Looking back at the year just gone I’ve spent approximately 450 hours riding a bicycle. I’d wager that I’ve spent approximately 450 of those hours with both hands on the handlebars.
Riding hones the pedalling technique, endless fluid circles. The body adapting, the bike an extension of the rider. Endless loops of Richmond Park, I could navigate it with my eyes closed. Or packed into a fast moving peloton, navigating hair pin bends. At times one handed, either hand, looking backwards, sideways, nonchalantly, effortlessly. And yet… as soon as both hands let go I feel like a fish out of water. Or at least a fish about to leap from the water to land face first onto the tarmac.
Everyone claims to have a good sense of humour. After all, who thinks of themselves as humourless? And so every cyclist must believe in their own sense of balance, it’s a basic prerequisite. Riding on two wheels requires balance, and as far as I know there aren’t any stabilisers in the professional peloton.
I recall moments of skilled bike handling to support the belief in my talent for balance, those times of staying upright when those around me were sliding along the road having fallen like dominoes. But perhaps that was just luck? Or because I ride with such excessive caution that crashing into anything would be a statistical anomaly?
Letting go of the bars feels like relinquishing control. My arms naturally adopt the pose of the falling rider, like I’m reaching out in readiness to hug the road. My bicycle senses my fear and obliges by lunging to either side in search of something other than the straight path ahead.
I remember my first time riding a horse and being surprised it wasn’t the same as riding a bicycle – you couldn’t just steer the horse, it had a brain of its own. You could only ask it to go in the same direction that you wanted. And letting go of my bike’s reigns I get the same sensation, but when at the mercy of my bike I struggle to credit it with the same intelligence. Even the stupidest horse knows that falling over isn’t a good idea.
But the worst thing of all is the secret shame. Do you live in fear of being exposed as a fraud? Of not knowing your clinchers from your tubulars? Of that cold chill when standing in the bike shop and being asked a question that exceeds your technical knowledge? The inability to ride no handed is a fatal flaw in my illusion of cycling competence, it marks me out as an amateur. The pros shoot down mountainsides at 70kph peeling a banana.
And so with the start of the new year my resolution is to master riding with no hands. Sure, there are more important matters that need fixing. I’ve got to start going to bed earlier, to eat proper meals, and to even stretch once in a while. But even if I end up finishing dead last in every race over the next twelve months, I will at least be able to remove my gilet without having to drop two metres off the back of the bunch. And if things really go in my favour, to raise both arms in a victory salute without fear of falling short of the finishing line.