First published Spring 2019


 

UK Bike Week is set for 8-16 June, when Cycling UK urges us to pedal for fun and fitness. To get us in the mood, Graeme Wilcockson gives a brief history of cycling and tips on how to get going

 

They say you can’t reinvent the wheel, yet it’s not been for the want of trying. In 1817, when Baron Karl von Drais created his ‘hobby horse’, a gentleman’s plaything became a two-wheeled solution to a four-legged problem. 

The 1815 eruption of Indonesia’s Mount Tambora had catastrophic global consequences; as what was the largest explosion in recorded history had deposited an ash cloud thousands of miles across, impacting the climate of Europe and North America. The summerless year which followed saw near-total crop failure, famine and the mass starvation of livestock across the entire Northern Hemisphere. This included the world’s then favourite form of transport: the horse.

Equine breeds of all kinds were in desperately short supply, and von Drais seized the opportunity. Stripping weight from his quad-wheeled beast and debuting a two-wheeled version, he marketed the toy across Western Europe. It was greeted with open arms — and aching legs. The 50 lb monster was a far cry from today’s ultra-light carbon fibre speed machines, but they were snapped up in droves. But it didn’t take long before a law was passed, banning them from pavements in England as a menace to pedestrians. Interest waned, and it took until the 1860s and the introduction of the bone-shaking Penny Farthing to see a resurgence. Pedals were introduced within a few years, and various patent battles were fought and lost. It was the Olivier Brothers whose design endured through mass production, and their pedal-powered velocipede became a blueprint for imitators across the globe, particularly in England where appetite was intense.

Of course speed creates the urge to race, and so by the 1870s bicycle racing clubs were all the rage. But with brakes yet to be invented, sudden stops were followed by impromptu flying lessons. However, as roads improved and the wheel was literally reinvented courtesy of John Kemp Starley and his new-fangled spoke design, bicycles became comfortable to ride. Women took interest, and with it found a new sense of mobility and independence. The wheels of a million bicycles were in circulation by 1900; workers could commute longer distances, and with remote train stations now accessible — the whole country was on the move.

A little more than 100 years later, an estimated one billion cycles are in use across the globe. All shapes and sizes, much like their riders. From steel to carbon-fibre, no gears to dozens, drop vs. straight handlebars, disc or v-brakes, solid wheeled to spoked, front/rear/no suspension, wide-bottomed saddles to skinny, posterior-splitting streamlined perches, folding, battery powered hill climbers to the indoors exercise bike/clothes horse — the choice is endless. So how to sort the wheat from the chafing?

If you want to take up cycling, there are a few things to consider when it comes to bike selection.

Road vs. mountain vs. touring/hybrid

While there are various subsets of each, bike design typically falls into one of the above three designs. So, consider what you will use the bike for and where you intend travelling, as well as terrain and distance.

As you might expect, the road bike is designed for tarmac roads. Typically faster machines, with skinnier wheels and tyres, they are designed to negotiate modern roads with speed and ease. Lightweight and aerodynamic, providing the most speed for the least effort, they are ideal for commuting but have little room for luggage, particularly racing models. They also lack a degree of comfort and are more prone to punctures and rim damage from poorly maintained roads. Carbon fibre models will set you back a small fortune but can weigh less than six kilograms.

Mountain bikes, as the name implies, offer a far more solid and rugged ride. Designed for off-road use, and taking trips beyond the urban sprawl, these machines are robust, comfortable and reassuring. Of course, they are perfectly sound machines on modern roads as well, more durable against punctures and damage, with superior braking — but the thick rubber tyres offer a lot of rolling resistance. If you intend frequently using these machines on roads, you may be better served by swapping the tyres for smoother surfaced, road suitable options.

Finally, as you might expect, the hybrid brings together the best and worst features of both road and mountain styles. Less robust than a mountain bike, but far quicker. Conversely, it’s not as speed driven as a dedicated road bike, but being heavier, will take a little more punishment — and often has room for panniers. The riding position is also a little more upright than a road bike, allowing for a degree of comfort not afforded by a dedicated road bike. For a casual, social ride or a short commute, the hybrid is ideal.

The cost of bikes genuinely falls into the realm of ‘anything goes’. There are often some second-hand bargains to be found on your local appropriately named Freecycle, or Gumtree — but it is always worth consulting your local cycle shop where you can get advice on correct sizing and maintenance.

Theft

Sadly, theft of bicycles is a continual nuisance, so ensure your insurance covers theft/loss and invest in a sturdy lock. The latter cannot be understated. A rule of thumb is that a lock should be at least 10 per cent of the retail cost of the bike. A cheap lock may look like a deterrent, but too many can be disabled in a matter of seconds. Even the seemingly sturdy D-locks can be quickly levered free with enough force. Remember, your bike is also the thief’s getaway vehicle. Subtly cracking a lock and riding away will not draw any attention. A long heavy chain which secures both wheels and frame is always the preferred option. Local police forces still carry out ultraviolet stamping of bikes, which helps recover lost and stolen machines to their owners.

Safety

Many people are concerned for safety while riding, and rightly so. There is an element of vulnerability on the road, but it can always be mitigated by taking sensible precautions: bright clothing, and nothing loose which will catch in wheels. Make yourself as visible as possible to other road users. In winter months, lights are essential, and legal requirements. Thankfully, the days of heavy, easily stolen lamps are long gone. Now replaced by lightweight, miniature yet surprisingly powerful and long lasting LED bulbs; many can be affixed directly to clothing or bags.

The famed Cycling Proficiency Test run by ROSPA has been superseded by the National Standards for Cycle Training, currently run by Bikeability. There is no legal requirement to take the course, but it is recommended — particularly if you are unfamiliar with cycling on British roads. It cannot be overstated, however, how beneficial it is for children. Three awards are on offer, covering everything from the basics of cycling, to gentle on-road experience, to wider-ranging conditions and more complex scenarios such as traffic and road layouts.

The law

Cyclists are bound by the Highway Code just like motorists. There are those who choose to ride on pavements, jump red lights, and even cycle under the influence of drugs or alcohol. But make no mistake, all are illegal. There may not be the risk of points on a licence, but fines are aplenty and police are not shy in imposing them.

Fun

However, all this looks past the most important aspect of cycling — it is a fun, healthy and social activity. Even for a novice, an impressive amount of miles can be racked up with minimal effort. Whereas runners can suffer from tendonitis in the knee, because of the continual pounding impact — on a cycle, impact is entirely negated. The steady state cardio also burns up a high number of calories. Cycling also affords the opportunity to travel further afield, exploring areas hitherto unseen.

Not all inventions stand the test of time, but the cycle has and shows no sign of diminishing. Cyclists grow in numbers in every year. As more cycle paths are added, confidence and convenience grows. ‘Boris bikes’ in London have proven a huge success. While London’s cyclist population may not have the similar numbers seen in Amsterdam or Copenhagen, it continues to grow. And as emissions cut vehicle traffic even further, and with cities such as Manchester and Birmingham looking at similar schemes, cycling will continue to be a mainstay of modern transport. Baron von Drais’ hobby horse has never been in better shape.

GO NUTS BEFORE YOUR COMMUTE

“Nuts are an excellent cycling breakfast... Cycling 10 miles to work [into central London] makes me feel better — and more virtuous — for the whole day. And it’s faster than public transport or driving. Drivers are pretty universally good — everyone’s used to there being bikes around. People staring at mobile phones when they cross the road though... the biggest cycle commuting danger is people staring at mobile phones; cyclists, drivers, pedestrians, whoever.

“The clothes may look daft but they’re pretty comfortable. When I’m cycling in the pouring rain ‘I’m glad I’m wearing the right clothing’ usually goes through my mind — as well as ‘take care of that slippery metal access cover’ and ‘I’m going to get an extra-large coffee when I get to work, because I deserve it’.

“The benefits to commuting by bike are clear; better mental health, and I don’t get out of breath climbing stairs when I do take the tube.” — a commuter cyclist.

THE ‘IT AIN’T ROCKET SCIENCE’ GUIDE TO A SLOW RIDE

“I’m not super fit so I’m never surprised when anything physical seems like hard work. I had bought a bike after years of relying on a car, and was pleased with the sense of freedom that it gave me. But, to my frustration, it never seemed to get any easier and I couldn’t help but take it personally when absolutely everybody overtook me on the cycle path.

“I knew that my tyres would be part of the problem — because I wanted to save time on issues such as punctures, I’d had anti-puncture tyres fitted to my gleaming new hybrid. I had been mightily impressed with the shop display showing a cut out of a tyre with nails sticking it in but not reaching the cavity where all the precious air would be. And I was sensible enough to know that this would increase the weight and grip of the tyres, making cycling harder work than if the bike had standard road tyres. But that was, in my opinion, an acceptable price to pay.

“But why was it never getting any easier? I was cycling regularly, making a daily commute of 7.5 miles each way — which is quite respectable, I think.

“And so one day I complained a little about it to Jon, a friend who goes absolutely everywhere by bike. He’s also a physicist and a very clever chap, so would be bound to know what the problem was.

“‘Have you pumped up your tyres?’ he asked.

“‘I’ve squeezed them and they are firm,’ I replied. Well, in my day that was what we used to do — but of course we didn’t have solid puncture-resistant tyres.

“Needless to say, after Jon explained that squeezing the tyres wouldn’t be enough, I bothered to get out the pump, complete with pressure gauge, that had been sitting in the garage still covered in the original packaging.

“My tyres were only pumped to about a third of what they should have been. Yes, I felt like an idiot — but the next time I went for a bike ride I was positively flying!

“Jon isn’t a rocket scientist — probably could be — but checking the bike’s tyres before heading out really isn’t rocket science.” — an occasional cyclist.

IF AT FIRST YOU DON’T SUCCEED

“For my fifth birthday I was given a shiney red and white bike. I’d never ridden one before but was used to sitting on my mum’s bike. She would put me on the seat and wheel me to school, with me holding on to her arm or the handle bars. We didn’t have a car, in fact hardly anyone had a car back then so this was a normal way to travel.

“I’d only had a tricycle before, but I asked my dad to remove the stabilisers because I was convinced that I didn’t need them. He did that without suggesting it was a bad idea, and I happily took my bike out to the front of the house where there was a set of rotary washing lines for the local houses, situated on a large patch of nasty concrete and gravel.

“Then, for what seemed like hours, I attempted to cycle from one washing line to the next — holding the frame of a washing line and pushing down with my right foot. Needless to say I came off several times. By the end of the afternoon both knees were thoroughly grazed and bleeding. I think a family photo showing me with three large plasters on my knees must have been taken not long after! But, importantly, I could ride my bike.

“I learned my lesson not long after, though, when against my mum’s warnings I decided to take my bike into a very deep puddle where other children were cycling. As soon as my wheels hit the water I fell off my bike and was soaked through — much to the joy of the other kids. When I got home, thoroughly wet, my mum didn’t say a word. She didn’t have to! Having a bike gave me freedom as a child, and I love having one today.”

a fairweather cyclist.

THE ‘PROVING YOU’VE STILL GOT IT’ RIDE

This climb was my gift to myself. I’d hit the big Five-O. More a milestone than a birthday. Inviting the folks round to OD on cake and crisps wasn’t going to cut it. No, what I needed was my bike and the company of a few good friends. Benny and Rob had agreed to come along for the ride. Two men looking on from the comfort of a rental car, bearing witness as their pal worked himself into a sweat conquering the Ventoux.

Benny was happy to go along with anything as long as there was a slap-up meal in the offing. So here he was, at the wheel of the brand-new Renault we had picked up at Nice airport. Rob was in the back with Sonny. Not exactly his bag, cycling. He’d rather be out pounding the pavements of his home turf in Amsterdam on his weekly run.

Sonny was guest of honour at this strange celebration of mine, recording the spectacle with his own mini camcorder. His plan was to edit an official birthday movie on his computer when we got home.

The Renault was already rounding the bend, Sonny’s head still sticking out of the window. I watched his face disappear behind the boulders.

Just time for another slug to quench my thirst. I grabbed the bottle and gave it a squeeze. A thick stream shot into my mouth. Too much. The excess liquid splattered on the asphalt and I realised it could well be the one gulp I’d be crying out for on my final kilometres to the summit.

I heard the car change gear. As if I needed reminding that things were about to get steeper.

Though I was sticking to the outside of the bend, I could feel the tension in my thighs increase in a matter of metres. My tempo was plummeting. Ahead of me lay the notorious forest where many a dismayed Sunday cyclist is forced to dismount after miles of hard labour. The trees reminded me of the sparsely wooded banks I once planted for my model railway as a boy; after smearing glue either side of the track, I scattered grit on the sticky patches and dotted them with a handful of plastic pines for my locomotive to chuff past.

My back-up car had slowed and was back alongside, Sonny capturing every second of my first metres through the forest in glorious close-up. A photocopy of the gradients per kilometre was stuck to the folding table in front of him.

‘Dad, this is the forest, right?’

I nodded and panted.

‘It’ll soon be ten per cent,’ he said cheerily, as he continued filming.

Extracted with permission from The Man & His Bike, a collection of witty, blunt and inspirational cycling stories by Wilfried de Jong. Published by Ebury Press.

Bike Week, delivered by Cycling UK, is scheduled for 8-16 June. For further information visit: www.cyclinguk.org/bikeweek

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