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In praise of utility cycling

7 Jun 2019

I used to be a professional cyclist. I once won a £10 cash prize for finishing last in the final of the grass track 800m handicap at St Andrews Highland Games. But I earned a more regular wage riding my bike as a postman, courier and tour guide.

As a postman, I delivered 40-odd kilograms of junk mail and Amazon packets to 500 addresses every morning on a bike that weighed the same as a garden shed and was powered by three Sturmey-Archer hub gears (the Royal Mail has since phased out bicycles for vans).

As a courier in London, I used to weave in and out of traffic and could lock my bike, make my delivery to a po-faced receptionist in the glass and chrome vestibule of a Soho ad agency and be outside receiving my next job over the walkie-talkie in less than 17 seconds.

I was also paid the highest compliment when a black cab driver once flagged me down to ask for directions.

And as a tour guide in Egypt, I led my groups around the sights of Luxor and the desert oasis of Siwa on a fleet of rusting mountain bikes, delivering a stream of information that ranged from the history of various 5,000-year-old temples to how to correctly use the handlebar grip shifters.

Delving even deeper into the Ward archives, I’ve commuted to various jobs, notably from my home in Liverpool to my post as chief reporter at Wallasey News – a 12-mile journey that involved probably one of the greatest urban segments in the world, a 10-minute crossing of the River Mersey by ferry.

Fit for purpose

In the days before high-wicking garments or workplace showers, and because I never knew if my working day would take me to court, council or a funeral, my outfit of choice was a pair of moleskin plus-fours, tweed jacket and bow-tie.

And yes, this being 1980s Liverpool, my sartorial choices were regularly met with abuse (my first piece of ‘proper’ cycling clothing wasn’t acquired until a few years later when, in London, I was presented with a Carrera Jeans-Vagabond jersey, as worn by that year’s Giro and Tour winner Stephen Roche, as a leaving present).

So my background involves a fair share of utilitarian cycling – functional rather than recreational riding – a tradition that stretches back more than a century to when bicycles became an affordable mode of transport for the masses.

It’s a tradition that many big names from the peloton were part of, too. Tom Simpson and Fausto Coppi both got jobs as grocery delivery boys after leaving school. Simpson earned ten shillings a week, painted his bike bright red and eventually swapped it for a lightweight racing bike from one of his customers.

Coppi’s bike was cumbersome too, but his delivery round happened to be in the town of Novi Ligure – ‘a kind of factory for producing gregari in the 1940s and 1950s,’ writes John Foot in Pedalare! Pedalare! – and one of his customers was two-time Giro winner Constante Girardengo.

Flandrian hard man and three-time Paris-Roubaix winner Rik Van Looy also started his cycling career riding a heavy fixed-gear bike, leaving school at 13 to deliver newspapers. They were just three of the millions who rode bicycles to, from and for work in post-war Europe.

Maverick engineer Mike Burrows – the man behind Chris Boardman’s Olympic gold medal-winning track bike – once described the bicycle as the only piece of sports equipment that could save the planet.

He wasn’t referring to bike racing. All those team buses, support cars, motorbikes, helicopters and fans’ motorhomes leave behind one of the biggest carbon footprints of any sport outside of Formula 1.

No, the bicycle that will save the planet isn’t the £10,000 Pinarello Dogma ridden by Chris Froome, it’s the more humble version used by commuters, posties and delivery riders.

They don’t ride their bikes to bag KoMs. They defy homicidal van drivers, badly planned infrastructure and the fickle British weather because it’s their daily commute or way of earning a living.

They may face wardrobe and hygiene dilemmas – my moleskin plus fours were distinctly musty by the end of the week – and be frowned upon as weirdos by their colleagues, but each of them deserves our praise.

You may think the rider who records their two-mile commute to work on Strava isn’t worthy of your ‘kudos’. Trust me, they are.

Each commuter on a bike is one less driver on the road, one less ton of metal taking up space and spewing out toxic fumes, one less statistic burdening the NHS with Type 2 diabetes or cardiovascular disease.

‘Active travel’ is now the buzzword in town halls up and down the country. Two former pros – Chris Boardman in Manchester and Sarah Storey in Sheffield – have been employed to implement solutions to a modern-day malaise: all those people who think driving less than a mile to the shops or school is somehow a good idea.

To echo Tim Krabbé in the opening paragraph of his novel The Rider as he contemplated a group of non-cyclists: ‘The emptiness of those lives shocks me.’

There are all kinds of reasons for riding a bike. But riding to or for work – whether it’s to save money or save the planet – is surely one of the best.