"Riding Backwards," by Jerry Baumgartner (Summer, 2003)
Last month Paul Evans talked about how riding bicycles is supposed to be fun. He's right. And a large part of what makes it fun is that most of us don't need to give a lot of thought as to how to drive the 'machine'. We all know how to shift, brake, keep our balance, and most importantly: which side of the road to ride on.
I had to go to the United Kingdom to work in July. Flying from Charlotte to London is an 8 ½-hour trip and I was only going for one day of work. I didn't see a lot of logic to that much travel for one day, so I decided to schedule the work day for a Friday and visit a friend in Aston Clinton, just outside of London, for the weekend.
Anne and I met Jan on a cycling trip that we did in 1995 from Seattle, Washington, to the Mexican Border. Over the course of two months of cycling we ran into her and her partner, Neil, about six times and became friends with them. This weekend would be the first time I had seen Jan for three years, and she wanted to take me cycling around her area. With that in mind I packed in my briefcase, shorts, jersey, and SPD sandals and headed for England.
Sunday morning came and Neil and his wife showed up at Jan's house on the tandem they had purchased in January. I hadn't seen Neil since 1998 so we had some catching up to do before we went riding. Turns out he and his wife had just returned from a three-week trip cycling in Cuba and had a fantastic time. Cuba! Wow! I guess I would never have thought of Cuba as a cycling destination.
After about an hour of talking we decided to head out on the bikes and cycle to the village of Aldbury to have lunch at the pub. Now the fun began. I was mentally ready for riding on the WRONG side of the road. New Zealand roads are left side driving and I'd spent four months riding there in 1996. So we headed out with me at the 'back of the peleton' - I wanted lots of guidance from this group.
A few words about the bike I was on. Jan had borrowed the bike from her neighbor; and it was an upright bike with mountain bike gearing, brakes, and tires. I was a bit uncomfortable, sitting upright, but grateful for the opportunity to cycle.
We rode for about 2 miles at a pretty good pace before coming to a corner with a left-hand turn. I put on the brake to slow myself and almost went over the handle bar! "What the hell is going on?" I had applied the right-hand brake lever but the front brake engaged. The others stopped and came back to find out what was the matter with me. When I told them that the brakes were backwards - the right-hand lever was supposed to operate the rear brake, they looked at me and said, "No. The right-hand lever operates the front brake. The left-hand lever operates the rear brake. That's the way bikes are set up in England".
All right. I have to ride on the WRONG side of the road, plus I'd have to learn to use the brakes backwards at the same time. "I can do that. I'll have to think about it, but I can do it." At least that's what I told myself. So I practiced and tested the brakes and after about a mile or so I really was able to get the system down. Now I was cooking.
The first few miles were pretty flat and I rode without having to shift. I had enough on my plate thinking about where to ride, and thinking about operating backwards with my brakes, so I was thankful. After a few miles the gradient began to drop toward a stream some distance out. My cadence began to increase as the pedaling eased so I clicked the right shift lever to shift into a harder gear with the back derailleur. Suddenly my legs began to spin so fast I almost went out of control, and I headed for the RIGHT side of the road! And I braked hard! And of course I did it wrong! I gripped the right-hand lever for the rear brake, and again the bike started to go over. "What the -- What is going on here?" I shouted.
I got the bike back on the WRONG side of the road where I belonged, and the group came back to see what the problem for a second time. I was beginning to feel embarrassed. After all, I wasn't supposed to be a novice at riding. We looked at the bike and the rear derailleur had a 'direction changer' pulley on it. What that meant was that to shift the rear derailleur into the easier gears I had to 'click' the shifting lever, and to shift into the harder, faster gears I had to 'push' the shifter lever. Exactly the reverse of any bike I had heard of. Actually, the UK folks had never seen anything like it either.
So that was my ride. Sitting upright on the bike, riding on the WRONG side of the road, with brakes that were opposite to US bikes, and a rear derailleur that operated backwards. It was hard work. I had to concentrate on riding more than I have since I learned to ride a bike. So with all that going on did I have fun? Yes, I certainly did. I guess I did what Paul talked about in his July newsletter article. Why not have fun? After all I was cycling in England,
And it was a great day. We cycled for about 4 miles along one of the canals used for narrow boats, and there were two colorfully painted boats that we passed along the way. People were relaxing on the boats and the whole canal scene reminded me of one of my favorite books, Wind in the Willows. We continued to peddle into the small village of Aldbury and had a delightful lunch at the pub. After lunch we rode for about 45 minutes through a small copse of wood, following a well used trail before rejoining one of the narrow English lanes flanked by hedgerows. We ended up back at the house in time to watch the final stage of the Tour de France.
What could be better? Good friends, good food, and good cycling - even though the cycling was backwards.