The Molecules of Cycling

I find it hard to say I am a cyclist. My daily journeys on two wheels hardly seem to merit the term. I’m a person with a bike, which I acquired by accident rather than design. That probably makes me even more of a fake.

I was mildly embarrassed today when I was hailed by a real cyclist, one who cycles lots of miles and threads his way through London, as one of his tribe. I felt like a complete fraud.

I am the most faint hearted of bike riders. I am scared rigid of lorries, of fast cars that drive within ten feet of me, of turning right, of unheeding pedestrians, of unknown roads, of potholes.

But during the course of these months of short cycle rides to and from work, I have started to love my bike. That doesn’t mean I look after it; it is absolutely filthy and I think the brakes need oiling; they certainly squeak enough. I pretend its dirt is a disincentive to thieves.

I love not being on the bus with a bunch of over-testosteroned schoolboys. I love pedalling madly to vent the frustrations of a morning. I love riding through the park and seeing the sniffer dogs being exercised. I love cycling slowly home at dusk. I like the independence and the forward motion.

I don’t cycle anywhere near enough to be called a real cyclist, though I am slowly acquiring the gear, and not just annexing my walking stuff, and I don’t think there’s any fear that I’ll ever share the fate of the postman in Flann O’Brien’s classic, The Third Policeman. The same theory is in another of his novels, The Dalkey Archive. If you’ve not read either, put both on your Christmas list.

Here’s a taster:

“The gross and net result of it is that people who spent most of their natural lives riding iron bicycles over the rocky roadsteads of this parish get their personalities mixed up with the personalities of their bicycle as a result of the interchanging of the atoms of each of them and you would be surprised at the number of people in these parts who are nearly half people and half bicycles…when a man lets things go so far that he is more than half a bicycle, you will not see him so much because he spends a lot of his time leaning with one elbow on walls or standing propped by one foot at kerbstones.”
― Flann O’Brien, The Third Policeman


23 thoughts on “The Molecules of Cycling

  1. Wow…interesting quote from the book. All I can say is may you never become such a dedicated cyclist that you interchange ANY of your atoms with your bike or vice versa Isobel ! Cycling is an acquired habit I think….you’re more than halfway there I believe….. 🙂


  2. I love Flann O’Brien. It’s at least thirty years since I first read The Third Policeman and I think it’s time I hooked it off the shelf again.
    So, has Janh been seen leaning on walls or propped by one foot on kerbstones, Sophie? Mind you, in this day and age when your bike would vanish if not locked up, the signs would probably involve fetish like padlocks.
    I couldn’t believe my eyes in Munich last year. Lots of bikes, hardly a one padlocked to anything. Amazing!
    I am certainly more interested in acquiring lights for my bike than fairy lights for my home, Pam!

    • It is a great book. I think I prefer The Dalkey Archive by a whisker, and the theories of interchanging atoms becomes interchanging molecules, but is otherwise the same theory. Buy it for him and read it yourself…:)

  3. I am not a fan of riding my bike in city traffic. Like you, it scares me. However, when I lived in Fort Collins, Colorado I would ride my bike all over. I lived next to a beautiful trail along the Poudre River. It was a great way to get to and from work. In the morning the cold ride would get my heart pumping and in the evening it was a fantastic way to work off the stress from the office. I don’t have a bike here and I’m not sure if I will get one. I just hate city riding.

    I wish you luck and be safe out there!

    • Maybe using a Boris bike might be your solution here, TBM. The other day I was pedalling along a wide road when a Coca Cola delivery van came up behind me and started to overtake. I was thinking “Could that van get any closer?” when due to traffic bollards and the reluctance of the driver to gave way to a mere bike, I found the answer was “yes”. At that point I took to the pavement for the next fifty or so yards as I did not feel safe on the road. Some drivers are boarish, and I am noticing that after dark, some considerably cut the space margins around bikes.

      • I have noticed that bike rentals are available all over here. I’ll have to give one a try, but your description isn’t helping me feel more comfortable with city traffic. I have noticed that the drivers here travel at faster speeds on neighborhood streets.

        • Although a complete wimp, I think that attitude has a lot to do with it. I made a pact with myself that if I felt unsafe I would either move to the pavement or dismount. That seemed to work for me. Boris bikes are, I believe, free for the first half hour. I have yet to register. I may need to for next week when I need to be at one end of the City and travel across it minus bike, so to be able to cycle back to collect my own bike would be good.
          Locally, there are cycle safety groups that will help you get your nerve. I guess you have the same in your borough. Are you Kensington and Chelsea. If you don’t mind, should I see the details, I’ll email you directly.

      • Hello! I hope you are enjoying your weekend! Yes I do live in Kensington and Chelsea. Any and all info would be greatly appreciated. Do you have my email? If not, here you go: Thanks again but please don’t feel like you have to.

        Why do they call them Boris bikes?

  4. I think it’s cool you are a cyclist Isobel. And you are. You are an interesting lady. I had a ten speed as a kid and rode it all over but as I got older biking was not in the program. I have no idea why. Pedal safe!

  5. Of course you are a cyclist, Isobel. Anyone who pedals is a cyclist. You don’t have to wear the kit; all you need is to have a bike to be one of the fellowship of wheely free people. That’s one of the lovely things about it. Whether you’re Danny MacAskill, or Sir Chris Hoy, or Mark Cavendish or Isobel, you share that common bond. You just happen to go at different paces, that’s all.

    I have been forced by circumstances to drive a lot recently and I loathe it. I have the windows down to breathe the fresh air and I watch the cyclists keenly, comparing their styles, noting whether they have the saddle too high or a bit too far back, whether they prefer bolt upright stance on their bicycle or a racier stretch forwards. I saw a woman riding a tricycle with a big carrier on the back and a Union Jack fluttering from the offside corner of the carrier. I wanted to congratulate her for cycling into town to do her shopping and mixing it with the early morning traffic.

    You are definitely a cyclist and absolutely correct to be scared of lorries and potholes. Avoid both and you’ll be fine. 🙂

    The Third Policeman is my eldest boy’s favourite book. I’m going to borrow it from him tomorrow after reading that fab excerpt.

    • I almost feel told off! No biking today as I took the train after work (finished at lunchtime) to see Mother. Of which more possibly tomorrow. Home again and cream-crackered. Very aware of the coughing and sneezing on the train. Longed for bike! My wiggle headlight is so lovely and wonderful I think everyone should have one!
      I hope you love the Third Policeman. It’s very Irish, and although I am only half, I think it helped.

  6. 😀 oh no, that wasn’t meant to be anything like a ticking off. It’s just that you so obviously are, even if you never meant to be 🙂 Hope your mother is well. I’m off to the sea and the son and the Third Policeman now. pip pip!

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