Picking holes in the new cycling landscape

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Last week I read an article in the Guardian which generated both empathy and disappointment at the same time (though far more of the latter, than the former). The article – written by Tom Marriage – laments an apparent loss:

…peculiar achievement, of anoraks and curly cheese sandwiches eaten on forgotten B-road laybys. It was a world of Sheldon Brown, and tales of Sustrans cycle paths.

You could be a serious cyclist and go out in denim shorts, stop for a spliff and a thermos of tea on the top of Ditchling Beacon, try cycling to Southampton on a three-speed Pashley. All these things were fine, and fun, and if you talked to other cyclists about them there would be moments of recognition and joy at shared love and shared experience.

Now Tom postulates, cycling’s focus has shifted. It’s all sportives, carbon frames, racing. A world of Strava and Sky kit. A ‘miserable slog of unsmiling, un-nodding pink and black Lycra-clad sports cyclists. There’s no bonhomie or camaraderie, just wrap-around glasses and steely determination to overtake.’

Tom is worried about ‘being looked down on. I don’t like being characterised as less of a cyclist because I can’t be arsed with sportives and would rather get lost than go hard.

<sigh>

I’m actually a  little worried about Tom. It’s a shame that what cyclists have always wanted – more consideration of the activity, more people receptive to cycling – finally appears to be coming to pass, yet Tom laments it. It’s a shame that more people are getting fitter, taking cars off roads and sharing our enjoyment, yet Tom feels alienation rather than satisfaction. It’s a shame that Tom no longer feels he can just……be.

But with such a rich diversity of experiences available – and thousands of places to explore them –  I do wonder why Tom’s enjoyment has somehow been diminished.  My recent cycling history includes:

  • Clipping painfully across the cobbles of a Gallic sportive. Left hand stitched and bound. The rest of me lycra clad (of course……my wool jersey was in the wash).
  • Bimbling about on my city bike, clad in jeans and sweatshirt, carrying a courier bag of groceries and a head full of ideas.
  • Climbing a mountain top on a rigid 29er and watching clouds slowly spread like ink drops in water, then bouncing recklessly, happily, carefree, to the bottom.
  • Sweating it out in my garage over the tyranny of a turbo trainer.
  • Cycling with my daughter to school, while grinning at her anecdotes (I had no idea that she’d formed a four piece band aged 9. The stuff you find out when you make time).
  • Riding through busy valleys villages, then climbing, climbing, climbing, switchback after switchback, cresting, smiling and worshiping the setting sun over calm spring moorland. This ride ended – as all good rides do – in great company, at the doors of a pub, where balance can be restored after a good evening’s exertion. 
  • Exhibiting at Bespoked Bristol* and talking to cyclists from all walks of life, including – I think, I’m not fond of labels – ‘hippies and explorers’ . I feel rather inspired by it.

I see none of these things as mutually exclusive. Loving bikes is like loving books. There’s lots of different genres, all providing a different narrative. Select according to mood, read only what you want and love what you do. After all, what you enjoy and how you enjoy it, is all that really matters.

Footnote. If you are a new cyclist and have entered this two wheeled word via sportives, or work contacts, or a nagging feeling that you need to get some form of exercise – any! What with all those meetings, long drives, the huge lunch to celebrate that new account etc. etc. – then good on you. Welcome aboard. If cycling rewards you with half as much pleasure as I’ve been lucky enough to experience, you will find yourself ever so glad that you did (and I bet it will reward you far more than you can ever have guessed).

*more in due course

15 replies »

  1. “I see none of these things as mutually exclusive. Loving bikes is like loving books. There’s lots of different genres, all providing a different narrative. Select according to mood, read only want what you want and love what you do. After all, what you enjoy and how you enjoy it, is all that really matters.”

    Amen to this!

  2. Can’t think of how many folk waved greetings on this Sunday’s ride as they passed, lovely to see all sorts out as well. Like you I just appreciate folk getting out and doing stuff.

  3. Read that post too and felt very sad for the author, who may not have liked cycling for the riding but for thr feeling of being cool, niche, alternative etc. Surely if he enjoyed cycling he’d not give two hoots about all that other teenage stuff!

  4. I read that article. In some ways I get what he is on about – my enjoyment gets eroded a little when some guy or gal doesn’t give me he nod or a wave back or even a smile back. After all, even if you’re riding alone, it can still be a social encounter right? Otherwise, his lament is predictable in that his world of riding pleasures has been swamped by the dominant paradigm of the day. Who knows, maybe that-“wrap around glasses and a steely determination to overtake” look is due to the spliff and thermos of tea a couple of miles back…

  5. I too read this piece in the Guardian and my response was much the same as your comments section. Tom needs to move to Lancashire. Take yourself too seriously as a ‘cyclist’ in these parts and you soon get brought down to earth.

    And actually, you know what, it takes all sorts: number crunchers, the Rapha crowd, rag-tag adventurers…more the merrier as far as I’m concerned.

    • Tom’s view is spectacularly myopic. I have no doubt at all that a spell in Lancashire would bring him down to earth. Could probably help him out in South Wales too, as long he could cope with endless teasing on long rides 😊.

  6. I agree – he needs to look again at what he likes there is more choice than ever. I two weeks I will be donning rapha Lycra for my sportive and the next day whizzing across town in my jeans and Lycra wondering if building up a low trail rando Demi ballon 650b touting bike is sensible and also thinking about my next bothy bikepacking trip on my ti 29er ….. Cycling is great in all its forms ….

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