Life on a Bicycle

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.

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16 Responses to Life on a Bicycle

  1. cromercrox says:

    Ah, memories. I had a bike when I was a graduate student in Cambridge – I was at Fitzwilliam, which meant having to negotiate Castle Hill – but about a year or so in I sustained a serious back injury after which I didn’t cycle. I did have a car, which was useful (I was in a student rock band with equipment to move) and had to go through the rigmarole of having to apply to the University for a special car licence. Mostly, though, I just walked. I rediscovered cycling at a holiday in CenterParcs a few years ago – and I now have a bike, bought from a friend who was emigrating. I have hardly ridden it though – it’s a question of getting back into the habit. One might think that Norfolk was ideal for cycling, being proverbially flat. Well, that’s as maybe, but the environs of Cromer are atypically rather hilly…

    However, now that school runs will be a memory within the next few months, and what with the price of petrol, I can see me dusting off the bike for short trips.

    • Yes I discovered the hard way that Norfolk wasn’t as flat as myth has it. Deciding to take a car-free holiday, we took the train to Sheringham, the steam train to Holt and then cycled to Blakeney and environs, panniers loaded. It was windy and more tiring than anticipated. But still worth the effort to have that freedom and not worrying about car parking. And a good way to explore the coastal region (and nearby hills).

      I was aware I had neglected to mention Castle Hill. Having been an undergraduate at Girton I was only too familiar with it back then, but rarely have to tangle with it now. But thinking of Girton reminds me of another Cambridge characteristic – the wind is permanently in your face. It was certainly true when cycling in against the wind for 9am lectures and cycling back later that day (often very much later, like at midnight) to college, again straight in your face. Or was that just an illusion?

      • cromercrox says:

        I don’t remember having to cycle against the wind all the time – but I DO remember that thermal underwear was an absolute necessity – and whizzing doen the hill of a morning and, with many other cyclists, slipstreaming behind buses and vans driving down Trinity Street, like so many remoras attached to a shark.

  2. @stephenemoss says:

    Now this is a topic that resonates with me. I’m not sure I could tolerate working in London if I had to rely on public transport or a car to get to work. On the odd occasions when I do have to take the tube (after work meeting/dinner, torrential rain) it is never anything less than purgatorial, but with the bike I get fresh air, virtually no expense, and I’m always guaranteed a seat. I expect my six mile ride to work may be slightly hillier than yours, as I have to go up and over Highgate, and at work I often have to lug the bike up flights of stairs to my office because the Institute lift is out of order. In fact, so frequently is it immobilised it’s become less a lift, more a small windowless room. But these are minor gripes, especially at this time of the year when the weather starts to improve and the days lengthen.

  3. Rachel Coleman Finch says:

    Thank you for a lovely post which expresses a lot of my own feelings about cycling in Cambridge. I really do enjoy the freedom and the general reliability of cycle journeys over public transport and cars. My family recently bought two new bikes for commuting and carrying our son to and from nursery after several years of mostly walking or taking the bus, and it has made the weekday routine so much more pleasant.

    I usually take the giant cargo bike, which though heavy is the most comfortable bike I have ever ridden, keeps the passenger dry, and often has an added bit of fun as people turn to take a second look. I struggle getting it up Castle Hill though. The other one (a ‘normal’ Dutch bike with huge basket on the front and child seat on the back) is a lot easier. The bikes were not cheap, but a lot less than a car, and far more convenient in this town.

  4. Hooray for bike commuting! I get distinctly grumpy on days like today when bad weather forces me off my bike and onto the bus – high winds today, but a combination of wind, hail, thunderstorms, and snow means that it’s been weeks since I was able to ride for more than a couple of days in a row! I don’t mind getting wet too much (although my tolerance for rain was reduced by a very very cold and wet ride from Vancouver to Seattle last year), but I definitely do NOT enjoy being blown all over the place and riding on slippery roads.

    I live at almost the highest point in a very hilly city, so my 6km ride to work is easy but the ride home is a good work-out. This is the opposite of my route profile when I lived in Glasgow (I started riding to work when I first moved there, 13 years ago, and I haven’t missed too many days since), and I find that I prefer having the uphill section on the way home, even though I do have a locker in the shower room at work so I don’t look too disheveled when I arrive at my desk! I really value the fresh air, exercise, thinking time, and being more in touch with my environment – in Glasgow my route took me along the river and canal and then through the woods, where I’d often see rabbits and foxes, and I now get to cycle through a huge cemetery, full of mature trees and with a mountain view, where I often see (or hear) coyotes. There was one evening not long before Christmas when I was cycling through the cemetery in the dark, and heard a siren start up a few streets away. The unseen coyotes on all sides of me started howling… it was eerie and beautiful. And I can’t wait for spring, when I’ll cycle under arches of cherry blossom and have to pick the pink flowers out of my gears at the end of every ride!

    As you and Stephen mentioned, I feel so sorry for those whose circumstances dictate that they have to commute by car or on packed, crowded, germ-ridden buses or trains. (I have no sympathy at all for healthy people without kids who live close by who insist on driving to work, though!)

  5. Klaas Wynne says:

    Cycling in the city is more stressful but still good. This past Wednesday I moved my lab from Strathclyde to Glasgow University (about 3 miles) and easily outpaced the Pickfords lorry! Glad I don’t have to cycle right through the centre anymore though, the West End is much more civilised.

    • Cath@VWXYNot? says:

      Wow, yeah, I’m impressed that you’d try to cycle through central Glasgow! I used to live in the West End (right on the corner of Byres Road and the Great Western Road), and worked at the Beatson Institute, out on the vet school campus in Bearsden, so my ride started in the Botanical gardens before linking up with the river path and the canal. It was all very civilised, except for the groups of schoolkids who’d occasionally throw stuff at you…

  6. Frank says:

    I’m jealous of all you cyclists. I have tried the two-wheeled device a number of times but I always fall off it. It is a real disincentive. I’d like to be able to cycle as it’s easier on the knees than running, so recommended as a form of exercise that you can continue well into later life.

    OTOH, living and working in places with the word ‘Hill’ in their names, cycling to work sounds like a tough one. It’s that final ascent at Mill Hill that would be the killer.

    • When I was a PhD student in London long ago, and used the NMR machines at Frank’s institute in Mill Hill, I sometimes used to cycle there from where I lived in Willesden Green. I have to admit, though, that I used to get off and push the bike up the hill! Similarly with Headington Hill when I was a teenager in Oxford, and some of the steeper hills in Bristol when I was an undergrad.

      Actually RIDING up steep hills always seems a bit quixotic to me. Walking and pushing is less effort, and never seems all that much slower. I know people say it is just a question of having enough/the right gears on the bike, but it never worked for me!

  7. Frank says:

    I think I need one of these.

  8. Oh dear. I live about four and a half miles from work but I’m afraid I have to admit that I drive in every day.

    It is partly a question of timing. The bus takes a deeply unpredictable 30-50 minutes, and I would have to sit with all the students, whereas in the Aust-mobile I can do the journey in barely 15 min, and almost never more than 25 even at peak hour. I have now reached the age when an extra half hr to have breakfast, or to have time to unwind before supper, has attained some significance in the scheme of things

    There is also the dismal local climate, of global legend. Standing in the rain in the dark at 5.45 pm is another major disincentive to public transport.

    As to bicycling, it is feasible, but still slower, and at the mercy of the climate. If I lived somewhere predominantly cold and dry (like Cambridge) I guess I might be more inclined to cycle… but “invariably damp and often pissing down” does tend to, er, dampen one’s enthusiasm.

  9. I’m impressed by those of you cycling in major cities like London and Glasgow (although the route Cath describes must be lovely, at least when without Glasgow rain). When I was a student, going back to London for vacation, I tried cycling in the city and it was clear a very different style of road usage was required from what worked in Cambridge, not least because of wide one way roads. I only tried Hyde Park Corner once though! Back then there were very few cyclists in London, but also fewer cars. I don’t know if the number of cyclists in London now make it safer – because drivers are more used to them – or not.

    • I used to cycle in London in the mid-80s, but mostly at weekends and “around” North and West London (rather than into Central London).

      The few times I did the Stephen M style weekday commute down to Bloomsbury from NW London I found it distinctly hair-raising, though there were plenty of people at UCL that did cycle-commute.

      Anyway, having spent my teens cycling round Oxford, I would concur with Athene that cycling in a major city, especially on major roads, is a different kind of proposition.

      • stephenemoss says:

        I suspect the sheer numbers of cyclists in central London do help to make it safer, at least with regard to careless motorists. But in fact it’s not cars, buses and vans that really worry me, these days it’s other cyclists and pedestrians who pose the greatest danger. Plus of course the gangs of yoofs who roam the streets near where I work – in 20 years I’ve been attacked once (not violently), had my bike bag stolen once, and been on the receiving end of some vegetable throwing. One or two cycling colleagues have had more threatening encounters, but I think one becomes adept at risk mitigation when cycling, albeit in a grim Darwinian sense.

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