My Badge Of Honour, Tim Dawson (2009)

First published The Sunday Times 16 August 2009

With the end of the school term came a ceremony of which I am genuinely proud. The 25 children from year 6 whom I had been instructing in cycle safety completed their courses and were presented with certificates and badges to the rousing cheers of the last assembly of the year.

I would love to boast that the amazing progress that the youngsters made in the six hours that I spent with them — practising overtaking stationary cars and approaching right-hand junctions — was the result of my brilliance as a pedalling pedagogue. I cannot, however.

A small number of my charges started the period of instruction as accomplished cyclists. They had already ridden on the road, navigated simple traffic systems and perfected making hand signals.

A depressing number, however, had only basic riding ability before starting the course, not the skills required to make a journey safely from home to school.

Their bicycles gave the game away. A significant number — and now I am thinking back over the four years that I have volunteered to take this course — turned up on little-used bicycles.

Frequently the mounts have the look of six-month-old Christmas presents that, once unwrapped and parked in the garage because of the inclement December weather, have moved hardly at all in the ensuing months. The tyres are unworn and the brakes have not been properly adjusted (a pitfall with bicycles bought by mail order, or from non-bike shops).

The transformation of some of these young people from hopelessly nervous wobblers who asked to be allowed to cycle on the pavement, to modestly confident and courteous road-users seems, on reflection, to have occurred almost by magic.

The truth, however, is that for many, the six hours they spent in my care was more time than they had ever before spent on their bikes. All they needed was encouragement to use their bicycles to get from A to B and some rudimentary instruction on thinking about other road-users.

Bicycle sales are booming at the moment — a cause for optimism, to be sure. But how much are any of these cycles being used? Among an awful lot of children, precious little, if my unscientific sample is anything to go by.

So here is my suggestion for the summer. Seek out a child with an unused bicycle in the garage and encourage them to discover the delights of the road.

You may grow hoarse shouting instructions as you approach roundabouts, and experience a palpitation or two as they first dice with traffic. But the gift of uncomplicated, self-managed transport is one that they can enjoy for the rest of their lives.

Do your job well, and you might even have to replace some worn-out brake blocks or a sagging chain in a few months’ time — they are the true badges of cycling competence attained.

Incidentally, the top badge shown here is the one that I was awarded – probably in 1972 or 1973. The second one is from a collection of my brothers, and must be later as it clearly post-dates the 1974 reorganisation of local government.

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