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Reviews: THE BICYCLE BOOK – Scottish Review of Books
by Bella Bathurst


May 13, 2011 | by Bella Bathurst

Bella Bathurst
HARPER PRESS, £16.99 356PP ISBN 978-0007305889

Cycling is dangerous. If bicycles had just been invented they’d never be allowed on the roads. Where cars have seat belts, crumple zones and airbags to protect the occupants against injury in a collision, cyclists have lycra and occasionally a plastic helmet that doesn’t fit properly.

So why do so many people cycle?
Since 2000, the number of people cycling in Britain has ‘doubled and doubled again’, according to Bella Bathurst in The Bicycle Book. The answer is that cycling remains the cheapest, most efficient, most convenient form of mechanical transport ever invented. In cities, it is also the quickest, which is why courier services use cyclists to deliver messages. When people ask me why I cycle, I don’t say it’s because of the environment, or to get fit, but because I’m too impatient to go by car.

The Bicycle Book is written by an enthusiast for enthusiasts. It is based on interviews with cycle couriers, racing cyclists (including world record-breaking Scot, Graeme Obree), and other bikers. Bathurst looks at the bicycle in wartime, doping in the Tour de France, and how to make the best frame. The origins of mountain biking, one learns, lie not in California, home of extreme sports, but in Britain at the start of the last century. She even travels to Calcutta in order to try out a tricycle rickshaw.

If there’s an air of familiarity about The Bicycle Book, it’s because there have been a number of books like it, such as Richard’s Bicycle Book, a cycling manifesto, written by Richard Ballantine thirty years ago. Both books may even share some of the same reproductions of quaint Victorian illustrations. Cycling, Bathurst’s book suggests, seems to get rediscovered anew by each generation.

Bella’s Bicycle Book is a very readable addition to the genre. It updates Ballantine’s original for a less political, more individualist age. This is not so much a manifesto, more a celebration of the sense of personal fulfilment that comes from being your own means of transport. Bathurst is a journalist, and her book reads like a series of connected features articles. She has an engaging, slightly breathless style which occasionally lapses into jolly-hockey-sticks flights of fancy. ‘Instead of road-tripping it around America as in the old days, family holidays are now spent hurtling through the Austrian Tyrol like two-wheeled von Trapps.’ Hmm. Not sure many are, actually.

But at least she has avoided the nerdy aspects of cyclophilia: arcane debates about gear ratios, wind resistance and how often to shave your legs. This might be because cycling itself has been undergoing a back-to-basics phase with the courier-inspired fashion for ‘fixies’: stripped down bikes with no gears, no freewheel and, for purists, no brakes. It’s not for the faint-hearted.

Beware, cycling can change your life. Bathurst cites the case of Eva Ballin, who came to Edinburgh sixteen years ago to do a Ph.D, taking up cycling as a way to relax. She ended up quitting her academic career to become a bike courier. Cycling is a bit like that – compulsive, addictive even, perhaps because of the combination of endorphins and, no other way to put this, the sense of superiority that comes from sailing past overweight commuters sitting in traffic jams.

In any rational transport policy bikes would figure prominently because of carbon emissions alone. But there is a problem which enthusiasts like Bathurst underestimate: safety. Today’s paranoid parents are reluctant to allow their children onto the road on a bike. I used to take my toddler on a bike to nursery school through London traffic years ago, but times change, and today I probably wouldn’t be allowed to.

In an ideal world, car use would be reduced and we would all get on our bikes, but for now biking remains for many of us a slightly dangerous habit – a bit like taking recreational drugs. Which may explain why cyclists tend to be a little anti-establishment. And young. Older people find the idea of puffing up hills undignified as well as unsafe. Bella Bathurst doesn’t mention electric bikes, which is a pity because they are getting better all the time and could get many of us back in the saddle.

Iain Macwhirter

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by Bella Bathurst

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