I was recently asked by a reader to write a piece about why I ride a bike. I thought about it quite hard, and it’s something I’ve not really considered too much before. The best answer I can give, I think, is that I ride a bike because it’s fun.
I ride for work, I ride for leisure. People who follow my 365daysofbiking mini-blog, now 127 days old, will be familiar with this. I ride in bad weather and good; in the countryside and in the streets of the inner city. Give me a bike and somewhere to go and I’m off. I’ve been on a bike now for over 35 years, and can’t imagine my life without it. As far as I’m concerned, you just can’t beat the freedom, the connection with the environment around you and contact with the world beyond that which you feel in a car or on public transport. I’m aware of the weather, the seasons, people and places. I stop and smell the flowers, investigate things that interest me and people watch. I speed down hills, winch myself back up them and battle the wind. I get exercise. I clear my head. I put space between me, my work, and the trials and tribulations of everyday life. I think a lot when cycling.
I tried for a couple of weeks to encapsulate this feeling in video, before trashing it and just compiling one commute. This one was Wednesday, when I had tho go into Wednesbury, and then back to Darlaston. It was a gorgeous day, so I cycled through Walsall. I thoroughly enjoyed this ride. I felt alive.
Riding keeps this middle aged, ordinary bloke in reasonable shape. I cycle probably between 8-10,000 miles a year, which sounds like a lot, but my commuting works out to be about 20 miles per day and it soon mounts up. I’m no racing snake and sport all the usual, depressing signs of being a certain age. I cycle in pretty normal clothes, never wear lycra on the outside, and don’t wear a helmet. Cycling is a healthy, safe activity and despite my occasional moans – no different to those when driving, really – I find the activity relaxing and pleasurable whatever the weather. I’m not a fair weather cyclist, and actually, once used to it with a decent set of waterproofs, cycling in the rain is fun.
I’m not an activist, or an evangelist. Riding a bike works for me, and would work for many people. It isn’t the only solution, and I use all means of transport as needed. You’d be surprised how easy and practical things like shopping with a bicycle can be, but it’s not right for everyone. However, were we to cycle more as a country, I believe we’d be fitter, better drivers, pedestrians and road users, and we’d enjoy a better environment. I encourage anyone who wants to ride – the bicycle curious if you like – to have a go. Walsall isn’t the best town for cycling facilities, but it’s by no means the worst, either. We have miles of safe, well-surfaced canal towpath, very fine stretches of off-road, traffic free cycle routes and parks, commons and heaths to explore. The countryside is just on our doorstep, as are Sutton Park and Cannock Chase. All excellent places to go and pick up confidence.
Bad cyclists annoy me hugely, as do bad road users of all kinds. I’m not responsible for the guys who run red lights, or the ones who cycle on pavements, just as every motorist isn’t responsible for the bad drivers. I try to do my best to uphold the rules of the road and will actively challenge those who do not. I believe that I cycle safely, practice vehicular riding and behave as part of the traffic. I remain calm in confrontations when they rarely occur, and whilst assertive, I try to be polite and courteous. I’m not perfect, however, and have done some bloody stupid stuff at times. One of the best places to start when you’re ready to ride on the roads is a copy of John Franklin’s great book ‘Cyclecraft’. It’s like the Driving Manual for people with pedals and one trouser leg rolled up..
As befits a bike nerd, I have several steeds, which I select according to mood and purpose. I do all my own mechanics, and use online bike stores whilst also trying to give business to local bike shops too. You don’t need to spend lots on a bike to get started, but avoid very cheap ones. If you haven’t much money, look on the likes of eBay, Gumtree or the small ads for secondhand machines – you can get some real bargains. Supermarket and outlet bikes can be a nightmare if you’re not very careful. Get a bike that fits. Take time to adjust it, and adjust one thing at a time. It can take weeks to get a machine just right, but when you do, it’s like putting on a pair of comfy slippers. Don’t listen to people who tell you how you should adjust a bike. They correct way is the way that feels nice and doesn’t hurt. I officially have a terrible riding position, according to bike snobs. Balls to them, I love it. For maintenance and adjustment tips, I recommend the late, great Sheldon Brown and Park Tool.
The other essential thing about riding a bike is to have fun. It isn’t a race unless you want it to be. You don’t need all the gear (although a pair of lined shorts worn under normal clothes are heavenly and a fine investment) and if you find soreness is a problem, pay attention to seams in your clothes and rough materials. As you get more into it, wicking, outdoor clothing helps. Vaseline, body glide or chafe-ease are your friend until you get used to things. If you have stuff to carry, invest in a carrier and luggage. Carrying stuff in a rucksack whilst riding is horrid. Keep hydrated, and graze snacks to keep your energy levels up. Buy a good lock and learn how to best secure your machine. Learn how to fix and prevent punctures.
Bike training isn’t expensive, and pays dividends. Consider it. Ask at your local bike shop.
Most of all, ride when you want to, not when you feel you have to. That way, you’ll enjoy it like I do. I love being out on a bike, and I think that to be honest, that’s why I ride.