Tuesday, 29 March 2011

S......... L.......... O.......... W........ Cycling

The modern world seems to identify slowness with inefficiency, poor service or downright ineptitude, but there is a movement that is keen to slow everything down and encourage all of us to savour the moment.......the International Slow Movement.

Begun in 1986 by Carlo Petrini and a few friends who were more than a little upset about another McDonald’s opening up in their town they decided to start Arcigola, which is known as the Slow Food Movement. The main idea behind Slow Food was to begin a new philosophy around food – to enjoy the taste of food by knowledge and pleasure. A few key principles were developed: 1) disseminate and stimulate knowledge of the origins and preparation of great food, 2) preserve the biodiversity of crops, and traditions of food growing, and 3) protect the historical and environmental heritage of traditional places of gastronomic pleasure. (No more plastic chairs and brightly lit industrial chomping stations!)

Since those small beginnings the slow movement has developed into something more than being just about food. Yet while there have been many attempts at generating a slow bicycle movement I have to admit to being somewhat unimpressed with the results. For while your chosen search engine will throw up numerous entries they all seem rather underwhelming.

Now I'm not certain if I should rejoice or weep at this fundamental failure of the Slow Cyclists to get the movement much beyond a twinkle in the eye of the velocipedial savy sauveur? Might I suggest that if they do not have time for setting up a website, perhaps it is because they are too intent on gently twirling their pedals, smelling the wild flowers and enjoying multiple cups of tea at out of the way tea shops strung out along their meandering route? So engaged are they in the simple joys of cycling, that they care not a hoot for the mundanities of the inter-web?

However I fear that my dreamy musings may be too much born of hope rather than genuine expectation, and that the advantages of slow cycling really have not yet been developed to a degree befitting the wonders of the machine. The world of cycling is too much dominated, I am afraid, by the lycra clad speed obsessed cognoscenti to allow much advancement of slow cycling in the murky never-world of cyber-land.

Now there are those who might contest that such a "Machine" as the bicycle is not fitted for a place in the slow movement......slow horse riding you may have...but slow cycling...NEVER! But it is my contention that the real purpose of the bicycle is amply suited to the slowness of the slow movement; a sort of mechanized antidote to the motor-car or other forms of mechanised transport. The bicycle is a special vehicle, propelled only by the rider, without resort to noisy combustion (given that the rider has spared themselves a plate of beans on toast that a.m.!) and ideally suited to the aims of the slow movement. A machine upon which when ridden slowly you may converse, flirt, and generally engage in social communion, whilst travelling at a speed which allows you to take in your surroundings and commune with the natural world about you.

So accepting of the fact that despite fitful attempts by some at getting the slow bicycle movement off to a wobbling start we have singularly failed, how might the aims of slowness be applied to cycling?

Perhaps if we look at following the Arcigola movement in the establishment of three fundamental principles we might begin to develop a slow cycling credo which in time will benefit from sufficient momentum as to become a slow force to be reckoned with?

So what should these fundamentals be? I offer the following as a starter for ten but I am absolutely certain that others would be far more effective in developing a code worthy of the ultimate aim:

1)      Disseminate the purpose of cycling as a means of elegant transportation, useful both for idle pleasure, and as a means of supporting the communal movement of people in everyday life?
2)      Maintenance of the traditional design and proper attire of cyclists so that the pursuit brings elegance and refinement to the world, rather than wheezing sweat be-spotted skin tight coarseness.
3)      Protect the historical and environmental heritage of traditional places of velocepidial pleasure (our country lanes, tea shops, tow paths and other cycle friendly car free areas).

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Cycling in the Former Soviet Union

Привет товарищи как вы все?....... or rather "Hello Comrades how are you all?" I am sure some of my more regular readers might have noticed my absence.......or perhaps not.

Well the past six weeks has seen me spending time pedaling like fury across various southern parts of the former Soviet Union. Yes I know....what did possess me? Well to tell the truth the dreaded "W" word. While a Gentleman hates to admit it, there are sad occasions when it is necesary to put ones shoulder to the wheel as it were and earn a crust. This being just such one of those times, I thought it might be rather interesting to look at velocipedial issues Soviet style.

Yes I realise that the Bolsheviks have long since disappeared from view, but the Former Soviet Union is still an entity of the mind, if not in reality. I have to say the experience has been rather a pleasant one and not at all what one might have expected from my narrow minded initial expecations.

The first thing to say is that the distances are huge, so for pity's sake don't go trundling off from Krasnodar thinking its just a gentle run down to Sochi. It is most certainly not. I have restricted myself to mostly urban cycling in the immediate environs of towns and cities transporting my bike by various means between hotels. Sartorially I have probably let the side down being reduced to moleskin trousers, jhodpur boots and my Swiss army Pea Coat, but I did manage to buy the most wonderful old style Politburo worthy mink hat (an "Ushanka" for those in the know) for an absolute steal which has proved a godsend. Quite what the locals have made of an idiot Englishman cycling around their neighbourhoods in a 1960's fur hat God only knows, but everyone has been most kind, if at times a little alarmed.

Soviet Russia claimed that the nation invented the bicycle in 1801 when a peasant named Efim Artamonov is supposed to have presented the world’s first bicycle, to Russia’s Tsar Alexander the First. “Artamonov’s bicycle” convieniently reappeared at the Nizhnetagilsk Museum in 1923 as an example of worker ingenuity, but after analysis of the metal components it has been proved that it could not have been constructed any earlier than 1876. A statue of Artamonov now stands on the Vaynera Street in Yekaterinburg.

Anyhow, enough of history what of my travels? Well the great advantage of travelling in the region is that tea and alcohol are both available in great abundance....in fact I've even had tea WITH alcohol in it!  Sustainance for the cyclist can also be had all over the place for an absolute pittance. I particularly like the flat squashed roll thing full of mashed potatoes...a sort of Russian pasty which always went down well for breakfast and I have probably consumed a veritable herd of pigs in the form of pork shaslik. 

The other most significant thing is that bicycles are notable by their utter, or almost utter, absence. People looked askance at me whenever I took to two wheels. Why would I not travel by car? The indignity of riding that machine when you appear to be well heeled? Have you taken leave of your senses? "Он является английский" (He is English) seemed sufficent to excuse my rather bizarre behaviour amoungst the indigenous population.

Apart from the rather unrestrained driving methods employed by locals and a few near misses at junctions, brought about no doubt by the sheer absence of such two wheeled hazzard on the roads in ordinary circumstances, the experience has been wonderful. In one location I encountered a former soviet scientist reduced to selling vintage pocket watches, who spoke the most extrodinarily good English yet who had never left the former Soviet bloc in his life. At another I met a woman selling enameled jewellry who once again spoke the most wonderful English yet told me she had learnt it over forty years ago at school and had never travelled further than Moscow (....come to think of it that was a dashed long journey from where she was!).

Whatever else the Soviet Union might have stood for, the quality of its education system cannot aparently be denied. Which leads me to a not unrelated point of running repairs .....not thankfully to the bike.....but to my spectacles, as one of the arms gave up the ghost in the vicinity of a little known southern outpost of the former Communist domain.

Damn I thought!......sellotape might be the only solution.... but I'm hardly going to cut a dash with any of the local fillies with plastic wrapped around my goggles. Pedalling on a little further, mercifully blind to the dangers of a Lada heavy rush hour braking out around me I came upon a suprisingly up-market opticians. Thinking it might be a couple of days before something could be done about repairing them if at all I resigned myself to a blurry visioned 48 hours at the very least. Not a bit of it! A rather glamourous assistant, again with impressive command of my mother tongue, took the glasses from me negotiated her price and summonded a bespectacled gentleman from the rear of the premises. The glasses were made of tungsten and had snapped clean off .....surely this would be beyond repair save for replacement? Rather alarmingly Uri pointed to an overlarge piece of opticians equipment which bore striking resemblance to an oxyacetylene welding torch. Ten minutes later, miraculously the thing was as good as new!....

Travelling through these regions is rather like travelling back in time to my childhood in the 1970's. People sit, they talk, they meet friends on the street, they are interested in each other, they don't facebook or text, they interact face to face. The country may be poor, people may be struggling, but what my brief experience of the area has also taught me is that the people here are tough, resilient, and yet open in a way that we English now are not. The make do and mend culture may not be something to hark back to, but if the friendliness and openess of the people and my welcome has been anything to go by, it can have its advantages.

До свидания товарищи!