The kids are alright

Interlude – the kids are alright

The kinds of bike people you see around here:  Families with primary-aged kids, many commuters in acid yellow, tense huddles of black-clad racers heading out to the lanes, fashionable ladies on dutch bikes with urban helmets, workers on pieces of bike-shaped-rubbish that save them time and money. Then there’s the kids off the estate, four or five of them will burst around a corner, riding on the pavement, looking tough, or petulant, or tired and lost. It’s all the same look on teen boys.

What I don’t see around me is teen me. I don’t see middle class teens on bikes endlessly riding around their neighbourhoods for fun. Bikes are naff, obvs, and I am 100% sure if there was such a thing as xbox when I was 13 there is not a chance I would have been riding a bike around the neighbourhood either. Part of me is a bit sad about this. Partly it’s missing the wide-open spaces of our youth and that kids don’t really have that anymore – and this is not confined to kiwi kids, UK parents have this feeling too – and part of this is about kids being stuck inside. And I really wish there had been xbox when I was thirteen.

Now that I have a teen in London it’s apparent that there is nothing to do, at least not in public space. This is the eternal teen dilemma of being too old for the playground and too young for the pub, made worse by the postcode wars and sensitivities of who belongs where and why. My son can tell me exactly which shops and streets ‘belong’ to which of the five high schools within walking distance from our place.

But also I am glad that Baxter is not riding on the roads around here. The truth is that roads in London are fucking dangerous. I know just how deadly the road can be, I see the dickheads in Mercs doing 40 in a 20 zone, speeding over multiple traffic calming humps (aka launch pads) down one way streets. I’ve been buzzed by kamikazee delivery scooters, ignored by people turning right, right over me. I’ve been on the wrong end of much of that myself and, even with decades of commuter and road craft in the bank, have been caught out. It was, truly, never that bad in suburban Wellington in the seventies and eighties, not by a long shot.

So the teens you see on bikes in London fall into two groups. The first are the trainee thieves travelling together on stolen hybrids. They like hybrids because they are quicker than mountain bikes and a lot more usable than a road bike. Presumably they are easier to bike-jack too, people on hybrids are usually travelling a bit slower, are easier to stop. For these teens bikes are just training tools for the scooters they will steal when they are fifteen and the scooters are just tools of the trade for mobile phone theft. In the days of lockable, encrypted phones a snatched phone is immediately broken down for parts that are sold on to mobile phone repair places – screens being the key item there. It must be a tedious way to earn money, I guess that’s why you’d want to graduate from the work of the dangerous snatch to the pyramid scheme of drug dealing. Once they get there they will never touch a bike again, but in the meantime a bike on the street is opportunity and ambition.

The other group of teens on bikes in London are riding hotrods. They customise fat bikes, mountain bikes with 3 or 4 inch tyres developed for riding on snow or sand, turning them into bikes meant for just one thing. Wheelies. Epically long wheelies, minutes and minutes long, done with maybe a thousand other riders around you, on the main streets of London.

Welcome to Bikestomz. In the popular press these are menacing gangs of yoof terrorising London en masse. More sympathetic media finds groups of disadvantaged teens indulging in one of the few forms of outdoor activity that makes any sense to them – anything is better than sitting on a couch waiting for the dominos delivery and lobotomising yourself with skunk.  

I remember my first encounter. It was very late in the year 2017 and I was one of a few commuters making my way home on the embankment cycle way.  When I turned into the long two-lane tunnel that takes you under a building, I saw a couple of hundred teens on bikes. I automatically thought that I was going to get robbed or beaten up. Conditioned by my prejudices and previous bad experiences at the hands of motorised yoof, I put my head down and sped through, dodging the riders as I went. There wasn’t much point in getting cross about it, it was very clear who had the power here and it wasn’t a middle aged white guy riding by himself.

Of course I came to no harm, and as I rode through I noticed a number of cameras and a guy doing a wheelie while he dragged his hand on the ground behind him. Wow. Skillz.

They were a lot less dangerous than the encounter I had with the young white middle class woman this morning who, in an effort to get to work a few seconds quicker, cut a red light, just about got hit by a car, crossed the road on a green pedestrian light, continued on the road beside the two-lane bike and and then didn’t look as she rejoined the cycleway 50 metres further on just as I was inconveniencing her by occupying it. Yes, she did get a piece of my mind.

So this Bikestormz is a big deal. Word spreads by that most middle-class of tools, Instagram. They gather and take over the roads causing a great deal of mayhem and having a total blast for a couple of hours, riding through streets they wouldn’t feel particularly welcome on as pedestrians anyway. The suit-swathed City, the bridge to Westminster. How dare they exercise their democratic right to ride a bike on the road under Big Ben!  

Look up jake100_ on insta and be impressed, he’s the street Danny MacAskill from Wanstead. He is bikes up knives down, with a nice line in endorsing Nike and Orange bikes – why wouldn’t you?

The language of Bikestormz is, of course, cryptic. Wheelie_jon comments ‘today was fu all y scrapes on the back of the gilly’. Look at this mash of hashtags and feel the semiotic burn: #londonbikelife #ldncitykillers #mtb #mountainbike #bmx #stunt #stunting #bikesbringbonds #bikestormz #vodoo #swervecity #swerve #nohands #trafficwork #flex #dope #madness #ukbikelife #bikelifetvuk #streeteliteteam #12god #bikestormz #bikestable #mafiabikes. Insider language. Empowerment.

Not entirely sure if there is any female component here, I am guessing not much, so this is about the boys that London life leaves behind (but still wants the Leave votes of), the boys who might otherwise end up in the gangs that will take your hybrid off you somewhere just off Mare St in Hackney.

That’s the thing about a bike – you occupy the space in a different way. Walking can be provocative, you traverse space as a series of sensitivities and boundaries; there are no-go places, shadowy woods, literal and metaphorical. There is an estate 150 metres from our house I have never walked through, though it would make some of my walks shorter – I always go around. Just as my street, with its trees and terraces, would have a dozen curtains fluttering if a noisy posse of yoof passed by. The posse always keep quiet as they pass through to the estate, hoods up, doing signature walks. Minimal impact, both ways, the way Londoners construct privacy – micro-cultures protecting themselves, outsiders just not welcome.

On a bike you can mostly ghost through pedestrian dangers. That group of dodgy yoof is something you can pass quickly, momentarily dazzled by your lights. You can cut through the less bad estates, even the bad ones at 7am on a weekday, there’s no one around and no one can react fast enough to your presence.

The problem with cycling in the city is the opposite – it’s how to take up more space so you are seen. Riding by yourself you take it up with colour and lights and by riding in ‘primary position’. You force your entitlement and privilege with dayglo pink by Rapha, you do it because you have the legal right to ride on the road and no fucker in a car is going to tell you otherwise. Not that far in attitude from #bikestormz. It must be said that is changing as more people ride to work. I don’t need as much attitude, I am able to share with other cyclists and chill out, for half the ride at least.

That’s why riding in groups is just so liberating. You take space, people notice even if they hate you, you push traffic away, or go through it like gravity waves passing through rock. Doesn’t really matter if you are the polite middle class doing critical mass, or pulling wheelies with your #bikelife #bikestormz crew, or a bunch of faux messengers riding up Brick Lane on fixes dodging ‘peds’.

Riding by yourself in London is the problem, whether you are a sole commuter or a teen trying to get to school. While I rode my bike to school everyday in NZ I would be slightly horrified if Baxter wanted to the same. It’s exactly the same distance (4.1 miles) and it would cut his commute in half, but he likes taking the bus with his mates where he can josh around and indulge in that on/off thing that teens do by hiding behind their phones.

Baxter was never meant to be like this. Being a bike mad dad I ‘gave’ him one of the first generation of the strida bikes that middle class parents now see as essential at eighteen months old. Many hours spent pushing him on that, introducing him to very gentle gradients, hoping one day to be able to take a ride with him. At three years old he had his own pedal bike with brakes, then another one at five, then seven, then ten. He had five bikes by the time I was on my second. He has had his current bike for three years and ridden it maybe twenty times and is growing so fast it will soon become too small for him – but just right for me and Steph.

For those first couple of years we barely looked up. Shepherding a toddler around the kitchen at 5am on a Sunday morning, dealing with the inevitable minor ailments, picking up and dropping off, attending endless birthday parties and Dad’s clubs, just playing or reading books to him  – unfolding the magic of the world while trying to keep them safe from its spikier consequences.

It was easy when it was just riding around the park. It got more complicated when family rides started needing to be on the road. There are rides with the Walthamstow Family Cycling group which are fun and – by virtue of numbers and marshalls – provide just about as safe an experience as it is possible to have on a bike in London.

These days Walthamstow is a little more gentrified than it was when Baxter was a small boy. I see parents with Christiania bikes and think ‘no fucking way’. I admire their optimism and confidence. I don’t have it.

All this is to say that I have gradually come to accept that Baxter will not be a mad bike rider anytime soon. Stephanie thinks I am being defeatist, that with the right set of circumstances he would embrace the bike. I think the right set of circumstance would be a different city, or country. But then she too rides with the confidence of one who has never been caught out, who hasn’t been punched, who hasn’t had to call an air-ambulance into the bush. I am happy to take the risk for myself, and I am happy to expose Baxter to a enough risk that he learns how to ride well, but I am not going to go out of my way to force him to ride more.

So Baxter is caught in a weird class dynamic. It’s not particularly safe for him to walk alone off the main roads, but at the same time the thing that would make him safer in that context, a bike, would make him significantly less safe on the road. Meanwhile the estate kids who are providing that perceived risk (and who he went to primary school with and plays xbox with) are getting together and taking to the streets en mass on bikes.

It’s not that the middle-class kids lose out (they most surely do not) but they are certainly constrained in where and how they can move around the city, as constrained as the working class kids. In the end it’s London life, it’s the complexity wrought by class and magnified by austerity that has closed all the funded youth clubs and after school programmes and taken out the youth workers. It would be grand world where Baxter could go out on a #bikestormz where the main risk is clattering to the ground at ten miles an hour, that would be less dangerous than riding by yourself to work, like I do, four times a week.

I am much happier he has discovered Kung Fu. If a parent’s role is to unfold the magic of the world while keeping the spikier consequences at bay, then Kung Fu is a better bet than cycling, at least for a teen. Physically it’s better for you than riding, there is more to learn and you have to really apply yourself. It’s perhaps not what I wanted, but what I wanted was unreasonable and fantastic, based on nostalgia and a wish to confirm my own world view. But that view has passed, is in the past. Each generation must make its own way through, the best the parents can hope for is that we have set them off them in roughly the right direction, with enough momentum to carry them over the hills they will come to…

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