Iain Murray: Keeping the wheel of life turning using pedal power

The reason why country lanes are full of elderly, motorist-baiting, cyclists is because somebody wrote a book about extending your life by riding a bike, says Iain Murray

As a rule this column eschews the first person pronoun on the ground that it is better to express a view from the wings – better still to throw things from the back row of the stalls – than to declaim from an elbowed place in the spotlight. This week, however, is different because one’s thoughts are based solely on personal observation. You see, I have moved to the country and we newly arrived rural dwellers notice things. Like green woodpeckers on the lawn, a pied wagtail too, and a black and white creature that flaps about in the trees. I have identified it as a badger, but my wife, who knows little of natural science, says it’s a magpie. She’ll learn.

Of one thing, however, I am certain: the winding lanes and leafy byways, the hedge-lined turnings, the fly-tipped dead-ends, all are alive to the thrum of Sturmey Archer and the excitingly unpredictable beat of geriatric pulse. More prolific than the cabbage white, more pestilential than the wasp, more richly plumaged than the chaffinch, the ancient rural cyclist pedals furiously down the middle of the road, deaf to the curses of motorists trailing in his wake, heedless of the pointed fingers and guffaws of bystanding urchins.

Just as naturalists marvel at the miracle of migration, which guides the house martin thousands of miles from his South African winter retreat to a pinpoint destination in the same English house gable year after year, so we observers of the rural cyclist wonder at the mysterious forces that shape his creation. What astral concatenation calls into being his existence? What transforms a man of mature years, once content in pottering retirement, into a crazed demon of the byways, varicose veins sheathed in lycra, grizzled skull encased in plastic, bony buttocks atop a shrunken saddle? What prompts him to raid his annuity to fund the purchase of the most expensive racing bike that money can buy? And what compulsion takes him into the rural hinterland, there to duel with mechanical monsters, pitting his puny and obstructive pedal power against the motorised might of enraged drivers?

I have asked this question before and was rewarded by a reader’s letter alleging that the Frankenstein behind the grey-topped blight of the lanes was no less than marketing itself. I am not sure the argument was developed fully, but the implication was that it is advertising and other promotional techniques that prompt the nation’s distressed gentlefolk to rise from their antimacassared armchairs and swing a bony leg over the cross bar. I have to say I remain unconvinced: marketing is a wonderful thing, and potent too, but almost certainly incapable of taking the Dr Jekyll of slippered respectability and turning it into the Mr Hyde of wheeled arrogance.

And so it was with a greater interest than usual that my eye fell upon the reader’s letters in the Daily Mail. For there, staring out of the page, was an authentic specimen of cyclus geriatricus, one Richard Burton of Bristol. His picture shows him in action: clad in shorts and sporting a shirt bearing cycling logos, he wobbles out of the picture, feet thrust into toe clips, hands grasping drop handlebars, head high-domed and bespectacled, features etched with defiance. Best of all, though, is his accompanying letter: it is the Rosetta Stone that unlocks the mystery.

Unbeknown to gawping onlookers, who stare with disbelieving eyes at the passing whirl of wheel and liver-spotted flesh, the veterans of the velocipede have their own holy text. It is called Cycling Towards Health and Safety and it is the work of the British Medical Authority (BMA). Burton quotes from its pages: “It shows the health benefits of cycling are absolutely massive, with regular cyclists suffering less from all forms of illness than the general population. Cycling is easy to integrate into your lifestyle. It can be part of your daily routine… Cycling tends to be a lifelong, life-enhancing activity, because it can be so varied and enjoyable… Cyclists aren’t adding to pollution or global warming and create only minimal hazards for other people.”

So now we know: when these ancients take to the country lanes, heads down, backsides up, legs pumping like pistons, veins standing out like lugworms, they are in full and manic pursuit, their quarry: to be for ever ten years younger.

None of this would count for tuppence if, like hamsters at their wheel, recreational cyclists were merely amusing in their purposeless chase. The truth is, however, they are a menace; a threat to themselves and a danger to other road users. The BMA’s treatise might just as well be called Cycling Towards the Back of a Horse, which is what a senior citizen on a racing bike was doing just before he hit the animal on a road near me. Or Cycling Towards Casualty Ward, which is what another elderly gent on a speeding bike achieved, via a ditch, also near me. His injuries were serious and, for all I know, he is in hospital still.

It’s all so silly, especially when research shows that those blessed with longevity may contentedly and profitably add to their tally of years by drinking many a tot and often. And do so, moreover, without infuriating the rest of us. Elderly toppers, unlike their youthful counterparts, do not as a rule throw bricks through windows. Nor, one hopes do they ride bicycles.

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