by Our Bicycle Lives
When I took up cycling as an adult, I was of the opinion that bicycles and shopping did not mix well. It felt too much of a bother to cycle five minutes to the local shop and double-lock my bike for some cheese, a box of cereal and a few chocolate bars. I might as well walk it. More than that: being on a bike was downright inconvenient. It was for once a hindrance rather than a help and certainly a deterrent as far as impulse purchases were concerned. I had to plan for every possibility. If I ended up buying more than anticipated, what would I do with the goods? Cycling home with a carrier bag dangling from my handlebars was out of the question (too wobbly) and my backpack wasn’t big enough.
But over the past few years, the number of regular cyclists in London has exploded and things have changed. Bike stands and cycle hoops have cropped up purposefully all over my neighbourhood (thank you Lambeth Council!) and right by my favourite shops*. And I have changed too: I have come across utility bikes, touring bikes, trailers and the impressive Surly Big Dummy cargo bikes which can carry up to 180kgs comfortably; I have read articles about bicycle-operated removals; I have discovered the cunning use of bungee straps. I am now of a different mindset. I no longer view my bike only as a substitute for an Oyster Card, a means of transport from here to there, but also as an alternative to the car I will never ever want in my life. I’ve always felt that cycling could be an end in itself, such is the joy that it brings into my life, but now its utilitarian aspect has come to the fore.
This shift in perception happened imperceptibly. First it was my weekly fruit and veg box which I found fitted perfectly on the back rack, even if it bounced when I went over potholes. Wheeling it home through pure muscle power makes me feel earthy, as if I was a 1950s villager coming back from the market with a live chicken strapped on my bike. Think Wellington boots, cloth cap, hedges, drizzle and muddy lanes. I also felt like I was helping to somehow reconnect the food chain, to bring closer the era when the grower, transporter and consumer were one and the same person. Then other items followed, from the bulky – a CD rack – to the improbable – a laptop computer: ‘Surely you didn’t bring it back on your bike?’ asked a friend incredulously. Nowadays spontaneity is back and I will go shoe-shopping by bike without a second thought for the consequences.
I am fond of the ordinary way my trusty, sturdy hybrid turns into a packhorse when necessary: nothing comparable to the astonishing feats of balance and skill with which cyclists by the African roadsides have fastened their load, just plain capability. My bike and I work well as a team and we share the weight fairly. Although I’ve discovered they are the perfect fit for leeks (!), I am not a pannier user so I carry a messenger bag over my shoulder with anything from books to plums and washing-up liquid, and Firmin (for that is my bike’s name) will carry the overspill plus two heavy locks and me of course. Bruno on the other hand, my orange single-speed beauty, carries its rider and nothing else; but it is such a delight to ride that one is instantly transported into another dimension, the free world of zero gravity. From vélo (the French for bicycle) to voler (the French for flying), there is only one pedal revolution.
*When the excellent blogger Danny Williams of Cyclists in the City visited an express supermarket in Clapham last year, he noticed that more than half of the shoppers had come by bike because they could secure it safely to an indoor ramp leading into the store.