Hot and Sandy

Travel writing, pictures and stuff for people I know. Quite a lot of cycling talk, and some semi-controlled ranting. Hiking, outdoor and two-wheeled stuff, perhaps a little computing when it's worth talking about. Meandering thoughts.

Tuesday, July 25


A very thoughtful ride in this morning. Fast, but thoughtful. With motivation from a friend I have been pondering the issue of the fixed wheel, with a branched consideration of music to cycle by, the politicisation of the bicycle and rage. I’ll explain.

I have been riding in traffic, on the road, for about seventeen years, during which time I have had three major incidents. None was my fault. For about the last five years I have been on a fixed-gear bike, which does not allow freewheeling (coasting). Much of this time has been in London. I’m a bike nut, so I wouldn’t be without the gadgetry of my road bike, but increasingly it seems that the gears are an evasionary tactic – of course you can go faster on the flat, and can exert less pedal pressure going uphill on a geared bike but they are a bit of a cheat, developed for racing. Most normal people don’t travel the speeds or distances of the pro peloton, and it is my belief that ‘racing’ and ‘mountain’ bicycles are pretty inappropriate for most trips. Do you need a carbon fibre rear mech to go to work or Sainsbury's?

Personally, I use my fixed to offset my very low bail-out threshold. I can't remember who it was (Van Impe?), but someone once said that in bike racing, you help to lick your opponent's plate clean before starting your own meal. Bike racers know how to suffer - look at Landis referring to the "pain cave", the number of times time-triallists enter the "red zone", and l'enfer du nord (the Hell of the North, nickname of the one-day Paris-Roubaix race) for proof. The best riders know how to suffer.

Put simply I make life too easy for myself on a free-geared bike and I avoid the suffering by going slowly and taking refuge in the lowest gears on my cassette. But gears blur the edges of your task and muddy the waters by giving you a get-out-clause. When I ride fixed I know that there are X pedal-strokes until my destination. That number is determined by the cogs I have, which I cannot change en-route. Put optimistically, every pedal revolution takes me a set increment closer to my destination.

If you run out of energy ("blow up") on a racing bicycle, you change down your gears to make it easier – you increase the number of revolutions your muscles must process before you arrive, but each turn is less of an individual strain. Yet the total energy expenditure is the same, so surely you just prolong the agony? On fixed I find I am more disposed to grasp the nettle, take the bull by the horns and revel in other celebrated clichés.

I’m not some kind of zealot (unlike some), but I love to see relatively inexperienced cyclists wheeling new fixed-gear bikes from the shops, admiring the pared-down efficiency they exude. They have what they need, not the emperor’s new 96-speed. They are also on the way to getting a great fix – the feeling of interacting with the most efficient machine ever designed, taking personal control over their journeys and viscerally connecting with the environment. It’s an empowering step to take, but not one without risks.

There have recently been many reports in London of “a hard core of anarchic” cyclists jumping red lights, menacing pedestrians and even (shock!) listening to iPods while riding. Sure, these are contraventions of the Highway Code, but are they a significant danger? Perhaps not. New riders in particular are at risk, I feel. You may feel the embodiment of courier-chic with your new track bike, but don’t follow them through gaps and don’t copy their traffic-management! There’s an old saying: there are old couriers and bold couriers, but no old and bold couriers. Professional riders have a highly-tuned radar for danger, excellent bike handling skills and a wealth of experience to call on. Many riders without this experience take much greater risks in the same physical actions. Perhaps couriers shouldn't set such examples? This misses the point - actually, individuals should take accountability for their own actions and be more risk-aware.

I listen to an iPod while riding, and I don’t see it as a problem. In fact, it helps me to relax and stabilises my mood. I can get into a rhythm, or switch to a mellow tune in heavy rage-filled traffic. I wouldn’t be barred from riding if I was deaf, would I? And surely if someone is going to hit me, then hearing them will make a negligible difference – do I actually want to be looking at the guy who squishes me? I think the point here is that cyclists are vulnerable both literally and in the social food chain. As Buffalo Bill points out, if you ride a bike many people assume that you’re either a beardy-weirdy eco-worrier or you can’t afford a car. You don’t hear journos saying that if person X had better hearing they would have heard their murderer cocking the gun, do you? I think a bit of balance is required, but there is no provision for cyclist's views in the media. Perhaps the parents with "cyclists: don't jump red" placards on London streets should replace them with "don't drive too fast, in socially irresponsible and murderous 4x4s, when you're tired" ones, to reflect what is really doing the damage.

That’s more than enough for today I think. This is a bit atypical actually, as I don’t rant and rave about cycling and politics. I just like riding bikes, that’s all.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great post.

I think you're a madman for cycling with an iPod (not just on the safety side, but also because music takes me out of the zone rather than getting me into it), but whole-heartedly agree with (almost)everything else.

I hope the Pista you're saving for is the Condor. It's a peach.

Stay safe!

25 July, 2006 17:16  

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