Our tandem transformed the school run, because I could take the 8-year-old Cutester on any road I feel confident to cycle on myself, without fearing for her safety. (You have to be pretty confident to ride the 1.7 mile route to her school, on roads designed to terrify anyone who dares to travel outside a car.)
It’s been working really well and I didn’t envisage any change of plan for the foreseeable future until…
“Mummy, can I ride my own bike to school next week?”
It was my own fault. We did a nice park-hopping ride at the weekend with another family, and when the Cutester – now 10, by the way – said she wanted to go on the tandem I talked her out of it.
“It will be loads more fun on your own bike!” I said.
I was right – it was, because her friend was on her own bike too.
But this was through parks connected with very quiet roads and off -road paths. The school run is another matter altogether for a spindly little 10-year-old on her own wheels.
“So can I go to school on my own bike?”
I agreed, with misgivings. Apart from the road skills, there’s the small matter of the Cutester being allergic to hills. She can cartwheel on any surface but walking or pedalling up the slightest incline has traditionally resulted in tears. And while she’s been riding behind me on the tandem for the last two school years, I’ve had my suspicions about how much exercise she’s actually getting. How come while I’m puffing and panting uphill, she’s singing the soundtrack to Moana without missing a note?
Anyway – she did it, and I’m bursting with pride.
It was also, at times, absolutely petrifying.
As we set off on that first morning, I realised I’d given her zero instructions. One of the first questions over her shoulder (having cycled recently in Holland) was, “Which side of the road is it again?”
Our route from Palmers Green to Southgate, where her school is, takes us along a narrow winding rat run called Fox Lane. It’s the sort of road where you often see post-collision debris, and every so often an impatient Mercedes driver will honk at you for riding in the correct road position. I pedalled along behind her, breathing down the back of her neck and instructing her within an inch of her life. She was excellent – she understood about the door zone and got up the steep hill without even being out of breath.
At the end of Fox Lane you come to Bourne Hill, a fast, unforgiving thoroughfare into Southgate Circus. It has a nice wide pavement that you rarely see people using. So we rode on it side by side, chatting and pretending we were back in Holland. Frankly, it ought to be a cycle path or at least shared space, so I make no apology.
This road takes you to two zebra crossings over the roundabout at Southgate station, and from there we could cycle to her school. I marched into her classroom and told her teacher to present the Cutester with a giant gold trophy at the next assembly.
We’ve done it for about three weeks now and it’s starting to feel normal. But it can still be petrifying. The instructing from behind thing doesn’t always work, for a start. She’s quite fast, and at one point for instance she was whizzing ahead of me towards a junction with a main road.
“Check! Check! Check!” I shouted, panting to catch up with her.
Without even looking, she turned straight into the main road.
“Cutester! WHAT were you doing?!” I said when I caught up (she’d been lucky with the traffic, thank God and all his angels…).
“Oh, I thought you said, ‘Go – quick'” she told me nonchalantly.
And then there was the time I shouted ‘Left!’ and she went right… that was not a good moment to realise her directions are not too hot. Now I say “in” and “out” and it works much better. I’ve also sat down with her and used cars made out of erasers on a pencil-drawn road map to explain how roundabouts work and giving way at side roads. And gone on and on about how important it is to look at what the traffic is doing…
“When I cycle on my own, I’ll remember to look,” she tells me reassuringly.
“Next week,” she adds, “Can I cycle to school without you?”