As a child, I was fortunate enough to have parents who loved the outdoors, and were determined to share that with me. Growing up in Scotland, this was pretty easy - we would go camping, sailing, and hillwalking regularly; they even made the pretty brave move of taking me to my first bothy when I was no more than a few months old.
"One thing I really hated: cycling."
Usually, I was fairly enthusiastic (bribery helped), but there was one thing I really hated: cycling. This attitude stuck with me for years, but when moving to Edinburgh for University, I decided I’d give it one more shot. I took my parent’s old bike - an ugly, heavy, American bike with a gel saddle that was as thick as a sofa cushion and yet somehow still incredibly uncomfortable - and would ride it to work and back, where it was mocked (lovingly?) and dubbed the BSO; Bike Shaped Object. Although I did start to enjoy my commute (which was very short, and entirely on off-road cycle paths); the thought of cycling in the busy Edinburgh traffic terrified me, and that fear prevented me from ever venturing further than the mile or so between home and work.
Then in 2016, I left Edinburgh and the BSO to study in Nantes, France, for a semester. My commute to school involved a tram journey and 2 buses, which would always be crammed full of people, hot, and loud - taking almost an hour each way. As we travelled along the busy roads, occasionally I could spot what looked like a cycle path winding through the trees nearby - and it made me want to get on a bike again.
"I could spot what looked like a cycle
path... it just looked so tempting"
But the thought of cycling in a foreign country was far scarier than Edinburgh; not only would I have to learn to cycle on the roads, I’d have to learn to cycle on the ‘wrong’ side of those roads. I had barely any money, so would have to try to find a bike second-hand, and my very limited French would make that even trickier. I knew nothing about what I needed to look for, and had zero knowledge of bike maintenance; not even how to fix a puncture. But every morning I would see that cycle path and trace the route a little bit further, and it just looked so tempting.
Eventually, I bit the bullet. One of my neighbours told me about Leboncoin (basically a French version of Gumtree), and after a little research and a lot of google translate, I found a bike that I could just about afford. I arranged to meet the person who was selling it, and although I had no idea about how to check the sizing of a bike, it felt about right, the brakes worked, and most importantly it looked nothing like the BSO. So I bought it, for €60.
"There were definitely teething
From that moment, I was in at the deep end. The only way to get the bike back to my halls was to ride it there - on the roads. I’d carefully planned my route beforehand, tracing the road on Street View, trying to memorise every junction and roundabout that I’d need to navigate. Looking back, it was a simple route, but at the time it felt like a huge deal. There were definitely teething issues -with it’s road tyres and drop bars (which were a completely alien concept to me) the bike felt very different to any I’d ridden before, the saddle was far too high, and as expected, the roads were scary. But I made it back, and as soon as I stepped off the bike I felt a surge of excitement and pride.
The next morning, I didn’t leave with everyone else for the tram; instead, I wheeled my bike out of the shed. I was excited. That first cycle to school went very smoothly - although the first 5 minutes were on busy roads with a scary roundabout, most of the route was along the cycle path that I’d seen from the bus window. I spent the whole ride grinning to myself, feeling so smug as I cycled in the sunshine past the queues of traffic on the road nearby, and I arrived feeling ecstatic - completely different to the lack of energy that I would always feel after the long bus/tram commute.
"For the first time, I would go cycling for
the sheer pleasure of it..."
It took me a while to gain my confidence; but eventually, I started to improve. Junctions and roundabouts scared me less, and I noticed myself getting faster and braver, although I was still cautious on the busier roads. Cycling opened up the city to me; I could go wherever I wanted, whenever I wanted, without having to buy a tram ticket. And for the first time, I would go cycling for the sheer pleasure of it, rather than necessarily needing a reason or a destination. In the evenings, I would open google maps, search for places that sounded interesting, and check the distance to see whether I was able to ride there yet - and as my confidence grew, so did the distances that I would attempt.
Eventually, it came time for me to move back to Scotland, and, unable to take the bike with me, I gifted it to La Musette; a tiny bike repair shop/cafe who had helped me numerous times during my stay. It wasn’t until I was walking out of the shop without it that I realised how much of a bond I’d built with that bike; despite it’s flaws, it had become a kind of symbol of everything that it had made possible.
So as soon as I arrived home, I bought my first proper bike; a green and white cyclocross that, although basic, has become my pride and joy. It cost me just over £300 (fairly cheap for a bike), but it always copes with anything I throw at it. With that bike, I’ve been able to explore remote parts of Scotland, both on my own and with friends. I love the freedom that it gives me, as well as the satisfaction I feel every time I cycle a little further than I’ve managed before.
"Cycling has really changed the
way I think"
It doesn’t always go smoothly (I recently tried to do my first 100km ride and ended up having to bail out and hitchhike home), but it’s not an adventure if something doesn’t go wrong; or at least, that’s my excuse. I’ve learned from my many mistakes - I’ve slowly got to grips with basic bike maintenance with a lot of help from youtube and some bike-loving friends, and I’ve just signed up to a cycling challenge in the Borders this summer.
Besides being the basis for most of my adventures now, cycling has really changed the way I think. Especially during my final year of University, being able to escape the stress of deadlines and creative block for a couple of hours each week was a lifeline that pulled me out of a couple of fairly major slumps. When I’m out in the middle of nowhere on my bike I feel invincible, and I have learned how to keep some of that feeling with me, even when I’m out of the saddle.
Emily lives in Edinburgh, Scotland where she
is a creative and Graphic Designer.