07 February 2009

Commuted sentences

Why does nobody seem to know what a commuting bike is like? As I'm fond of saying during controlled experiments on salad-making, it's not actually rocket science.

Chris Hoy is not going to ride it. It doesn't have to cross the Darien Gap. It just has to take you, your laptop and a sandwich to Islington in the rain.

Where's the difficulty in that? A commuting bike has mudguards. It has a rack or a basket or a saddlebag. It's easy to get on and off in a skirt and high heels, depending on what you wear to work, or perhaps at weekends when you go under a different name.

Some shops in London, bless 'em (Bikefix, Velorution, among others) know exactly what I'm talking about.

But you try buying a bike like that. Go into your local chain store. It'll be full of mountain bikes, hybrids, road bikes – but (folders aside) hardly anything suited for commuting without modification or addition.

Even if you do find one that comes pre-equipped with a rack and mudguards, it'll have far too many gears. Three's enough for London: one for starting off at the lights, one for coasting along, and one for hurtling after the bus that's cut you up so you can get the registration number. Dammit, it's Southwark Bridge, not the Stelvio Pass.

For instance, my employer does a Cycle to Work scheme, that nifty piece of accounting sleight-of-hand that lets you buy a bike at half price through PAYE. (You must have 12 months' contract at least, which rules out hand-to-mouth scavengers like me.) They do it through Halfords, who are kindly coming to do a talk to prospective schemers.

And guess how many of the 56 bikes offered on Halford's website last time I looked have rack and mudguards? TWO, that's all. It's the same if you go to other chains, and ask one of their helpful gap year students from Venezuela about an ideal bike for going to Wetherspoons on the Elephant and Castle on a rainy evening.

Well, you might say, you can't blame the chain stores. They're only flogging what the public wants. And what the public wants may not be what's best, as anyone who's watched Strictly Come Dancing knows. What the public needs is education.

A nice free magazine, say, commissioned by the Cycle to Work scheme, produced by cycle journalists with a top track record. You could call it, say, 'Cycle Commuter', and it could give prospective schemers some useful tips on commuting, and especially on what sort of bike to consider.

Then you could, say, put it online, for example at http://www.cyclescheme.co.uk/pdf/winter08-lo.pdf, and, say, give it away free with the London Cycling Campaign's February/March issue.

Well, guess what, that's exactly what they've done. And guess what sort of bikes they review and recommend? Yup: mountain bikes, hybrids, road bikes, a few folders. And how many of them have racks and mudguards? One, that's all (and that's one of the folders).

Sorry, guys, it's a very well-produced magazine. But apart from the folders, those bikes you've highlighted are not commuting bikes.

You make it worse by filling the publication full of exhortations to buy stuff. Lots of stuff. Buy a Sirrus for £649, you tell us, and then pay more for a rack and whizzy shoes and a computer and GPS and pricey gloves and costly jackets and a helmet. Anyone reading the magazine will go away thinking that you need an expensive, hi-tech, fast bike, for going really fast with, fast. And that you can't wear a skirt or boots or have a hairstyle and cycle as well. And that you need to be white, young and male. (Compare with the cover of LCC mag, which reflected real-life Londoners, in all colours, shapes, sizes and ages.)

All this industry-serving thing does is perpetuate the idea that cycling is dangerous. And specialist. And expensive. You must spend money. Lots of money. Otherwise you will die.

Tomorrow I'll do an item-by-item run down of all the stuff they say I should buy in order to commute, and what I actually have bought, what it cost, and why it's better and cheaper.

But for now I'm just too cross to go on, so I'm going to have a nice glass of wine and and feel reasonably good about Hull's draw at Chelsea today.

I wasn't at Stamford Bridge; I was doing a survey of a possible route from Herne Hill to the Elephant and Castle with some Southwark Cyclist experts. We were admiring facilities such as this one (right) on Old Kent Road, where the bike path helpfully supplies a phone box.

There were five of us, all very experienced in commuting and Real Cycling, a range of ages and genders, some on top-quality bikes, others on cheap'n'cheerful ones.

And guess how many helmets? Zero. Racks? Five. Pairs of mudguards? Five. And degrees in Rocket Science? Zero.


  1. Written with feeling!
    Hard to disagree - but in three months in Uruguay I've not noticed one bike with rack or mudguards. What the public wants, evidently. They all ride crap MTB-style things, or cruiser bikes, which are adequate for going to the corner shop, but no more.

  2. That CRAP from lcc went straight in the recycling bin. It was all done for the money, full of useless crap.

  3. I've been surprised by how many reactions I get from people who think that Dutch bikes have "lots of after-market accessories fitted" though they generally are just as the came from the factory.

    A few weeks back I wrote a guide to what all the useful bits are, using my wife's bike as a guide.

    Britain used to produce lots of bikes like this, sixty years ago when it was as normal for Briton's to cycle as it is for the Dutch today.

  4. I'm in agreement with most of that- especially as regards luggage racks and mudguards. Adding these two to my bike has revolutionised its usefulness. I appreciate having a lot of gears on the local hills.