Bill's remarkable guide to happiness

Bill Bailey / 24 November 2016

Saga Magazine's new columnist, Bill Bailey on the pleasures of cycling – with or without lycra.

I am poised atop a ridge on a mountain-bike trail deep in a pine forest, inhaling lungfuls of the scented air. My heart is pumping and my legs are complaining from the steep climb. I am grateful for the full suspension and hydraulic brakes on this missile of a bike, plus I will never tire of the remote saddle-dropper button on the handlebars. As I push off, I glimpse a deer crossing the path ahead. Ah! To be amongst Nature! The sensation of speed, of freedom! This is what cycling is about… As I trundle down the trail, I let out an involuntary whoop.

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Much as I love cycling, I rarely whoop involuntarily on a bike in central London. I have, though, waited at traffic lights amidst a scowling peloton of angry Lycra. I have smiled and mumbled pleasantries, only to be met with silence, and looks of incomprehension and often pity.

There’s not much camaraderie, just testosterone-fuelled competitiveness, coupled with a strong survival instinct, which is essential. I was once smeared down the side of a black cab at Hyde Park Corner. My hands and startled face became pliant in contact with the window glass, causing great alarm to the commuters within. And also, I noticed a slight sense of ‘Wasn’t that whatsisname..?’ ‘Can’t tell. His face is too squishy’.

Compare this with the friendlier biking of Amsterdam, where no one wears a helmet. No high-vis, no special gear… just ordinary folk barrelling along on old-fashioned bikes, often smiling as they trrrring their bells and look happy in their resolutely Dutch way.

According to British Cycling, the sport’s governing body in the UK, more than two million people cycle at least once a week. There have never been this many people cycling in Britain. Sales of bikes are at an all-time high. Inner-city cycle lanes are getting the Daily Mail in a tizzy. ‘Stop this Cycle Lane Madness’ it says. ‘Don’t Let the EU/ISIS/Ruin our Cities/House Prices’ or variant thereof.

This renaissance in British cycling is a remarkable turnaround since the 1960s when sales of bikes were actually falling. City planners back then were not keen on factoring in cycle lanes, which has led to this awkward retro-fitting that we see now. I never feel entirely safe on a road between some painted lines saying ‘cycle lane’, much as I wouldn’t feel entirely safe swimming between floating markers in Cape Cod that said ‘shark-free lane’.

Compare this with the more enlightened planners of Denmark and Holland, who have never fallen out of love with bikes. In Copenhagen, there are dedicated raised cycle lanes through the city, with free pastry stops (ok, maybe not that). In Holland, on my recent tour there, a heavily tattooed and multiple-pierced roadie told me, ‘We grew up on bikes’. And to look at him, you’d think he meant Harleys not 1950s pushbikes with green plastic muffin crates bungee-strapped to the handlebars.

One of the few times I’ve enjoyed city cycling is on New Year’s Eve when a large part of central London is closed to traffic. If I’m performing in town, it’s actually the best way to get home. It’s marvellous to cycle under the Christmas lights, free of traffic. Just the sound of footfall and the muted progress of folk bundled up in winter coats. The burble of excited conversation. A rare glimpse of what cities can be, and all the better for gliding through it on two wheels. Weaving my way through the happy revellers, cycling up Regent Street, on the wrong side of the road, I laugh, and whoop involuntarily.

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