Who says we can’t cycle?

This article was published in 2019, in Magazine 145.

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Near the top of list of cycling myths are claims that cycling doesn’t work for older people and those with mobility issues. We spoke to two cyclists keen to challenge those assumptions.

Phil Carter

I have only recently decided to come back to cycling, although I cycled a lot when I first got to Cambridge in 1993. In those days, I had left the Army and found a job on the railway. I loved cycling; it kept me fit and I got round the city in double quick time.

The problems of the last few years have seen me off the bike and into a car. Recently, I decided it was time to sort myself out and get back to cycling. The problem is my legs do not really work that well and never will. I decided to explore a recumbent cycle. I looked on eBay, found a hand cycle in Leeds, made contact with the seller and found myself wending my way up the A1. Three hours later I’m stood looking at this ‘Thing’. It wasn’t looking great, so haggled and got £50 off the price.

Back in Cambridge, I took the Thing to my friend’s house: the chaps wanted to have a look. There was a lot to sort out: how to shorten the hand cranks and sort out the tyres, brakes, gears and seat. We took off and cut, re-drilled and re-tapped the hand cranks, reducing them from 175mm to 135mm. This meant that I could sit and turn the cranks without getting bashed in the stomach. The tyres are now Gator skin on the front and Schwalbe puncture proof on the rear. The bearings also needed sorting and they were not a standard type but I managed to get a set from Polar Bearings in Dry Drayton. Then, I sent the gearing and fitting of the bearings to Rutland Cycles on Barnwell Road and I must say they did a sterling job. The front wheel needed a new cassette and, finally, I changed the seat from yellow to a grey mesh made up from a deck chair. It isn’t perfect, but it does the job for now.

I took the Thing out a few times, but then… disaster! Kerbs are not my friend. I hit one and bent the back crossbar. I managed to bend it back and went out again. On my way to the Museum of Technology for the CamcycleTech event, another kerb got me. This time the suspension gave up the ghost. Thankfully, a quick phone call to the wife meant I got picked up, dropped off the Thing and was back in time to listen to Mike Burrows’ presentation.

My legs don’t really work that well, so I decided to explore a recumbent hand cycle

A few weeks later, I received all the parts I needed from China for the mechanical fixes on the Thing. Everything looked good apart from the springs. I must have measured the springs incorrectly, because I ended up with a completely different size. I could do with some help with that from the engineers amongst us. I have salvaged the old springs and reused those, but I’m not quite happy. I watched a YouTube video to work out how to set up the front derailleur, as it was jumping about. I have tested it and it all seems ok; however, I need to get out and see how it works under normal conditions. I still want to improve the seat and have ordered some strong woven material from eBay which looks as if it will do the job. At this moment in time, I need to do a road test, so I’m waiting for some reasonable weather to get it out. There is still lots to do, but at least the Thing is back in action!

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Jane Chisholm

I am not a cyclist. I am a person who rides a bike. I am by no means super-fit and I am a pensioner. Images of lycra, special gear and time-trials dispelled, I’ll nevertheless attempt to explain how important my bike is to my life.

I am occasionally grateful for my concessionary bus pass but, living in a necklace village of the city, I find the one bus service is hopelessly unreliable, too infrequent in the evening, and takes far too long to get anywhere. I drive into Cambridge (usually to the railway station) about once a year.

I am occasionally grateful for my concessionary bus pass but, living in a necklace village of the city, I find the one bus service is hopelessly unreliable, too infrequent in the evening, and takes far too long to get anywhere

So that leaves my bicycle to take me on most trips within ten miles of my home. And that, after all, is the length of the overwhelming majority of journeys taken by us all. Thanks to the Busway path and the Genome path, it is a real pleasure to pedal the five miles from my village to the city centre – though it’s a shame that it can be so difficult to find somewhere to park securely at the end.

A typical week takes me to Waitrose (five mile round-trip) and into the city a couple of times (often varying routes), to the specialist shops in the next village, as well as leisure activities on most days – which take me round the village, often further afield and sometimes to one of the easily-accessible railway stations (Shelford and Cambridge in my case).

I use up to four panniers, which hold, at various times, music, groceries, allotment produce and more. These can be easily removed and used as carrier bags when necessary – though I know a number of women who swear by their front baskets.

Many people would expect to make these ‘utility’ journeys by car. Folks, I could be at my destination by the time you have found your keys, warmed up the engine and de-misted the windows – not to mention the time it can take to actually get out of the driveway. ‘Too dangerous’ seems to be the main deterrent when I ask people why they do not cycle. No statistics can deny there is a risk, but it is very small, and probably smaller than the risk attached to being inactive.

The greatest thing is the independence afforded to a person whose life is not particularly governed by routine. There’s no waiting around, I am getting exercise without hassle and doing a little to reduce pollution. What more could I wish for? Well, with a properly maintained bike, I won’t be investing in an electric one, even though I live in the parish that boasts a 74m hill. It is great to feel I have got to the top by pedal power alone – and even better freewheeling down.

  • YouCanBikeToo allows people of all abilities to try a range of cycles including trikes, hand cycles, tandems, quads, scooters, and wheelchair bikes. They offer Sunday sessions or individual hire at Milton Country Park. Find out more at miltoncountrypark.org/youcanbiketoo
  • Local charity Cam Sight arranges tandem rides for those with low vision or blindness. Book a taster session by contacting nick@camsight.org.uk
  • Histon & Impington Community Trishaw offers rides for people of all ages with limited mobility or social isolation: hirecfriends.org.uk/hitrishaw-about
  • National charity Wheels for Wellbeing campaigns to remove barriers to cycling: wheelsforwellbeing.org.uk
  • The Beyond the Bicycle coalition campaigns for improved infrastructure, and facilities for all kinds of non-standard cycle: beyondbicycle.wordpress.com