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 The video represents the loss of a culture of everyday bike use, which has been replaced by ever increasing car use in the UK.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 higher than that of the Netherlands 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.


Anonymous said...

Dear David
I've been reading your blog for quite some time now and enjoy reading it very much. We are frequent visitors ourselves to the Netherlands and love the whole cycling ethos there. I have two bicycles, both bought in the Netherlands which I ride with pride. One is a pink omafiets, single speed (thankfully it is pretty flat where I live!) and my other is also a dutch bicycle however this one has gears for the occasional time I may be required to cycle uphill ;)
I get many admiring glances when I ride my 'upright' bikes, but I agree, it its pretty much near impossible to buy a 'town bike' here.
I live in North Wales where we are slowly making progress with cycle paths, however the town I live in has great opposition to cyclists, as such that NCR 5 goes along most of the North Wales coast apart from our town due to the opposition against the path going along our (very wide) promenade.
Anyway I have rambled enough! We are very much looking forward to our next visit to the Netherlands, a weekend in October when we come over to do nothing but cycle and the odd stroopwafel...
Take care

Anonymous said...

I know what you mean- my own response was to get a reasonable quality mountain bike and rebuild it with what I wanted-thin tyres, mudguards, a decent saddle, and carrying capacity, because carrying everything on your back is a pain. But you wouldn't expect someone buying a car to start pulling it apart and rebuilding, and why, oh, why can't we make mudguards that work?
I'm glad of the gears because a three speed wouldn't get you very far in this area. Of course, many people only cycle in the village so they don't need the extra hill-climbing ability.

David Hembrow said...

Louise, I'm glad to hear you like the blog and your bikes. I hope you have a great time in October. I really don't know why so many British people oppose cycling. They certainly didn't in the past when more people cycled

Workbike, the mudguards on proper utility bikes really do work. Very well. You don't get wet, and they are robust and long lasting. The bikes as a whole are built for a purpose, all the bits are designed to fit together properly, and they "do what it says on the tin".

I've been in a similar situation to you before, having fitted those silvered plastic touring bike mudguards, which work reasonably well but in my experience are a bit fragile and don't last all that long. Mine have variously got shorter and shorter or been riveted back together with some reinforcing metal as they've broken at the mounting points.

The silly single end mounted crud catcher things things sold in myriad versions for mountain bikes (and a variant of which I have on my Xtracycle) are a complete joke. They don't follow the line of the wheel, so aren't in the way of the water / mud. They're almost as hopeless as the six inch long mudguards that used to be fitted on ten-speed bikes from the 70s.

As for 3 speeds ? Enough for anyone, anywhere ! Seriously, very few people had more gears than that back in the time when people generally cycled much more than they do now, so I don't really see why it should have become such an issue now that fewer people cycle.

Land's End to John o'Groats has been done on 3 speeds, and even on single speed bikes. There is a guy doing it on a penny farthing right now. I nearly did it on an old Moulton with a 4 speed Sturmey Archer gear - but in the end I'm afraid I cheated and had 21 gears on a nice comfy recumbent instead...

There are 25% hills in Cornwall. That's enough that you push a loaded bike however many gears you've got.

Kevin Love said...

One comment on loss of British bicycle culture:

Andy Capp and his pals used to bicycle everywhere. In today's cartoons there's nary a bike to be seen.

Kevin Love said...

Further to my comment, the last 30 days of Andy Capp can be found online at:

Nary a bicycle to be seen.

Adrian said...

Thanks for sharing this youtube link. I think your observation on the cultural and historical shift is spot on.

amoeba said...

Sadly the 1970s anti bike-theft video has been removed.