LEARNED to cycle quite late in my childhood when I was about 11. Most families in our village owned at least one bicycle. Well-to-do families owned more. Even their kids had expensive and smaller bicycles.
That year, one of the richer neighbours bought a Chopper bicycle for their youngest son who was my age. The Chopper had a five-speed gear lever that you could push back and forth. It had a long cushioned seat with a backrest.
The boy, of course, showed off his bicycle to the rest of us. One day, he offered to let us ride it around the village if we paid him five sen each. I did not have the money but an older boy who did, took up the offer.
When he returned from his ride around the village, we were shocked to see that he was not cycling. He was pushing the bicycle instead.
The Chopper's handlebar was bent, its front mudguard was twisted and the chain had fallen off. Its owner was aghast when he saw what had happened to his pride and joy. The older boy explained that he had crashed while trying to avoid hitting a fowl.
Instead of sympathising with the rider whose knees and elbows were bleeding, the owner of the Chopper demanded a 20-sen compensation or he would bring the matter up with his parents. Reluctantly, the older boy paid him. In those days, stuff on loan came with a tacit agreement -- if it was damaged or lost, you had to pay for it unless the owner refused compensation.
When I saw what happened, I was glad I did not have money that day. I would have caused greater damage to the Chopper because I did not know how to ride a bicycle at the time.
I realised that I had to learn and, to do so, I had to own a bicycle. From that day onwards, I would frequently stop by a bicycle shop near where we lived to ask the owner whether he had any old bicycles for sale.
One day, tired of my persistence, he told me to look at an old bicycle in his storeroom. It was a Norton. Its frames were rusted and the tyres were bald. The chain guard was missing and the cogwheels were covered in grime. But, it was good enough for me. The owner asked for RM15 for it. I told him I did not have the money but if he could keep it for a few days, I would buy it.
In not days but the weeks that followed, I went fund raising. I gathered and sold used beer bottles.
In those days, soy sauce factories paid nine sen for a large Guinness or Anchor bottle and four sen for half-sized ones. When I had enough money, I went back to the shop and bought the bicycle.
Perhaps out of pity, the owner also helped me to fix the bicycle. He allowed me to use his tools and taught me to use kerosene to remove the grime. I learned how to remove the links of the lengthened chain and even patch up a punctured tyre using a piece of cut tubing and rubber cement.
Learning how to cycle was one of the rites of passage children those days had to go through before they left primary school. No matter how many times we fell and bruised our limbs (and pride), we got back up and tried again. We cycled everywhere.
Back then motorists were kinder to cyclists. Although today cycling has been elevated to a healthy pursuit, there are few places in the city where you can ride safely. Even the parks do not have proper cycling tracks and most of the time, cyclists risk their lives riding along busy roads.