I ran into the Ghost of Christmas Past on the Connex Southeast into London and we got to chatting. "I miss the old trains," he sighed, an ectoplasmic Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells.

"What, steam?" I inquired politely.

"No. Slam-door. They had proper storage." He waxed nostalgic. "You could sit in the cage and keep your velocipede company if you liked. Get away from some of the mobile phones. If I have to listen to the opening bars of 'Mission Impossible' one more time I'm really going to scream."

"Don't hear that one quite so often anymore," I remarked, then considered who I was talking to. We were shoehorned into the cramped new seats ("as if people were getting SMALLER these days"), keeping an idle eye on our bikes. His was indeed of ancient manufacture, with a gaslight up front, wooden saddle ("honest English Oak, not one of your sissy softwoods"), and a braking system which probably didn't even work in theory. The only nod to modernity was a rear LED: "It's just sensible."

My ride was a sexy little number with toeclips. "And they say I live in the past," he commented.

I ignored this. "You must be in great demand. The olde days are big business. Especially in this country."

"I do all right," he admitted. "Our meeting like this wasn't an accident. I have something to show you."

"But I only bought a cheap day return." I gazed out the window. Everything was... different somehow. "I don't believe it," I gasped. "You've transported me back in time."

"No, that's just Catford," he said. "We're not there yet."

Eventually we rolled into central London and disembarked. "What year is it?!" I shouted to be heard above the clopping hooves of what sounded like a million horses.

"Let's just say black is the new black. And I'm not talking about Lycra." He glanced at my bike. "Better lose that. The Victorians aren't big on gripshifters."

We stopped by a bike shop and I traded down (up, in the shopkeeper's opinion: "What do you have against STI?") for a Boneshaker. Then we headed through town on those damn cobblestones.

"Where we going, CP?" I asked, shaken but not yet stirred.

"Nowhere in particular," he breezily admitted. "I just like riding around." We stopped near the Houses of Parliament.

"Why is it called 'Big Ben'?" I wondered aloud, just making conversation as we wolfed down some eel & chips sold by a vendor who was favouring me with a very suspicious look.

"I wouldn't worry if it was organic or not," my ethereal companion chided me. "Big Ben? That was the Queen's pet name for Albert's--" BONG! BONG! BONG!

He glanced at his pocket-watch. "Really, I do dither. What do you see?"

Not much. The smog was incredible. "A helluva lot of fertilizer" was my first thought. We'd spent much of the afternoon dodging it and the factories which produced it. "Unpredictable horses with very strong legs - and they aren't fond of sharing the road. Traffic jams and frayed tempers. An almost eerie absence of SUVs. A few brave souls wobbling around on two wheels; I guess it hasn't really caught on yet. Hats." I was mildly aggrieved. "What is it I'm supposed to be seeing? Why did you drag me back here into this godforsaken century?"

He shook his head sadly. "Young people today [presumably referring to anyone less than half an eon old]. Always bitching about something. I just wanted to show you that urban cyclists have always had a tough time. Thought maybe it would make you feel better. And I get frequent time-travelling miles."

Well, fine. "But what does all this have to do with your job description?"

He shrugged his shoulders, less than interested in debating the point. "It's Christmas. I'm a ghost. It's a gig."

I contemplated the filthy Thames. Turned around and he was gone. So were almost all the horses. Suddenly it was present day. My Boneshaker was leaning drunkenly against a wall. The eel vendor had transmogrified into a cop, who was eyeing it with official mistrust and communicating his disquiet into his radio. I rushed to retrieve it, assuring him it was not a cleverly-disguised bomb and silently cursing the ghost for not being very detail-oriented; I wanted my regular bike back.

Presumably a jobbing Ghost of Christmas Present would be along shortly. I contemplated the filthy river of cars. A courier zipped past, sucked through the metal corridor, on high alert for tourists gawking at Big Ben (if only they knew). I took my bike for a short walk along the embankment, gripping its saddle, minutely adjusting its course as if I were riding no-handed. The Ferris wheel across the Thames turned its lazy arc, spokes glinting, a monster bicycle wheel scooping up one load of riders after another for a taste of the sky. Almost like going spinning, I thought. Perhaps one day it would shake itself loose from its moorings and take them for a tour of the city, scattering taxis and delivery vans as it freewheeled from one photo-op to another.

I guided the Boneshaker into a stately U-turn around a performance artist making decent money imitating a statue and hopped on. As I glided over Westminster Bridge the Ghost of Christmas Future cruised alongside me on a tandem. The Ghost of Christmas Present was stoking feverishly and mumbling to himself.

"Ignore him," said Future smoothly. "Everyone else does." We reached the other side and all the motorised vehicles abruptly vanished. The road was awash with bicycles. Hundreds and hundreds of 'em: "The mayor is thinking of a congestion charge."

I was almost but not quite speechless. "This is impossible. How...?"

The Future smiled enigmatically, like the Mona Lisa. "I can't tell you that. You'll have to figure it out for yourselves." He increased his pace and the two of them slipped away, parting a sea of cheery bells.

Cycling Plus, Christmas 2002