This column first appeared in the Western Mail in November 2021
In this strange old world, nothing is certain except for death, taxes and that there will always be another Mrs Brown’s Boys Christmas special (**shudders**). Yet one thing I’m sure of is that it’s impossible to be melancholy when you’re riding a bike. There’s something about whizzing along on two wheels that’s so freeing and so joyous; no other form of transport comes close.
One of the good things to come out of lockdown was that it nudged me to get my unloved bike out of the shed, clean it up and install a seat for my dog. Cycling stopped being something I did at the weekend for leisure and became my default way of getting around. After deciding the crowded school bus was a “potential COVID wagon”, my son did the same, switching to an hour-long cycle to school and back every day. Now we’re both so used to getting around on bikes that I have stopped making short journeys by car altogether. This feels like a good life move on many levels.
One of my favourite things about cycling to the office is haring past the backed-up traffic, knowing I’m getting where I’m going a lot quicker than the poor souls locked in metal tin cans. You start to see the city differently, and you’re closer to nature. You bump into people you know and can stop for a quick chat if you’re so inclined. One (me) smiles like a loon at other cyclists. And trust me when I say there is no more heart-warming sound than the “awwwwww” emitted by small children when they spot the chihuahua on my bike, grinning like the bat-eared idiot she is. So all very much day-enhancing things.
Another benefit is that cycling requires so much less concentration than driving, which frees up mental bandwidth; little wonder that Einstein came up with his theory of relativity while out on his bike.
And, of course, abandoning the car to cycle where you can is the best choice for the planet.
Extreme weather events of the past year, together with the focus on sustainability around Cop26, have hammered home the need for changes in the way we live if we are to mitigate the effects of the twin environmental catastrophes of climate change and loss of biodiversity. Simple changes such as cycling rather than going by car can make a big difference. In Cardiff, 41% of the city’s carbon emissions are caused by transportation, so it’s easy to see how city residents could make a huge difference by changing their transport habits.
So it was disappointing to read that Nextbike, which runs the city’s bike-sharing scheme, is removing its bikes from the streets after months of vandalism, thefts and threats to staff. To paraphrase the great bard Taylor Swift, it seems that this is why we can’t have nice things.
Another issue we need to deal with if we want more people getting on their bikes is theft from racks, sadly rife in the city. My son had his locked bike stolen from outside Cardiff central library recently. The police told us that the chances of the perpetrator being caught and the bike returned were practically non-existent. I hear that the council are investigating safe bike storage schemes, and I await the outcome of those proposals eagerly. Because if we can give over large tracts of land to high-rise concrete helter-skelters for parking cars in the city centre, surely we can find a way to allow cyclists to lock their bikes up safely?
Although the experience of having a bike stolen wasn’t pleasant for the lad, it did – in that magical way the universe sometimes delivers – have a happy ending. After sharing a picture of the bike on social media, on the off chance somebody would spot it in the wild, we were contacted by a man called Mike Jones from Newport who was keen to help.
Mike, a former IT worker who is now a full-time carer, is passionate about cycling. After restoring a battered old bike he found in a charity shop and giving it away to a local family last Christmas, he was inspired to ask for donations of old bikes to see how many would come in. The bikes started flooding in, and Mike found a great deal of satisfaction in giving them a new lease of life before passing them on to good homes.
In a little over 18 months, his Free Bikes 4 Kids community project has lovingly restored and given away 1000 bikes to local schools and families that would otherwise not be able to afford them. He’s changing lives one set of wheels at a time while preventing many bikes from going to landfill. All this while caring for his wife, living on carers’ allowance of £64 per week. Mike does what he does purely for the love of tinkering with bikes and because he knows how much a bike can change a life.
When we met up with him to take delivery of a temporary bike he had hanging around, he said the best reward he could ask for is the smile on children’s faces when they ride their shiny, good-as-new bikes away for the first time. And reader, the sheer generosity of his endeavours turned my heart into a puddle.
So if you’re sitting on any old bikes, helmets, locks or parts in your garage or shed, then check out @PuffaJones on Twitter. Don’t scrap them. Let Mike rescue them and gift them to a child that may never have owned a bike of their own. You could clear valuable storage space while giving a child a gift to carry for their entire life; the gift of loving life on two wheels.And the gift of knowing that you are only ever a bike ride away from a better mood.