Wednesday, 29 July 2015

In which I do not do maintainance

Cycling as sport is so ingrained in the UK that the idea you might own a bike solely as a means of transport is inconceivable to many. If you do want to use a bike to - controversial! - get from one place to another, then you must be an Enthusiast.

I myself very much enjoy riding a bike, especially downhill. And I am pretty enthusiastic about enabling everyone to enjoy a cheap, fast, healthy, non-polluting mode of transport. I reckon more cycling would solve a lot of problems.

But that doesn't mean that I care very much about bikes, or maintaining them. I will listen with great interest as someone explains to me how a gearing system works, but I will also read with great interest about the resignalling of the London Underground District and Circle lines. That doesn't mean I want to fix it myself!

Multiple well-meaning employees at local bike businesses told me not to get a Dutch bike because the completely enclosed gearing system is harder to maintain. I wouldn't be able fix it myself when it broke. Like a car - or a pair of leather shoes - I'd have to take it to an expert to patch up for me. Did they not want me to pay them money in exchange for goods and/or services? Had I misunderstood what a business was?

One year on, my chain has never fallen off. I have never got oil on my long skirts, coats or trousers. The gears have never got stuck. I've never had to clean dirt out, or put oil in. At some point soon, I will pay for an annual service. And it will have been worth it, to have a means of transport that requires me only to be Enthusiastic enough to sit on it and pedal.

Wednesday, 15 July 2015

In which bikes are like shoes

"You know, most of my errands aren't far away, and lots of my friends live nearby. Maybe I should walk to them instead of catching the bus everywhere. I'll need something better than these slippers, though."

"Have you tried these football boots? Good grip on muddy ground."

"Um... that's not really relevant? There are pavements."

"How about these ice-skates? Sharp blade, they go very fast."

"That's really not... hey, here are some leather shoes. Smart, waterproof - very practical. I'll have these."

"But those aren't any good for sports!"

"... I want to go to the shops. What do sports have to do with anything?"

Replace "football boots" with "mountain bike", "ice skates" with "road racing bike" and "practical shoes" with "granny bike", and you have the surprisingly frequent response to my decision to buy a bicycle. I think the popular "hybrid bike" is the equivalent of trainers - useful in many different scenarios, some people use them for everything, but there's a reason the traditional leather shoes still sell.

It's true that my Dutch granny bike is not very good for forest trails. But previously, I had no bike, so sports-wise, I am in the exact same scenario. Why buy a bike optimised for sports when what you want is to pootle around town? The Dutch bike is easy to get on and off, doesn't have any oily parts, and has lots of places to carry luggage. It is the leather shoes of the bike world.

Thursday, 2 July 2015

A little history

~20 years ago  
My parents teach me to ride a bike

~20-10 years ago    
We ride for leisure as a family, taking occasional trips through the country lanes to the pub in the next village, but mostly loading the bikes into the trailer and using them on holiday in various British forests.
On one occasion as a teenager, I ride to the local town with a friend's family instead of taking the bus. We arrive exhausted and very muddy: getting to and using the canal towpath is twice as far as riding on the busy main road. There is nowhere in town to put our bikes whilst we go in and out of shops.
On a few occasions, before I learn to drive, and if my parents can't ferry me about, I use a bike to get to neighbouring villages. This is probably less than a dozen times in total.

~8 years ago
Looking round a flat in London with some other students, we see the bikes chained to the banister, and the landlady mentions they have a 15 min cycle ride to the university. Since it is a 45 min walk, I decide that this is worth trying.
I have to promise my mother I will never cycle in London without my hi-vis harness and helmet, and she is still not at all happy about this.

~7 years ago
My first cycle ride takes 45 mins. The traffic is horrendous. There are several terrifying junctions, even as they are so busy that the traffic is nearly stationary. The strip of paint marking a narrow cycle lane on one road does nothing to make me feel better about the vehicles whizzing past me.
I gradually find back routes that let me avoid the worst of it, cut my time down to 20 mins, and quite enjoy cycling home after 10pm, when there virtually no cars at all.

I invent the Zen of Cycling: cycling is an activity designed to make you more calm and patient, because if, for a whole year, you stay as angry with people trying to kill you every day as you are when you start out, you will probably give yourself a heart attack. (I keep telling myself this, but sometimes it feels like a choice between yelling at drivers or crying.)

~6 years ago
My bike is stolen. I give up, and walk to uni with my flatmates, who never even tried cycling.

~5 years ago
TfL and Google Maps tell me my new commute is only 45 mins by bike, when it is an hour by crowded Piccadilly Line. I borrow my husband's (seldom used) bike, and set off.
I am glad for flexible working hours when I arrive around noon, stressed and exhausted. The direct route was full of traffic, and trying to follow the wiggling back streets route left me lost multiple times.
I never try again.

~2 years ago
I have a new place of work. TfL and Google Maps tell me it is only 45 mins by bike, and though the train ride isn't bad, I'd like to get more exercise. I borrow my husband's (still seldom used) bike, and set off.
This time it only takes me an hour, because I end up using the main roads most of the way - there's no other way over the Thames. It is stressful and exhausting, because I felt under constant pressure to go faster.
I have never tried again.

~1 year 2 months ago
I am, without question, the person most obsessed with public transport that I know. I have a good working knowledge of train timetables and bus maps, and spend probably too much time on London Reconnections. Through a series of linked articles, I find myself reading The Invisible Visible Man, the stories of a Briton commuting by bike in New York, and it reminds me how much I like riding a bike. I tell my husband I want to try commuting again. He worries I will end up dead.

So I look up the statistics, and find out that very few people are actually killed or seriously injured riding a bike. It's roughly equivalent to the injury rate for pedestrians. It's not the injury rates that are the problem: it's the fact that to cycle on most roads involves playing chicken with fast-moving motor vehicles, and most people don't want to play.
David Hembrow explains that in The Netherlands, people don't have to, and as result, cycling is for everyone, not just the quick and the brave.
I want this. I want this really bad.

~1 year ago
The Cycling Embassy of Great Britain is campaigning to bring this about in Great Britain, too. They have their AGM in Brighton, so I decide to go and find out how I can get involved.
I hire a bike from Amsterdammers next to Brighton Station, and discover that bike riding is a lot more relaxing when you have a practical bike instead of a leisure bike. Though only if you stick to traffic-free streets.

1 month later
I went back to Amsterdammers, and got a Dutch bike of my very own.

Last month
Sally Hinchcliff comes up with Build a Better World Bingo. One of the suggestions: write a blog.

These are the campaigns of the Dutch Bike Gazelle. Its five-year mission: to explore my local community, to seek out safe spaces for new life and civilization, to leisurely go where thousands of other people have gone before.

I don't want to boldly go. I just want to be a slightly faster pedestrian.