by Patrick Field

I don't have much time for National Bike Week. Every week is bike week at my house, and the only reason that every day isn't bike to work day is that some days I work at home and others I don't work at all.

Someone who doesn't usually cycle jumps on a bike for a media-inspired 'bike-to-work-day' stunt or because of a public-transport strike; the bike doesn't fit them, there isn't enough air in the tyres, they're wearing impractical shoes and clothing and they don't know how to use the machine's transmission to make the best use of their muscle power. The rider may very well have a counter-productive bad experience of cycle-travel.

To conclude from this bad experience that cycling is hard work is like lifting someone who's never skied before by helicopter to the top of a mountain, fitting them with a pair of 2 metre skis, and deducing from their subsequent difficulty that downhill skiing is impossibly difficult.

I expect most of you are at least vaguely familiar with the baffling statistics of how many short journeys people in British towns and cities insist on making without the aid of a bicycle. To help these unfortunates, in 1992 a cycling magazine asked readers to coin a single word for people who perversely don't cycle without any practical or physiological reason. The tragic condition was named by Valerie Stone of Beccles, Suffolk, who wrote:

"With reference to your request for a new word for non-cyclists, what about borrowing from the medical profession who denote the absence of something by prefixing the letter 'a'. Examples of this are the words asystole, meaning heart beat, and aphasia, meaning absence of the power of speech. May I suggest therefore the word 'avelopia' with its other forms 'avelopic' and 'avelope'." Since then the tragic condition has attracted some interest in the medical profession and, as the health authorities begin to recognise the individual and social benefits of cycling, it moves closer to a place in the text books. I personally find the concept very useful, as in: "the misconception that practical cycling is hard work or dangerous is very common among avelopes."

British culture has two misconceptions of cycle-travel. First that it is an activity that everybody masters in childhood and that is unworthy of further consideration. Second that it is a heroic endeavour beyond the scope of any normal person, and that to travel five kilometres by bike you need to be an Olympic athlete or some kind of super-hero. What these contradictory views have in common is that, for ordinary adults, they take effective cycle-travel beyond the realm of possibility. The two misconceptions conflict but one reinforces the other. People who think cycling is unworthy of consideration, often mistake their own technical limitations -- limitations which can be overcome with a little thought and practice -- for problems that beset anyone who cycles. When they meet someone who travels by bike they are unnecessarily impressed.

Some people think that when the level of infrastructure for cycle-traffic reaches a certain level, more of the population will start to cycle. I suspect things are much more complicated. In countries where practical cycling is an everyday activity a person on a bike is just a person who happens to be travelling by bike. If you ride a bike in the UK you become something different: 'a cyclist'. It is not overstating the case to say that, for most people in the UK, practical cycling is a social taboo.

Ride your bike and enjoy it. Set a good example to the avelopes and if you want to do something useful in National Bike Week why not ask - in a spirit of sympathetic enquiry - "how do you manage?"


'Controlled Parking Zones' are all the rage in my corner of inner London just now. I put them in inverted commas because what they actually mean is controlled car-parking zones where residents have to pay for a permit to store their saloons on the highway. A noted neighbourhood activist heard that a CPZ was planned for his quarter of town. Implementation of the Zone was preceded by a consultation exercise which hesaw was a chance to get some contra-flow bike lanes on one-way streets and other useful changes to the local traffic environment. He collected a stack of consultation forms from his local library and posted them - with a letter of explanation - to all members of the local cycle-campaign in the proposed CPZ. Some of these people took the trouble to fill the forms in and send them back to the council expressing their personal concerns.

The professionals who were conducting the consultation noticed that the response forms this little bit of active citizenship had generated had all been folded in a particular way and at one stage in the process actually suggested that they didn't really count because they'd were sent in by cyclists. When challenged to justify this bizarre idea they were grudgingly forced to admit that cyclists really are real people.


© Patrick Field
Cycling Plus, June 1999

other stories by P. Field