‘Not so fast!’ shouted the mother to her tiny toddler on a no-pedal bike. The little one had just discovered speed and from now on, there was no turning back. Then we grow up but we keep ‘yearning for the friendly hum of tyres on tarmac, the rush of air on the cheeks’, to quote the Guardian Bike Blog. And the bicycle, wonderfully streamlined and built for speed, does nothing to discourage us.
The bicycle is a human-paced mode of transport. So companionable. ‘There is something just right about the speed of a bike. It allows you to cover so much more ground than walking, but you can see so much more than from a car.’ I favour a laid-back cadence, my natural rhythm flowing calmly and easily around 40 crank rotations per minute (rpm), thus disobeying one of John Franklin’s rules of vehicular cycling. He recommends a cadence of 80rpm, the idea being that you’re safest in traffic if you can match the speed of other vehicles. Sorry but I am not a car! Being overtaken is then par for the course. I was once told by two young cyclists behind me to ‘hurry up’. Well, no. That’s exactly my point. I don’t hurry through life, on or off a bicycle, else it will pass me by. Swift and smooth is fine, rushed is not. Keeping in mind that in London, whatever your speed, you will always be faster than public transport, that’s fast enough for me. The right speed? Mine of course. Anyone going faster is cycling like a madman, and anybody slower is really crawling along.
Indeed, 99% of cyclists are either faster (most likely) or slower (carrying the monthly shopping) than me. We may have a lot in common but not our speed. As researcher Ian Walker has pointed out, people cycle for different reasons: some because it’s cheaper or better for the environment, so if they can’t cycle, they’ll walk; others for speed, a workout or for the adrenaline rush, and they’d otherwise drive. Some are twice as fast as others. Cars, on the other hand, tend to travel at the maximum authorised speed whenever possible, which tells you a lot about the fundamental difference between the two travel choices. Getting there vs. enjoying the journey.
Cycling speed brings up the crucial issue of where we fit on the road: on the whole, we’re too fast for the pavement and mixing with pedestrians, too slow for motor vehicles. Predictably, I dislike speed, mine and others’. As a naturally slow person, I equate it with stress or incivility. A naturally fast cyclist, on the other hand, may associate slowness with tiredness or boredom. A comment posted on the Invisible Visible Man blog remarked that the Mad Rush phenomenon was ‘likely to be a symptom of other, greater issues in life’ such as poor planning and time management. The reader suggests addressing those issues will not only allow you to slow down but will improve your wellbeing and that of others. But do you want to slow down? Are you quick by nature and enjoying it, or are you rushing?
There must be people out there who are cycling in a genuine emergency but I cynically think they are simply late because they left late. A cyclist who then speeds through town at all costs tells us that their purpose matters more than ours. This is far from being insignificant. But as cycle campaigner Philip Loy justly commented, mixing with traffic tends to create ‘this adrenalin-fuelled way of cycling’. That’s the culture of the road, the one that breeds road rage. No matter that traffic speeds in inner London during peak hours average only 9.5 miles per hour, urban cyclists feel they need to hurry to survive and what’s more, they can’t be fined for speeding (genuine fact! the legislation covers motor vehicles only!).
That said, I love momentum. The pay-off for climbing a hill or even a modest incline, or for moving along at a good pace and gathering a bit of speed. Freewheeling … isn’t the name beautiful? It is ‘the birthright of all cyclists.’ The Invisible Visible Man, in the blog post already linked to, writes of the great joy of ‘moving at speed without having to make an effort, of being carried along by the effort one’s already made, or by gravity or the wind.’ That’s my cycling performance goal: to reach a cadence of 0rpm, all the way to the sea … and back.