The trapezoid of death

I’ve been riding a bike to work for eight years now, ever since coming to Cardiff, in fact. For the same stretch of time my wife and I have been driving our young family out of Wales and around England, several times a year, to visit three sets of grandparents. Life stories punctuated by moves into new places of study, by becoming economic migrants (to the Midlands and then to Wales), not forgetting parental divorces, have meant that in 2013 we and the various members of our immediate families now occupy the four corners of a quadrilateral that stretches from the Yorkshire coast in the North, to Suffolk in the East, to Buckinghamshire and West London in the South, and Cardiff in the West.

Two years on the trot we visited all three of the other corners in the eight days between Christmas Eve and New Year. Packing a car with adults, children, a week’s change of clothes for four plus assorted accoutrements and a boot full of Christmas presents seems, on the face of it, a relatively efficient way of getting them around, granting us a veneer of excuse denied to the single businessperson in their motorway Merc or the harassed driver of a 7-seater school-run SUV. But that kind of assurance can’t long survive being confronted with reality.

Tracing out the Christmas trapezoid of death along the motorways and A-roads of England and Wales (a journey that reads like chess notation: A48 M4-M25-A12-A14-M1-A64-M62-M6-M50-A48), we overtake and get overtaken by plenty of other packed cars engaged in the same extreme holiday sport. Others zoom past in the opposite direction. The range counter on the dashboard inexorably counts down, pointing to another service station and the filling of the petrol tank. The digits on the pump ticking upwards to another all-time record purchase.

I can predict that somewhere on the final leg, generally around junction 15 on the M6 southbound after our trip to my mother’s house in Yorkshire, that the peculiar reality behind these numbers will become apparent – tangible, even. As we’re sitting in the traffic jam that usually coagulates somewhere north of Stoke-on-Trent, the strangeness of our situation hits home. Four people sitting together in this immobile metal, fiberglass and plastic capsule just for the purpose of burning petroleum, distilled from oil deposits laid down 200 million or so years ago, away to nothing somewhere under the bonnet. The German philosopher Martin Heidegger once said that you only notice the tools you rely on when they don’t work any more. The efficiency of the car disappears as the wall of brake lights loom up ahead, and the recent sublimity of the summit of the M62 (the nearest it’s possible to get to the fantasied landscapes of car adverts in England, and still falling crashingly short of them) recedes for good behind you leaving only this parade of waste. Car trips come in fragments: the sight of Scammonden reservoir from the M62 west of Huddersfield, the discussion in the Costa at Tibshelf Services about the merits or otherwise of taking the train next time, arrivals and departures at grandparents’ houses separated by the constant monitor-and-adjust tedium of driving, Simon Callow reading The Twits – again.

Back home, riding my bike home from the University, the waste of energy is still tangible, only now it’s back in its proper ecological place. Bicycles are praised for their utility, their efficiency; urban planners, progressive mayors, activists for sustainable transport sing hymns to them as the quickest, least wasteful, most environmentally-friendly means of transport into or out of a city (whether it’s Cardiff, London, Paris, or Bogota). The car runs on money and makes you fat (and hypertensive, and vulnerable to climate change, and blessed with lungs stuffed full of particulates, etc.), and the bike runs on fat and saves you money, as the much-shared social media slogan runs. But do people really cycle because of the utility, efficiency, sustainability of it all? The cynic in me sees the supplementary value of all these lauded utilitarian qualities as far more important. Engaging in cycling is about status, is what the economists call a positional good: it makes you feel better than the poor saps stuck in the traffic jams you cycle past. But there’s more to it than this. Cycling to work means that the routine of earning a living, of trundling to the shops, can begin and end with a blow-out.

Driving is about being lied to: all those promises of higher MPG and technological transcendence burst open to reveal a bitter cinder of ridiculousness in the middle. Cycling knits things back together. Riding a bike re-unites efficiency with aesthetics, but also with glorious waste. It’s an experience in which, as Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi the psychologist of ‘flow’ insists, the duration of time is changed and where ‘concern for the self disappears’ – whether sweeping down the curve of a hill amidst the silent shoal of a strung-out midnight peloton, consciousness of your individual effort lost in participation in the effort of the group, or racing past the end of your street on the way home to pointlessly blow calories on climbing another hill, just so you can blast down the other side.

If more people are riding bikes, is it about heading off the apocalypse? Is it about utility, convenience, petrol prices climbing against the backdrop of peak oil? Does anyone buy a bike because they want to save the planet? Whatever publicly-respectable reason people give for getting in the saddle, I suspect that, behind it, there’s something fundamentally excessive, useless, pointless; that thing that makes people want to continue cycling through rain and through snow: the flash of wasted human energy and the joy it brings, an echo of the joy once felt riding a Chopper or Grifter on the edge of control over too-high hillocks and makeshift ramps.

Chris Groves

bike at filey

Engaging in cycling is about status, is what the economists call a positional good: it makes you feel better than the poor saps stuck in the traffic jams you cycle past.