A CHRISTMAS morning more than 40 years ago still stands out in my mind as vividly as if it was yesterday.
It was the year my parents gave me a bike, a red Raleigh with – wonder of wonders – three-speed Sturmey-Archer gears.
There wasn’t a more ecstatic lad anywhere in the country.
I’d never had a new bike before, only a hand-me-down that fell to bits and then an ungainly Frankenstein’s monster created from spare parts, both single-speed.
Gears were for other people, and the knack of freewheeling to change up or down so the chain didn’t come off took a lot of oily fingers putting it back on before I mastered it.
I was straight off and the family didn’t see me for most of the rest of the day either side of dinner.
Only when darkness started falling and my dad put his foot down about going out again did I reluctantly quit.
Besides, The Great Escape was on telly, and I hadn’t seen it. That’s how long ago this was.
Yet something very like it happened in countless homes across our county yesterday. Bikes kept hidden in neighbour’s garages, as mine was, were wheeled out and the joy of boys and girls seeing them for the first time was exactly like mine.
They have multiple gears, not just three, and the chain won’t come off when changing, but the roads are now full of new bikes just as they were that long-gone Christmas Day when I was far from being the only one on a thrilling test run to see how fast it was possible to go.
I had no idea at the time that it was the start of a lifelong love affair with cycling, and neither will the fortunate recipients of new bicycles this Christmas. It’ll dawn on them gradually that life is better with a bike in it, and then they won’t be able to imagine it without one.
So much hasn’t changed, and yet too much has.
There was far less traffic then. On the terraced street where we lived, only half the people had cars. Now each house is likely to have at least two.
When the Christmas holidays were over, I rode my new bike to school as did lots of classmates, our parents waving us off in the morning without a second thought for our safety on the roads.
I don’t see many children cycling to school any more.
Walking, yes, because it’s safe and away from traffic. But not going on bikes because their parents worry about what they have to contend with on the roads, which any of us who cycle will understand.
I must have had more near misses in the past 10 years than I did in the preceding 30, not because of anything I’m doing, but simply because the roads are so crowded with drivers who haven’t the slightest consideration for cyclists and no clue how to behave around them, partly because they haven’t been taught.
In common with a lot of cyclists now, my mental sat nav looks for the quietest route and whether I can go through residential streets rather than on the main roads, even if that means going the long way round.
So I raised a cheer when the Government announced a series of measures aimed at making cyclists safer. The ideas went mostly unnoticed, being drowned out by all the Brexit clamour, but it’s to be hoped they go ahead.
Tackling the blocking of cycle lanes by parked vehicles, councils doing more to promote cycling and making it easier to prosecute bad drivers caught on camera by other road users were all included, and deserve praise.
But the one that caught my eye was the idea of reviewing the Highway Code to make learner drivers more aware of cyclists.
Hooray for that. Until those learning to drive have it drilled into them that awareness of cyclists and the space they need is central to safety on our roads, anybody on two wheels is in more danger than they should be.
It’s actually not hard to drive safely around cyclists. It doesn’t significantly slow anybody down to wait for the moment to give a bike enough room when passing, and proper vigilance in pulling out or opening the doors can put a stop to hundreds, possibly thousands, of accidents.
This stuff needs to go into the Highway Code so that learners are obliged to think about it, and instructors who don’t do so already place emphasis on the roads belonging to everybody who uses them.
A bike is going to be the best Christmas present a lot of children will ever have, as thrilling as it was to me all those years ago. Now let’s make sure they can enjoy it to the fullest by being safe.