Simon’s Cycle Shorts are now available to buy in both paperback (£8.39) and Kindle (£2.99) editions from Amazon. HERE
We’d always lived along the river bank. George liked it there because it was a peaceful and calm place. We’d been wandering up and down the banks of the River Lea for around ten years together and it felt like it was our home. People got to know George and many of them, despite his ragged appearance and motley collection of Sainsbury’s bags and discarded bicycle bits, regarded him as a friendly face and a reassuring presence; he could fix punctures and do minor bike repairs for just a few pounds. He was known by a few of them as the ‘Junkman’.
I was never sure where I came from except that George had picked me out of a skip somewhere in North Luton, near to the source of the Lea on Waulud’s Bank; someone had cleared their garage out and I was left half-buried under an old sideboard. My memory had been wiped after so many years of neglect. When he got me and I awoke from my stupor, I realised that I was just a frame; but within half an hour, he’d added the wheels and handlebars from his old bike – that frame on that one had broken due to the weight of his bags. George never actually rode on me; I just carried the bags and he used my handlebars to lean on whenever he stopped to look at the view or watch a little blue Kingfisher darting along the river-bank. I know that George used to ride, however, because I heard him talking to another old man about racing at the Paddington Cycle Track in the 1960’s against that ‘big bastard’ Reg Harris; but now he was just content to walk. I don’t know who Reg Harris was but George clearly didn’t like him. In the summer months we would set up camp in Ware or Hertford and people seemed to get to know that we’d be there. Mothers used to come along with their children’s bikes and wait patiently as George fixed them in the sunshine on the bank; pleasure cyclists would stop for a chat and a little adjustment here and there.
A few curious people had asked George about me in the past, but he’d just brushed them away saying that I was just a piece of old scrap. It always hurt a bit when he said this; for some reason I knew I was better than scrap – and I think he did too. OK, so I was found in a skip, but I was different to most other bikes; I had two wheels, a saddle and pedals like the others – although none of them matched – but inside, I felt different. I wasn’t made of metal for a start. When George first found me he’d given me a coat of red paint and painted the name ‘Lily’ on my crossbar with a picture of little flower after it. He said it was the best name for me because it reminded him of his ex-wife. He never said much about her but I think she left him for another cyclist; I often wondered if that was why he didn’t give me any pedals. To stop me being ridden away like Lily.
But it all changed in the Olympic summer of 2012. That summer we’d wandered further south than we usually went and had watched the preparations for the Olympics in the Lee Valley Country Park where they had built the White Water adventure complex for the canoeists. We then continued even further south along the bank to where the A12 crossed the River at Hackney Wick. It was there that we saw the newly built Olympic Velodrome. George stood with me for ages and stared at the magnificent structure that seemed to have risen from the bare earth. He seemed a little upset as if remembering something from a long time ago; the future of British cycling was there in front of him; George was a small part of the past; he one of the many club cyclists left trailing in the wake of Reg Harris, Britain’s greatest post-war sprint cyclist. After gazing up at the elegant curves of the roof and the rounded cedar-clad ends, we turned around and walked back north again up the valley. Stopping for the night near the Lea Valley Marina, George lay awake, restless and grumpy, for ages. He was woken around seven by the sound of the rowers from the Lea Rowing Club on the opposite bank on one of their early Sunday morning outings. But, unusually, George didn’t move. He usually stood and saluted rowers whenever they paddled past. That day he just stared at the sky. It just wasn’t something he did.
Later that morning a man came along the path with a black dog; he was watching the river intently and didn’t appear to see us camped under the shade of the trees until the last minute; George was sat motionless on the bank admiring the Yellow Flag irises on the opposite side and the purple Common Mallow flowers at his feet; I was leant against a large Ash tree. The dog bounded over towards us. Over the years George had learned how to be friendly to dogs and they came readily to the smelly old man with the willing scratch.
“Lovely dog, sir. Always love a Lab.” The man turned, seemingly a little surprised to see us, and stood and watched George with his dog; but he didn’t speak. He seemed to be looking across our makeshift camp with a mixture of disapproval and intrigue. He did eventually speak as George continued to play with the boisterous young dog.
“You staying here, mate?” It didn’t sound threatening or aggressive but you never knew what people really mean when they speak.
“No sir – just passing through – I never ‘stay’ anywhere.”
“Must get cold in the winter.”
“You get used to it.” George was always wary when he first met people. Over the years we’d had a few run-ins with unsavory people who’d taken against us.
“You been on the road long?”
“Never been on the road, sir. Just stick to the river banks. About thirty five years, I think – I lose count, you know?” George gave his disarming smile.
“What’s with the bike stuff?” George looked around at his assortment of tyres, rims and tubes hanging from my handlebars and the bags of assorted mechanical bearings and bits.
“Oh, well, I fix bikes if people want me to – you know, punctures and small things. Have you got a bike?”
“Yes – a few.”
“Any need fixing?” The man smiled at the question.
“No, thanks, they’re fine. Say, what’s that bike there you got?” He was looking at me.
“It’s just a pile of junk I pulled out of skip years ago – does me good for carrying stuff.”
“Can I have a look at it?”
“Yeah – it’s a bit scruffy – I painted her myself.”
“I can see that. Lily – that’s nice.” The man knelt down next to me and tapped me gently with his fingernail. He raised his eyebrow at the dull hollow sound. Then he scratched a little at the red paint near my bottom bracket. Some of it chipped away easily revealing a small section of my black skin underneath.
“Hmm. Look, mate, I’ve got a bike at home that would be far better for what you need – it’s not new, but it is a mountain bike with good thick tyres and a strong frame. Would you like a swap?”
“I’ve had Lily for years – she’s been OK, but I’ve never ridden her. Why do you want her?”
“She’s a bit like a bike I used to have when I was younger and I think I’d like to ride one like her again.” George stared out across the river and sighed as if a weight had been taken from him. He hesitated.
“OK, if you want – but you’ll have to show me the other bike first before we swap, mind?”
“No problem – how long will you be here?”
“Dunno. It’s a nice day so I might stay another night. I’ll just sit on the bank and watch the fish go by.”
“Well, look, I’ll be back this afternoon – can I bring you anything else – food, a jumper?” George smiled again.
“Always like food, sir – I’m easy, anything. Thank you sir.”
Life changed very quickly after meeting the man. That afternoon my new owner took me away from the river in the back of his car after helping George swap his favourite cow-horn handlebars from me to the mountain bike. There was a rug laid out on the floor of the boot; he said that he didn’t want me damaged. The following day I was taken to a bike shop where he and a mechanic stood and looked at me on a stand for about an hour and talked about me in hushed reverential tones. Then everything was stripped away from me, even my name and my paint were painstakingly removed – that took quite a long time. My old name was still there in big yellow letters underneath; Lotus. That night I did feel quite lonely hanging there in the workshop after everyone went home. There was no sound of the river bubbling past or George and his snores.
Three weeks later I was picked up by the man and we went back to his house where, again, he stood and stared at me for a long time. I had been given new wheels and a chain-set and some very strange handlebars. We did a short ride around the block where the man kept chuckling to himself like someone slightly mad.
Another week passed and we were sat on the start line of the F20/10 Time Trial course just outside Ware early on a sunny Sunday morning; Peter, dressed from head to toe in black lycra, smashed his PB on the 10 mile course that day. The comments from the starter, as we waited for the off on the line, reminded me just how special I really was.
“Someone said you had a new bike, Pete. But no one said you had a Lotus 110, like Boardman’s Olympic bike – these are supposed to be rarer than hens teeth. Where did you get it from?”
Simon’s Cycle Shorts are now available to buy in both paperback (£8.39) and Kindle (£2.99) versions from Amazon. HERE