While 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).