Cycling is…

Aug.20, 2011, filed under Cycling

avatarLast week I was asked to participate in a focus group for the CTC, which was something of a surprise — on telling Frood his response was: “What, you? Haven’t they learned anything?”

I was quite pleased, really, because I’d started giving up hope on the CTC. As far as I’m concerned they’re still pretty much the only organisation out there doing what I want a cycling organisation to do: campaign for the rights of cyclists to carry on doing what we’ve always done, i.e. ride on the road, and campaign proactively for our right to do so without fear of being squished by inattentive car drivers. I used to be a Right to Ride rep, but gave up when they started softening their attitudes towards segregation and falling for the old “some provision is better than nothing” gambit, which in my opinion is the most dangerous trap for a cycling campaigner. The moment someone told me that it was okay for a local authority to fail to maintain road standards suitable for cyclists because there was an off-road, shared-use path, I was out of there.

Then there was the charity kerfuffle. For those who don’t know about this, the CTC didn’t used to be a charity. It was a member’s club, like the AA or BSAC, which made sense to me. I paid them a certain amount of dosh and in return I got certain member benefits, like third party insurance, as well as the comfort of knowing the organisation was out there promoting the interests of me as a cyclist, and of other cyclists out there. Then they decided to become a charity. In my mind this makes them more like Greenpeace — not necessarily a bad thing, but I’m not sure how they square member benefits and their commercial wing with being a charity; and the offered explanations were opaque. Not only were the explanations opaque, the rather impolite way the two sides of the debate went about garnering votes didn’t merely lose my interest, it flung any curiosity or investment I had in the process out of the window then stamped on it repeatedly with boots covered in dog shit. If I hadn’t been absorbed in other matters at renewal time, I’d probably have cancelled the direct debit.

I wasn’t pleased to be asked to participate in this group because I thought it was a recognition of the things I’d said way back when (I doubt that the CTC knows I was one of those asked to participate): I was pleased because it meant that finally they were doing something to make it look like they were paying attention to what their members had to say about them, and about what their members want from them.

There’s a first time for everything after all.

We had to complete some homework before the group, part of which was to create a collage representing what cycling means to us: a collection of pictures depicting our involvement in cycling and the emotions that cycling evokes. What was most interesting about this was how similar the results were. There were four of us in our particular group, all of us members, three men plus myself. Our ages ranged from 24 to 40 and we were pretty diverse in terms of careers and how much cycling we do (although I did note that we all fell fairly neatly into the “white, middle-class” demographic). All of us talked about independence, freedom and sense of achievement, as well as a streak of non-conformity.

Here’s my effort (click for a big one in a new tab):

CTC collage

Cycling is a big part of my life. I had to cherry-pick memories to represent concepts: moments that are the distillation of hours of adventure.

From left to right, top to bottom.

Frood ahead of me on a trip to Lincolnshire. I was sick that day. Horrendously so. I was in the early stages of acute bronchitis and my heart rate was through the roof, hovering at around the 190 mark even at a meagre 15mph because I couldn’t extract enough oxygen from the air. It was like being at altitude. But I did it, Frood sitting ahead of me the whole way so I could draft him (with the added side-benefit of being able to stare at his bottom).

A wine bottle label, for the aesthetic element. Cycling isn’t just about function, it’s about form. There’s nothing more beautiful than something that is not only artfully designed but also does a job, and I’m not just talking about the bike. You can keep your stick-thin models and bodybuilders who are as weak as kittens. I like my women athletic rather than anorexic, and my men strong rather than muscular.

Cake. Blueberry muffins. Need I say more?

Shackleton, on the banks of the Tay. I was riding home from a training course that day, 40-odd miles, just for the hell of it. I do that sometimes. Having a bike means that travelling for business can be fun rather than a chore.

Peregrine, Campag chainset gleaming in the sun. You cannot possibly tell me that this isn’t beautiful. Look at it!

A velvet fist concealed within an armoured glove. This is the other side of cycling: the assertive, occasionally aggressive side. Not everyone likes this part of it, but I kind of do, and I’m not going to pretend it doesn’t exist. I will, however, note that it doesn’t have to. You don’t have to be a superhero to commute to work, but if you like the feeling of being one, well, that option exists. You can ride at a sedate, steady pace and get to work with your hair in place and your work clothes ready to go; or you can put on lycra and a fierce grin and traffic jam like it was sport. Cycling is whatever you want it to be.

Jelly babies on the bridge at dawn during DRV. Cycling can be an adventure, and it can be doing silly things with like-minded people and having experiences you couldn’t have any other way. It’s about seeing things in a way you wouldn’t ever see them from inside a car, and about getting places under your own steam at a pace that can surprise you, often fuelled by little more than sugar, water, and a sense of determination.

Max, with the Bob Yak, and the fish flag, sitting outside our old flat in Kirkcaldy. Think that you can’t carry much on a bike? Think again. I can carry masses of stuff with that sucker. The Bob Yak even features as a hinge for a piece of plot in one of the stories I’m working on (minus the fish flag, I have to say).

Munky, snoozing on a train. The bike is the only means of independent transport you can carry with you on other forms of transport. How awesome is that? This also represents the happy, physical exhaustion that comes about after a decent ride. He’s surrounded by some smaller images representing the occasional sense of outrage and gobsmacked bemusement engendered by other road users.

Fingal, fully loaded at Inverness station. You can carry your home on your bike, if you’re happy to call a tent a home. You can strip your life down to the bare essentials of shelter, food and a means of cooking it, water, the clothes you stand up in and a spare set; and, in my case, a notebook and pen. You can pack all of this on a bike and you can go wherever there is a road or track to take you. Unlike walking, however, on a bike the weight is shifted by a geared mechanism, so you can pack a few non-essentials like fishing gear, snorkelling kit, espresso maker, art materials, beer…

I really like beer.

There’s my mum and dad, talking to someone we met in Tentsmuir Forest. I don’t ride off-road much because I have no 3D, but I really, really love riding fire trails and easy routes with my parents. Cycling is the one activity that they like as much as Frood and I do. Well, that and hillwalking, but mum and I both have issues with old foot injuries that make walking any distance quite hard. Cycling can be a family affair, and it’s something people can enjoy for many years. The lack of jarring impact makes it ideal for those with dodgy joints.

More Dumb Run shots. It’s the adventure thing again, and the achievement, and the ability to find enjoyment in ridiculous conditions. Yes, we will beast ourselves up those hills and dare the midges because there’s Merkins Farm at the top, and that’s funny. It doesn’t matter that it’s 3am and pissing down, we’re already at Linlithgow and it’s not much further to go until the bridge and oh! My bike looks like deep sea plankton! How cool is that?

Some random stuff. A smiley face (a screenshot from Death Machine, as it happens. I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions). Me, fettling. I can do my own maintenance. I’m wearing very little and yet it’s one of the few photos of me I actually like and in which I think I look okay. Cycling does that for you. Stitch, drooling over the shiny, which is what I do whenever a Campag catalogue arrives in the post.

Tank Girl is more about attitude than anything else. I can’t really explain this one. It’s all about the feeling.

The next picture is the Burton’s factory on my way to work. I am tortured by the smells of biscuits wafting from that place when I ride past. You don’t get sights, sounds and smells in a car the way you do on a bike. I keep thinking I should write to Burton’s and ask them what biscuits they’ve been making that day to see if what my nose tells me they are making is what they are actually making. Because that would rock.

Beer, noms. ‘Nuff said.

More mountain biking with Frood and my parents, and then Fingal sitting outside a police box in Edinburgh. Two forms of transport that are bigger on the inside than you think from the outside and can take you places where you’ll see things you could never have imagined and didn’t expect.

Yes, that is a Doctor Who reference. Just roll with it.

One of the questions in the focus group was about what the CTC should be offering its members: what one thing could they do that would make a difference. Cycling is all of these things, and more. It’s adventure, it’s freedom, it’s transport, it’s mobility, it’s a state of mind and a state of body. There is no one thing that the CTC can offer its members that will make a difference to each member.

Except for one thing: keep fighting the good fight to make sure we can carry on doing this thing we love, and have the freedom to do so in a way that makes us happy, whether that be traffic-jamming to work or taking the kids out for a leisurely Sunday afternoon pootle along a fire trail. As long as the CTC is doing whatever it takes to make sure that I and other cyclists like myself will be able to make many more pictures like this one, they will continue to receive my membership fee every year. That’s all I want from them. Nothing more.

And certainly nothing less.

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