Wheel life: A guide to Britain's new bike tribes
There are more bicyles on Britain's roads than ever before – and in more shapes, sizes and styles. But who's who in the nation's new bike tribes? Simon Usborne hits our city streets and country lanes to find out
Friday 06 June 2008
The Tribe: Recumbent Riders
The Rider: Stuart Dennison
The Bike: Burrow's Ratcatcher
I run a bike shop, and when we got some recumbents in years ago we stared at them for a bit and worried what we'd say when people asked about them. I didn't really understand why you'd want to ride one - they just looked a bit unnatural – so I thought I'd ride one home and that was that. They're just fun, easy and comfortable.
Nobody takes any notice of me riding around London because there are enough of us around now, but there are some places you go where people make stupid comments. I've even had things thrown at me.
It's true they're lower than upright bikes but you're still as high as car drivers and the big advantage of the riding position is reduced air resistance. The only thing slowing you down on a bike is air, and if you halve the resistance by riding a recumbent, you dramatically increase your speed. On a good recumbent cycle, a fast rider can go much faster than he or she could on a racing bike.
Unfortunately I'm an average rider on a fast bike, but I can still keep up and do long rides; last year, I did the Paris-Brest-Paris, a 745-mile ride in France that you have to complete within 90 hours. I definitely got some looks, but we thrive on the attention.
The Tribe: Fold-up Fanatics
The rider: Cliff Rice
The bike: Brompton M3LX
I've been riding Bromptons for about five years now. I take it on the train with me from Hertfordshire to King's Cross or Finsbury Park and then cycle to my office near Euston. It's so much more convenient than getting on the Tube, and the bike sits happily under my desk all day.
I get a lot of comments – I'd be a rich man if I had a pound for every person who says: "Ooh, I could do with one of those." It takes a bit of getting used to – especially the 16in wheels, which do affect the handling – but once you're moving along, it's fine. I've done the London to Brighton on it and kept up with the best of them. Tomorrow, I'll be competing in the folding-bike race at the Smithfield Nocturne, a bike event in London.
Some Brompton owners are the eco-warrior types who are devoted to their bikes, but there are more of us city commuters. I've had other fold-up bikes, but none of them has been as good as the Brompton. If for some reason I arrive at the office without it, people say, "Where's your Brompton?" – I've become associated with it now.
The Tribe: Fixed Wheel Nut
The Rider: Minh Ai Ton
The Bike: GanWell Pro
I used to ride a mountain bike but friends persuaded me to get a fixed-gear bike. At first I couldn't see why you'd want to have no brakes or gears but I loved my first bike - a Specialized Langster resprayed completely white, like an iPod bike. The idea with them is that you can't freewheel, but your shoes clip into the pedals and if you want to slow down or stop, you do it all with your legs. Anyway, it really looks the part.
Last year I got a GanWell, an ex-track frame imported from Japan. My friends at a bike website called www.fixedgearlondon.com built it up for me with chrome rims and I've stuck a little butterfly on it. It's a very personal thing – I don't have the same relationship with my GanWell as I did with my old mountain bike.
There's a massive fixed-gear social scene as well. People go to Brick Lane in east London to play bike polo on Sundays and we meet up with people from Fixed Gear New York or Hong Kong.
It's difficult to explain what it's like riding a fixed-gear. To brake I have to push back on the pedals - most people have a front brake but I didn't want to go drilling the holes in my GanWell. There's also a gracefulness to it and you have to look way ahead and anticipate the traffic. I can do a whole journey to work without even putting a foot down.
The Tribe: Manic Messengers
The Rider: Godwin Amoako (call sign "Kilo 5-7")
The Bike: Claud Butler Levante
I've worked in security and telesales but being a courier is definitely the best job I've ever had. I love it. I started nine months ago and my fitness levels are amazing now. And when the weather's nice it's great to be out and about and seeing new parts of the London.
I cover a big area and work from about 9.30am to 6.30pm. I don't know how many miles I cover in a day, exactly, but it must be a hell of a lot.
Most of the guys who do this job have fixed-wheel bikes, which means they have just one gear, but mine's a hybrid - a mix between a mountain bike and a road bike. I'll probably end up getting a "fixie" and would have one now if I worked in Amsterdam, but when I'm going up Haverstock Hill in north London, I'm quite happy to have the gears – it's horrible.
A lot of couriers hang out after work but by the end of the day I'm so knackered and all I want to do is go home to my missus for some food.
I'm not as aggressive as some couriers, many of whom take even me by surprise. Recently, a woman walked out in front of me while I was filtering through traffic at Parliament Square. I hit her so hard she was out cold for about a minute. I don't take too many risks but it's hard - most of us get paid by the drop and the faster you go, the more money you make.
The Tribe: Sit-up-and-beg Brigade
The Rider: Sian Emmison
The Bike: Bobbin Playbike
Riding traditional uprights is all about sitting up and cruising around town serenely – not tearing around with your head down. It's not aerodynamic but we're not interested in speed so much as comfort and style.
My bike has really wide handlebars which I can hang all my shopping from, and I've got a lovely straw pannier on the back.
You get a weird cross-section of people who go for uprights. There are young retro girls who want a bike to go with the whole vintage look, Europeans who are used to that style of bike, older people who want a bike like the one they used to ride, and trendy kids who want something vintage but edgy, painted in bright colours.
I'm a retro girl. I wear a lot of vintage clothes on my bike and can even cycle in a skirt and a mac.
My bike really sums up my values – it's all about looking old-fashioned but being modern. Pashleys fall into the same category but I think the bikes are a bit square to be honest - people who look like librarians ride them.
Pashley or Bobbin - we all tend to get ignored on the road, especially by couriers who hate us because we're always going too slowly for them. They just act like we're not there!
The Tribe: Weekend Warrior
The Rider: Eryn Nolan, 26
The Bike: Specialized Roubaix Pro
I started going to spinning classes at the gym just to lose weight but thought I might as well get out and do it on the road. So I got myself a Lance Armstrong training book and did a 14-week programme on spin bikes before I even got a road bike. Then I started riding with my boyfriend.
That was about a year ago and since then cycling at weekends has been a great way for me, as an Australian, to see the English countryside. I quickly started doing longer rides and on my birthday last June I did my first 100-mile ride. Pretty much every weekend since I've done the same. I like the longer distances because you have to look for something inside yourself to keep going when it gets really tough.
For the past month or so I've been doing races as well, which is becoming a bit addictive. They're typically about 50 miles, which is half the distance of "sportives" – the longer rides on set courses. My next big challenge is the Dave Lloyd Mega Challenge – 140 miles, over which you climb a total of 5,000 metres. It's in North Wales at the end of June.
I've joined a club in south-east London, called Dulwich Paragon – it's really fun to ride in groups with great people - and I've definitely developed a fondness for my bike. We spend a lot of time together and it's been pretty good to me.
The Tribe: Speed Bandit
The Rider: Joe Beer
The Bike: Quintana Roo
Time trialling is all about the wonderfully simple battle between you and the clock. Decades ago, it was a really clandestine activity where people weren't allowed to race on roads and would set off very early wearing dark clothes. It's all legal today but that subculture has a legacy; many courses still have secret codenames like P613 or U40.
The blue-riband events are 10- and 25-mile courses, in which riders start at one minute intervals. The real badge of honour is to do 25 miles in an hour, which isn't easy. You have to be fit but to gain every last second you need the right equipment, too. Just by changing my helmet I can shave of a whole minute over 25 miles and the same goes for my wheels, tyres, Lycra suit – even the little rubber booties that cover my shoes. You can spend £5,000 if you get all the best kit – and, yes, you do get a few odd looks.
The fastest courses are called drag strips – routes on dual carriageways or big A-roads, where passing cars drag you along by pulling air in the direction you want to go in. My best result is 21 minutes and 30 seconds over 10 miles, which is a 28mph average, but the top guys do it in just over 18 minutes, which is an average of 33mph. That's just incredible.
The Tribe: Workaday Wheelers
The Rider: Shirley Stewart
The Bike: Ridgeback hybrid
I've commuted in London for about 12 years now and started doing it to save money on transport. I used to live in north London and couldn't justify an annual travelcard, which I think was about 800 quid back then. I thought if I'm going to arrive at work sweaty, I might as well do it for free so I got a bike.
I have a Ridgeback but don't ask me what type it is – I just wanted a packhorse to get me to work. I put on my faded old pannier, which I've had for 16 years now. I don't see the point of spending money on stuff that doesn't need replacing. I smile when people go past me who have obviously spent huge amounts on their gear.
I've had my bike for about five years now but I only clean it when I get told off by the man at the bike shop, where I occasionally get it serviced. I commute about 11 miles each way now, from Forest Hill in south London, to Canning Town, in east London, where I work at a homeless hostel, and keep my work clothes and shoes in a cupboard.
On the bike I'll wear whatever will get me the least sweaty – usually the T-shirt that happens to be top of the pile. It's great exercise – I don't have to spend money on going to a gym. There's no way I'll ever go back to the Tube.
The Tribe: Tandem Tourers
The Riders: Peter and Sarah Bird
The Bike: Commotion Hammerhead
I was practically born on a tandem and started riding them in my early teens when I'd use one as an excuse to cycle to my girlfriend's – she only lived round the corner.
Nearly all tandem-riders are couples, and if you don't have a good relationship, you're not going to last. I'm on my third marriage now but this one's a very happy one.
Sarah and I go out all the time for rides around the countryside and sometimes we'll go on tours around France with other couples.
You've got to have a sense of humour and be sociable to ride a tandem. People come up and talk and you always get looked at when you stop. You've got to be happy with that or completely ignore it.
There are actually two sub-tribes of tandem riders. You get the sandal-and-beard brigade, who are great, but they give us a funny image - all muddy old bikes and faded panniers. We try to put across the image that you can enjoy tandeming but be modern and have decent gear. We tend to be aged between mid-30s and mid-60s, but now and then you'll see a young couple with good kit and everyone's really surprised.
The Tribe: BMX Dads
The rider: Alex Leech
The bike: S&M
I'm 37 and I've got two kids, but I still love my BMX. I started riding in the early Eighties when I was 11, and I've done so ever since. I definitely don't think I'm too old, and in the past few years I've found myself in a scene here in Abingdon, Oxfordshire, with lots of riders about my age. A lot of them hadn't ridden a BMX for 15 years, but thought, "hang on, I used to quite like that", so they get online and see that they're not alone.
One of the best things about riding a BMX is that it doesn't matter what tricks you're doing – if you're riding with a group of friends and somebody pulls off something that they've been trying for a while, they'll get a cheer, even if it's an easy trick.
My bike's new but it sticks out a bit because I don't keep up with BMX fashion. The bikes that kids ride these days often don't have brakes, have the seat all the way down and have enormously wide handlebars. Mine's the opposite.
Sometimes I'll get comments from some random member of the public, asking, "Why are you still riding a kids' bike?" But I just enjoy it – even though my best trick nowadays is just staying on.
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