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A Flat Tyre on the Energy Cycle: Saving money, health and the environment by riding a bicycle ... aren't you?

A tongue-in-cheek piece on riding bikes, and starving, published in the Institute of Public Affairs Review, Vol. 48/4, 1996, pp.56-57

Why, oh why, do so many people resent the humble bicycle?

I am not talking about that noisy scourge of road and country trail, the motor cycle. I mean those harmless devices that gave most of us, as children, our first taste of true mobility. I'm referring to those machines whose intrinsic innocence rendered even the murderous villain played by Paul Newman in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, child-like and gawkily benign.

Yet so many do detest riders -- some almost to the point of inflicting grievous bodily harm on us.

Yes! I must confess that I am one of those at whom passing motorists vent their 200 horsepower tri-tone air horns, behind whom 20 tonne omnibuses crawl menacingly, upon whom scorn is loudly heaped by P-plated youths in decades-old automobiles. Yet this affliction of hate resides not only in random passers-by, but on those whom one considers otherwise worthy of admiration.

Take the American P J O'Rourke for example, a Republican who was touched by the plight of the poor and oppressed in his Holidays in Hell; a political satirist who all too often had to concede the personal virtue of bureaucrats and politicians in Parliament of Whores. In his earliest book, Republican Party Reptile, I found his sharp pen honed to the keenest possible edge and could sense anguished wails from many whose tender parts had been punctured by it.

I did not expect to be one of them!

His 'Cool and Logical Analysis of the Bicycle Menace' advocates the eradication of me and my fellow travellers. What did I ever do to him?

Well let me set the record straight right now. Far from being a 'menace', the cyclist should be viewed as a saviour! After all, by our selfless actions we participate in the glorious pursuit of preserving our environment. (On a more mundane level, we also save money which would otherwise be spent on petrol.) Oh, and although this may be a mixed blessing for the rest of the world (what with over-population and all), regular exercise should contribute to our longevity.

Clearly, by riding our bicycles to work, school and on our everyday business rather than conveying ourselves in inefficient, greenhouse-gas spewing, noisy contraptions, we are engaging in pure, unmitigated good.

But riding gives one time to think, rather too much in fact. When one has travelled (slowly) the same path seven hundred times each way, the need to navigate diminishes, the once attractive scenery becomes passé and one is left with nothing beyond thoughts to pass the time -- apart of course from a monotonous circling of legs. Eventually, even the thrall of virtuous good-feeling can pall.

It was time, I thought while cycling home one day, to reinvigorate my commitment to this ethical and frugal mode of transportation. How to do this? How to re-conjure an intangible setting of the spirit?

What about trying to quantify the virtue?

First (and easiest) things first: how much money was I saving? Well, if instead of my socially responsible, naturally powered vehicle I were to use a small car that consumed only a modest (but nonetheless disgraceful) quantity of fuel, my daily twenty-five kilometre journey would deprive Gaia of an irreplaceable 2.4 litres of its fossil resources. And at about seventy cents per litre, it would deprive me of an equally irreplaceable sum of $1.70.

On the bike, though, no fuel! Therefore it's free!

But wait, whatever happened to the law of conservation of energy?

Sadly, it turns out a bicycle is not a perpetual motion machine after all -- it gets its energy from somewhere, a somewhere quite specific: its rider. Oh, but surely a bicycle cannot use much energy.

A little research quickly reveals that my two daily half-hour rides only use about 480 calories. There are two ways of dealing with such an expenditure of energy: one can eat more or one can go without and lose weight. My, but this last sounds attractive, shedding fat at the rate of a kilogram every three weeks. Unhappily, this cannot go on forever. One gets to a point where further weight loss becomes positively unhealthy. Death follows.

The alternative -- to eat more -- means the calorie equivalent of, say, a humble hamburger and an unsweetened apple juice (perspiration must also be replaced) beyond one's accustomed consumption. This costs daily $3.20, nearly twice as much as the petrol. Ouch!

Oh well, at least we can console ourselves with the thought that we are helping to save the world for our children, and their children. I mean to say, fossil fuels come from the ground and after they are all used up, there will be no more ... fossil fuels.

By contrast, hamburgers and apple juice are environmentally sensitive. They merely involve activities such as broad-acre wheat farming, large-scale (Vegans: please avert your eyes temporarily lest you be offended) meat production, insecticide spraying on tomato and lettuce crops and sundry other abuses of Mother Earth. Hmmmm.

Okay, okay, so we're ravaging the land and wasting money while we're at it; at least we'll live longer than all those sedentary motorists out there. But even as I write, my attention is drawn to several studies reported by J R Johnstone in Health Scare, The Misuse of Science in Public Health Policy. These suggest that the additional time you survive through exercise approximates the time you spent in exercise. Accumulating all those minutes spent perched perilously atop a bicycle over a lifetime might amount to a year, perhaps two. Yet an increased life expectancy of a mere year, perhaps two, can be hoped for. The year spent is spread over the prime of one's life. The year gained is at its twilight when Mother Nature has nearly finished working Her magic of reverting one to dust. Does that sound like a fair trade?

After all this I should, I suppose, hang up my trouser clips and catch a bus to the nearest used car lot. I would too, except that one dimension of virtue remains to cycling: even though I now know better, everyone else thinks I'm virtuous and that is very hard to resist.

© 1996 - Stephen Dawson