It was, to some in the audience, a sell-out in both senses of the word. And a night when history was made. When Bob Dylan stepped on to the stage of the Manchester Free Trade Hall in May 1966 he strapped on a Fender Stratocaster instead of a Martin acoustic guitar. Above the cries of disbelief one word rang out round the hall – and because the gig was recorded – eventually around the world; “Judas”.
For some, Dylan had committed heresy; the electric guitar would mean the end of the troubadour. No more introspection, no more poetry, no more mournful stories of hopeless love.
The reality is quite different. Even the most theatrical Heavy Metal band will find time in their set to “change the mood” and come over all romantic and sentimental, as they play the now compulsory ‘acoustic number’. Some of the band will leave the stage; the drummer may stay and fashion a simple rhythm from a wooden box. The bass player may dust off an old acoustic upright. And the lead singer – instead of biting the heads off chickens – will sing, perhaps, of a fondly remembered puppy (I’m guessing here. Could also be girlfriend or mother).
The audience too will join in the mood, solemnly waving lighters or mobile phones. For a few brief moments in the middle of the gig, singer and audience are bound by mutual reminiscence – a serene filling in a mayhem sandwich.
Dylan had seen the future. Not everyone shared that vision, but there was no going back. The future was electric.
Now consider this; Google ‘electric bicycle’ and you will eventually wander into an world of dissent every bit as hostile and passionate as the Manchester Free Trade Hall on that May night in 1966. This time the cries are “disability scooters”, “granny machines” and “fat, lazy people not having to pedal.” The debate even has its own Judas moment, a heartfelt display of betrayal; “It’s fundamentally NOT a bicycle”.
I realize that simply reproducing these quotes does little to convey the anger that some people feel about this issue. As in the case of Dylan, the anger is directed at both the new technology and the people who might be drawn to it. Anger is often a front for fear. Perhaps the thought of being overtaken by a free-wheeling fat, lazy, disabled granny on a machine that looks, to all intents and purposes, like a bicycle is just too much for some MAMILs to bear.
I dipped my toe in this particular murky pool because on my very first bike ride of the New Year I felt like the Christmas turkey – well and truly stuffed. Annie waits patiently at the top of each hill, but it’s galling to realise that I can no longer keep up with her. My reign as long-term winner of the Tour de Milton Keynes is over.
OK – hauling Christmas pudding and too many mince pies around clearly has an effect – but there’s more to it than that. One (and a bit) lung simply does not work as well as two. I’ve been at this for some 12 months now and I’m stuck – I’ve reached a plateau. No more improvement. This is the light bulb moment. I need some extra Watts. A bike with a knob on it that goes all the way to eleven.
What the naysayers forget is that this is all about hope. The mere contemplation of such an idea changes my mood entirely. I’m not ready to hang up my cycle clips yet. I dare to think – to hope – that perhaps I could keep up with Annie. That perhaps I could wear Lycra again.
No sooner do I mention this than she’s out the door and on her way to the bike shop. It’s not a simple as that. These things are not cheap. A decent electric bike can cost as much as a small second-hand car. And you need a decent one because, if and when the battery fails, you still have to get home on something that you’d be hard pushed to even lift off the ground.
The alternative is a conversion kit – to make an electric version of an already decent bike (and I have a few of those). A lot cheaper, but still much to consider and much research to be done. Websites have to be visited, brochures have to be read, calculations have to be made. The process has to be savoured. It starts with switching on the coffee machine. As I call her back she sighs; “You’re going to do a spreadsheet aren’t you?”
She sets me a challenge; there’s a charity bike ride in August around the hills of Oxfordshire. Last year I watched as she and our friend Sally completed the gruelling course. This year I’ll whizz past them – providing I complete my spreadsheet in time.
I make my New Year’s revolution. 2012 will be the year I go electric. Happy New Year Bob.