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The Act of Cycling

There is something so brash about the opening scenes of this movie that you are compelled to wade through it. It begs the question – how deep does the patriotism rabbit hole go? So as the light disappears and you are drawn in, assaulted with unabashed product placement and ship loads of metaphysical cheese, a story emerges, and the ride is fun.

The basic premise is about two brothers, with bad DNA, that are gifted athletes. Their chosen medium is cycling. The cycling scenes are pretty entertaining, there are some sketchy references to race tactics, the bicycles are retro-cool, and the associated girls in very deferential roles, are as hot as the weather in the Rocky Mountains.

Some things to look for are, the post space-race helmets of the Russian cyclists, the shorts (or perhaps some of the girls just forgot to wear their strides), a certain Belgian cycling superstar, oh and of course those racing bicycles.

The plot is thin and predictable, however the acting from Kevin Costner and the main cast does much to make up for it, and considering the films opening scenes the movie does pretty well to keep you seated from there on. American flyer isn’t a bad title considering it is almost a flyer for every possible product that they could fit into a movie, but it might have been just as aptly named ‘the Hell of the West”, which is the name of the race, and the probable vantage point from which many communists would view this movie.

Is it worth watching? Yes – but I would prescribe viewing the movie “They Live” in the days following to calm your mind and balance the propaganda.

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Bicycle lanes are best when they truly separate cycl-ist and motor-ist. I was reminded of this on about 3 occasions on my way home from work today. It’s a very short ride – but it’s through the centre of town and it’s not unusual to feel like you’re living on borrowed time. Whenever I have a ride like that I wonder about the road rules, and the enforcement of laws that must govern people parking badly, partially blocking bicycle lanes, and the retrospective manner in which lanes are painted in, after the cars have been fully accommodated.

In their deference, the motor-ist’s attempt at parking is made hard by a narrow parking lane.

Cycle Lanes as an Afterthought
Many of the on-road cycle lanes in Newcastle have been ‘retrofitted’ into the existing road-scape and so have been squeezed between parking spaces and traffic lanes – in the ‘door zone’. This is probably the most dangerous place to be riding, it’s Russian roulette and the stakes are high. In many cases the resulting division of space means that the cycle lane and the parking spaces are now too narrow to meet road standards.

The photo’s used as part of this post are from a short stretch of road near my house that I regularly use on my way to work. It is used by many cyclists wanting a direct route into town. There is a slower meandering off-road path that I now use more regularly for travel, especially with my family, but just for clarity, the issue is definitely not restricted to this area and while there are cycle lanes painted on the road, it is being suggested as a safe place to ride, and essentially ignored by motor-ists to the detriment of cycling safety.

I wonder if this truck driver would let his rig hang this far out into the traffic lane – or if police cars would drive by and let him impede traffic while he gets breakfast.

What is Law?
Newcastle Cycleways, the local peak body for cycling, actually recommends that you don’t ride in cycle lanes and that in fact, you’re only legally obliged to cycle in them when there a specific roads signs instructing you to do so. It would seem that the cycle lanes provide a suggested (albeit dangerous) path that is now accepted (incorrectly) as the legal place to ride. So who would dare to exercise their rights and ride in the traffic lane? Only a few brave souls I would suggest.

Car after Car after Car.

A State of Fear?
So as we have it, Cyclists are intimidated off the roads, into the door zone by painted road lines. If cycle lanes and cycl-ists were respected universally then perhaps the state of play would be acceptably dangerous, but the reality is that lazy and aggressive driving makes any on-road cycling too scary for most sensible people, and especially so in the rain when you can add plain stupid driving into the melee. So where am I going with this? In my opinion, bicycle lanes are best when they truly separate cycl-ist and motor-ist.

People cycle for different reasons and many people cycle. The number of cyclists, at least in Australia seems to be slowly, but visibly growing. It follows then that there must be lots of reasons to cycle. So, what are the pivotal reasons? What are the things that could transform a potential cyclist, into an avid one?

The main barrier to cycling, I believe, is the perceived risk to life and limb. Whether it be a real risk from poorly designed bicycle lanes, unaware or belligerent car drivers, or simply the unqualified perception that it is dangerous. There are so many real and imagined barriers to getting on the path to cycling that there must be some strong reasons and a high value outcome to balance out the potential risks. Good experiences of cycling for many seasoned cyclists probably creates a strong “it won’t happen to me” factor with years of experience under their belt. But if you were new to the concept and needed a little nudge in the right direction – What would it be? Why cycle?

As an adult, I started because I thought it was appropriate (not alternative) transport. It felt like a political decision and, at the time, I set about recycling bicycles and selling them cheaply to work toward a ‘critical mass’ of cyclists in my area – the project was called 101 bikes for Newcastle. Back then I felt that riding a bicycle was a statement about being independent, environmentally friendly and smart about transport. In most respects I still do.

Just to be clear about how hypocritical I have been in the past 20 years I will list the cars I have owned.

1965 Mercedes 230 (6cyl)
1970 Jensen Interceptor mk2
Triumph Spitfire (mk1)
1974 Citroen D Special
Daimler 250 V8
Volvo 1800s
Triumph GT6
Jaguar Mk2

I am bragging of course. I like cars, but know they are problematic when it comes to everyday use. Anyway – I am digressing. What got me out of these stylish cars and back on my bike? Cycling is fun and the little bit of practical fitness it provides keeps my body from seizing up and keeps me from the mental doldrums. Cycling seems to be the cure for what ails me. I’m sure I am not alone with these thoughts and motivations.

If there was a single activity that galvanised me as a Cyclist, once i’d started, it would be cycle touring. There a few things better than cycle touring – and all are too obscene to mention here – anyway, don’t just take it from me – get out and try it – It is absolutely awesome!

So how to get started? Is it an event like “Bike Hour” or is it a “commuter buddy scheme” where you mentor a cyclist along the safe routes in and around your neighbourhood? Is it worth getting involved with your local cycling lobby group and pushing for better infrastructure? This could take forever and won’t gain much traction unless there are already many bottoms on bike sets. I think I’ve done all these at various times and now I am coming back to the potency of the simple evangelical act of cycling. To be fair, it’s probably all these things – but the one thing that you can do everyday – the one thing that might make a difference – is getting out there and proving it can be done!

In short, as I am writing this down, I have come to the conclusion that you and I should ride for two, or even three. Ride to work in a suit, then ride home to change into something more casual and ride in again – It may just be the best way forward (and back again).

Somethings are almost entirely about context. I think motorised bicycles are definitely one of them.

To begin with, I think some distinction should be made between the electric powered boffins and the petrol powered, two-stroke, bad boys. To begin with, all two stroke engine users set themselves apart from ‘normal responsible behavior’ by using the most noisy means of power available to them, but noise aside,  both varieties of powered bicycle have problems that set them significantly apart from other bicycles.

Petrol powered bicycles have been with us for a long time (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Timeline_of_motorized_bicycle_history), and recently seem to have found new devotees taking advantage of the combined affordability of a bicycle and power of the 2-stroke engine. In evolutionary terms they fall somewhere between bicycle and motorcycle, but having lost the grace and simplicity of the bicycle and having none of the utility of a motorcycle, they seem to the casual observer to be the worst of two worlds, spreading noise, oily smoke and the potential for limb tearing accidents at every turn. It is lucky that they make so much noise, because if they were silent they’d probably kill many unsuspecting bicycle path users. If you are hard of hearing, or too young to know better, you are at risk from these cycle path psychopaths.

Silence brings us to the electric motor, the young, geeky cousin of the powered bicycle world. This is a very different animal, but because of it’s speed and stealth, presents a clear and present danger to anyone using a cycleway, deaf, young or otherwise. Electric bicycles are unforgivably uncool, even with the potential to have them powered from something like solar power, but make no mistake, if you don’t spot them first, they are no slouches and can be upon you very quickly. The true horror of these vehicles is the potential to be knocked over by someone on an electric bicycle – the shame of it all! Given that you’d never actually tell anyone about being mown down by an electric bicycle, I believe injuries from these silent menaces go under reported. The one saving grace of electric bicycles is that they could be a stepping stone in the development of something else – lets keep our fingers crossed.

The biggest problem with powered bicycles is of course their owners, which in a round about way, brings us back to my original argument that motorised bicycles are about context. Many riders of motorised bicycles seem to feel that because what they are riding isn’t as cool, fun or useful as a motorcycle, they should be allowed to use cycle paths. This is patently wrong. They should take their place, at the bottom of the food chain, on the roads with other powered vehicles. They are counter to the reasoning of cycle paths more broadly, which are engineered to separate cyclists from motor-ists. The cycle path context is wrong for powered transport of this kind. On the road however they seem wildly appropriate, using less space, energy and materials to get the passenger from A to B and would be less deadly in the case of mishap.