Turning 70 – as I did earlier this month, against my better judgement – one is primed to look back at threescore years and ten, perhaps seeking out the pillars of existence that have endured and sustained one amidst the passing tumult and chaos we call life.
Strangely enough, for me, one such pillar has been the simple act of sitting on a narrow saddle, applying leg power to a couple of pedals linked by gears and chain to a couple of wheels and thereby slowly moving about the surface of the planet upon which I found myself.
I write “strangely enough” because my first encounters with this arcane mode of travel were far from promising. Like most boys of my post-war English generation, my first bike was a three-wheeler upon which I used to enjoy careening around our country garden terrorizing our dogs and veering into fences, garden sheds, compost pits and rose trellises.
It was an idyll to which I would have happily been loyal had my father not had grander ideas. He, of course, wanted his son to graduate onto more sophisticated “proper” bicycles and I did so on the occasion of my fourth birthday in January 1953.
This “real” bike fortuitously arrived with trainer wheels attached and so my false sense of non-gravitational security was allowed to endure for a few more weeks. But with spring the fateful day arrived when papa decreed that the trainer wheels were to be removed and little Barry was to come face-to-face with Sir Isaac Newton’s annoying discovery.
So it was that I set forth up the garden path on two unsupported wheels for the first time, and almost immediately the true gravity of the situation became horribly apparent. Young boy’s knees met uncompromising concrete in the first of many such painful encounters and the manufacturers of band-aids, Dettol and antiseptic gauze were the outright winners of the bruising encounter. Big Pharma were preying upon me even at this young age.
Despite my early two-wheeled misfortunes I persevered and eventually came to, if not a mutual understanding with gravity, then at least a grudging degree of respect.
At the age of 11, I was sent to quite a famous secondary educational institution – King Edward’s School for Boys in Birmingham, founded by Henry VIII’s sickly son Edward VI.
To reach King Edward’s I had to cycle about eight kilometres each way, leaving home at about seven each morning come rain, snow or (very rarely) shine. I used to tootle along beside a huge reservoir and across its dam wall on my bike, arriving at the school gates usually freezing.
My school days seemed to pass in a maelstrom of Latin verbs, regular beatings by mortarboard-wearing masters and rugger games played on frozen, rock-hard pitches from which grazing sheep had first to be evacuated prior to kick-off.
Later, I cycled around the huge, lush green campus of Nottingham University, from lectures, to parties, to rugby games and even to late night assignations in a female hall of residence where it was rumoured that the lady warden kept a shotgun under her bed in order to deter late night visitors such as myself from gaining access to her gaggle of delectable female charges.
On Sundays I regularly cycled about 30 hilly kilometres to meet my father and grandfather at a small stream running into the River Severn near Stourport in a lovely little Worcestershire valley, where we then spent blissful days fishing for, and quite often netting, wild brown trout and the occasional salmon. After an early evening in the local pub, they would drive off and I would cycle all the way home again.
When I think back on such cycling adventures from my present vantage point, the question of where I got the energy for these exploits is a total mystery to my 70-year-old self.
Suffice to say that the bicycle remained a staunch and dependable friend to me throughout life and my peripatetic career working in media and marketing communications in London, Toronto, Hong Kong, Sydney and Bangkok. There was always a bike or two waiting for me in my garage offering me escape, relaxation and diversion from the pressures of career, family and the congested and increasingly polluted cities in which I, like most of us, had to work.
Retiring to Phuket in 2006 I was extremely fortunate to be able to pursue another dream: to work as an editor and writer. I initially worked as the editor of Art Asia’s Phuket Magazine with John Everingham and was able to cycle around many fabulous parts of Phuket, the Andaman and Thailand during these years.
In 2012 I launched this ‘Blazing Saddles’ column for the Phuket Gazette, transferring it to The Phuket News two years ago. Being able to explore the beguiling alchemy between pen and bicycle has been one of the great pleasures of my increasingly long life.
Having referenced one visionary physicist early in this piece, I can but end with the sage words of a successor in that most exclusive of clubs, Albert Einstein, who said that “Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance you must keep moving.”
I’ll do my best Albert, I promise.
“Bicycling” Baz Daniel fell off his first bicycle aged three... a case of love at first slight. Since then he has spent a further 65 years falling on and off bicycles all over the world, but his passion endures. When not in traction, he found time to become Senior VP of the world's largest advertising and communications group, finally retiring to Phuket in 2006. He has been penning his Blazing Saddles column, chronicling his cycling adventures in Phuket and beyond, since 2013.