I got my first bike when I was nine years old, an iridescent purple Malvern Star Roadster with Marlon handlebars, a red banana seat, white-walled tyres and three gears. I christened it “Jimmy” in honour of a relative who was a stock-car racer and caught catfish in the river. Jimmy, the bike, was my first love.
I rode this beast everywhere and, to shamelessly paraphrase Susan B Anthony, I understood: “The bicycle has done more for the independence of children than anything else in the world.” The suburb, the back lanes, the fields and forests, the river paths and swampland were far more exciting than any adventure novel or television series because they were just a short pedal away.
Jimmy the bike and I roamed our patch of dirt every afternoon until dark and all weekend, seeking out the steepest hills to test our legs, the wildest downhill forest paths and the overgrown tracks beside Stable Swamp Creek. Mud and blood and bruises were the markers of a day well spent.
There’s nothing quite like the relationship of a child to their bicycle, the endless adventures two wheels and a pair of strong legs offers. No video game, Covid-19 lockdown or computer simulation can replace the liberation of being alone on a bicycle, the senses tingling with possibility.
As parents and as a society, to deny children the simple pleasure of riding a bike is an abdication of our responsibilities to raise independent stable young citizens. We should be offering our sons and daughters a healthy alternative to hours in front of a mesmerising screen. Studies have shown that cycling promotes not only muscle growth but brain growth – I kid you not. Guess which country has children and teenagers with the best mental health outcomes and is regularly top of listings of happiest young people? No surprise it’s the bicycle-evangelist Netherlands.
Our dependence on cars has degraded the public transport system, polluted our skies, led to the untimely death of thousands every year, and denied children safe access to their suburbs. If you think I’m exaggerating, look at the figures. A recent study found that a whopping 69% of children were chaperoned to school. The same study found that a similar number of parents drove themselves to work. I imagine the figures would be very similar at weekends as parents transport children to sports events.
There’s nothing quite like the relationship of a child to their bicycle, the endless adventures two wheels offers
I rarely see children alone or in groups of friends any more, not without a parent hovering. The only time children are alone is in their bedroom with a computer, where the real hazards are lurking. Yet outside in the fresh air? Nah, too dangerous.
In some regions of Japan, when children start their first year of school parents are expected to walk with them for the first few weeks, introducing them to residents and shopkeepers along the chosen route, enlisting the community in the care of their child. After that, it’s forbidden for parents to drive their children to school. Children can ride a bike or walk to school, and it’s the community’s role to keep them safe. That sounds civilised to me.
The best solution is, of course, better infrastructure. Build separated cycle lanes, decrease speed limits, and design streetscapes that favour people over cars. The result will be less pollution, quieter suburbs, a healthier population and, best of all, happy independent children.
Many decades after my first exhilarating rides, I’m still more likely to be found in the saddle than behind a wheel. After writing 24 books for children and young adults, I’ve finally honoured my love of cycling and the independence a bike delivers in literary form.
Zoe, Max and the Bicycle Bus is a novel about a class of 10-year-old children in the inner-city and their new teacher who has the temerity to ride a bicycle to school and to encourage the students to follow in her path. The parents complain about the danger of cycling because “there’s too much traffic”, as they drop their sons and daughters outside the school gates, a four-wheel-drive conga-line of contradictions.
Aided by the elderly bloke who holds the stop sign at the pedestrian crossing to prevent absent-minded parents from endangering their own children, the class decide to take matters into their own hands. They encounter resistance from parents, the principal and the hotchpotch of council bike lanes that rarely link, white paint on bitumen offering dubious protection against two tonnes of speeding metal.
Zoe, Max and the Bicycle Bus is a gentle reminder that childhood should be a time of limitless possibility and adventure, when being alone, or in a group of peers, on a bicycle is where we learn the meaning of independence and joy. Are these simple pleasures to be denied to our children because it’s easier to hop in a car and sit in a traffic jam each morning? The children and their teacher in my novel understand there’s a better way to start their day – on a bike and in control. We could all follow their example.