I think it would be fair to say that the UK is a nation of cycling enthusiasts, of sorts. In between our success in the male and female cycling divisions at the Olympics to our strong presence in the Tour de France, we have a constant drip of cycling inspiration to spur us to give it a try. And judging from the countryside roads that are chock a block with both cars and weekend riders, to parks and nature reserves heaving with families on their own cycling jaunts, even the queues of cyclists on the cycle superhighways in London, many of us have taken up the sport with full zest.
For other people though, cycling simply stops at the screen and news reports.
To understand what makes people take up cycling in the first place, and offer my own experiences in cycling, I have teamed up with Cycle Republic, who sponsored this post.
My journey into cycling has been fraught with accidents, stupid ideas, tears, perseverance and a lot of chocolate brownies and coffee for motivation. It all started years ago, at the tender age of five. Wanting to hurry up and ride a bike like the big kids, I asked my mum to take off my training wheels. Forgetting I was also a clumsy wench, I made it just past the garden before falling off, and promptly ran back, asking for the wheels to be reattached. This happened about three or four times that day before my mum, in exasperation, gave me an ultimatum. My little tear-streaked cheeks quivered as I wobbled down the road, imagining my head would fall and crack open like that other clumsy chap, Humpty Dumpty.
I wish I could say things improved over time, but they did not. I hated hills (the fact that we lived in the great swamp that is Florida is neither here nor there), and family cycling days ended in rivers of snot and tears from yours truly as I managed to cry and cycle as slowly as possible over the smallest of inclines at the same time.
As I hit the double digits recklessness was thrown into my already love/hate relationship with cycling. One particular attempt at a BMX trick ended with me going head-first into a post box. I also tried to instigate ‘bike jousting’ to the neighbourhood; the initial interest and enthusiasm rapidly fizzled out when we realised we were gauging each other’s chests with broomsticks and mops. This was confounded when the parents remembered we did not have health insurance. In the end, we tried using swimming pool floating noodles, but the excitement from danger just wasn’t there.
Throughout all of this my parents remained cycling enthusiasts, spending every spare minute (or not so spare minute) out exploring the local forests and hills, and pushing the rest of us to find something to enjoy in cycling.
Cycling and me had been on a ‘break’ for a few years now, when upon a visit to my parents over the weekend they strongly encouraged me to accompany them on a mountain biking day trip to Wales. By now we were living in the UK and I figured why not, maybe the root of my problem was cycling through flat swamps.
I was wrong. It wasn’t the poor swamp’s fault, it was still me. And maybe a bit of my parents, on this occasion.
The area in question was Cwm Carn, a place with trails so difficult they had made hardened bikers in my parent’s cycling club cry a few weeks before. I tried, and to give myself credit I finished the route.
But I also fell off the side of that damn mountain a total of seven times, and the bike used me as a crash pad. Enraged, I vowed never again to cycle. Ever.
By now you notice a pattern here, and a couple years later I was in Sri Lanka with friends, and in order to squeeze an entire UNESCO heritage city into one day, we agreed to cycle round it. Memories of the past two decades loomed in my mind, but then, as I embarked down the road with the colourful trucks and buses, something magical happened.
Or rather, nothing happened. I didn’t fall off, careen into an ancient monument, or cycle into a monkey enclave. Which got me thinking – if I could make it around a busy town in Sri Lanka and not get mowed down by a truck or stampeding elephant, then maybe, just maybe, I could make it on the busy streets of London.
Bolstered by my discovery of city cycling, I returned to London, where all my fellow cycling friends decided the best way to motivate me to sign up with the Cycle to Work Scheme was to tell me the various accidents they had endured whilst cycling in London. Oil spills, black ice, car collisions, and injuries inflicted on them by the bike itself (still not sure how that one happened), I heard it all but remained unmoved.
You see, in my mind cycling equated to a solution to several common complaints of living in London. The first of course, was fitness. While spending hours in front of a computer gives you great finger speed, being stationary for so long each day is linked to various health ailments, the most basic being cardio fitness. Cycling twice a day will easily help me gain more fitness.
The second factor was finances. A London Zone 1-2 monthly travelcard costs approximately GBP 127. Within a few months of cycling I would easily pay off the cost of the bike and accessories, and would be putting money towards savings on my next big trip, a house deposit, cultural exhibitions, performances, basically every expensive thing London is famous for. Not only that, but the thought of not spending two hours every day withstanding crowded platforms and trains filled with people coughing, sweating and jutting their elbows out in a hollow fight for damp seats, was also an encouraging factor.
And it would seem I am not alone in this either (well, maybe the seats part). According to Cycle Republic’s research, 70% of cyclists main motivation is to keep fit, while 20% do so for financial reasons.
Of course, one of the most worrying factors of cycling in cities as busy as London is safety, particular with traffic. Admittedly, this was one of the chief concerns that held me back before, and again it would seem I am not alone in this. In fact, 83% of cyclists would prefer the UK was like the Netherlands, where cyclists rule the roads (and 99% of the population are cyclists). With cycle improvement projects currently in the works for many of the UK’s busiest cities though, this might soon be an issue of the past.
And my other reason? Confidence. If I could navigate the busy streets of London successfully without getting too lost or killed too badly, then I would be set for anything.
If you have been sitting on the fence on cycling for some time, get off it and jump into the saddle – because if after 20 years of accidents and tantrums I can still find something to enjoy about it, then maybe you can as well?
(Just don’t try bike jousting. Just don’t.)
Check out more of Cycle Republic’s interesting research here!