Our Bicycle Lives

I cycle, therefore I think

Category: Emotions

Bicycle Lament

By Hannah Garrard

“Don’t leave me,” she said, as I turned my back on her for the last time.
“I can’t take you with me,” I told her, with my hand already on the door. The garage door shut and she was plunged into a dusty gloom.

…………………………………………………………………………………I remember long, evening bike rides along the fast, flat Norfolk plains, through sloping valleys and upward gradients which barely registered. My bicycle and I both loved the unbroken skylines and wide angled vistas which displayed a full, flexing setting sun. I stayed in fourth gear for most of my life.

Now I live in Incheon, South Korea, 70% of which is mountain and sheer rock face. Everybody is wedged in, shoulder to shoulder, spilling out of the city like schools of fish on public holidays. Not much room for bicycles. The cities are a medley of meandering alleys, lanes, steps and ingenious housing solutions. Cycle paths are an indulgent luxury in a country so wanting of open space.

Incheon

Incheon

Those who value their limbs rarely venture into the cities on a bicycle, but, it is possible to hire bikes and cycle along the Han River in Seoul, which has been paved with wheeled vehicles in mind and boasts a rare stretch of straight road. However, you’ll be joined by Segways, roller bladers, skateboarders, by lovers on ‘couple bikes’, and children making their first wobbly revolutions, anxious parents not far behind. Not to mention the tangle of kite strings belonging to the many kite flyers lining the banks. Not long ago, on a day when the summer had finally broken, I hired a Dutch bicycle and took to the Han River. Within a few minutes I suffered a very near miss when a rogue snakeboard, whose novice owner was nowhere to be seen, snaked its way between my wheels, locking them dead. I skidded to a stop at the riverbank, and felt my rear wheel rise in protest and the shock of adrenaline pinch in my feet. The snakeboard was then meekly disentangled by a nine-year-old with scuffed knees. I returned my bicycle before my hour was up.

Occasionally, when I take to the countryside or one of the islands off the peninsula’s west coast, I am passed by a group of serious cyclists with bodies lithe and toned by relentless ascents. I barely hear them approaching on their silent, feather-light machines. “Ya! Ya!” they cry in warning, travelling at speeds which would make a collision fatal. I envy their two-wheeled escape from the stifling proximity which the city inflicts.

In the neighbourhood I live in, the old colonial part of Incheon, a few die-hard ajussis (old men) still ride their bicycles, going so slowly they seem to almost stop. Their bikes are so battered and worn, having supplied a lifetime of servitude. Recycling collection is a big business for the ajussi, and they are a ubiquitous sight in the neighbourhood with their wooden carts attached to an old clunky bike, flattened cardboard piled so high its rider is just a pair of feet peddling away. Without the old bikes though, they would have no livelihood, and who would collect the recycling?

Old Faithful

Old Faithful

However, there is an inverse beauty to Korea I have discovered since committing my bicycle to the dusty annals of the garage. For every lost, uninterrupted skyline there is a mountain with a spectacular, heady view waiting for me at the top. The journeys to those peaks are as awesome and as liberating as any two-wheeled decent on a still, English summer night.

Still, I anticipate the day I return to my bicycle and an empty, silent horizon. That’s only if she’ll take me back . . .

Read more: follow Hannah’s blog at http://lookingformyhat.blogspot.com

Abandonment

Derelict cinemas play, in my opinion, the saddest music in the world but abandoned bikes come a close second. They look at first like any other bike on an outing, lively and raring to go the moment they are unchained. They are there incognito. But, as weeks go by and no-one returns to collect them, they slowly die. They are stripped of their functionality and personality until nothing is left but the bare bones, a skeleton tied to its D-lock. First go the wheels, then perhaps the saddle, pedals, cables and any other removable parts. A rusty chain dangling loose, like the door of a vacant building flapping in the wind, is often the ultimate sign that what was once a working machine is now less than the sum of its missing parts, a motley ensemble of ill-assorted bits and bobs: an amputated whole, not quite a bike any more.

The street is their home and come rain or shine, they’re there. Their constancy is disturbing. Battered by the elements, looking the worse for lack of wear, they nonetheless hold firm for a year or two. They age rapidly. As they turn a grimy grey in just a few months, they bleakly mark the passing of time, not the time of experience and wisdom but time the destroyer. Until one day they reach that depth of decrepitude that forces time to stand still: they become an immutable fixture. Occasionally, like a burgundy bicycle last year by Loughborough Junction, I’ll observe how they are curiously absorbed by the vegetation surrounding them and turned into fossil-like creatures. They are a petrified urban forest, both arresting and unnerving, silent witnesses that are passed by by life and whose raison d’etre, movement, has gone.

Abandonment

A red shell – Place des Vosges, Paris

There is something deeply emotional about abandonment: it means being at the receiving end of rejection. Nothing like a puppy tied to a tree by the roadside to tug at one’s heartstrings. Likewise, a discarded bike may be left behind but it is not free and remains tightly fastened to its anchor. What tragic fate that of the object tied to its past and without future. Even a bicycle rusting in a shed still has hope, whereas the status of an abandoned bike will gradually fall from lost property down to wreck and, in the end, to waste. If secured to a cycle rack, it is in the way and it will get pushed aside or trampled to make room for bikes which are very much alive and in use. It is not around long enough to acquire the prestige of archaeological remains, nor does it come to be viewed with the fondness of lost memories as the lost property items in Souvenirs Perdus (Christian-Jaque, 1950). But . . . how I wish those bikes could talk!

I came across a funny post describing the hurt of receiving a removal notice for your beloved companion. But where do abandoned bikes go once they are taken away? I imagine their prospects are grim: the tip or metal scrapyard, which is the bike equivalent of a pauper’s grave. They may get sold at a police auction, turned into street art or if they’re really lucky, they could get a new lease of life thanks to recycling schemes such as the dynamic charity Re~Cycle, which sends spare bikes to Africa. A friend’s bike travelled all the way to Ghana last year!

I like to wonder what leads someone to never come back for their bike. Have they forgotten where they left it – this reminds me of a former colleague who was up in arms because her bike had been stolen from the company premises, only to realise belatedly that it was safely tucked away in her shed at home – or simply lost the key to the lock? Are they students who have moved away at the end of the academic year and have neglected to take it with them? Has the owner been suddenly taken ill and the bike left to suffer the same sad fate? Has the bike fallen out of favour and been renounced for a better one? Or did it sadly belong to someone who couldn’t be bothered with it any more, perhaps because a wheel had been stolen? It intrigues me but I am certainly more inclined to imagine melodrama than indifference or cold-blooded callousness. For the passionate cyclist that I am finds it inconceivable that one’s pride and joy be forgotten altogether or worse, purposefully and carelessly discarded from one’s life, and I think of a cyclist abandoning their bike as committing an offence as serious as a captain abandoning their ship.

Anger

I love the unmitigated joy of cycling freely about the wide roads and residential streets of London. But here’s the snag: unless on an exercise bike in the gym, none of us cycle in a vacuum. And sharing rights and spaces means negotiating and compromising. It means navigating the maze of interpersonal relations and conflicting emotions: elation, frustration, fear, euphoria, excitement, loathing. And anger. It is difficult to admit that, even if I am not behind a wheel but above two, I too suffer from the social disease that is road rage. Because anger is ugly.

I know my anger doesn’t come out of nowhere. It is always a knee-jerk reaction to someone’s inconsiderate or dangerous behaviour. ‘No way!’ ‘Un-be-lie-va-ble!’ Getting angry is my self-preservation mechanism. Still, I am not proud of an aggressive emotion that is on the same basic level as ‘an eye for an eye’ and other biblical tactics. Yes, ugly and lame. And pointless to boot. Like The Kid With A Bike in the 2011 Dardenne brothers’ film, I am the prisoner of my anger. Anger breeds resentment and ultimately, like all negative energies, it fuels itself.

As a cyclist, every day on the road reminds me of how little and powerless I am, a small fish in the big sea of traffic. If my reaction wasn’t ineffectual and words didn’t fail me, they would be lost anyway in the roar of the engines. Here is the paradox: while Transport for London’s motorist culture victimises us and pushes us to these extremes, I find no channel to vent my anger. I can’t beep my horn angrily, my swearing goes unheard, my glare unseen. Although enjoyable, the Rant – o thou the dreaded word! – leaves a bad taste in the mouth, that of stale anger, like a dinner gone cold. I wish I could emulate my housemate’s cool and collected way to deal with an abusive driver. After catching up with her at the next set of traffic lights (of course!), she calmly said: ‘Excuse me, are you the lady who said the F word to me back at the junction?’

One train is not happy. Well, it’s French.

But I owe a lot to Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution: I have adapted. Just like mammals will only have good colour vision if the survival gains outweigh the energy costs, the physical act of cycling (and a lethargic blood pressure) works as a local anaesthetic that blunts senses I don’t use, smell for example, and sharpens others like hearing and sight. It also raises my anger threshold: it makes me impervious to all but the most blatant disregards for my personal safety. I am immunised against sudden bursts of temper. The furthest I will go is to mutter ‘Idiot’ under my breath.

The anger that other road users direct at me, their intention to cause me harm remain, however, rather formidable. If a driver swerves to scare me, it may be of little consequence to him but it may seriously hurt me. I am terrified at the unpredictability of the primal human, just like I am terrified of walking through a herd of cows: you can’t reason with them. That’s the worst effect of anger: it cuts all communication avenues between ‘us’ and ‘them’. It positions us on opposite sides of the London battlefield, like chess pieces, and the only way to diffuse it is to die, which cyclists have done pretty well of late (sixteen fatalities in London last year). At this juncture, empathy of any kind helps: from the bus driver who saw the taxi reversing into me, from the pedestrian whose friend stepped in my path and forced me to an emergency stop. From me to a young cyclist who needs to share her story: ‘Did you hear him? He said that if I touched his car, he’d bang my head in.’ If, amidst the tensions that isolate us, we manage to reach out to our fellow travellers, we will stand united.

But for the broader, deeper, far-reaching anger, the only justifiable one, the political anger at our decision-makers who year after year put smoothing traffic flow over the safety of vulnerable road users, the nation-wide anger at dozens of avoidable deaths, the indignation and the outrage, they welcome the refuge of a web page that will give them a voice, volume and resonance.