Friday, 30 March 2012

Bike to Work Day - Masturbation for Motorists.

On one day this May, thousands of motorists in cities throughout the US will dust off their badly neglected bikes, oil the rusty chain, pump up the tires, climb on and join together in the biggest one-day circle jerk in the cycling world. On their way to work, many of them (in some cities) will stop off at various vendor stations to pick up pre-purchased T-shirts that will proclaim their onanistic 'achievement' for everyone to see.

I'm talking about Bike to Work Day. On this day (the actual date varies by city), motorists who happen to own a bike can choose to test how it would be to use it to get to work. Those who do it will feel great, not because they've actually achieved anything, but because masturbation always feels great! The day after, and every work day thereafter until Bike to Work Day 2013, all of these wankers will prove my point by happily getting back in their trucks, SUVs, midsize sedans, compact hatchbacks, etc., content in the sure and certain knowledge that they've made a difference: that they've done their bit for cycling, health, environmentalism and whatever other goal they think cycling one day a year accomplishes.

The problem is, because they all get back in their automobiles the next day, they haven't done a damned thing to forward the cause of cycling. On the contrary, what they've done every year since the League of American Wheelmen instituted Bike to Work Day in 1956, is help to cement the idea that cycling is 'the other' - elitist, nutty, unrealistic, annoying, and most importantly for them, more dangerous, more sweaty and less comfortable than driving.

There are four big problems I see with Bike To Work Day:

1. It encourages those of us who cycle to work EVERY work day to become disillusioned by those who bike to work one day per year. We see these poseurs claiming to be cyclists for one day, and we know damned well that these folks are just doing it for show, or to feel good about themselves. In short, where do I go to get MY freaking 'Bike to Work YEAR' T-shirt?

2. It makes people think they're accomplishing something for cycling, health and the environment, whereas in reality they are not. It allows them to happily ignore cycling for 364 days, it allows them to happily be as unhealthy as anyone else for 364 days, it allows them to happily pollute just as much as anyone else for 364 days, while all the time thinking that the one day a year they devote to cycling makes a positive difference out of all proportion to the time they spend on it.

3. It inspires a reactionary push-back from people who see the event as a rejection of driving. The sudden increase in cyclists on the road - many of them people who are not used to riding a bike in traffic - sends all the wrong signals to motorists who (thanks to media stories about scofflaw cyclists) might already bear a grudge against us.

4. It encourages people to fear cycling. Yes, that's right! One day a year (plus whatever few fair weather weekend days they spend on bike paths) is not enough to allow people unused to regular road cycling to get comfortable riding in the road with traffic, so when they go back to driving the next day, their feeling of accomplishment has much more to do with overcoming fear and unease than it does with finding comfort on a bike. As a result, any belief they have that cycling is uncomfortable and dangerous will tend to grow, not subside.

It's one thing to have one day a year for wannabe cyclists to devote to the bicycle. It's quite another for these same folks to commit to real change. Real change requires a change in attitude that lasts more than a few hours during a feel-good self-love fest. It takes a full-on commitment, and that cannot happen unless people decide to operate or organize things so that Bike to Work Day is EVERY work day.

The more cycling advocates encourage people to think that change can be accomplished by spending one day a year on a bike, the harder it is for us to accomplish real change.

I found out last year, after having participated in Bike to Work Day for the first time (I even bought the T-shirt), that the worst day of the cycling year is the day after Bike to Work Day, when we who cycle every day get on our bikes for our daily commute and realize that all that hype was for nothing - yesterday's self-professed 'cyclists' are all back in their cages again, because in reality, that's where they want to be, because these folks are motorists, not cyclists.

As one contributor to a local paper here in Maryland said in response to an article about last year's event: "...How many of them would be out there in the rain or cold weather? This is like those people who pick up trash in the park for two hours and suddenly think they're environmentalists. "

So starting this year, I aim to protest Bike to Work Day. Not sure how I'm going to do that yet, but I am going to do it. Luckily my one day of protest is not going to require much commitment - just like the motorists who claim to be cyclists one day a year, all I need to do is devote 1/365th of every year to it. It should be a piece of cake, and just like Bike to Work Day, I expect it will accomplish nothing, because in the end, cyclists cycle, drivers drive, poseurs pose, and wankers... well, you get the picture.

Thursday, 29 March 2012

Is There a Place for Bicycles After the Age of Fossil Fuels?

As we move beyond the first decade of the 21st Century, the specter of Peak Oil is getting more and more air time and being viewed as a real threat by many people. Now I'm not going to get into a debate about "Is it real or isn't it?" I'm more concerned about what i see as a more interesting question: If we assume, just for the sake of discussion, that Peak Oil were real, what place would bicycles have in a post-peak world?

I've had this discussion in a couple of Peak Oil forums, and the general opinion seems to be that they have little or no place. Even among scientists and writers who write on the subject, the bicycle gets very little mention. Generally, among the proponents of peak oil (most of whom have not cycled since they were kids), bicycles are regarded as toys, and are seen as having all the drawbacks of toys: i.e. they don't work without good roads, they break easily, you can't get replacement parts - and even if bikes did work, they cannot be used to help do the kinds of work that will need to be done in a post-carbon world. Even those who see bicycles as vehicles tend to downplay their usefulness in a post-peak world: people argue that they need delicate machinery, specialized polymers, high-end steel tubing and ball bearings, tires made from petro-chemicals, etc., etc.

I don't buy these arguments. Anyone who knows the history of the bicycle knows that the first bikes were made in the 1800s, out of low-end steel (or even iron) and sported tires made from good old fashioned renewable tree rubber. Also, the fact that a number of people have made working bicycles from wood, bamboo, etc. seems to call into question the notion that bikes need fossil fuels in order to exist.

Personally, I think the bicycle will be with us as long as we have a reason to travel over 4mph; I think bikes can work fine on dirt tracks; I think their use as heavy-load-carrying vehicles during the Vietnam War shows that, if anything, the bicycle is over-engineered, strong, rugged and will work in difficult conditions. I think history has shown that those who underestimate the bicycle often do so at their peril - the British did it at Singapore in 1942, when the Japanese soldiers, on bicycles, overran Malaya and surrounded the British garrison, resulting in the largest British surrender in history and the fall of Britain's 'Gibraltar of the East'.

But what do others think? Must the age of the bicycle end with the end of fossil fuels, or will that be only the beginning for the humble and disregarded bike?

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Why do these images bother me?

Recently, the owner of Lovely Bicycle, a 'bike pron' blog I enjoy as a sort of guilty pleasure, posted a set of images on Flickr (including the above).

I have to say, there's something I find deeply unsettling in images like this. Yuppies in faux-corporate-endorsed lycra and cleated bike shoes sipping energy drinks in a coffee shop during their weekend ride. It just seems so decadent and elitist. There's a level of almost imperialist wealth and arrogance on display here that is hard to ignore. Hard to get beyond the thousands of dollars of equipment on display in these images to the place where I can appreciate the simple freedom and enjoyment that cycling should encompass. I'd be willing to bet that none of these guys cycles to work at a coal pit or works on the shop floor at a clothing factory or in a machine shop. Every stitch and every bit of polymer and alloy on and around these guys yells: "Look at me! I'm wealthy enough to spend thousands on my toys!"

Here's a similar example from another site which somehow doesn't seem quite so bothersome to me (maybe it's the bad haircut that indicates a hint of humility that's not in evidence in the above images):

What's missing from pictures of expensively decked out cyclists, in my view, is the pure simplicity of getting on a bike and pedaling. Here we have the art of cycling, corrupted, complicated and turned into a pursuit of the moneyed elite (or more precisely the upper middle class). Here we have the modern equivalent of Marie Antoinette declaring contemptuously: "Let them eat cake!"

Would such cyclists happily mix with the sort of cyclist who rides a Schwinn he bought for $150 at Target, who doesn't just cycle on fair weather weekends, who (like me) commutes to work every weekday, rain or shine, in jeans and a cotton T-shirt, and who celebrates the end of the week, not with a glass of Chardonnay at a wine bar, but with a beer at his local pub?

In other words, would they be seen with someone like this guy:

Somehow I don't think so.

Maybe it's just that I'm an angry pinko commie who is jealous of these guys and their loot. Maybe, like many folks, lycra just pisses me off for some weird reason. Does any of this make others unsettled, as it does me, or am I being crazy/stupid/bigoted?