If politicians want to get more of us cycling, they should banish today’s silly bikes and bring back their sensible ancestorsby Andrew Martin / April 26, 2010 / Leave a comment
Published in May 2010 issue of Prospect Magazine
A silly bike, making trouble
If I ruled the world, the government would give out grants for the manufacture of sensible bikes. It might also consider issuing every adult in the country with one as the swiftest means possible of curtailing traffic and relieving the burden that obesity and ill-health puts on the NHS.
All three major political parties say they want to promote cycling, but there’s a discrepancy between the numbers of people who own a bike and the numbers who ride regularly. This is because bicycle retailers sell silly bikes. The features of a silly bike are easily recognised in contrast with those of a sensible one.
For much of my adult life, the bike market was dominated by mountain bikes. Are these good for riding up mountains? I don’t know because, like most owners of mountain bikes, I’ve never tried. Call me indolent, but I don’t much fancy the idea of cycling up a mountain. I do know that these bikes are very hard to ride up hills because I have tried that, only to be slowed down by their weight, their fat, squidgy tyres and their forward-leaning (therefore back-breaking) riding position. Mountain bikes have tough names like “Streetfighter,” “Psychopath” and “Recidivist”—as I have noted when I see them propped outside greengrocers’ shops with carrier bags dangling from the handlebars.
The other main type of bike favoured by male riders (most cyclists are male) is the road bike. A road bike is meant to be ridden on a road. So far, so good. But they are lightweight, and therefore breakable. They have drop handlebars, which on the plus side allow an aerodynamic riding position, but also prevent the rider from seeing where he is going. The rider pays a high price for the speed of a road bike. He must do without lights, bag, basket, or mudguards, the last of which means he gets soaked when—as sometimes happens in Britain—it rains. Accordingly, the rider of the road bike usually carries a change of clothes in a rucksack when cycling. While on the bike, he wears near-transparent Lycra, especially if he is slightly overweight and prone to sweating from the buttock cleft. As a rule, I have no time for Jeremy Clarkson, but he is right about the risibility of this rig-out. He once conducted an experiment on Top Gear that established that skin-tight Lycra gives a speed advantage of 0.0001 per cent compared with a man cycling in a three-piece tweed suit with a pipe in his mouth. Being so light, road bikes tend to be expensive—often more than a decent second-hand car. This means it is inadvisable to take the bike out of the house. If you do, then the insurance companies require you to carry a lock that costs about a quarter as much as the bike itself and weighs slightly more—so there goes the weight advantage.
Of late, the unsuitability of mountain bikes and road bikes has begun to be recognised, hence the hybrid, a combination of the two. Hybrids are not quite as silly. They might feature panniers, which are like the old-fashioned saddle bags except that, hanging lower down, they can catch in the wheel; and they generally have about 24 gears, which is 21 too many. Who thinks: “The perfect gear for tackling this hill is seventeenth”? On the contrary, you just pull the lever, and the chain crashes over several cogs before coming to rest—you hope-—on another one.
However, the latest trend is for the minimalist courier bike, which supplements the disadvantages of the road bike (no mudguards, bags, lights) with the bonus disadvantage of having only one brake and no gears at all. It’s more difficult to ride one of these up a moderate incline than it is a mountain bike, yet that’s the point: they show the rider is super-fit, which is why they particularly appeal to men worried about turning 30, who are not super-fit but want female passers-by to think they are.
I trust that a picture of a sensible bike is beginning to crystallise. It will be much like my own bike, which is British-made and about 60 years old (because we used to make nothing but sensible bikes). It is a Raleigh something or other—the name has been scratched off, leaving only the words “finest British steel tubing.” It has three gears, a hub dynamo and a saddle bag. It cost me £40 secondhand, plus another £2.50 for getting the dynamo working. But then the man who sold it to me was a bike retailer of the old school: a grimy bloke with a rolled-up fag behind his ear.
The new sort of bike seller—who trades exclusively in silly bikes—is at once sanctimonious in his environmentalism, and ruthlessly capitalistic in his pricing. He calls oil “lube,” while cycle clips are “trouser bands.” He may, in all seriousness, try to sell you “high-performance recovery gel” to smear on your lips after cycling at high speed on your silly bike. If this happens, offer him in return some high-performance antiseptic gel… after socking him firmly in the mouth.