I remember a few years ago watching a BBC programme which polled the British public on what it considered to be the greatest invention of all time. Coming out on top was the bicycle though I think if the same question was asked now, the mobile phone might be everyone’s favourite invention. But the bicycle is quite wonderful; when we learn to ride a bike, hopefully during our childhood, we are given our first taste of freedom and independence-we can cycle away from our parents, under our own steam. Perhaps it is almost a bonding experience with one’s first bike which leads to a life-long love. And there is something fantastic about the fact that whilst other inventions have come and gone, the bicycle has spanned the industrial revolution and survived. When it first arrived in the 1890s it brought a new social mobility, it was groundbreaking in so many ways.
Though I don’t cycle as much as I used to, mainly because of having, for the last ten years, a child who cannot cycle and is too big for a baby seat, when I do get out on my own or with my older son I still feel that same sense of exhilaration and freedom I felt when I had my first bike ride. The endorphins released by exercise make you feel good and being out in the fresh air pushing your legs rhythmically is almost meditative. When I used to cycle to work I felt so much more ready to start the day, energised by the journey rather than stressed by it if I had driven.
Living in a flattish county as I do, I frequently wonder why there are so few cyclists around. Nearly everyone owns a bike, they are hardly expensive or difficult to maintain yet they are usualy found rusting at the back of a shed never having seen the light of day for years. Given the times of austerity and the price of fuel, not to mention the obesity crisis it would make sense in so many ways to get out and about on two wheels instead of four. There are many reasons given as to why there are relatively few cyclists; high density of traffic, dangerous roads, heavy shopping to carry, not wishing to arrive at the office in a hot and sweaty state. Fewer children are allowed to explore their localities on their own because of increased fear of ‘stranger danger.’
Though Boris Johnson is making huge strides in helping to get Londoners out on their bikes, it is hard to compete against the might of the motoring industry. The car industry spends £830 million each year on advertising, much of which is ’emotional marketing’ ie selling a lifestyle, making the car aspirational, usually driven on wide open roads in beautiful landscapes, where congestion is unheard of. A number of cities in mainland Europe, notably Munich and Copenhagen have tried to raise awareness of cycling with marketing campaigns but perhaps it is a good cycling infrastructure that is needed to persuade us. I love to see my son enjoying his cycling and to quote H G Wells, “When I see an adult on a bicycle, I no longer despair for the human race.”