In the end, maybe, the bicycle wins…
It certainly won hearts and minds when Gan Ruyi, a 24-year-old doctor from the Jingzhou province of China rode over 300 kilometres through freezing weather to volunteer her services at the peak of the Wuhan Covid-19 outbreak. Sometime after that, in a hugely evocative video posting, one of her colleagues in the locked-down ghost city posted a video of the horrifying work he was undertaking. After a long shift battling the symptoms of this epoch-defining virus, he rode home through the grey, deserted streets of his huge home city, completely alone, singing to himself. Somehow, the fact that he was on a bike made this a profoundly affecting moment. Bikes are human things, vulnerable, compliant, harmless.
At the end of the 2018 Tour de France, I picked up a second-hand book, wanting to distract myself from the race and get lost in a story. It was a work of science fiction called Ravage by a significant author called René Barjavel. Set at some distant point in the future, it describes Paris as a dystopian city, whose skies are filled with electric rockets and whose citizens live in a technological bubble that alienates them from both the planet and from each other. The crux of the drama comes when, for some unfathomable reason, electricity fails. Rockets fall from the sky, systems crash, lights go out, riots ensue, order breaks down, and before long the French capital is on fire.
A handful of fugitives escape the inferno by heading for the suburbs, where an eccentric former racing cyclist has kept an antique collection of push bikes. The bicycles turn out to save the lives of our band of heroes. Together, on these old-fashioned steeds, they head south, away from the metropolitan meltdown, to rural Provence, where they find clear running water, orchards, meadows and salvation.
It’s an enjoyable, heavy-handed parable. But I love the fact that it has at its heart, the bicycle. The quaint 19th century invention has not greatly been altered in over 100 years. Strip away the Garmin, the power meter, the electronic gear shifters and all the peripheral gubbins, and you still have the chain, the pedals, the bar, two wheels, a saddle and a frame. The anatomy of a bike is immutable.
And its antiquity is its potency. There is some evidence that during the outbreak of Spanish flu at the end of WW1, the bicycle industry enjoyed a minor resurgence, as people sought to self-isolate from over-crowded trains, omnibuses, pavements and trams. I wonder if there will be evidence of a similar phenomenon when all this awfulness passes.
Beyond its obvious practical benefits just now (and they have been the same for decades; health, wealth and reliability), there is a deeper message contained within the impulse to turn to the tried and tested in moments of great uncertainty. It’s the analogue urge in a digital age. In these days of crisis I have spent less and less time searching out immediate news feeds, and more and more time leafing through pages of fiction by novelists I’d never read before, and have thus been transported to provincial Austria in the 1980s, 16thcentury Constantinople and Aquitania at the turn of the century. All of these places seem preferable to the here and now.
In a way, that impulse to change reality is what has driven people onto bikes ever since they first became a thing. They literally altered the course of genetic evolution in the countryside, as people started more readily to forge relationships with villagers more than a day’s walk away. And they continue to provide answers which are startling in their simplicity when faced with intractable-seeming problems. They transport you, both literally and figuratively, to whatever destination you care to reach. They are magic.
It is because he was on a bicycle that the Wuhan doctor started to sing. Had he been behind the wheel of a car, he would not have felt moved to do so. He would not have been breathing the same dank air, nor feeling the same eerie emptiness. He would not have been part of his world.
I want to tell you, in the happier times which will come, that, despite all the upheavals in your world, there is a constant, faithful touchstone. It’s in the bike shed. And it’ll wait until you’re ready.
Ned Boulting is the voice of ITV’s Tour de France coverage and editor of The Road Book.
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