They say you never forget how to ride a bicycle. Well, once again they are wrong, and I’ve got to stop believing everything they say. I’m 50 years old and I just bought a bicycle but the last time I rode a bike was when I was 18. I used to love cycling when I was younger because it gave me the freedom to visit my friends who lived on the other side of town and because of the exhilarating sense of achievement when I was able to eventually conquer the steepest hills. But then I learnt to drive, so when I sat on my brand new bike for the first time, I wondered, “How do I switch this thing on?” I have managed to remember how to start but I can’t remember how to stop, so I’ve just been cycling up and down the driveway of my condo until I collapse from exhaustion, which takes all of ten minutes. I haven’t plucked up the courage to go onto the roads of Ampang yet because, well, there are Malaysian drivers out there.
The bicycle would seem to be an old-fashioned thing but a hundred years ago, they were the height of modernity, helping to, quite literally, pave the way for better roads, the spread of national newspapers, kick-start Malaya’s early rubber industry and even improve gender equality. In the 1880s, the bicycle was suddenly improved when wooden wheels were replaced with tyres made from Malaya’s brand new rubber plantations. There were not many cars back then and companies like Dunlop and Michelin sprang up to manufacture the pneumatic tyre for bicycles. In Europe, there was a sudden craze for cycling but it was dangerous for women because they had to wear huge skirts that would catch in the chain. So, they wore trousers, which was considered to be scandalous, and when young ladies went out cycling with men, the elderly chaperones couldn’t keep up, which created other scandals. The bicycle, too, created a scandal in Malaya in the 1890s, with outraged letters to Taiping’s newspaper the Perak Pioneer, complaining that Malay boys were riding their bikes dangerously fast. Fortunately, that sort of thing doesn’t happen anymore.
But it was the French who really took to the bicycle. France of a hundred years ago loved speed and it was they who pioneered car racing, the airplane, fast trains, fast ocean liners and the bicycle. In 1903, the struggling sports newspaper L’Auto introduced the first Tour de France. L’Auto was printed on yellow paper, hence the race leader wears a yellow jersey. In 1903, 60 cyclists fought through six stages that were each an astonishing 400 kilometres long. In a country that was barely connected by railways, the cyclists raced along appalling roads with spare tyres strapped around their bodies, swigging from bottles of wine (it was safer than drinking any offered drinks), smoking lots of Gitanes, eating at roadside cafés, drinking brandy to perk themselves up and then snoozing under trees. There was a lot of cheating in the early editions of le Tour. It was suspected that some cyclists took the train to the finishing line and in 1903, the pre-race favourite had himself dragged along by a car with a piece of string that he gripped with his teeth. He eventually pulled out of the race after being given a poisoned bottle of lemonade. Even now, over 100 years later, Tour de France cyclists will not drink anything offered by a roadside spectator. Fortunately, cheating doesn’t happen on the Tour de France anymore.
Although I love the Tour de France I don’t think I’ll be competing in it with my new bicycle. Not this year, at least. Not until I’ve summoned up enough courage to face the Malaysian roads. But the good news is that I won’t be alone because cycling is becoming popular in Malaysia again. With the explosion of cars on the roads from the 1980s, virtually all bicycles were swept away but now they are starting to come back. There are now a great many bicycle shops doing brisk business and a new breed of cycling enthusiasts is determinedly seeking out challenging routes. We have forgotten that Malaysia was once a nation of cyclists but ever so slowly drivers will relearn that the bicycle has as much right to the roads as the car.
I recently drove past a night-time cyclist who had wrapped so many lights around himself that he was blinking like a Christmas tree. I could try that.