The Bike and Other Stories
Cycling adventures around London, New York City, and Berlin.
Geoffrey Armes
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8th and Broadway (Bikes Borrowed and Stolen)
Geoffrey Armes - 2020-09-07 23:22:31+02:00

“But I thought you were only going round the lake?”

Yes, the lake. The mysterious reservoir of Chew Magna, a five mile circuit of mist shrouded, low cloud engulfed spirit house. The taken by fiat ride of the village boys, during the pause before dinner to build an appetite or skip homework in the name of fitness.

Also the first miles of a journey to Weston, or in an alternative direction, Bristol.

I was not a village boy, though I longed to be.

Like the village boys I had gone to Weston that way once, past the northern half of the lake. To meet friends and friends of friends and hang out at the Technical college and pretend I was and aspire to be a student there. To be anything other than the South London escapee who was all too soon to be returned to that environment where he did not wish to be.

When my turn came I too slipped past the lake to West Harptree and carried on down the wavy ribbon road that drove through the flat fields, hinter lands and ribbon villages that adorned the path to college.

This next time though, I wanted Bristol. An action unannounced even to me until I suddenly sought a journey to my birth city and scene of my first eight years, a sign and symbol for all my longing for relief from the (I felt) much too hard vicissitude of that particular South London I lived with.

I borrowed the bike, said my goodbye and see you soon, and left with no pump no tube no knowledge of how to remove a wheel, just went.

Gone.

I’d gone into Chew and turned my back on the lake segment. Instead, on a hunch I followed a sign right, one that claimed Bristol was 11 miles away. I’d ride down there, do a turn and come back. At least I could say I’d visited the city this trip.

The road, a sinewy course of battleship grey tarmac climbed out of the village, with the usual guiding middle stripe, occasional stone farmhouse and drywall couching a spinny of trees, broken farm machinery and posh car. I pedalled further, it generally climbed even as it negotiated dips and valleys. After each descent, I would stand in the saddle and churn up the other side. I sped past a mother and daughter out for a stroll, and gasped and snorted noisily in order to underline my strength for them. Look, see me, how good I am… a last effort, surely now I’d see the city. And I did, working my way up a long slope to a sign and there it was spread below, a miasma strewn glitter pulsing in the thick light of oncoming evensong. How far? I screwed my neck around in order to read the sign. Eleven miles. 11 Miles!? Something wasn’t right - I must have made a false turn or mis-reading something on my way.

I considered going on, down the hill to the welcome below that certainly looked a lot closer than 11 miles but I couldn’t risk a mistake again.

Dusk hovered in the hedges, banked above the lanes. Reluctantly I turned, retraced to Bishop Sutton in the gloaming. On my borrowed bike.

But I thought you were going round the lake….. is all I recall of the telling off I got from the mother of the boy who’s had loaned the bike.

A couple of years later, back in London I scored Vicki’s bike. Vicki was kind of the it girl at school - also “Head Girl” - busty, blonde, American, and talented. She spent much of her spare time in the Art Department, working on textiles. I decided to emulate her - somehow this possibility of staying on after classes were officially over hadn’t occurred to me before she led the way. I would work on my painting or occasionally stained glass, and then later as time progressed we took to going back to her house for more academic studies.

I needed the bike for my commute to a summer job as the tea-boy on an inaccessible building site in Crystal Palace sports centre. No lake to circle instead came a climb and a descent in both directions. The bike was an orange racer with ten gears. The first time I rode up Crystal Palace hill, well, I didn’t. Instead I was forced into the ignominy of walking the steepest section as I had left the bike in the biggest, a sprinter’s say, gear. I learned though, and kept the bike through the summer, only reluctantly surrendering it to its rightful owner as winter adumbrated the turning year.

The third, and the first that stuck, was a Falcon, also orange (or was it gold?), bought in the early eighties from Lou’s shop in Penge for my commute to the Elephant. I learnt to climb hills on it. Crystal Palace, Anerley, Dog Kennel, College Road, Streatham, Sydenham, Denmark, all encountered at various times during those commutes. Over time all eased from leg numbingly hard into smooth and easy, familiar and welcome. Sharp short and demanding, I’d race up them against cars and cyclists alike. Every morning I was greeted with a hill. I got better, went further until this bike, replete with mudguards also rode the evening ten out on the A 21, usually needing about 25 minutes to complete the undulating circuit which while not a top three time was considered a decent outing on that course. It wasn’t Sean Yates who during this period went under 20 minutes, down near Tonbridge. A national record.

I do not remember the eventual demise of this bike, but I did manage to collect some insurance money and augment that with enough to buy a Roy Thame. Light, with butted tubing and removable mudguards this became the fourth bike. One I rode for a while, a regular commute across South London to Avery Hill, then a not so regular commute to the Laban Centre at New Cross as I increasingly opted to take the train in to my musician work at the Centre. Eventually she was stolen. Embarrassingly, left outside a seemingly deserted Penge West station and I think, stolen by the only other customer I saw there that day as I bought my monthly train ticket. Of them all that got away, that is the one I still grieve and hope to replace. More on that see the story “Lou”.

In Holland, naturally I had a borrowed Dutch Bike, an uprightly serene and stately galleon that I propelled, (although at times it propelled me) through the clanging trams and shopping areas of Kralingen to the dance class gigs I then played, to Delfthaven for the long medical I had to have in order to start that gig, or to the Hal 4 in the Waterwerk where I first met Joke. More on her later.

I was stopped once by the police for riding without lights. Luckily I was able to play the innocent foreigner well enough to be let off with a warning although I understood enough Dutch to realise that they were wondering if I was a Dutch guy taking the piss by pretending to be English.

That winter I left from Groningen (where I had no bike but a friend) for Berlin (where I eventually acquired both). The bus to the border crossed endless mist and wet roadways, and when I reached Germany the sky darkened noticeably. I drank acrid coffee, and stared through the rain at the first hills I had seen for several months.

Here I had some no name racer that I never rode far. That I eventually sold before moving to NYC. I recall no bike shops, no rural routes, no flat tires. I don’t remember buying it. I do recall taking it to Cologne on the train. and then onto Rotterdam, where it arrived separately some days after I left to return to Berlin. I recall the light on the Ku-Damm and Kantstr and Kreuzberg. The barking of the dustbin men and the clatter of bins heard but not seen from our balcony. The pillow case pink clouds as the sun rose on the long walk home early morning after the late gigs out. For some reason I rode the bike but little there. In the early eighties it was for me, that kind of time.

8th and Broadway

In New York came the orange Flandria. Procured by the girlfriend when she made the ex boyfriend return it. I had it serviced in a shop on 8th and Broadway where they flatteringly asked if I would be racing next season. My heart leaped at the idea, but my brain busily counted the fiscal reality of getting set up for that. Besides, I had a budding music career to tend.

This bike did some erranding though, from my eyrie on West 10th up to the Graham School on E 63rd or across the Village to NYU Tisch on 2nd ave. Over Westwards to Cunningham regularly one brief Summer. It was under constant threat of being stolen away from me, and eventually was nicked, along with the girl I shared life with then. In both cases the result of my laziness and in-attendance. And something of an echo of how the Roy Thame was stolen, or maybe more apt is that the loss of the Roy Thame adumbrated the loss of the Flandria:

Generally I hooked the bike over my shoulder and hoofed it up the five floors to the apartment door. Generally I locked it on the landing by our front door.

One afternoon I neglected to lock it, but some instinct caused me to check out there just as a guy had it hooked on his shoulder and was disappearing down the second flight of stairs. I tore after him, but he was fast, as fast as I was in pursuit, until without shoes but wearing socks I lost my footing and fell after him, my feet ricocheting on the rubber tread of the pine stairwell. Muffled but loud drumming echoed as I clattered and battered, fell like a skier feet first close to his back as he panicked and threw the bike down and ran the last passage way for the door with my property between us. My heel was bruised for months.

The bike was safe, at least for a few more months until a stupid afternoon. Returning from one errand, but knowing I had another shortly, and understanding that this was dangerous I locked the bike with a weak cable to the fence and climbed the stairs alone.

Of course I returned down to that ghastly empty space of mourning where the bike had been. Casting about like a hound searching a spoor, I refused to believe my own memory of how I’d left her, searched for the joke or joker to end this bad dream. Then realising life goes on even if the bike doesn’t live in your hands anymore and that there was no point stopping to report the loss I turned towards 5th ave and resumed the day.

After the debacle of the Roy Thame at Penge West station a couple of years earlier I should have known better. And this time there was no comfort of insurance for the immigrant musician in NYC 1985.

8th and Broadway

The cacophony of drums and shouts and large vehicle traffic, the scurry and hurry of an alienated lonely crowd in haste. The sound of a woman’s voice - quintessentially English - serenely pushes, cleaves, calmly through, nostalgia aching on very vowel.

“To be in England in the summertime, with my love, close to the edge”

The jeep runs the light, hangs left at Astor Place.

Tears….

8th and Broadway

“He hurt me,” she suddenly cried. “He dug his elbow in here,” pointing at her right breast. We stopped, I put my arm around her, soft protective. She whimpered. Suddenly the rage took me. Am I a man? I left her suddenly, ran and kicked out, thumped his head, then turned back. To her. We kept walking, south, and he did also, north. I think.

……………………………………………………………..

At the end of the eighties I was back in London, where another bike I loved and lost was the Dutch bike I bought from Imbert as he moved to the USA. It served me faithfully between Falconer’s studio and various Camden night clubs to my girlfriend’s flat in Hammersmith and Rambert Academy in Richmond, to my rooms in Kennington and the Central London Subud group.

In the late night small hours the exhilaration of coursing down wide monumental Central London streets under the summer half light glow over smooth asphalt was a complete sensation.

Eventually the studio expanded into two locations with the acquisition of the Firehouse studio as Falconer 2 in Kentish Town and I left the bike there as a Taxi for anyone to use between the two locations.

I was heading back to NYC.

I have few memories of the silver steed I briefly had there this time and no idea of how I acquired it. Perhaps a salient moment was when I decided to get involved with the ad hoc racing in Central Park. I tried to grab a wheel, hang on the tails of the first fast group to come by, just as the circuit turned to cross the northern edge - I remember a small rise? - but I couldn’t hold the pace and I thrashed out of the saddle to get back in as the group parted then closed again to absorb and circumvent smaller family groups out pleasure riding. I nearly sideswiped someone as we thrashed on. “What are you guys doing?” screamed a voice from behind and I knew I had been a culprit. I had terrorised a small child perhaps, or nearly smacked a father busy with his brood.

I was dangerous! Not fit, not tuned, not ready.

I lent it to a friend from England, who turned the handle bars and ruined the ride position for me who had no tools available to fix it and then it went to a mutual friend in Brooklyn who described nearly ramming parked cars while tottering along astride the beast.

Her working days were over.

There was one other, again silver, a too small for me that I bought for my eldest daughter that I later commandeered to commute from the East Village to the Cunningham Studio in Westbeth. My knees near scraping the bars I would sprint buses on ninth street or totter with a guitar on my back along Bleecker Street. Occasionally I tried riding uptown but that was when I discovered just how gridlocked NYC had become. No urban warrior and my daughter also disinterested we hung up the wheels in the basement until we moved to Berlin

Bikes now?

Well first there are the workhorses - aluminium a battered old tanks with panniers and racks, an old steel single speed that in its heyday was a more than decent track machine, the children’s bikes and the two carbon framed road machines that I drive through Grunewald on my thrice weekly quest for fitness and food for the heart. More later….

Berlin 2020