The peach wins! Why I like my bike

About the author
Caspar Henderson was openDemocracy's Globalisation Editor from 2002 to 2005. He is an award-winning writer and journalist on environmental affairs.
When I was small there was a public service spot on TV about road safety in which a child ran out into the road in front of a car. Just before impact the camera cut away to a slow motion shot of a hammer hitting a peach, producing a shower of goop and mush.

This simple message has worked – though not entirely in the way that was probably intended. In the intervening quarter century or so the number of people walking to school and cycling to work in Britain has fallen dramatically. This is one reason why the deaths on our roads – more than a dozen a week– are only a few hundreds of times higher than on our railways.

Those foolish enough to brave major thoroughfares without the protection of a metal box need to watch out. As David Begg points out, pedestrians and cyclists are more than twice as likely to be killed in the UK as in Sweden and the Netherlands.

So why use a bike in the big city? Here are four or five reasons.

Beauty: like the knife, the sailing boat and the wineglass, the bicycle is among the most efficient and elegant technologies ever devised or that ever could be devised. Propulsion with respect to effort is tremendous. Even in a congested British city such as London, riding a bike is often a pure pleasure – like sailing on a beam reach. Cycling in heavy traffic can be deeply unpleasant, but progressing through a cram of cars, their occupants trapped, fuming and being fumed, is deeply satisfying. It requires intense concentration and careful application of motor and awareness skills – rather like sailing into heavy weather against the wind and current. ‘8 1/2’ eat your heart out.

Speed and convenience: in a congested British city, a bicycle is often the quickest way of getting around. One has a sense of freedom and of being in charge of one’s own journey – a strong contrast to the rat trap-like conditions of our unreliable and overpriced underground railway system. The jams that immobilise motor vehicles just don’t apply. On a bike, parking is not a problem. And the ability to stop wherever and whenever one wants makes a bicycle ideal for exploring the palimpsest, chimera, maze of London.

The environment: J.H. Crawford is obviously right – cars dehumanise a city. A bike rider is more aware than a car driver of surrounding sights, sounds and smells. As a general but not universal consequence, cyclists are more considerate of their fellow human beings. Thousands of children suffer severe respiratory ailments because of motor vehicle fumes. Bicycles are zero emission vehicles, powered by renewable energy (soup and sandwiches) that can be used as a token, bogus offset by those of us who take long haul flights and contribute to massive greenhouse gas pollution.

I love the whiff of sulphur in the morning

Thrills and other psycho-dramas: biking is dangerous. The great majority of car drivers are considerate and careful towards cyclists. But thousands are not. To survive, therefore (I’ve been a city cyclist for around twenty years without injury), requires caution as well as luck: one should be endlessly accommodating – the Mr-Nice-guy-who-finishes-last, especially when motorists treat you with total disregard or seem to wilfully endanger your life by poor driving.

But it also requires a certain recklessness and bloody-mindedness. Chasing through the metal and poison, one is both hunter and hunted. Pulling away from a light, human muscle can accelerate a bike faster than an internal combustion engine can move most cars… at least for the first ten feet. One can play at being beyond Thunderdome, the savage in the world of Henry Ford and soma.

The war for a humane transport system has long since been lost. As the satirical newspaper the Onion puts it “Drugs Win War on Drugs”. But there is a perverse thrill in refusing to lie down: we few, we band of peddlers; the 54th Massachusetts against Fort Wagner; little boys throwing stones at a Merkava main battle tank. And it’s great when one stops. Biking sharpens one’s appreciation of the tremendous, intoxicating power of an automobile – if one can find an open road on which to enjoy it in what is anachronistically referred to as “the countryside”. The pleasure-rush of driving is greater after abstinence.

Despite a recent accident, my first in a dozen years, I plan to be on my bike today, tomorrow and the next day. The van with which I collided in that accident sustained a sizeable dent in its side panel while I walked away with hardly a bruise on the shoulder that had buckled the metal.