Wednesday, 5 February 2014

Why I Cycle For Transport, Part I -- or, The Elephant In The Room

off to the recycling centre

This article has been lurking in the back of my mind since before I started this blog. While I've written here about bikes, bike rides and things I've seen while out on my bike, essentially my aim is to show a life where most, if not all, of the getting from one place to another is done by bike. Somehow I haven't expressly said that anywhere. By now, I should have.

This post is first in what I expect to become a series of three. In its entirety, the series will serve as, dare I say it, a kind of mission statement, indeed a raison d'être for the vélovoice blog itself. 


Sometimes I feel as if Lovely Bicycle walks just a half-step ahead of me. Yet again, she has posted on a subject that I've been mulling over but which hadn't progressed beyond a few half-written drafts. Well, she's opened the door and I'm going in. 

The subject is rural transportational cycling.

Here's the "problem": you live in the countryside and, just like everybody else, need to get from A to B for a variety of necessary journeys and, by chance or by choice, you don't have a car.

A number of different possible solutions may be available. For one thing, the UK has a fairly decent spread of public transport options -- although rural bus services are shockingly limited these days.

But if your solution happens to be The Bicycle, a raft of further questions arise, in particular "why?" and "how?"

No doubt people who have lived in the countryside all their lives and/or have cycled all their lives will approach these questions from different angles than I have. For me, "how?" was, and still is, the much bigger, more relevant question and I intend to talk about that in some detail. 

As to "why", Lovely Bicycle makes a good case for "desire" being the answer. Yes, in the end it does come down to a person's priorities. But it's a broad brush answer. Saying that people cycle because they want to enough does not enable non-cyclists to understand why transportational cycling is a reasonable choice. It just looks like madness to them, completely impractical -- leaving the "why" still essentially unanswered.

I'd like to tell you my own answers to that question of "why" and I'm going to try and be specific. I hope that this will then give context to all the "hows", which I'll address later.

The "why?" question has come up at different times in different ways. In the very beginning when I was considering taking up cycling, I had all the "whys" laid out in my head -- and in fact written out on paper. These "whys" were the problems in my life that I felt needed somewhat urgent and drastic solutions. I'll tell you about them shortly. My uncertainty about cycling had to do with whether it was an appropriate answer to all my "whys". I asked "why" of just about everything at the beginning. I ask myself "why" at regular intervals even now! While the "whys" haven't changed much, the "hows" have (and how!), which oddly enough leads me back to the "whys". 

And before I can talk about "why" I cycle for transport in the countryside, I need to talk about "why" I began cycling at all, in the first place.

Phew! Such a long prologue. And I haven't even got to the Back Story yet!

I came to cycling in the summer of 2009. Although I grew up in rural Oregon, I had been living in London for nearly 10 years. I had turned 40 the year before and was facing a couple of long-standing and gradually worsening health problems (arthritis in my knees and insulin-resistance that could, if left unchecked, lead to diabetes, which runs in my family). I'd had a lifelong battle to keep my weight within the "normal range". Meanwhile, while I adored my classic convertible automobile, I didn't in fact have much opportunity to drive it. It was completely impractical and prohibitively expensive to drive to and from work in central London. In fact, the car really ever got driven for the monthly grocery shopping trip and perhaps half a dozen owners' club events around the country through the year. Mostly, it sat alongside the street, very gently, almost imperceptibly (oh but I knew!) rusting into the ground. Occasionally, it suffered some abuse at the hands of local delinquent youths who couldn't resist putting the boot (literally) into Pandora's fragile bodywork.

In the face of health problems and trying to justify owning a car with its attendant expense and guilt, I began to feel somewhat... trapped.

But what really drove me to make changes was public transport in the city of London. I was tired of buses that never turned up, trains that were late or cancelled. I was tired of being late to work. I was sick of public transport (of all things!) being my reason for being late, on average two days out of five. Standing at a bus stop huddling under an umbrella, or stamping from one foot to the other on a frigid train platform, for what began to feel like hours of my life led to a feeling of being at the mercy of others... powerless... impotent... not in control of my own physical movements, much less my life!

I really don't remember when I first considered taking up cycling. It all came about as I made lists of the things I wanted to change:  my health; being overweight; not having enough money and trying to figure out where more could be saved; the tyranny (as I came to see it later) of car ownership; and just being able to get to places on time. 

For each item, I made a list of possible solutions, trying to think as creatively as possible.

Not surprisingly, some mainstream "first world" type solutions came up. But many of them seemed to address specific, narrowly-defined problems and each often had downsides. For example, for the health and weight issues, I could join the gym. But that's expensive in London and would be yet one more thing to fit into my busy schedule. (Not to mention, I simply hate gyms. The very smell of a locker room makes me break out in teenage insecurities.)

The funny thing was, though, the bicycle came up on more than one Solution list. Health? Check. Save some money? Check (especially if -- and it seemed a big if -- I sold the car). Getting places on my timetable, not the transport companies'? Check! 

Right then, cycling was worth a closer look. 

I spent six months -- six months! I can hardly believe it -- researching absolutely everything about bicycles and cycling and everything possibly relating to them. It wasn't structured research of course, more like running Google searches and reading every item in the results list... and clicking through on every single hyperlink in every paragraph on every page of every single Google 'hit'. I read non-stop. I soaked it all up like a sponge. By the time I was ready to start sorting things out and deciding what I might actually want to do, I'd pretty much absorbed urban cycling culture. I knew all the bikes, all the products, all the vocabulary. I was a virtual cyclist already, without having thrown a leg over a top tube.

But then I got sensible. I really wasn't sure what sort of cycling I was capable of doing but a key priority was commuting. So I sifted through everything I'd found (that I still knew where to find) and started thinking about the kind of riding I'd be doing and what I needed to make that possible, comfortable and convenient. 

First, the bike. I had virtually no storage space in my flat (or so I thought at the time!) so a folding bike had its attractions. Further, I was pretty unfit and knew I could not tackle my full commute of 10 miles each way. So being able to do part of the commute by bus or train and part by bike would be necessary, at least until I got fitter. (Folder, again.) I also frankly didn't have much confidence that I had the fortitude to stick with it in all weathers and circumstances, so being able to bail out of a cycle ride part-way to work, even if I had intended to ride the whole distance, would be good. (Ah yes, folder again.)

Okay, so which folder? I knew all about the cheap options and the Chinese copycats. I wanted a good-quality bike that met all the current regulatory and industry safety standards. I wanted something that would be pleasant enough to ride that I would want to ride. Quite quickly, my choices narrowed down to two folding bicycles: the Brompton and the Bike Friday. And there I stalled a while. For weeks, I debated between those bikes. Several times, I made a decision, only to start re-thinking something and essentially starting all over again. The Brompton is a UK-designed and mostly UK-built bike, something I liked. The Bike Friday comes from my home town, Eugene, Oregon -- which really held an emotional attraction for me, living so far from home. Both are top quality bikes from companies with fantastic reputations. 

So... which?? It all came down to something very brief that I read in an online forum. Someone asked 'my' question: Brompton or Bike Friday? And someone responded: Depends on where you live and your access to the manufacturer's dealership network and customer service. If you're in Europe, buy a Brompton. If you're in the US, go with the Bike Friday. (Of course, Brompton's US dealer network has since expanded significantly, but the point about Bike Fridays in Europe is much the same.)  

On reading that, I very nearly leapt out of my chair to dash straight to the nearest Brompton dealer, credit card in hand. 

But I also already knew about the new-ish government programme that allowed employees to buy new bikes through a salary-sacrifice scheme with their employers. I checked with my employer: we were not yet a member of the scheme but would be within the next month. So I sat back down and waited til I got confirmation that yes, indeed, we were now in the scheme. 

And then I trotted down to my local branch of Cycle Surgery and bought a Brompton!

(Of course, I already had a clear idea of exactly what my Brompton would look like! That was not to be, as explained here.)

How did this work out? Was the Brompton the answer to my questions: "how do I solve these problems?" and "will cycling be the answer?" and "why should I, indeed, why do I cycle?"

Answers? 1 - by switching to cycling as my main means of transport; 2 - Yes!!; and 3 - because I feel better and, crucially, feel in control of my life again. 

The first two are probably no surprise to readers. I'd like to expand on the last one. 

Control. Much of modern urban life is about being where someone tells you to be, at a time dictated by them, and your options for complying are both limited and controlled by yet another someone else. 

Cycling was an utter revelation. I was in charge! I walked out the door, mounted my bicycle and proceeded down the street in a direction of my choosing and at whatever speed liked (having of course given some thought to where I needed to go and when I was expected to get there -- still things not entirely in my control!) Cycling wherever I needed to go was surprisingly liberating and confidence-building. I felt a sense of achievement at the end of every journey: I had got there under my own steam and on my terms. 

The psychological boost didn't stop there. The mental processes involved during a cycling journey itself surprised me and continue to intrigue me. Generally, I tend to always be thinking ahead, making plans. When cycling, however, I live in the moment, observing my surrounding, making decisions that I must put into effect fairly sharpish (whether avoiding that pothole, making sure I don't miss my turn into the next street, or subtly altering my road position so that motorist knows it's not really a good idea to overtake me just here). When negotiating all these external cues and what responses I'll make, I can't be thinking about that work deadline, that client call I must return, or trying to remember exactly when my house insurance premium is next due, or reminding myself to pick up the drycleaning after work. (In fact, every time I've fallen off my bike, it's because I was distracted by my own thoughts or, in most cases, dithering over a cycling-related decision I needed to make right now. He who hesitates and all that.)

I am living in the moment. It's a respite from everyday worries. An Escape. 

Not to mention the bonuses! I get to be a part of my environment, not locked up in a metal box or crammed nose-to-armpit in a cattle car (for which I'd been paying a lot of money for the privilege). 

On a bike, I can... smile at that child I pass in the park... call out Hello! to a neighbour walking along the pavement (sidewalk)... notice the fresh new paint on the florist's shop...  

I am part of the world and it is a part of me.

You can't get that on a bus. 

And this is why I cycle. 

I started for one set of reasons -- which held to be true -- and discovered more. The most important reason for me to cycle is what I call 'Headspace'. 

I'm from the countryside but until I took up cycling, I hadn't found any place in the modern, teeming, pulsating, exciting, exhilarating and stimulating city that is London where my head felt clear

But I did find that place. In London! On a bike. 


Next time, I'll talk about the "hows" of everyday living with only a bike as transport: how could I cope without a car when I needed to, for instance, buy more than two bags of groceries, get to an event halfway across the country, transport furniture -- and do those things even in foul weather? How could I reduce, perhaps eliminate, my dependence on unreliable public transport?

It's all possible and not even all that difficult. 

And then I'll show how I took all these lessons with me (and learned a few more) when I moved into the countryside...


  1. "The very smell of a locker room makes me break out in teenage insecurities." - Yup. There are so many bad gym teachers and bad gym classes out there that have the reverse effect of what's intended. Case in point: the girls being forced to work out to Richard Simmon's "Sweating to the Oldies", because, you know, girls need to learn to work out to stay slim, while the boys got to play floor hockey. >:-(

    Thanks for your comment on my blog. I'll be reading up on your posts, too.

    1. I count our school as really lucky, being too broke to have Richard Simmons! We had one PE teacher who did feel it was important for kids to find a sport or activity they were likely to stick with into adulthood. The only things on offer though were team sports for the boys and aerobics for the girls. The only girls who played team sports were those (very few) accepted onto the teams representing the schools. To be fair, the girls on varsity do seem to all be quite sporty even now in their late 40s. The rest of us though were left to flounder. Some of us stumbled across sports we liked but often only once we were into our 30s and were then battling against our bodies, bad habits and the demands of modern life. Takes a lot to kickstart a whole new, more active, healthy life at that stage. Fortunately for me, I absolutely fell head over heels with riding a bike. Others are not so "lucky".

      Thanks so much for visiting and for commenting. :)


Share This