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Stress relief and cycling in Sheffield

March 23, 2011

Reduced to a near-gibbering wreck on the pavement outside my house on Monday night, I really started to wonder why not being able to parallel-park our car on a hill had brought me quite so close to tears. First, I’d like to blame the car – a Punto is simply no comparison to my old growling Mini Cooper Sport. There’s just not the meaty feedback. Secondly, I’m going to blame my almost-breakdown on riding a fixed gear track bike in safe but hilly Sheffield.

Yeah, weird. Why? It’s a convoluted explanation.

Coming from London, where almost every day I’d cycled 8 miles to and from home in Shoreditch to work in Westminster, I was used to getting into a screaming rage on a regular basis. Now, that’s not because I ride like some brakeless pretentious twat who thinks they’re in Mash. I’m not a messenger, and I’d never want to be. (Hey, I’ve ridden fixed since 2007. I’m allowed to! Why are fixies like tampons? You know the answer.)  I’d get into a rage because every cyclist in London, every day, whatever they ride, has to battle to be seen and respected on the road.

Not so in Sheffield. Sheffield is the loveliest place to cycle – we have great cycle networks and bus lanes, and almost every vehicle will slow or move around you. In short, you are visible because you are unusual. Because you’re not everywhere, causing a ‘nuisance’ by mere virtue of your ubiquity.

Sheffield is gloriously safe to cycle around. I’m lucky that I no longer have to fight White Van Man at the lights, or get harried by some moron on a full-sus mountainbike tailgating me all the way along Embankment and then trying to chat about the weather while I’m trying to get away from him. I don’t have to deal with Dulwich Mum wobbling all the way out into the middle of the road without warning, or dickfaces running reds with gay abandon. Or Mr Brompton who’s in such a rush that he’s going to risk his life by undertaking a HGV at a junction. I no longer feel that I’m minutes away from witnessing the death of a cyclist.

Which is all very well, but I’m basically a selfish fucker, and clearly something is wrong with my cycling here: I’m not getting mad enough when cycling in Sheffield. Seriously. In London you can ride fast and assertively (which is obviously different to riding like a dick) – partly because it’s pretty flat. In London, you can bang on the passenger window of some hapless SMIDSY motorist and hope that he’ll learn to look out for other road users in future. You can ring your bell and be 50% confident that this here pedestrian is going to look before he runs out into the road. You are RIDING.

And you can spin aggressively. It makes no difference if you’re a masher or if you have souplesse, because it’s just awesome to travel at speed and HAVE to keep living 15 seconds in the future, and keep going faster.

I don’t get to do this in Sheffield. My commute is the most boring 7 minute ride down a straight road in a bus lane, with my legs spinning like billyo because I have to ride a fricking polo gear in order to take the hill on the way back home. In London I always pushed a pretty high gear (hallo muscles!), so while I wasn’t the quickest off the lights or the skippiest to skid-stop, I was keeping a decent pace, always pushing to go faster faster faster, and I had to anticipate every kind of hazard.

I’m not being flippant about cycling safety or saying I would like a taxi to pull out on me without looking, or that I enjoyed being squeezed and intimidated off the road by lorries. Instead this rant is about how a landscape allows you to ride.

I’d just like the chance to ride aggressively, to say ‘yeah I got across London in 15 minutes’ and come through the door buzzing and full of adrenaline after shouting at some shonky-haired Kamikaze wazzock. To push harder, to go faster, and ride hard right until the very last 50 yards of my commute, not to push (as I do now) until my heart pops just to very slowly cycle up a steep incline. You think you’ll be able to mash your bike up a hill and just get all your stress out. No, Sheffield hills say ‘here, just have a slap in the face and get over it, puny human’. And so I arrive at my hilly home, having actually cycled up to my door a total of 4 times since January, not steaming and like ‘rawwwwr TRAFFIC’ as I used to, but instead listlessly half-dead from the ascent.

There is no ‘ride hard’ here. There is none, because I ride a fucking mono-geared bike. I have to ride a tiny gear to get up that hill, so on a fixed gear I’ll never again be fast, my legs won’t feel powerful and I’ll never again feel like I’m elegantly cruising in slow motion.

In order to ride harder and release all that 9-5 stress, I have to get a geared bike.

And this is why I’m bursting into tears at really tiny things like not being able to have a pancake, watching the first season of ER or realising I’ve become 80% deskilled in driving a car.

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