Cycling regularly doesn’t only make you fitter, it can make you wiser
Over the past few years, I’ve tried to make the bicycle my main way of getting around. Since you cannot really do much else but think while you’re cycling in traffic (unlike car drivers, who seem to be on their phone most of the time) my mind is free (or forced) to think. Years in the making, here is my list of life lessons that cycling has taught me.
1) Taking up space is not only OK – it is vital
I was brought up to be considerate, to think how my actions affected others, and to act in a way which did not have an unnecessary negative impact on others. While cycling on a street shared with other vehicles, therefore, my instinct was to be as close to the side of the road as possible, in order to save car drivers the frustration of being blocked by a slow cyclist ahead of them. After all, I too drive a car regularly, and I know how frustrating it can be to be stuck behind someone driving too slowly.
But empathy, as sorely lacking generally as it evidently is, can, taken to excess, be dangerous – even fatal – for those in the weaker position. Walking in someone else’s shoes requires you to take yours off, but when the ground is strewn with broken glass and gaping gratings, you need to keep your shoes on. This image is as figurative as it is literal. The side of the road is indeed strewn with broken glass, nails, gratings that could easily swallow a bike wheel and send you flying over your handlebars. And that’s just the bike lanes. Drive too close to a line of parked cars, and you’re within “dooring” territory, whereby an empathy-deficient car user opens a door right into the face of an oncoming cyclist. People have been injured or downright killed that way. Driving too close to the side to the road also seems to encourage some car drivers to overtake you dangerously. So given the choice between risking injury by dooring or falling over onto a hard kerb, and between saving a car driver a few seconds of their time (which they are still bound to spend waiting at the next junction, traffic lights, crossing, etc) I choose my own safety, so in urban areas I ride towards the middle of the road. When I reach an area in which I can retreat and let faster vehicles overtake me, I do so and motion them to overtake me. But in the meantime, I look out for myself and take up all the space I need. That way, drivers can only overtake me at a safe distance; even drivers are afraid of other drivers, and the prospect of a head-on collision doesn’t appeal to all but the craziest of them.
My safety, my health, my life, are more important than saving a few seconds of someone else’s time (or mine).
I am trying to apply this lesson to other aspects of my life, mostly by accepting that I deserve to give myself space and to demand it where necessary, to consider the effect that decisions might have not only on others, but on myself. This does not have to translate into selfishness. I am merely empathising with myself, as I do with others.
2) You have to know when to improvise
Cycling has a duality to it. According to the highway code, we belong on the street, like cars, motorbikes and horse-drawn carriages do. But in many other ways we are more like pedestrians – our bikes move because of our pedalling efforts – and we are equally exposed to outside factors such as the weather and other road users. It is also perfectly possible for us to cycle in places no car would (legally) fit. This duality is frequently used against us – some drivers do not want us on the roads because we’re too fast, while law enforcement delights in fining cyclists for using the pavement – despite not showing an equal level of zeal when a car or a van parks smack bang on a cycle lane (I’m looking at you, Luxembourg City).
But this versatility can be used to our advantage. We can pick up our bikes and walk them on the pavement if the road proves to be too much. When a cycle lane ends abruptly because of roadworks, we can still ride on the street. Given the right tyres, we can ride through narrow, rough shortcuts or climb up a pavement from the road.
Let’s face it, in most countries, cycling infrastructure is piecemeal at best. Whenever there are roadworks, it is motor vehicles that take precedence, with the rest of us trying to get from point A to point B being ignored. And when this happens, you have to think of point 1) and make your own way .
To do this, you need the right tool for the job – in this case, your imagination, and a bike with tyres wide enough to survive climbing onto the kerb and back down. In life – what do I know – I’ve always been quite creative with solutions. I guess the non-cycling application of this is to look beyond your “cycle path” and see what other options you could possibly take. Just because no one else is doing it, it doesn’t mean they won’t be following you once you make your own way.
3) Power, in the wrong hands, is dangerous
Now we’re going to verge into more general territory. I’m a member of a few online cycling advocacy groups, and often, the discussion tends to go along the “bikes vs cars” dichotomy. Heck, there’s even a film with the same name (which is actually well worth a watch). In a nutshell, I do not believe that car drivers in general are monsters. And although cycling as a means of transport is cleaner, greener and healthier than driving, this doesn’t make cyclists living saints, either. In fact, some people in the cycling advocacy movement are downright assholes. But at least they’re on the right side of the debate. My point is that considerate people make considerate drivers, considerate cyclists, and considerate pedestrians. On the other hand, an asshole will be an asshole, but an asshole with a car is a disaster waiting to happen. Our widespread dependence on cars means that there are plenty of people who are highly ill-suited to be operating such powerful, lethal machines on a daily basis who do precisely that. Would they be any better people if they rode bikes? I would like to think that their vulnerability might lead to more measured behaviour, but even if they retained their same asshole rating, they would be far less dangerous than they currently are. Cars also can serve as cocoons that isolate their drivers from the world around them. On a modern Audi, you could be doing 180km/h without even noticing. This sort of power, and the luxury of isolation from road noise, the weather and engine rattle are great for the driver. I wish my car were more like that. The problem with this sort of isolation and the sheer power on tap is that in the wrong hands, there is very little that is against the driver. They don’t need to make any effort to go so fast, and don’t suffer any consequences for their speed. This disconnect from the external implications of their actions might lead them to be more inconsiderate and reckless. And that can be lethal. Is it surprising that CEOs and government ministers get driven in these sort of cars?
4) Plan for the change you want to see
Amsterdam is often touted as the capital of cycling, and for good reason. The city is flat, cycling lanes abound, and everyone and their dog uses their fiets to get around. But Amsterdam wasn’t always the cycling haven it is now, with around 400km of cycling tracks that it is today. Back in the 60s and 70s, cars had taken over the city, until in 1971 things reached a tipping point when over 3,000 people were killed in car accidents, 450 of them children. People protested and demanded safe ways to cycle, and politicians responded. As Gerrit Faber of the Dutch Cyclists’ Union notes: “It’s not what we have because of our genes. We built it – and other cities can, too.” This involved the introduction of measures that disincentivised car use, such as car free Sundays, and positive measures such as the construction of segregated bike paths. If the Dutch, with their absurdly cycling-friendly topography, had to plan for it, so do other countries.
There’s no way around it – if you want something done, you have to work for it. And that’s this point’s lesson neatly encapsulated. Without nurture, nature might not be enough to get where we want to. Reduce the things that are holding you back from reaching your priorities, and create an environment in which you can thrive.
5) Kindness is crucial
While cycling in traffic, you’re in a vulnerable position, and any act of kindness or considerateness has value.
Many times, being considerate when in a position of privilege, such as a car driver towards a cyclist or a pedestrian, or as a cyclist towards a weaker cyclist or a pedestrian, will not cost you much in terms of time or discomfort, but it could make a world of a difference to the person you’re being kind to. You never know how much they might need it.
6) Cycling is fun
You should try it.
Did cycling teach you any life lessons? Share them in the comments! Or write your own blog post if that’s your jam.