You could admire the snowdrops starting to show through in earnest now and be pleased spring is here.

Snowdrops on a verge

Spring, surely, has sprung

You could dodge the pot-holes (new and old, often very old) and cut the responsible councils some slack because, after all, the weather’s been awful.

Or you could find yourself wondering, yet again, how it is that so much money is wasted on sub-standard road repairs that fail at the first inclement weather – and from there start to ponder ‘the system’.

Forget all the talk of ‘austerity’. The system is massively rich. Huge amounts of money are sloshing around in local and national government, and vast amounts of that money get wasted. It’s wasted on road repairs that are repairs only in name, obviously, but in all sorts of other respects too. The staggering sums being siphoned out of the NHS spring to mind readily – not least because every passing week, it seems, word leaks out about another Tory/Tory donor with their snout in that particular trough. Whatever way they dress is up, it all comes down to public money being drained away from health care and into private hands for ‘consultancy services’ and management and failed IT projects and the private provision of the previously publicly owned and funded.

In short, a very few people are getting rich out of the public purse on the back of providing ever poorer, ever more expensive, ‘services’.

Nothing about that is news. What is interesting, therefore, is why we put up with it.

Today, riding along debris-strewn roads, I concluded because we’re being fleeced under the cover of politics, and the Brits have a) always been generally disinclined to take much interest in politics and b) when they do show an interest, these days find themselves wholly disillusioned with what’s on offer. And so we give up caring. And so we’re fleeced, royally.

I suppose that does leave us with the question of whether the disillusionment has been deliberately engineered. After all, it suits those who are in a position to do that engineering.

OK Then, Now What?

The first back-to-normal week of the year and four fairly short rides: the weather’s not that cold, but it has been stunningly wet of late. If nothing else, the very flooded Thames means the options for routes are very curtailed. Basically, from Reading, head north and pick your way carefully: it’ll be filthy and the puncture risks are high as you’re moving into chalk-and-flint territory, but you can work out loops that aren’t too bad. And, as (almost) always, getting out every now and then leaves you feeling better than staying in, even over this dreary month.

The highlight from the natural world this week has been the sight of a Red Kite timing his landing perfectly as he approached a perch in high winds. He came is so slowly, so accurately, it made me smile. (I also nearly crashed into the ditch as I was looking up for too long.) There’s always pleasure to be had from watching something done well, whether by a human or not. (Don’t watch me cycling.)

Catkins out too early

Yes, these are early. Yes, it is unseasonably warm.

As I’ve been riding lately, I’ve been thinking about what I was saying before Christmas: that we need to do more than merely moan if we’re unhappy about things. It’s brutally obvious, of course, that the question then becomes what to actually do.

You can report the pot-holes and flytipping you’ll see while you’re out riding. You can monitor whether the reports are acted on and keep on reporting as necessary. You can follow-up inaction with letters to the local papers, to the local MP. You can take direct action: if you just pick up any litter you come across near where you live that will make a difference.

You can monitor the direct-action activist sites such as SumOfUs and Avaaz, sign petitions and spread the word. You can stay with a cyclist-focus and fight for Road Justice. You and I can get involved in any number of ways: helping local charities; helping national charities and so on. One way or another, helping those less fortunate than you or fighting for justice isn’t that hard.

And that’s all fine and worthwhile. But it all leaves me with a nagging sense of it not being enough. Tackling symptoms is good – especially for the sufferer. But there’s still the question of how to prevent the symptoms occurring in the first place – how to make changes happen further up the line. But where to start and where to stop?

Should You Vote?

So, you ride a bike. Should you vote in the next election? Who for? So, you don’t ride a bike – the same questions apply. And the answer? After a few rides thinking about it, all I can say is that the answer isn’t straightforward.

This week’s seen just a couple of fairly desultory trips. Fog has made it hard to get out, and when it’s not been foggy it’s been pretty grim and grey. It ain’t enticing. And when you do go out, what do you find? The same ol’ same ol’.

I was on the A4 near Twyford this week and I was seriously squeezed by a lorry because of a) his bad driving but b) because of the traffic islands they’ve put in the middle there, with no thought to the consequences for anyone on two wheels. The same applies to some relatively new hatching they’ve put on the road, which plenty of drivers interpret as meaning they’re not allowed to cross over, which of course means they cut cyclists more closely. And there are all the pot-holes – now getting worse again; there are the meaningless ‘advisory’ cycle lanes which probably mean some local council wonk has got a bonus for box-ticking but achieve nothing positive … and so on.

I’ve pondered before on cycling not equating to any notions of left or right in politics.

Now I’m thinking that the very act of voting has to be open to question, whether you’re a cyclist or not. Whether you make your cross on the ballot paper on not probably is going to come down to whether you’re hoping for long- or short-term gains. For what it’s worth, I’ve tried to explain why I’m thinking that in another ‘openDemocracy’ article here:


Suspension Please (Just For Cyclists)

Suspension forks

Just a little bounce would be nice

I was on a full-suspension off-road bike today – riding up on the Ridgeway with Charli again. Of course it’s to state the obvious, but the ease with which suspension absorbs the bumps makes one heck of a difference: the key gain is that the wheels can keep going forwards; they’re not being pushed off-line by the lumps or pits.

If I had to pick between road and off-road cycling it would always be the former for me – that type of bike and that type of riding just happens to ring my bell, and the aesthetics of a road bike have a lot of appeal. It would be very interesting though, if a road bike could be developed with just a smidge of suspension.

The movement would have to be in the forks at least, possibly the rear as well, to get the benefit of the wheel or wheels being able to react to the bump or hole and go forwards rather than being deflected. Suspension seat posts are just for comfort – they don’t alter the ride. Some kind of hybrid with just a small amount of travel in the suspension, to preserve the characteristics of the road bike on most road surfaces but that could react to a bad surface, would be very interesting to try. Given the rotting infrastructure of the UK, it would be worth a reasonable weight penalty.

Kippers, Curtains, Wheels And Progress

Time goes on and I sometimes think it’s hard to keep what’s been achieved in mind without being fooled. That applies to pretty well all spheres of human activity. The issue is always confused by interest groups: there are plenty of people who are keen to paint life as a story of endless progress, when a lot of what’s called progress is really merely change and change is often merely that – change, neither positive nor negative in the big scheme of things.

But of course there is positive change too – and today I was thinking bike wheels are a perfect example of that.

Part of today’s ride included Henley; Henley and nearby has more than the regular smattering of teeth-jarring pot-holes. According to some measures Henley is – or was – the most expensive place to buy property in England. Given the state of the roads and given the more-or-less perpetual traffic queues there, you could hold Henley up as proof positive that money doesn’t come with sense. (One suspects Henley is largely kippers and curtains, but that’s another story.)

Anyway, the stupidity of the rich aside, despite the pot-holes in Henley or anywhere else, the wheels on all my bikes are remarkably true still. That’s quite amazing given the battering they take; as they did today and as they do most days. At the risk of sounding, ahem, like an old codger, when I was young broken spokes weren’t uncommon and we’d often have to get wheels trued-up.

So, yes, modern bike wheels are examples of real progress. We should value that. We should consciously appreciate that. We shouldn’t be fooled though. We don’t need electronic gears on any bikes; we don’t need disc brakes on road bikes; we don’t need hydraulic rim brakes on road bikes. It seems to me that these are all examples of ‘mere change’: solutions looking for problems.

Of course, these are developments being introduced in a bid to make money. Whether that aspect renders what might be mere change into something good or bad isn’t immediately obviously. By turning these changes down and not buying new equipment, am I threatening livelihoods? Or does reduced consumption mean I’m helping save the planet? Should we all be trying to stop cycling becoming overly technical, to keep it accessible? Or is that stifling innovation?

Sometimes, it seems absolutely nothing is straightforward. It must be wrong to wish for ignorance and the certainty of a simple world view. However …

And even if we do all accept robust wheels as a positive development, do they contribute to the neglect of Britain’s roads? Would we be passively accepting our rotting infrastructure quite so readily if every other bike trip meant a broken spoke?

Never Before

Riding today, it struck me that never before have I seen so many dying bees on the roads. There aren’t hundreds of them, but I’ve noticed several of late and I think that’s a first. Climate change? Disease? I’ve no idea. I know worker bees do die off, but if what I’m noticing is unusual we should all be very worried.

I’ve never noticed young Wrens, newly fledged, before but I did earlier this week, in undergrowth to the side of woods near Mapledurham. And today I saw a female Blackbird busy feeding what I guess will be a second brood; I’ve seen more second-brood-related activity this year than ever before, both in my garden and out and about.

I’ve never noticed so many fallow fields before; today I wondered whether that was because of subsidies for ‘set aside’ land, depressed markets or similar; or whether it was because crops planned for them had failed with the late seasons this year.

Fallow fields

Fallow, or a sign of failed crops?

I don’t think I’ve ever before been quite so conscious of my shorts having settled down as I rode around to being a good half-inch above the permanent ‘farmer’s tan’ mark on my legs: a pallid tide line isn’t a pretty sight – I know that. I can only apologise.

And never before have I contemplated killing government officials but today, as I dodged pot-holes, I found myself wondering whether that’s what I might do – perhaps even ought to do.

Let’s say someone I loved hit a pot-hole while cycling, fell off and died. People will have been responsible for that hole – some single person, some people in a chain of command, some people responsible for employing other people, for setting budgets, for setting the low quality standards that are deemed acceptable these days. My loved one’s death would be the direct fault of people – real, accountability-dodging people. No court would do anything about them. Some public hand-wringing and trite, bogus, hollow ‘our thoughts are with the family’ statements by the representatives of the apparatus that employs those responsible people aside, nothing would change as a result of that death – unless I took personal action.

I’ve no desire to be judge, jury or executioner, none whatsoever, but as I rode around today I wasn’t sure what would be morally right if people in a chain of responsibility killed my loved one; I wasn’t sure whether exercising such an extreme form of retributive justice could be argued to be right in the absence of a legal system willing to act, in the name of both natural justice and – as long as the reason for the killing was explained – in the name of trying to raise standards and thus prevent other unnecessary deaths on the road. I just wasn’t sure.

If the law fails, if the law is wrong, ‘taking the law into your own hands’, surely, can’t always be the wrong course of action. That is a very unsettling thought.