Friday, February 19, 2010

‘We are the cyclists – the intermediate state between humans and energy’

In our eco-barely conscious times cycling is, ahem, riding a cyclical high. Sales of those ugly but practical Bromptons to those that can afford £600 soar, participation in subsidised work bike purchase schemes is on the increase, most broadsheets have worthy columns like this extolling the social and personal benefits of two wheels. Go green and get on your bike, replace carbon footprint guilt with meretricious right.

I’ve always been a bike evangelist; that I regularly use pedal power is one of the few continuous features from childhood. Ruined so many bikes or had them nicked (or my mate’s). Cried when a friend built me this fast-as-fuck mountain hybrid from scratch and I had it nicked from the ‘gated community’ I was in at the time within weeks. Facially scarred when tommy cycled into me on a south circular return home. There is something about the pace of cycling, faster than walking, but not an automated blur, that I synch into, though mates and my partner say I am too fast when I ride with them. It’s true that it’s one of the few areas of physical activity where I do like to push myself. In London, using it mostly to get from zones 2 or 3 to a central London workplace and back, that drive is motivated by a desire to do it in half an hour rather than an hour, but it is not pre-programmed; once you’re out there you buzz of the competition with the drivers at the same time as recoiling from it. At the moment, it’s Crofton into Brockley Way, Peckham Rye, round the back of Walworth and up Southwark, a varied and challenging route. Then repeat at the dead of night.

Yet there’s still a few things holding me back from full assimilation into the cyclists’ guild. All that gear for one. In London, it is seldom about you and your bike setting off in minimal breeze, going where the urge takes you, perhaps with a tome of poetry tucked in your clip. It’s about going into work, in a commuting hell, appended with locks, helmets, lights, coats with lights in, luminous strips, etc. As yet I have not found a bike coat that does not deviate from the sartorial hell of multiple stripes and piping that marks you out as a two-wheeled perspirant. Sometimes I recoil at all the requirements, although they boost safety. And that assemblage is just for the part-timers, real pros (usually they work in financial services, natch) add the lycra and the special shoes and more stuff on the bikes too, willingly propping up the opinionated hauteur of the ponces in the bike shops.

And of course real cyclists do stop at the lights; they obey the code, and insulate themselves with a further line of sweat between leg and lycra because of all the stop-starts. I’m with the couriers. It’s common sense to get a start and go when it’s safest for you as long as it doesn’t affect pedestrian or motorist. (Then laugh at the opprobrium of the drivers and smell the fear of the pedestrian - I’m not going to ram this dirty metal and plastic and bones into you, honest!) On my night-time ride from work, I might not stop at all until I realise I’m all out of juice going up Peckham Rye. As Monkey Dust’s cyclists had it in the linked title above, ‘We are above mere traffic regulation’.

But it’s not just the social. Systemic laziness wins out and I might only do this once a week. Winter provides a ready excuse for most part-timers of three or four months. Bikes need a lot of maintenance and it’s only since I had child buggies to mend that I have become competent at mending punctures. The advised ‘annual maintenance’ runs into hundreds of poundingtons. And I admit I still have a fondness for the late-night intoxi-ride back, not enough to make you reckless but enough to supplement the adrenalin, so you can vibe off the neon-lit streets, go on a sped up derivé in the city. Cycling for me then is still about a buzz, and a mark of difference and a bit of nocturnal freedom, and as in any other field that’s difficult to regulate.

(the bike, the cover and the plantlock)
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