Liberation

Walking the other day, I was passed by a cyclist. He wasn’t hurrying or working hard, but very soon he was in the far distance and then gone. It brought home to me, not for the first time, how efficient riding a bike is, even if you’re not “a cyclist” (whatever that might mean). It’s just a very good mode of transport.

It also made me think about how liberating it must have been back in the day – before cars – and how liberating it should still be. It’s a great shame that cycling now comes with a huge amount of baggage for the unwary.

A bike doesn’t have to be expensive to be enjoyable to ride. You don’t have to dress up to ride it if you don’t want to. You don’t need accessories galore. All of that stuff is the stuff of marketing – fluff, bullshit, hype. You just need a reliable machine, your ordinary clothes and yourself.*

I’m old enough to regret the passing of the days when even ‘high end’ bike bits would stay more or less the same for years on end; there wasn’t this ludicrous routine of ‘this year’s model’. (And it is dull and boring, as ‘routine’ implies.) I do think the introduction of mandatory helmets would be a mistake because of the amount of people it would drive away from cycling; I do think the same is already true for a lot of the cycling industry. No-one needs disc brakes on a road bike, nor electronic gears, nor ‘hydration systems’, nor … nor … There are any number of other examples … Most of it is about manufactured need (and profits). And it’s all combining to create barriers to riding a bike.

A new sticker

The tedium of the routinely new

Bikes can be simple and reliable. They can be user-serviceable or cheaply fixed by someone else. They should be understood to be approachable and accessible – cycling should be uncomplicated and inexpensive.

Explore your local world – there’s a huge amount of pleasure to be had in getting out and about, not using a car but out of range of where you can easily walk to, without any fuss or faffing about. Cycling gives you a freedom that walking can’t – and that driving a car can’t either. Take advantage of it, without feeling like you have to have ‘the right kit’ – whatever that may be.

If cycling is to remain a liberating experience (or, perhaps, if it is to regain its potential to be a liberating experience) then we’d all do well to remember that the cycling industry, by and large, isn’t on the cyclists’ side. It’s just about making money. In short: “Dear Mr Marketing Person, please f**k off.”

* And before any long standing readers accuse me of hypocrisy: I think there’s a lot of pleasure to be had from a higher-end bike if that’s your thing, and I think if you’re riding a lot then some well designed clothes and shoes can make the experience more comfortable. I just don’t think any of that stuff is essential, and the hype surrounding it all can put off the non-enthusiast who might just want to ride a bike. (For that matter, even enthusiasts need to be careful they’re not sucked-in to wanting the latest when it’s merely that – the latest. ‘New’ is not synonymous with ‘best’.)

A Human Pace

And just like that it seems we’re in quite settled, quite warm weather. It changes everything, not least how long I feel like being in the saddle. I’m now doing 30+ mile (50-60 km) or longer rides in Berkshire, South Oxfordshire or North Hampshire.

With the warmth comes a change in pace – if they can, people seem to slow down, or at least want to. Where they can, there are more smiles to be seen; people seem happier and more relaxed.

In the villages (numerous) and small towns (Wallingford- or Watlington-sized, for example) that I’ve ridden through lately it seems palpable. People are still doing what they have to do, of course, but there’s less bustle and less hustle.

In contrast, in larger towns, Reading most obviously, the hot weather seems more likely to generate frustration – people want to slow down but can’t. The heat serves only to increase the tensions that come with the inevitable traffic jams or car park queues and so on. You can only pity the slow-cooked commuters on the trains.

And it seems to me the key thing is that it’s not the case that warm weather makes us want to relax and makes us happier and thus makes us slow down. Rather, it’s that we are wiling to slow down when it’s warmer, and it’s when we slow down that we find the slower pace makes us happier.

Obviously, that’s all just unscientific impressionism – it’s how it strikes me, that’s all. But it did make me wonder whether there’s such a thing as a human pace – a speed of things, a speed of life, that somewhere, somehow, deep down, chimes most happily with our internal body clocks or some other internal, instinctive rhythm.

If that were true, the natural conclusion should be that we ought to be trying to match the speed of our collective lives to that pace. As it is, collectively we seem remarkably willing to let any number of external factors dictate to us how fast we must live our lives: from the non-negotiable demands of the working day to the incessant nagging of social media.

PS: Apropos of nothing, I work with ‘unstated.name‘ – newly launched and which you might like.

Fox gloves in the sun

“Time to stop and smell the …”

Sack The Ignorant

Much of England is hot – in the 80s F. It has been for a while now and it will be for a few days more at least. This is not bad news. It makes life a bit difficult in some regards – this being England, we’re not at all geared-up for any kind of weather other than the middling-temperate variety. But it would be churlish to complain

The hot nights means open windows, and open windows means the sound of jets landing at Heathrow. Right now they’re not coming in overhead but in a few days the wind will be veering east, and that means they’ll be waking me and thousands of other people up, from about 5.30 or 6.00 onwards.

Today saw Heathrow submit its plans for expansion to the enquiry that’s looking in to Britain’s air traffic capacity. There’s lip-service concern about noise but the notion that there can be an additional 260,000 flights per year without it ruining an awful lot of lives is laughable. Worse, it’s an insult to suggest it.

The BBC on airport expansion plans

It strikes me that we ought to be looking at what percentage of air travel is business related. We then need to sack pretty well all the business people taking those flights as they’re patently too ignorant to use online conferencing tools and are running up costs to their companies (and the country) for no good reason. By definition, this makes them bad business people. Once sacked, then we could assess what kind of air traffic capacity we actually need. It would, surely, be a very much lower requirement. And think how happy that would make so many people on the ground.

If only/fat chance.

In the meantime, it’s perhaps counter-intuitive, but I’ve always found cycling on hot days a good thing to do. You’re guaranteed some air passing over you, and if you’re working up a sweat that’s only going to cool you down. It’s better than just sitting and panting by a long chalk. If you don’t know what to do with yourself on a hot day then – assuming you’re physically OK – I recommend it.

From near Christmas Common, getting a breeze up on high looking over a sun-backed Oxfordshire.

From near Christmas Common, getting a breeze up on high looking over a sun-baked Oxfordshire.

De-humanization

Last week I was up in Coventry. The drive there was almost all dual carriageways and motorways and, predictably enough, I didn’t see one cyclist. Of course, there were no pedestrians to be seen either. On trips like that, all you’re interacting with is your fellow human cargo in motorized metal boxes.

It struck me that the journey there had given me no realistic impression at all of the countryside I’d travelled through: the view from the motorways varies as you go but it’s all been smoothed and smothered by the needs of the motor vehicles. You can’t get any ‘feel’ for how it is to live in the regions you’re driving through. There’s no interaction with the people of different regions either, of course, and that’s just as much of a shame because there remains a remarkable variation between the peoples of the different locales in Britain.

Coming home, we went across country in the main – the lanes of Warwickshire and the B-roads or minor A-roads of Oxfordshire, a lot of the more northern parts of which are wholly unfamiliar to me. It looked like good cycling country – the roads were relatively quiet and, until you get around the Oxford City area and below, in far better condition than I’m regularly putting up with. The scenery seemed attractive; the landscape lacks any grand features – big hill ranges or rivers – but, I’m sure, it would prove interesting on a more intimate scale if you get to know it. You’ll never get to know it from a car.

A view over Warwickshire

Looking out from Ansty

I’m not a fool – I know we have a society structured around motor vehicles and that’s not going to end tomorrow. Perhaps because I’m not a natural traveller, I still marvel at the fact that I can drive to places that are so far away so relatively easily. It’s great! Not that many generations ago, the trips I’ve taken recently, to Cornwall and to Coventry, would have been massive undertakings.

At the same time though, we need to remember what we’re doing to ourselves as we continue to live in a society and with a lifestyle that’s predicated on so much travel, most of it by motor vehicle. It is no exaggeration to say we’re de-humanizing ourselves.

I know I’m saying nothing new – but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t merit repeating. De-humanization, however innocuous it might seem, is, surely, an essential foundation for the inhuman. We all need a shared sense of our humanity if we’re going to build a society we’ll want to live in.

Hi Viz Indictment

Riding back in familiar territory: today it was a spin in the South Oxon lanes. Just outside of one village there was what seemed a quite old chap, smartly dressed in a tweed suit, walking with some difficulty with the aid of two sticks and, quite incongruously, wearing a high visibility waistcoat.

I wondered why.

Perhaps it was a ‘health and safety’ thing: his wife perhaps, or his kids, insisting he wears it because the lanes are dangerous and there aren’t any paths. Perhaps he actually felt safer wearing it; perhaps it was his choice. Whatever the reason, surely it’s sad if anyone is feeling such measures are necessary. That suggests a simple act like walking down an ostensibly quiet lane in daylight is accompanied by real fear, and that cannot be right.

Even if he’s doddering on his walking sticks, too slow to get out of the way quickly and that’s what’s prompted the safety garb, that’s still a horrible indictment of the way we live. It’s a sick society that can’t find the time or make the room for its less able members.

England Being English

Blue skies, white clouds, green trees and lambs in the field

England being English

A good long ride on the 16th, largely south of Reading, and with fairly decent weather too – nothing to complain about. It’s not that warm and it’s very unsettled, but of late England is starting to look, well, quite English – it’s starting to be richly green (though some trees are still to get going); there are lambs in the fields, fluffy white clouds against (occasional) blue skies …

And today’s ride up towards Wallingford was reasonable enough too, albeit with greyer skies. Two drivers caught my eye. Both would be listed as ‘normal’ under the R.U.M. categorization, but they both looked thoroughly harassed and miserable as I waved my run-of-the-mill acknowledgements to them. I could imagine they were miserable with me, the irritating cyclist slowing their progress for a few seconds, but in truth the way lines on their faces were so ingrained suggested they weren’t happy bunnies at the best of times. And so, perhaps, I ought be feeling sorry for them rather than thinking of them as miserable sods.

The second chap, particularly, looked thoroughly unhappy … perhaps he was. He was in a new, towards-the-top-of-the-range Audi, late middle-aged, pulling out from one of those expensive not quite ‘gated community’, not quite sheltered accommodation but nearly type of developments … Perhaps it’s all gone sour for him. Perhaps he’d hoped for a nice, secure-feeling retirement but it’s turned out to be terrifically dull. Perhaps he earned his deep-seated unhappiness working hard to buy all that he has, only to find it’s not what he wanted. I passed him. He had to wait behind me for a few yards before a crossroads; he hung back politely; I looked back to wave my thanks; he looked at me blankly and I turned left, he turned right.

R.U.M. Categories and The TK Challenge