Friday, 26 September 2008
Britain's loss of a cycling culture
This is a 1970s anti bike-theft ad from the UK, but I think it has more to say than just a warning to lock your bike.
Look at the people in the ad. All ages, both sexes, no special cycling clothing. It is from an age when cycling was a normal activity in the UK, not something for the athletic and not something influenced by an "extreme sport". The video represents the loss of a culture of everyday bike use, which has been replaced by ever increasing car use in the UK.
During the 1970s and 1980s, Britain's cycle culture changed. The use of traditional English town bikes decreased sharply, leaving Pashley as the only manufacturer. The Dutch used to make a big deal of using English parts on their quality bicycles. Many English people now think that bikes of the traditional English style are Dutch.
During this period, the older utility cyclists nearly disappeared and were replaced in rather smaller numbers by youngsters who ignored the old and imported the mountain bike from sunny California.
I've absolutely nothing against mountain biking as a sport. It's not my sport, but I wish all luck to those who do it. However, the bikes are dreadful for utility use. It is now quite difficult to buy an inexpensive bicycle in the UK which is not styled like a mountain bike, even those sold as "hybrid" bikes tend to lack the features needed for utility cycling. Trying to use these things as utility bikes is part of what has driven the British away from cycling.
Inefficient knobbly tyres slow you down, no mudguards or chainguard mean you get dirty, especially on rainy days, no luggage rack means carrying your worldly goods uncomfortably on your back, exposed derailleur gears are unreliable, removable lights and quick release parts result in having to carry half the bike around with you when you park and a hunched over riding position does nothing good for comfort. It all adds up to making cycling rather more hard work than it ought to be. (All is not lost: You can buy parts to make an MTB more practical)
Getting back the European town bikes that the UK used to be full of is a large part of getting back the rate of cycling that other European countries have kept. Britain's cycling rate in the 1950s was similar to that of Germany today. People in the main rode single speed or Sturmey Archer 3 speed hub equipped steel frame bikes fully equipped with mudguards, racks etc. They rode these in hilly areas as well as flat areas. The right tool for the job.
If you want advice on wine, you're better off asking someone who appreciates good wine than asking a teatotaller. Similarly, if you want to see what bicycle works for utility use, look to a time or place where utility cycling is common. What you see everyone using on the streets during the rush hour, on the school run, at the shops, at church and in the bike shops is the ideal machine. If you're in any doubt, see the photo on the right, which shows a typical selection of bikes parked in Assen, along with a typical cyclist, in normal clothing. Just like everyone in the video at the top.
The Netherlands was for a long time the largest market for the British manufacturers Sturmey Archer and Brooks. They were so popular that cycle paths were named after them.