Cycling in the eighties

There’s a wonderful viral video doing the rounds, all about the seventies and eighties. Watching it made me feel both happy and sad at the same time. I suppose that’s what nostalgia does to you.

One of my fondest recollections of growing up in the eighties can be summed up in two words: bike rides! Like most young boys in London, when I wasn’t playing football on a windswept, muddy pitch, a large part of my leisure time was spent cycling around – just exploring the city’s backstreets, woods, parks and canals, or generally getting up to mischief.

So I thought it would be fun to explore a few eighties cycling memories today.

The first thing that springs to mind are the quirky bikes we had. Lots of children rode Raleigh Choppers but throughout the decade these were gradually usurped by BMXs. The luckiest kids had Raleigh Vektar bikes with sound generators that made a variety of spacey noises.

The eighties were also a time for zany bike accessories. My own BMX proudly boasted brightly coloured ‘pads’ on its frame tubes, as well as luminous handlebar grips. And, like all kids, I enjoyed having ‘spokey dokeys’ on my wheels, except when I had spokeless ‘mag’ wheels.

One Christmas, my brother and I were given bicycle mileometers. These simple little devices worked by keeping a tally of each time a prong attached to a spoke on the rear wheel made passing contact with a mechanical sensor on a combination dial. We loved our mileometers, and obsessively measured the distance everywhere we went. My friend also had a simple bicycle speedometer, so I used to race along beside him to find out how fast I was going.

When we weren’t outside enjoying ourselves, we did what kids today spend too much time doing: playing on computer games. A few favourites were Daley Thompson’s Supertest and Summer Games, both of which featured ‘cycling’ challenges where you had to manically tap two keys in quick succession to gain speed. My poor Spectrum keyboard took a battering. There was also a game called ‘BMX Simulator’; at least we knew back then that it wasn’t as good as the real thing.

The eighties also saw the rise and rise of cinema. From Breaking Away in 1979 through to American Flyers, Quicksilver, BMX Bandits and even Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, cycling occasionally made it onto the big screen. Needless to say, almost every kid who watched ET wanted to be Elliot, the kid who magically cycled in midair with his friends to carry ET safely back to his alien spaceship.

Sports cycling and cycle touring hadn’t really taken off in the eighties – well, not in Britain. As far as I was concerned, the only people who cycled competitively were strangely-attired Europeans. The closest that cycling came to being about fitness was when it was done on an exercise bike; every self-respecting yuppie owned one. 

Come to think of it, cycling wasn’t really about much in the eighties.

It certainly wasn’t about angrily ‘saving the planet’, fighting against ‘consumerism’, or ‘reclaiming the streets’ from cars and trucks. Apart from being a useful way to get from A to B or hunt for a job, cycling was mostly about... the simple pleasure of cycling. There was an unselfconsciousness to riding a bike, just a natural exuberance expressed with a smile, a wheelie, and a gentle, technicolour cascade of spokey dokeys.

Since the eighties, cycling has come a long way. But perhaps it would make even more progress today if we all remembered how innocent cycling was then. 

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