eight or so teenagers rode past us then leaned their bikes against the wall, clambering atop their bicycle seats to get a vantage point, peering over the wall in hopes of a glimpse of their favourite star. The bicycle is truly the ticket to adventure; later, we saw the same posse riding cheerfully back to town, mission accomplished.
One horse town no more
The bicycle seems to have done away with the old Wild West’s ‘one horse town’. On our holiday, we spent a fair bit of time around the small villages of the North West of England where I grew up. Everywhere we looked, there were bicycles opening up new opportunities. Bike parking and hire bikes were dotted around in even the smallest villages, as were signs linking riders to destinations.
It certainly seems that you are never alone if you have a bicycle and a place to go. So give your friends a gee up, get them saddled up and hit those trails. Yee-haw!
— Simon Vincent