Our Bicycle Lives

I cycle, therefore I think

Category: Doing

Maintenance

Ah, maintenance! The dreaded word! My definition: routine procedures whose aim is to maintain one’s bicycle in a roadworthy condition. What a goal to strive for! Does anyone get excited by something so mundane, so worthwhile? Repairs sound somewhat more urgent but in practice, I leave them to the experts and concentrate on the details, the odd jobs: oiling the chain and other components, pumping the tyres, adjusting the brakes and gears, tightening the saddle and handlebars (NB: punctures will get a whole post to themselves, they deserve it). I’ve often found great satisfaction in physical work – sorting through a pallet of books, for example. Making a visible difference gives a wonderful sense of achievement. Not so with maintenance, the work behind the scenes that makes little visible difference to the bike but an important actual difference to the ride: I am certain it explains why a cheap bike has served me exceedingly well for years but it is, I have to say, painstakingly slow. A bicycle may be a simple machine but done by amateur me, any task involves trial and error and more error, with no guaranteed outcome. That’s why I prefer cleaning, because I invariably end up with a visibly improved entity, a shiny bike!

Free pump, not free maintenance

Free pump, not free maintenance

In practice, many urban cyclists don’t have the time, outside space, know-how and tools, they only have the guilty conscience. We know we should do it but . . . Single-speeds and belt drives wouldn’t be so popular if they weren’t so low-maintenance. Some of us like to take a different approach to maintenance and turn the concept around, making it into such a rare occurrence that it becomes some kind of a one-off project. You just need to wait long enough. The snag is that, since a noise is a symptom that is hazardous to ignore, problems don’t usually wait around nicely, they worsen. And I admit I love mechanisms that work, well-oiled bearings, smooth clicking sounds and a machine in perfect condition. Well, who doesn’t? Not the serious young boy in Bicycle Thieves* who looks with distaste at a dent in his dad’s bicycle frame. The attraction of a shabby-chic bike would wane pretty quickly.

I do like to know what’s what, how parts work and how to keep them in top condition. Being an information professional, I’ve done my homework: I’ve read the best bike maintenance book there is, I’ve been on a course and I have the theoretical knowledge but it’s putting it into practice that I don’t enjoy. I have never been a Meccano kid. Instead I worry that I will make a mess of it and that it will go horribly wrong (what if?). I am sure fellow cyclists will understand the feeling. That maintenance work strengthens my bond with my bike is wishful thinking. I would appreciate it just as much if I didn’t get my hands dirty! Knowing nothing about and contributing nothing to how it works would not take away my gratefulness for this miracle of a machine. I know perfection when I see it. In the world of internet dating, that’s called a spark. It’s all about chemistry, not mechanics.

On the other hand, if maintenance means taking care of one’s property, it appeals to my sense of responsibility. Looking on the bright side, bike maintenance season heralds the arrival of spring, and some time spent tinkering with my bike means that it’s a sunny day! In fact, the one lovely warm day I can remember for sure in recent weeks (cue one of the coldest and most miserable springs on record) was bike maintenance day. When I am in no hurry, I can set aside an hour or two and use brakes and gears as an excuse for spending the afternoon in the garden, leisurely occupied. Ginger beer and outdoor conversation may ensue. ‘Looking after your bike so it will look after you’, as BikeReader puts it, is after all a different proposition. By undertaking regular maintenance work, I facilitate our dialogue and, smoothing out any hiccups in the chain of command, secure my bike’s responsiveness. I give, I take. A handful of hours of fine tuning every year so that we can both hear each other: I wouldn’t say I am short-changed. Would you?

* Vittorio De Sica, 1948

Style

Newspapers regularly run stories on cycling tribes (preferably with alliterated names), being eager to differentiate us without individualising us and to group us under conveniently stereotypical categories for the benefit of their readership. There are the Lycra lads and the cyclists chic, the Hackney hipsters, the fast fixed and the random riders. So, what kind of cyclist are you? Does it matter? There is, I admit, a certain uniformity to people on bikes, as with anybody engaged in a physical pursuit. Swimmers or long-distance runners for example have very distinctive body shapes. The majority of urban cyclists are commuters, not professional sportsmen and women, but it is somewhat a myth that we come in all shapes and sizes. In the current bicycle-unfriendly environment that is London, most people who venture on a bike will be fairly fit, fast and assertive: in other words, the statistics say that we are typically male and under the age of 50. With specialised clothing on top, we all start to look like types.

Still, I rarely think of us as a crowd displaying a mass behaviour, a uniform style. Perhaps because we are, visibly, individuals and because, even during the rush hour, I am able to single out someone I know cycling in the opposite direction. Indeed, I have never come across so many familiar faces than on two wheels, each and every single one of them recognisable by their own style of cycling. It possibly begins with the choice of a bicycle, which will determine a riding position, speed, clothes, shoes etc. Or vice-versa, the choice of bicycle being informed by one’s purpose: fast commuting, a cheap way to get around, leisure riding, competitive sport, or just the means to spend a pleasant hour in the sun, getting nowhere in particular. In the end, my cycling style is the product of factors like type of bike, purpose, fitness, skills, experience and confidence. Whether I can put it into words or not, I have a good notion of its essence, so that I can say, for instance, that ‘weaving through traffic is not my style.’

It may, deep down, boil down to my position on the bike, my position on the road and my position towards other road users. Style is a matter of choice. It reflects in part my attitude to cycling, what I view as my privileges, rights and duties in a space I share with pedestrians, cars, motorcycles, taxis, buses and lorries. With time and practice, the power of habit turns my style into lasting behavioural traits: how I act and react on a bike. Over the years, I’ve tried to make it relaxed but responsible, without going as far as the slightly intimidating ‘cycling with intent’ (the BikeReader definition of activism!). I feel the same way about cycling as 16th century writer Michel de Montaigne did about death when he wrote in The Essays: ‘I will take care, if I can, that my death says nothing that my life had not previously said.’ I would of course like to think that someone’s cycling style is an accurate indication of the type of person they are, especially since for me cycling is more than a mode of transport, a way of life. But we all know that the peculiar road environment changes people. Man often undergoes a metamorphosis, a mutation, from an ordinary, decent office type into a caveman on wheels. It seems the race to and from the workplace, with the single-mindedness required to go over the same stretches of tarmac day after day, brings to the fore some primal competitive instinct and keeps true selves well-hidden. So I’ll never know.

Now, the important question: have you got style? Or have you got helmet hair, reflective clothing and duck shoes? We’ll never meet the impossibly glamorous standards of Marilyn Monroe’s frantic cycle ride to catch a boat at the end of Some Like It Hot* – not a blonde hair out of place – but cycling is once again perceived as cool and chic, thanks in part to websites like Copenhagen Cycle Chic. The aesthetics of urban cycling make for some lovely looks, half natural poses and half fashion statements, spotless, sweat-free, the very image of insouciance and freedom. As for me, I find that practicalities and comfort often stand in the way of style and I am content for cycling to be more than a fashion style, my lifestyle.

* Billy Wilder, 1959

Slow Cycling

By Lilli Hoikka

My name is Lilli and I am the slowest cyclist on the Clapham to Clerkenwell commuter route. Well, second slowest on the rare occasions when I catch up with a newbie on a hire bike in front of me. But, to be quite truthful, I cannot remember when this last happened! As a rule I am overtaken by absolutely everyone: kids on their way to school, Bromptons, cyclists almost twice my age, countless hired bikes and so on. The six-mile journey on mainly quiet back roads normally takes me 45 minutes so that makes my average cruising speed a very leisurely eight miles per hour. I am actually surprised at this. I would say I am by nature a fast person: a fast walker, so much so that others often ask me slow down; a fast talker; and I make decisions fast. But I just love slow cycling. It gives me a great start to a new day and calms me down after a hectic one in the office. So how did I manage to find the meditative pace in cycling?

I started cycling in London in the 1990’s when there were not many bikes on the roads and pedestrians and drivers were not as aware of us as they are now. After a couple of minor crashes, I realised the accidents often happened when I was going fast. I did not have enough time to brake when a pedestrian suddenly stepped onto the road in front of me or a bus pulled out without indicating or looking if anyone was coming. Some kind of action was needed. I made a conscious decision to slow down and started to allow myself more time to reach my destination. It felt strangely different at first not to rush, pedal fast and whizz through amber traffic lights. But soon I started to notice beautiful new things on my route as I now had time to observe my surroundings properly. Slowing down gave me the opportunity to look at buildings, to breathe in the smell of flowering trees, to catch secret glimpses of other people’s lives . . . My whole experience of cycling was transformed. No longer did I need a shower at the end of the ride and I felt relaxed and energised when I arrived at my destination. Before I realised it, I had completely changed my cycling style and I simply loved it! I started cycling everywhere, not just to work, and what had begun as a commute turned into a much-loved hobby.

I have to admit it is an easy life being a middle-aged female rider. I have no need to prove anything to anyone, unlike some young male (sorry!) cyclists whose worst case scenario is to be overtaken by a woman cyclist. They will promptly give chase and start a race, complete with grimace and gritted teeth, which for an outsider is always amusing to observe. But who says we need to be pushing ourselves all the time? We do that enough at other times in our lives. Cycling can be pure pleasure and enjoyment. Finding a comfortable cycling speed is key to making even a longer ride a very pleasant experience. I took part in the overnight Dunwich Dynamo two summers ago and by cycling at my own speed within the group, I had plenty of energy left at the end of the 120 miles. No sign of the dreaded pain barrier. I am sure the supportive and welcoming atmosphere (and generous applications of chamois cream . . .) helped as well but following the speed that came naturally to me, rather than the many fast young things overtaking me, made all the difference. And although I was cycling in slow motion compared to the majority of cyclists on the Dun Run, somehow my average speed was a whopping twelve miles per hour! Well, night-time riding on quiet country lanes is quite different from rush hour commuting across London.

So why not give slow cycling a go for a month? You never know – you might just like it.

Campaigning

Providing safe and direct cycle routes to encourage people to use bikes instead of cars: sounds reasonable, doesn’t it? Then you happen to mention campaigning and a stereotype will stick to you, that of the seasoned cyclist who bores others stiff with filtered permeability or segregated cycle lanes. Campaigning has an image problem: it sounds martial and military, too black and white for the fashionable shades of grey which give our era its appeal. So much so that even the London Cycling Campaign considered dropping it from its name last year. Too off-putting. ‘Cycling promotion’ is not much better, forceful and at odds with these laid-back times, as if cycling was a chore that needed promoting rather than a highly enjoyable activity.

But, as film-maker François Ozon once replied when he was asked whether his film was political, ‘everything is political’. Way beyond party politics, choosing where to shop, or how public funds are spent, or how streets are designed prioritises some groups and excludes others, and shapes the future of the city we live in. Whether we like it or not, people who cycle are in the minority, and, as such, we sound shrill and defensive on occasion and we need to shout to get our voices heard (we have a lot to say!). Plus, we feel that society owes us because our taxes subsidise primarily other modes of transport*. All this doesn’t come across too well. One writer spoke of converts being zealots. More perceptively, in the April/May issue of London Cyclist the ever ebullient Zoe Williams differentiated between people who cycle and cyclists ‘who demand to be recognised, not just as people on two wheels, but as people on two wheels doing a decent thing. (…) People who cycle need cyclists.’

Campaigning against

Campaigning against

As I wrote here, I am a quiet campaigner: it is not in my nature to be vocal and try to change opinions and people. My main contribution is by example, in the hope that by being respectful of other road users, fellow cyclists will in return be treated with consideration. Antisocial cycling is so counterproductive in the long run, and we are in it for the long run, aren’t we? But we do need people who make a lot of noise: demonstrations and making headlines are very effective so I am happy to join protest rides, fill in surveys or put my name on petitions. It feels great to do something right and to shout about it! A few Christmases ago, I stumbled upon my local London Cycling Campaign group and was amazed at the extent of their knowledge of the local area, whereas I struggle to recollect whether a road I use every day is one or two-ways. I remember one afternoon spent riding an advertising tricycle across London to the head office: it was good fun, and I did get a lot of attention! Everywhere the volunteers’ dedication is impressive, their tireless involvement in the nitty gritty of campaigning – emails, letters to MPs, meetings, that unglamorous hard slog which aims to propel cycling into the mainstream. And, with new, dynamic campaigning organisations such as the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain, there is much good will about.

But will it find a way? Is the general public ready to listen? To borrow my friend Beth’s words, ‘to be a good listener, you have to be prepared to be changed by it.’ How do we ensure that all that work doesn’t fall on deaf ears, that we don’t preach to the converted and antagonise the lukewarm and the indifferent? ‘Cyclists must capture the public’s imagination in order to gain the breadth of support needed’ wrote the Guardian Bike Blog. Protest rides and social media all help to put cycling on the agenda. And as the status of the bicycle rises, campaigning could one day (one hopes) become less of a vital matter. ‘Put Cyclists First’ was one of Metro’s recent headlines. But why just cyclists? Put people first! Let’s be bold, let’s look at the bigger picture and come up with a vision of what we would like our future environment to be. Cycle activist Mark Ames is one of the voices behind the Movement For Liveable London. In an inspirational Street Talk, he called for a broad alliance of young and older people, pedestrians, parents, cyclists and others to lobby for more liveable cities. We need to work towards bringing about the changes we aspire to, together.

* For example, motoring costs two to three times more to society than the taxes it brings in.

Shopping

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.

Shopping

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.

No Hands

In our decidedly tame decade where riding pillion is illegal and my workplace forbids the wheeling of bikes through the office area on health and safety grounds (grudges? who, me?), I think of cycling without hands as the epitome of cool, a defiant gesture to the norms of adulthood and boringdom. It shows confidence, skills, and a certain ‘what the fuck’ attitude that puts one in the same league as, say, cycle couriers, tweed runners and naked bike riders. I have the feeling that it won’t be long until it too is banned by the powers that be and that we should make the best of it while we can. It is reminiscent of an age gone by where cycling was done in everyday clothes and helmets didn’t exist and takes us back to the ‘good old days’ via that melancholic look at history, nostalgia.

No-hand cycling exudes nonchalance and supreme indifference to or disregard for rules, regulations and us average folks. It has a certain smugness about it, but it is a quiet, happy one and I can’t help smiling at the sight of a cyclist passing by, upright and proud, his redundant arms flapping about at his sides or crossed over his chest. I am still to see multi-tasking cyclists, glamorous ones who would apply make-up and nail varnish on their way to a night out or cosy ones who’d prefer doing a bit of knitting in the saddle – other than on film: I particularly like The Man Who Lived On His Bike – but it delighted me immensely to spot a literary one in Milton Keynes Central (of all places!) recently reading his book whilst pedalling home.

Contrary to appearances, it is not, however, an entirely self-contained activity. The no-hand cyclist may appear oblivious of others, in particular of cars and other motor traffic around him but also of pedestrians, to the point of distraction, but in fact quite the opposite happens. Indeed his/her performance relies on spectators: it needs someone’s outside look to accomplish and complete itself. Ideally an amused witness with a twinkle in their eye and the beginning of a smile on their lips, someone who will shout an encouragement from the sideline, while the performer takes centre stage. And it seems such a non-threatening, gentle act – no grand gestures, no big look-at-me signs – that I am happy to oblige and give what is asked of me so modestly. While I am often shy of showing admiration for a skilful bit of cycling, I will stare and grin unreservedly at a no-hand cyclist. Nice one, mate!

Wheelies, on the other hand, are a different matter, bolder, half-way between the testosterone-fuelled, aggressive behaviour of (of course) male mountain-bikers and the acrobatics of a circus number. Doing a wheelie is a self-centred, boastful act and my first reaction is that of slight contempt: it is bad taste. Like a flashy expensive watch, it is a bling bling way of showing one’s superiority and naturally, we don’t like to be put down so we deservedly ignore it. An acquaintance once told me the story of how he saw a teenager cycling down the whole length of a street on his back wheel and thought ‘show off!’, until he noticed that the bike had no front wheel…

A bike on its back wheel has something of the horse on its hind legs: full of its strength and power, ready to kick, bolt or hurt. But a cyclist sitting straight up in the saddle, looking far ahead in the distance, makes cycling look like what it should be: easy and peaceful, graceful, a pure pleasure. Sweat does not even feature in the process, nor does speed. For my own part, I’ve never been able to get the hang of it. I have heard that it is easier on a new bike, when the bolts and bearings are tighter because they are not yet worn, but I also imagine it comes naturally when one is that little bit more laid-back and relaxed than I am. Ah! That says it all!

Starting

‘Bike!’ shouts a wide-eyed three-year-old pointing at my orange singlespeed. He is himself sitting on his own small version of the Draisine* but is visibly pining for more. This is perhaps how each of our individual love affairs with the bike starts but it is anyone’s guess: if we know that the story of the bicycle began in 1817, our own is, for the most part, buried within the faint memories of our early years. Like all motor skills that we never forget, learning to ride a bicycle as a child is accomplished as a matter of course. This developmental milestone is only remarkable for the proud parents and, briefly, for their toddler until it becomes second nature. Even I, a worrier of a child, have no recollection of the anxiety of learning to cycle without stabilisers, of the inevitable crashes that must have followed.

The question is not so much ‘when did we start cycling?’ as ‘when and how do we start being cyclists?’ Even though most of us cycle from an early age, it doesn’t mean we identify as cyclists: we are just young people or grown-ups who happen to be cycling because the weather is lovely, because we fancy an afternoon out on our local mountain bike course or because we’re on holiday. I would hazard a guess: apart from a lucky few who never stopped cycling and for whom it is a non-event, most of us have at some point lapsed and gone through years when it has fallen off our life’s agenda. It is when we re-start that we become fully fledged cyclists, and we don’t look back.

You may have guessed that I am one of those born-again cyclists, a qualifier that I have to embrace with all its connotations of single-mindedness, righteousness and at times intolerance (don’t get me started on cars!). I went through fifteen dark, barren years. I have often reflected on my eureka moment. The decisions I take as an adult involve weighing the pros and cons and are the product of accumulating factors that will one day tip the scales. In this case, I had come into contact with many cyclists but it just never appealed – ‘seek and ye shall find’ said the prophet – and it was ten years before cycling made it onto my to-do list. I now had an inkling I might enjoy it. It took another five years of sharing a house with a cyclist who regularly beat me and the tube home. The turning point, the sign I was waiting for, came when I went for a Sunday spin in Paris and lived to tell the tale. I got back to London and bought my first bike.

I am intrigued as to what gets others into cycling. The haggard middle-aged pedestrian whom I crossed paths with for several years on my way to work turned up one day on a hybrid. Friends have mentioned being given a free, homeless bike; the example of a ‘half woman, half car’ colleague who turned to cycling; or a long run of beautiful summer days. If there is a mathematician out there who’d care to apply the probability theory to the event ‘Resuming Cycling Behaviour in Adulthood’, I can imagine how vitally the research outcomes could inform the work of cycle campaigners. For example, why is a setback – a scare, a fall, a near miss, theft – enough to put some cyclists off for good and not others? Why are so many bikes rusting in gardens and sheds?

To start cycling is also something I do every day. Each time I start off on a journey, I take a little step that feeds into my story as a cyclist. And sometimes setting off on a bicycle after a holiday or an interruption of several weeks (on the whole, away from home I am still a pedestrian) feels like starting all over again. My body is at odds with my bike and my bike at odds with the road: it is not that I have forgotten how to cycle but, for a while, how to relate to the outside world through the medium of my bicycle.

  * the first – pedal-less, foot-propelled – bicycle, as modelled by Buster Keaton in his film Our Hospitality (1923). He replicated the prototype so perfectly that it was claimed by a museum for its collection.