I spent quite a lot on my childhood playing bikes. I have memories of jumping off planks propped up with bricks in my very young years and then, still under 10, riding a 3 speed Raleigh ‘racer’ all over the place practicing skids and wheelies. I could never do much of a wheelie, still can’t, but that didn’t stop me practicing.
Before I get too misty eyed about the whole thing, I do remember seeing my next door neighbour catastrophically failing to jump an up-ended oil barrel on his Raleigh Chopper and I suspect it was only his youth that prevented an impromptu gear shifter enabled castration. Who the hell thought putting a gear lever between your legs on a bicycle was a good idea?
I’m prompted to write something down about 'playing bikes' because I’m running a skills session for novice bike racers next month. One of my greatest coaching pleasures is getting the cones, chalk, whistle and clip board out and doing some cycling skill coaching – particularly group riding skills. I’ve never come across anybody, no matter how experienced, who hasn’t learned something from having a crack at this. As an adult, you’re not allowed to just ‘play’ on your bike are you? You can’t just get it out of the garage and do some skids in the drive - the neighbours will think you’re a right knob. And that (finally, I hear you say…) is my point. If you’ve come to cycling later you might have missed the ‘play’ part and that’s the bit where you learn a lot of fundamental bike handling skills - how to stay on it and how far you can push it before you’re not on it. Getting a feel for that grey area between being the pilot of your machine or simply the passenger in an environment when you’re not going to be rolled into the tarmac by a passing truck is a useful confidence builder.
If you've got a bit of skills gap or you're not confident in riding close to others, you can put a lot of this right by getting on to a traffic free circuit and doing some skill work with a group of similarly motivated riders. Group riding is arguably the most essential skill set for a cyclist to master, it makes you more confident, safer, faster, more efficient, more relaxed and fundamentally ‘less shouted at’ by others you ride with.
So, call round for your mate and see if he or she fancies going out playing bikes or come and join me at a skills coaching session.
Rich Smith has lost many lumps of skin out playing bikes, favouring his left elbow to land on. He has coached the GB Transplant Cycling team for 10 years, is a British Cycling qualified Level 3 coach, a mature psychology student and has 30 years’ experience working in senior roles for Barclays, HSBC, British Waterways and National Grid Property. He still can't do a decent wheelie.