The bicycle has been a recurring theme in this column, and it re-appears because of the recent urging by the EC that we should all get on our bikes again, at least for the week now set aside annually to mark that most efficient, environmentally-friendly and health-inducing form of transport (apart from shanks’ mare) known to humankind - the bike.
Now I wish I could have complied with that most worthy recommendation of the European Community. I am an aficionado of the bicycle, but my beloved three-speed, heavy-duty Raleigh has long gone into the recycling netherworld. It went, with some tears shed upon it, when a very near accident miss (preceded by other near misses) finally decided the issue that my cycling days were over.
The final near-accident occurred on The Quays in Clonmel, when the occupant of a parked car suddenly opened the door. Only a strategic wobble saved me from a bad fall under the wheels of an oncoming vehicle. The door-opener did not say he was sorry. He abused me, cyclists in general and “oul wans” on bikes, in particular. The terrible things he said about bicycles and the maledictions he wished on the persons of all bike-riders, would not be allowed by the editor of this column.
This personal experience is typical of the arrogant attitudes and the bizarre climate of the Celtic Tiger years, when we lost our common sense, spent money which we didn’t have on building huge houses in the middle of fields, and went from shank’s mare to Mercs in a fraction of a generation. In that process we became fat, lazy, polluted our atmosphere, and drove ourselves into a frenzy of bad temper in trying to find a parking-place for the car.
So, now, the EC has asked us to re-think, if only for a week, and to return to a form of transport which is cheap, pleasant, does not guzzle the world’s resources, nor pollute the air we breathe, and that is so good not only for our physical but for our mental health. In thinking back on my cycling years, I realise that in travelling to school or work or the shops on a bike, I always arrived in good humour. Now medical science tells us why: the exercise of cycling and the fresh air, releases endorphins in the brain, giving us a natural feel-good factor.
There has, of course, been a huge increase in cycling as a sport and remarkably fit young men, clad in skin-hugging lycra with heads down, and cycling as a unit, have become a common feature of our country roads. But, it seems to me, that the encouragment of the EC has been directed to the more mundane form of cyling: to ordinary people wearing their ordinary clothes on ordinary short bike journeys, to work, to the post office, to buy a carton of milk or a loaf of bread at the corner-shop.
It is the sort of bike-usage that is quite common amonst our EC neighbours. I’ve seen the Danes cycle to the railway station, place their bikes in a compartment, and on reaching their required station, remove the bikes and cycle to their destinations. Cycling in The Netherlands is legendary. My four grandchildren in Germany, living in the suburb of a large city in Bavaria, all cycle to their schools and colleges every day, a round distance of twelve kilometres.
This type of cycling is achieveable through the facility of cycle-track networks, by rivers, canal banks, through parks and woods, and designated areas, respected by vehicular traffic, in city streets.
In these cycling-accommodating EC countries, children undertake a course in cycling, road manners, road rules, safety, and are not permitted to independently cycle until they pass a test. This saves motorists from the incipient heart-attacks, experienced by Irish drivers when wild young fellas, brazenly round corners in defiance of traffic lights. It is the sort of behaviour which gives cycling a bad name, and which sets motorists and cyclists in the role of mutural enemies,
The return of the cyclists into Irish streets, however, requires more than the annual tokenism of an EC cycling week. It requires the active facilitation by local authorities in the provision of a safe and friendly ambience. While some work has been done in the provision of cycle tracks in recent years, it has to be said much of that work has been little more than a cosmetic gesture - a compliance with statutory requirements in the most minimal way. A narrow space defined by a line painted on the streets is not a safe or comfortable facility. It is a space that is often parked on, intruded on by traffic, and allows no facility for a wobble. (An Irish Judge once said that every cyclist is entitled to “a wobble.”)
There is one ideally designed track in Clonmel - that from the Moangarriffe roundabout to Newtown Anner, but there is peters out. And that is the story of so many Irish cycle-tracks - they peter out. And it has to be asked if there is an in-built compatibility in the aspirations of our local authorities. Do they really want to encourage the bicycle if it results in a reduction in car usage, since so much of their revenue is derived from car-parking fees and fines?
But the EC - though at the moment it is gently persuasive - has ways and means of making us do not only what is good for us, but what is an imperative in the reduction of the pollution which, we are told, is seriously damaging our planet and threatening the survival of humankind. Vehicular traffic, the motor car, is the greatest contributor to that pollution for which the EC will impose very substantial fines on an Irish economy that is already staggering.
Cycling is a healthy alternative, benign, simple, easy-going, cheap. Do we get on our bikes because it is the right thing to do for ourselves and our environment, or because the EC will charge us mega-bucks if we don’t.