03 April 2009

More reasons why Simon Bates is wrong

DJ Simon Bates revealed himself as exactly the wrong sort of cyclist in yesterday's Guardian. It infuriated me.

"I used to see Boris Johnson cycling past my flat in London and I always thought he looked quite majestic", he said. I recalled the gooey sincerity of his tedious radio slot Our Tune, true-life stories of tragic lerv.

"Now I cycle to work every day and I must admit I hate it", continued the man whose British Film Classification Board introductions were like an irritating uncle telling you to tie up your shoelaces, "but I feel quite virtuous".

Aargh! Bates has it utterly arse about po-face. According to him, cycling is cod-liver oil on wheels, whose painful duty at least bestows superiority. No wonder we get the smug-cyclist nonsense.

Bollocks, Simon. Back in the studio with you where you can't do any harm. But not before you've read this article, which I wrote for London Cycling Campaign's December issue last year:

Of course I’m all for promoting cycling. But when I see some well-meaning leaflets or magazine ads trying to do so, I groan. Because - like the traffic lights at Morley College cycle crossing before they rejigged the timings last year (thanks, guys) - they’re sending out unhelpful signals.

Typically, such ads bang on about cycling being Good For You (ie It’s Painful). Good For The Planet (ie We’re Smug). And Cheap (ie We’re Poor). It’ll show a pair of fragile-looking kids, carapaced with helmets despite being in a grassy park with no vehicle in sight (ie It’s Dangerous).

No, no, no. And no. First, cycling is not dangerous, unless you try doing it with your eyes closed like my dad did when he was 14. (Asked if he was hurt, he apparently said ‘yeth’.) It’s the traffic that’s potentially dangerous; but that’s another article.

Second, nobody cycles solely because it’s good for them, good for the planet, or it’s cheap. Of course there’s something in some of those factors. It will make you healthier; it might just offset a scuttle of coal in a Chinese power station; and it’s free at the point of use, but like the NHS or hotel toiletries or dinner at your mum’s, you do pay for it, only elsewhere. But they’re not the only reason.

It’s the fastest and most reliable way to get across London of course, yes indeed, but that’s still not the main reason.

It’s simpler than that. It’s because cycling is fun.

The journey to work isn’t a chore: it’s an exhilarating scoot across a bridge, breathing in the world’s most thrilling big-city riverscape. Going shopping isn’t tedious: it’s a sightseeing opportunity for that funny back street or quaint old mews en route. Finding your way to a friend’s place for the first time isn’t a bewildering drag of buses and tubes: it’s a series of discoveries that colours in your mental map of the city.

The basic practicality of moving from A to B on a bike is intrinsically enjoyable. Cycling is its own entertainment. You’re a participant in life, not a spectator. Shorn of status symbols, you encounter people and places naturally. Small things make you feel big-time good: jokes with a stranger, chats with locals, cafe and pub refuelling stops, picnic lunch with a view. The simple business of being alive is enhanced.

The trip is invariably its own reward. But you need an excuse to get out there in the first place, or else you wander in aimless frustration like a Saga coach party stopped to find the toilets are closed.

The good news is, any excuse will do. A sightseeing trip to that local landmark or new artwork. The premiere of a new cycle facility. One of London’s limitless free outdoor events. Woolwich Ferry. A street named after you. The Monopoly board. Whatever.

In fact, the more arbitrary the reason for riding, often the more serendipitous the outcome. Two pals cycled a joint-40th-birthday route whose endpoints were defined by the Ordnance Survey grid references of their initials and date of birth (SH671130 to SW671208, that sort of thing). They had a fantastic week’s trip.

London's Borough groups know this, of course. You’ll see endless reasons to ride, from the worthy to the gloriously pointless. (Southwark Cyclists recently sang Happy Birthday to the Rotherhithe Tunnel on its 100th. In the tunnel. It was brilliant.) Evening or weekend trips, not to trim carbon footprints, tone up thigh muscles, or avoid topping up Oyster cards; just for plain enjoyment.

Ever seen the sun rise on midsummer's day? Join the ride that does that. Hate Christmas? Join the 25 Dec morning trip round Hyde Park. Love Christmas? Ditto - you'll enjoy it anew. Like music, pubs, picnics, countryside, cityscapes, socialising, just that London-buzz thing? There are rides for all this. And you don't hear people talk about saving the planet on them. They're too busy having a good time.

Such rides - organised or self-organised - encourage lapsed, first-time, or nervous cyclists onto their bikes, and occasional cyclists onto them more. The prospect of pleasure is more enticing than guilt or sacrifice. Discovering such pleasure, these new riders are more likely to fit two wheels into their lifestyle. In the 21st century the driver of social change is not stick, but carrot cake.

So this is the message that needs to get through to those earnest promo ads more. It might just help dispel the invented cliche of the ‘smug cyclist’, invariably used by people whose knowledge of ‘cyclists’ comes only from those ads.

Because cycling is interesting and fun. Like cyclists themselves.


Obviously that last line was written before I knew that Mr Bates was a cyclist.


  1. I couldn't (I mean, I really couldn't) have said it better myself

  2. I started cycling to work and back daily because it's cheap, good for me, and good for the environment. I got into cycling through exactly those three things. Turns out I enjoy it immensely and now ride a lot for both pleasure and fitness outside of my commute.

    I even need to remember those "virtuous" reasons why I do it when I look out on a cold wet morning. Sometimes, despite being a huge fan of cycling, I, like Mr Bates, hate it! Sometimes choosing a bike instead of a car is not enjoyable.

    In this time of needing to do something about climate change; in this time of financial belt-tightening; in this time of growing obesity and shrinking health, I think lots of people are likely to respond to the messages that you seem to dislike, and discover the joys of cycling as a result of trying to do something good.

    Of course, the opposite is true. Some people have a negative stereotype of cycling and need to be shown that it's fun/exciting, and often the media don't help us with that.

    Is there not a place for both types of marketing?

  3. @magicroundabout - thanks. I hope I didn't come across as contemptuous of cycling because it's green, cheap or healthy. That certainly wasn't my intention!

    Of course I'm really pleased that cycling is all of those things and, OK, if that's really what got you in before you found you enjoyed it so much, then that's great.

    I'm just worried that the fun element gets underplayed or lost. Some people may be persuaded to cycle because they feel it's good for them, but I'd prefer it if I could convince them that they'll enjoy whizzing around on two wheels as much as I do. I'll keep trying!

    And yes, of course, the marketing spectrum should be as wide as possible. I try to position my blog as quirky, enabling and fun. Others concentrate on exposing bad drivers and awful facilities, others cover policy issues in depth, others might look from a female perspective, and still others from a strictly environmental point of view. And we need them all, to reflect the fact that cyclists are not a breed apart but simply people of all types, who happen to get around in a similar way.

    Even, er, Mr Bates. I hope I wasn't too hard on him. 'Our Tune' was a load of cobblers, though...