Bicycle enthusiasts once thought nothing of freewheeling through the drifts
There are many tests of devotion to the cycling cause. There’s money, there’s time or there’s spending your family holidays trailing blood and artificial stimulants round the notable peaks of Europe. And then there’s cycling in the snow.
Going out, a friend asked if I was mad. Yet everyone else seems unfazed by it. The Dutch pedal imperturbably through blizzards, the Danes clear their cycle lanes as efficiently as their roads and there’s outrage in Hamburg that the city’s 13% of cyclists have been reduced to 10% by something as piffling as a bit of freezing weather.
As usual, the British are different. In London after the first big snowfall, most commuters obviously took an executive decision to leave the bike at home and get to work by other means. Others saw it as an opportunity. A few riders on the new Boris Bikes sailed triumphantly through the Oxford Street shoppers. On Parliament Hill, just beside a group tobogganing on a diversion sign and an estate agent’s for sale board, several cyclists were using the slopes as an impromptu freestyle course.
In fact, the problem with snow and bicycles is not snow itself – which, if it’s the crunchy sort, gives quite good grip – but either ice or salt. If you do venture out, then you have to stick to the tyre tracks made by other vehicles, which means that anyone then overtaking you hoses you down with an exfoliating mixture of grit, filth and vile frozen stuff.
Assuming that you’re also wearing the necessary coats, scarves, hats, helmets and lights, this (mud-smeared, flashing like an emergency) is a genuinely challenging look to pull off, but one which fully expresses the pioneering nature of your journey.
Even so, we’re a bunch of lightweights compared to cyclists in the past. In the years after the First World War, a man named WM Robinson wrote a hugely popular column for Cycling Magazine under the pen name Wayfarer. He believed in “as little bicycle as possible”, favouring a steel-framed roadster without gears, wide tyres or mudguards. His description of a trip to the Berwyn Mountains in Wales in March 1919 is typical. Having ridden 60 miles to the starting point, he met another couple of cyclists who, “reported passing storms of snow and hail through which they had ridden – a pleasant change from the monotony of sunshine cycling”.
He and his companion ride on in darkness to an inn where they are told that their proposed route over the mountains is blocked by deep drifts. Wayfarer absorbs the information and goes up to his bedroom where he notes approvingly that the window has been left wide open and that it is now snowing hard inside as well as out.
The following morning, having slept well beneath the winter frosts, Wayfarer takes a look at the weather (blizzard, zero visibility) and concludes that conditions are ideal for recreational cycling. For most of the way, the path is invisible. Sinking up to their waists and carrying their bikes for much of the route, the group reached the other side in four hours. “It is an infinitely more interesting and adventurous trip when done in deep snow,” he concludes. That afternoon, he cycled a further 50 miles over another mountain just for fun.
A group called the Rough Stuff Fellowship maintains Wayfarer’s spirit. Its website gives details of routes including several of the high Scottish summits known as Munros. Cape Wrath is a good example of the type of route recommended. To reach the north-westernmost tip of mainland Scotland off-road takes one across a beach, a river, a seven-mile bog and an MoD firing range covered in old and unexploded ordnance.
If cycling in the snow offers one sort of smugness, then blood donation offers another. Nothing tweaks the conscience quite like the reminder cards you get from donor centres with the words ” Please Give Blood” outlined in anxious red ink or the adverts pointing out that, from the total population eligible to donate, only 4% ever do. Blood only lasts for 35 days and Britain needs 7,000 units of blood at any one time, but all the bad weather had sent stocks plummeting.
Three days before Christmas at the main London donor centre behind Oxford Street, the results of all those tweaked consciences were showing up. On an average day, Margaret Street gets 100 donors. Because of the nationwide advertising campaign they’d had 170 or so for the past two days running, and today looked equally busy.
If you want to give blood and have given before, you fill in a form, get tested for anaemia and sit on a comfy reclining chair listening to Elton John and watching wine-dark B+ flowing out of you and into a bag. Afterwards, the staff give you snacks and sugary drinks, force you to do nothing for several minutes and then let you go. Admittedly, all the questioning forces a chastening internal review of your recent sexual habits and/or history of intravenous drug use, but frankly it’s worth it for the free biscuits.
Blood donation in Britain is and always has been on a voluntary basis. The alternative – a service relying on paid donors – still exists in at least 31 countries worldwide, a total of more than 1 million donations. But the consequences of relying on the sectors of the population most desperate for money (drug users, prisoners and the homeless) were discovered in the US during the 1970s and 80s when about half the country’s haemophiliac population were either infected with hepatitis or HIV from contaminated blood. Hence the enormous care with which UK donors are now screened.
Donor centres are usually cheery places and the NHS has now resorted to small-scale bribery for regulars. Two donations and you get a key fob; 100 and it’s a decanter. But none of that matters half as much as the warm fug of righteousness it gives, or the profoundly satisfying knowledge that you now have sound medical grounds to sit on your arse for two weeks watching reruns of Gavin & Stacey and stuffing yourself with Christmas pud. At least until it snows again.
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