Zoe Williams: Two Wheels
When I became too pregnant to cycle, which, since you ask, was two weeks in, I lent my bike to my uncle Richard.
Published August 30, 2007 by The Guardian UK
By Zoe Williams
When I became too pregnant to cycle, which, since you ask, was two weeks in, I lent my bike to my uncle Richard. We are temperamentally very dissimilar, insofar as I will throw any amount of money at something in order to expend the least amount of effort, and he will throw any amount of effort at something in order to expend the least amount of money. This is how I ended up with a better bike than him in the first place, since he is by far the more expert cyclist, and yet still rides off, sometimes to places that aren't even in Britain, on a bike that looks as if it was assembled by some Walt Disney birds from bits of old washing machine and tree, in a charming tableau of nature meeting machine.
This has turned into an interesting experiment in the technology of lay-cycling. Sure, my snazzy black Orbea racing bike has innumerable advantages for the club cyclist, but is there any point, really, in me having it? Or any cyclist who probably does one long ride a fortnight, if that, and otherwise just cycles into town? Is there any point in my having those drop handlebars, when I really only use them to get a better angle for shouting at motorists through their car windows? Have I done the cycling equivalent of buying a Fender Jaguar just to play Love Me Do over and over again? Do couriers laugh at me behind my back, or more precisely, a long way in front of my front?
So, to Richard, with his – have I mentioned? – 50 years' experience of knackered old bikes. He does not think the gear-shifter moving up to the brake lever is a big improvement on the old-racer style, where the shifter was on the downtube (gears on modern racers are on the actual brake lever, so when you pull in, that's a traditional braking manoeuvre, but when you push it to the side, that shifts your gears). "Obviously it's an advantage to the professionals," he says, "but there's very little feel in it. I'm not convinced, for normal everyday use, that it's a vast improvement."
The incredible lightness of the modern racer – who would argue with that? Nobody, not even him. Once, I had cycled to King's Cross for a particular train, discovered it was actually leaving from St Pancras next door, and ran up a down escalator, carrying the bike. I looked like Arnold Schwarzenegger, I tell you – not because I am fit, but because the bike is incredibly light.
Richard also points out that modern racers are a lot more comfortable: "We used to have narrower handlebars. These ones are very wide – they don't constrict your chest." He thinks the wheels look elegant, though not as elegant as some wheels he had in 1967 that had great big flanges in the middle. I would tell you what a flange was, but the schoolma'm in me wants you to Google it like I had to.
I think, on balance, that what's sauce for the professional goose is also sauce for the hobbyist gander: even if you'll never get up much speed, there's not much to complain about with a lovely, shiny new racer, except that it's more expensive than one you'd find on a skip. Richard expressed shock and displeasure that, the first time he went out on the bike, he looked down and saw his nuts poking out of his shorts. Still, it's hard to see how the bike is at fault here.
And if I may finish on a complete aside; when my dad was learning to drive, at about the age of 55, he was tootling down the road when the instructor said, "Slow down here – that cyclist looks a bit funny in the head." And my dad said, "That's my brother"