Come the new year, it’s traditional for people to promise themselves that the next 12 months will be marked by a health kick, and this sometimes end up as a pledge to cycle to and from work.
In bike-unfriendly Britain, even if your commute is short enough, this can sometimes be a tricky prospect. But if it works out, the benefits – to your health, to your wallet, to your general sense of wellbeing – can be astonishing.
There’s plenty of practical advice out there for the novice cyclist. If you’re among 2018’s new intake, I’d like to instead propose five of what could be termed more philosophical or attitudinal thoughts about your new commute. Feel free to disagree or add your own ideas below.
Too much of the modern-day focus on physical activity views it as some sort of penance, the price one pays to eat cakes, or a punishing routine to compress your body into some sort of socially-acceptable mould.
This strikes me as missing the point. The best ways of being physical, for me, fall into two different categories. One is through everyday movement, something that integrates into your everyday life, as was the case for the vast majority of people before desk-bound working became the norm.
The other category is being physical for the sheer pleasure of it, for the joy of movement, speed, momentum, the rush of breeze against your face. This is “exercise” as experienced by most young children; sadly, it’s something most people forget about in adulthood.
The great thing about commuting by bike is that it can fall into both. It can often be quicker than alternative methods, and is certainly the most reliable beyond walking, and before you know it, you’re cycling because it’s easier than not doing so.
And yes, there will be days when the rain lashes down, the wind howls and the cars speed too close. But even then you’re moving, you’re active, you’re very obviously, vividly, sensorially, moving under your own steam. That is to be celebrated.
One of the problems of the UK’s predominantly feral road traffic is that cycling can feel perilous. This in turn means the dominant biking demographic tends to be younger people, predominantly men, and often cycling enthusiasts, who ride confidently and sometimes at speed.
So long as they’re thoughtful towards others there’s nothing wrong with this. But such a cycling environment can come with an implied pressure to keep up – at its worst it can involve fit young men on road bikes tutting at those who go more sedately.
Ignore them. Go fast if you want, as long as you’re lawful, safe and considerate. But if you want to dawdle, then do so. Meander, idle, potter, pedal at a regally slow cadence while admiring the unfolding panorama. If you’re in a town or city, half the time you’ll catch up with the speeders at the next red light anyway.
Civilised cycling has space for all levels of speed and commitment. Don’t let the head-down-go-for-glory brigade shame you into believing anything else.
When I first started cycling as an adult – a slightly rash decision to give up a secure-if-dull graduate job to become a cycle courier – I knew virtually nothing about bikes, and thus bought a ridiculously impractical machine, a clunky and moped-weight mountain bike with vast, knobbly tyres that probably doubled the rolling resistance.
No matter. I still pedalled it eagerly around London, earning an initially meagre wage that rose as I learned the trade. Plus, the sheer mass of the bike got me fit very quickly. And when I became more interested in bikes I bought a better one, a process which escalated over the years to the point that I now own six bikes, one bike frame and a quarter-garage full of wheels, spare parts and tools.
Now I’m not saying everyone should start on a clunker, or a rusty wreck, and I’d urge every new cyclist using a second-hand bike to get it checked over by a shop, or at least a knowledgeable mate. A newer machine, if affordable, can be easier for the novice, needing less regular fettling.
My only point is this – just because every cyclist on your commute rides a shiny hybrid or a balsa wood-weight road bike, don’t feel you have to. Use a Dutch bike festooned with basket, chaincase, skirt guard and gigantic, clanging bell, if you want. Go for an e-bike if the hills or distance are daunting. Borrow a bike to try things out if that helps. Just get riding, and see what suits you.
There is a much-quoted adage among cyclists, which seems to have originated with the guru of Lakeland hiking, Alfred Wainwright, which decrees that there is no such thing as bad weather, only the wrong clothes.
With all due respect to Wainwright, that’s sometimes bollocks. Even in tepid Britain, the rain can occasionally be sufficiently tropical and persistent to permeate any layers. And I have yet to encounter bike clothing which can counter a headwind.
The good news is that not only is truly awful weather rarer than you might think, but – in a strange sort of way – getting an occasional soaking or buffeting is part of the joy of bike commuting.
For one thing, it keeps you in constant, visceral touch with the changing seasons. You won’t feel the first, joyous whisper of spring sunshine on your cheek in a car. It also means that when conditions do turn glorious, you have all the more reason to enjoy it. Even to feel a bit smug.
Finally, remember this: if it’s dark and blowing a storm, you can always not use the bike. No one gets a medal for cycling every day.
It is a common myth that when you start cycling you are somehow inducted into a community, a homogenous mass who are all somehow responsible for each others’ infractions. Nonsense. You just use a bike as one of what are probably many means of transport.
That said, if you are dispirited, or scared, by riding conditions or driver behaviour on all or some of your route, it can be worth letting those in power know about it.
Drivers are famously good at lobbying politicians; many stand guard over each individual on-street parking space or inch of lane space like it is their sacred birthright.
Cyclists can be less active. So it’s worth letting those with influence, whether councillors, MPs or officials, know that people on bikes have a view. You might not get the UK turned into Utrecht overnight. But if no one speaks up, things will never improve.