Saturday, February 27, 2010

Britain's upper lip stiffer than any part of John Cook's body

This morning's ride took me up the White Horse Hill, site of a 3,000‐year old carving.

The carving and its surrounds deserve a
proper description, but all I can say is that it's one of those places that makes your life seem ephemeral, and your knowledge of our species, paltry.

I surveyed this LordoftheRingstype landscape and tried to see it through the eyes of a Bronze Age dude. As if that could be done.

When Bronze Age Dude looked around this hill, he must have distinguished flora, fauna, features of the terrain that are all just shades of green to me. In the clouds, he would have seen the favor or opprobrium of the gods. (The figure is only viewable from the sky.) In the landscape, he would have spotted military advantages and vulnerabilities, grazing land, accessible sources of water, minerals, and who knows what else.

I saw none of these things. I saw a hill, an obstacle to overcome on a bicycle. I felt only the grade, so steep my rear wheel kept spinning out in a slick of freezing mud and sheep shit. I felt my frame flexing, my arms tiring, my heart pounding.

But I didn't want to write about my ride today, or the White Horse Hill, or Bronze Age Dude. I wanted write about these modern
day British people and their detestable good cheer.

On the way out this morning it was raining lightly and two degrees above freezing. The rain grew heavier, then the Sun came out and warmed me briefly before the sleet started, and then the hailstorm, then back to light rain for the last leg.
I saw no fewer than three running groups, one orienteering group, three cycling groups out for a ride, many pairs of equestrians, and about a dozen individual cyclists, several of whom were faster than me. (Yes, Tom, I spied the orange jerseys, though no tandems or trikes.) In other words, everybody in the whole bloody region was out in this freezing rain, sleet, and hail this morning, out riding, running, walking. And no one seemed to be suffering. Always I got the same cheerful greeting, duly returned.

What the hell? How am I supposed to feel heroic, caked
in mud and riding into a stiff wind with numb fingers and toes, if little old ladies are doing it too?

Stoicism goes pretty far in explaining how this country once built an empire. (Don't get me wrong: I notice a lot of things that explain how it lost that empire too.) British people are always worried that as a culture, they are going soft, but if what I've seen is any indication, they can relax on that front.

Anyway, this is a Saturday and these folks were out for "recreation". But this doesn't tell the full story of the stiff upper lip thing
vis-à-vis cycling. On weekdays most people ride a bike to get to work, to the pub, or whatever. Here are some images of cycling in Oxford. As you can see, it's young and old, helmeted and unhelmeted, scholars and students and merchants.

The daily unglamorous use of the bicycle as transport steels these people against wind, cold, and rain. They don't seem to notice.

Contrast Fairfax County Supervisor John Cook, who recently declared that bicycles are "not a transportation device". According to Cook, "The big problem is people don't want to ride their bike in the rain or get sweaty before work."

I'll let you draw your own conclusions.


Calvini said...

Many blue collar workers in Fairfax County ride mountain bikes to work--I suppose they're as easy to ignore on the road (or sidewalk) as they are in restaurants. Maybe the point is precisely to make their lives difficult, though.

Or, as the fellow in the pickup truck at Lost Volley RR shouted from his window at me, "ROADS ARE FOR TAX PAYING CARS, NOT BICYCLES!"

qualia said...

Yeah, given the roads out there, you're risking your life on a bike. Europeans complain constantly about how dangerous it is to ride in Oxford, but I don't know what they're talking about. Seems on the extreme end of bike friendliness to me.

Marten said...

Here is his email address, I sent him an email earlier:

qualia said...

Yeah, please flood this guy's inbox. I emailed him a week ago, along with spamming the relevant board members:

I think Cook has it almost precisely backwards: bikes are actually transport first and recreation, second; sporting cycling culture should be built on top of a strong commuting cycling culture.

T said...

White Horse Hill is a great ride - I remember going up that in a nasty headwind and literally being stopped in my tracks by a gust. Thank goodness for a 27t cog!

Cycling around town in Oxford was fabulous too. I got to chatting with Kevin about it on the ride today. I miss the ease of it all and the cycling lanes on any road of any consequence. Though Oxford is also quite compact.