I remember it vividly. My new cycling companion from Liverpool and I were pedaling through Poland back in 1992 when we came across this young lad sitting on the side of the road limply kicking his soccer ball as his bike lay on its side covered by the long grass on the verge.
He had a puncture and no tools nor pump. Without exchanging many words we had the wheel and tire off in seconds as the glue was drying waiting for the patch to be fitted. Our young friend was just enjoying the ride, well not literally, at least not yet.
As the wheel was put into place and the last thrusts of air were pushed into the newly-patched tube the smile grew wider on all of our faces.
The soccer ball was strapped to his rack, and with a whoop of pleasure he took off down the road kicking up dust in his wake. In that few minute interlude not much was said, but we knew his friends were waiting for him so they could play a game of soccer. Now the match would go on.
John, with whom I remained friends with over the ensuing years, hilariously recounts many of our cycling exploits in Eastern Europe in his recently-published autobiography. His story from inner-city Liverpool childhood to one of Britain’s most well-known comedians will certainly bring smiles to many faces. When we met though he was just simply a funny guy.
Recently reading his book I drew some parallels in our lives, inner-city kids fulfilling childhood dreams, and making people smile along the way, well John makes them laugh out loud. His tales made me appreciate how nothing is predestined, and to share any talent, no matter how big or small, is fulfilling and necessary for all involved.
The simple pleasure of fixing or riding a bike always makes me feel nice inside. Over the years since the bicycle re-found me in Japan in the late eighties there have been many smiles and many miles. My path as I look back is also full of greasy-handed fond memories of happy people riding off on their bikes.
My passion for the practical side of cycling has seen me tuning up rental fleets in northern Italy for accommodation in a youth hostel, fixing police bikes for beer in Mexico, helping friends open and run bicycle shops in New York, owning my own small shops in two various places on The British Isles, and most recently being down in Sierra Leone Africa for three months working with an American NGO – Village Bicycle Project.
I consider myself lucky to have on and off worked in that industry for well over twenty years now. I have seen big changes in the modus operandi of the bicycle trade, but more than that I have seen many smiles.
Yesterday when I got back home I came back to my excited daughter running up and telling me we had visitors. I saw, sitting on our small terrace in the dappled sunlight, two unknown faces and pitched up in the garden a tent with two bicycles leaned on a tree.
When the cyclists pulled up with the loaded bicycles my wife Angie assumed it was something to do with me as it wouldn’t have been the first time I brought home stray travelers to come and stay, but no, this time it was providence.
The young couple had recently left their previous lives behind, emptied their apartment and set off on two wheels each to find a different way of life. The apartment in Strasbourg and the nine to five routine wasn’t fulfilling them on a deeper level so they headed down to the Pyrenees to cut a different path. They just randomly chose our house to ask to put up their tent. I was brought back in my memory to a younger hairier version of myself on a similar quest.
Pierre’s bike had a few brake glitches. Fortunately we found and fixed the problems. A small adjustment and a product called ‘Cable Magic’ dripped down the housing helped sort it out. Just like that young Polish lad John and I had the pleasure of helping all those years ago, a broad smile came to Pierre’s face as he pulled the brake lever saying “Much better!”
Dinner was eaten out on our picnic table. My son Louis was chatting away to Pierre’s girlfriend Melanie about school, bicycles and whatever else he could find to talk about. My daughter Francesca was still smiling enjoying new faces at the table, and my wife Angie was spooning out a lovely warm dessert of apples from our friend’s tree and blackberries from the surrounding brambles baked together nicely in the form of a delicious crumble.
The weather was that beautiful October evening you couldn’t call in and order any better. I looked down at my greasy hands, relishing in the beauty of the moment while listening to the birds flutter in the surrounding trees. I glanced over to Pierre’s smiling face and thought to myself, the simple pleasures are so wonderful, and I want to consciously remind myself just how special they are!`