Walking and cycling compared

“What do you call a jogger with bad knees?”
“A cyclist”

Here’s some personal stuff – but it is relevant.

Despite the name, this was never intended to be a dedicated cycling blog. This was partly because I quite like buses (poor things, hardly anyone has a good word to say for them, but actually, you know, they’re great!) but mainly because I really do fly a flag for walking – not leisure walking, not driving to somewhere picturesque and then going for “a walk” – but just everyday getting about on your own two unassisted feet. The original working title of the blog was “no mean feet”.

As I’ve said in an earlier post, I used to be a rather heroic urban walker, but it is no longer the pleasure that it used to be. Since I wrote that post – in fact in the last two months – things have noticeably slumped. Yes, I need to get over myself, I know. I can walk for many miles if necessary. I stride. I’m brisk. I don’t limp (yet?). What else do I expect at the age of 54? (but dammit, this particular manifestation of the mid-fifties doesn’t happen to everyone – some people are fell-runners in their 60’s! Why me of all people? I really didn’t expect this at all). Yes, yes, I’ll be all right in a minute … but … but …the horrible fact is that a good deal of the physical pleasure has gone out of walking.

Walking is great. You get all the benefits of cycling yet it feels somehow freer because there isn’t this damn machine that you have to lug around with you, a machine that requires various kinds of coddling and fussing over and fretting about.

If you have the time to do it, walking is just fantastic. Whole books have been written about the wonderfulness of walking, its meditative aspects and its properties as a thought stimulant (I’d put John Hillaby right up there with Richard Ballantine as an inspiration). And I loved the fact that it was just a little bit eccentric to be a serious urban walker – and now that Will Self fellow gets to bang on about it and I can’t say “me too!”. A small part of my identity has just flaked off.

At its best, urban walking feels strangely transparent and effortless. It feels rather like this:

balloon over clifton bridge

The problem is that it has stopped feeling like that for me. And it never will be quite like that again.

Well, there’s an obvious solution isn’t there?

Yes indeedy. This is how cycling feels:

bleriot monoplane

It offers slightly different pleasures to walking. If feels powerful. It feels skilful. You get a wider range of physical intensity. You can go fast. You are reminded of O-level physics in a really intimate way. Fiddling with machinery is a whole daft joy in itself.

Over the last month I have done far more cycling, counted in terms of individual trips, than I have done in … well, since some time in the early 1980’s. I shall have lots to say about this shortly. Just one more thing for now though.

I do genuinely like the physical process of walking, that is true. Yet I do wonder, if I’m honest, if part of the reason I chose, for those many years, to walk rather than cycle, was that cycling felt too much trouble. That word ‘trouble’ is key. I knew, from my own experience, that cycling can be done even on the roads as they are. I knew, because I had done it in the past, that the whole vehicular-cycling thing works and will (largely) keep you safe. But it takes an effort, and the effort needed is far more mental than physical. Once you’ve got into the swing of it, it’s ok and you don’t really think about it and it seems worth doing. But once you stop for a while, it’s so difficult to get back into it as you see what a scary, stinking, unfair mess we’ve made of our urban transport system.

[Footnote. Unless otherwise attributed, all photos on this blog were taken by myself. I scraped the two pictures in this post off the web – and I didn’t find an attribution. Sorry]

Deep breath

OK. That’s the introduction over and I think we’re in the right place to start the main business of this blog, starting tomorrow.

(This is intended to be a time-limited writing project and I’ll pull it to a close in about a year’s time. In a year’s time it should be possible, (by using the ‘topics’ on the right hand column) to read this blog in logical thematic order, rather than just one-random-thing-after-another.

It’s not going to be all boring theory and amateur sociology and I will be writing some proper reactive “look at this outrageous thing!!!” posts. But be warned that many posts are going to be quite wordy and a few will even be numbery. We can’t all be BikesnobNYC).

1980’s v 2000’s in London (introduction #6)

So then. I cycled in London in the early eighties and I’ve recently started cycling again, but now live in Bristol. I actually tried to get back into urban cycling when I was still living in London, but it turned out to be a false start. This was round about the time the congestion charge came in, so I’m in a position to make a sharp comparison between the eighties and noughties London cycling experience. How do these compare?

When I first cycled in London there was loads of traffic and not many cyclists. There were no ASLs, no cycle lanes, no Sheffield stands, no mountain bikes, no helmets, no hi-viz tabards, no flashing bikelights.

Over the years I had vaguely noticed, on my many walking trips, that gradually more and more painted cycle lanes were appearing, and more and more cyclists. I expected that, when I got myself another bike, things would really be so much better – because, from my view on the pavement, they really did look better.

But I was disappointed. Of course some of it was me. I was older and less aggressive. I was also less motivated – by now I was used to doing all my trips on foot, so what was the point of going through the whole hassle of getting my bottle back? Because, yes there were more bikes but there were also a lot more motor traffic. Roads were completely silted up with parked vehicles. The cars were bigger. And I could swear there were more lorries.

I felt betrayed by the cycle lanes. They promised a straightforward trip but did not deliver. They offered no help with difficult junctions and big roundabouts. Lanes would dump me somewhere on the left hand side of a road with no way to get to the right hand side where I needed to be to be for the next bit of laneage. Twenty years previously I would have known how to get myself positioned properly to do this but now it felt like there was no use for my hard-won skill. I’m a rather law-abiding sort of person so if I rode out of the lane I felt like I was somehow ungrateful. The new infrastructure didn’t feel safer or easier.

In summary, it seems as if the actual experience of cycling was no better or worse from the eighties, just different.

What put the cherry on the cake was the attitude. When did people start hating cyclists? I really don’t remember this at all. How can anyone hate bicycles? Surely they’re like fluffy bunnies?

Bristol (introduction #5)

At the end of 2006 I moved from London to Bristol. Bristol is a very walkable city, but that didn’t do me any good, because in 2007 my legs started to seize up.

That’s sounds overdramatic, though it is actually what happened: I couldn’t stand on tiptoe, I couldn’t kneel down, I had to think very carefully before crouching. Attempts to jog resulted in something sharp and stabbing happening in my ankle, my knees were starting to grumble alarmingly, a sort of ‘clunk’ had appeared in one of my hips and for the first time in my life I experienced an ache in my lower back. Most of all, my feet hurt all the time. They ached from heel to ball and I couldn’t flex my arches. I’d go to bed with my feet hurting and I’d wake up with them hurting. I had experienced this latter symptom before and I’d solved it by walking barefoot as much as possible, but this no longer worked. Not only did my feet hurt in an achy, draining sort of way there was actual pain-type pain. Genuine fiery pain in my big toe joints. At its worst it was never quite bad enough to keep me awake at night, but it was bad enough that I thought that it might do so.

Without walking I felt bereft. It hadn’t occurred to me that exercise mattered to me – to say so seemed unbelievably pretentious, I mean, it’s not as if I went in for serious sport, that it was any part of my identity or anything. I’ve never done a long-distance footpath (there’s still time). I’m not one of those people who says “oh I just hate to be in an office all day”. I mean, here I am right now, voluntarily sitting at a computer. Yet it turns out that physical activity does matter to me – and it has to be outdoors. Gyms (and I have used them in the past) are good for specific purposes but a treadmill does not give me joy. What I left out of my earlier account of cycling in the London in the early eighties was that it coincided with coming out of a period of depression. Exercise has many physical benefits, but I need it for mental health. I curdle if I don’t keep moving and I need to feel the rain and the wind.

So I saw an excellent physio at the University of Bristol sports centre, who told me that my muscles were incredibly stiff, ‘sports-massage’d’ my legs (you really know when you’ve had this done) and gave me a load of stretching and balance exercises, which I still do because they help. I am now returned to my former bendiness – more or less – with no disturbing clunks or muttering knees. The pain in my toes has calmed down to a perfectly bearable stiffness. The physio also referred me to a podiatrist on the suspicion that I had something called “wear and tear damage” in my feet. The pod grinned enormously while bending my toes and said “Oooh yes, definite arthritic changes there”, but the verdict is actually not that bad. Things will only get worse slowly, and my woes are quite mild, really. Yes, they are, and I’m very grateful.

Yawn. Nothing more boring than someone else talking about their health.

But this is relevant because the bottom line remains that yomping aorund nice muddy hills is one thing but I just can’t pound the urban pavement in the manner or to the extent that I used to. Really, I have to exchange some of my walking for cycling.

Why is that hard? I used to love cycling around London. What exactly is the problem and what can be done about it?

Hardcore walking (introduction #4)

“I walked everywhere”. Yes, pretty much. At one point I even started running to work, though just as I started to actually enjoy it, my ankle started giving me grief and I went back to walking. My maximum commute time was for a temp job south of the river – it took me about an hour and twenty minutes to get there, I sometimes got the tube home, but not always. For another job I used to walk to Islington and at the end of the day walk to a martial arts class in Bloomsbury. For many years I did between one and three hours walking every day. Often at weekends I’d read a review of an interesting book in the Sunday papers and then walk down from Kentish town to the Bloomsbury branch of Waterstones to buy a copy. When I had spare time, rather than popping out to nearby Kentish town high street for some minor item of shopping, I’d walk up to Hampstead instead, so as to have the pleasure of shlepping over the Heath.

I like walking. It’s great. Very unpretentious, doesn’t need a ton of kit and you see more than you do on the bike. However, as the distances increase, in order for it to be a viable mode of transport you have to be brisk, so issues of sweatiness start to arise. Changes of clothes, special footwear and assorted carrying equipment start to be incorporated – it starts to become more like cycling in fact.

Learning to ride in London (introduction #3)

After graduation in 1980, I went to live in London and stayed for the next twenty five years. For the first two of those I used public transport and walked (because it’s just so dangerous, you know) and then, inspired by someone I met at a party, I bought another bike. Since you ask, it was a Carlton Continental. I dug out my copy of Richards Bicycle Book and Richard gave me a serious pep talk about riding in traffic, so off I went. This was what happened:

I felt completely terrified for the first four weeks.
I felt slightly less scared for a further four weeks.
Then I felt ok.

At the beginning, I dismounted and pushed for every right hand turn and when crossing every major road. This was because I hadn’t ridden for two years and I’m a rather timid sort of person. I felt it quite possible that I would be spooked by a bus and spontaneously fall off.

After a short while this started to feel incredibly tedious and I began to stay on the bike when I performed manoeuvres.

By the end of a year I was doing quite advanced things like going round the Chiswick roundabout (as part of a trip from Hampstead to Brentford). Fear turned out to be quite a useful teacher. I tended to perch myself where I was absolutely sure I could be seen and give a LARGE hand signal. Decades later, reading cyclecraft, it turned out that I had independently evolved many of the recommended vehicular cycling techniques.

After three years I stopped cycling in London. Fear? No. Accident? No. Purchase of car? Get away with you! I stopped because of two things, I got a job that was too near my home to cycle to (really) and I took up playing the tenor saxophone. I know this sounds bananas, what with bakfiets and whatnot but I really couldn’t figure how to attach a rather large and heavy box safely to the bike. I didn’t know there were people who knew about how to do this. In any case I couldn’t have afforded to buy anything.

How did I get about instead? Apart from eighteen months in the late eighties where I commuted by bike from Kentish town to the city, and a year or so of car ownership, I walked everywhere.

An inspirational book (introduction #2)

Richard's bicycle bookWhile I was at university, a friend put me on to Richards Bicycle book. If this blog has any readers, I’m sure you know the bit I’m about to quote (last year I saw a copy of this bluetacked up in the Bristol Bike Project) … but I’m going to quote it anyway, because it did strike a very resounding chord with me when I first read it.

Which brings us to the most positive of reasons for trying to use bicycles at every opportunity. Basically, this is that it will enhance your life, bringing to it an increase in quality of experience which will find its reflection in everything you do
[…]
Because it is something that you do, not something that is done to you. … Consciousness, self-awareness, and development are the prerequisites for a life worth living. Now look at what happens to you on a bicycle. It’s immediate and direct. You pedal. You make decisions. You experience the tang of the air and the surge of power as you bite into the road. You’re vitalized. As you hum along you fully and gloriously experience the day, the sunshine, the clouds, the breezes. You’re alive! You are going some place, and it is you who is doing it. Awareness increases, and each day becomes a little more important to you […]

Each time you insert you into a situation, each time you experience, you fight against alienation and impersonality, you build consciousness and identity. You try to understand things in the ways that are important to you. And these qualities carry over into everything you do.
An increased value on one’s own life is the first step in social conscience and politics. Because life is dear and important and fun, you are much more able to understand why this is true for [any minority group you care to think of]. Believe it. The salvation of the world is the development of personality and identity for everybody in it. Much work many lifetimes. But a good start for you is Get a bicycle!

Wow, what a hippy! Re-reading this after more than three decades, I have my quibbles. Richard Ballantine’s attitude to cycling seems pretty aggressive and he scorns the quieter pleasures of walking, which I’m going to enthuse about later on. It is, alas, quite possible to do wonderful consciousness-expanding activities and nonetheless not make any wider connections. And all that stuff about feeling alive – something very similar could be claimed with equal sincerity by the bozo petrolheads – feeling powerful is just great – but that feeling on its own does not automatically endow the activity that creates it with any sort of moral endorsement. Feelings of glorious power untempered by reason are … oh dear, I’m not an old hippy am I? I think I’ve just picked a side in the classic v romantic dichotomy. Darn, I do try to avoid those pesky binaries.

But Ballantine has mellowed over the years, and the central point of the above passage still stands. Cycling is a public good because it is an intense, in-the-moment pleasure which is nonetheless quotidian, functional and beneficial to the whole of society. It’s boring and brilliant all at once and you can choose to do it today. There’s a very good reason why cyclists are accused of being smug: they have a perfect right to be. (And when I was a hardcore walker I had the right to be even smugger).