June 18, 2014

Use the passions that flow

Even I'm old enough to remember the beginning of the World Wide Web, old enough in fact to still have my free-with-Mac-Format magazine "road map of The Internet", when it was all pages hosted by academic institutions, Gopher was still a pretty neat idea, and Kurt Cobain was still alive. I'm therefore invoking a meme from a few years ago because it provides a neat preface; the meme called for one sentence but a few more will help.

"There was still a gaping hole in our plans, however, for with the departure of "Gawain", we had left ourselves nothing with which to replace him! So…, at this juncture we parted ways, Alex, Geddy, Terry and Paul to begin work on some of their overdubs, while I would be imprisoned in my room until I could emerge glowing triumphantly, clutching some wonder of spontaneous genius to my knotted and sweating brow!! — mere fantasy, I fear. Did I perhaps have a title? Ah, no. Did I have a few strong ideas lying around? Well, no. Did I have any ideas at all? Well, maybe, but not exactly. And for two days I stared in frustration and growing unease at blank sheets of paper, and questioning eyes."

I could go on, for the original paragraph is as long again and Neil Peart is a much better writer than I, but on the third day in a newfound welter of creativity he began to piece together a host of ideas and thoughts, at once unconnected and yet circuitously themed. The product was of course a song called "Natural Science". Two days? Eighteen months more like, in my case. I'm far beyond sounding like a broken record: my record has long been recycled into a dainty bowl with crinkled edges, designed for holding pot-pourri or marbles or one of those curious collections of small metal objects typically comprising safety pins, half-broken zip sliders, paperclips and a selection of prizes from crackers—the same hoarded collection of items whose owner would without a hint of doubt claim that they might be useful, perhaps in say ten years; or more likely, never. My record of late hasn't been all that great.

My "Natural Science" ought to bridge that last year and a half, if it could. While the keys rattle under my fingertips I think of my notepads and their pages of handwriting, describing strange, fantastical journeys into the unknown: Mordor turning out to be one of the shabbiest camp sites known to Man; Sendar the growing familiarity of Kensington and Chelsea—if only experienced as a commuter; afternoons spent with toy trains and cable cars…and none of it readily transcribed for your perusal and delectation.

I think of the year in which I tried to declutter, my lovely big car with its faux-walnut dashboard and four flat tyres eventually meeting its maker, and my stop-gap motorbike that I sent packing with not a little 'good riddance!', and the year spent instead relying purely on human power. The car I miss, if only for the comfort of its half-leather seats and the way it ate motorways for breakfast—but it was an ailing dinosaur in its owner's modern life that no longer enjoyed motorways nor had cause to take them. The motorbike, my black Honda VFR with the cracked plastic bodywork that I repaired myself, and a cracked exhaust manifold that I didn't, was a hole in the tarmac into which I poured money. It made all the right noises, as every VFR does, noises that today still make the corner of my mouth turn up, but it was too small. The seat was too low, so the footpegs bent my legs so much I couldn't ride 30 miles without it hurting my knees; the seat was the wrong shape, and the wrong angle, which gave me a numb bum, only lessened whenever I slid forwards on the brakes. The windscreen was too low, even in jacked-up position with a spoiler on top, so my helmet was buffeted all the time. Crouching behind the fairing, MotoGP style, is for short people. And so it was that having spent the better part of five years collecting parts, taking a trip up north to a special garage and back, and latterly going wild with socket wrenches, wire brushes in an electric drill, paint, plastic weld and a sledgehammer,—yes, even a sledgehammer, for how else do you panel beat a bent and bashed bash plate back into shape?—the great beast that was my Honda Africa Twin once more took to the road. So long it had sat forlorn in a corner of the garage, reduced to a 200 kilogramme shelf. And how easily it accepted its owner again with a cackle and a joyous roar that scared small animals and no doubt delighted small boys.

Yet I'm getting ahead of myself, for that was mere months ago. The motorbike project in fact nearly never happened at all, because I was enjoying my economy and coming close to decluttering properly, but I couldn't bring myself to cut loose entirely. An Africa Twin is just a machine after all, just a collection of welded metal tubes and outdated, petrol swilling technologies, but it isn't clinical and efficient like a BMW, or brutish and unhinged like a big KTM, nor a bloated facsimile like its successor; it has a genuine heritage and a friendliness coupled with an old-school vibe that makes it very difficult not to like. I decided I should give it a chance, the chance it never had the first time around.

And yet there was a void. In honesty, none really existed. It was a void that should have existed, and one that I successfully argued did exist despite the rather glaringly obvious evidence. At the root of this was our climate: the culmination of too many years' winter cycling in which my fingers quite predictably turned white. As we all know, cold extremities can be ameliorated by a warmer torso, but I can recall only one occasion when this actually happened. I was wearing the fleece mid-layer that I used in winter motorbike trips (no more such trips, either) and I was riding my mountain bike—dear old Annie the Blue Bike, now mothballed for various reasons—and indeed riding up hills in snow, so my torso had extra-extra-special cause to be warm that day. To really stop the cold hands I needed to get out of the wind, say with a fairing, and if I had a fairing I might go faster: a lot faster if it was a full fairing, and if I was going faster I would need suspension. And if I was going faster with suspension I could go further too. Naturally the thing to do was invest in a velomobile.

Am I insane? Probably, but it was an educated insane, after all I'd been cycling recumbent bikes for ten years and was therefore well acclimatised, and I had spent a splendid afternoon in Toronto racing Bluevelo's yellow speed machine along the Waterfront Trail. It was also not without precedent, because another customer of Laid Back Bikes had already acquired his own for use on the other side of the country, and there were twenty other things that made it all seem quite sensible, like having space inside for four or five bags of shopping, and a warm close-fitting foam cover for when it rained. It arrived at the end of 2012, hit the roads in early 2013, acquired its first scratches within a month ("speed scratches"), and its first crack just a couple of weeks ago. And it keeps my hands warm! Lee Wakefield, known these days for being a dab hand with carbon fibre, as well as a seasoned velomobile pilot, reckoned that I was the first woman in the UK to join the ranks. Little old me! And practically a legend in my own time judging by events the past few days.

There comes a time, though, when novelty wears off. One noticeable manifestation of this is probably the theory of Bicycle Acquisition Syndrome, which I explored at length before, and of which the foregoing is perfect evidence. Even so, a new bike is like a new pair of shoes. Grippy soles contrast with the worn in and worn out predecessor's, laces with neatly bound ends, stitching neat and precise. Then before you know it a year has gone by and your shoes—like your bike—are once again literally an extension of your body, where every crease and wear patch is in the perfect place, and nothing is a surprise anymore. Shoes wear out, at least the modern ones made of petroleum and glue, not classic leather shoes that can be resoled or unstitched and mended; Brooks saddles conform to the rider, and a Rohloff hub wears in, not out. We crave originality and variety, because there's always something faster or more comfortable or that carries more…and we buy more bikes. Travelling the same pattern of roads day after day, month in, month out, just to commute to work and back again, isn't novel. It's our own very real Groundhog Day. Naturally, we notice a new pothole here, a filled one there, the repainted stop line at a junction, and we know the exact line to take across a roundabout to avoid a slippery manhole cover. The route becomes rehearsed ad nauseum, much the same traffic, much the same static hazards. Boredom is actually the overriding reason I change my commuting route so often.

You might say then that I mix up my commuting route to reduce my familiarity with it all, to increase the range of sights and sounds and smells along the way, and perversely to increase the number of hazards to which I expose myself. Danger makes for exciting times, which is why people climb skyscrapers using only their thumbs, drive bulldozers backwards on one track while blindfolded, or put their heads in crocodile mouths without a safety crowbar. And danger is of course countered by experience and practice, which informs skill, and skill informs decision making and reaction times. The problem with all of this is that constant wariness of hazards becomes hard work. Someone proficient at racing cars can't race constantly, even taking out the effect of the inability to simply stay awake. Pierre Levegh did remarkably well to race at Le Mans in 1952, single-handedly for over 23 hours; the speed of the cars by the 1990s—and thus the effort required to drive them at pace—saw the rules mandate a maximum of four hours at a time. But I'm only cycling in traffic, aren't I? I'm only going at 10mph, 20mph, maybe 30mph. How is that hard work?

It's hard work because other people make it hard work. Until the UK, or, in the possible interests of posterity, Scotland and 'the rest of the UK' makes it convenient to bicycle everywhere without the constant danger posed by drivers who think they own the road, or who think they can drive better and with greater precision than they actually can, it's going to stay hard work. There are so many angles one can take on this subject that one day I shall construct a massive family tree of everything that makes cycling hard work and why. Government hand-wringing, silo working, red top newspapers, sloppy journalism, sloppy science, biased court judgements, poorly upheld legislation, Police disinterest, influence of television 'stars', individual superiority complexes, social classes, social networking, and a general economic apathy are all in there to one degree or another.

It's hard work staying on top of things.

And frankly, one day not so very long ago I reached a point where nearly every moment I was seemingly subject to all manner of hazards—I would challenge any everyday cyclist of any ability to name a week in which nothing of note happened to them while they were on the road—and it became too much to bear.

After today's commute I'm beginning to wonder why I keep cycling.

The short answer is it keeps me going. The longer answer is that infernal combustion every day would cost too much and smells horrible, and would erode the first reason further. I was given my first bike when I was very young and the longest I've ever gone without riding a bike was 6 months. Today, and you might be surprised by this—I was too—I realised that I've finally stopped enjoying cycling in Edinburgh. I'm an engineer to my core: I love my bikes; and I try to help people feel that love for their own bikes. Yet each of mine is dangerously close to becoming little more than a means to an end. Far too quickly I'm coming to understand why people don't want to cycle, and I don't want to become one of those people. I shouldn't have to; I shouldn't be made to.

Because I'm fed up; of drivers overtaking me too closely, or undertaking me just to gain five seconds, or pulling U-turns in front of me without consideration of my speed, or shouting abuse at me just for existing. I'm fed up of poor driving standards that ignore conditions, like traction, or visibility, or gradient, or an ability to accelerate, and standards that are seemingly based on the driver's comparison with their performance during the previous five minutes. I'm fed up of the narcissistic me-me-me, me-first! attitude that pervades driving nowadays, in which traffic lights and roundabouts are to be beaten, rather than respected. I'm fed up of being polite on the road, and in return getting none of the human respect I would like. I can get no respect far more easily simply by not caring how I ride my bike.

I'm fed up of our city's roads that are being repeatedly destroyed by buses and lorries and not repaired properly, or even engineered properly. I'm fed up of road repairs that aren't remotely fit for purpose and that shake my bike to pieces.

I'm fed up with our city's pretensions to being supportive of cycling. That it treats me, and everyone else using human power, as though we were whizzing about on micro-scooters, weaving madly amongst pedestrians without a care, and able and happy to jump off on a whim. That it repairs only the roads that carry the most and the largest vehicles, and leaves the quieter, preferable routes to rack and ruin. I'm fed up of useful cut-throughs being 'repaired' to prevent their use by cyclists, forcing us to reconfigure our routes to include more dangerous areas requiring manoeuvres that we were only too happy to avoid before. I can't help wondering how many people, pounding the treadmill or spinning nowhere fast in a gym of an evening, were once busy cycling on the road but had that enthusiasm burned out of them.

I will probably cycle to work tomorrow. The fresh air will do me good, as will a bit of exercise, but my mood is damaged.

People do sometimes give up, opting for a safer, perhaps quieter, indeed less exciting life. But like a broken record, I did cycle to work tomorrow. I think tomorrow was Wednesday, but I might be wrong. I remember commuting on my motorbike the day after that, because it has presence: it's big and tall, and has huge round headlights and a loud horn (not Stebel Nautilus loud, but pretty good nonetheless). That day I enjoyed presiding o'er all the land, and I was surely satisfied as the plebs moved aside courteously as I approached with a rumble. In fact, such behaviour may have had rather more to do with feeling remarkably unwell that evening, necessitating my filtering past traffic like a mad woman while trying valiantly to hold down my lunch amidst a soaring body temperature. And unless I'm Laia Sanz, which I'm not, riding my motorbike is how to get less fit rather than more, and so I cycled the next day. Having been unwell, then, and thoroughly tired, I decided to take the quietest possible route home. Distance becomes a little less relevant when you plod instead of sprint, and I pottered along beside the trams, and around the houses, and sneaked in and out of cycle-type infrastructure,—nothing so grandiose as real custom-designed, all-singing-all-dancing European-level infrastructure I would add, for This is Edinburgh™—making my way home one of the many ways I knew how.

Issues? Yeah, we've got issues, and Edinburgh knows it. The Edinburgh Festival of Cycling was borne in 2013 out of Kim Harding's frustration that our leaders weren't doing enough about meeting the target they'd set themselves (a signatory to The Charter of Brussels, committing to achieve so-many-percent of trips being made by bicycle by 2020). EdFoC featured a varied selection of events, from films to talks to rides, all day things, evening things, overnight things. Strictly speaking, it wasn't the first bikey festival. We'd already had two or more years of the Bicycle Film Festival, largely the product of the energetic Maggie Wynn, and way before that there had been what we dubbed the First Edinburgh International Human Power Festival—ostensibly for recumbent riders, which lasted just for one day. There was never a Second EIHPF, more's the pity. Happily, thanks to the passage of time in which the city gained Laid Back Bikes, that's almost a regular event these days. With the EdFoC now in its second year and happening this very week, interesting stuff is organised: interesting stuff is going on.

One of the first events was the prosaically named Women's Cycle Forum. Apparently the first of its kind in the UK, possibly even the first of its kind. Lots of women ride bikes, lots more men do. Men—in the most general, biological sense—are imbued with a magical substance that helps them shrug off danger more easily than Women, in the most general, biological sense. The more of the magical substance Men have, the more they like to fight each other, and then it makes them go bald. It's often lots of men who attend rafts of workshops and meetings whose discussion points include Why More Women Should Ride Bikes and How To Make It Happen. Well, Men, sorry, but your gender agenda kinda sucks. I went along on a drizzly Saturday evening, badly underestimating how long it would take to ride to the venue in town, not helped by the main cycle route through the Meadows unexpectedly swarming with people wearing serious faces and hi-viz vests that said "Security": sufficiently serious that I cheerily ignored the first half before diverting back onto the roads, thus taking a great Commonwealth Games Baton Relay-avoiding dogleg that wasted valuable minutes; I arrived late and the meeting had already started, Sally Hinchcliffe mid-paragraph in introducing the panel. I'm not entirely sure that I didn't miss the first speaker. I poured myself into a seat near the back, next to a little girl busy making bracelets from tiny elastic bands, and tried to look demure despite generating my own weather by this time, hardly grateful for my decision to wear my crumpled baggy shorts (complete with cat hairs) over my lycra shorts, as if that would look more presentable than simply opting to have velomobile-strength thighs on display. Perhaps fewer people cycled to the event than drove or bussed or walked, although there was quite a range of bikes locked to the railings outside; perhaps fewer people had quite the dislike of bicycle saddles that do I, and were consequently more than happy to cycle in a dress; certainly there was a great absence of black lycra.

We had long, and not so long, introductions from eight highly relevant women. Sue Abbot, who looks like Miriam Margoyles, spoke about having a criminal record for refusing to wear a bike helmet in Australia; Rachel Aldred covered cycle campaigning; Sara Dorman covered 'not cycle campaigning' but getting involved in it anyway; Sally Guyer talked about making nice clothes for cycling in and looking good in; a fresh-faced Claire Connachan was 'fecking knackered' from just finishing a 40-miler with her girl group, Belles on Bikes. Polly Jarman spoke of her work helping young children to learn to cycle; Jo Holtan introduced the Cycle Hack movement for crowdsourcing ideas to improve bike routes; and Jayne Rodgers spoke with feeling about working with disabled people and getting the right bike, trike or quad for them to carry on cycling. Then it was onto group discussions, quick-fire to thrash out burning issues, ways to deal with them and ways to solve them: brainstorm meets cycle hack, if you like. My group was led by Sara, talking a mile a minute and simultaneously writing on the made-for-writing-on red paper tablecloth. Sally joined us, our discussion ranging from too-close overtaking to making street corners sharper to normalisation and destigmatisation to management system methodologies, each of us taking turns to draw diagrams and scribble thoughts, but all pointing towards a general desire for cycling to be safer, dammit.

 photo IMAG0563_zpsc319ddbb.jpg And in fact from the feedback from each of the groups—probably fifty people altogether, covering all kinds of people and all kinds of ages and abilities—the overwhelming desire was exactly that: safer cycling. Not faster cycling, not cheaper cycling, or even more stylish cycling. Safer. Just get the bloody motorists off our backs, but don't you dare corral us into some piece of shit segregation that leaves no room to move and no room for three dimensions. With the thought that cycle chic didn't necessarily mean floaty skirts and Dutch-style bikes with wicker baskets and flowers and little dogs, I took my baggy shorts off for the ride home. No bunching of material, no seams to sit on this time, just a second skin. And on my hips technically a third, because they're Endura mountain bike shorts.

 photo DSC_9333_2sm_zpsdf728f66.jpg Back to my preferred office the next morning for Ligfiets Zondag. Last year my velomobile was, not entirely unexpectedly, a hit, so I rode my usual bike instead this time. To be honest, one can only take so many questions ('How fast does it go?', 'Does it have an engine in there?' 'Where did you get it?' 'How much did that cost?' 'Can I have a go?' 'Can you go up hills?' 'Can I have a go please?' 'Can I have a sit in it?' and so on and so on) and I wasn't particularly minded to field them all again. Besides, a relaxing bike ride to the coast, Cramond and Silverknowes Promenade in this case, is the type of event that starts out specialist and over time becomes diluted, for all the best reasons really, by people riding whatever bike they want to bring.  photo DSC_9334_2sm_zps57eec44e.jpg It becomes 'an outing'. And so we had people on recumbent bikes, like Angelo and Ally still buzzing from their expedition across Canada last year, people like Hannah and John riding trikes or towing trailers, people like Kim using cargo bikes, and people I didn't know at all on their remarkably undeviant bikes. And…, I should have expected it really, losing count after about the third time I was asked where the big red streamlined speed machine was.

 photo DSC_9336_2sm_zps03a1443b.jpg After an early lunch of egg and cheese and bacon, and then an hour or two spent riding up and down the Prom trying different bikes, or playing fetch with John's dog and its slightly soggy tennis ball, or sitting in the sunshine and chatting, I was late leaving! I was later leaving than I even originally planned, too, forgetting that France is one hour ahead of us, and therefore four o'clock in the afternoon there is three o'clock here. And the 2014 24 Heures du Mans was 45 minutes away from finishing. I missed it.

But the ride home along the Roseburn path, bursting with green, was quiet and warm and pleasant. With Angelo and Ally alongside it was a ride full of happy conversation, and my earlier rant faded. It could almost have been written by someone else.


Bill Adama said...

" Men—in the most general, biological sense—are imbued with a magical substance that helps them shrug off danger more easily than Women, in the most general, biological sense. The more of the magical substance Men have, the more they like to fight each other, and then it makes them go bald."

That's the funniest thing I've read in weeks! Thanks for the belly laugh, Bex!

Anonymous said...

Bex, you really should update more often!

And are you ready for the next Rush tour? It's coming, I tells ya...!