March 26, 2010


'Don't get me wrong. I'm an avid cyclist but ...'

Mikael Colville-Anderson talks about 'people riding a bicycle for utility/transportation', in that 'most people who cycle are hardly avid. Do they cycle in the dark? Do they always cycle on the road? Do they cycle in any part of the city? At any time of year? The answers are an emphatic no.'

And he goes on to ask, 'Why bother making the city a better place to cycle if the only people who will do it are the ones who are already cyclists?'

Copenhagenize is a big word that's gradually becoming entrenched in cycling minds. But as far as I've seen -- not being a Guardian reader I suppose -- it's still largely being promoted to those who already cycle, perhaps in the 'baby steps' approach of drip feeding the idea to less frequent or non-cyclists. I cycle quite a lot, and I would have no hesitation describing myself as 'a cyclist', in the sense that my life is geared very much around my bicycle. I do have a car driving licence and a motorbike licence, but I wouldn't say I was 'a driver', because I don't really like driving and I don't do that much of it; I was coming around to being dual-mode and applying 'motorbiker' to myself and perhaps once my machine is repaired I will try again on that front. Until I read Mikael's article, I would also have happily described myself as an avid cyclist, or an enthusiastic cyclist; a dyed-in-the-wool cyclist, a if-you-cut-me-open-I'll-have-'cyclist'-written-through-my-middle sort of cyclist. You get the idea.

But now I'm wondering: do the residents of Copenhagen, or Amsterdam, or any of the other Holy Grail cities, refer to themselves as cyclists? And of those who do, is it to distinguish or distance themselves from those who don't? Or is it, I might suggest, with cycling so pervasive and everyday an activity there that it is literally the majority of citizens who cycle, and the minority who drive? Are the online newspaper articles followed by dozens of comments from irate cyclists who think drivers should be given the boot? The problem is, that scenario can't be easily compared with anywhere in the UK, save for perhaps parts of Milton Keynes, because in many places over there, cyclists and drivers don't share the same roadspace.

Starting in 1900, build two towns, both based around the horse and cart for 20 years. Then in true SimCity style, over the years, adjust the planning of the roads and railways and taxes and so on with one town giving the car priority and the other pedestrians and cyclists. Run the simulation through the baby boomer period, the swinging sixties, the efficient eighties, the noughties, and what do you have? Two cities with equally densely developed CBDs and arterial and peripheral transport routes. Now without bulldozing left, right and centre, or spending bucketloads of money, turn Motor City into Human City. Crank up the taxes and the population will vote against you, but will probably pay up. Bulldoze your heritage and the population will vote against you, if the Government doesn't haul you over the coals first. Haemorrage money by making roads anti-car and the car loving majority will vote against you but the car ambivalent won't.

While Copenhagen did things from the top down by becoming essentially anti-car, another historic city went the other way. Copenhagenize as both an idea and an ideal seeks to change things from the bottom up, and in encouraging more people to ride a bicycle instead of driving a car, we have to show that riding a bicycle is the normal thing to do. That needs:

  • Making riding a bike ordinary, without lots of special aspects like yellow jackets and helmets and lycra.
  • Making riding a bike ordinary, but tailoring it to the specific cityscape.
  • Making riding a bike ordinary, and less of an urban competition.

When I think about how I descibe my own cycling habits, it's invariably about the clothing or about the bike, and while I would like to treat them completely separately, the more I consider them the more intertwined they become. The third option, floating awkwardly in the middle distance but still tenuously intertwined, is mindset. So let's think about it.

When I ride to work, traditionally I wear x, y and z.
When I ride to the supermarket, on the occasions my local shops don't have something, or are closed, I wear x and y, and probably z too, but that depends on distance.
When I ride on a cycle tour, I wear x, y and z, but also pack at least two of a, b, and c.
When I go out for a meal without any notion of cycling there, I'll almost always want to wear a, b and c, but otherwise perhaps a carefully concocted a-b-c-x-y-z hybrid.

So why, when I go to the shops or to work, don't I just wear a, b and c? Maybe it's because sometimes it's too uncomfortable. Or it's too impractical. The real reason is because too many of my clothes are actually type x-y-z.

My waterproof cycling jacket for instance, with its respectable dark blue and black hues a hundred miles from traditional hi-viz yellow, is, strictly, a cycling jacket and is designed and shaped for that purpose. It's also a hundred miles from the beautifully styled (if nauseatingly but understandably London-centrically named) offerings from Bspoke, such as their Angel jacket. There's something that really should fit the bill for cycling: it's waterproof with sealed seams and a bum flap; it has armpit zips and it's a shell, so you won't overheat in it. But dammit, look at it. It's a coat I'd wear very happily to the shops, to a concert, to a restaurant. It's also £130 in a world where the old standard, the Altura Nevis cycling jacket, still hits the shelves at £50. At perhaps £80-90, I'd really be thinking about buying it.

It ties in with the way my cycle clothing preferences have changed over the years. In the old days, I thought nothing of riding my bike whilst wearing jeans and hiking boots and a casual jacket (although I'd fallen at the first hurdle by already using toeclips on my pedals, and buying the jacket from a bike shop), and generally doing about 12 miles a day. But as the months went on I tired of regularly wearing out the backs of my jeans and so I graduated to wearing lycra shorts, lycra tights and proper cycling shoes with proper clipless pedals: stuff to make cycling more efficient. I carried on hauling everything around in a great big rucksack because panniers were akin to beards and leather shoes, tweed skirts and stockings. With dedicated clothing that flexed rather than rubbed, didn't flap and didn't let cold air down the front of my neck, I actually found myself riding even more. I stopped bothering with cotton t-shirts and went for cycling jerseys made out of fossil fuelled technical fabrics. That none of this was particularly fashionable was of no concern because I didn't do that much socialising, and I didn't care what anyone else really thought. On my bike, I was just part of the machine, and speed and efficiency was everything.

But using a bike for social transport, rather than commuter transport, places different demands on the rider. At least here in Edinburgh, a city built on seven hills, and not unlike other places such as Sheffield, you either ride slowly to avoid exertion or you wear something that won't stay soggy after you park your bike. How do you combine the two? You buy clothes that don't look out of place on the city street, but still function as effective cycling attire. Cycling tops with half zips and rear pockets and reflective panels can be eschewed for simple wicking t-shirts in plain black, grey, or whatever the prevailing colours are. Lycra tights make way for lightweight walking trousers, or if it's not too cold, ordinary tights in a nice heavy denier, coupled with a short practical skirt (or a kilt, if you're patriotic and rock hard). And in the summer months, lycra shorts can be replaced with their baggy and pocketed equivalent or simply covered with that same skirt.

As I became fed up with sweaty back syndrome, the rucksack of my younger self eventually went the way of my jeans, and a single pannier took its place. It was joined soon after by another pannier and, when I realised that heavy panniers weren't much fun to carry around off the bike, a vented rucksack designed for hard working cyclists. And followed various other bags contrived to maximise luggage carrying or symmetry or portability when on foot. I've never tried to bring my leather handbag with me on the bike, because I'd say I can't carry it reliably. What about that practical solution of a handlebar basket, so popular abroad? It's not for lack of availability, that much is true. What about laying it on my rear rack, held down with a bungie cord? And I could well ask myself, why indeed not?

My own excuses would include:

  • Because the bag is a bit too nice to spoil with the harsh elastic of a bungie.
  • Because it's not waterproof and I don't want to get road grime on it.

To which I would say that occasional use in this manner isn't going to harm it that much. And putting it in a plastic bag, later to be stashed underneath the saddle, could probably keep a shower at bay. I think it's leather, anyway. It's made of lots of offcuts all stitched together, so while a cow wasn't used mainly for making my bag, it still isn't a vegetarian's delight.

  • Because it's not big enough on its own.
  • Because I don't want to spoil it with sharp/dirty/leaky/awkward things.

For what purpose? Carrying my camera? A pot of paint from B&Q? A bottle of shampoo? It occurs to me that the times I bring my handbag are the times I prefer to look least like 'a cyclist' anyway, so logically to use my bike for transport on those occasions instead of taking the bus, we're back at a clothing problem rather than a luggage problem. Leather handbags aren't really set off by cycling clothes, to be honest. Though there are exceptions.

  • Because I've got lots of special bike bags already, and I don't want to put a stupid basket on my bike.

Ah, now we're getting somewhere. I thought panniers were stupid, once upon a time. I think that means I'm too much of a bike snob, too much of the 'avid cyclist' Mikael writes about. I don't own a single pair of shoes that does me for every activity (although my current cycling shoes are coming perilously close), and I don't own just one bike. The recumbents like to stay set up for distance (and by extension, speed and efficiency) and a dose of touring practicality, but my town bike could very well have a basket on the front if I wanted. But it already has front and rear racks and all the other commuter accoutrements. Perhaps if it was a basket made of carbon fibre and sort of rounded for aerodynamics and... But bicycles with baskets aren't normally made for breaking speed limits, so it must be a fashion thing, and it's a superficial mindset that says I must not be a Serious Cyclist if I have a basket on my bike. Are we really that vain? Am I?

On the other hand, everything that Copenhagenize strives to show is that someone who regularly uses a bicycle for practical journeys *is* by definition a serious cyclist. It's no less important an activity than the rider who tears up centuries on a bike that weighs three grammes, but cycling is an activity that has for decades been about effort and energy, and this can't but build a pecking order. I can cycle faster from A to B than you, for longer than you, with more skill than you, therefore I am better than you. Pottering around town wearing a flowing coat and carrying a bunch of flowers in a basket doesn't quite compare with slamming a tough little BMX around a concrete park every day, and that doesn't really compare with strapping a tent on the bike and setting off across the glens, or chugging across the town with a load bike full of garden centre. In fact, aside from using a bicycle, none is comparable with another.

The average speed of cyclists over in Denmarkcityland isn't breakneck, but then their terrain is relatively modest. The lie of the land in the wilds of Scotland naturally places different demands on a rider, his or her clothes and the bicycle. Going up hills requires expenditure of energy - there's no getting away from that - and unless one is either extremely fit or extremely slow and relaxed, energy generation and expenditure requires working one's muscles, and that generates heat. Heat likes to be carried away at a specific rate: not too fast or muscles don't function at their best, and not too slowly or you get too hot. To make reasonable progress in a city in which the car is still king, fast is safe, as Richard Ballantine and John Franklin would over-simplistically put it. While Edinburgh has a useful selection of flat railway paths, they don't serve every part of the city, especially anywhere south of the middle, and hills are something one simply deals with. It is a bit like using a computer from 1995 in 2010: it still crunches the same numbers but it is no longer considered good enough for the prevailing needs of the user. A nice woollen three-quarter length coat might be a good piece of clothing for cycling at 10 mph in a flat land, but it isn't as suited to cycling in a hilly land at 15 mph, or 20 mph.

Vexed with continually breaking parts of his increasingly modified Ford F-250, it was his friend Jim Kramer who said to Bob Chandler, 'Why don't you just keep your big foot off the gas?' While my component breakery hasn't reached those heady heights, I have asked myself the same question from time to time. Another school of thought came from a Tour de France rider, that increased fitness didn't make cycling any easier: he just went faster. Simplistically, I cycle fast because I can and because I have big muscles from years of putting the hammer down. Although fast is often safe, Ballantine and Franklin actually meant that safety can be improved when the speed differential between rider and motorist is minimised. This holds true for most environments but particularly so in cities where cyclists and motorists share the same roads. But I often cycle fast when there isn't other traffic around, which suggests that the optimum force and speed of my leg muscles is due to a profusion of fast twitch fibres which, much like the chicken and the egg, have been developed and trained by years of trying to ride fast.

This excuse for not being able to ride at a relaxed pace is, of course, complete balderdash. There are other factors at play, including safety inasmuch as one tries to maintain motor vehicle speeds in an urban environment in order to actively influence the behaviour of other road users, and the notion that cyclists are constantly engaged in a war with motorists, resulting in one's efforts to avoid any inferiority complex by maintaining motor vehicle speeds and thus defend against claims by motorists of being held up (as they race to join the end of the next queue). I like to present my road behaviour as that of a bona fide vehicle, not as an obstacle to be passed at any cost. This marks me out as a legitimate presence, which is only necessary because of the current attitude towards 'bloody cyclists', which is due in part to the paradox of Government ambivalence coupled with the dichotomy of Government policies, and in part to the potential cycling population being discouraged through the constant reminding of the fact that cycling is somehow not ordinary and everyday. Let's hear it for a Slow Cyclists Movement, a cross between Tai Chi and a peaceable Critical Mass that promotes safety in numbers without the demonstrations and the aggressive beat of a portable PA.

Right now we have to share the road more than do the cyclists in the Enlightened World. We need speed more than they do, or at least we think we do. We have more terrain to deal with. We have to spend more time saving our own lives because the majority is allowed to act more dangerously. We don't, as yet, have the ability to collectively slow down on the road and work together. Universal promotion of flowers and dress trousers and bicycle clips and leather bags isn't going to work straight away. The idealology is perfect, but it needs fine-tuned. The 'edinburghchic' cyclists already look slightly different from 'londonchic'. It gets colder here, it snows more, and the roads are made of holes. We don't have much in the way of underground transport. We like mudguards and bigger tyres, and springy saddles. A lot like continental bikes then, but all ridden with those tensed shoulders and hair trigger eyes.

To call myself 'an avid cyclist', rather than simply 'a cyclist' is nothing more than creating a sense of smug superiority. We're all cyclists -- people who like the freedom and flexibility of a bike -- we only exist in different flavours. But even that isn't enough: 'I don't always want to look like a cyclist' she bleats, but that is one phrase I imagine is seldom heard in Copenhagen. In a city or a country where just about everyone is a cyclist at one time or another, it simply doesn't matter.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

That's a good article. Should maybe put in City Cycling?