by Our Bicycle Lives

There may be a handful of reasons why someone decides one day to take up cycling: it is the quickest way to get to work; it’s summer and the tube is so stuffy; public transport can be unreliable; there are lots of other cyclists about; Boris bikes; it has a zero carbon footprint; I saw this gorgeous bicycle in a shop window and couldn’t resist. But somewhere among them, there will usually be this one too: it is cheaper. Cheaper than the bus, the train or the underground is what is implied, because cycling does not get people out of their cars but off public transport.

So, we cyclists are saving money. We are certainly seen by the outside world as a frugal, hardy breed, toiling away in all weathers (except for our fair-weather cousins) and working up a bit of a sweat too on occasion. Cycling seems a simple, grounded mode of transport, on a par with such activities as making your own bread, foraging or wild swimming: it’s back-to-basics time. There is a certain je-ne-sais-quoi about using a push bike, a human-powered machine to travel under your own steam, about its exposed frame and working mechanism – every part does what it says on the tin – that gives it sound financial credentials. It has to be cheap. But I wonder if this is a convenient urban myth? We’ve got a clean eco-conscience and we’re saving several hundred pounds every year anyway, so why not indulge in the latest technical jersey (made in India) or a dainty set of lights? It will all even out in the end. This reminds me of a former work colleague who once a year gave up smoking to save up for his annual Australia holiday. He promptly resumed the habit as soon as he came back! Maybe, just maybe, we’re not as parsimonious as we’d like to think. Just a bit economical . . . with the truth!

‘Money makes the world go round’ sings Liza Minnelli in Cabaret (Bob Fosse, 1972). But money doesn’t make the wheel go round, or does it? Well, it does on a practical level. The quirky Derek Fagestrom book Show Me How graphically explains how to use a bank note to temporarily patch a puncture hole in order to make it home. Looking at the bigger picture, the answer is the same: possibly! You may have noticed that although I love the tranquil precision of numbers, they don’t feature in this blog, which is about words and the meanings we have come to ascribe to them. However, for once, here are a few statistics: according to a recent study by the London School of Economics, cycling activity contributes £2.9 billion per annum to the UK economy. 3.7 million bicycles were sold in the UK in 2010, a rise of 28% on 2009. And the health benefits of cycling currently save the UK economy £128 million per year in absenteeism. Wow! Cycling and money are not, after all, such odd bedfellows. The UK economy is not only saving money thanks to us but it is making a healthy wad of cash too. We certainly are one hell of a productive lot.

I’ve long thought the wheel of fortune, cycling or otherwise, was about luck (as in ‘fortune-teller’), not about money. The life of a professional cyclist, for example, can be crippled by injuries, the side effects of performance-enhancing drugs and other hazards of the trade. More treadmill or hamster wheel than high life and dollars. Hence the famous phrase The Convicts of the Road coined by journalist Albert Londres in his gripping and grim piece about the 1924 Tour de France riders. In 2011, the Alpe d’Huez climb is still as harsh as ever, and so are the riders’ trials and tribulations, but for every chance that is taken, the financial rewards for the winners, in bonuses, advertising and sports contracts, are incalculable. Gold-plated and extravagant, like Swarovki’s 24 carat bicycle encrusted with crystals: a sterling job indeed.