Bicycle Diaries: Cyclist Again Tuesday July 22, 2014

Observations and lessons learned so far. If you weren’t exercising regularly before you got your bike, you will notice an immediate bodily difference in a few days. I felt trimmed, firmed, and toned. I get the same with walking but when I’m walking, I do it for however long then go back to the city. When you cycle, if you’re like me, you are in the city. I walk when I can which is not as much as I’d like and the rest of the time do nothing. I don’t like swimming in water, jogging streets or even a park, and will never consider a boring pseudo trendy gym. Cycle, and you build exercise into your life such that you don’t notice it. It’s not ideal, by which I mean not always fun, when it’s cold and raining and you feel like some comfort. It is however a fine choice to have, hopping on a bike to the supermarket or work.

If you have a good bike, in a bad city which most are, learn to understand the reality of thieves and how they operate. I’ve decided there are parts of Manchester where it’s not worth the risk taking my bike. In a bike shop recently, which supplies the police, they told me the police feel the same way. They won’t leave their personal bikes where they know they are regularly and constantly stolen. The fact is it’s easy to steal a bike and locks only make it harder not impossible: what you gain is cutting time, hammering time, cutting, twisting, hacking time, and the requirement for heavier tools. Professional thieves know the value of bikes part of which is the components. If your lovely frame is worth £500, your gears £200, some of them will cut easily through your thin metal frame to drag away the remains within which they will have a gear prize for a quick sale on the internet or a custom order. A few weeks ago I was riding through a dodgy area and heard someone shout “see that Specialized?” which is the brand of my bike. C’est la vie. I felt, sensed, vaguely knew it concerned me but there was too much distraction and noise to attend to it and there was nothing to see: the shout came from my rear on the left side pavement. Two seconds later I heard the thug call “Yo! yo! you wanna sell that bike?” No, scum, don’t be so fucking stupid. Don’t think for a second I don’t understand your game, that what you want it is to arrest me in a non police sense and engage me in some unpleasantness from the gutter. He was calling to another thug or two and saw, not my lovely bike as such, but money. Money, in the same way we carry money in wallets. About three months ago a man was stabbed and robbed about a mile from where I was, in daylight.

Look around when you stop at lights in dodgy areas. Stationary, all it needs is a thug to stand in front of you or push you unexpectedly from the side, with or without a thug friend,and you’re in trouble. Another chap in a bike shop told me how two thugs chased him with malevolent thieving intent. Lights raise another point, which begins with the fact that they are designed for cars not bikes. The two are utterly different and this has important ramifications. On a low level, which is still valid, many times you will be stuck at a red light when there is simply no reason not to proceed and need to get somewhere or simply want the exercise. I have no time for moralistic condemnation from drivers. I’m a driver too. I simply don’t care if a bike whizzes past me and through a red light: I never have. The irritation and jealousy of drivers is an ugly thing masquerading as I know better than you. No, the cyclist who glides through a red light on a road built for cars knows better. On a higher level, there are other lessons too for crossing a red light. You’re not stationary and vulnerable to thugs, and you cross the junction more safely when you advance ahead of the stationary cars. I don’t doubt there are nutters crossing red lights causing potential trouble to themselves or others but I’m not one of them and those who exist do not prove a general point. Geddit? These kind of debates are so knee-jerk…

In Manchester, I’ve found drivers courteous. They notice me and give me space. That doesn’t however make for a reliable rule and not ‘seeing’ a bike is a well know problem which can have disastrous results. There are occasions too when drivers harass and even attack cyclists using their car as a weapon. A few weeks ago, in Manchester, a car rammed a cyclist from behind catapulting him off his bike which could kill, injure seriously,or seriously upset and cause bike damage. The police, interestingly, made a Twitter remark recently protecting the rights of cyclists and calling for tolerance and understanding. They stated, and correctly so, cyclists won’t always ride close to the curb because of dangerous pot holes. There is no reason, moral or logical, to get mad with cyclists if they delay you a little because you can’t pass. Again…there may be nutters riding with disregard for the rights of drivers without reason, but that is not the nature of cyclists generally.

There are different parts to a human being, some of which are animal. We eat, drink and procreate with much the same logic as a cow. It’s healthy to flex your animal parts counteracting six hours in an office and insufferable managers, politicians, banksters, and domestic frustrations. A bicycle gives you peaceful, graceful, animal feelings as you glide along using your own power. Six hours of bullshit in an office but for thirty minutes or an hour you glide the road and exercise your power, not just muscles. This builds agency. It is agency – autonomy, individuation, power – which is a contributory factor for stress and psychological illness. I think this is probably why of all forms of exercise, it’s only cycling which really appeals to me. I’m outdoors, which I enjoy, travelling around. I don’t regard hill walking as exercise (because I enjoy it so much) but it shares those characteristics.

The thrill diminishes, and it fluctuates. For the first few weeks I cycled hard. Fast because it was fun to go fast. Then I kicked back a little and found an undemanding ride was pleasant too. I didn’t have to push myself if I didn’t want to. One day, for whatever reason, I don’t feel like cycling. It then feels luxurious to drive my car. A car every day however gets frustrating and restricting. The point of a bike is freedom. it feels good to cut through slow moving or stationary cars, affirming your desires when you know a car thwarts them. Cars are incredibly ugly things when you cycle among them: clumsy, bulky, slow turning, noisy and ludicrously expensive to own and run. I’ve considered life without a car but there are too many benefits in terms of convenience (longer journeys, shopping trips), comfort (bad weather, illness, tiredness), and their particular powers (drive to Wales or the Lake District with a car laden with camping equipment, drive to the Peak District for a day walk). A bicycle fits a gap where two wheels are better. A bicycle does not however fulfill all your needs and desires.

I do remember my cycling joy as a boy and I’m sure most of us do. The excitement and delight at that lovely little bike for a birthday or Christmas present. My brother and I had a red Puch. Then I had a beautiful silver Falcon which was stolen horribly from outside a library where I’d left it with astonishing naivete without a lock. My parents saw my upset and bought me a replacement, a red Carlton which I liked differently but roughly to the same extent. It was close. Like Spiderman, the Silver Surfer and the Human Torch, they were attractive in different ways. The Falcon was the great. The Carlton was slightly more exotic with ten gears not five. I used to cycle the Kent countryside.

My first good quality bike, by adult standards not those of a youth, was a Revell Elite bought from a West Hampstead shop after saving £300. Reynolds 531 double butted tubes, I used it at university for all my travel. In my first year, I locked it in a room beside the kitchen where there were two refrigerators. In my second year I kept it in various places as I changed shared houses and in my third year I used a a little covered porch at the end of the garden where I had a top floor flat. I still have that bike, although it needs renovating.

Some years later I have a sleek, graphite grey Specialized which with aluminium and carbon tubing is faster while I am paradoxically older. I always disliked the feeling of pushing hard to move a moderate pace, such as I found with my sister’s dark blue Raleigh with fat tyres and ponderous female frame. The feeling I like is that elastic push and you go: contact with the tarmac is optimised and athletic. I did wonder if I’d made the right choice and a comfort model might have been better with steel tubes making for a spring which feels a kind of silkiness. I tried one of those bikes, and I did like it. However, it was not the same as aluminium tubes with carbon forks. One is a middle distance runner, the other is a sprinter. I don’t always sprint (it fluctuates and the thrill again has gone) but when I don’t, the ride is delightfully light as I pedal more gently.