oD Blog

Political bicycles and the Living Wage tour

Julian Sayarer
20 September 2014

Bicycles are political. It’s as simple as that. They are political because they are deviant from the conventional norms of transport and the vested interests – oil, automobile, megaproject – around which those models have been designed. As such, bicycles have – at the very least – this willingness to deviate in common with much of the agenda broadly defined as progressive politics.

Bicycles are political because, partly owing to the nature of this difference, they open up in the many people who love riding them a sense of possibility and empowerment that comes from being the active engine of one’s own journey, rather than only the passive consumer of transportation. At the V&A’s exhibition, Disobedient Objects, bicycles make a number of appearances; whether that be shuttling the wounded from Tiananmen Square or ferrying sound systems. They are humble and efficient machines, and so it is no surprise that they are a good friend to Protest. Lastly, I’d say bicycles are political because they unavoidably put humans into contact with the world around them, but more importantly, with one another. Much as the advent of the railways made for large and uncomfortable affronts against the British class system, so do bicycles offer similar opportunity for disruption. 

I was born to lower middle-class parents newly immigrated or (in my mother’s case) returned from lives in Turkey. I was brought up in a Midlands town of drugs, unemployment, fights and not a great deal more. Two years ago, considering interview subjects for article on the national practice of ‘banker-bashing’, I considered the one billionaire and handful millionaire financiers I know (and for the most part quite like), wondered how I’d ever come to meet men (they were all men) of such wealth, and soon realised that each was through connections involving bicycles. That bicycles are – in essence – a very simple, efficient invention that does a job well is a feature of great unifying potential.

My platform for talking bicycles and politics stems mainly from 2009, when I broke a world record for a circumnavigation by bicycle. It’s a bizarre feat – one I still battle not to be defined by – in which I rode 18,049 miles in 169 days, for 110 miles a day across the land masses of 20 difference countries. At the point of my embarking on the record, and the only reason I ever thought to attempt it anyway, the record stood at 193 days; set in conjunction with Artemis Investment Fund, a newly bailed-out Lloyds Bank, and seemingly anyone else willing to throw money at the expedition. That a smattering of charities were along for the ride did nothing to lessen my ire. A politics student who’d already cycled a handful times from London to Istanbul, it genuinely offended me that another man of similar age (and also a politics degree) had sold my bicycle and the spirit of the road to corporations who cared little for the core values of either. The protest that my own record formed lives at the website This is not for Charity. The book that tells the story of the ride, Life Cycles, came out in June and was generously and eloquently reviewed for oD by Tony Curzon Price. I like to see the story most of all as a 12mph chronicle of world politics on a bicycle.

The book is the reason I’m writing now. I’m grateful to oD for lending me your attention to promote the Life Cycles Living Wage Tour I’ll be riding over the coming month. I’ll be cycling 1000 miles around 12 UK venues, reading from the book and talking on the themes of social observation and change that were at the heart of both the ride and book. Caroline Lucas is due to attend the Brighton launch of the tour, chair of the All Party Group for cycling Julian Huppert (almost single-handedly preserving the respectability of the Lib Dems) is due to attend in Cambridge. Bristol Mayor, George Ferguson, who takes his salary in the local currency of the Bristol Pound, will hopefully be along in Bristol.

I rode This is not for Charity as a protest – I’ll ride the Living Wage Tour as a campaign, and determined to find some outlet for the energy of the tour, I’ve partnered with the Living Wage Foundation. To draw attention to the £7.65 an hour Living Wage, I’ll be living on £7.65 a day as I cycle the 1000 miles of the country’s roads. I was never opposed to charity per se, and This is not for Charity backed both the New Economics Foundation and Tax Justice Network. Where they campaign to fix problems rather than only patching them up or sustaining the fallout of unfairness, I naturally have great respect for the work of many charities.

oD’s readers, whether in direct support of oD, or no doubt in other labours, are already likely as active as any in trying to bring change but if you have remaining time, energy or money to contribute to the Living Wage Foundation in the name of the tour, all support is of course very gratefully received. My goal is to raise £10,000 to fund a staff member who will manage the administration of companies wishing to become accredited as Living Wage employers. As such, a donation goes directly to alleviating in-work poverty, and it should (but sadly – given the cult of the charity bike ride – doesn’t) go without saying that none of the money raised will be paying for me to go cycling.

The simplest tie between Life Cycles and the Living Wage Foundation is that I cycled all around the world and everywhere, as in the UK, found infinitely good people working hard only to tread water and stay poor. The problem is so horrendously common that it has lost even the tendency to be seen as a problem at all, only a new normal to be accepted by the world’s downtrodden. Many countries I rode through have yet to make the leaps of civil society and rights that allow poverty to be seen as anything but a law of nature and Western nations, backsliding in a race to the bottom, are abandoning values we should be proud to champion 

This is not for Charity was a genuine attempt to show that travel, adventure and expeditions can – like the rest of society – be done so differently, and so much better than the model offered by alpha males and their corporations. At the age of 23 I wanted so badly to change the world by my record – it’s an ambition I still hold, albeit hold more calmly. I’d be reticent in sharing this goal with many audiences, but with oD readers I find it comes comparatively easily to me. I’ll always hold this magazine incredibly dear, for in it there lives that same utopian spirit, an unashamed courage to believe in something better.

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