The nonsense (and un-greenness) of cycling

Towards the end of last year (yet still belatedly) I learned that Mark Beaumont had cycled round the world again, this time breaking his previous record by a crazy amount and retaking that title.

I watched with keen interest when the BBC aired his original effort around ten years ago; seeing him drag his bike laden with panniers from country-to-country, camping along the way and sourcing whatever hearty meals he could find to keep him fuelled. It was inspiring and indeed has been on my mind ever since, especially when I went on my own cycle-touring trip to and around Scotland and back a couple of years ago.

This second effort of Beaumont’s was much different however. Now he had a couple of people going along with him in a camper van, carrying all his stuff, keeping him fuelled, and giving him somewhere safe and comfortable to sleep each night, along with regular massages to aid his body after each stint. Other than putting in the miles each day he had none of those other stresses to demand attention or energy.

From this he was able to cycle an average of 240 miles a day.

This single figure alone made it remarkable to me to reflect on what the human body is capable of when it is trained right and put in its element. It made me raise an eyebrow at some of the topics I had been researching online prior to this, such as adrenal fatigue – how can this be a “thing” for anyone else if Beaumont can put in 240 miles a day on his bike, and recover from that in time for the next day?

Another figure, one that made this 240 miles a day possible was the 9,000 calories he needed to consume, each day, and these had to include all the things his body needed to keep it in peak working condition; a balance of protein and carbohydrates along with vital vitamins and minerals (not all calories are the same). It was an ongoing cycle (no pun intended) of putting food in and getting the miles out; his body being a finely-tuned machine.

This 9,000 calories got me thinking though, about the energy efficiency, and greenness, of cycling. Being able to cycle 240 miles in a day really goes to show that most of us really don’t need cars for our day-to-day living (I manage without). However, having to consume this number of calories, and the fact that Beaumont had an internal-combustion-engine-driven-camper van doing the journey with him, made me question the greenness of not only his trip but cycling in general.

I’m recalling how some MPs or prime ministers have cycled to work yet had their boxes of paperwork chauffeur-driven there for them. It may give the rider some much needed fresh air (if this can be obtained in the city of London) and exercise, but any attempt to appear green can end up being a silly publicity stunt.

Aside from the camper van that accompanied Mark Beaumont, those 9,000 calories in the food had to come from somewhere; food has to be grown, reared and manufactured and packaged and shipped, all of which will release pollution into the environment and thus has a carbon footprint. Whereas the fossil fuels in vehicles is first released from the ground, refined, and transported to service stations, and then used, which, as we know, releases pollution into the atmosphere. One can also consider the cost of the two methods of transportation; the cost of food containing 9,000 calories, and the equivalent petrol or diesel to propel a vehicle 240 miles. I roughly equate this last figure to be £20-£30. I’m thinking that if I had to source quality meals to the value of 9,000 calories, I would end up spending more that £30.

An interesting figure I just found online is that there are between 8,000,000-9,000,000 calories in a litre of fuel (diesel/petrol), therefore we are a bit off the mark to think of a vehicle being efficient if it can do 60mpg+, and illustrates how efficiently the human body really works. If only we could run as efficiently on gasoline.

Another factor in the cost and burden of these different vehicles is, if one is going to choose to cycle everywhere instead of driving a car, then the initial outlay of the cost of the vehicle is a key factor; the cost of a new bike generally being a lot less than the cost of a new car, and a lot greener too with bikes being much more simple to manufacture. Bikes are generally cheap to maintain, although when one considers how many miles you can get out of components such as tyres and brakes, bikes might actually come out at more of an expense per mile than realised (I’ll get through a set of bike tyres, inner tubes, brake pads, and a chain in a year on my bike, costing me approximately £50 in total, although some will spend a lot more).

However, bikes (and cars) have become a lot more complex over recent year, from exotic materials that the bike frames (and wheels) might be made out of, brakes changing from cantilever-style ones to fancy disc brakes, and gear-shifting mechanisms becoming electronic. All of this, to me, becomes a whole plethora of nonsense.

No longer is cycling a simple and noble mode of transport (or sport), but (if we are not mindful of what we are getting into) an overly complex, overly engineered and overly hyped wad of less green materialistic egoness.

As a case in point, I recently received a marketing newsletter I hadn’t subscribed to, from a bike sales company I had used but opted out of their marketing emails (it’s funny how they ploy this tactic of sneaking you onto a mailing list anyway). I found myself looking at a page of bike pumps; you know, those simple devices you use to pump up a bike tyre with. I frowned at the sight of price tags reaching over £75 – and that’s in the sale – for an over-engineered (“digital”) and complicated-looking piece of kit. “The world has gone crazy.” I thought.

Then I’m on Youtube (for a change!) and I’m presented with a video comparing an old traditional steel frame bike (from the 1980s) to a modern-day- over-engineered-as-described-above road bike. The host is immediately sceptical of the old steel frame machine from the start, treating it as a joke and perhaps not the respect it deserves. But then once he gets into it, notices something odd (at 7:50): He’s amazed at how comfortable the ride is and comments on the lack of “road buzz” from his usual fancy modern bike. Road buzz; I’ve never had it.

I’ve always ridden steel-framed bikes. Starting out with the types of gears he demonstrates on the retro bike; ones with shifters on the frame that don’t “click” into place. These could be replaced with ones that do, or even a modern set of handlebars with modern shifters.

At the end of the video he does a run-down on what he could or couldn’t live with on the retro bike and pretty much all could be upgraded somewhat; brakes, pedals and the old saddle.

I know about the quality of breaking but I’m not convinced disc brakes are necessary on a “skinny road bike”; they may well make you feel less confident if you’ve used disc brakes and then try and go back, but the only times I really “regret” not having disc brakes on my bike is, with it being a touring bike, when it’s loaded up with panniers and I’m careering down hills in wet conditions. Also, disc brake systems weigh more so you have to realise that you’re carrying around that extra weight all the time, a weight difference that’s surely significant on a skinny road bike. As far as I’m aware, the frame and fork set-ups dictate which brakes can be used and these can’t be changed (unless you’re skilled in welding bikes and prepared to change wheels), but I would guess that modern brake pads hold some improvement over older ones.

A clear thing is that the old bike still works and the video asks if modern carbon bikes will last? “They seem a lot more consumerist, and a lot more throw-away; products seem to be designed to last only a few years.”

At the end of the day, the lightness of a bike is a performance improvement; when competing with others, you’re going to choose the more modern bike, “to be easier on yourself”, but for everyday living, I think it says a lot about yourself if you choose a “flashy modern consumeristic thing” over something solid, simple and evidently reliable… and greener.

If I was someone who was capable of, or interested in, competing in a road race with the opportunity of finishing near the front, I would be considering the best machine for the job that I could justify spending the money on, but I’m not; I’m thinking I would be content with ending some way down the pack if I was on a heavier and older bike. But I really only compete against myself and the average speed I set last month, therefore, switching to a lighter bike would only result in one better month compared to the previous.

You can also watch an interview from GCN on Youtube with Mark Beaumont:

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