Are we all riding the wrong bike?

As I fiddled with the locks that had kept my Bakfiets secured to the bike stand outside one of my local supermarkets I watched with interest, then wonder, then alarm as a fellow shopper carefully hung a bag on each end of her mountain bike’s handlebars and then lifted a shrink-wrapped case of six two-litre bottles of mineral water on to the crossbar. For a brief moment she considered the possibility of trying to ride away but before gravity was forced to illustrate the error of her ways she thought better of it and wheeled the heavily laden machine towards home.

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Amsterdam: the bike as an everyday tool

It was a relief to watch her walk away. It had been all too clear all too quickly that here was a shopping trip that could have ended in broken bottles, broken bags and, in all likelihood, broken bones. I suspect she would not have made it more than ten yards without mishap and whatever your thoughts on bottled water (and it is difficult to escape the conclusion that no one who lives within a 500-mile radius of where I live actually needs it) its transport should not involve bloodshed.

This little tableau was another small speck of grist to a mill that has been grinding in the back of my mind for some time. The question that has been occupying me on and off for months is simply this: are we all riding the wrong bike?

Now I’m the first to admit that not everyone wants to ride round on a skip on wheels but there does seem to be an obvious disconnection between the bikes that the majority of people are riding and the job that the majority of people want a bike to do. Even in Oxford, which is a cycling city, the off-road bike – or at least a bastardised version that has been inspired by the mountain trail – is prevalent. The majority of these bikes boast enough gears to allow you to tie your chain in knots and still ride up your roof but few seem to have anything that is specifically designed to enable the rider to carry anything that is not strapped to their person. While the wicker basket is not unusual (as I say, I live in Oxford and some traditions, however self-regarding, hold fast), it seems increasingly obvious that most of the bikes on our streets are not fit for the purpose of using a bike as an everyday aid to living.

If you are lucky enough to be choosing a bike that is going to accompany you on life’s great adventure there is a fairly simple question-and-answer session that you need to attend to before you saddle up.

Question one: do you want to get dressed specifically to ride a bike? If your answer is ‘yes’, you are a roadie and you will be carrying only the things that can fit into the three small pockets on the back of your jersey or in the bottles fixed to your frame. You will have no interest in going to the shops and, owing to your likely choice of pedals, no ability to walk round them if you did. Move on; there’s nothing for you here.

If your answer is no, it is more likely that you just want a bike to get about on, one that will save you the faff of getting on the bus or getting in a car and trying to find a parking space when all you wanted to do was go up the road to get something, visit someone or have a drink. And so to question two: are you likely to need to carry something on any of your journeys in the next six months? If your answer is no you have to go back to question one and face the fact that you are actually a roadie and condemned to riding only the narrowest of tyres and narrowest of saddles for the rest of your life, like a cycling Sisyphus.

The only possible answer to question two is ‘yes’; of course you are going to need to carry something. Whatever your purpose, be it work, pleasure or duty, you are going to need to carry a bag or some books, a coat or a bag of chips in the very near future. Therefore you are going to need a basket; or a rack with a springy elastic cord; or some panniers; or one of those natty, 1950s-style saddle bags.

So why do so many people ride around with countless gears but nothing in which to put their gear? There will, of course, be as many reasons as riders but among the most common factors will be happenstance (this bike happened to be available/handy/unlocked/still in the shed), cost (a Chinese-made pseudo-mountain bike with plastic brake levers was the cheapest thing I could find) or availability (I went into my local bike shop and it seemed to be full of high-end mountain bikes or road bikes requiring a specific, highly colourful and highly unflattering wardrobe).

If riding a bike is to become an everyday transport option for a sizeable proportion of the population, rather than a lifestyle choice for the committed, the bicycle has to be reduced to the status of a convenient tool, rather than shrouded in mystery or fetishised as the choice of champions. The everyday bike needs to be sturdy, upright and at the front of the shop. There should be a choice of sizes (small, medium and large should do it), a choice of colours (black, blue or red; anything else as a special order) and a variety of carrying options (basket, panniers or the common Dutch, which entails a folding, front-mounted rack designed to hold a beer crate or a friend; the full Dutch involves the aforementioned skip with wheels and need not concern us for the moment). There should be a minimum number of gears neatly contained within the rear hub (who needs more than three?) and a minimum amount of fuss surrounding the selection process. There should be a sympathetic individual to reassure the purchaser that, yes, while it is quite a lot of money to shell out on a bike, it will cost you next to nothing to keep on the road, you’ll still be riding it in 20 years and it will be a source of joy, all of which is in stark contrast to having anything to do with a car.

It is no coincidence that when you go to Amsterdam the first thing you notice after you have marvelled at the sheer weight of bicycle traffic on the streets is that all the bikes are almost identical. The two things that might dissuade you from hiring a bike to get around the city for a couple of days are first, that you will struggle to find anywhere to park it because every available stand and railing has a bike chained to it and, second, that if you did find somewhere to leave it you may well struggle to find it again among the massed ranks of black, sit-up-and-beg bikes. In Amsterdam no one really seems to care what their bike looks like as long as it does the job of getting them and their bag to where they need to go. It is a lesson we should learn in the UK as we strive to emulate our Dutch brethren.

So with two simple questions, you are on your way to a life of bicycling convenience, free from the necessity for special clothing or the dangers of things hanging from your handlebars. There is a third question: do I need a bike that can carry another three or four people, a month’s worth of groceries, three bags of sand or a barrel of beer? If the answer is yes we may need to talk skips.

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