Granny's Bike Tour
I could fill a book with my Granny’s stories. Being English, she is predisposed to understated storytelling. She is the quintessential English Granny in every way: cordial and reserved, stern yet kind, with a constant wit – Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey meets Patricia Routledge in Keeping Up Appearances .
I grew up listening to her share the milestones in her life – war survival, giving birth to my mother on her own, coming to America with two young children to reunite with a husband she hadn’t seen in two years. She’s so good at storytelling she can even tell other people’s stories. Even though my Grandad died almost thirty years ago, she has told me his immigration story as if it were her own.
It was with complete shock when, about a year ago, she casually mentioned that she had toured around England on her bike during World War II. How had she kept that to herself all these years? For her, biking 40-100 miles per day around England was too routine to be included in her world of tales. There’s no war, hardship, or survival. There’s no place to insert a dramatic pause, and it doesn’t end in tears. After some prodding, I pulled out a few memories that might be average to her but are pretty amazing to this modern cyclist.
Granny begins, “It was a miracle I got a bike at all. Now, all of my brothers had bikes which they got from the school when they made Honors. Not knowing if I would ever make Honors, my mother said, ‘Where are we going to find a bike for her?’ My aunt’s friend owned a bike shop so she helped get it for me. The bike was what we would call ‘shop soiled,’ hanging in the shop on display, so it was a little used. But they got it all ready for me, dusted it off, and made sure it was running smoothly. Golly, I was ever so pleased with it. Not too long after I got my bike, a woman in charge of the recreational department at school decided it would be a good idea to do a month-long cycle tour with some adolescent girls. Since they had access to the school district, it was easy enough to get a group of us girls interested. After they told us what it was going to cost and gave us the details we decided it was acceptable. Then,” she says with a dramatic pause, “we got busy.” Granny chuckles to herself as she says this.
“My friend and I made pajamas – I don’t know why that was important to us – but we made these pajamas to wear,” Granny might not remember why this was important to them but I can’t imagine her normal attire of shin length wool skirts, blouses, and double-breasted jackets would have been very practical. Pajamas were the closest thing to a cycling kit that they could make.
“They were very handy because you could wear them during the daytime. Pretty snazzy looking, I tell ya.”
I don’t doubt this one bit. Granny was being trained in school to become a seamstress at the time. When I was growing up, there was no limit to what Granny made for us – bathing suits, Minnie Mouse dresses more beautiful than anything you could buy at the Disney store, Jasmine’s harem pant outfit from Aladdin in pink and blue, flower girl dresses for weddings to match all the other girls (that lasted twice as long as the store-bought versions). Granny’s masterpiece of 1995 was a Belle dress she made for my sister for Halloween by using a tiny piece of Beauty and the Beast gift wrapping paper as a reference.
“So, we made these pajamas and went on this tour. There were just six of us girls on this particular trip. We started in the south, in London, and went all the way up to Yorkshire. Now, it wasn’t 100 miles every day, it fluctuated from 47 to 100, but the first day we did ride 100 miles. That first day was hard. There’s a picture somewhere of my friend and me coming up the hill with huge packs on our backs. We camped along the way and carried most of our own stuff so you can imagine what 100 miles felt like.” At this point in her story, I made a mental note never to complain about the 5-pound backpack I use on my commute.
“It was a good group though, and we learned a lot. We all learned instruments. We had a band. That’s where I learned to play the flute!” As what often happening during a Granny story, I’m pretty skeptical about some of the details. This is one of those times. But she says it with such conviction and I know for a fact she played the flute growing up and she must have learned it somewhere. Why not with a bike-touring group of girls?
I ask her about mechanical problems. “We had flat tires every day,” she puts so much heavy emphasis on the word “every” and simultaneously hits me with a pretty savage eye roll that I know this must have annoyed her greatly. “We had to change our tires a lot. We sometimes had to change the whole wheel!”
I ask Granny what shoes and types of pedals they rode with and she looks at me incredulously and asks, “Shoes?” I know she’s thinking that this has to be the dumbest question in the world but I’ve become a clipless pedal convert for the last three years, so when she answers that they wore tennis shoes and used pedals without so much as toe cages, it’s my turn to look incredulous. “Just tennis shoes and ordinary bikes,” she says.
I come to find out by “ordinary bikes” she means a Raleigh Gazelle with three gears. At this point, since Granny is a little dismissive about her own achievements, I have to keep reminding myself what a physical feat this is. I consider myself a pretty tough athlete – Velominati Rule #5 shall govern. But picturing my Granny riding an average 70 miles a day on a 40-pound bike wearing tennis shoes and homemade pajamas with a pack on her back while playing the flute is making me redefine what tough is. But, in her classic stoicism, Granny rejects all suggestion that this is a major physical and mental accomplishment. So we move on.
“We had a few interesting interactions with wildlife. One morning we came out of our tents, and there was an army of frogs completely covering the ground. But we were desperate for the toilets and the only thing standing between us and relief were these frogs. We realized there was no way around them, so we had to squelch across them to get to the loo then had to do it all over again to get back. And later on in the trip there was this one man, who was so very kind. He gave us some apricots from his tree – they were beautiful. We were thrilled to have fresh fruit so we happily bit into them. As we did bees came flying out, they were filled with them! We threw them down then had to run away from the bees we had just antagonized,” I picture a group of giggling girls running around in circles and prompt Granny into recalling what age she was during this trip.
“I was in the GTC at the time, the Girl Training Corps, which was a pre-service unit. They were training us up for the Army. They never caught us though,” she laughs. I come to find out that the Girls Training Corps was, as Granny said, a stop gap for girls not old enough to enlist. It gave them a chance to see what military life was like in the hopes they would join up when they came of age. Granny never did enlist – the war ended before she was old enough.
“Now, the roads were empty except for Army vehicles. And they were pretty handy, I’ll tell you. We were finishing up one of our longer riding days and started climbing a hill into Windsor. A Jeep came by and, as it passed us, we grabbed hold. It pulled us all the way up that hill, all the way up to the top. It saved our legs considerably that day.” I look at Granny’s legs and try to imagine her pedal mashing up a hill. I’m looking at an 88-year-old, lying in bed in the early stages of healing after a very bad, hip-breaking fall. Granny has always been resilient but what is happening to her body right now makes cycling around an entire country seem very far in the past. We again debate the age she was during this trip and finally figure out that she was 12 years old.
When I was 12, my older sister and I biked from Tahoma to Tahoe City. I was so excited to get to spend the whole day alone riding bikes with someone who was just beginning to decide that she was way too cool for me. We left in the morning with sandwiches from our favorite deli and had lunch on the Truckee River. On the way back I started to crack. I saw my parents drive by and put in a final effort to catch them so I could convince them to drive me the rest of the way back. They didn’t go for it. A few hours of biking and a fully clothed dip in the lake later, we made it back. It was 18 miles round trip. Granny’s 12-year-old self would have told my 12-year-old self to reread Rule #5.
As impressive as this story is, it’s even more incredible in the context of the situation in England at that time and what was to come next.
“One thing I remember really well is how nice everyone was to us. They were ever so interested in us. Children were jewels back then. We could do no wrong. They really valued the children.” When I ask why, her answer is haunting, “Well, they thought we were going to get killed.” Granny starts to look tired as she says this so I take it as my cue to let her rest. Her memory of this time, which was already spotty at best, has been jogged to the limit. I can finish the rest for her.
The girls returned home from this trip and shortly after that, the bombings started. The Blitz would cost my Granny the top floor of her house, half the neighborhood, and her school, not to mention all the lives lost. It’s this story of the Blitz that has dominated Granny’s memories for the past 75 years, leaving little room for the one about the time she spent riding her Gazelle.
I watch Granny close her eyes and nod off and revel in the gift she has just given me. This story I will cherish above all others as the one that binds us. As impressed and inspired as I am by her war survival narratives, I can’t relate to bomb shelters, emigrating, or childbirth, but approaching the 100th mile of the day when all you want to do is stop, that I can grasp.