But not just any bike. It was mine and I loved it.
It was orange in colour (there’s irony there but more of that later), a BSA, a manufacturer whose name actually stood for British Subsidised Arms (oh God more irony…but again, later). It was a traditional racer style, curved down handle bars that always reminded me of ram’s horns, a blade of a saddle that you could slice an apple on, and for those days, tyres that were thin black hoops built for speed.
My favourite thing was to take corners as quickly as I could, cocking my knee out and leaning at insane angles, never dreaming of touching the brakes as I flung myself and the bike off the Andersonstown Road and into Slievegallion Drive, all the while relishing the nervous twitch of danger in the pit of my stomach, conscious that one loose stone or gouge in the road could send me flying head over heels. Oh, and by the way, this was well before the days of safety helmets.
But for all sorts of reasons, all of which I will share with you here, the bike never put me in danger…quite the reverse. That bike on numerous occasions saved my life. And I’m not joking.
I am from Northern Ireland. Between 1979 and 1986 I attended a grammar school. Nothing remarkable about that except I lived in Andersonstown which is at the very top of the Falls Road in West Belfast. To those who know, this means I am Catholic…and like most of my neighbours there, working class. So, my schooling at the largely middle class Rathmore Grammar was already something that set me slightly apart especially from some of my Primary School friends (thankfully I’m still in touch with the important ones today). The other factor about Rathmore was that it was in South Belfast. And that meant that my journey to and from school would take me through some deeply Protestant/Loyalist areas.
This meant that the bike became my mode of safe passage. It was the difference between me being on the receiving end of a beating or not. You might think this is just me being over dramatic, but I promise you I’m not. Rathmore’s school uniform required us to wear a light blue blazer. This was a colour that was so distinctive, so visible that I might as well have worn a target on my back as I cycled down the Lisburn Road and onto Finaghy Road North. It was here that the most danger lay. Protestant boys would alight from the train service on Finaghy Road North emerging onto the road at the top of a humped railway bridge. A bridge steep enough to see my best cycling slow, sometimes because of traffic, sometimes because of a headwind against me and sometimes because I was just a bit slower that day.
I could be, and loads of times was, an easy target here.
As I got used to the route I grew more and more dependent on my bike. And in turn I grew to love it even more. The heart jumping, adrenalin firing rush of reaching that part of my three-mile journey home developed into a leg pumping, stamina testing frenzy, my head turning this way and that whilst keeping eyes peeled for groups of older boys, lying in wait for a “Rathmoron” to appear, someone they could abuse, attack, beat shite out of.
Every now and again they would be there, waiting for me and give chase, a few times even attempting to place themselves strategically on either side of the road on top the bridge, swinging school bags and fists to try and knock me off my orange BSA flyer. And if I was to fall into the path of a car, a truck or a bus…well so what, I had it coming. I was a dirty Catholic, a ‘Taig”. In their eyes a legitimate target.
They were “Prods” or “Orangies” due to their predilection for attending Orange Lodge marches across Northern Ireland every July, celebrating the supposed victory of William of Orange against Irish forces at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. Hence the irony of my orange bike. Their “loyalism” to the British crown a badge of honour for them, one that marked them out as the ruling majority in the province I grew up in. Again, the irony of a bike made by “British Subsidised Arms” speeding a “Taig” away from loyal subjects of the Crown!
But, looking back now, despite the fear, despite the threat, despite the casual hatred these boys could feel for someone who was probably exactly the same as them in every way except for some notion of religious and cultural backdrop, the overwhelming memory I have is not of being spat on, or swerving to avoid being struck and making sure I didn’t disappear under the wheels of another vehicle never to be seen again.
No. None of those things.
My clearest memory is of that bike, the feel of it beneath me, the joyous sensation of weightlessness as I careened down the other side of that humped bridge and into the relative safety of the Catholic end of Finaghy Road North. The rush of wind flattening my hair, my eyes watering, my lungs burning as I pistoned my legs for all they were worth.
It wasn’t just a bike. It was my suit of armour, my winged Pegasus and on more occasions than I care to count, it saved me from a hiding… possibly from a lot worse.
My bike. I fecking loved that orange flyer.
PS that’s not the actual bike in the pic…but close enough…