Follow my regular postings on why and what I’m getting involved with in the growing movement known as ''Minimalism” and for some insight into why and how I think it’s the best alternative way forward for many other people too. There will be some surprises - not least to myself - because the existing lifestyles of much of the population cannot continue at the present uncontrolled rate of consumption, waste and destruction... our Mother Earth simply cannot sustain it!

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

#05 – Sixty-six on two wheels

My fix – or shadow of my fixie

Far better than on four

Why do I think a bicycle is in tune with a smaller spoon today? Well, it’s one form of downsizing in an increasingly popular way – and a minimalist form of transport if you want a simpler lifestyle.

The UK retirement age for men is currently 65, but the daily 9-to-5 work-shift is going to extend well beyond that birthday in future because of the growing pensions crisis. Having lived, worked, sweated, worked, been promoted, worked and given to our families throughout that sometimes rewarding, but frequently frustrating, seemingly unending route through life's twists and turns – what do many people do after that final day they don’t have to clock-on again?

They literally sit on their butts and fritter away the rest of their lives because they've reached 65 and, by convention, they’re expected to take a long rest with their feet up and be waited on hand and foot. That’s a sure way to an early grave... for them or their partner! And having reached 66 myself, I’m not joining that sedate crowd.

When I think about it, the main so-called benefit for people who have worked most of their previous forty-plus years is to enjoy life “in happy retirement” afterwards. But do most folks do that? Statistics show too many depart this world before they've experienced any meaningful retirement... I’m not going to quote numbers because any is too many!

Thinking about it more positively, there's no definite reason why having worked the best part of forty years people shouldn’t go on enjoying themselves for another forty years, again give or take few, and reach that magic century. George Burns and Bob Hope, to name but two, had a laugh all the way to theirs, so why shouldn't others? George didn't burn out, and Bob didn't live in hope – they did more the more they did.

We should all have the same attitude in our heads... and do more using our legs. The more we do now to alleviate all the usual problems associated with accumulating more years to our life's total, the less we’ll have to rely on others to help us. Sixty-six might be close to the speed limit on most roads using four wheels ... but you can easily exceed that in age on two wheels.

As for myself... I haven’t opened my car’s doors since mid-June – so have chosen to shop and see the scenery on my own two feet and two wheels for 150 days. That’s only a small milestone in the grand plan of things, but a significant one nevertheless because one always has to start on day one.

My friend George in his 70s on the Welsh hills

Get back on your bike

There are some key points I remember from my life-cycle with a bicycle. When I was very young I fell off a friend's tricycle taking a corner too fast because I didn't know to lean into the bend. As I turned the handlebars the rest of me carried straight on... but without those three wheels beneath me. Still, nothing ventured, nothing gained.

When I was five or six my parents bought me my first two-wheeler. It was bright red with white mudguards and a shiny bell. As I wobbled down the road my mother's sure hand would hold the back of the saddle to keep me in an upright attitude whilst I steered gingerly and rang the bell at every opportunity

Money was tight – because my working father’s weekly wage averaged around £10 for a five-and-a-half day week in the late 1940s – so my new bicycle lacked an important feature which for wealthier folks’ children were standard equipment... outriders or stabilisers. And the inevitable happened... the day I achieved that confident combination of forward motion without a wobble, I broke free of my mother's steadying hand on the back of the saddle, and escaped the safety of her stopping power.

I was on my own heading up the road, still ringing the bell, but not knowing how, when or why to uncurl my locked fingers from the handlebar's friendly rubber grips and pull the cold steely brake levers to control my advance towards the fast approaching garden wall.

Fear does strange things... my mother said I was still pedalling and ringing the bell when the front wheel hit the wall. Apparently I shot halfway over the handlebars... I still remember butter being rubbed onto the bruised, split skin and being sat back onto the saddle to ride once more up the road. Mother was making absolutely sure I wasn’t going to lose my confidence... and I was going to ride that bicycle by myself, that day, come what may.

Freedom on a bicycle

Regaining confidence after that memorable episode I went everywhere on two wheels. As my legs grew longer, the wooden blocks were unscrewed from the pedals and I rode to school, to the swimming baths, to train-spotting locations, to the park – ignoring the “no cycling” notices whenever I dared where, even as a child, the gaining strength of my pedal-powered legs outpaced the running-power of the park keeper's legs. Freedom was two wheels!

My parents both had bikes... my father going to work on his every day and often returning with cuts and grazes from being thrown-off after the front wheel became caught in the railway crossings. On nice days during the school holidays mother would take me for long 20-mile rides into the countryside... for picnics of squashed potted-meat-paste sandwiches, wedges of chocolate cake, biscuits and fizzy drink... I used to think, “Those were the days,” although the fat and sugar rich ingredients of those picnics fill me with shame now.

On sunny Summer weekends we would all go cycle-camping into the hilly Peak District. Being loaded down with a heavy tent and rigid wooden poles, old-fashioned cooking equipment, bulky food supplies and probably spare canteens of water (couldn't trust the hillside streams for drinking from... they were used by sheep) and all this on bicycles equipped with the then latest, but inadequate, 3-speed Sturmey-Archer "Useless, Normal and High” gearing.

My original red two-wheeler eventually made way for a mass-market "racing bike." Every morning on the way to school I pressed my nose against the window ex-world champion sprinter Reg Harris' shop in Chorlton-cum-Hardy, which usually displaying just one of his hand-built lightweight track racing frames... but I still wished and wanted one of them however unsuitable it would have been for going to school. It was all in the name, and of course Reg Harris, dismayed at the lack of any British champion at the sport for so many years, made a remarkable comeback at the age of 50 and took the World Sprint title.

Then for much of my adult life, even though I still had a bike, I joined the rest of the population and went by car everywhere... or squeezed into the tube. And in my so-called free time I sat in front of the other tube... some life, huh! I remember the traffic being so bad I used illegal CB radio to contact other drivers for info and roundabout routes to avoid the standstills. Looking back at that situation in the ‘70s, the only smart people were on two wheels – fit for work and fit after work.

When I took up serious cycling again in my sixties I began to feel the same strength and suppleness as I did when I was sixteen.

French kids find their freedom
Positive points...

I. I started cycling as a child at 4 and felt as free as a bird. When I see youngsters today cycling to and from school and along park paths and country tracks I see their freedom being expressed too. Most of us had bikes as kids, and it’s really smart to own one again.

2. I have a friend with bandy legs (2nd photo above) who’s never been able to walk any great distance – so he started cycling at 70 and still does many miles every day at 90. Although his knees hurt a bit, he’s drinking apple cider vinegar which is helping with the problem.

3. You can join a club for companionship or go solo – either way you meet people going in the same direction or coming towards you... and they’re always friendly.

4. It's a healthy image – strong heart, supple body, clean lungs, great skin, fresh complexion, lithe limbs, toned muscles and a natural suntan throughout the year.

5. Cars are expensive to buy, insure, fuel, clean, garage, road-test and and maintain – around $5,000 per year is normal. The only time they’re cheap is when you want to sell or p/x them.

6. Most folks become frustrated being stuck in traffic jams and unable to find a slot to park near their destination. So why use a cars so regularly. City car parking can cost the equivalent of $50 a day in central London and $5 for just 15 metered minutes on many streets.

7. Cycling is a non-contact and non-impact activity unlike other solo pastimes and sports such as jogging, rugby or football.

8. Why opt for a quiet life... get on your bike and exert yourself. Listen to your heart beating and the rushing sound of your intakes and out-takes of air. Oh yes, you’ll hear every bird singing too!

9. Don't let the idea of cycling at 66 conjure up an image of an old man in a flat cap going to the pub, with cycle clips keeping his baggy trousers snagging the oily chain... that's the Andy Capp cartoon image from the I950s.

10. Fitness, Fitness, Fitness – which regimes are most beneficial? Gym based cardio, aerobic, Yoga, static Nordic skiing, 5BX Canadian Air-Force Exercises, pumping iron, rowing machine, Wii-Fit in the living-room... or a fit life of freedom on two wheels with increased suppleness, strength, fast-recovering pulse rate, powerful lungs, stamina, natural resistance to everyday colds, sore throats and sniffs that are always doing the rounds! Non-impact-non-contact exercise is better for us at any age, not just in retirement.

11. Ageism? Hey, for all those getting closer to the big 66, the nearer you get the faster it approaches. So get on your bike and throw away the implications of what most others in the rich western world regard as their due – a supposedly long, happy, peaceful retirement with your feet up, meals brought on a tray, newspaper laid on your lap, slippers brought to you by your pet pooch and what do you get... well, sorry to put the frighteners on you, but a shorter life for yourself and probably a harder one for your partner!

12. Use all your senses... apart from making common sense, you can use your other senses to see the countryside better, listen what the elements are telling you, and smell the freshness of Mother Nature. Cooped up in a car doesn’t just insulate you from those things, it isolates you from the wide-world too.

Negative points...

You’ll sometimes get wet – depending on where you live of course – but if you’re that dedicated for two-wheeled travel you a) won’t mind, or b) you’ll move to somewhere with a better climate for an outdoor life.

You’ll sometimes get punctures – especially on country roads littered with twigs and thorns after hedges have been mechanically flailed. Keep a couple of smaller spoons in your kit as tyre-levers.

You’ll have to be very aware of car, bus and truck drivers... more so in certain countries and cities. However, in the land of “la Tour” French drivers – despite their passé reputation for arrogance and drunkenness – are the most courteous I’ve ever shared roads with, always giving cyclists ample space when passing or following.

As always, a few links of great interest for further reading...

This site really appeals to me being a ‘fixie’ cyclist – Urban Fixed Gear Online Magazine

Everything you need to know about cycling is here – Sheldon Brown’s Bicycle Technical Info

Another excellent source iof information – Ken Kifer’s Bike Pages

And for anyone considering a long-distance cycling holiday click onto
Bicycle Touring Pro

Leo Babauta completely sums up Lessons from a car-free life at Zen Habits.

Plus Everett Bogue talking about being carless at
Far Beyond the Stars

And last but not leaqst Tammy Strobel of Rowdy Kittens guest writes for Becomining Minimalist about
Being Carless.

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