THE SANCTIMONIOUS VELOCIPEDIST
Bicycles are a wonderful invention. Ever since John Kemp Starley introduced the Rover Safety Bicycle in 1885, a person-on-a-bicycle has been the most efficient way of converting food into rapid motion. Once you have learned to ride a bicycle, you can cover ground several times as fast as you can on foot, and with less effort.
Alternatively, with the same effort as a runner, you can go a very great deal faster: faster, indeed, than any other land animal. A cheetah can just about reach 120 km/h or 75 mph. The world speed record for a bicycles is over 140 km/h, or around 90 mph. That's on the flat, and without hitching a ride behind a powered vehicle such as a train. Ride in a sort of shed behind a fast-moving vehicle, to remove air resistance, and it rises to well over 250 km/h, nearly 170 mph. These are however peak speeds for short periods: even Sir Bradley Wiggins 2015 record was “only” 54.526 km in one hour (35.881 mph), and most non-competitive cyclists are hard put to average 20 mph for an hour. Commuters typically average around 10 mph, 16 km/h; not very different from a car in a crowded city.
Bicycles can also carry remarkably heavy loads, especially when treated as a wheelbarrow, i.e. pushed rather than ridden, as demonstrated by the Viet Cong. Combine load carrying and actual riding, and the realistic maximum load drops significantly, as does the realistic maximum distance one can comfortably ride in a sensible time; though the classic delivery bicycle, as ridden by the traditional butcher's boy, can be a very fair compromise. Bicycle couriers, with light loads and the ability to slip through congested traffic, are surprisingly cost-effective in cities.
Bicycles are an excellent way to keep fit, too, at least if you can avoid getting squashed by other road users. Then there's sport, though bicycle racing is more dangerous than many think. Not so much at the time, though a few racing cyclists die every year in accidents and from sheer physical overload. The real risk comes in later years: surprisingly many dedicated racers fail to achieve old age, as a result of over-straining their bodies thirty, forty and fifty years before. Or maybe they just drink a lot. Most of the ex-racers I have met are not averse to a drink or five.
Apart from the physical dangers, though, bicycles come with one great moral danger. Far too many commuter cyclists are staggeringly self-righteous and sanctimonious, and are apparently utterly unable to see that their chosen lifestyle is either impractical or impossible for huge numbers of their fellow human beings. The actual percentage of these pedal-pushing know-it-alls is probably quite small, ten per cent of cyclists at most, and quite possibly one per cent or less, but what they lack in numbers, they make up in vociferousness. This is especially true on the internet, where they are fond of telling everyone else how to live, regardless of practicality. If you want to see them in all their glory, go to the Comment Is Free sections of the Guardian newspaper web-site.
For a start, they generally assume that everyone is a wage slave living in a city. Yes, a short commute, or even quite a long one if you are fit enough, is fully feasible: in my 20s I used to commute 8.3 miles (rather over 13 km) each way, from East Bristol to Yate. Shopping was no great problem, either: there were plenty of small shops within walking distance, or I could cycle into Bristol City Centre in less than 10 minutes.
But that was almost 40 years ago. There was less traffic, and I was 40 years younger. Also, I am now in semi-retirement in a rural village of under 1000 people. It's perfectly feasible to cycle to the next village to buy bread, a round trip of maybe 7 km or 4 miles, but at my age, even that is a non-negligible distance. I do it mostly for the exercise: it's about half an hour, because there's rather a steep hill at one point. If I took the car, I could do it in half the time, but I regard a quarter of an hour as an acceptable time penalty, given that I get the exercise. It makes me feel virtuous, too.
The nearest supermarket is however about 10 miles (16 km) away, in another direction. The round trip would take a couple of hours in cycling time alone, and I couldn't carry much shopping home in any case. In the complete absence of direct public transport between my village and that supermarket, I have to use a car. I could in theory take two buses, via Mirebeau, but the round trip would not be possible in a single day. It's only a bit over over half an hour on the bus from Mirebeau to Loudun, and the time from my village to Mirebeau is not much longer, but the bus from my village to Mirebeau runs only once a day.
If I go shopping even once a week, and only to that one supermarket, it therefore makes more sense to own a car than to take a taxi; and of course there are times when I have to buy other things, sometimes even in another city. Over the last couple of months I have bought a microwave oven, a small grill oven, and a mattress. Try carrying those on a bicycle. And I'm going into hospital next week for a major operation. I might just about be able to cycle the ten miles to get there, but I sure as hell couldn't cycle back. In fact, I don't expect to be able to cycle at all for at least a month after the operation.
So as I said, bicycles are a wonderful invention. They're just not quite as wonderful as some of their less imaginative or intelligent riders like to pretend, and they most certainly are not the kind of panacea that some hold them out to be.
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Words and pictures copyright (c) Roger Hicks 2016