Swathes of us are saddling up during the lockdown, in a bid for freedom. Except, with everyone else doing it, can it ever be liberating?
It has been so long since I last got in the saddle – nearly two years, an organised bike tour in Toronto – I may as well be trying to mount a penny farthing as I gingerly sit on the thing and slowly manoeuvre from pavement to road. Despite having cycled my way all through school and university, I feel like a baby giraffe learning to walk for the first time.
But, as the adage goes, riding a bike is like, well, just like riding a bike, so it doesn’t take long before muscle memory (and nostalgic glee) kicks in. What is brand new to me, though, is the astonishing amount of cyclists with which to socially distance.
It’s not rocket science that during the lockdown bike shops are running out of bikes. Without the public confidence – or need – to use public transport until business resumes proper, money that was previously spent on socialising has been funnelled into bicycles and related paraphernalia. Hence long queues outside bike shops and supplies being unable to meet demand, from waterproof pannier bags to USB light sets. Even a cursory look on Amazon (Boooo! Hisssss!) reveals six-week waits before a jaunty willow basket might be despatched.
Tour de Howth
These exclusively male tribes are for the most part all Lycra and no trousers, dominating café queues, lolling on the grass and scoffing all the pastries that would usually be reserved for my pie-face
The route from Clontarf to Howth was always popular with cyclists but this season the latter looks more like the Tour de France – until you look past the wraparound mirrored sunglasses and moisture-wicking muscle tops.
These exclusively male tribes are for the most part all Lycra and no trousers, dominating café queues, lolling on the grass and scoffing all the pastries that would usually be reserved for my pie-face. There doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of hardcore cycling going on from what I can see but then, even during a global pandemic, it’s all about optics, from our carefully “curated” Zoom backdrops to how pretty your banana bread is. Having *the best* cycling regalia is right up there, too.
And so what did I do to confront my resentment of bikes and bikers getting in everyone’s way/my weekend pastry habit? I jumped right on that bandwagon and treated myself to a goddamn bike.
Bike or bandwagon?
Loathe to trends, I would rather pour isotonic drinks into my eyes than don fluoro cycling shorts and fanny packs (see also bake bread, watch Tiger King and other lockdown pursuits, nor do I own a smartwatch, Nespresso machine or NutriBullet). However, when phase two was just a twinkle in Dr Tony Holohan’s eye – and being entirely dependent on my car-driver boyfriend and online shopping for groceries – I became increasingly envious of the leisure cyclists ambling by, nipping to Sutton Cross or to meet friends in their gardens.
A few degrees of separation on social media later – and several weeks of perving over U locks, collapsable helmets, baskets and lights online while I waited for the pesky 5km travel ban to be lifted – I found myself in Castleknock to see a woman about a bike. And now it’s mine, all mine.
So far I’ve only “done” the cycle path on the coast road on a Sunday morning, which was initially overwhelming for the sheer volume of other bikers, more so even than my lack of stamina. Many were fellow slow-coaches, glad to get some fresh air, light exercise and a bit of gannet-fancying thrown in. But oh, the plethora of Lycra tribes, who are at least doing more than just Hoovering up the local coffee and pastries… though flagrantly riding two abreast on narrow pathways at 11am, while “all the real cyclists have Howth Head done by 6.30am” laughs a ‘real’ cyclist friend.
“Bicycle face” was hilariously invented by Victorian patriarchs in a bid to deter women from gaining one iota of independence outside the home
My initial fretfulness soon made way to something resembling pleasure, as Bull Island got ever nearer, the act of cycling tapping into childhood memories of whizzing around without a care in the world (other than whether mum might be making jam roll poly for tea or the latest plot line in Dynasty).
Even tapping into cycling as a feminist act, the humble bike a game changer for the women’s liberation movement during the late 20th century, when “bicycle face” was hilariously invented by Victorian patriarchs in a bid to deter women from gaining one iota of independence outside the home.
“Over-exertion, the upright position on the wheel, and the unconscious effort to maintain one's balance tend to produce a wearied and exhausted ‘bicycle face,’” noted Britain’s Literary Digest in 1895, which went on to describe further symptoms as “usually flushed, but sometimes pale, often with lips more or less drawn, and the beginning of dark shadows under the eyes, and always with an expression of weariness.”
Throw in the potential risk of sexual deviance and/or reproductive health calamities – exclusive to women, naturally– and the patriarchy did its very best to keep middle and upper class women firmly inside the parlour, where they belonged, and outside the local community. But the women’s lib movement caught fire and, as we all know, the rest is history, with all sexes now straddling their racers, hybrids, adventure and electric bikes, without fear of Satan himself creeping up the pommel.
Whether zipping along a greenway or idling through a housing estate to meet the pal you’ve not seen in months, so many of us are rediscovering the joys of cycling in the absence of commuting. And who can begrudge that? All walks of life can now be found not on public transport but on two wheels, escaping the literal and psychological parameters of the lockdown, the wind in their lockdown hair (well, beneath their helmet).
And with the concept of “the office” having been transformed by the realities of remote working, we can safely assume these trusty modes of transport won’t be gathering rust any time soon. Which can only be a good thing, for our health and for our carbon footprint. Just leave me some pastries, and don’t – ever – laugh at my bike face.
Read more: IMAGEWrites: Lucy White invites us to swim in the beautiful silence before lock down ends
Read more: Esther O'Moore Donohoe: 'I am cyclist, hear me roar!’
Read more: Stylish bike-friendly outfits to take you everywhere from the shops to picnics with friends