Monday 6 April 2009


So there's this cyclist waiting at the lights ahead of me on the other side of a morning-rush dual carriageway in Cheltenham. Poised in the saddle, stationary, hand against the post, feet on the pedals, waiting for the green light to go.

I looked at him in the distance. I look at all cyclists. At them, their bikes, how they ride them, what they are wearing, at their shape, their speed, their whole attitude. I make guesses about their lives, what they do, how often they use the bike.

Anyway he was there, and there was something about him. His legs were very slim in the black cycling leggings. He sat with a relaxed stillness, yet his hands, legs, feet were arranged in optimal positions for an efficient take-off. I thought "Hmmm."

When the lights changed he moved off with such an ease that it seemed he was gliding on air. He wove silkily through the central lights/barriers. When he reached the path on the other side he instinctively rose out of the saddle, stood on the pedals to get some speed up again and pushed off in the direction of GCHQ.

And I thought 'Yeah. That boy can ride.' And I had a sudden frisson of pleasure appreciating the grace of his movement.

People ride bikes in all sorts of ways. Young kids pedal exceptionally fast; chins forward, elbows out and little knees like pistons. Some adolescents are languid, pedalling softly and slowly while they talk and trackstand. At least one of them might be doing an 'endo' or messing about bunny-hopping.

Women ride bikes in exactly the way they walk. There are those who hunch over the handlebars as though they are hurrying somewhere urgently, others are poised, prettily straight-backed and serious while there is a type of middle-aged woman who toils away with her shopping in a plastic carrier bag swinging on the handlebars.

Seeing a man in a suit on a Pashley-Moulton is always a treat. The economy of scale of the bike coupled with the smart dark clothes, shiny shoes and upright stance would be comic if it wasn't admirable and somehow terribly English. They never ride hard – wouldn't do to get a sweat on, after all. Not in that nice shirt.

A lot of men ride their bikes in a workmanlike way. The burly labourer often has a bike too small for him and a saddle too low so his legs are bent and his knees stick out on either side. He's in his work clothes and steel-toe-capped boots so the bike is merely a short-haul A – B device. It doesn't have to fit.

Some older men plod, making heavy weather of it on a bicycle with a dynamo that they've kept in the shed for 30 years to travel to and fro the factory where they've probably worked for 30 years. They look like they're pedalling through black treacle. Others let their bodies show the effort by dipping their heads and shoulders with every pedal-stroke. But their faces don't betray any sign of distress so the dipping is habitual; the cycling equivalent of overweight labradors puffing amiably on a walk.

Anyway, back to this guy at the lights. He was no labrador; he was a racing whippet among cyclists.

Very long toned legs and a slim-framed elegant racing bike adjusted precisely and correctly.

He was at one with his bicycle; an alchemy of grace, fluidity and power.

I didn't need to be closer, to see his face or how old he was or what, in detail, he was wearing. His form and the way he moved told me all I needed to know. He had style.

I suppose that frisson was not dissimilar to the kick I get from experiencing a great sculpture. You just wonder in amazement at the creation itself and the complete mastery of the artist. You can't stop greedily regarding it because you can't get enough of the loveliness of it.

It's not dissimilar from the unexpected wonder of some poetry; that moment when the rhythm and beauty of the words meld and conspire with your emotions to move your soul in ways the writer could never have anticipated.

So does it follow that cycling has parallels with great art?

It does for me.

Impenetrable Armadillo

I haven't got a problem with walkers. A nice stroll in the sunshine somewhere scenic is manna for the soul.

I like walks but prefer to cycle and when I'm out to play on my bike, I find that walkers are the most accommodating of folk.

They hear the terrible rasp of me struggling to breathe on a climb and stand aside briefly wearing pitying, mystified smiles as I wheeze “Thanks” and pedal ever upwards. I hate climbs. I can see them wondering why I bother to go marginally faster than their crippled old sheepdog.

Walkers descending might hear the squeal of my brakes as slam everything on in order to pedal softly behind them. That usually motivates them to make a gap so I can proceed and there might be a cheery exchange of greetings.

Only occasionally have some highly-strung women shrieked and thrown themselves into a track-side ditch because they didn't realise I was cycling behind them, waiting for an opportunity to pass. Those aside, walkers display all the outward signs of nice considerate people having a pleasant time outdoors.

It's ramblers that are the problem. It's not so bad when they're moving but there is something sinister about the way they assemble in large groups and just hang around. It's disturbing. They come over all glassy-eyed and oblivious to external stimuli.

It's as though they have surrendered themselves completely to their leader and all their brain cells have seeped down into their thick woolly rambler socks. Like an army of zombies, they stand, vacant, waiting for further instruction. Somewhere in the centre is the Leader Zombie, wearing a chunky sweater with a plastic mapcase dangling around his neck. He's staring at a compass and doing calculations concerning walking speeds, stopping allowances and time of arrival at designated pub garden.

There was just such a group in the Forest of Dean last weekend. We'd gone out to play for a few hours. The Forest was renewing itself and looking glorious with acid-green shoots and clouds of blackthorn blossom. Everyone was out, kids, families, cyclists, walkers, ramblers, people with dodgy hips and legs sitting admiring the Mandarin duck colony at Cannop Ponds. Stick a Buddhist temple at the bottom of Bixslade and a KFC where the stoneworks is and it would be the spitting image of Beihai Park, Beijing.

So we were bowling along on the flat heading for a half-time bacon and egg bap and a cuppa when we found them. I thought they'd notice our approach. My companion was in dark green so could have been mistaken for a moderately lively conifer but I was in red, on my purple Orange, so reasonable visible to even the partially-sighted.

I thought they might stir, or part to give us the chance to pass by but they were all standing around over-dressed in cagoules and hats, fixed and glazed, like an Antony Gormley sculpture.

For clarity, we're not talking about blocking a pathway. There were about forty of them, blocking a track wide enough for the widest Forestry juggernaut to drive down. In fact it would have been interesting to see their reaction if a juggernaut was bearing down on them belching fumes at 15mph, roughly the same speed as me - only I wasn't belching, although on reflection, maybe it would have helped.

Would they even see it? Doubt it. The carnage would have been quite something, though.

No movement. No instruction from leader. Maybe he'd nipped behind a bush for a quick slash and the group had been left temporarily devoid of independent thought.

It's not that I'm an unreasonable cyclist. Consideration comes with middle age. I slow down for the elderly, for little tots and dogs. On a narrow path I give way readily to let young whippety mountainbikers pass me. I even slow down a bit for panting, thick-legged, lard-arsed lads on expensive Cannondales to give them the temporary illusion that they are way fitter than me. I'm that big-hearted.

So when a posse of ramblers refuse to give way for me, I find it perplexing. I'm pedalling towards them. Will they move or are they inviting me to carve my way through, shredding their shins with my knobbly front tyre and handing them off like Tom Shanklin surging forward for a try?

They gave all the appearance of one of those Roman formations – The Impenetrable Armadillo. Or maybe it was a tortoise. Mebbe getting mixed up with one of the trickier positions from the Perfumed Garden. Not totally sure.

Anyway, all those thoughts were coursing through my head as we approached, then a chink appeared in their armour. A woman with a dog broke free from the nearside edge and yes, there was space to slide through. How very considerate! There is hope yet, I thought.

But no, the woman hadn't seen us at all. She'd just taken it into her head to do a bit of ad hoc dog training and began walking in a tight figure of eight pulling her substantial little dog repeatedly to heel. It was a Staffie. She was wasting her time.

She and the dog presented a very effective moving barrier that the Romans – skilled as they were in tactical warfare – might have copied and found quite effective.

What were we supposed to do? Stop? Dismount, tap one of the statues on the shoulder and say “Excuse me. Would you mind awfully if we beg your forbearance for a moment and ask you to move two feet to your left in order for us to pass without harm? Or would you like your legs macerated?” That last bit would have been sub-text.

Thankfully, I didn't need to. The Staffie caught the scent of something enticing - a wildboar chasing a squirrel carrying his nuts? - and shot into the undergrowth, yanking his startled owner tightly up against a wire fence.

We seized the opportunity to cycle through the gap. On the other side two families who had been similarly obstructed milled about discussing whether joining the Ramblers was obligatory at that particular location.

A frantic four-year-old pedalled his trike furiously in concentric circles, elbows out, chin over the handlebars, mentally damaged by the unexpected hold-up. I knew how he felt.

I told my companion man to shoot me if I ever mention joining the Ramblers. I suspect that child will feel exactly the same when he grows up.

Not many girls on bikes

I wasn't going to blog today. I'm supposed to be getting down to other urgent tasks.

(I wonder why “getting down to” something which implies a solid serious job but “getting up to” something is always mischievous, intruiging and spiced with naughtiness?)

Anyway, a Guardian writer (who has clearly never cycled in traffic and may never have even been on a bike) is asking why there aren't more women cyclists, so naturally there are points which must be made.

According to Sustrans (the charity in charge of the national cycleways network), 79% of British women don't cycle at all even though 43% of them have access to a bike.

I suspected the Grauniad was only highlighting the issue because A Celeb has been spotted wobbling about on a bike and sure enough, there was a pic of Duffy, the Welsh songstress pedalling an outsize version of a three-year-old's pink bike in Los Angeles.

She hasn't got a helmet on, which isn't much of an example, but she looks as though she's not going to ride at more than 4mph so we'll forgive her this time, especially as she is Welsh (positive racism, like) and because I'm kind of addicted to her track “Mercy.”

Why women don't ride bikes?

1 They are scared. They never got to grips with the dazzling-white two-wheeled thing with a bell in the shape of a pretty flower and daddy point-blank refused to put the stabilisers back on. So they wait a while until they meet a boy with a car... Apologies if that sounded a tad crabby but my parents never did buy me a new bike. I don't like it rankle.

2 You can't be dignified on a bicycle.

3 Cycling messes up your hair.

4 You can't carry much shopping. (Hmm. This should have been number 1)

5 Punctures.

Those reasons are good reasons but they are all reasons which, with a bit of practice and taking oneself a little less seriously, can be overcome.

More women should cycle.

It's the most fun you can have with your clothes on.

It energises you from head to toe and you rediscover the hidden child in you. The thrill of speeding downhill and zooming around corners. On a good day, with the wind behind you and the sun on your arms and your gears in tip-top condition, you feel like you're flying.

It gets you fit without too much effort and keeps you fit if you keep doing it.

It will lift your mood, flooding your brain with fabulous endorphins.

It might get you closer to nature. If you pedal quietly through silent forests you will see deer and birds and you can justifiably collapse into the long grass and lie in the sun for a while listening to bees.

It's rewarding, getting places without using any fuel other than that sticky jam doughnut you scoffed at your friend's house.

It's perfect for thinking and if you're distraught, you can cycle and sob and no-one will know because the wind takes away your tears.

I'll be the first to admit you can't cycle and be dignified. The very instant you attempt it, fate will bite you on the bum. Your gears will start jumping or the chain will come off or you'll get a puncture and need to remove a grubby wheel with delicate painted fingernails.

Attempting dignity is fraught with hazards in the same way as attempting to be cool. That cute little bunny hop up on to the kerb will have you splatting face first into the pavement. That stylish speeding cornering on damp grass will result in you sliding indelicately into the pub car park watching by curious al fresco diners. People generally feel cyclists are impervious to pain. Those guys in the Tour are always bleeding and getting back on their bikes, after all.

And the hair thing. Well, that's non-negotiable. Hair is very important for women. If it doesn't look right, one feels self-conscious all day – and that's no way to live life. It's one of the reasons I can't ride my bike to work when it's raining. There's no rest room where I can sort the hair out. I usually straighten it into total submission but when it's raining or the air is damp it gets its own back and goes all Kelly McGillis.

Punctures. Yes, well. They happen but we've all got mobile phones and if you really can't ruin your nails because it's two hours before the night out, call a bloke with a car. Any bloke will do. A chivalrous male cyclist might even come along and mend it for you. Or maybe I just got lucky.

The author of the Guardian article talked of the unattractiveness of wearing cycling kit that looks like you've been attacked with a highlighter gun. I'd wager she has never ridden in traffic. Until last summer I too swore I'd never be seen dead in dayglo. But in morning and evening rush-hour traffic, there is nothing better for being seen. So I embraced yellow day-glo and found that it is good. (It's also nicely fitting and nipped in at the waist)

It's probably possible to be girly and imaginative and wear violently psychedelic day-glo with flowers in your helmet. Vivienne Westwood would be up to the challenge just so long as she remembers it's impossible to pedal in a pencil skirt.

Topshop are bringing out a womens' cycling range, apparently. Not sure I like the sound of the Topshop range, although, naturally, one will cast an eye over it. There is talk of them selling retro-style cycling caps.

Hmm. Prefer a helmet myself. I doubt a cycling cap would save a fractured skull if you go over the handlebars - not that that happens very often, girls.

A few sensible precautions like taking care to avoid hidden tree stumps in tussocky grass on the flat and large tree roots on the gnarly downhills and you'll never know what it feels like to see stars just like they do in cartoons.