Pedal to the pumps

With a bike, places that are too far to walk and too annoying to reach by tube or bus are suddenly within Anthony Gladman's grasp


We each of us reach our limit at different times. For me it came towards the end of yet another daily walk, passing the same kids’ rainbow paintings in the same front windows as I had every evening since lockdown began to bite. Each one was a little more sun-bleached than it had been the day before, and a little less than it would be tomorrow.

I didn’t feel any hope when I looked at those rainbows. I felt crushing ennui. That sounds a touch poncey, I know, but I cannot think of a better word for feeling so completely sick of this locked-down life. I saw all at once how my world had shrunk to a handful of streets around my home. It had been months since I last went beyond walking distance from my front door.

That summer evening I yearned for freedom just as I had at seventeen when I wished (ha!) that my parents would buy me a car. Back then I longed for broader horizons — to see what was out there. Now I felt the same way about places I already knew but hadn’t visited since winter was turning into spring.

This was around the time that the pubs were finally reopening, and one in particular was calling to me. The Dulwich Wood House is just a couple of miles away from my home, but I didn’t often drink there in the Before Times. Now I found it much more attractive thanks to its massive beer garden.

PHOTO: Alex Motoc

I could have got there easily enough by taking a couple of buses, but I wasn’t keen on using public transport in the middle of this pandemic. What I had at seventeen that I don’t now is a bicycle, two wheels that granted me fun and autonomy. When I had a bike, places that were too far to walk and too annoying to reach by tube or bus were suddenly within my grasp. It was time I rediscovered that freedom.

I am not alone in feeling this way. Across the UK, hundreds of thousands of Britons have come to the same conclusion. Cycling is on the rise. During lockdown the capital saw levels 214% higher than were recorded on the same weekends during the previous year. In Manchester too levels have risen; throughout lockdown cycling in the city was consistently 22% above the annual average. And in Edinburgh, levels of cycling in May were 30% higher than they were in the same month last year.

Nipping out for a pint

Popping to the pub on your bike is hardly revolutionary. (Unless you’re looking for puns, I guess.) What’s new, in Britain’s big cities anyway, is that a lot more of us may be giving it a go this summer and beyond.

For many it will be an addendum to their day rather than a specific journey. Having swapped to a cycling commute, they will find themselves lugging the boneshaker along for a post-work drink. It wasn’t necessarily their plan to replace the old métro-boulot-dodo with a spot of velo-dipso-hoho, but they’re here now trying to make the best of it.

Having swapped to a cycling commute, Britons find themselves lugging the boneshaker along for a post-work drink

There will be others — myself included I hope — who will seek out specific pubs with the idea of riding there and back. So what makes a particular pub good to cycle to?

Practical matters first: you need somewhere to lock up your bike. A lamppost will do. Railings are better. Dedicated cycle racks or hoops better still. And best of all is somewhere visible from inside the pub, so you can reassure yourself that your bike is still there from time to time.

If you’re heading to a pub with a beer garden, you may well be able to take the bike right up to your table, which would be ideal. But even if you’re drinking indoors there’s a possibility that friendly staff may allow you to stash your ride in a corner somewhere. This might even become more likely under social distancing rules, with all the extra space that can no longer be given over to paying customers. Still, you can’t bank on it.

PHOTO: Lana Graves

Distance is another important factor. Somewhere between twenty minutes and half an hour seems to be the preferred ride time for people I’ve discussed this with. Although you’ll probably want to be riding slowly — no one wants to arrive at the pub dripping with sweat. Half an hour’s pedalling gives you a fair range but doesn’t seem too daunting when you consider that you’ll also have to cycle back at the end of the night.

The ride home

All my cycling friends have stories to share about wobbling home after one too many, and all of them agree that it is a stupid thing to do. “I’d never do it now of course,” comes the chorus, “but maybe once or twice when I was younger...”

Official police advice on the matter is as follows: “It is an offence to ride a pedal cycle on a road or other public place whilst being unfit through drink or drugs, basically so as to be so under the influence of drink or drugs that the person does not have proper control of the pedal cycle.” (Side note: don’t you just love how they call it a pedal cycle? There’s something very plod about that.)

The consensus seems to be that you’re OK after one or two drinks, and that you’re unlikely to be stopped in any case. But there are some important points to consider. First, you could end up with points on your driver’s licence if you are nabbed by the fuzz. Second, you may be unlikely to hurt others but you are more likely to hurt yourself or put others in a position where they could hurt you. And third, if you end up under some driver’s wheels, even if it’s one hundred percent your fault, that person is still going to suffer from horrendous feelings of guilt.

So it’s important to be aware of your own alcohol tolerance and have a realistic assessment of how good you actually are at riding your bike. If you’re not great on a bike when you’re sober, you’ll be be even worse when you’re drunk. The problem then is that alcohol lowers inhibitions, so you’ll feel more confident.

If you’ve cycled to the pub, it should go without saying that a quiet evening is advised

If you’ve cycled to the pub, it should go without saying that a quiet evening is advised. And indeed, most people who cycle to a pub will end up drinking less and maybe not staying as long as their bikeless buddies. Choosing a pub that serves decent low and no drinks will help moderate your alcohol intake. Perhaps we’ll see more of these on tap in the future as demand grows.

We may never get back to life as it was before the pandemic. Even after we have returned to our city centres, to our jobs and to the pub, COVID-19 will have left things changed. What remains to be seen is the lasting impact this will have on pubs. Some pubs will not survive this crisis. Those that do will have had to adapt. Maybe becoming more accommodating to cyclists is a sensible change for them to consider.

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