A bike is the perfect Christmas present

…but Rob Ainsley asks whether creating safe cycling routes for children is something government and local councils might take out of Santa's hands so those bikes can actually see some use.

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As an A to B cyclist, I’ve carried some absurd loads in my time. A gallon of lager, for instance. Nothing remarkable about that – except it was inside a fellow music student at the time, after a Christmas party.

I gave her a ‘backie’ home. She was in no state to walk, and had no taxi money. (She hadn’t merely been at the Grolsch, either; it was something of a wacky backie.) She trilled through some impromptu Puccini on my rear rack, her passionate gestures threatening to decant us both onto south London’s back streets. And you thought cycling with bluetooth headphones at full volume was precarious.

What pleasure her 2am rendition of O mio babbino caro brought to Lewisham’s residents I don’t know. But I do know the load I’ve carried that caused most happiness.

Not the slap-up picnic I brought to a Hyde Park gathering, when I discovered that, thanks to the Old Kent Road’s moon-rough surface, the cream had whipped itself en route. Not the two litres of whisky I judiciously took to our bike tour in Norway, which over there was worth more than my bike. Not even my Presta/Schrader adaptor. (It’s astonishing how often you come across a puncture- repairing group flummoxed by their pump not fitting their inner tube valve.)

No. It was another bike, when my partner and I picked up our three-year-old nephew from nursery. I transported his yellow toddler-cycle there on the back of mine, its chunky little tyres sticking out either side of my rack like dodgem bumpers. Negotiating Harrogate’s narrow cycle-track gates was an entertainingly jolted affair.

The look on his face when he saw that he could cycle home was a picture. He zoomed down the sloping mile back to his house giggling in sheer delight.

It all made me nostalgically dewy-eyed for the last time I felt such simple, childlike joy like that, hurtling along and laughing with my mates Si and Mark on our bikes to my mum’s house. Wonder where they are now… Well, back at work, probably, because it was only last week.

Anyway, this Christmas, lots of kids will be getting bikes. That’s great. The ideal present. Children love cycling, and it develops fitness, confidence, independence etc (though you may never have space in the garage for a car again). But few will end up riding to school on them: only one per cent of 5-10 year olds and three per cent of 11-15s do so, according to Department for Transport figures. That’s not so great.

Granted, some live close enough to walk, or far enough to need motor transport, but the figures are still pathetic. Most childhood cycle rides will take place in grassy parks, helmeted, watched nervously by helicopter parents. That’s worse than useless, giving the message that cycling is dangerous, and that it’s much better for them to sit in the back of a car texting friends that they’re bored.

Without safe routes to schools, it’s all too easy for some parents and even schools to conspire in this joy-crushing process. It’s heartbreaking. So don’t take nonsense from anyone who tries to discourage cycling because it’s ‘too dangerous’: turn the fire on the councils to get good cycleways installed. That’s exactly what the Dutch did in the 1970s and 80s, and it was a major factor in developing the fabulous facilities that we’re all jealous of today.

The little lad’s brothers, five and seven, cycle by themselves to school, with entirely beneficial results. They’ll all be cyclists for life. Studies show that, therefore, compared with their non-cycling cohort, they’ll live longer, be fitter and healthier… and, in my humble but nevertheless correct opinion, have much more interesting friends and throw better parties too.

Well, almost. Musicians do the best parties of all, in my experience. Which is all very well, but it helps if you can get home under your own steam afterwards without waking half the neighbourhood.

So don’t overdo it this Christmas. But here’s to every child – and every grown-up – who gets a new bike on the 25th. Cheers!

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Photo by Mitchell Luo on Unsplash

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