What more dispiriting experience is there for a cyclist than discovering that their bike has been nicked? This has happened to me only once. It was the first bicycle I owned as an adult. I had been given it by a friend who lived in London who had been put off riding in the capital after a friend of his was knocked off his bike.
It was stolen from right outside where I used to live. I used to chain it to the railings at the front of my house. The chain I used was no match for a handy pair of bolt cutters, apparently. That bicycle had particular meaning for me- apart from being my first bicycle, it also accompanied me in what I was going through at that time. It was the bike I owned when I was first diagnosed. I never rode very far on it. Before I recognised that I was depressed I used to get up early and cycle down to the beach before going to work in London. I would cycle along the seafront watched by homeless people who sleep on the benches, and in shelters that dot the beach front, as they were waking up. It was the bicycle I rode down to the beach in the middle of the night, in the summer of 2001, abandoned on the esplanade that runs along the length of the beach, and ran across the pebbles towards the waves in what I came to recognise later was a haze of suicidal impulsiveness. Somehow, an impulse stronger than the seductive rhythm of the surf prevented me from staggering into the water and salty oblivion. For years afterwards I avoided going to the seafront as much as possible – not an easy task bringing up young children half a mile from the beach.
I forget how long it was after that episode that I put my bicycle out of sight in the shed at the bttom of the garden. It stayed there for a year, while I hibernated in bed, barely able to function. I remember the first time I took it out of the shed and tottered around the block on it, riding on the pavement, before putting it back in the shed once more and retreating inside to recover…for months.
The day after that bicycle was stolen my wife drove to work and came home with a new bicycle for me. I clearly remember coming out of the house and crossing the road to where her car was parked with the new bicycle strapped to the bike rack. It felt like a symbol of hope that I could find my way back to who I was, and what I wanted to become; someone had faith in me that I could find my way back, and recognised what I needed to do so.
I took the title of this instalment of my blog from the title of the Italian film of 1948 ‘Ladri di Biciclette’. The film revolves around the main protagonist’s search for his stolen bicycle which his wife had pawned their bedsheets so that he could redeem it from the pawn broker and secure a job putting up posters around the city. Although the film ends on a despairing note, as he tries unsuccessfully to steal a bicycle, the film resonates with me because of the idea that the bicycle offers him hope of a better life. For me, it highlights the sacrifices, and the lengths that we need to go to attain that goal.
Earlier that same year Gino Bartali won the Tour de France for the second time (he also won the King of the Mountains jersey that year). It was the Italian’s second win after a gap of ten years. The length of time between those victories also carries a message of hope for me. In the 1948 race Bartali was on the point of giving up, but inspired by a phone call from the Italian prime minister that a victory would reunite a country on the brink of civil unrest, he rode on to victory.
It is possible to return to our best selves and reach our potential – even after a long gap, even when we feel like giving up on life, it is possible to succeed in whatever we choose to do.
- I must down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by,
And the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sail’s shaking,
And a grey mist on the sea’s face, and a grey dawn breaking.I must down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide
Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;
And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,
And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.I must down to the seas again, to the vagrant gypsy life,
To the gull’s way and the whale’s way where the wind’s like a whetted knife;
And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover
And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick’s over.
- By John Masefield (1878-1967)
(English Poet Laureate, 1930-1967.)