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Maybe Norman ‘onyerbike’ Tebbit was right, sort of…

After some recent soul-searching, Steve tells us why getting on your bike is actually pretty good advice after all. Just perhaps not in the way Lord Tebbit intended…

“Just get on your bike.” It came from nowhere, but was also totally simplified and proven logic, to me at least.

After months of soul searching and trying to rationalise and deal with an ever-deepening life issue, while sat there analysing things, going over the same old figures, looking for the reasoning, some justifications… and then suddenly, while staring deeply at my bike and in true Lawrence of Arabia style, I said out aloud: “Just get on your bike.”

Was it divine intervention? Not really, as in the split second of realisation that followed, I was transported right back to 1981 and that infamous (and often misquoted) Norman Tebbit speech: “I grew up in the ‘30s with an unemployed father. He didn’t riot. He got on his bike and looked for work, and he kept looking until he found it”, said the then-Conservative Secretary of State for Employment, who – ironically according to some – came from a working-class background.

At that time, Britain was hitting the heights of Thatcherism and was in turmoil. Riots, strikes, an impending war and some of the worst unemployment issues in decades, especially youth unemployment, plagued the land.

If, like me, you happened to leave school that same year, in a time where further education was beyond the means of many, where apprentices were all but extinct, and where Youth Opportunity Schemes were your prime hope, whilst working for a staggering £23.50 a week… well, you’ve probably formed opinions that will live with you forever. But hey, on the plus side it did give us Ghost Town by The Specials, a song that defined the era.

Although Tebbit, now 92, didn’t directly tell the unemployed to physically get on their bikes and look for work, there was little doubting the inference. Ever since, he’s had ‘Onyerbike’ chanted at him wherever he goes, and as a young cyclist of the era it was something often hurled from roadsides as you passed by, along with the occasional “get off and milk it.”

Although some probably did acknowledge the speech somewhat, sadly for Tebbit it didn’t lead to mass pelotons of middle-aged men on Raleigh Wayfarers to roam the roads chanting “Giz a job” in the style of Yosser Hughes off of Boys from the Blackstuff.

Tangents of thought maybe, but that’s where it led me: to that two-tone era of hopelessness, and the recurring realisation that things in life do tend to go and come around again in cycles, so to speak, as in history repeating itself. For us oldies, the current Work and Pensions Secretary Mel Stride’s recent words on the ‘opportunities’ to work in the gig economy for the likes of Deliveroo certainly brought back memories of Tebbit’s speech delivered 42 years earlier.

Back in the early ‘80s all I wanted to do was be a bike rider, but the situation and my surroundings didn’t permit such a thing. Or at least not chasing it, but on that score things have thankfully moved on for me.

Even so, I never gave up hope, and totally against the odds, and with much defiance and turmoil, I have somehow managed to make cycling my way life. Pretty, much as I promised myself as a scraggy 12-year-old.

In all honesty, this has nothing to with Tebbit or his speech, or at least I don’t think it has. I mean, I hardly took it in the manner he meant it. But in some way or another, those words (and how people interpreted them) often come back to haunt me. I know that, at least for me, “just get on your bike” has been a constant personal mantra I’ve lived by ever since, even if I rarely say it aloud. 

Over the years, like many, I’ve been through more than my share of rough times, and it has almost always been the bike that has saved me. That has led to a certain level of trust between us, and I know I’m not the only one with this relationship.

This time last year, after once again being rescued and transformed back to fighting shape by simply getting on my bike, the world looked a whole lot more appealing again, and I was finally looking to take on the adventures with my bike that I’d promised myself for the last 16 years. Then, bang… my knee, then hip went up in a rage of fiery pain, and the next 8-9 months that followed it was hell, with no resolution in sight. The bike became a thing to be feared, as every time I tried to ride it again, I’d be left in severe pain for a week, and we’re only now starting to reconcile that relationship.

Life has changed in the past few years for many of us, and especially so in the past year for me personally. Once again, the eternal circle of life has led me to seek help and resolution in the bike. Can we do it? Can we once again find a way to make things work better together, and to turn life around, just one more time?

I know the answer should be yes, but as ever there are many hurdles to jump through. Somewhat ironically, the plan has a very distant tinge of Tebbit and his infamous speech about it (damn). Wouldn’t it be funny to see Norman and Mel on a tandem, delivering deep pan pizzas to the House of Lords on a wet winter’s night, just so they could pay their heating bills?

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E6toSE3 | 1 month ago

Good essay and rings a few bells, especially about the full Tebbit quote. I got on my bike in 1974 (had to buy one first) to get to work. Stayed on it as my main transport till 20teens though needed cheap van with seats type cars for wife, children, etc. With age, I lost confidence. Once just a few of us, by then thousands of cyclists in London with no idea about road discipline, danger to pedestrians and other cyclists. Most cars are driven better than ever but a few have gone deliberately reckless like so many cyclists. Now, in mid 60s, I walk or drive

E6toSE3 replied to E6toSE3 | 1 month ago

Also... gave away a few bikes in lockdown to some as needed them. Now the 2018 Roubaix (bought 2nd hand) is in the Shimano recall so I'll have to resurrect the SystemSix with its 23C tyres and associated rims on today's roads.

Rendel Harris | 1 month ago
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Very nice piece of writing Steve, thank you. Can I ask where the headline photograph was taken?

OnYerBike replied to Rendel Harris | 1 month ago

Reverse-seaching the image and I found this article by Steve that includes the same image and indicates it's somewhere in the Berwyn Mountains in Wales, possibly the Bwylch y Groes mountain pass.

Rendel Harris replied to OnYerBike | 1 month ago
1 like

Thanks, I feel a springtime trip westwards coming on…

HoarseMann replied to OnYerBike | 1 month ago
1 like

With that bit of sleuthing I've found it...

kil0ran | 1 month ago

Best of luck in your recovery. Not being able to ride at the exact point you need to be riding royally sucks.

I've been off the bike since late May and bedbound pretty much since early September with pustular psoriasis in my hands and feet. Yes it's as disgusting as it sounds and is excruciatingly painful. It's also only manageable rather than curable. Cheers COVID/genetics.

I've lost thick layers of skin on both feet, partly due to necessary treatment as you need to get the steroids and vitamin D deep into the skin, several nails, and the skin on the palms of my hands. If you've ever slid down a velodrome without track mitts on you'll recognise the resulting pain. And it goes on and on in a vicious cycle due to an over active and overly stupid immune system. In that time I've also had serious infections including a bout of cellulitis which was like having my calf slowly clamped in a bench vise. Lovely.

Hopefully, hopefully thanks to the epic NHS I'm coming out the other side and have a treatment plan in place. More indignities to come - have to deploy a sock RHCP-style when I have light treatment for the next few weeks. Hopefully it's not too cold.

When I do come out the other side I'm never crying off a ride ever again, or a walk, or even a run. My first goal is to walk to the end of the garden to see our chickens. Next is a bit of turbo time. Then it will be back on the road and beyond.

Never take your opportunity to do what you love for granted, you never know what's around the next corner (probably an Audi Qx driver on your side of the road).

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