Wednesday, March 25, 2009

On ya bike

The bicycle may have been around for centuries, but as a popular means of transport it is starting to stand on its own two, um, wheels. As petrol prices sky-rocket and commuters are increasingly finding themselves in frustrating traffic jams, it seems that in the battle for survival of the fittest, cyclists are finding themselves streets ahead. So I have decided to take the path less travelled and find out why bikes are so great.

As I strap on my helmet and unhook my bicycle lock, I notice one of my neighbours across the courtyard. He is also preparing his “vehicle” for the daily commute. We exchange pleasantries. His bike is a true relic from the 1970s. He tells me with confidence that a dodgy looking bike is far less likely to be stolen. That is a truism I now know from bitter experience. When I bought my second bike (may the first one rest in peace) I was thrilled when it was labelled “un-steal-able”. With clunky gears, an uncool frame and the “wrong” kind of handlebars, the two of us were a match made in heaven. Just to make absolutely sure, I have dressed it with embarrassingly alternative bumper stickers that will hopefully cause any self-respecting thief to think twice.

Once I have my pants tucked into my socks in a truly stylish manner I wobble as I wave to my neighbour and away I go. The first hurdle is the intersection at the corner shops where one must cycle uphill before passing the bus stop. Huffing and puffing is definitely not cool, as there is invariably an audience of bus commuters politely lining up. For the sake of the cycling movement, I must pass this point with grace and ease, ideally leaving the bus commuters with the distinct impression that cycling is fun, safe and speedy.

Having gotten a head start on the bus, I cruise confidently through the backstreets of Glebe. It’s around this time that my neighbour sails past me – a reminder that “speedy” is relative. But hey, I wave, wobble and keep peddling away. Usually the bus with its commuter cargo catches me up around the intersection of Parramatta road and I smile smugly to myself as its occupants again have a chance to admire the brilliance of the bicycle as a superior means of transport.

While I have noticed an increase in cyclists around town, Sydney has been slow on the whole to take up the bicycle path. Amsterdam, well known for its bicycle lined streets, is where I was advised that the best option is to have a really cheap bike with a really solid lock. In Geneva, where diplomats can be seen arriving for United Nations meetings by bicycle with their trouser pants tucked into their socks and women carry their baguette home in the basket on front, I realised that cycling can be part of everyday life. In Kakamega town in western Kenya, where bicycle taxis are in abundance, I learnt how to hop smoothly onto the back of a bike without looking too awkward.

As I leave the commuters behind and head for the park, I am reminded of how good bicycles are for mental and physical wellbeing. As the pressures of high powered jobs take their toll on us all, we are becoming more sedentary, more stressed and less happy. There are higher incidents of people with heart conditions, mental health concerns and vitamin D deficiency. Regular exercise and sunlight are an excellent remedy. Riding to work seems to me the perfect solution. With bicycles, the ironic habit of driving to the gym will become a thing of the past. When I cycle to work and back, I get my exercise while I commute – an excellent use of time in a time-poor society.

There’s nothing better than gliding down that final hill at full speed while other pedestrians fade into the horizon behind. When larger vehicles are caught in a nasty traffic jam and their drivers are wondering if they will make it to work on time, we cyclists are calmly weaving between the other cars, or simply cutting across a park nearby. As I approach the gate of my workplace, I see a resident departing. He is taking is son to playgroup on the back of his bike. The two-year old, who is completely at ease in his little bicycle high chair, gets very excited when he sees me. “Bike”, he declares happily and I am satisfied. With just one word, he has confirmed for me that two wheels, not four, are the choice of the next generation and the way of the future.

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