Everybody loves bicycles. Well, everybody except motorists, for whom bicycles are yet another hazard to avoid on city-centre streets already congested with traffic lights and illegally-parked delivery vans. For the vast majority of people, though, the bicycle represents an Arcadian dream of civilization, unsullied by carbon emissions and pessimism.
As anyone who has ever cycled around Glasgow knows, however, the reality can turn out to be somewhat different. You may have noticed the distinct paucity of cycle lanes in Glasgow — having followed one so far, it spits you out into a busy intersection with nowhere specific to go (hello, Charing Cross). According to Glasgow City Council’s website, they’re still being developed — 375km of cycle routes are planned for 2012, with 110km already in place. Since knowing your route before you set off is half the battle in safe cycling, you should contact Glasgow City Council for a map detailing cycle routes for commuters, or pick up a leaflet depicting the Colleges Cycle Route (from Strathclyde University all the way to Jordanhill) from the University gym.
Still, as Iris Murdoch wrote, “The bicycle is the most civilized conveyance known to man. Other forms of transport grow daily more nightmarish.” Those of you accustomed to driving or taking the Glasgow Subway will know that this is indisputable — in fact, with a Discovery ticket now costing a princely £3.50, and parking expensive and difficult to find, the humble bicycle suddenly looks even more like good value. If you’re feeling flush, Chanel make a black town bike, complete with quilted leather bicycle bag, for £6,200. Before reaching for the credit card, you might want to try making use of your relatives — most parents (or aunts/uncles/grandparents) will have some form of bike rusting away in their garage just waiting for you to give it a home.
However, if all you can find is an unworkable penny-farthing, second-hand bikes can be had for bargain prices on eBay or Gumtree. Electra and Pashley make beautiful vintage-style bikes, and Raleigh, Dawes and Peugeot frames are reliably solid. Well worth checking out, too, is Common Wheel (commonwheel.org.uk), a Glasgow charity which rehabilitates people with mental health problems by teaching them to build and repair bikes. They’ll make up a bike tailored to suit your needs and budget from a selection of recycled and reclamed frames, wheels and accessories. With prices starting at £100, a visit to one of their two workshops (in Maryhill and Bridgeton) to see what’s available would be a very good way to start your cycling career.
Repairs are generally inexpensive and you can carry out most of these yourself (there are some great how-to videos on YouTube), but if you don’t trust yourself with a tool kit, try Gear on Gibson Street, a veritable hub of knowledge with very reasonable prices for repairs. It’s also worth taking any second-hand bike you buy along to them for an MOT to ensure that it’s roadworthy before you set off. Then you can get on with customising to your heart’s content — paint the frame, attach a bell, fit a comfortable new saddle…
Fitting a luggage rack should take precedence in any student’s bike-improvement project — anyone who has experienced the difficulty of cycling with a carrier bag precariously balanced on their handlebars knows the importance of a decent luggage rack. What’s more, you’ll actually waste less energy if you carry your load strapped to your bicycle frame (with a pannier or basket, for example) than if you wear a rucksack or satchel while you ride.
By far the most important accessories, however, are the ones that keep you safe — nobody ever said that helmets were cool, but they’re certainly cooler than a fractured skull. Bern make some stylish ones with built-in headphones (which admittedly makes their safety credentials rather debatable, but boy, do they look good).
Likewise, visibility is of crucial importance, but reflective Day-Glo yellow isn’t ever going to be a flattering colour. In small doses it’s much more palatable — if you don’t want to go for the full-on reflective jacket, try a sash or some arm-bands to deflect a bit of the ignominy. And, just as you wouldn’t consider driving a car at night without working headlights, don’t head out without bright, reliable lights on the front and back of your bike. Gloves will also come in handy (ahem) should you take a fall, since your hands will be the first thing you stick out to stop yourself from getting hurt.
Finally, take care of your bike by investing in the most secure lock you can afford. There’s generally a trade-off to be made between weight and security, as the very strongest locks can be too heavy to carry around. Broadly speaking, D-locks are more secure than locks made of flexible cables, and can still be attached to your bike’s frame while you’re riding around.
The opening of a new Decathlon store in Glasgow in November should prove a great one-stop shop for cycling gear, but for those who prefer a quirkier look, there’s a gorgeous range of accessories available online via websites such as cyclechic.co.uk and bobbinbicycles.co.uk.
Government advisers on transport are currently considering a proposal to adopt a controversial law already in place in Germany and Holland, whereby the most powerful vehicle in any collision is automatically liable for all insurance and compensation costs. Though this proposal has understandably met with some opposition from drivers, reports suggest it has been instrumental in changing attitudes towards cyclists. Last year in the UK, 115 cyclists were killed and a further 2,450 were injured in road accidents. If the introduction of this law would reduce those numbers by making motorists take a more responsible attitude towards cyclists, what harm would there be in that? There will no doubt be a few cases of misplaced blame, but in balance, cyclists will need to be equally vigilant, since they will automatically be found at fault if they knock down a pedestrian.
The best thing that you as an individual cyclist can do to ensure your safety is to make sure that you’re up to date with the Highway Code. It’s available to download free of charge on the Internet, and a thorough knowledge of it will bolster your confidence on the road. Unfortunately, Glasgow University no longer offers a cycling proficiency course, but they do still cater for cyclists by offering services such as showers for active travellers, an emergency bike repair kit and security marking packs — search ’cycling’ on the University’s homepage for more details.
Cycling still has a long way to go in Britain compared to some of our European neighbours: at present, only 1-2% of journeys here are made by bike, compared with 27% in the Netherlands and 13% in Denmark. By 2010, Scotland’s Transport Minister, Stuart Stevenson, would like to see 10% of all Scottish journeys being made by bike. I can’t think of many legitimate excuses not to at least try cycling — yes, it rains a lot here, but it’s definitely preferable to spend five minutes cycling in the rain than twenty minutes walking in it. So what are you waiting for? As Mark Twain said, “Get a bicycle. You won’t regret it — if you live”.