Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Victories from De Fiets

When I was a teenager cycling to school, I wondered at those kids who could cycle no handed. Steering a bike without direct use of one's hands seemed to be a form of magical control over one's environment. As a clumsy, awkward soul forced into a stringy, uncontrollable body, a state where any form of movement didn't feel like it resembled an epileptic ape break-dancing on ecstasy was something unobtainable.

Some people walk effortlessly into a room and the room makes space for them. I would walk in, barely missing the door frame and often even the air itself wouldn't part for me.

Many years lie between me and that self-conscious Kentish boy. I now find myself walking foreign cobbles and, more frequently, cycling on them.

A couple of years after coming to Amsterdam (supposedly for six months) I felt for the first time in my life able to try cycling with no hands. Amongst the Dutch, born on cycles and able to perform things on them that in the UK would only be done in a circus, it was a basic skill, but for me it was still a mystical overachievement.

On the first try, my hands tentatively left the bars; there was a wobble and they returned. They were off for less than a second but long enough for me to realise, despite the wobble, there was some small chance I could master this. After all, I had not instantly fallen off and been crushed by a passing steamroller. I worked at it; the brief period increased, but rarely got beyond a whole second. It was frustrating. The more I tried the less progress I seemed to make. I watched intently the people who could do it to see what I was doing wrong. They didn't seem to put any effort into it as if they were mocking me.

It was one of those wonderful late summer days where the leaves are getting excited about autumn but the clouds are still on holiday so that for a short period the sun is allowed access to every part of the city. It rests itself on the dark canal water that hides surprisingly well-fed fish. It shines in the stained glass above the doors of once-notable narrow houses. It glints off the cycle-bestrewn railings and follows you as you rise and fall over the bridges.

I was "fietsing" along a canal on a bike I loved despite being more rust than metal and having a propensity for punctures. The cool wind was in my hair, the sun on my face and I was surrounded by that pleasing combination of canal, narrow houses and gentle bridges. Suddenly it occurred to me I felt more at home here than in any other city I had ever found myself. Not that I belonged, but that here was a place that would happily accommodate me and that I could feel I owned in a way you cannot with larger cities. I was elated that a place could be seemingly as welcoming as a family and that, by accident, I had found a place with air that parted when I cycled through it. I was in such a state of contentedness I barely noticed I had taken my hands off the handle bars.

When I realised, I fought the urge to put them straight back. I made myself take in the achievement I had began writing off as impossible for someone like me. I asked my body what it was doing and it shrugged. It didn't know. It took a few times of doing it to realise that the secret is this: not to try. Just be relaxed, not worry and let the bike do what it does best.

These days I take my hands off the bars every chance I get. Sometimes to show off, I wave them around. When the mood takes me I celebrate the new confident, contented me by gesticulating like an epileptic ape break-dancing on ecstasy, just so that I know I never really did look like that.