by Our Bicycle Lives

When I say that new pedals changed my bicycle life, others are taken aback: not the saddle? Or the handlebars? Despite being one of only three contact points between bike and rider and creating a connection between the wheels, the ground and our legs which allows us to propel the bicycle with our feet, pedals are at the bottom of the pecking order. Low down, they are exposed to water and mud and bear the marks of occasional scrapes with the kerb. They are hardy and take my full bodyweight and plenty of abuse to become one of the most battered parts there is . . . but no-one notices. They remain truly neglected. Pedals could well be the perfect parts – strong, silent and invisible – but when did you last clean them? Or pay them any attention? They are looked down on: in fact most bicycles are sold with cheap and nasty plastic pedals or even with no pedals at all in the case of road bikes, which goes to show how much they matter.

But I beg to differ: I love my pedals! They are at the heart of my bicycle and of my cycling style. Being BMX ones (flat with short metal studs), they grip my shoes so perfectly that they almost seem glued to them. I rarely have to put a foot down. Sure, some bicycles do away with them, like the no-pedals balance bicycle for toddlers or the Fliz bike, a bizarre contraption, but why would you want to miss out on that lovely coasting position, feet at rest on the pedals? They keep us off the ground and give the humble bicycle its lightness and its appeal. Riding tall, standing on the pedals feels like standing on your dad’s shoulders as a child: on top of the world.

Not much differentiates a cyclist from a motorcyclist, except the pedals and what we do with them, which is unique to a bicycle and makes up for the lack of engine. Pedals supply the power, hence scores of pedal-powered inventions, from sound system to cinema to milkshake, and even a pedal-powered electric chair in Keyhole (Guy Maddin, 2011). Muscles replace fossil fuels so the simple act of pedalling makes us environmentally friendly: we tread lightly, literally and figuratively, on the Earth. Toe-straps and clipless pedals are even more energy efficient than ordinary pedals which only apply power one sixth of the time but I am not overly comfortable with having my feet locked in, so to speak. I like some wiggle room. What if I can’t unclip in time at traffic lights and suffer a fall and the shame of making a fool of myself? But I know for a fact that foxes are fond of leather toe-straps, as a friend discovered to his chagrin!

I am in the habit of looking at the spinning legs and calf muscles of the countless cyclists who drop me to judge how fast they are going. The number of pedal revolutions per minute, or cadence, is a good indication of speed. It is also a measure of competitiveness, as in the cycle sport of Rollapaluza where two participants race against each other by pedalling as fast as they can on stationary bikes. In truth, this is poles apart from my own cycling experience: I like nothing better than a leisurely ride and find frantic pedalling not only near-impossible but also undignified. I fear the ridicule of the cyclist pedalling furiously on a mountain bike in a flat urban environment. He reminds me of what in some parts of Francophone Africa is called a poulet bicyclette, a skinny chicken high on its feet who when running looks like it is pedalling. On the opposite side of the spectrum is what the French prettily name pedaler en danseuse, that sinuous and powerful style of cycling out of the saddle favoured by riders in the mountain stages of the Tour de France.

I wonder why I don’t particularly like braking or changing gears but love pedalling? Is it because it is smoother and puts less stress on the body than walking? Or because I love the fluid sensation of the pedals freely rotating in the air? I imagine spinning the pedals on an exercise bike must bring about a certain light-headedness. ‘I found a rhythm in the spinning pedals. Rhythm is happiness.’ wrote Robert Penn, corroborating my own thinking. A happily meditative mood is addictive. And I hope that the colourful pedals I’ve spotted here and there in the wake of the fixed-gear fashion for flamboyant components is an indication that they will soon move out of the shadows and into the limelight. They deserve it.