Our Bicycle Lives

I cycle, therefore I think

Category: Kit

Hire Bikes

The first thing that stands out about hire bikes is their uniformity, their sameness, which is not such a paradox in our individualistic culture. Groups on cycle tours are immediately recognisable with their unique, sturdy models in plain livery. For my own part, every bike hire experience has been exactly that, an experience, with the usual mix of excitement and trepidation. I have fond memories of cycling along the Kent coast on my birthday, less so of bouncing my way through the back roads of Norfolk on a shiny, fancy (to my untrained eye) mountain bike totally unsuited to road cycling, and I won’t forget the comfy sit-up-and-beg bicycle whose quick-release saddle was a bit loose . . . But with hire bikes, the focus is not on the bike but on the journey, so our mindset changes: we take in the view and tend to be amused rather than frustrated by a less-than-perfect bike. For one thing, we’re usually on holiday!

Barcelona bike hire

Train station, taxi and bike hire in Barcelona

City bike rental schemes – a convenient, hassle-free alternative to owning a bike – have flourished in the last few years, from Bicis in Barcelona to Velibs in Paris (vélo and liberté, no less) and the imaginatively branded Barclays’ Bikes which, in typical London fashion, have been quickly renamed Boris Bikes. Whether I think Boris Bikes are a good use of public money or not – despite the in-your-face advertising, Barclays only cover about 10% of the costs of the scheme – the scale is impressive, and so are the statistics: three years, ten million journeys, one of mine. One evening after the cinema, I lent my bike to my friend and took a Boris Bike. It was a practical arrangement as well as a pleasant social occasion. In one word: casual. Since I first spotted a pristine prototype, I have become blasé: now they are dusty and everywhere, but that’s the price to pay for sharing a bike with hundreds of people. Don’t expect spick and span! A colleague once marvelled at how much lighter Boris Bikes were than his own bike but general opinion and hard facts beg to differ: at 23 kilos, they’re heavy, rather clunky and not particularly easy on the eye.

Palm trees and cycle hire: what more do you want?

Palm trees and cycle hire: what more do you want?

Still, I like them. It’s their reliability that I find attractive. They’re unlikely to fail me. More accurately perhaps, as a non-user I like the idea of them. They’re good PR for cycling. What did the London Mayor send for the birth of Prince George if not a mini three-wheeled Boris bike? And they’ve become an integral part of the public transport system and of commuters’ journeys. Their network criss-crosses London like blue blood flowing through its veins and arteries and they’re ubiquitous, so distinctive and iconic that, love them or hate them, I couldn’t imagine my city without them. In a class of their own, they have given rise to specific bike challenges, since any accomplishment is a bit of an achievement on a slow and weighty Boris Bike. They create different expectations of cycling, and that can only be a good thing.

I like Boris bikers too, they look so . . . normal. They bring the amateur back into a world that likes to pretend to be professional: how many commuters look like they’re about to set off for a stage of the Tour de France every morning? It doesn’t have to be like that. I know Boris bikers are looked down upon by many ‘regular’ cyclists – they’re not proper cyclists, you see – and I’ve heard countless stories of the way they completely ignore the rules of the road. If on a hire bike I look like a tourist or a newbie, a ‘don’t know what I’m doing’ type of person, great: then other road users will be extra careful around me. But as Road Danger Reduction Forum points out, Boris bikers are ‘three times less likely to be injured per trip than other cyclists in London as a whole’. Bring on amateurism!

Booksellers by the Seine and hire bikes

Booksellers by the Seine and hire bikes

Like Frank Capra’s comedy Lady for a Day (1933), bike hire gives everyone the chance to be a cyclist for a day. Whether it’s the first step towards owning a bike or not, as far as I’m concerned, the more the merrier. I’ll always welcome more cyclists taking time to look at their surroundings, chatting and missing a turn and getting lost. Anything that counterbalances the prevalent London cycling culture, anything that is anti-speed, anti-sport, anti-spending, that helps normalise cycling: for everyone, everywhere. After all, it’s all about people on bikes, whatever the bike is.

Books

Trust a blog never quite attuned to the various events of the calendar (the Olympics, the Diamond Jubilee, the festive season) to publish a post that sounds like a shopping list three weeks after Christmas! I wonder how many of you received a bike book as a present this year? Blogs on cycling abound but they have not superseded a healthy publishing niche. It seems a lot of cyclists out there can’t wait to read about . . . cycling. Or so our nearest and dearest believe. But reading cycling books and poring over photos of bicycles certainly encouraged me to experience it. The first stirring of an inkling happened while I was reading a feature article about commuter bikes: I was mesmerised by a yellow Airnimal bicycle, so much so that I designed a Christmas card around it that year. I also used to scrutinise the Guardian‘s guide to cycling with as much longing as an estate agent’s window. More than facts and information, I was seeking a cycling ideal – freedom, the great outdoors, beautiful machines – that would meet my aspirations and inspire me. For the same reason, I still remember vividly the evocative drawing of a little girl and her grandfather cycling home at dusk through quiet country lanes, in a book I read as a child.

Martine

Cycling in the sunset . . .

Since I started cycling though, I would rather be out on a bike than curl up on the sofa with a book about bikes. As with chocolate or films, I prefer the real thing. I like full-page colour photos and so-called bike porn but how much more thrilling to come across a beautiful bike in the flesh and to experience the joy of cycling for real. If I’ve had many cycling books passing through my hands – I used to work in a book warehouse – only a few remain on my minimalist bookshelf. These days I favour practical books. Travelogues and ‘life in the saddle’ biographies make for interesting reading but, like many other things, I don’t necessarily want to own them. Feats of endurance, memoirs, personal accounts, it seems that one can’t cycle without writing about it (touché!). In Mythologies, philosopher Roland Barthes wrote an essay on ‘The Tour de France As Epic’: cycling as something worth telling, or that someone feels the need to tell, which is altogether different. But a book going that bit deeper, touching, through cycling, on life, catches my attention. Humour is a winner too, especially tongue-in-cheek internet humour, since a lot of reading is not done in books nowadays. It was a joy to come across BikeReader and its hilarious A-Z recently!

But, unless you’re this young man in Milton Keynes or an actor in a New Wave film wobbling his way through a book and the streets of Paris with the refreshing spontaneity of youth, cycling is not particularly conducive to reading. In fact, you’re missing out on all the public transport reading and an avid reader may look upon a puncture as a chance to catch up with it. If the advent of e-books has made it a lot easier to take enough books with you on a cycle tour, reading and riding at the same time remains a challenge (and the Reading Cycling Club is not what you think). Which is why I love the idea of the Bicycle Library bus in London which combines both and lends bikes and books about bikes.

Ever wondered why authors who are also cycling enthusiasts are such a common occurrence – H.G. Wells and Thomas Hardy come to mind – that in French it has given rise to the expression ‘écrivains-cyclistes’? I do think there is a deep connection between cycling and words, the ability of thoughts to freely enter my mind appearing linked to the movement of the pedals. For me, both reading and cycling are about getting into a comfortable, spacious rhythm. I would find cycling while reading text messages, for example, not only hazardous but completely antinomic. On the other hand, were I endowed with an extra pair of eyes, I could perfectly well imagine reading Anna Karenina on my way to town in one-hour chunks. I find cycling and reading so attractive because they both appeal to my imagination. With a book and on the bike, I have the power to create my own imaginary world: words conjure up images, just like city scenes conjure up thoughts. There is a similarity of process, a kinship in attitude, that availability and openness of mind which welcomes ideas and makes me feel incredibly alive.

Matches

Do you ever wonder whether bicycles and people are a good match? We seem to uneasily accommodate each other at times, the hard metal frame and its exact angles coming into conflict with our less than geometric bodies. But despite the bicycle’s intrinsic stability (when in motion, it can balance without a rider), and even though other mammals such as monkeys have been known to ride bikes, all evidence points to the fact that bicycles are human-made machines for human enjoyment, that bikes are indeed made for people. And at first glance, notwithstanding bicycles which are adapted for wheelchair users, it is obvious they will only fit creatures with at least two gripping limbs, two propelling limbs of a certain length and a posterior: so, that’s us!

Three Cats On A Bicycle

Three Cats On A Bicycle

But what bikes for what people? Growing up in the seventies and eighties, bicycle lives were simple: there were boys’ bikes and girls’ bikes, men’s and women’s. Boys’ bikes had drop handlebars, girls’ bikes didn’t. Of course, my deepest heart’s desire was to ride a bike with drop handlebars, even if they’d been added onto a folding bike that was too small for me. My grandfather complied. So an obvious mismatch, but to my proud eyes a perfect fit. Hence the analogy with relationships: it may well be, to the outside world, an unsuitable pairing (‘she’s way too tall for him’, ‘he doesn’t even like cycling’), but if your innermost voice tells you otherwise, whatever others think, it is a match made in heaven. Today, people’s bicycle choices are more fluid, from the self-explanatory to the unexpected and the downright bizarre, and I am in for some surprises. When I did a spot of leafleting for a family cycling event last summer, I had to guess which bicycles were most likely to have an owner with children. It turned out I was a lot more inclined to tag a prim bicycle with a basket than a battered mountain bike. Stereotyping, moi?

Pride and Joy

Pride and Joy

A perfect fit is beautiful to behold, the bicycle and its rider moving smoothly as one, a duo who complement each other, a team that works. It could be the product of a long acquaintance, years of companionship through thick and thin supplying a closeness and understanding that may not have been there at the start. Or it could be down to planning, the reward of purchasing a custom-made machine that is just right. In any case, a good match looks like it was meant to be. But a bad fit . . . oh dear! We’ve all seen cyclists stretching beyond belief on a frame way too big for them, their arms looking ready to burst, or tall riders crunched up on small bicycles, their knees almost reaching the handlebars. I find these characters comical but also touching in their delusion, like two comedians of different build who mistakenly put on each other’s clothes but persist in making them fit. The belief that ‘where there’s a will, there’s a way’ is admirable and I have seen some unlikely pairings live on. I am left to wonder, though, whether the odd matches I come across on the road are the result of happiness against all odds, of indifference, one bike being after all much like another, or a sign of thriftiness that I cannot help but admire in our disposable decade. I also feel a touch of commiseration for cycling which looks more hard work than it really should. In children, I look on a poor bike fit with fondness, as the promise of things to come, growing up, adulthood, a whole life ahead: they will grow into it. Adults won’t: they endure it for the lifetime of the bicycle for reasons best known to themselves. This is one of the great mysteries of life, like abandoned bicycles or France’s reverence for Jerry Lewis.

Then there are the eclectic in taste, who go from one bike type to the next: so did a friend who first owned a mountain bike, then a hybrid, and finally a single-speed which caused him to shed his helmet and hi-viz vest as not suited to his new bike style. Or the versatile, who own more than one bicycle and the gear to go with it and change personality to match each one. I like to think that, regardless of what bicycle I use, a grey sturdy hybrid or a light orange single-speed, I remain true to myself. One may be a tad faster than the other but I am still the same slow, oh so reasonable, risk-averse cyclist. Which is a fitting reminder that people don’t switch personae when they switch modes of transport and go from bike to motorbike or car: they are still the same decent – or inconsiderate! – human-beings.

Brands

I am not an advocate of capitalism and consumer culture but when I fell into cycling, I became fascinated by makes and models, by the technical and aesthetics details – a dual colour scheme or a belt drive instead of a chain – that distinguish brands. As I came across more and more bikes, I prided myself in being able to tell one brand from another just by the outline of the frame: Specialized’s sleek and slightly curved crossbar, the ubiquitous grey and black Ridgebacks and Treks, the distinct retro frame livery and contrasting panels of Condor – aka the Rolls-Royce of bicycles. I enjoyed reviewing my mental wishlist, which for a long time was headed by a Dawes Galaxy tourer, and delighted in reeling off names like Fuji, Cannondale and Pashley.

Cycle manufacturers are experts at creating strong identities, starting with the brand name and its distinctive font, size and colour painted all over the frame. By a natural metonymy (like Pavlov’s dog who salivated at the sound of a bell that had been associated with food availability, whether food was present or not), brands and their image, rather than product specifications, have become objects of desire in themselves. But built-in obsolescence means that quality is not a given, even with well-known brands. Most bicycle companies do not manufacture their own products and have outsourced mass production to China or Taiwan.

My fascination for brands, though, originated elsewhere. To quote a LFGSS forum thread on great cycling brands, ‘I like any business that does something real. In our society, where craft and manual skills aren’t valued highly enough, such enterprises are all too rare.’ Years before I started cycling, I would cut photos of bikes out of magazines: even for the non-convert, these machines looked like works of art. In seeking out brands that had made cycling history, like Peugeot or Raleigh with their beautiful lugged steel frames, I would buy a piece of history, and reputable brands would buy me experience, craftsmanship, reliability and durability. In our disposable culture, I sought timelessness.

But wishes and wants pass and fade away and when the time came to treat myself, the self-styled ‘brand expert’, to a second bike, it turns out these were mere fantasies. I scoured the Internet for, funnily enough, something different. My first bike purchase had been a practical half-hour affair: local bike shop, cheapest bike, test ride, done. I didn’t give it too much thought: after all, one bike was much like another. The next time round, I didn’t look for a brand either but for style: not prestige associated with a make but actual visible style. So I fell for a bike by a small Nottingham company I’d never heard of, Onza, simply because I thought it looked fabulous. What bike nut could have resisted the cut-out head tube revealing a steerer tube the colour of a barber’s pole? Not me. Maybe I went for the emotional choice, the irrational, must-have response that all brands aspire to because then money is no object. Or maybe I simply followed the best criteria: a bike which fitted my needs, that is, which looked great and was great to ride.

Today, I would probably think laterally: handmade bikes, custom-made to your own requirements by frame builders such as Roberts Cycles in Croydon or Brian Rourke in Stoke-on-Trent. Their uniqueness is a luxury and very real value for money. Or even better, a bicycle that is home-made,  assembled by the owner herself. I don’t mean so much the personalised bikes which, riding on the single-speed and fixed-gear trend, sport colourful hubs, chains and wheels, although a lot of love has obviously gone into them: they may be customised machines but their carbon footprint is still high. No, I mean the sort of bike that my environmentally conscious friend Nicole put together, after asking a second-hand shop to source a pre-loved frame and parts: a bike that is ‘brand new’ in the true sense of the word, in that it has never existed before with these specifications. I can still be temporarily dazzled by a shiny new frame but the writing on the down tube isn’t now as attractive as the patina of a Brooks leather saddle that comes from a lifetime of use and enjoyment.

Money

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.

Colours

I love colours. Their variety and harmonies are the bright side of my life. I need only think of the word itself to smile and picture summer, sunshine and vivid shades of blue, and for the writing to flow. And I love colours on bicycles. For my début, I went to my local bike shop and looked for the cheapest one with mudguards and a rack (I didn’t know any better). Much to my dismay, it came in various shades of grey. This did not deter me and I quickly remedied that: I painted the mudguards blue, I sprayed yellow graffiti on the frame, then later on added yellow stickers, a yellow bell and blue grips. Now I can see it a mile off when I come out of the cinema, and I get instant reassurance: still there! The first question women allegedly ask about a car is ‘which colour is it?’, and it sure is now one of my top criteria when buying a bike.

Colours tell a lot about a person. Do you want to stand out from the crowd or would you rather blend in and its corollary, fit in? From where I have taken position, I can see the majority gathering on the other side, by the black, grey and other nondescript bikes that are so common in London. One online comment about my second bike choice, an Onza Uno, deplored that it only came in ‘two lurid colours and no black’, whereas I was drooling and agonising over the light blue and the bright orange frames.

Bright bike colours seem to flatten the duller colours, and by association, the bikes and their riders. I am reminded of landscape paintings, where the colours on the horizon are a faint blue or green to represent the way we see colours in the distance. Colourful bikes look nearer, more alive and vibrant than their dark, far away counterparts. I notice them – especially coloured components: red chains, gold hubs – more than I would an unusual shape, and they are closer to my heart. I have been told that thieves will single them out in a row of bicycles: they attract the eye, but despite the danger of being conspicuous in suburbia, I can’t resist them. I recently came across a glow-in-the-dark bike. ‘See me’ and ‘Look at me’ it said, bringing together safety and visibility in one flashy frame.

Road bikes, mountain bikes and single-speeds come in colour. I think of them as daredevils, fast and adventurous, the planet-friendly equivalent of a red Ferrari or a Mini. These are machines with character and spunk that will not be assimilated and ground down by the Capital’s treadmill. Instead, they cycle ahead, independently. But what about slow colourful bikes? They cycle the other way! A vintage bike or a lady’s town bike for instance that heedlessly make their way through the traffic maze and follow their own train of thought. They are harmless and come to no harm, and all is well that ends well, because there is invulnerability in their eccentricity.

Black or grey bikes, by comparison, are anonymous. They are just a number in a crowd, expendable, replaceable, faceless, like office workers pouring out of trains in the rush hour, or, in a darker way, prisoners in a WWII concentration camp – images that can never leave one’s conscience of human beings who are made to look like each other. They have been stripped of their individual identity to merge into a collective mass. I know some of these bicycles must be loved just as much as their bright companions, but then it is a secret love that may be a little ashamed of itself. It will not go as far as naming and personalising them, and is afraid of showing attachment.

And then there are the colourless ones: white bicycles. Pallid, they look delicate and fragile, as if not quite complete. Maybe they’re missing a coat of paint? Their neutral tint has sinister undertones too, for dotted around London’s junctions they are ghost bicycles who mean death has been at work. The living variety is occasionally seen about. A friend recently bought one, on the assumption that it would quickly get dirty and less attractive. But for the moment its pure white frame dazzles me. I feel like a rabbit trapped in a car’s headlights and I am unwilling to move for fear of shattering a vision of perfection.

Lycra

Apart from the H word*, is there any other cycling accessory that antagonises non-cyclists and divides opinions as much as Lycra? At the funeral of indefatigable cycle campaigner Barry Mason, mourners were instructed to bring ‘two good locks, no black and no Lycra’. So strong is the dislike for Lycra that it carries on beyond death. But Lycra is commonly used by professional and club cyclists and aspiring Sunday riders, so it must have its uses. I have never had the occasion to don any, but I imagine it is lightweight, breathable, stretchy (hence its North American name, Spandex, an anagram of expands) therefore comfortable, and that being so close-fitting, it offers lower wind resistance and allows for greater speed. It is a technical garment that enhances performance. So why do I react to it on such a personal level?

To start with, its elastic and artificial texture evokes the distinctly unpleasant feeling with which I think of polystyrene for example: it provokes a physical, instinctive reaction, only one step away from goosebumps or a shiver down one’s spine. Almost repellent. It also hugs the contours of the body so well it is like a second skin, but, as my friend Richard remarked, ‘it is worse than being in the nude.’ If cyclists were naked, people would look away tactfully. As it is, this black skin-suit, like leather trousers, focuses the attention: it reveals body shapes, highlights any curves and protuberances and amplifies the extra pounds. Not to mention coloured Lycra (red! pink!).

As a rule, Lycra tops don’t get nearly so much attention as Lycra shorts, which cover the lower body, the taboo zone. We may find a pair of well-formed breasts in a Lycra tee-shirt attractive, but the fabric moulding the curve of a rounded bottom or the shape of male genitals shows too much: it is so revealing that it is embarrassing, for both the wearer and the viewer. Personally, I care too much – or possibly too little – about my own self-esteem and the esteem of others to be seen in Lycra, dead or alive.

My grievance with Lycra is that it is not attractive: there is so little left to the imagination that it can’t perpetuate the myth that cycling is a sweat-free activity. Let’s face it, Lycra is distasteful, as emphasized by the acronym MAMIL (Middle Aged Men in Lycra): for the French speaker it conjures up unfortunate images of ‘mamelles’ (udders), of redundant rolling flesh and soft pink tissues. I remember my dismay when, during the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, I first saw professional female runners wearing skimpy swimsuits instead of shorts and vests: how could they deface their sport in that way, I wondered? Don’t they mind what they look like? Should aesthetics be subject to performance? Does the end justifies the means? This was not cricket. And Lycra most certainly is not cricket.

Then there is the Lycra brigade, the pelotons of Lycra-clad cyclists on expensive road bikes who are flaunting their toned bodies. I find their group behaviour and professionalism intimidating, and I object to them labelling cycling a sport rather than an everyday activity, a way of life. I imagine them driving to the start of the race or the sportive, their bike in the boot. They are the people who will visit a cycle show and a motor show without a second thought. Their otherness is so apparent that I can’t even bring them to life. To me they are just motorists in disguise, and what is worse, I can’t reach them because they don’t care a fig what anybody thinks of them: they wear Lycra.

*Helmets