June 5, 2021•2,039 words
0. Dear bikes
My current bike stands propped against the back yard fence as I write to you all. We had a great day together. This made me remember all of you - very fondly. So fondly, in fact, that now I'm writing this - a love letter to each and every one of you.
1. The orange
The first bike I remember is the one almost every Pole remembers, although not every Pole had it in my colour. "Romet Wigry 3" was a legend. It was foldable. It was small and sturdy. It had a back cargo rack. Sitting on it, you rode in a comfortable upright position. And because it was mass-produced in 1980s Poland, you could guarantee that there would be plenty of them around.
My dad brought it over, I don't know from where. He painted it orange - a shipyard, snow-plow kind of orange - I don't know why. This must have been the tail end of communist Poland. Things appeared in shops randomly, and you got them, without much hesitation. What are we queueing up for? Woolen hats? Great, let's spend the next two hours in the blazing July sun waiting to get ours. So maybe that's how I got the Wigry, and the orange paint - or maybe it was a deal my dad struck with someone from work, or from a bar.
Anyway - the Wigry may have been my first bike without training wheels. I remember my dad running behind me in the park, holding the saddle. Then running and pretending he was holding the saddle. And then not holding it. That's how I learned to ride, I think. I must have fallen over many times, and scraped my knees, but suddenly, the park outside my front door became mine to explore. On my orange bike.
2. The first communion BMX
The first communion is a big deal when you're growing up Catholic. For me, this must have been already after communist Poland croaked its last. The newness reached our town slowly: a butcher's whose shop actually always smelled of meat; a slew of new street names. And, for first communion boys, a BMX bike.
Maybe most of this is a lie, though. Maybe I didn't actually get the BMX for my communion, but some time around that time. And when I say BMX, I don't really mean a BMX bike like we see today.
It was white with blue markings. Its frame had these foam and plastic protectors, held together by velcro. It had no gears, I think, but it had a handbrake (good luck finding that on the Wigry - you just backpedalled and prayed).
Of course I didn't do any tricks with it. Of course a boy from the neighbourhood took it for a quick ride and pilfered the fanciest blue foam protector thingy from the handlebar stem. And, of course, I broke the plastic handbrake handle, possibly by riding down some stairs in the park.
But here's the thing: it felt different. It felt like I could actually ride down these stairs. Or on top of a thick stone park fence. Things felt more dangerous and more conquerable all at once.
3. The hybrid
There was one bike shop in town back then. There were several "sports shops" where a bike or two could be bought, but there was one shop which clearly specialised in bikes.
That's where my parents got my next bike from - this one had gears. It was a hybrid, but to me, it definitely had plenty of road bike chops. I can't remember the brand, and it probably was nothing special. But it felt grown-up, and it had gears. It was grey.
This must have been close to the end of primary school, because it was on the primary school yard that this bike's most spectacular memory played itself out. We went riding with some friends from my class - back then, we all lived close to each other, near the town centre. We rode to the school yard after school - maybe it was the summer holiday?
We raced, from one end of the yard to the other. The start of the race was against a brick wall which we backed up against. The end of the race was at a raised kerb. I failed to brake before the kerb. I went past it. My chain fell off. I rode on, probably screaming like mad, through the school plant and vegetable patch. My friends watched as I finally stopped my bike on a 1.5-foot concrete wall, and - still holding my handlebars - somersaulted over them to the other side.
The bike survived, amazingly - and I think I still rode it much, much later, to some of my summer jobs.
4. The Nakamura (Part One)
I bought it. This was the first bike I ever spent money on.
My future wife and I took her car to the shopping mall. We picked a bike. We paid cash. We went back to the car. The bike almost fit in the trunk - we ended up driving back with the trunk half-open and the seats folded back.
I was working as an English teacher in a language school in a bigger city now. I moved out of my parents' house. I rode my bike to work and back - in the summer, at least. When I got a job at the school's sister branch in another city, I took the bike with me and rode it to work there, too.
It was about to make another appearance in my life again - much later.
5. Apollo Transfer
For the first few years in the UK, I was bike-less. The first year in Swansea, I did get a hand-me-down from someone in the language school I was managing - but the bike was not my size, and I never rode it. On the last day of our stay in Swansea, I gave it away for free on Gumtree.
Then, in London, I started a new life as a salesperson with a company car. I drove places. And when I didn't, I took the Tube to central London, where the office was. "London's too crazy for me to ride a bike around here," I'd say to my cycling friends.
And then I stopped working in sales, and started visiting the office every day of the week, and so I got another bike. I went to Halfords and bought something which looked good and was cheap.
Apollo Transfer was, undeniably, a crappy bike. The tires were made of reinforced wallpaper. Changing them was a pain (no quick-release!). The components were non-descript, and the whole set-up just wasn't inspiring at all.
But I loved my new London cyclist life. I enjoyed being able to feel fit again, and saving money on Tube rides, and feeling energised as I went to the office and back home. My bike was what made it possible, and I didn't care how much it cost - I liked riding it.
So when it got stolen from outside our offices one day, I didn't really know how to feel. Yes, it was a crappy cheap bike. But it was mine.
I sat on the Tube home that day, dressed up in my bike gear, with my helmet dangling uselessly between my legs. I knew I was hooked already. I was going to get myself another bike. And the best part was this: I already had it.
6. The return of Nakamura
The shipping company which we used on a few occasions to get some of our stuff moved from Poland was still in business. They were cheap. And they shipped bicycles, too.
I flew back to my home town. I ran some errands and met some friends. On my last full day, I prepped the bike. The van arrived, and I handed the Nakamura over. Signed the paperwork, and expected to see the bike soon after I land back in London. Overall, this meant I still saved some money over a new bike. And if this one got stolen too, I wouldn't despair so much, I thought.
It arrived several weeks later, with its own horror story (the van was impounded; contraband was found in the coffins it carried; my bike waited at the border until it got inspected and released, and finally delivered by another van). But here it was at last. A French bike from a Polish sports discount chain, riding the streets of London with me.
And not just London, as it turned out. Nakamura was my trusted companion during the stage which I can only describe as "getting totally hooked on cycling". I rode this bike on several bike trips. I rode it during the London to Brighton charity race. I rode my first triathlon on it. And, in a show of true optimism, I took it on my first Hebridean bikepacking trip.
The bike took it all in its stride. Sure, the tires needed changing, and it took some servicing. But there was never anything wrong with it. It hasn't let me down once. It was a true god-damned workhorse.
I sold it to a friend of mine some time after I got my next bike. As I rode it to the handover one last time, I remembered how good it felt to be riding upright, in a steady, alert manner, on a bike which felt heavy and solid. I'm glad it didn't get stolen after all.
7. Charge Grater
It was time for another bicycle. I wasn't ready to spend lots of money on it, though - this was still London, and it still looked like expensive bikes were wasted on me. I knew I wanted to race occasionally, but I also knew I wanted to commute, and to go bikepacking / exploring. And in the house we shared, I only had room in my shed for one bike, not three.
I got the Charge Grater delivered to my house. I assembled it myself and took it for a test ride. Almost instantly, I fell in love.
This was not the stately ride which my previous bike delivered. It was faster, more agile, but it also felt safer somehow - maybe because of the wide handlebars.
The bike worked. I learned quickly how much it could handle, and how to modify it depending on what I was doing. For my triathlon races, I went with slimmer tires and removed all extra gear. For a Grinduro, and a subsequent bikepacking trip, I got more knobbly tires and a bike rack.
I loved this bike, and it loved me back. Looking back over my Strava efforts these days, I realise that most of the PRs are still from the time when I must have ridden the Grater. I keep telling myself that it's because the bike was just streets above all other brands, and not because I'm just getting rustier.
I took the Grater to Grinduro in the summer of 2018. I met the CEO (I think) of Charge bicycles there, and I told him about it. "Yeah, I saw it, I was wondering who rode the Grater here," he said, slightly surprised.
I gave the Grater away to the Bike Project in the autumn of 2018. Charge pivoted to e-bikes eventually, and the Grater is now history. The only remainder of this glorious time is now the Spoon saddle - the most comfortable I've ever ridden - hung on the wall of my living room like a trophy, which it kind of is.
8. To all the bikes I rode before
We hurt each other plenty.
We hurled each other down stairs and up mountain passes. We broke and mended. We got lost, messy, stuck.
We went where we weren't expected, and survived. We messed around. We found out.
Sometimes, at the end of a long day (or week, or a fortnight), we'd turn the last corner together, and I'd see my front door soon afterwards. I'd climb off and give one of you a pat on the handlebars, and say, "you did good."
You all did.