Cycling: reasons to be cheerful

So much cycling coverage is either negative, defensive, or both. Every day on Twitter it seems we report another cyclist death or another instance of a driver killing or seriously injuring a cyclist without the law acting. And every time this is followed by the most awful victim blaming: cyclists jump red lights, they don’t wear helmets, they appear out of nowhere, they break the rules, they don’t use lights, they go on the pavement, they look funny in lycra, and on and on it goes.

I know we need to report this and we need to be aware of the battles that are going on. However, amongst all the negativity we forget a simple truth: the push bike is one of the best, most revolutionary and most versatile inventions of all time. I thought it was time to remind ourselves of why this is. I will try to accentuate the positive and minimise the discussion of the war on the roads. However, in thinking about why it is I cycle, and just how great my push bike is, I think I have gained a little more insight into why it is some people are so anti-cycling. Sometimes, in amongst the anti-cycling rants, people ask me why it is I cycle. It always seems to me to be an odd question. After all, why on earth wouldn’t I? But since some people do ask, here are the reasons.

It’s cheap
My lovely old Dawes Discovery 101 cost me £180 nine years ago. Since then I’ve spent around £50-£100 per year on maintenance. At a generous estimate it’s cost me £900 over nine years in maintenance, equipment and membership of a cycling club that gives third party insurance. I cycle around 3000 miles a year. That’s 27,000 miles, or more than the earth’s circumference, for £1080 or 4p per mile. Yes. Four pence per mile. Nothing else is that cheap and that versatile. Granted, walking is cheaper, but I don’t have the time to walk twelve miles a day.

Bike has a short rest near Topsham lock

Bike has a short rest near Topsham lock

It’s versatile
Over the last nine years, Bike has been almost everywhere with me. He takes me from my front door – and I do mean my front door, there are no problems with where to park him – to wherever it is I want to go. And then I either chain him to the nearest, most suitable immovable object, or if it’s safe I just leave him where he is. Bike can go on the road, on tracks, up hills, down hills, I can wheel him along footpaths, carry him up stairs, put him in the lift, hoick him over stiles, trundle across fields. Where Bike’s handlebars will fit, the rest of Bike will generally follow, even if I have to upend him onto his rear wheel. He’s been on the train, though not during rush hour. I could even take him on planes and boats if I wanted to. When I worked in a high crime area he sat in the office all day. I can’t take him on the motorway and he’s not going to make it to the top of Ben Nevis but other than that, Bike can get me almost anywhere.

I’ve cycled to the stables, to work, to go out with my camera, to meet friends, to go shopping and just because. Just because I can and I love it. Bike has waited patiently outside pubs and given me something to lean on whilst I wheel him home. (And, a word of caution at this point, DO NOT cycle when you’re drunk. If you are concerned about the possibility of head injuries in cyclists the best way to stop them is to cycle sober. Then you’re less likely to need the helmet.)

Bike has carried my weekly food shop, my horse’s rugs, the occasional saddle, all my horse-riding clobber, my laptop, all my library books, assorted house plants and pretty much anything else I can jam in a pannier or strap to a bike rack. Bike has moved tonnes of stuff over the years, tonnes that I couldn’t move as far or as fast on my own. He’s done this in rain, shine, snow, ice, hail, gales and floods. And yes, sometimes I get wet and cold. But since the invention of the towel and the shower, this has never been more than a temporary inconvenience, if that.

It gives reliable journey times
I grew up in suburban London in the 1980s and worked there briefly in the mid 1990s. A five-mile journey would take me 25-35 minutes on my old bike, depending on traffic, weather, and how my legs felt. In a car that same journey would take anywhere between 15 and 90 minutes. In rush hour it would generally take 30-40 minutes though that could, randomly and unreliably, increase considerably. There was no incentive to get in a car and every incentive to find a fast, cheap, reliable form of transport.

I can generally average about 15mph on a bike on the flat without sweating, unless it’s a very hot day. When I calculate the time a journey takes I reckon on averaging 10 mph, which allows for putting lights and gubbins on, slowing down for traffic and uphill stretches and finding somewhere to lock the bike up,. So a 5 mile journey will take 30 minutes, no matter what the traffic is like. True I can go a bit faster with less traffic, but traffic is nothing like the deciding factor that it is with a larger, less manoeuvrable vehicle. If you maintain your bike well you generally avoid mechanical failures. By getting near-puncture proof tyres I think I average about one puncture every 6 months. So basically when I set out with my bike, I know how long my journey will take. I don’t have to think of a number and then treble it in case the traffic is bad or the bus doesn’t turn up.

It gives me freedom
This is one of the most important things about the bike and one that we perhaps forget or underestimate. In the UK, wealthy people cycle whilst some of the poorer spend large amounts of their income on cars. We take the variety of transport available to us for granted and if we’re not careful, the bike can be regarded as a rich person’s toy. However, it is far from this. It revolutionised transport by giving the comparatively poor a relatively cheap way to cover greater distances than ever before.

Cheap, safe, reasonably comfortable bikes became available in the 1890s. Prior to this your choice was basically walking, horse riding or a carriage, or the train. Walking was cheap but slow, anything horse related was faster, convenient but expensive and the train, whilst cheap, was not door to door. The bike combined cheapness with convenience.

More than this, and most importantly for me, the bike gave women emancipation, allowing for increasing travel and independence, plus more sensible clothing. I will go to places on my bike that I simply cannot get to in a car and will not risk on foot. I will go miles and miles on towpaths and through forests on my bike, ending up in the middle of nowhere. I will go out late at night safe in the knowledge that being on my bike will keep me out of harm’s way. My bike gives me freedom. Never underestimate the power of this gift.

“Let me tell you what I think of bicycling,” Miss Anthony said, leaning forward and laying a slender hand on my arm. “I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel. It gives woman a feeling of freedom and self-reliance. It makes her feel as if she were independent. The moment she takes her seat she knows she can’t get into harm unless she gets off her bicycle, and away she goes, the picture of free, untrammeled womanhood.” –Susan B. Anthony, interviewed by Nellie Bly, New York World, February 2, 1896

In fact, there are now several charities working to bring bicycles to the developing world precisely because they are such a brilliant form of transport that can transform lives.

I took this photo from a canal towpath, somewhere I wouldn't feel safe walking and couldn't drive to.

I took this photo from a canal towpath, somewhere I wouldn’t feel safe walking and couldn’t drive to.

I see things I would miss
Bikes are very quiet and speedy, giving me the chance to get close to wildlife that I would otherwise scare off before I’d spotted it. I’ve got so close to a heron I felt as if I could touch it. I’ve seen fighting weasels and had terrified voles bolt from under my wheels. At dusk, I’ve seen a ripple of white scuts as rabbits run before me. I know the first day of summer because swallows swoop over my handlebars and past my ears. You don’t see these things in a car or if you do, it’s usually shortly after you’ve hit something.

It keeps me healthy
Cycling is good for cardiovascular fitness and it’s great for certain muscle groups, particularly those in the lower body. If you want to exercise your core you need to be doing something else as well. But overall, cycling is a great work out and you can get all these benefits whilst travelling, something that you need to do anyway. There’s no need to lock yourself up in a gym. For individuals, the health benefits outweigh the risks and for society, the health benefits are enormous.

At the age of forty, I’m the same size that I was when I was 17, and actually slimmer than I was when I was twenty and not getting enough exercise. Cycling tones your thighs, calves, ankles and buttocks. It helps keep gravity at bay. And you get to eat as many pies as you can, so frankly, what’s not to like?

There’s minimal ecological impact
I left this until last because it’s perhaps the one that raises hackles the most and also it’s one that in my experience cyclists often view as an added bonus rather than a reason to cycle in itself. If cyclists do talk about the environmental benefits of cycling they are often mocked for adopting the moral high ground. Personally, I realise that for many people, cars have become something of a necessity. I acknowledge this and don’t want to see them banned. I just want them to be driven more considerately and that means considering other roads users and considering whether that particular journey could be made some other way.

By cycling rather than driving I reduce the number of cars on the road. This frees up room for the remaining drivers and for emergency services vehicles. It cuts down wear and tear on the roads, makes for a more pleasant environment in towns and cities, reduces noise pollution and helps keep air cleaner. If that’s adopting the moral highground, tant pis. It happens to be true.

So in my next post, I’ll explain why I think these positive reasons for cycling have led to a backlash against the humble bicycle.

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2 Comments

Filed under Cycling

2 responses to “Cycling: reasons to be cheerful

  1. Brilliant, Helen! Absolutely spot on!

  2. Leigh Haggar

    Great article, Helen. It’s a pity that we don’t live nearer each other – I could do with a cycling companion. I got my first bike in over 20 years last year. However, the roads (or rather the traffic on the road) has put me off using the bike other than along the canal towpath.

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