I did something amazing the other day. Wait for it… I cycled to Cambridge. I did what, to most people around here comes as second nature. I got on my bike in Histon and weaved my merry way into town. I’m not a natural cyclist (I’m not sure if such a thing exists) and it’s only a paltry distance of 4 point something miles, but it’s something I probably should be doing, and so for that reason, I donned a helmet and hi-vis and off I went.
The thought of getting on a bike is not a completely alien concept in my life, not as such. There was a bicycle once, somewhere in the dim and distant past. I remember a classy-looking number from my late childhood, early teens. I definitely wanted it, petitioned for it for a birthday or Christmas present even. And no wonder, it was a fine bike: painted burgundy and white, and decked out with a leather seat, and pretty basket to boot. Sadly it languished unloved in the ramshackle passage that ran down the side of the house, alongside the spiders and the scarifier. In honesty, I only recall using it on a handful of occasions. As a parent myself now, I vicariously feel the annoyance that that waste of my parents’ money must have caused.
In defence of my younger self, most places I needed to go were very walkable and, if they weren’t, then we jumped in the family gas guzzler. There wasn’t the same culture of cycling in Solihull in the 80s and 90s, nor clearly the same awareness of climate change. And I would have needed a death wish if I’d have attempted to travel as far as Birmingham on two wheels.
It is probably the fear of climate change that has finally brought me to this point. That after 10 years of living in a cycling-dominated city, without cycling, I feel guilt-ridden enough to hop onto a bike. Don’t get me wrong – I’m all for two-wheeled transport and admire those who choose it as their preferred mode of transport, but somehow it just didn’t feature for me – and the thought of slotting into the often perilous melee of local traffic without the protection of a shiny metal box, is daunting to say the least.
What really brought matters to a head was the day I accompanied my daughter to Central Cambridge on a youth school strike against climate change. For reasons of speed and convenience and a dozen other feeble excuses I could come out with, I am embarrassed to report that I drove us both into town that day to join in the protest. As the charged-up students yelled out their anti-car slogans, I marched alongside keeping schtum about how we had travelled there. I told myself it wasn’t too hideous a betrayal of the crowd’s message since I did end up using the trip for a double purpose: to pick up a package I had ordered from John Lewis – which would have been far too large to precariously balance in a bike basket. And there you have it… Activism and capitalism side by side in perfect harmony.
And besides saving the planet there are other motivators to getting me peddling. There are obvious benefits to both my physical and mental health – and perks for my wallet too, in avoiding Cambridge’s extortionate parking charges.
They say that you never forget how to ride a bike and, while that may be 98% true when it comes to balancing, peddling and forward momentum, you do tend to forget most of the finer details you may need to safely negotiate the roads in 2019. In my early thirties I took refresher driving lessons because I had gone a long period without using a car, and had lost confidence in my ability to do so. I found it frustrating to be a learner again but the course did at least remind me of the rules of the road and go some way to restoring that missing courage behind the wheel. I’m thinking I may need to tag along to my children’s school cycling proficiency classes to become a real Cambridge-ite on a bike.
I did make it to town and back again on my bike that day. I was cautious, probably overly so, and I stopped many times to consider my next route or fiddle with the gears. The bicycle itself was a bargain purchase from a Facebook selling page a year ago. It wouldn’t pass muster for Chris Froome – but it did the job for me. I bought what I needed in town and got out of there: no parking charges, no carbon emissions, no trouble. Smug and only just the teensiest bit knackered from the effort.
So I intend to carry on peddling here, there and everywhere. All I need now is a pretty wicker basket attached to my handlebars. That way I’ll still be able to cart around all my heavy capitalist goods while basking in my low carbon footprint.