Thursday, May 19, 2011

Cycling as Art and Politics

I have mentioned a few times that I like cycling. Over here, cycling is, broadly speaking, a biomechanical process that takes advantage of a simple but ingenious machine to move from A to B more quickly and efficiently than by walking. It also provides the opportunity for cardio-pulmonary exercise and the simple enjoyment of one's surroundings.

In Britain, apparently, cycling is a political act. The impression I get from a few recent blog posts, and comments in newspapers, is that to ride a bike in England is to make a statement. There is no thought of pleasure or utility behind it. Cyclists are grim people, clad in lycra or wool (woollen cycling clothes?), with set faces, doing What Is Right in the face of the freely expressed opprobrium of their fellow man.

Why are cyclists hated in this way in the Old Country? There is vague talk of how they ride on the pavements and go through red lights. Neither of these things is a problem in itself, only when done without due care. It's not as though car drivers don't sometimes jump lights and zebra crossings, fat women don't waddle down the middle of the pavement, glaring at anyone who asks them to move aside, or teenagers don't run through the streets, barging into other passers-by. I would really like to know what it is that brings out petty spite in people who probably think of themselves as fashionably relaxed and tolerant about most other things.

The country round here, and with the exception of bits of Toledo I mean the entire Region, is well suited to bike riding. It's not especially mountainous and there is a network of footpaths which takes you just about anywhere you might want to go. I prefer walking, which is the leisure of the gods, but on a bike you can go much further in a given time, and you get a feel for the undulations of the terrain which you don't appreciate so much on foot.

One commenter on the thread linked to suggests that the only way to travel is, as he does, on a litter carried by large Nicaraguans. Each to his own, but I have to disagree with him. While I am able I shall take my rucksack and staff (a stick, that is, not attendants) and travel the world, or as much of it as I can, on my own two feet. If the body fails one day I might buy a litter, but instead of Nicaraguans I would think about hiring a half dozen of Gadaffi's female Nubian bodyguard. The link with Egypt appeals to my sense of history, they sound a lot of fun, they won't have any trouble carrying me even if I put on weight, and they may well be out of work soon.


Vincent said...

I used to ride a bike in the Fifties. Things have changed a lot. Then, a rider would get off his bike to cross at a pedestrian crossing or in any hazardous situation. Now, when a cyclist approaches you from behind on the pavement, he does not ring his bell to warn you of his approach. He does not humbly get off his bike if it's not feasible to pass through a narrow space. He doesn't have a bell, or if he does, doesn't use it. When he approaches you on the pavement from the front, you feel intimidated because he expects you to get out of the way. If you are a car driver, there's a different set of aggravations, for example cyclists riding side by side or intentionally far from the kerb.

Naturally, a cyclist is in constant danger, and must put himself first on the road. But what he should realise is that a bit of consideration given to pedestrians and motorists, some humility and gratitude would assist greatly in preventing him from being hated.

Perhaps it is their sense of being uniquely virtuous which makes some cyclists behave so annoyingly.

CIngram said...

So there really is a different culture to cycling in England, now? And some cyclists at least deserve the way people feel about them.

But why the sense of being virtuous? Do they think they're saving the world by riding a bike? It's the lack of that feeling here which makes cycling a largely uncontentious activity. And cyclists are usually courteous. I only ride on the pavement when necessary, and I do it slowly and carefully, giving way to pedestrians. Likewise at traffic lights, and my experience is that other riders do the same.

Drivers are respectful, too. At least as much as you would expect them to be. Some drivers aren't sure what to do when they see a bike, but the trick is to make sure he knows you've seen him and not make any sudden movements. The sort of idiot who thinks he owns the road and pretends cyclists don't exist is extremely rare.

Mark Wadsworth said...

I shall add that harmonious co-existence of cyclists/non-cyclists to the list of "Things which other European countries are better at than the UK".

I mainly walk to get around, but it must be said that some cyclists esp. in London are pretty ruthless. Can't they ring their bells before they nearly run you over? Don't they have bells any more? (probably not).

James Higham said...

I'm a keen cyclist and blog about it fairly often. It's a whole world in itself and though most people are fairly friendly towards us, if we don't make prats of ourselves, there are those who would run us over if they could.

Actually, I have to replace my front tyre tomorrow - valve's bust.

CIngram said...

From the feedback here and elsewhere I get the very clear impression that Mark W is quite right, and that here in Spain I am lucky to be able to ride a bike (invariably for pleasure, I don't use it as transport, for various reasons) without being abused by pedestrians, attacked by drivers, or coopted by the eco-warriors. I just ride the thing. And I am, I assure you all, very respectful of pedestrians. After all, I'm one myself most of the time.

It appears I am luckier than I realized to enjoy this privilege.