It is a particular joy about life for many of us in Cambridge that we don’t need to rely on a car, or indeed public transport. Cambridge is a city whose size and terrain makes cycling feasible, and whose drivers are well enough inured to the idiocies of some cyclists that they can generally avoid colliding with them. I’d like to think it was the visitors on their hire-bikes who have bad habits in this regard, but suspect some locals are as un-road-savvy or just plain selfish in their ways as any visitor. Cycling makes us feel green (in the nicest way), that we are both doing our bit for the environment and simultaneously keeping fit. The latter may be overridden for those (not me, sandwiches at the desk I’m afraid in my case) who mainly use their bikes for nipping into college for a good lunch; the former may be not very true if the rider is also committed to a car for chauffeuring small children around. Although of course, for them, that lovely day will come when the kids get their own bikes and can (safely, one hopes) be let loose to get to school and activities by their own means.
For me, the bicycle gives me my freedom. It is the means to get from the Physics Department, situated out to the west of the city around a growing array of new university buildings sprawling over previously delightfully rural fields, to all points further east: to ever-more-frequent committee meetings in the centre of town, to the station for (too) regular trips up to more committee meetings in London and Swindon, or even out as far as Addenbrooke’s Hospital, nearly 5 miles away, to build up links with biomedical researchers. If I had to rely on a car life would, in my view, be much more awkward. I would like to say that with a bicycle unlike a car, parking is not a problem. Unfortunately this would not be true. Finding a cycle rack, or even a spare bit of wall, in the centre of town can often be a problem. Finding space to lock up your bike at the station – particularly if you arrive after about 10am – is a nightmare. There appears to be a collective failure of will to resolve this problem, even when so much money is being expended on renovating the rest of the infrastructure around the station for the oft-delayed guided bus. Nevertheless, it is almost certainly worse (and more expensive) for car-drivers.
I suppose one can get used to anything. I have known keen cyclists who have broken an arm and adjusted to life on two feet or becoming reliant on buses and taxis, but merely having a puncture for 24 hours is enough to provoke anxiety in me. My life fits to the schedule of bike-ride timings I have worked out, and I am too much a creature of habit to enjoy this pattern being disrupted. Occasionally I have turned up to important meetings looking less like a professor and more like a tramp, having been caught in a cloudburst without my waterproof trousers to hand. Sometimes, particularly if I’m running late and cycle at speed out to the Addenbrooke’s site, I arrive somewhat red in the face. But industrialists and research council employees can stereotype me as an eccentric academic and I don’t lose much face; my fellow academics have probably done the same themselves on many an occasion and so barely notice.
The bike-ride is my daily dose of sanity when I can briefly smell the air, fresh or otherwise, and watch the changing seasons. I can day dream a little (but not too much or the drivers get annoyed) as I organise my thoughts for the day ahead, or ponder on what has gone right or wrong during the day just finishing. My ride from home to work, a mere 12 minutes, enables me to tick off a few birds en route (today I heard a green woodpecker and saw a goldfinch, small moments of pleasure before the onslaught of decision making for the day, or confronting the email mountain). I would hate to lose that space and be forced to use my car (which sits in the garage in a lonely way) or double or triple the time allocated to ‘travel’ if I had to walk. But what a luxury not to be condemned to commute by public transport! I pity those who commute into London each day on crowded trains or have no choice but to sit in long traffic jams on choked roads such as the local A14.
My trusty bike is also well provided to permit me to shift surprisingly large amounts of work/luggage around (how many of you have read Quentin Blake’s entertaining Mrs Armitage on Wheels? That’s how I feel about my bike.) I have a huge basket at the front and a place for panniers at the back. And I tend to use this capacity to the full. It makes the bike very heavy, but since the city has few hills – the worst I am likely to have to cycle up is that at Garrett Hostel Bridge which, by any other city’s standards is a mere molehill – this is not really a problem. However, I am aware, as I heft my bike around, up steps and into those annoyingly high bike racks, that this cannot go on for ever. I am not as strong as I was, age will be catching up with me all too soon if it isn’t already, and I may have to face a future where I cannot any longer rely on this brilliant mode of transport and its accompanying freedom. I should make the most of being fit enough to enjoy the healthy and green benefits my cycle confers before arthritis or other infirmity forces me to relinquish one of my life’s small pleasures.