Well, Fancy That! No 3: Riding a Bicycle Doesn’t Always Have to be ‘FUN!’

Team Sky found it easier to cycle as a group to the shop to buy Cycling Weekly and Red Bull for Cavendish as apparently ‘Safety in Numbers’ really works in Britain.

Here’s a challenge for you – go to any shop selling newspapers and magazines and try to find anything of substance regarding bicycles as transport. Sure, you’ll find lots on the subject of cycle sport from time trialling to triathlon to mountain biking to leisure riding but nothing on just riding to the shops. That’s because it would be commercial suicide to attempt such a thing – cycling as transport should be a boring, humdrum activity as opposed to a particular ‘lifestyle’ or activity filled with thrills and spills requiring the purchase of specialist kit. In Britain however, we don’t do boring and humdrum. Cycling is all about ‘FUN!’ or ‘Olympic Legacy!’ if you like.

When I visited the Netherlands on a David Hembrow Study Tour last year, I baffled the locals by getting my camera out and taking photos of the cycle infrastructure (at least, I hope that’s why they looked baffled). They simply couldn’t grasp why someone would want to take pictures of something that was, to them, so boring and taken for granted, or photos of them doing such utterly routine stuff like going to a cafe to meet friends, going to school, or to the shop to top up a mobile phone. To be honest, my wife would have agreed with the Dutch. I’m going to be 40 in November.

The fact is, in Britain, going to a cafe to meet friends, or to school or to the shop to top up a mobile phone are not  regular activities undertaken by bicycle. Cycling around a forest or seafront or reservoir are activities undertaken by bicycle because it’s ‘FUN’! And you can buy a magazine to assist with all the tips on high-tech equipment to ride and wear (including racks to mount your bicycles to your car to go to that forest or seafront or reservoir). After all, adults and children are advised to get training and read a large manual of advanced techniques before really tackling British roads to go to a cafe to meet friends, go to school or go to the shop to top up a mobile phone.

In the Netherlands [and I would imagine Denmark also], all this boring, humdrum bicycle as transport stuff goes on, and yet they still manage to have an intensive and varied cycle sport scene. They have Road Cycling and Cyclo-Cross and BMX and Track Cycling and Mountain Biking and Human Powered Vehicles (yes, dear Reader, I did write Mountain Biking). See? In cycling terms, even in Europe they know how to have ‘FUN’!!!

It would be easy at this point to say something along the lines of, ‘well, at least the Dutch and the Danes know where to draw the line between sport and transport’ but that would be the wrong, and blatantly untrue distinction to make. Whilst I was cycling around Groningen and Assen on their bicycle infrastructure, our group was frequently overtaken by individuals or groups of cheery club cyclists in full kit on road bikes. However, because we were going through towns and villages where any infrastructure and population was obviously at its most dense, I found that although they were travelling quicker than us, it was respectfully quicker. They were always travelling at what the Starship Enterprise would call ‘Impulse Power’. The distinction I found, and I stress this is based purely on what I observed, is that they were cycling as though they still had a debt of responsibility where people were, the same as motorists. If they just kept their legs ticking over at a not unpleasant speed [for them] they knew they would be able to open up the speed later in their ride (particularly as Dutch Infrastructure is about segregated ROUTES and not the usual British misinterpretation). The point I wish to make is that the bicycle infrastructure provided is suitable for everyone – not always perfect, but more pleasant and often more direct than the road. It’s perfectly possible to travel at speed too.

The Dutch and the Danes know how to have ‘FUN!’ But they also know how to get to the shops and their children to school correctly.

The problem Britain faces is multi faceted but I’m going to quickly focus on two; Firstly, is the fact that practically every piece of bicycle infrastructure designed and implemented to date is diabolical, and one cannot blame the hardened experienced ‘FUN!’ loving cyclist for being deeply sceptical. If motorways were designed in the same cavalier fashion with piecemeal budgets, minimal consultation and guidelines that are readily ignored, then both driving and cycling on specific infrastructure would be ‘FUN!’  but in a white-knuckle, terrifying fairground ride sort of way. I personally think that level of excitement should come from inside a library book as opposed to cycling to the library to get that book.

Second is the fact that we are spectacularly awful at separating the ‘sport’ from ‘transport’. Some Britons like to think that by cycling to work, they have left the ‘Rat Race’ but all they’ve done is lock themselves into new one of their own construction. Consumerism finds a new and unexpected outlet with all the kit, cameras and, thanks to applications such as Endomondo, a smart phone negates the need for a cycle computer telling the rider everything from average speed to how many calories were burned each trip. A daily gauntlet has been thrown for the quick and the brave with a great deal of risk taking. The thought of ‘Going Dutch’ or ‘Danish’ horrifies them as they cling to the some divine right to the road. A right that has been effectively lost to the majority already.

I personally believe that there needs to be a standard in bicycle infrastructure that acts as a quality benchmark as opposed to guidelines that currently exist which, although are quite good, are all too easily discarded in the name of budgets or just simple lack of understanding of the bicycle as a mode of transport. There needs to be continuity, quality and more than a nod to what has enjoyed proven success in Continental Europe. A Standard that is suitable for every type of bicycle and caters for every type of rider.

There should never be a magazine about mass cycling as transport because it should be the routine, everyday thing you do to get to equally routine activities or more exciting adventures that start as soon as you walk away from a safely locked bike. Mind you, if there was such a magazine, I’d probably subscribe to it. I’d keep it hidden from my wife though. One must maintain an image of ‘FUN!’

Why People Don’t Cycle In The UK No 1 – Class

‘…………I know my place’

Oh, it’s you. Well, come in, come in. Wipe your feet. I’ll just put some plastic down over the seats. We don’t want to get oil or grease marks on them do we? You know what some cyclists are like. I bet the only time some of them wash is when we get a rain shower. I’ve put on a selection of home made cakes on those doilies and tea in the Harrods container over there on my wife’s executive hostess trolley. Now, let’s have a little chat about class.

The British have developed a strange attitude toward class and status through recent decades. In the past everyone knew their place and only spent what they could afford. The bicycle was the mode of transport for getting about as your place of work and shops were nearby anyway. 

With relentless marketing from the motoring lobby (Ford made no secret of their product placement in programmes such as The Professionals) and construction of infrastructure hostile to anything without an engine, the car became the affordable, progressive item of desire for the working classes to have. In the village where I was brought up in the 1970’s, the main place of work was an engineering works about a mile away. Everyone walked or cycled as it was the logical thing to do. By the end of the decade, all but a hardcore minority had moved from bicycle to car.  My father worked there, made the same transition, developed heart problems and still didn’t get the connection.

I often look at the price tag of a new car and think ‘how many can really afford that’. Of course in our recent times of easy credit, it was easier to burden oneself with the payments over a period of months with the choice of upgrading their car or paying a lump sum to make the car officially theirs. People were always going to go for the upgrade, burdening themselves with more debt and ensuring brand loyalty.

However, the adverts the customers saw promised quite a lot beyond the mpg statistics (which they ignored). They promised empty forests and fire roads or desolate city centres with strangely romantic street lighting. Above all they promised aspiration and freedom. Buy this product and suddenly you can become [even more] attractive to the opposite sex. You could free yourself from your supposedly lowly bonds and BE somebody.

If motorists are a bit aggressive, it’s partly because behind those angry, stressful eyes they’re wondering why the Ring Road is full to the brim of other aspiring sexy types looking for that open tundra. Near Ipswich. They will carry on motoring to the death, as they feel that they have paid their way to sit in such misery. They have had to insure it, ensure that it’s roadworthy, fill it with fuel and pay for the amount of emissions its engine size will generate (which is when they finally read those mpg statistics). This, to many motorists, means that they have ‘bought in’ and own the roads. They are part of an exclusive club that thinks the roads are theirs when they aren’t, that thinks they can drive how they want when they can’t, and individually thinks their journey is more important when it isn’t.

In these supposedly enlightened times, the humble bicycle is still generally regarded in the UK as the poor mans transport, for people that don’t quite fit in or the great unwashed who don’t pay their way. That’s one perception and the media, largely reliant on motoring advertising revenues, are happy to keep it that way.

Another factor, particularly in these Autumnal times is the use of high-viz. To the aspiring classes, an activity requiring a high-viz tabard is something that…well….poorer people do. You don’t need high-viz in a gym (unless you are particularly clumsy, or you’re there to work on the air conditioning). You shouldn’t need it when cycling either, but that’s another debate. A tentative list of lower class high-viz activities might be;

  • Refuse collectors and street cleaners
  • Delivery drivers
  • Working ‘behind the scenes’ of a supermarket
  • Car park assistants at large car boot sales.
  • Taking your dog for a walk along the pavement if you live on a busy trunk road.

It doesn’t matter that any these people are very nice or would go out of their way to help. The British class system has spoken.

Recently, levels of cycling have started to rise in places such as style conscious London. Although in real terms cycling still has a pitifully low modal share, Boris Bikes, Superhighways and even Cycle Chic seemed to be floating around the media in a positive way. Cycling was starting to be discussed, which could only be a good thing. To counter this, a new battle front opened up. This time it was aspiring cyclists that spent too much money. Enter the MAMIL (Middle Aged Man In Lycra). The Daily Mail clearly wanted middle aged men back in golf club bars moaning about immigration and buying sports cars (preferably ones they’ve reviewed). The storm subsided when it was realised that cycling in this instance was an exclusive sporting activity as opposed to everyday transport so the road tax myth could be kept intact.

The simple fact is that cycling can be as expensive or as cheap as you want it to be without compromising your safety and wellbeing. Its an egalitarian, libertarian mode of transport that effortlessly transcends class which is why this land of ours has so much trouble dealing with it. The most wonderful thing about a bicycle is that it loves you just the way you are. Which is just as well really, you scruffy peasant.

2/11/11 Postscript:

A Lo Fidelity Reader (David Gander) tried to submit a cartoon through the comments section that he thought pertinent to the above piece but couldn’t. I invited him to email it to me for inclusion and this is what he sent…

‘It’s actually a rough of the real thing (don’t know where that is now) but you get the idea. This is from about 1991 when I worked for the London Cycling Campaign when they produced a monthly (I think) magazine called ‘The Daily Cyclist’ and I submitted cartoons and stuff for them as a freelance illustrator (I still am). I did loads of stuff for them and ‘Transport 2000′ as they were then called. I was, and still am a very keen cyclist although I don’t commute through London anymore.’

So there you go. A reader kindly submits a cartoon that’s around 20 years old and its still as relevant today as it was then. To me, it also demonstrates how we’re not very good at dealing with serious problems as a nation but very good at creating new and inventive ways of viewing them. But that’s a far greater debate. Thank you David.

Worthing Cycle Chic

My Commuting Steed. Taken on NCN2 Lancing Beach, West Sussex (next to yet another 'Cyclists Dismount' sign)

Here is a picture of the thing I happily spend a couple of hours a day on come rain, wind or shine.

I used to own a Specialized Tricross Sport until it got written off in a classic SMIDSY (‘Sorry Mate I Didn’t See You’) incident.  The incident occured in the laughably titled ‘Cycling Demonstration Town’, Brighton & Hove. Although I made a spectacular ‘Starsky & Hutch’ style roll across the bonnet of a very shocked and remorseful driver, I made a complete recovery within days.

My local bike shop is Quest Adventure, owned by the kind, enthusiastic and evergreen JP Saville – Mountain Bike racing veteran and the chap that introduced the Kona brand to the UK. He transplanted the components off the Tricross onto a Cotic Road Rat frame and forks (‘Steel is Real’) with shiny new wheels and hung the tricross frame up in the workshop as a souvenir (it was incredibly battered). The result is an amazingly fast and comfortable commuter hack to this day.

Whilst I was convalescing from the accident however, I considered buying a Pashley Guv’nor with some savings I had as it would encourage me to slow down and really enjoy my cycling again. In the end, I just wanted to get back on a bike quickly and went for the cheaper option that recycled old components. The problem is that it still encourages speed & glimpses of lycra, even with the addition of Schwalbe Marathon tyres.

The point is that, as the components are now getting very worn, I want to give it a makeover that makes it low maintenance, comfortable and sedate enough to provoke the wearing of relatively normal clothes meaning a stop at a pub, cafe, shop, pub again, vineyard or beer festival is not out of the question. At the moment dear brothers and sisters, I am a shocking example of Cycle Chic and an appalling advert for cycling. When people look at me sailing by they suddenly develop sympathy for the homeless as opposed to a desire to try cycling. I am so geared up for the commute that that’s all I do. I never give myself the chance to be spontaneous.

I’m thinking of making the following addtions/omissions alterations and I need your opinion;

Hub gears with drum brakes (for low maintenance)

‘Path Racer’ handlebars

Cream Schwalbe Delta Cruiser Tyres (just because)

Carradice saddlebag with quick release rack (I’m currently carrying work stuff in a courier bag which is insane really).

Mudguards

Brooks Saddle (although the Charge saddle I have currently is outstanding for the money – thoroughly recommended).

My questions are as follows; Is this going to work out prohibitively expensive?  What would you do/add/omit?

Also, for all the wonderful photographs on cycle chic blogs across the globe, can anyone maintain their chic for 12 miles without looking like they’ve just been orgasmed to near death and then pushed through a car wash?

I welcome any thoughts.

PS. If anyone is going to the Cycle Show at Earls Court on Friday 8th October, I’ll see you there!