Friday, November 29, 2013

Take a Bike

First published in the Western People on Monday.

The last Government introduced a bike-to-work scheme on New Year’s Day, 2009. It isn’t discussed much, the country being preoccupied with all the other things that happened under that unhappy regime, but the bike-to-work scheme has been a roaring success. Like the plastic bag tax or the smoking ban, it’s one of those small things that has made life exponentially more pleasant than anybody could have guessed it would.

The reason the bike-to-work scheme has made life more pleasant is because cycling is an excellent way to travel. It’s clean, it’s cheap, it helps keep the condition off and it’s really surprisingly soothing and good for clearing the head. And best of all, cycling is one of the few forms of exercise that everyone can engage in.

Anyone can cycle a bike, from those lean athletes who are half-human being, half-greyhound, on through ordinary people of all shapes and sizes, all the way down the evolutionary ladder to the pathetic likes of your humble correspondent, who once nearly pulled a hamstring playing snooker in the old Eglinton Club in Galway.

Cycling has always been part of the culture in Ireland. In the 1940s and 1950s the bike was the only way to get around – petrol was rationed during the war and people had no money to buy cars when the war ended – so if you wanted to travel, you went by bike. You may have grown up listening to people who cycled thirty or forty miles to the Reek, shot up in their bare feet, got Mass, scampered down again and another thirty miles home, not a bother on them. In “Over the Bar,” his iconic memoir of the GAA, Breadán Ó hEithir recalled cycling from Galway to Dublin and back with his father, going to see the All-lreland Final.

The bikes, of course, are different now to what they were. Going into a showroom – which is what they call bikeshops now – can be a little intimidating. What you thought were phone numbers are actually prices, and the price of even a lock can go into three figures.

You look at the bicycle itself, and you find out it’s got three times as many gears as your car, the frame is carbon rather than steel and the posture you have to adopt to cycle the thing is a lot like that of a man who bends down to pick up a fiver, gets a crick in his back and is then stuck like that. It’s not what you call dignified.

For the sportsmen it’s heaven of course. A bike for any occasion or terrain, built to order down to the last detail. But for the ordinary Joe, or the sort of goose who could do a cruciate playing cards, they’re not very dignified. And that’s without even talking about the lycra outfits that are the uniform of the serious cyclist.

Dignity was the original reason behind the greatest of bicycle designs. The great age of the bicycle was at the end of the Victorian era, and the Victorians had certain ideas about a person’s dignity, ideas that did not include having a person spinning around country roads with his or her rump raised in the air like the snowy peak of Nephin.

The classic design of the bicycle had the rider sitting up straight in the saddle, in the correct posture for ladies and gentlemen. The handlebars were well above saddle and wrapped back, like folded wings on a bird, to ensure the sitting position. The posture even gave those old bikes their famous nickname – the high nelly.

There was a particular way to mount them, that seems less common now. You mounted from one side, got the thing rolling and then either stepped through the looped frame if you were a lady, or bent forward, swung your leg over the saddle and across to the other side if you were a gentlemen. There was a tremendous elegance to the movement, possibly an echo of how stately, rather than fast, the journey would be.

The high nelly bicycle was always painted black, with the sometime exception of a small white rectangle on the back mudguard. Instead of carbon, the frame was made of iron and steel.

The best part of the high nelly was its saddle. The bike might have been slow and heavy, but sitting in that saddle made it all worthwhile, as it was treble-sprung – a great big hairpin spring at the front, and two fine big cylindrical springs at the back, just under either side of the hips. Sitting on one of those saddles on a flat road or spinning down a hill was like floating on air. Uphill, you had to get off and walk most of the time, but you can’t have everything in this life.

The high nelly was built to last, and last they did. Even in the ‘eighties, as the racing bike with its narrow saddle, aerodynamics, dropped handlebars and multitude of gears quickly rendered the old bikes obsolete, you still saw the old people cycling around on their faithful old bicycles that may have seen service for twenty or thirty years, if not more. There wasn’t that much to break on those old bikes and what did break could be fixed.

The high nelly would suit sportsmen cyclists badly. They’re too slow for the racers, and too big and heavy for the mountain-bikers. But for a relaxing spin around the country, taking in a spot of air and scenery and maybe a quiet pint by the fire of some convivial hostelry, you can’t beat them.

It’s not easy get an old-style bicycle, but it’s not impossible either. There’s a company in Limerick that repairs and refits old high nellies, or you can buy a new bicycle by a British manufacturer called Pashley. Pashleys are old style bicycles that sell under the glorious names of Guv’nor, Clubman, Sovereign and, of course, Britannia.

Or you can return to the bicycle showroom, spurn all the latest carbon models, throw your arm around the curate and say look, would you have such a thing as a Raleigh Varsity in the house at all? His face will fall, as he’d be much happier selling one of the pricey ones, but he’ll go far down the back and come out wheeling a fine black bike, with swung back grey handlebars, a carrier for the messages and even a bell. The saddle isn’t the armchair it used to be, but otherwise it’s a fine machine and recommended to all. Happy trails.