I can still remember my first proper bike, a small red Raleigh RSW11, with one gear, one brake, and tiny little wheels. I can remember the stabilisers coming off it, and my Mum patiently trying to help me become stable on two wheels. I can remember my first proper ride on it too, my Dad took me from our home in Ashford (Middx), all the way to Laleham Park. The initiated will realise that the distance involved was hardly record-breaking, but may perhaps not appreciate the extent to which reaching Laleham Park under my own steam, was a major early milestone. Laleham Park seemed unimaginably far away to me then, and it presented itself to my infant imagination as a glamorously remote place of great wide open spaces, with play-areas, hills to play on, river-banks, ice-cream vans, donkeys, and high mysterious brick walls beyond which lay; who knew?
As I grew older and gained various bigger bikes (usually ones put together by my Grandpa), I explored further and further afield, discovering that the further South or West I could pedal, the less suburban and more interesting my surroundings became. Cycling became far more serious when I was invited on one of "Lionel's Bike Rides" however. Lionel was the Dad of one of the lads in the church youth group who was a few years older than me. They had a mutual love of cycling which had propelled them over many thousands of miles of tarmac, in countless days and long weekends in the saddle. Others began to get invited on their trips, and so on some days ten or more bikes and cyclists could be found assembling in the church car park or outside Lionel's house for a meet of this informal cycling club. Places such as Prune Hill, Windsor Great Park, or Box Hill were explored by bike, then further as we discovered 100m+ days to the South Coast resorts of Littlehampton, Brighton or Bognor. Overnight youth-hostelling trips put The Cotswolds, Mendips, Brecon Beacons, Black Mountains, and Peak District within our grasp; we cycled over Snake Pass, through Edale, through Dovedale, Derby, Leicester, and saw places like Stow-on-the-Wold, Upper Slaughter, and stayed in hostels such as Capel-Y-finn, Charlbury, and Cleeve Hill.
Me aged about 13 about to depart on a "Lionel-Bike-Ride", from the car park of Ashford (Middx) Congregational Church, mid 1980s.
These were all great adventures, and fierce physical challenges, as we all pushed each other hard to achieve good times on all our routes, even when we were weighed down with luggage. The joy of sprinting down great hills like Birdlip at crazy speeds is as vivid in my memory as battling for hours into a rain-soaked headwind across the Vale of Oxford one draughty May Friday afternoon.
Two things have re-ignited these memories, the first was the news that Lionel had died a month or so ago, and the second was my recent rediscovery of cycling. My road bike is in disrepair, but I have pressed a mountain bike into service, and have been out on it again over the last few weeks, gradually building my strength, speed and stamina. Of course, spinning happily through country lanes brings memories of a well-spent youth back in great nostalgic waves. I can still hear Lionel setting off with a cry of "Come on Lads, POW!" to spur us into action. A forty mile ride last week triggered many such memories, and spurred me not just to give thanks to God for everything that Lionel gave to many of us when we were young, but also to pray for his family as they grieve his loss.
I doubt Lionel ever went to a seminar on inter-generational youth ministry, but he was a great practitioner of the principles now taught on such courses. He seemed to quite naturally transmit three great enthusiasms; cycling, people, & The Christian faith, in a way which made joining in quite natural. There were no formal bible-studies on Lionel bike-rides, but there were many rich and helpful conversations, and the opportunity for younger lads to observe older Christian men in fellowship together. Evenings spent in Lionel's garage learning how to build or maintain bikes, was time well spent.
The height of modern technology in the 1980s was a small device on Lionel's handlebars which counted the revolutions of his front wheel and calculated time, distance, average speed and so forth. My recent re-discovery of cycling has involved the discovery that a mobile phone app (I use MotionX GPS), can perfectly plot route, time, ascent, top speed etc etc and e-mail the results home, or post them directly to Facebook! As a teenager, the first twenty miles or so of any major ride were spent escaping from London's clutches, until "roads" became "lanes", and we could cycle alongside each other and chat. I am fortunate enough to now live in a place within a few minutes, as opposed to a few hours, of hills and countryside. The GPS technology has given me the encouragement of knowing that I can still cover some miles, but the 'average speed' has been a sobering lesson in the tragic realities of the ageing process!
I'm hoping the rain will hold off tomorrow so that I can head out again...