Zoe Williams on cycling cultures

London Cyclist columnist, Zoe Williams - We've good reason to envy other cycling cultures- but what can we offer in return?

Have you seen the Elf?  I've never felt jealous of the American cyclist before.  I never really thought America understood cycling.  Too goal-driven to see the romance, too speed-fixated to breathe in the atmosphere, the culture is all Lance Armstrong.  But then I saw the Elf.

I don't really understand it, to be honest.  It's solar powered, person-powered and ultimately powered by some kind of energy-store amalgam of person and sun.  It looks as big as a smart car, but can effortlessly switch from being 100 percent motor-powered to being 100 percent pedal-powered.  It looks a bit like the Sinclair C-5, except not rubbish.  Its devising says everything wonderful there is to say about modern life - the funding was all crowd-sourced and the profits...well, who cares?  It makes no difference where the profits go, because one day everyone in the world will have one and it will be like a currency in its own right.

Jealous of other nations
To be a cyclist is to be constantly plagued by the superiority of the way other countries do it.  We were all raised to be jealous of the Dutch, and rightly so.  They have the best culture.  They can occupy a full land of road without anybody complaining; they can have a great oversized wicker basket and people will find it charming.

You can imagine your mother cycling in Amsterdam.  I would as soon watch my mother cycling in London as I would watch her wrestling a giant squid.  At 15 to 18 metres, giant squid are not as large as you imagine.  And contrary to reputation, they are tenacious in battle but don't often win.  Nevertheless, you would find the battle gruesome were it to occur against a loved one, and that's roughly where I site London traffic.

In Paris, they have the best accident rate.  They regularly go a year without a single fatality, which should inspire every city.  They give it all this "bof, was that a traffic light?  I was actually checking out those beautiful macaroons", but in fact their attention is like a spy's, with the result that they don't kill each other.

And while we're in France, anybody who has cycled there will be awestruck by the manners of the lorry drivers.  They will crawl up a hill behind a cyclist going 10 miles per hour.  Is it because they are cyclists in their spare time?  Is it because they are paid a fair wage and aren't paid per unrealistic target?  I don't know.  All I do know is that the courtesy is so elaborate that, when you're not used to it, you feel embarrassed.

In Italy, they have amazing outfits.  On the crankiest old rust bucket, they still don't leave the house without some turquoise and gold lycra.  This brings a certain pride and nobility to the proceedings that we could all use.  As implacably opposed as I am to the institution of cycle registration plates, were someone to suggest and obligatory uniform... then I might be on side.

In many nations, they have better hills than we do: there's no point getting competitive about topography.  You just have to take it where you find it.  But that doesn't mean I don't sometimes look at Scotland and think...well...that is quite a testing ground, for the casual cyclist.  What might that do for your resolve, the insane beauty, the punishing inclines?

Inspired by your surroundings
What I like about Switzerland, Germany and Austria is the fact that you can cycle the route of the Sound of Music.  It is no accident that it was an Irish woman -Dervla Murphy- who first tried to cycle all the way to India...the landscape she learnt to cycle on filled her with confidence and a sense of possibility, while at the same time suffusing her with the desire to see more.  And while we're in India, I hate the idea of a rickshaw principle- the human being as a beast of burden- but I love the look of them, the ramshackle listing, the precariousness.

What do other people see, then, when they look at us?  What have we got that no one else has?  We have the scenester's obsession with the fixed gear bike, but I feel that people may laugh at that.  We have Boris Johnson and some bright blue cycle paths, but again I worry that people laugh.  But we also have Bromptons- perfect, ergonomic, slightly kooky unusual, erm...also surprisingly fast.   I bet other people envy those.

I advcocate a cycling sumposium, a global get-together, where we merge our thinking and end up with a solar-powered Brompton on incredible roads.  Just think of it.  I could put my envy to some use, turn it into an energy source of its own, as plentiful as sunshine.

Zoe Williams is a freelance journalist and columnist who contributes regularly to publications including The Guardian and New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the April /May 2013 issue of London Cyclist magazine, delivered free to LCC members every two months.


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