Brian's Blog

…one man's contribution to the Weeeeerly Wild World

My ride to school…

Here I recount how I used to cycle to school and then college, a precursor for my “daily commute”, and a message for us all about how we choose to travel and live.

Since my previous post titled “It’s quicker to ride a bike, yes?” I got thinking about my childhood ride to school, which is where it (cycling regularly) all began for me, some 20+ years ago.

I used to catch the free school bus when I was at junior school, I would have perhaps cycled to school in the last couple of years there if I had been allowed but there was “a dangerous junction” to cross, so it was out of the question as far as my parents were concerned (my dad actually managed to have a car collision there when the early morning sun prevented him from seeing oncoming traffic as he pulled out). Google Maps informs me the school was 2.6 miles away from where I lived (I thought it was only a mile!)

The thing with the bus route though was that it went out of the way on the way home, to drop some students off at another village. This added a further 3.2 miles or rather, perhaps some 10 minutes (again my memory fails me here because I thought it was longer). So a return trip by bus would have taken (according to Google Maps) 15 minutes, but by bicycle… also 15 minutes.

The journey to school would have been quicker because there wasn’t this detour but what we did get with our morning trip was some time waiting around for the bus to arrive; we had to be out at the bus stop early to ensure we didn’t miss it, luckily it was right outside my house so there was no walking time required, and the bus dropped us off right outside the school gates. I remember this as a fun time hanging around and chatting to friends in the mornings and the journey on the bus was the same; if I had been cycling to school I would have missed out on this aspect, even to some extent if I had been cycling with friends because it wouldn’t have been safe to ride two abreast.

Then I started high school.

I was supposed to go on the bus but being pretty much the only student from our small estate going to that school at the time I had a lot of anxiety about getting on that different bus already full of people I didn’t know, to a bus stop I didn’t know, and then having to get the bus on the way back from somewhere I hadn’t been properly informed about. My first day was thus a disaster in this regard and I ended up phoning my parents to come and collect me at the end of the day.

Yes, in that regard the first day on the bus was a disaster, I can remember that wait to be picked up, feeling bad that I had “missed the bus”, but my life turned around from that point since I refused to go on the bus again/decided I was going to cycle to school from that day forward (perhaps that is what I had wanted to do all along). I still generally avoid using buses to this day.

The route to high school was 3.6 miles long, and according to Google Maps would have taken me 17 minutes by bike (I used to keep paper records of the readings from bike’s speedometer but I don’t have them any more). Going by bus would have taken me the same route but would have dropped me off 0.3 miles short of the school gates, thus involving a walk. All in, going by bus and that walk would have taken… 14 minutes.

That 3 minute longer journey time was neither here-nor-there and was cancelled out by the length of time sensible students waited at the bus stop in the morning to ensure they didn’t miss the bus. Of course they got to socialise with each other, whereas I was probably in my own little world until I met up with friends at the school bike sheds (our school was well-equipped for those arriving by bike).

I actually had a lot of anxiety about cycling past the other students at the bus stop on our estate; I don’t know why, I knew them all, I just didn’t want to draw attention to myself so I would wait indoors until their bus had arrived, meaning I usually left after them, but I never arrived to school late.

The homeward-bound journey had its problems too. Outside the school gates it was mayhem with the mass of students all leaving the grounds at the same time, many catching the numerous buses pulling up at the designated bus stop there, and parents collecting their kids by car, and all the rest walking down the 0.3 mile-long road. Teachers were out on duty and wouldn’t let the bikers leave on their bikes; it just wasn’t safe, so we had to walk some way up the road with the mass of walkers until we could find a gap in the traffic to get out onto the road. From there it was plain sailing, most of the time…

The only mishaps I really had was when my old bike’s chain or gears, or pedal, or something, would slip as I went to pull away, and well, a couple of times I crashed to the road and suffered some grazes, generally more embarrassing than painful, at least initially until the adrenaline wore off. From what I remember, the roads were quite busy during my “commute” but with my ‘blinkers’ on I don’t remember having any problems with motorists; I always had good road sense, keeping well to the side of the road and not weaving about – confidence is, I have come to recognise, key to safety on the road and this is something you can develop quickly. Other road users probably recognised me as a student and took extra care, in fact I have fond memories of seeing an old-ish guy on a good few mornings heading the other way on his bike, he had a curly grey beard and we would wave cheerfully to each other – I miss that guy and now consider him an inspiration for what I would become; I’ve not yet got the grey beard, but one day! I remember big trucks and lorries hurtling past me on that trip each day, and the mental image I have of that now doesn’t make me feel so safe, but throughout the four years of high school I had no trouble. It was only once during a trip into town a year or so later that someone cut me up at a junction, causing their little truck to brush my glove-clad knuckles; this was a good early wake-up call to take care when there are vehicles along side me at junctions. Actually, the worst incident was when a pedestrian decided to step out in front of me without looking; she came off worst, and me once again only suffering grazes. Everything about cycling now has largely become second-nature; you develop a sixth-sense of how other road users are likely to behave, either intentionally or otherwise; it’s different from driving car because you don’t generally have rear-view mirrors yet you still know what’s there without looking. I always wore a helmet, I believe that not only can they help protect your scull should something bad happen, but they help to show other people that you are a sensible cyclist which awards you some respect.

weather

be-preparedI rode in all weathers to and from high school. I was well kitted out with waterproofs and I had lights for my bike when the dark winters closed in. I had a well-organised rucksack and a saddle-bag too, plus bike locks of course. When I got into graphic design classes I had a nifty way of putting my A3 plastic art pocket between my back and my bag, keeping my work flat rather than rolling it up – it probably looked like a small pair of wings from behind. I remember once or twice arriving at school like a drowned rat and using the hot-air dryers in the toilets to dry my coat, but otherwise I would stuff my gear into my locker. I had a nice routine.

You don’t need an expensive bike either, my first couple of racers were second-hand and cost £10-£15, before my uncle became aware of my seriousness about cycling and chipped in £150 towards my £300 Trek. By my estimation a year of travelling to and from high school equated to 1,600 miles, so had I been paying bus fare I’m pretty sure I got my monies’ worth out of it in one year alone. That bike last me 15 years.

Occasionally on my ride home I would ride a little with another guy from school. He liked to smoke and I remember how I would catch up to him, observing the puffs of smoke he billowed out ahead of me, before I would speed off ahead. He would call me a whippet, which I quite liked! Sometimes if the weather was particularly bad his step-mum would pull up in her car equipped with a bike rack on the back and give him a free ride home, and I’d get one too. To be honest though, I much preferred the bike ride; once you’re all dressed up in waterproofs you just want to get on your way, and if you’re already wet then stopping and sitting down for 5-10 minutes before starting off again isn’t so appealing. I think sometimes, or eventually, I politely declined the offers.

Then I started college.

This now involved a 5 mile trip, and through a town too. By this point I had no thoughts of catching a bus, but I did have my desires set on learning to drive. Sadly/luckily this took me a whole year to achieve by which time I had finished at this college and was studenting in a whole different place entirely. This was when I started to drive, something I thoroughly enjoyed doing but my cycling suffered. I went from cycling every week day to only for bike rides. Gradually I turned things back around though, and that’s where I am today. It has only been in recent years that I have looked back to where I used to drive each day and think “I could have cycled that!” now with Google Maps I can see it was only 10-15 miles away. In my defence one university I went to was too expensive to park my car at so I would park my car on the outskirts of the city and use a park-and-ride scheme, that was until I could save money (it cost £1 a day) by buying a bmx which I could squeeze into my little car, to ride the short bus route! I only just got my monies’ worth out of it though since I only used it for a year before quitting that university (I’d budgeted for completing the 2-3 years).

One aspect of all this riding to school and college was that I had no appreciation for ‘dietary requirements’. The food in the lunch box I took was no different to those being driven to and from school/college and therefore I wonder if perhaps I was not so well fuelled when it came to doing my work and not allowing my body to take proper care of itself. With no advice about this stuff, had I cycled all those miles to and from later universities/colleges I dread to think what might have become of me! If I could go back in time and talk to myself about this stuff then how to eat well for cycling each day is something I’d share.

I think it’s a shame that so many youngsters get packed off into cars or onto buses. It’s a routine that develops into a habit and a way of life, and with congested roads and poor air quality we all end up suffering. I actually didn’t begin this topic with my walk to my first school; at the age of 7 I was walking to school on my own, which was a distance of about half a mile away; these days I see parents driving their kids to school on the school run when it’s literally just round the corner, I can hardly believe it when I see it. If roads have got worse (which I’m sure they have) over the past 20 years, in particular with increased congestion outside school gates, they will only continue to get worse, after all the population is increasing. By continuing to use cars or buses for the shorter journeys (which as I have demonstrated are those up to a few miles) we not only hinder each other, but we generally don’t get anywhere any quicker, and certainly not healthier.

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