Fact: cycling is good for you. A lot has been written about the health benefits of cycling – you are much less likely to develop hypertension, obesity and heart disease – and how they far outweigh the risk of accidents. Like any other physical activity, cycling is good for your mental health too. So it turns out it’s much safer to cycle than not to cycle and ‘staying home safe in bed is poor risk management’, to quote Richard Ballantine. Yet, the majority of non-cyclists put cycling firmly towards the health rather than the safety side of the spectrum and cite safety concerns as the main deterrent to taking up cycling. ‘Things often appear bigger from afar than from up close’ observed 16th century author Montaigne in his Essays, and this overwhelming feeling of danger certainly seems more prevalent outside the cycling community. Despite evidence showing that cycling is, statistically, pretty safe, the public perception does not follow suit.
’75 kilos of rider and 10 kilos of bike staying upright round corners supported only by skinny pneumatic tyres . . . suddenly, it seemed like a losing proposition.’ (Matt Seaton, The Escape Artist).Yet the safety bicycle’s brilliant design has not changed much since its invention in the 1880’s and its name couldn’t have been more apt. But the cycling conditions in many UK cities often do not feel safe at all. Poor road designs that breed conflict are a common occurrence, and then it’s down to us to figure out How to Not Get Hit by Cars. ‘I think our roads are statistically safer largely because soft targets, particularly child cyclists, have almost entirely retreated from them. But the roads are not really safer. It’s just that people have learned to avoid them.’ wrote journalist Peter Hitchens in 2012. A young woman recently caused a furore after boasting on Twitter that she had knocked a #bloodycyclist off his bike: no wonder that we respond with fear to such aggression. Take, say, a lorry and a bicycle, multiply them by 100, cram them in the same space and add speed: the reason why mixing bicycles and motor vehicles may not be a great idea then becomes obvious. Compared to a ton of metal, a person on a bicycle looks like what it is: a vulnerable, precious being, to be handled with care. Perhaps juxtaposing a human body and a machine exposes us in our fragility, but accepting our own mortality also sharpens our appreciation of life and makes us stronger.
I came across this photo of a great aunt in the family archives. It’s 1933, she’s taking a bicycle ride with her brother, she looks happy. But we’re in Spain and a few years later, working as a nurse during the Civil War, she will be killed in an air raid. She was comparatively safer on a bicycle. Do we nowadays fear for our lives more than is reasonable? I wonder if our obsession with Health & Safety stems from the fact that having, on the whole, eliminated the major sources of risk that were war, hunger and epidemics (aka The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse*), we can now hope to eradicate all other hazards and fully secure our environment? Alas, the fourth horseman, death, keeps eluding us since there is no such thing as a zero-risk activity. Life itself is a risky business: none of us will come out of it alive, however much we’d like to forget it.
For my own part, cycling has been my lifeline. It has kept me alive and safe and relatively sane when all else failed. ‘The bicycle saves my life every day. If you’ve ever experienced a moment of awe or freedom on a bicycle; if you’ve ever taken flight from sadness to the rhythm of two spinning wheels; if you have ever, just once, felt like an ordinary human touching the gods, then we share something fundamental.’ writes Rob Penn in It’s All About the Bike. Everyone has anniversaries, the dark side of birthdays that we commemorate rather than celebrate, and as we add years to our age, so do we add anniversaries to the happy events that punctuate our lives. The day I write this is one such reminder for me. Instead of staying at home and brooding, I’ll go out on my bike. That’s the beauty of cycling: paying attention to the road game keeps me alert and on my toes but it also allows me time to reflect and remember. Cycling with a heavy heart, one still floats, somehow, in the unbearable lightness of being, suspended in time, forever.
*A superb Rex Ingram film (1921) starring Rudolph Valentino.