Monday, 28 February 2011

We're out of the Office...

Or out of the city at least. Trusty and I are off for some well earned holiday cyling in Croatia. Normal service will resume on our return.

Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Cycle Tribes: BMX Boys

Not all BMX-ers are 17, clearly
Yesterday I cycled all the way down the (very potholed) Walworth  Road in a tag-team race with a 17 year old on a BMX. It was possibly the highlight of my day. You will have seen this tribe, but only rarely in our great capital- his typical habitat is suburban backroads, car parks, skate parks and woodland. He has not evolved to effectively deal with the longer distances of London roads, or indeed, buses and taxis. The BMX boy will most likely have collar length hair, a hoodie, baggy trousers (or conversely and horrifyingly, jeggings) and a black cap pulled down low- and crucially, no lights. . He will sit way back, low down on his tiny little saddle pedalling leisurely with his knees occasionally hitting his chin. Most at home when standing up on the pedals, he can get some speed up pulling away from traffic lights, but his thick tyres and small wheels hinder any real pace.

These facts of physics were not immediately obvious to the young lad I was cycling beside last night. Waiting at a red light, he looked sideways at me, taking in my pretty pannier, basket, skirt and bell. All these clearly equalled some kind of gauntlet being laid down. When the lights changed he raced away, standing but bent double to stay in contact with the handlebars, the top of his boxers wafting in the breeze. Trusty doesn't exactly go 0-60 in seconds (especially with a pannier full of books) so it took me a minute or so to catch him up, but when I did I quickly needed to overtake. I may be ten years older, but I do have full sized wheels, and the capacity to fully extend my legs. I'm not naturally competitive, but neither do I have the patience to stay behind someone slower than me.

BMX boy was not happy. At the next lights the same thing happened, he shot into the distance but I quickly caught up and overtook. This happened six or seven times, until it had become a bit of a game. By the time our ways parted at Camberwell Green we felt like old friends. As I turned I looked back over my shoulder,  he doffed his cap at me in an archaically chivalrous gesture, exposing greasy hair and a cheeky smile. So I saluted. A moment of cyclist solidarity across the tribes. It made me smile.

Monday, 14 February 2011

Occasions To Avoid Cycling Part 1: Valentine's Date

Almost always, cycling is the best choice of transport. Very occasionally though, it is most definitely not.

I have discovered that when you are meeting someone for a Valentines' breakfast, and you are specially wearing, instead of the usual cycling gear, a pretty (wool) dress, tights, scarf, socks, boots, a very unbreathable and highly unreflective coat and slightly more make up than usual, cycling might still, possibly be the right choice. If you cycle slowly. This will, however, be  complicated if 1) you are late, or 2) it is a beautiful sunny day which makes you want to go as fast as humanly possible. If these two circumstances combine you are absolutely guaranteed to arrive on said date with a bright red face, sweating profusely, and take half an hour sitting in a well heated restaurant to cool down. You may in fact need to mop your face with your napkin.

Not. Sexy.

Sorry Trusty, thou art forever by my side, but next romantic rendezvous with the other man in my life, you're staying at home.

Thursday, 10 February 2011

Losing my Religion

A dear friend gave me a very beautiful book for my birthday recently. It is by the guys at BikeSnob NYC, who are always worth a read, and it is chunky, funny and kind of wonderful. One of the best things about it is the plethora of great quotes, like "Cycle tracks will abound in Utopia" (H.G.Wells).

However, it is also provocative. I've realised over the last six months or so of writing this blog that one theme emerges time and time again- that cycling is life-enhancing. Not in the way that useful things (i.e. iphones) are life-enhancing, or in the way that pleasurable things (i.e. art) are, but somehow, in being both, cycling becomes more than the sum of its parts. It almost feels, dare I say it, spiritual. this perturbs me. Because, much as I love him and have happily anthropomorphised Trusty to a potentially unhealthy extent, I know, really, that he is a machine. He is a collection of metal tubes with rubber accessories who gets me from A to B.

BikeSnob knows this too, but does not seem to think this is a hindrance to cycling having significant metaphysical powers. He (she? they?) rewrite the famous christian poem 'Footprints' so it is not God's footprints on the beach, but bike tracks. And then there is this quote:

"As human beings we're trapped. We're trapped by our physical limitations, and our responsibilities...and the looming inevitability of death. Because of this we all seek respite from the pain of existence [through entertainment, sport, hobbies]. It is a rare movie or story or picture or song that can actually pass the time and be enjoyable and fulfill a spiritual need and teach you about life.Cyclists escape the pain and drudgery of being alive by doing something we love to do, but we can also integrate that thing into out everyday lives... Cyclists aren't just hobbyists or lifestyle athletes; in many ways we're a different type of being. We're people with wheels" (p48-50).

That's a pretty big claim isn't it? A different type of being? Really? As I was reading it, I was nodding along, because this is persuasive stuff, and a lot of it I recognise.I honestly believe most people's lives would be made better if they owned, and rode, a bicycle. I think our society would be that bit healthier, happier, cleaner, richer and quieter. 

What I don't think is that cycling can do anything, anything at all about the "looming inevitability of death", or "fulfill a spiritual need". I have fallen into this language at points, and I want to take it back. Because I sincerely believe that all spirituality is about relationship. Foundationally, relationship with God, a loving, self-giving, creator. Not just because I think this is true (which I, controversially,do-feel free to converse with me in the comments) but because this relationships aligns all our others. It puts us in our correct place and helps us see others as just as flawed and fragile as ourselves. It teaches, beseeches us, to love people, to commit ourselves to them, not solely because they can meet needs in us but because we belong in relationship. We are entirely co-dependent creatures.

You may not (probably don't) believe in God, but I hope you believe in people. I hope you believe that everything good in life, everything hard, important, valuable and true involves people. And Trusty, though I love him, is not people. He maybe helps me love people better because the endorphins I get out of riding him might make me nicer to be around, but he is not my people. If I am going to have any religion (and I am profoundly uncomfortable with a word that has such connotations of rules and pointless ritual)then it is about God and about people, not about bicycles.

And I just had to get that off my chest.

Thursday, 3 February 2011

Cycling off the stress

Neurons in the brain. Benedict Cambell, Wellcome Images
Yesterday was a hectic, nay, manic, day at work. The kind of day where you arrive early, don't have lunch and leave two hours late, barely stopping to take a breath in between. I came out feeling incredibly wired, and jumped on Trusty to get to a social engagement I was now VERY late for. Bombing along the back streets, getting my weave on through the buses and taxis I felt the shoulder-hunching stress levels slowly metabolise into something else; exhilaration. The energy from my stressful day made that bike ride the most fun one I've had in ages. 

Yesterday was rare- I don't really get very stressed. And even when I do (as yesterday), there is a part of me that sort of enjoys the rush of it, the sense of a challenge to be completed. I am also generally a pretty upbeat person (yes, yes, ok, very upbeat). Until yesterday I had assumed that these were just basic, blessed facts of my personailty, well balanced by a whole heap of flaws in other areas. However, feeling clearly the cleansing effects of cycling on my stress levels last night made me wonder- maybe I'm not naturally unstressed. Maybe I am about as susceptible to stress as anyone else but I excercise regualarly, doing something that I love. Not pounding the treadmill but out with the wind on my face. 

Obviously, I am a bit slow on the uptake because research showed long ago that regular aerobic exercise reduces anxiety and improves mood:

“It looks more and more like the positive stress of exercise prepares cells and structures and pathways within the brain so that they’re more equipped to handle stress in other forms,” says Michael Hopkins, a graduate student affiliated with the Neurobiology of Learning and Memory Laboratory at Dartmouth, who has been studying how exercise differently affects thinking and emotion. “It’s pretty amazing, really, that you can get this translation from the realm of purely physical stresses to the realm of psychological stressors.”

Now we all know I'm no science head, but I think this is pretty amazing. Through cycling (or running, or dancing, or even, if it's your personal poison, going to the gym) we can wire ourselves for emotional stability. So next time you find me annoyingly pollyanna-esque, just remember; I can't help it. It's Trusty's fault.