WRITTEN BY BETH FRANCIS
How tricky can it possibly be to get an old bike – and a rusty former cyclist – back on the road?
Old cardboard boxes, empty compost bags, a broken rake. Sheila piled everything on the patio outside the shed. It was bitter cold. She closed the door quickly and turned to the rest of the pile of “things that might come in useful” that had accumulated at the back of her garden shed.
Her greenhouse had been cleaned in the autumn, seeds for the new season were ordered, the ground was frozen solid. Clearing out her shed was the nearest she could get to actual gardening.
She could see a deckchair jammed behind her old bike – the sort that used to be hired out on the local beach years ago. Imagining herself relaxing on a hot July afternoon, she lifted the bike out of the way.
Spiders ran for cover as she tugged at the chair. Fortunately spiders didn’t worry her, but her dream evaporated as the canvas fell apart.
She stacked the wooden struts in a corner to use in the summer to stake the delphiniums, scooped up the pieces of canvas and deposited them in the bin.
Back in the shed she looked at the bike. The tyres were flat, it was covered in dust, it squeaked. Too good to throw out, not good enough to sell. She left it and went indoors, her burst of enthusiasm fading as quickly as the afternoon light.
She thought about the bike that evening, remembering camping holidays when she and her husband had ridden miles along country lanes and former railway tracks. She’d always enjoyed cycling but the bike hadn’t been out of the shed for years.
Next day she wheeled it, squeaking loudly, onto the patio. There was no rust. Apart from the tyres, and that squeak, it seemed to be in working order.
The pump was missing, though. After an hour of increasingly desperate searching she found it, in a box of rusty tools, on a shelf in the garage. There was a can of bicycle oil, too.
She pumped up both tyres and oiled the chain. It was a frosty morning, but dry and sunny.
“No time like the present,” she muttered, going to fetch the crash helmet she’d seen when she’d been looking for the pump. By the time she returned the tyres were flat again. She re-inflated them and this time watched as the air slowly escaped, leaving the wheel rim resting on the patio slabs. Obviously new inner tubes were needed.
After booking the bike in for new tyres and a service at the local repair shop, Sheila struggled to remove the front wheel, so the bike would fit in the car boot. By the time she succeeded, she was so dispirited she decided to sell it once the repairs were done.
She had just pulled the bike from the car, after parking outside the shop, when a young apprentice came to help her.
“I’ll carry this for you,” he said, lifting the bike frame in one hand and the wheel in the other.
Sheila hurried after him.
Once it’s repaired, it’ll be easier to sell.
“Not going to ride it yourself?”
“I’m getting a bit old.”
“You’re not. My nan still rides her bike and she’s eighty.”
“Bob, when you’ve finished chatting there are bikes to repair,” a mechanic called from the window.
Bob grinned. “We’re coming, Mike.”
Sheila followed Bob and her bike into the workshop and booked the repair in.
“Should get that done first thing tomorrow,” Mike said. “We’ll soon get you back on the road.”
There was no hint that she was too old to consider cycling, or that her bike was too old to repair. It was as if he dealt with similar requests every day. Which he probably did, she reflected.
When she returned, a few days later, her bike was standing by the door all ready for collection.
“All done and ready to go,” Mike said, as she paid. “Happy cycling. If you do have any problems, just phone me.”
She wheeled the bike across the car park, buoyed by his attitude. He seemed to have no doubt about her riding ability.
As she opened the boot she saw Bob hurrying towards her.
“Mike sent me to help you,” he said, removing the front wheel and stowing the bike, too quickly for her to see exactly how he’d managed it.
There must be a knack, she thought, as she thanked him and drove home.
There might be a knack to removing the wheel, but after an hour of fruitless effort she had not found the way to replace it. Her independent spirit – or was it false pride? – prevented her from asking for help.
Riding the bike was a silly idea. She was too old, and unlike the bike, rusty.
Her daughter, Lindsey, phoned that evening for a catch-up.
“Hi, Mum. What have you been up to this week?”
“Clearing the garden shed,” Sheila said. “I found an old deck chair.”
“The one with bright yellow and red stripes? I remember that from when we were children.”
“The canvas had faded to a dirty brown colour and fell apart in my hands. It was hidden behind my old bike.”
I didn’t know you still had the bike. You used to enjoy cycling.
“It’s not been moved for years. I’ve had it repaired,” she admitted. “It needed new inner tubes.”
“Brilliant. You’ll be off riding again.”
“I don’t think so. I’m going to sell it. I brought it back from the shop but I can’t even get the wheel back on. We always had a cycle rack on the car, so I didn’t need to fit it inside.”
“We could do it on Saturday when I come over. If we have trouble, we can search online. Don’t think of selling the bike until you’ve at least tried it out.”
As soon as Lindsey hung up, Sheila reached for her tablet and looked up how to replace a wheel on a bike. Bob, Mike and now her daughter all seemed to think it was reasonable for her to cycle. She could do this.
An hour later, the wheel firmly fixed, she was ready for a trial ride on her driveway. Well, she was ready in her mind – but her body had different ideas. The days when she nonchalantly jumped onto the saddle and rode off were past.
Either she’d shrunk, like Alice In Wonderland, or her limbs weren’t as flexible as they used to be. Probably both.
Promising herself she’d return to exercise classes, she turned her attention to lowering the saddle. Even that proved difficult. She found a spanner, but the nuts were too tight to budge. She oiled them and left them overnight for the oil to soak in.
Next morning, the saddle lowered, she gingerly climbed onto the bike, with the aid of the garage wall. She wasn’t ready to ride on the road past all her neighbours, so she practised getting on and off in the privacy of the garage, until it became easy. Now she was ready to go.
On Saturday she was up early. With a snood keeping her ears warm under her helmet, driving gloves, and her thick anorak zipped up to her chin, she tucked her trousers into the top of her socks and wheeled the bike out of the garage. Lights were on in houses along the street, but no one else was venturing out. Her breath was visible in the frosty air but there was no ice on the road.
She took a few tentative pushes of the pedals, wobbled, slipped off the saddle and put her feet firmly back on the ground. She tried again, managing a few yards before once again losing confidence. Riding off into the distance was only a dream. She couldn’t even leave her own driveway.
She put the bike back into the garage.
“I’ve definitely decided to sell,” she told her daughter firmly when she arrived.
“Not yet, Mum. Give it one more try. Remember the fun we had, when you were teaching me to ride. You running up and down the road, holding the saddle, while I learned how to balance.”
“I remember. They were good times.”
“You and Dad taught my Sally and Tim as well.”
“I’ve got a photo of the grin on Sally’s face when she realised she was cycling on her own,” Sheila said fondly. “Your dad just managed to take it before she wobbled and fell off.”
You taught me, and my children – maybe it’s my turn now. Come on, Mum. Let’s spend an hour or so with me helping you.
“People will laugh,” Sheila said.
“Let them. It never used to bother you.”
Sheila sighed. She’d lost so much self-confidence month by month over the last few years. It was time to make a change. She wobbled up the road, with Lindsey holding onto the saddle, calling encouragement, until she realised the voice was receding. She was riding on her own. It was wonderful.
At the end of the road she turned the bike round and rode back towards her daughter, beaming with joy.
She almost fell off when she saw the mobile phone in Lindsey’s hand, but managed to dismount safely. Laughing, she looked at the photo. It was as joyous as the one of her granddaughter.
“I’ve never realised quite how alike you two are,” Lindsey said. “Let’s have coffee and cake. I think we’ve earned it.”
Sheila rode most days after that – short distances at first while she gained confidence and strength. Then, as the days lengthened and the weather improved she took longer trips.
As she rode, she remembered cycling as a child. Long-forgotten memories of racing down to the beach with friends, picnic and towels in the pannier. In her memory it was always summer, they were always laughing.
By the time summer came she was cycling for miles along the coastal path, ringing her bell cheerfully as she passed walkers, until there was just her, her bike and the path snaking ahead.
Until she came to the hilly sections. She found, even with practice, that what was possible decades ago was beyond her now. She didn’t remember having aching legs when she was a child. Scraped knees and cut elbows from when she’d been too adventurous and fallen off – yes. She’d woken up in hospital with mild concussion on one occasion after racing too fast downhill. But muscles screaming out for rest: that was different. She didn’t like it.
Cycling’s supposed to be a pleasure, she thought, as she dismounted yet again. Another couple were riding effortlessly up the hill. A young man and an older lady. A much older lady. She recognised Bob from the bike shop.
“Hi. It’s Sheila Price, isn’t it? I remember you bringing your bike for repair. Are you enjoying cycling again?”
“Mostly, but I wish I could get up the hills as easily as your Nan does,” Sheila said with an envious glance at the woman cycling steadily away.
“Nan – wait a minute,” Bob called. “Come back and show this lady how you get up hills.”
Bob’s Nan laughed and turned round.
“I cheat,” she called. “I pedal when I can, and get help when I need it.”
By the time she rode home Sheila had made a new friend, and tried out her electric bike. Maybe she would talk to Mike about buying one herself.
But not before she bought a new deckchair. An old-fashioned one with yellow and red stripes, if she could find one. Something to relax in when she got home after going for a spin.
Our My Weekly Favourites series of feel-good fiction from our archives continues on Mondays and Thursdays. Look out for the next one.
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