Exploring cycling's popularity in Cambridge

Iris Murdoch would brook no disagreement on the matter. “Other forms of transport grow daily more nightmarish,” she wrote. “Only the bicycle remains pure in heart.” There can be few places in the British Isles filled with more transport purity than the streets of Cambridge.

Charlie Troman for CAM

While in other cities the lone cyclist feels fragile, unwelcome, even suicidal on busy streets designed for lorries and gas-guzzlers, in Cambridge traffic is refined: calmed of its boy-racer tendencies and soothed into more polite behaviour by the sheer number of what Murdoch called the “most civilised conveyance known to man”.

But there is a paradox to cycling. It is only through this safety in numbers that the rider can experience the full liberation of two-wheeled transport. You are most free when you have the unspoken camaraderie of other cyclists around you: when two wheels is the dominant form of transport on the road.

The freedom of cycling

For me, the bike offers ultimate liberty. The cyclist is self-sufficient. There is no need to rely on buses or trains with their timetables, delays and overcrowding. We whizz past roadworks and traffic jams without delay and there is no need to stop to fill up the tank. If we choose, we can change course, double back or take a detour. And there is no need to stick to the road at all. There is always the option of a greener route or an amble past a canal or river.

Even better, unlike the commuters trudging to their destination half awake, cyclists really experience the journey. We feel the seasons in the sun and wind on our face, in the ghost of our breath on a frosty day and in the glow in our cheeks when we reach our destination. And we are connected to the road in ways that a motorist in his metal and glass box could never understand. The route’s rises and dips are imprinted on our thighs and in our lungs. On a still summer evening we can feel the temperature change as we rise and fall with the landscape: the warmth trapped in the trees at the top of an incline and the chill gathered in a dip in the road. On the breeze, we smell the spring blossom and the earth after a rain shower that breaks a spell of dry weather.

All of this adds up to something important because how we get around changes who we are. Your commute sets the tone for the day ahead. It affects your mood, your health and your sanity. The novelist HG Wells put it like this: “When I see an adult on a bicycle, I do not despair for the future of the human race.”

Charlie Troman for CAM

My first Cambridge bike

I didn’t really appreciate any of this when I was at Cambridge. Like every teenage boy I had a bike for mucking about on at home, but I had never really used it for getting from A to B. So I didn’t understand what made cycling in Cambridge so special. When I came up to King’s I brought with me a battered old Raleigh racer that I’d bought for a fiver and restored to working order with my dad’s help (I think that, anticipating my imminent departure from the family home, he felt he had to pass on some life skills).

We finished the frame off with a stylish spraypainted red and silver colour scheme. But I was confident that even with its shiny new livery and daring dropped handlebars the machine’s inner cheapness would shine through to any self-respecting thief. Surely no one would bother to steal it.

I was wrong. Within a few weeks of the start of Michaelmas Term my trusty steed – infused with so much father–son bonding – was gone. Someone had nicked it while I was on a visit to Homerton (I resolved never to go there again). And of course the police never found it.

The Cambridge green bike scheme

Undeterred, I decided that what I needed was an even cheaper bike. And I found one languishing, unlocked and in some disrepair, at the back of the Garden Hostel bike shed. This bicycle was much more becoming of a Cambridge cyclist – a classic sit-up-and-beg contraption which made a satisfying clonk with every pedal stroke. And it was painted all over in racing green.

Charlie Troman for CAM

That could only mean one thing. I had heard apocryphal tales of the disastrous Cambridge ‘green bike scheme’ to provide free two-wheeled transport around the city, but had never actually set eyes on one of the bikes. In October 1993, two years before I matriculated, the council had collected up unclaimed bikes recovered by the police and had them painted green by offenders doing community service. The idea, which was based on an earlier public bicycle scheme in Amsterdam, was that the bikes would be available to borrow for journeys around the city. The deal was that you should drop them off, unlocked, at your destination for someone else to use.

The scheme was both years ahead of its time and hopelessly naive. A precursor to London’s chunky public ‘Boris bikes’ and similar hire schemes across the country, for example in Cardiff, these later projects all learned some valuable lessons from the spectacular failure of the Cambridge scheme.

On launch day, the first lot of green bikes were distributed around the city for students, residents and tourists alike to share in idyllic harmony. By the end of the day – so the stories go – all the bikes had disappeared. Undeterred, the council tried again with a second batch, with exactly the same result.

After my Homerton experience, this didn’t come as much of a surprise. In a rather harsh verdict on the episode, the Cambridge Cycling Campaign proclaimed in one of its leaflets that the scheme’s failure “brought international disrepute to the city”. I wonder if the family of nations has forgotten yet.

Charlie Troman for CAM

So I suppose that giving the green bike a second lease of life was in some way handling stolen goods, but it didn’t feel like it at the time and no one in authority ever remarked on it. I used the bike for getting to and from lectures and for exploratory trips to Grantchester, Robinson and New Hall (as it was then) as well as pubs outside the centre of town. Without it I doubt I would have moved beyond a two-mile radius of King’s.

The challenges of cycling in Cambridge

Cycling in Cambridge presents some unique challenges. Nowhere else have I seen temporarily abandoned bicycles leaning two or three abreast along pavements with no fixture to anything more permanent than their own front wheels. The problem is that with so many bikes, there just aren’t enough railings or lamp-posts to lock up them to – let alone bicycle stands. Even the vast bike park next to the station is significantly smaller than the demand for space.

And then there are the pedestrians. People on foot anywhere tend to be more of a liability to the cyclist than the car because their movements are less predictable. Often, in trying to avoid you they manage to jump directly into your path. But in Cambridge, the ambling tourists locked in upward-glancing reverie at the turrets, spires and chapels of the colleges are a peculiar hazard and the cause of numerous minor collisions.

Cycling in London

With a better lock, the green bike lasted me until I graduated, when I left it behind along with the memories of College life. Cycling has stayed with me though. I live and work in London now and I don’t own a car so my (now more upmarket) bike is my main mode of transport. And the number of cyclists is increasing rapidly. By 2008, according to Transport for London, more than half a million journeys a day were happening by bike – an increase of 91% on the beginning of the decade. And within a month of the launch, Boris bikes were being used for around 15,000 journeys a day.

Charlie Troman for CAM

But despite the increases in numbers, London is still a long way from the critical mass effect of Cambridge – let alone the cycling utopias of Amsterdam or Copenhagen. And because of that, cycling in London retains a different feel – more underground, unusual, even a little bit naughty.

It is hard not to feel the sting of Jeremy Clarkson types denouncing us cyclists as antisocial ‘lycra-louts’ or ‘velociraptors’ but, if I’m honest, I like that feeling of subversion. Why just travel from A to B when you can be part of a political movement and a gang of mates in the process? There is something special about being part of an informal exclusive club.

And being in the in-crowd means that other cyclists treat you differently. We chat at traffic lights about the weather or the broken glass on the road that we both had to swerve to avoid. We tell strangers that they have left their bag open or that the batteries in their lights are low. We make common cause against shouty taxi drivers.

But London still has a way to go to alter the balance of power on its streets from four wheels to two. If Iris Murdoch could survey London’s traffic today she would see some hope for a purer heart but much to have nightmares about. Then she would get on the train to Cambridge.

James Randerson (King’s 1995) is co-editor of Cycle Babble: Bloggers on Biking.

This article originally appeared in the 63rd edition of the Cambridge Alumni Magazine (CAM)