If I ruled the world

Prospect Magazine

If I ruled the world


If politicians want to get more of us cycling, they should banish today’s silly bikes and bring back their sensible ancestors

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.

  1. May 5, 2010


    what on Earth made you think it was a good idea to write an article on a subject you clearly know nothing about?

  2. May 6, 2010


    how much do you want for the silly bike in the picture?

  3. May 7, 2010

    Greg Schisla

    Another ignoramus commenting on something they know nothing about.

    You obviously bought your “mountain bike” at Wal-Mart if it was so heavy you didn’t notice the wonders of gears.

    Try living the Appalachian mountains and trying to ride with 3 gears.

    And consider that a decent “specialized” bike can be had for $500-$1000, perhaps you could own a few for their designated purpose?

  4. May 7, 2010



  5. May 7, 2010


    I know the English Channel is bigger than the Atlantic Ocean but maybe you should look across it to the countries with the highest cycle ridership and see the incredibly utilitarian, comfortable, and durable commuter bikes they have. Britain isn’t a particularly good example of bikes and neither is the States.

  6. May 7, 2010


    You, sir, are an idiot. You read like a slightly more-informed Andy Rooney, which is not a good thing. At least I can laugh about Andy Rooney being such an idiot; “hahaha, he’s so dumb, obviously he knows nothing, nor does he care to.” However, with you it’s more a saddened humor; “ha, he’s clearly done a bit of reading and is still an idiot.”

  7. May 7, 2010

    Silly Bicyclist

    To me, silly bikes are the kind made out of steel. If you think otherwise, you’ve obviously never had the pleasure of using an aluminum bicycle.

  8. May 7, 2010

    brian gulino

    I read an article on the ideal street bike in one of the biking magazines. Went on and on about the virtues of a 21 speed road bike which cost $380.00.

    The bike had no kick stand.

  9. May 8, 2010


    You’re paid for this sh*t?

  10. May 8, 2010


    I realize this was a stab at humor, but:

    Road bikes *are* breakable, mostly if you’re inclined to break stuff that’s designed, well, not to break… Also, you can put fenders, bags, lights, etc on a road-bike–I do just that for my long commute to and from New York City (during which I wear mostly woolen cycling kit, by the way..) Lastly, much of what’s called, “lube,” is called that because it is NOT oil. Oil attracts soot and dirt–necessitating trouser bands.

    You must be especially oleaginous, then, Mr Martin, because misinformation sticks to you like road soot. Buy whatever bike you wish. No one’s stopping you. But please let your next column marinate overnight before you hit “send.”

  11. May 8, 2010

    Philboyd Studge

    Dear Mr. Martin,

    There are hundreds of other bike designs available for sale. They vary to suit every purpose short of prolonged flight.

    The is also this thing called Google. I suggest you try Google before opening your next bottle of whine.


  12. May 8, 2010


    You clearly have never gone bike shopping lately. In the past 20 years, bikes have dramatically improved in quality. Instead of steel, which is heavy and can rust, you can get lightweight aluminum frame or carbon fiber bikes. The dynamo hubs of 10 years ago are incredibly hard to pedal but newer ones are barely noticeable. There have been dramatic improvements in derailleur quality and longevity. Newer bikes feature quick release wheels and seatposts. Pannier design is pretty much perfected with quick release latches and frames that make it impossible for them to crash into the wheels. Yeah, if you go to a bike shop and buy the cheapest bike and accessories, you’re going to get what you paid for. But I assure you, once you start buying mid to high-range stuff, the quality improves dramatically.

  13. May 8, 2010


    Well said!

  14. May 8, 2010


    I own all three genre’s of those “sily bikes” in question. Each are practical, aesthetically pleasing and joy inducing. You obviously don’t enjoy biking.

  15. May 8, 2010


    Ha Ha Ha! Funny and entertaining article; it’s a pity most commenters here don’t appreciate the humour. Lighten up people!

  16. May 8, 2010


    I run a successful bike retailer. I’m going to let the other readers complain about your obvious bike knowledge deficiencies. One small note to your editor and publisher: I’d be embarrassed to allow someone to represent me with so little knowledge of the subject about which they speak.

    I agree with your general sentiment – that we need more utilitarian bikes; and that people often inappropriately specialized bikes weren’t suited to their casual purposes. That said, every major bike full line manufacturer makes bikes that meet your guidelines, and has for years.

    You shouldn’t be arguing on the supply side, but on the demand side. When we stocked full fender bikes with internal simple 3 and 8 speed hubs, ways to carry bags, and generator lights, no one bought them. We push them hard because we believe in bike transport. We need people in the States to believe they can ride, not more bikes.

  17. May 9, 2010

    Dr Wrong


    I take everything I read online seriously, and have little notion of nuance, irony, playfulness or comic intention. So I’m deeply offended by this piece, as indeed I am by anything written by almost anyone who doesn’t have a similarly pedantic level of interest as I do in the two-wheeled world.

    In future, please ensure that anything you write about this topic consists solely of a litany of up-to-the minute cross-referenced technical details and humourless chin-stroking.

    Don’t you realise that there are riders out there weeping, right now, over this ignorant assault on the two-wheeled community and its aspirations to mobilize the non-pedalling masses into a better place?

    The list of your ignorances hardly bears repeating but, among other things, it is a blasphemy that you should suggest that bike retailers would, in an ideal world, smoke. “A rolled-up fag behind his ear.” Indeed! Are you not aware, sir, that smoking is bad for the health, and has been linked to a whole host of life-threatening diseases? What on earth made you think it was a good idea to encourage salespeople to store these cancer sticks behind their ears; let alone getting members of the public to “sock” said salespeople should they attempt to interest you in certain accessories? As you are obviously not aware, both common assault and smoking in enclosed public spaces are not only wrong, but against English law.

  18. May 10, 2010


    Friend…..you’ve gotta relax. Mountain bikes have gears that makes them easier to pedal up hills, road bikes…amazingly also have gears intended for either going faster on flats or to make it easier to ride up hills. I spent roughly $400 on my commuter, $30 on a cargo rack, and $80 on panniers that attach to that rack in a way that both makes sense to the user and does not interfere with the mechanical workings of my bike. I’ve gotten about 2000 miles out of this set up in the Sahara desert of cycling – Texas.

    My bike is shaped somewhat like a mountain bike with battery-operated lights mounted to it, a nifty cupholder for my beverage needs, has smooth tires for pavement. It is most emphatically not a silly bike, it wasn’t terribly expensive, and whether I’m wearing spandex to ride far, or a skirt to ride to the pub, I have fun doing it.

    Maybe a little less derision and a little more “WHEEEEEE!” would be good for you.

  19. May 10, 2010


    “what on Earth made you think it was a good idea to write an article on a subject you clearly know nothing about?”

    I second that!

  20. May 10, 2010


    Note to Andrew Martin’s literary agent: He should stick to Edwardian railway “thrillers” (though – isn’t that an oxymoron?). This was just flat-out embarrassing.

  21. May 10, 2010


    Since Benny Hill and Monty Python, there hasn’t been a funny British comedian, group or writer. Nice try Andrew, but a failing grade.

  22. May 10, 2010


    I ride to work in London my suit every day, but it’s only 20 minutes away.

    would I ride to Brighton in my suit? Hmmm, I don’t think so

    Not that I’d wear skin-tight Lycra either (there are other technical fabrics that would do the job equally well), but at least I understand why people do, and it’s nothing to do with speed

    more quality journalism soon, eh?

  23. May 10, 2010


    It’s clearly far more sensible to drive a £60,000 4×4 to work!

  24. May 10, 2010


    My bike that I rode to the office today must blow your mind then. It is a light-weight road bike with a a fixed-wheel drivetrain and a front hand brake. The bike sports drop bars, but they are raised just below the saddle and thus I can see in traffic quite well but I get the aero ability and multiple hand positions of a drop bar.

    The bike also has mudguards, lights, and a Carradice saddlebag so I can pack a jacket, a collared shirt, and my lunch. I usually cycle in cut-off wool gabardine trousers or shorts and a light technical top.

    I agree that many bikes are not that practical for transport, but I think your rigid characterizations are somewhat obsolete and there’s nuances you’re missing out on.

    There is nothing about a fixed-gear drivetrain or a light road bike that makes them inherently impractical. It’s all in the way you set them up or adjust them. I am saddened that a British writer could write such a piece because I got all my inspiration from the old English fixed-wheel cyclotourists who would ride sensible yet sporty bikes from inn to inn.

    Here’s a photo if it if you don’t believe such a bike can exist. Even in car-centric Los Angeles I see quite a few bikes set up this way:


  25. May 11, 2010


    Silly bikes? Are those as bad as “silly articles,” like the one written, here, by an author completely lacking in bicycle knowledge. Hmmm. Ride 50 miles or so wearing a tweed suit, and then let everyone know how much of your crotch is left.

    Ah, relevance to reality isn’t necessary for writing an article, is it?

  26. May 11, 2010


    As many of the previous commenters have pointed out, you are full of baloney.
    As a matter of fact, mountain bikes are good for riding up mountains! They’re also good for general off-road use. Just because not everyone uses them for that purpose doesn’t mean that they’re silly. Also, if you put the proper pressure in the tires, they wouldn’t be very squishy.
    Yes, road bikes are breakable. So are mountain bikes, and 60 year old steel bikes, and anything else under the sun. As long as you use them how they’re supposed to be used, they’re not going to break. I have a road bike, and have never had any trouble seeing where I was going. There are also flat-bar road bikes which don’t have the drop bars in the first place. There is no rule saying that you can’t put lights, bags, baskets, or mudguards on a road bike. Also, I dare you to try riding 100 km in a tweed suit with a pipe in your mouth. The lycra actually does serve a purpose.
    It seems that your main criticism of hybrid bikes is that they have too many gears. No, nobody thinks “the perfect gear for tackling this hill is seventeenth”. However, they may be in the sixteenth gear and feel that they would like to be in a slightly higher one. 3 speed bikes don’t give you a whole lot of fine-tuning with the gear ratios. Also, you speak of the chain crashing over several cogs before possibly coming to rest on another one. If you were to maintain your bike, it would drop neatly into the next cog rather than crashing over several.
    The rationale behind the minimalist courier bike is that it is lightweight and low-maintanance, due to its lack of complexity. They are well-suited for use in cities, where there are seldom many large hills and where fancier bikes would be liable to get stolen.
    However, there are still some bikes which exist which may conform to your very skewed opinion of what is not silly. This one may appeal to you: http://img.diytrade.com/cdimg/555039/5620794/0/1207842890/Heavy_Duty_bike_Dutch_City_bicycle.jpg

  27. May 11, 2010


    Pathetic. I can’t believe I just wasted 5 minutes of my life reading the memoirs of complete idiot.

  28. May 12, 2010


    Wow. You do know that you can buy a sensible bike? There are many styles of bikes for many styles of riders, but you can easily buy a stodgy 3-speed to fit your cantankerous and opinionated attitude.

    Aside from being a poor shopper that gives up too easily, you are terribly misinformed about all things related to cycling. But I don’t think you care, do you?

  29. May 12, 2010

    Kali Yuga

    If you have never cycled up a mountain (try that with three gears), or down a mountain (try that without fat, squidgy tyres), or longer than three hours (try that in tweed), you might not be exactly qualified for these kind of judgements.

    Also, it might help to differentiate between recreational cycling (the sort that involves lots of lycra) and commuting.

  30. May 13, 2010


    Reductio ad absurdum.

    That’s the name of the fallacy you have scribed and called a “column”. Editorial is what it is, but most… I’m sorry “all” of your points follow this line of reasoning.

    Columns to follow:

    “My ice cream did not taste good because I was wearing one red sock.”

    “Why drive a car when you could ride a stuffed porpoise”

    and lastly,

    “Magnets: best avoided as I don’t understand how they keep my pants up.”

  31. May 25, 2010


    It’s funny reading a critique a writer doesn’t know anything about.

  32. June 16, 2010


    I have a feeling that some of the commentators have failed to realise:
    1) Why take it so personal? Possible reason: because for many of them their bike is the extention of themselves. In this case, there isnt much difference between them, a Ferrari driver and a pehlivan wrestler from Turkey
    2) What was “irony” again?

    I think the economic crisis will adjust their consumerist passions very soon…

  33. August 17, 2010

    Paul Scott

    In response to Andrew Martin woefully inaccurate lazy article on bikes, Andrew, I have found the bike for you. Good news too, it’s from a British company-Charge bikes. It displays many of the features you apparently long for in a bicycle: upright posture, mudguards, rear rack and a nice old fashioned low maintenance Sturmey Archer 3 speed hub. Best of all it’s called the “lazy susan” which dovetails nicely with the content of the article. C.O.I. I ride a bike with skinny tyres and road frame which strangely hasn’t broken in 6 years of riding the shelled streets of Hull.

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Andrew Martin

Andrew Martin has been shortlisted for the Crime Writers’ Association Body in The Library award for his series of thrillers set on the Edwardian railways. The latest of these, Death on A Branch Line, is published in early June by Faber and Faber 

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