Let me introduce what I call the Faster Than Walking Mantra – my time-honoured technique for short-hop, ‘dressed for the day’ cycle commutes. The Faster Than Walking Mantra (herein referred to as the FTWM) helps you to overcome that deeply imprinted urge to get your daily commute over with as quickly as possible, to treat your ride to the office like a PB attempt. Why do we feel the need to commute at breakneck pace? To keep pace with cars? To feel the burn? To ‘get our adrenaline fix’? To give in to the speed-demon on your shoulder will result in that uniquely attractive ‘steaming like a racehorse look’ upon arrival at work, which will make packing a change of clothes a necessity (lose 10 minutes) and will create A DIRE NEED FOR SHOWERS IN THE WORKPLACE – the lack of which seems to be reason #1 to give up on the idea of riding to work forever.
Instead chant the FTWM. On your next commute, I urge you to try a slow, loping cadence, akin to the pedalling style of the Amsterdammer. Rather than doing battle with wind resistance, just do enough to preserve your momentum. Don’t gauge your progress against the cars passing by. Don’t pay any heed to the numbers on your cycle computer (leave it at home/cut the wires if it helps). Take solace in the fact that, for the same effort level, you’re loping past walkers at around three times their speed. Try where you can, to avoid steep hills and when you can’t, resist the urge to stomp up – even if you gear down and spin up, you’ll still beat the pedestrians on the pavement. Ditto headwinds – don’t fight them, cos they’ll win. Chant your FTW mantra (silently in your head if you prefer), adopt your best Copenhagener attitude and just keep it rolling.
Our mantra is also helped by dressing sensibly – ‘dress cooler’ is sound advice. If you’re a bit chilly when you start out, you’ve probably got it right. I see cycle commuters in full dayglo motorway-maintenance-style hi viz jackets in the height of summer, and can only wonder at how much fluid they lose on their two mile spin to work…
To put some numbers against our FTWM and give you some perspective, a car commuter in the city will be lucky to attain a 12mph average speed. The guy on the bus will be lucky to average 10. A pedestrian will be lucky to hit a dizzying 3mph. Most moderately fit people can amble along on a bicycle at around 9 mph without breaking a sweat, even warm conditions. Follow the FTWM and you can ride to work in your day clothes without arriving like a sweaty wreck, just like you would if you drove, walked or got the bus. After all, that’s the point, isn’t it?
Multi Modal travelling makes up the lion’s share of my cycling, usually combining the bicycle and train to get me to work. I live in Liverpool and work in Manchester – a car commute of anything between 1 to 2 hours on one of the busiest motorways in the UK, the M62. During rush hour, there’s usually a hold up of around 30 minutes at the halfway point and another slow moving queue near journey’s end. Every day there are accidents or near misses – it’s a game of Russian roulette – with ever decreasing odds. It’s a game I try to opt out of as often as possible.
By contrast, my bicycle/train commute is serene, civilised and predictable. I ride to the railway station – a leisurely journey of around 20 minutes – grab a ticket and a coffee, stow the bike in the cycle area aboard the train, then find a seat for my rail journey of around 45 minutes. In this time I can do anything I like – listen to the radio, read, blog, stare vacantly out of the window, write my to-do-list for work or make some phone calls. There’s none of the constant stress and anxiety one gets when driving to work.
Right now, I’m sitting on the train bound for a video editing training course in Nottingham. I’ve driven to Nottingham from Liverpool a couple of times before and each time, R.E.M’s song “Can’t Get There from Here” springs to mind. It’s a difficult, stressful journey combining the aforementioned M62, the busiest section of the M6 heading south from Cheshire toward the West Midlands and a nasty selection of A-roads taking you east towards Nottinghamshire. Compound these facts with today’s wet, windy, unseasonal weather and you’ve got a recipe for suffering.
So instead, today I opted to travel by train, first riding into the city in the light early morning traffic (it’s 6:59am as I write this) to find a practically empty train with two available bike spaces. I’ve got the luxury of owning a Brompton, which is great for rail travel but today I’ve chosen the full sized bicycle – because I knew in advance that the trains I’d be travelling on have good dedicated bike spaces.
In terms of clothing, today’s wet weather throws up some serious challenges. I need to be comfortable on the bike, yet look normal on the train and during my training day. There’s nothing worse than being the sweaty, Lycra-clad sore thumb, especially in a situation where you’re meeting new people and just trying to blend in. So I’ve opted for a pair of jeans, a merino wool base layer and a merino wool t shirt. This gives me an entirely normal, everyday look but with the wicking properties of wool. On the bike journey, I rode through persistent drizzle, so I wore a thin breathable and waterproof jacket, with pit zips open. I rode SLOW, always resisting the urge to push hard on the ‘false flat into a headwind’ section of the route, coasting on the downhill sections and regulating my temperature with my front zipper. As soon as I reached the shelter of the station I took the jacket off, allowing my body to cool down, while I got my tickets and my latte – by which time my body temperature had returned to normal, I was sweat-free and busy finding the (empty) bike space on the Norwich bound train.
Luggage and how to carry it – today I’ve got my usual commuting gear (lock, pump, tools and waterproof) plus lunch and a 13inch laptop. All of this sits snug and dry in my Carradice Camper Longflap saddlebag. This ancient wonder, born in a small factory in Nelson, Lancashire (and made by a lady called Priscilla – as evidenced by the handwritten signature on the label) is the best way I’ve found to carry commuting-sized loads. It mounts behind the saddle, either using the saddle loops on a Brooks saddle or, as I do, using a quick release SQR block attached to the seatpost. This neat device allows me to attach and detach the bag in seconds. The waxed cotton duck fabric is hard as nails and completely waterproof. As an added waterproofing measure, the bag itself sits behind the rider, sheltered from the worst of the rain and out of the way of road spatter (unlike a pannier bag). When I boarded the train and stowed the bike, I detached the bag in seconds and now it sits beside me on the seat where I can keep an eye on all of my gear.
Sure enough today, the MM Commuting Gods have smiled upon me (thus far) and not all MM days are this slick. I’ve had days when I’ve had to cleave a way into a standing-room-only train on a hot, rainy summer evening and stand swaying and losing my balance with every jerk of the train – all the while trying not to sully my fellow passengers with chain oil and road grime. Other days, my train has been cancelled, late or simply so full that the conductor has shaken his head and not allowed me on. However, for the most part, MM Commutes have been a calm, relaxed and very human way to get to work, and today is no exception.
It’s a sad fact that notions of gender appropriateness manifest themselves in the bikes we ride and the accessories we add or shun. I’ve been using a front mounted basket on my bike for a few weeks now and I’m astounded at how useful it is and pleased with myself for having the necessary thickness of skin to disregard the jibes and odd looks that I get from ‘serious cyclists’, significant others and chavs in the street. In our (UK) cycling psyche, there is a powerful, sport-focussed machismo that abounds, based on the premise that lean, stripped down bikes are essentially ‘male’ and bikes rigged for practicality and everyday use, with baskets, bells, bags, mudguards and suchlike truck are in some way ‘feminine’.
As a man, it’s hard to swim against that tide. As in fashion, there’s a cruel double standard in operation here, which allows women to ride men’s or women’s bicycles without fear of public humiliation at the hands of small children. But if a man rides a basket-adorned bike, or step-through frame, alarm bells sound deep within the phallus-shaped bastion of male-cycling aesthetics. This is a real shame, because various supposedly feminine cycle accoutrements (and indeed bike styles) are usually insanely practical – catalysts for changing public perceptions of the bicycle from toy/exercise machine into useful vehicle.
Too Butch for Baskets?
Let’s take baskets for example. Peruse the aisles of most bike shops I guarantee that no ‘gents’ bikes (even supposed ‘commuter’ models) will ever have a basket installed, and will be in the most part stripped-down ‘stealth commuters’ – usually in dark, matte colours – the entire aesthetic inspired by some sad, ironic, post-Cold-War militaristic mode. Some will have rear racks and pannier bags, which are, of course acceptable to the male psyche, with their connotations of world travel, adventure, expedition and knife-wielding, whiskery-chinned ruggedness. But no self-respecting macho cyclist would countenance a basket attached to the ‘bars. However, fitting a basket to your ‘gents’ bike will make it hugely practical – you can just throw in your rucksack and go – you can pop to the shops for manly goods like beer and cigarettes and watch them safely home in your front mounted basket. Go to a place where everyday cycling is pervasive, such as Copenhagen, Cambridge or Amsterdam and you’ll see blokes trundling around the streets on basket-equipped bikes, carrying home their work gear, gym gear, shopping – whatever, without their masculinity being compromised in the slightest.
Ring my bell?
The humble bell is another accessory which has become laden with gender associations. The ting-ting of a bell to warn fellow path users is surely one of humankind’s most civilised warning sounds. However, one could argue that the gentle ‘ahem’ of the bicycle bell is as effete as shouting ‘Cooey, coming through!’ in one’s best John Inman falsetto. I’d advise a guttural, phlegm-heavy clearing of the throat if you wish to keep your square-jawed masculinity intact; much more acceptable to the self respecting cycling man than the light, airy and inoffensive signature of the cycle bell.
Even locks aren’t safe from gender prescription. There’s a type of lock freely available on the market, which attaches to the frame and allows the rider to quickly immobilise the bike by locking the rear wheel. It’s permanently attached to the bike – you never forget it and it takes literally a second to deploy and unlock. Surely a device invaluable to both male and female cyclists the world-over? But what’s the common name for this miracle of convenience? The Nurse’s Lock – I mean, I ask you – The Nurse’s Lock. And yes, I know, as any self respecting institutional sexist will tell you, “There are plenty of male nurses” but let’s face it – the term ‘male nurse’ has enough psycho-sexual baggage for an essay of its own.
Getting Dirty Maketh the Man
No self respecting macho-bike would be complete (?) without the firm absence of a chainguard. I mean, how could a device that keeps one’s trews safe from the slings and arrows of outrageous chain oil be of any use to a man? Far better, surely to keep your man-bike lean, mean, stripped-down and utterly useless for daily travel in normal clothes? Perhaps I’m being too simplistic here. The chainguard equipped bike isn’t just the preserve of women’s utility bikes. They feature on plenty of ‘grandad bikes too’ but we’re entering into a whole new sphere of prejudice here, and I don’t want to dilute my argument.
Getting the leg over
How about step-thru frames? Ride a bike without a ‘cross bar’ in the UK and you’re heading for a whole raft of gender jibes. Ironically, it would appear that a bike without that potentially manhood-wrecking top tube is a potent advertisement for latent homosexuality. However, mixte frames (mixte being a French term defining bikes for both men and women…) are insanely practical. You can get on and off without swinging your leg high over the seat – a real boon when you’ve got a childseat on the back or when you’re stabilising a heavily loaded bike. Also, as you get older, you’ll find that one day, you just can’t get your leg over that saddle anymore. So, whaddayado? Give up riding or ride a mixte? Think about it, would you buy a car that you had to climb into, rather than step into gracefully, just because you were told that it was a ‘gents’ version.
In the interests of balance (a nod to the Sheilas)
And it’s not just guys who find themselves stymied by the cycling gender divide. Women suffer too at the hands of the marketeers. Over the last decade, the spectre of ‘women’s specific’ bicycles and accessories has reared its ugly pastel coloured head. Whilst a greater choice of mass market bikes with shorter cranks, narrower bars, shorter top tubes and stems is a gold-plated GOOD THING, charging a premium for them and rendering them in hideous kindergarten colours is a cruel twist of the bike designer’s knife.
An end to the Gender Divide?
There are some bikes which have managed to straddle the gender divide – the recent rise of folding bikes, with their low stepover height and ‘unisex’ marketing has gone a long way to erode gender-based top-tube preferences. Similarly, one hopes that the new fleet of 6000 London Hire bikes, with their step-thru frames and baskets, will also help to break down some barriers. Perhaps broader seismic changes in society will come to the rescue of the practical gents bike? Ironically it may be that broader locker-room acceptance of man-bags, male grooming, hair ‘product’ and (ach) metrosexuality will bathe the utility bike in a more acceptable light? Until that halcyon day, I’ll ride my mudguard, bag and basket-equipped bike with pride – revelling in its everyday practicality, ting-tinging my bell like a country-doctor from the inter war years, caring not a jot for the maelstrom of gender-warping undercurrents eddying in my wake.
Footnote and shameless plug
As ever, it would seem, Rivendell Cycles’ founder Grant Petersen has some words of wisdom on this very topic (which convinced me to ignore the gender divide and get with the basket programme). Not altogether coincidentally, Rivendell also produce a ‘mens Mixte’ the Yves Gomez –a beautifully made, lugged steel, step-thru all-rounder bike, which is brother to their Betty Foy ‘women’s Mixte’. You can read more about such things, and whole lot more good sense here: http://www.rivbike.com
Toying with the idea of getting a load carrying trailer for shopping and touring and, as chance would have it, and my mate Oli has a Carry Freedom Y Frame hanging around that he no longer uses.
The Y frame is a simple but high quality beast with a box section aluminium frame, laminated ply top, top quality button release wheels (like QRs on a wheelchair) and Schwalbe Marathon tyres. It takes all kinds of bags and boxes, with the Aberdeen (Scotland) based outfit offering a variety of different containers. The simplicity of the design, essentially just a flat bed, means that it can accommodate loads of all shapes and sizes. Some people even port kayaks around on theirs. The main use that I can see will be for shopping trips, with occasional camping trips in the summer. The great thing is that the trailer quickly and easily folds flat for storage, meaning that it won’t impinge too much on the shed/under-stairs real estate.
Oli is currently ferreting around trying to find all the pieces for it – then I’ll take a closer look before hammering out a deal…