From what I’ve read, there was a time when people had all kinds of cute jokes about travelling by jetpack, off in the fun-filled future. And all kinds of shiny visions of self-driving cars that would shuttle you around the city in style. I’d take either of those futures, but that is not what we got. Right in time for my sixteenth birthday, and hitting the road to Friday night freedom, the latest trial for young drivers in Plymouth was… blood bikes.
Blood bikes. The nightmare creation of some sleep-deprived tech bro? Mixed with the guiding hand of traffic authorities that could now check our blood for substances before every ride.
But did I say, ‘Hell yes!’ to signing up for my first lesson, on the very first Saturday after my Birthday? Hell yes I did. That’s yes to that.
And did I omit telling my parents that this is what I was doing? And sign the online safety waiver on their behalf? Affirmative.
What I told my parents was that I had decided to train for half a marathon. They were so enthralled by me tipping myself out of bed and into running clothes so early on a Saturday morning that no further questions were asked.
I ran with the lie, all the way to the Blood Bikes South West training station. I arrived keen, sweaty and determined to get my licence in record time. The info on the website suggested six weeks training. I had enough Birthday money for three weeks. I slapped my hands to my thighs.
“Let’s do this Marcella!” I said, bending double, my lungs burning, my brain fizzing. Life was going to be so much easier once I had wheels on my side.
On straightening up, and my blood-pumped vision finally clearing, I took in the building. A neutral looking warehouse that could have been used for pretty much anything in the past – storing t-shirts, freezing fish, packing rabbit houses. But now it had an MDF sign hammered over the door. BLOOD BIKES SOUTHWEST.
My eyes narrowed in on a dude in the doorway, dressed in old style army fatigues. Of course they wanted to give the impression of no-nonsense authority. They were going to be yelling instructions at new blood bike riders. Predictable.
I strode up, happy to give off the impression of ‘I’m not messing around either, buddy.’
Doorway dude looked down at his x-pad.
“Are you registered?”
Of course I was registered. “Most certainly am!” I said, wiping my sweating hands on my leggings, in case a handshake was required, as part of this awkward greeting.
I watched the tilt of his swamp green army beret as he did the checking thing, then gestured for me to come in.
“And yours is?”
His forehead furrowed. “Steve?”
“Nice working with you, Steve.” I nodded sharply.
His forehead creased more, and his beret shifted forward. “Betty will suit you up.”
I clocked Betty over in one corner, also dressed in military fatigues, guarding a clothes rack of black leathery looking all-in one bike suits. She was gesturing down to a clutch of shiny looking helmets, arranged in a semi-circle, like they were turtles under her instruction.
“Get suited up!” she yelled across the space.
“Marcella!” I yelled back.
I made my way to her, enjoying the weird extra bounce in my step that the rubbery surface was giving me. Like I was back in that kids play park, off of Derriford East, where they put the rubber all around the slide and the roundabout, so you couldn’t sue the council so much when you fell off.
“I’m ready!” I said, as she looked me up and down, and then handed me an all-in-one suit.
I was expecting it to feel new and stiff, but bundled up in my arms it looked pretty creased and scuffed up, and smelt mouldering, like old boots in a British winter.
“You can put it on over your clothes,” Betty helpfully informed me, with a face like her nostrils were also full of mould, that she was trying not to sneeze out, at least not while we were still talking.
I looked around. There were no changing rooms in sight. But there was a promising looking line of blood bikes leaned one-by-one against the far wall, only separated from me by weaving patterns of orange traffic cones, and lines of red and green flags, and a few other tempting looking obstacles.
“Those are blood bikes, right?” I said, nodding in their direction. They looked like old, low level, skinny motorbikes. The kind that buzzed like a wasp and rode fractionally faster than a mobility scooter.
“Yes, they’re old bikes that have been converted. There’s a blood sensor. To get them going.” Betty widened her stance, and then fixed her gaze way past me, onto another girl coming in through the main door.
“Marcella!” I called to the new girl. She looked confused for a moment, and her ponytail bobbed, then she huddled with Steve, who appeared to be gesturing at her t-shirt dress.
“I’ll just put this on then. Over my clothes,” I said, gesturing down over my excellently chosen attire. Well, lie-informed running clothes. To be fair to myself, I had actually run from home. And at least with my leggings already being so sweaty I didn’t mind the stink suit so much. It was all working out well.
I nodded to myself as Betty handed me a helmet, and I clutched it to my chest, along with the suit.
“Ok then,” I walked compliantly, still with a little extra rubber bounce, and picked a spot over the other side of the warehouse where I could suss out the blood bikes better.
“Don’t touch the bikes!” Betty and doorway-dude-Steve yelled in perfect unison.
I put my hands up, like I was under arrest, dropping my helmet and suit in the process.
“Don’t dent it!” (Betty)
“Watch it!” (Steve)
Jeez, way to go to give a girl an adrenaline shot before we’d even got started. But I kept my smile up, tucked the suit under one arm, and the helmet under another. I picked a spot behind a hay bale stack to put the suit on.
What was the hay bale for then? It looked like a throwback to old school horse jumping. Were we going to jump it? On our bikes? Maybe that would be in lesson two?
I rolled up the arms of my bike suit so I could actually use my hands more functionally (I’d need them for the gears and handles and what have you). And then I rolled up the legs, and put my trainers back on, so I could walk without tripping.
I was trying to keep out of the way, and was unintentionally sniffing the sleeve of my suit again (rank, but I had to keep going back to check, like I was trying to locate a dead mouse) when Betty yelled, like she was shouting up a mountain…
I scuttle bounce stepped over to her, Steve, and ponytail girl.
“I’m Marcella,” I whispered to her. “You might want to roll your sleeves up?” I displayed mine
“Luca,” she whispered back.
That was the last chance we got to speak, as from that point forward things got…intense.
I expected our safety talk to be shouty. So I’d already put my helmet on ready, and could still hear fine, but it was all fogged up with hot excitement, and I was struggling to find the visor catch when Steve yelled, “What are you doing? Take your helmet off and listen. Follow me, Marcella. Now! Luca, you’re with Betty.”
“It’s Marcella,” I said. “Like March-ella. Not Mar-seller.”
Steve readjusted his beret, and I squared my shoulders.
So it was that I was under Steve’s instruction for the next blood bike filled hour. (Well, 50 minutes to be exact). Steve did not like questions. Not from me. He was the only question asker in town. And he did not like delays in answers. Not any kind of lag in response. He also did not like jokes. And he most certainly did not like me passing out when it got to the part where I had to prick my finger and hold it against the starting sensor. I came around, head slumped between the handlebars, and Steve propping the bike up on one side of me.
“I don’t like blood!” I groaned.
He stuffed a toffee into my hand.
“Let’s go!” I protested, or tried to, with my teeth toffee-stuck together.
He looked down on me, still slumped a little. I sat up straight and gripped the handlebars tighter. He tilted his head appraisingly, beret making a steep slanting line down, like a slope of judgement. No thank you, Steve.
“I’m fine! Let’s go!… If you’re not going to let me go, then I will keep asking questions. Like, what are you going to do with my data? Blood is personal. And I get the feeling I’m a guinea pig here!”
“Do you want to learn to ride or not?” Steve sighed.
“I do! That’s why I signed up! That’s what I’m saying! Just let me ride!”
“Ok then,” Steve sighed, like a weary parent. I grinned but resisted the urge to flick his beret. (Good decision making, Marcella).
“What?” he said, and rubbed his chin.
I think I was finally wearing him down.
“Nothing. Great job, Steve. Great job.”
He blinked rapidly, and then shook his head.
And so it was that we got underway, Steve running alongside, holding the seat, like human stabilisers, while I swore and whooped and cursed.
“Don’t listen!” I yelled, as I dragged him through the cone weave.
I heard Steve swear twice at least, as his big boots caught on cones.
“That was you! Your feet. Point loss to you!” I yelled.
It was hard to ride and look around, but while coming up to the hay bale, I did catch sight of Betty and Luca, still over by the wall, Luca’s bike not even started.
I feel bad for saying it, but a little supercharge of superiority does work wonders for your bravery levels. I forced the throttle on full as we approached the hay bale, flinging Steve off like an old rag.
The bike and I, we did leave the ground. I caught some air. And a mouthful of hay as I smashed headfirst into it. You win some, you learn some.
I came around for the second time that day. This time I was sitting, back propped against the bale, my helmet in my hands. Steve sat at my side, paler than I’d seen him all day, beret clutched in his hands, staring at me intently.
“Where’s the bike,” I groaned. “We nearly made it.”
The bike revved at my side, also propped against the bale. I wasn’t touching it. Wow.
I looked over at Steve, my mouth open with ‘what just happened there?’
Steve closed his eyes and took a toffee out of his pocket, stuck it in his own mouth and started chewing.
“Yaaokkk?” he slurred through the toffee. Then he retrieved another and held it out to me. I shook my head. I felt fine. I sprang up, shook myself off, readjusted my sleeves, put my hands on my hips.
“Never been better!”
The bike revved again, and turned in a part circle until it was side on with me, handlebars level with my hands.
Wow. Ok then. This was awesome.
I patted the bike carefully. “You think I can get my licence in three weeks?”
The bike revved louder.
Steve put his beret back on and grimaced.
“I’m naming the bike Diamond. No… Ruby. Yes, Ruby.”
I kicked at the sole of Steve’s boot gently with the toe of my trainer, hopped onto Ruby, and yelled over to Luca. “I’ve got this now! Do you need some help?”
Last weekend I was out and about in Plymouth (a smallish city in the South West of the UK), and I saw a canopy, over some kind of stand. The canopy had a big slogan and graphic on it. It said BLOOD BIKES. And there was a picture of a motorbike, depicted in bold black and red.
There was a gap between looking at it and thinking ‘What is that?’ and my brain figuring out the answer of what this promotional stand was for. This story lives in the gap.