Recently a friend, who also happens to be a writer (a professional one rather than someone like me) on all things cycling, asked me if I had any thoughts I might like to contribute to an article he was putting together on sustainability in cycling; turns out I had a few.
It’s a wide-ranging subject that does include a warming climate, but also serious issues around resource extraction such as land rights and pollution, as well as worker abuses, and is a topic that is frequently on my mind. I’ve had a part-written draft kicking around for a while, but, aside from being an engineer rather than environmentalist and wondering what right I could possibly have to contribute to the topic at all, writing on sustainability can be difficult. Inevitably there are those who feel victimised by any discussion of unsustainable or damaging behaviour, those who feel the whole thing around the crises of climate and ecosystem collapse is lefty nonsense, and those who will inevitably find reasons to attack the writer on the basis of that writer being a hypocrite. With respect to that latter, the charge of hypocrisy may well be impossible to avoid; humans are so numerous and, in developed nations, so energy and resource hungry, that pretty much every behaviour we engage in has an impact. We also live in a framework that makes it very difficult to exist without significant impact; a framework that, for example, encourages people to feel good about buying a bamboo toothbrush while simultaneously sleepwalking through a lifetime of devastatingly unsustainable choices, such as driving an SUV to the supermarket to buy that bamboo toothbrush.
Life in the west is conducted in a way that considers the environment, the ecosystem within which we live as being separate from our everyday lives; it’s somewhere to go and have a picnic at the weekend (and leave behind a heap of garbage), a place to “shred” on the trails, or to watch with David Attenborough on telly rather than something on which our very existence is fundamentally dependent.
Discussions around sustainability, especially online, tend to descend very quickly into angry shouting matches polluted with obtuse statements pointing fingers at India or China, for example, or deflections such as “it’s unfair to demonise cars because.. flying”.. and those who fly frequently will say “we shouldn’t demonise flying because… shipping”, and the shipping business will say “it’s not our fault, it’s all you people buying stuff from China and Bangladesh”… and the shopper will, of course, say “well, flying is worse..”. None of it is helpful; the ‘developed west’ has led the way into the crisis the world faces (either directly or indirectly through demand for resources), the west must lead the way out. With regard to climate it does feel as if the opportunity for individual action has long passed but while governments and corporations continue to fanny around the fringes with a lack of meaningful commitment, some individual awareness and critical thinking about our own behaviours can, I believe, still go some way to help make things a little less bad than they might otherwise be, and as consumers we do hold some power to force change, especially in cases where consumer demand is directly driving damaging resource extraction, pollution, land rights and worker abuses.
I did recently see an article published by one leading news outlet that said something like 70% of Britons are keen to live a more sustainable life, but then I go for a spin by the beach and 70% of the people out for a stroll are clutching disposable take-out coffee cups, and 70% of the vehicles in the car park are enormous luxury SUVs… so I frequently wonder who the 70% are. I rather suspect it’s a case of 70% thinking that living more sustainably is a good idea only to the extent that it doesn’t impact their current lifestyle.
The cost of living more sustainably is often cited as a reason for lack of change, electric cars aren’t cheap for example but the obvious solutions of simply buying less crap and using a bike more still seem lost on many; for example there must be hundreds of folk, that like to surf, living within just a few miles of my local break, yet despite the ready availability of board racks for bikes I have never seen anyone heading to the waves by bike, and have never seen another bike locked up at the bike parking there; instead just overflowing car parks and badly parked cars littering the countryside, and, in the busy season, clogged roads and unhappy people.
In general I suspect us cyclists like to think of ourselves as a pretty green lot because, you know, cycling… and while in and of itself cycling is a highly sustainable mode of transport, whether or not that carries through to cycling in general is highly dependent on our behaviour within that framework.
Another obstacle I see in moving towards a more sustainable future is that talking about the environment is to talk about something that, to many, is an abstract concept rather than a real and tangible thing. Life in the west is conducted in a way that considers the ecosystem within which we live as being separate from our everyday lives; it’s somewhere to go and have a picnic at the weekend (and leave behind a heap of garbage), a place to “shred” on the trails, or to watch with David Attenborough on telly rather than something on which our very existence is dependent. As yet, most of us in the west are still insulated from the consequences of our behaviour by relative wealth, a degree of luck in happening to be in parts of the planet where changes are only just beginning to manifest and that are not subject to ruthless resource extraction, as well as a lack of regular exposure to the various signs of collapse.
Anyway, back to the cycling thing. In general I suspect us cyclists like to think of ourselves as a pretty green lot because, you know, cycling… and while in and of itself cycling is a highly sustainable mode of transport, whether or not that carries through to cycling in general is highly dependent on our behaviour within that framework; while it has the potential to be a sustainable leisure activity, it can easily be very much less so than we might like to think. In the context of all human behaviours cycling is just a small part, but trying to live in a more sustainable fashion is about more than simply doing what’s convenient, such as putting the recycling out every fortnight, or not using plastic bags at the supermarket; ideally it should inform everything we do, and taking the time to think about one area of our lives, such as cycling, inevitably leads to growth in the way we consider our wider behaviours.
I’d been struggling to frame my thoughts, and wondering if it was even worth bothering because many people simply don’t want to hear uncomfortable things. That was until my friend asked for a raw dump of what was in my head with one stipulation – I had to present a solution to each of the points I raised. It was raw indeed but we both agreed it would raise some hackles and furrow some brows so on that basis was worth doing, and hence perhaps worth sharing here. As such I’ve ditched my original unfinished draft, and instead simply cleaned up that original dump together with a bunch of linked resources at appropriate spots (also collected at the end). It’s worth noting that, with a couple of exceptions, there is very little here that is cycling-specific or new; much of it simply reflects collected thoughts around trying to live in a more sustainable way in general, but framed in a cycling context. Some of it will be obvious, some of it may raise an eyebrow, and I would very much welcome your thoughts, ideas, and criticism by way of the comments. I would not dare to consider myself as being any kind of authority on the topic, so I would very much welcome your engagement. It is also in no way intended to be a definitive and comprehensive statement.
By way of full disclosure before I go any further…. I do of course use the internet, I do have some carbon (albeit only a fork), and I have flown long haul to go riding, so yeah, hypocrite.. but please bear with me. I’m not demanding that everybody immediately align with my thoughts (change is a journey after all), or that cycling as a whole is even deeply problematic in the context of everything else that is going on, although to say “it isn’t any problem because other things are worse” gets us nowhere and the behaviours seen in cycling are no different to the wider behaviours that are killing the planet. As I don’t rely on advertising to pay the bills I can also afford to say what I think.. so here we go:
[and as it happens, titanium…]
Carbon is extremely energy intensive to produce, about 14 times more so than steel. The manufacturing process is also wasteful, some 20% of all the carbon produced goes straight to waste in the form of offcuts, rejects and so on. While it can be recycled, it is difficult and energy intensive to recycle so nobody ever does – all of it ultimately goes to landfill or incineration (increasing its carbon footprint still further). The cycling industry has done well out of marketing carbon as ‘an aerospace material’, which I find amusing given that wood, canvas, and wire are also aerospace materials.
It’s appalling if public and industry perception is such that a typical service life of a bike is considered to be less than 10,000km, but it makes the corrosion question moot given that a good steel frame will last decades if not left to rot.
While carbon does have performance benefits, in the context of the average cyclist most are probably more imagined than manifesting themselves as measurable gains. Carbon doesn’t corrode of course, although is more suspect in the event of an impact, but I saw a social media post recently from a manufacturer exclaiming that one of their bikes had done 10,000km, and how amazing that was because “most bikes never achieve such mileage”. It’s appalling if public and industry perception is such that a typical service life of a bike is considered to be less than 10,000km, but it makes the corrosion question moot given that a good steel frame will last decades if not left to rot.
[update: Low Tech magazine has an interesting comparison of embodied carbon between materials (here) and the news for titanium is especially bad at a ballpark of around 25x that of steel, although the waste proportion will be significantly smaller than that of carbon. I do have a custom titanium frame made for me back in 2008. I expect to keep it for life anyway, which may be justification for the material, but in the current context I’d be unlikely to consider it in future. Incidentally, while a titanium frame has the potential to last a long time, welding it properly is difficult and cheaply made titanium frames have developed a reputation for cracking after a few years use, so as with buying anything.. buy quality and make it last.]
Aluminium is better but its production is still more emissions intensive (about 6x), and toxic, than that of steel. It is probably also worth noting that the top 3 suppliers of aluminium globally are China, Russia, and India – none of whom are strong on environmental protections or human rights, so it’s not an unreasonable extrapolation, given the toxicity of the process, to assume that impacts beyond climate are not well controlled.
What you can do: There is nothing environmentally friendly about the extraction of any metals, but consider avoiding carbon in favour of steel for your next frame, and keep it a long time. If you’re looking for something a bit special, or if it’s important to have the most exclusive bike on the Sunday club run then rather than buy what is still an essentially off-the-shelf plastic frame, albeit with expensive paint and stickers, that’s likely to “date badly” given the pressure of “model years” (the Specialized ‘Menge’ – McClaren + Venge – being a good example that seems to make a lot of folk very wet indeed), then find a UK framebuilder (of which there are many) and have something made in this country, in steel, that will last a lifetime. Custom aside there are lots of manufacturers of well-regarded steel frames over a wide range of price points. Many will be welded in the Far East and still have to be shipped, but the footprint is still much lower than a carbon frame made anywhere in the world and the riding experience will be excellent.
It did occur to me after writing the above that perhaps the biggest problem with carbon in this context is not so much the per-frame environmental impact, but rather that it offers manufacturers a regular cornucopia of opportunities to keep pushing new things at the consumer. While a steel frame will always be largely the same, steel choice and geometry aside, carbon mouldings are endlessly tweakable such that every year the manufacturer can fiddle a bit with the layup and then say “we made it more aero, stiffer, lighter…” and so on. Changes so infinitesimal they’re meaningless in a real world context, but extremely persuasive in convincing the consumer that the thing they bought last year is no longer good enough, and as such they must buy a new one…
Technology and Electronics
In this context when I say “technology” I mean specifically electronics and virtualisation rather than the wider cultural definition. Technology is creeping into every aspect of our lives, cycling being no exception. Historically technology has a habit of solving one problem (or often in the case of consumer electronics, solving no real problem at all), while introducing a whole stack of new problems that collectively are worse than the reasons that may have been the driver for that tech in the first place. A useful guiding principle I find when it comes to tech is that if a product claims to make life more convenient, or saves effort, then there is a very good chance that, in addition to the energy demands, it will have created an additional burden for someone else, somewhere else – whether that’s a villager whose water supply and land has been poisoned as a consequence of the extraction of minerals, or someone working long hours for small wages in a factory in China.
In a cycling context the use of tech breaks down broadly into a couple of areas: electronic equipment on the bike, and the use of online platforms and gaming services.
Virtual Cycling & Social media – Zwift & Strava
Lives are increasingly lived online, and the internet is a vast emitter of CO2 in the form of the energy required to drive (and cool) the servers, power the infrastructure and so on, and the energy required to manufacture and ship the hardware (there’s a super article here around the true ‘cost’ of electronc devices). Internet/cloud services – of which streaming services, online gaming, social media and so on are an increasing part, represent some 1.5 billion tons of CO2 annually; 4% of global emissions. While Zwift alone for example, with a mere million or so users (at time of writing), is a relatively small part of that, and Strava with 42 million a little less small, it’s not something that can be easily ignored. Neither Zwift or Strava publish any information about their carbon footprint, so given the opportunities for eco-bragging by running their servers from renewable energy, presumably they’re not, as yet, doing anything about it (please correct me if you can).
What you can do: umm… go outside, you know, like in the old days, and consider if sharing everything you do online really makes life better. I appreciate that working in some fitness riding around kids or dark evenings and so on can be a challenge but still.. go outside if it’s at all possible. The danger of virtual cycling might also be that it becomes so easy, so habitual, that outside increasingly frequently seems a bit windy or damp, such that it further isolates us from what’s happening in the natural world, and that users simply forget just how important it is to hear birdsong and feel some wind (and rain…) on the face.
As an aside, a shift to renewable energy is not entirely a “get out of jail free” card; increased energy demand means more generation infrastructure which in turn means more embodied carbon, and in some cases, environmental impacts beyond that of greenhouse gases.
On Bike Electronics
My first experience of electronics on bicycles was a tiny, button-cell powered Avocet bike computer, back in the 80s. It told me how far I’d been and how fast I was going, and was a fine 1980’s shade of day-glo pink to go with my socks. My preference for electronics on bicycles hasn’t changed much since then, beyond a rugged 7 year old eTrex 30 GPS (which sadly isn’t available in dayglo pink) when on the road or exploring new areas, yet increasingly the average handlebar I see out and about, particularly in the road world, would appear to be adorned with more processing power than the Space Shuttle (it used an 8086 chip with a total OS ‘weighing’ less than 1Mb). Throw in electronic gear shifting and an obsession with power meters in the amateur ranks, then things start to look rather less sustainable when the total impact is considered. Of course, in the context of a world awash with smartphones and “Internet of Things” crap, this is all relatively small however all the gadgetry does come with a price that needs to be considered, and the fact that smartphones, for ex, represent a bigger problem is not an excuse for ignoring this one.
I can’t help wonder if the cost, monetary and otherwise, is really worth it just to be able put a number on how much one sucks at cycling.
Lithium and cobalt extraction for batteries have significant environmental and ethical concerns, as do extraction of the metals and minerals used in the manufacture of electronics. The end of life impact is also non-trivial; the west has a habit of dumping old electronics (this comment applies also to the preceding paragraph) on developing nations where the payload of toxicity has very real implications for the environment, and the welfare of the people exposed to it, or if it goes in landfill here then that is also toxic as minerals leach out. Using electronic gear shifting as an example, the only genuine benefit I’ve seen stated, beyond a marginally quicker shift, is that ‘there’s no need to trim the front derailleur for extremes of the cassette’. Is the additional full life-cycle burden of all the electronic kit really necessary to be able to enjoy nothing more than the infinitesimal benefit of not having to trim the front mech from time to time. Similarly, when I overhear bragging at the cycling cafe about power outputs, I can’t help wonder if the cost, monetary and otherwise, is really worth it just to be able put a number on how much one sucks at cycling.
What you can do: Most cyclists don’t compete, so think back to what made riding a bike so awesome when you were a kid.. I would bet that it wasn’t tons of electronics. Embracing a lower-tech approach away from the pressures of technology and and endless cycle of upgrades can be deeply satisfying and a great deal of fun, as well as being the more sustainable, more ethical choice.
[This heading is an update from being an aside, see comments below] E-bikes are becoming very popular, and their manufacture is problematic, albeit to a vastly lesser degree than electric cars. I didn’t originally give these a separate heading, instead including them as an aside, because on balance I still think they’re a net positive, however as sales explode as there is no escaping the fact that from an ethical and sustainability standpoint they’re significantly worse than a normal bike. The positive is that they are making it easier for people to give up the car, and getting people out on bikes, and connecting with the natural world, that otherwise might not have done so. While increasing numbers of folk who, some might judge, appear not to “need” one are out and about on one, making a judgement of who is impaired and who is not from appearances only is problematic – cardiovascular or muscular/joint issues for example don’t necessarily manifest themselves in ways obvious to bystanders. Moreover many of those bikers may have bought their bikes as a means to get to and from work instead of a car, with the added benefit of being able to use them at the weekends too; certainly if I was in a position where it was clear that the only way I was going to be able to cycle to work was on an e-bike, and I also wanted to enjoy getting out into the woods at weekends, I would buy one bike capable of doing both.
What you can do: It seems innate in human nature to take the path of least resistance so reflect on the motivation for buying an e-bike in the first place; for the physically able that perhaps just don’t really like riding up the hills at the trail centre on the weekend, then sucking it up and working on some fitness instead would be the ethical and sustainable choice.
If however it’s the difference between riding and not riding then buy one, but do make it an imperative to consider what happens when the battery, and the bike as a whole, is at the end of its service life. Find out what responsibility the manufacturers take for recycling those and consider only those who will take responsibility. The more people that ask those kind of questions as part of the purchase process, then the more manufacturers and dealers are likely to take notice. There are some useful insights around the implications of recycling Li-Ion batteries here.
As with regular bikes, look after it and plan on keeping it a long time.
Learn to Repair Stuff
Domestic sewing machines are cheap secondhand but having one is kind of like having a sustainability superpower.
Happily bikes are pretty simple things (well, aside from the electronic bits) but whether you repair it or your local bike shop does, doesn’t really make much difference. What you can do however is learn to sew, or make friends with someone who can. Domestic sewing machines are cheap secondhand but having one is kind of like having a sustainability superpower – replace zippers, patch holes, mend tears and split seams and so on. It’s not that hard and it doesn’t matter if a repair isn’t perfect; despite what some folk like to think, bystanders are unlikely to be looking at a passing cyclist and thinking “oh look at that, his zipper is a bit wonky”.. they’ll be judging on other things.
Everyone should be aware, by now, of the payload of plastic released into the environment when washing synthetic clothes. Wear merino, it doesn’t stink so you can wash it less frequently. Wash it by hand with natural soap, the fabric will last longer, it limits the release of harmful detergents into the environment, and the anti-bacterial properties will persist longer as the lanolin is not slowly being stripped by those detergents. Look for brands offering ethically and sustainably sourced clothing, and I suspect it might still be best to go for a sustainable natural fibre over recycled polyester; it’s a good idea but will still shed microplastics when washed. You could consider an in-machine bag for capturing shed synthetic fibres, such as this one. Also, you won’t die if you ride a bike to the shops/work/beach in a t-shirt and cut-off jeans; it is allowed (ignore the “rules”, best left to the playground where they belong).
As an aside, bamboo fibre is oft-touted as a sustainable alternative, but as is so often the case, the picture is somewhat muddied and all may not be what it seems.
Ha, this one might raise a few eyebrows… but showering seems fundamental to the sporting experience for many, and given that heating water is the most energy intensive thing you can do in the home, then it has a place here. Unless filthy it’s not really necessary to shower after every ride, or if it is then keep it quick and/or cold. There’s a really great post here on the Low Tech Magazine website around the sustainability of showering.
Suffering from eczema, and having pedalled a significant chunk of the planet while showering infrequently at best, and then with just a bar of pure soap, I can testify to how much better my skin health is.
Regular showering / bathing, and negativity around breaking a sweat, has been promoted, by purveyors of chemicals in plastic bottles, as something of a luxury activity to be savoured at length, preferably involving tropical waterfalls or sugary chocolate. Energy costs aside however, health experts and scientists are increasingly concerned that we in the west shower too much, destroying the skin’s natural biome and interfering with our health.
Suffering from eczema, and having pedalled a significant chunk of the planet while showering infrequently at best, and then with just a bar of pure soap, I can testify to how much better my skin health is.
What you can do: If you’ve recently showered then post-ride a basin of cold water and a flannel for a rinse around armpits, arsehole, and bollocks (or fanny, if you have one of those) ought to do the job (I’m sure there was a rhyme for that when we were kids..), and while you’re at it swap all the plastic bottles of chemicals for a bar of pure soap for pretty much everything. If showering under cold water is a step too far (northern hemisphere winters…) then, if it has one, run the shower on the lower of the two power settings that most electric showers have, and get used to warm(ish) rather than hot water.
Recycle Worn Tyres & Tubes
A really short and easy one. It’s getting easier, search online or ask your local bike shop. I’ve seen a couple of initiatives around the recycling of tyres and tubes, here’s one, and it looks as if in the UK it will soon be illegal to dispose of old bike tyres in the trash which is great, although the bill has yet to be passed. Let’s hope that doesn’t get amended out.
Buying Stuff You Don’t Really Need
The cycling world is a huge marketing engine. Many of the businesses, in particular the large dominant players, involved in churning out new stuff and new standards each year are not necessarily in the business of trying to make your cycling life better, they’re in the business of scrapping with each other for the extraction of as much profit as possible from a finite market. Much of the so-called innovation does not make stuff better, or dramatically improve the cycling experience. Often quite the opposite – shorter service life, higher price, more supply chain dependencies, more energy use, harder to recycle.
Be aware also that much of the cycling press is complicit in this (with a few exceptions). Advertisers pay the bills and churning out an endless series of “why you should buy this thing” type of article is an easy way of generating content that keeps the readers engaged.
This section would also apply to all the stuff peripheral to cycling, e.g. camping and outdoor gear – the outdoors industry in general is just as adept at coming up with new things for people to buy. So while a certain amount and quality of kit is important to the whole experience, there comes a point when having more gear doesn’t equate to a better experience.
What you can do: Look after your stuff such that it lasts, and be critically self-aware when it comes to buying. When bored and unhappy at work it’s very easy to confuse ‘need’ with ‘want’ and convince yourself that you must have that new widget you’re looking at online. If, after all that, you do buy online then learn to be patient and don’t choose next day or express shipping. The demand for next day delivery is driving a huge increase in the number of mostly empty vans driving around at all hours, with the associated rise in emissions. If you can, try to buy good quality gear that will last rather than cheap crap from China, and buy locally; you might need to wait a bit longer if stuff needs ordering in but supporting your local bike shop supports local jobs and contributes to a healthy local economy. Bike shop people also tend to be really great folk, so while you might pay a little more, having a good relationship with your local has benefits beyond the small differences in ticket price.
The big one. Everybody (well, lots of folk), myself included, likes to travel with their bike and it seems few are the folk that would consider giving it up entirely. Most emissions through flying are down to a small group of folk flying multiple times a year, whether for business, for sporting reasons, or holidays. Tourism, when done ethically and respectfully, can be good for communities in far flung places, and exposure to other cultures breeds tolerance and understanding, but an abundance of cheap flights and the subsequent accommodation demands are not good for the environment or necessarily good for the destination communities.
Ferries in particular go together with bikes like fish and chips, they’re awesome.
The price of a plane ticket at present doesn’t represent the cost of flying, and until governments can agree internationally to tax aviation fuel (at present it isn’t) then that seems unlikely to change. Globally, flying is already the preserve of the wealthy, yet making flying more expensive is likely to be viewed as penalising the less well-off – always a political hot button so I don’t hold out much hope for regulation to help solve the problem, so for now it’s going to be down to a sense of individual responsibility. Bear in mind that mile for mile short haul is worse for emissions than long haul (airliners are designed to be most efficient in the cruise, when a greater proportion of a journey is spent in the climb and/or a low altitude cruise the efficiency drops significantly) so not flying long haul would be no excuse for doubling up on short haul.
What you can do: When a single long haul flight can chuck out as much carbon as an entire year of living, then consider using the train and ferry instead, and doing everything you reasonably can to reduce your footprint in life in general. Ferries in particular go together with bikes like fish and chips, they’re awesome; it’s sad that travel by train and bus with a bike in this country is so difficult (depending on operator).
I’m not convinced simply telling folk to stop flying will achieve much beyond disengaging them from the issue (especially here in the UK where surface connections to places beyond the border are poor and difficult to access for cyclists), so instead perhaps consider it as a privilege or a gift to be used carefully, much as if someone gave you a bottle of a particularly rare and expensive cognac, rather than indulge after very meal, savour it only on rare and special occasions. Avoid frivolous flying – e.g. multiple flights a year to catch a spot of winter sun on top of a summer holiday, and if you do fly make it count – take a sabbatical, ride across a continent or something. Carbon offsets are a popular means of greenwashing flying, but are not a solution, and in some cases do more harm than good.
For myself, I find flying a miserable, soul destroying experience. I’m perhaps lucky in that I don’t feel much desire for frequent breaks overseas, rather, if I decide to fly, I’d rather do it less frequently and go for a long time and travel in such a way that generates very little additional carbon. I also don’t feel as if my future holds much flying, and even less so as I spend more time thinking about the ramifications. I have a desire to take the ferry across to the continent and just pedal east for a few months, a year, or more, once the pandemic allows. It seems likely that I’d probably fly home however, so there’s a thought.. if you must fly somewhere, then do it one way and ride home, or the other way around. I’m sure I’ll be shouted at that not everyone has the luxury of time to do that. I know that. Folk are just going to have to work out what they’re comfortable with given the consequences for the future.
[update: I’m well aware I have been soft on flying, flying is, to be blunt, awful in climate terms, but you can find my reasoning in the comments below. ]
I wasn’t going to say anything about these, deeply problematic as they are, as at face value they have little to do with cycling. That was until I saw an online discussion around bikepacking in which one individual suggested the best way to cook while camped out with your bike was to pick up a disposable BBQ, and then simply ditch the coals wherever you’re camped and sling the metal tray in the next garbage can. Given the numbers of wildfires caused each year by irresponsible use of disposable BBQs, injuries caused by thoughtless disposal of sharp metal parts, an abundance of scorched squares dotting the countryside – from which the vegetation can take months to recover, and the environmental cost of aluminium extraction and charcoal production, I find this suggestion absolutely abhorrent. I regret not calling the poster out on it but I find such threads rapidly decompose into angry shit-slinging contests that aren’t worth the effort or energy.
What you can do: If not prepared to cook food in a responsible, sustainable, and safe manner just go to a pub for dinner… or eat sandwiches.
Energy Bars & ‘Sports Drinks’
Heavily marketed in the cycling press, most aren’t much more than various forms of carbs or sugars, plus a few trace bits and bobs of marginal benefit in the context in which the majority are consumed. They typically come wrapped in expensively branded plastic that goes to landfill, or ends up, either accidentally or intentionally, in the hedgerow (or ultimately, the ocean), and for the average cyclist aren’t much benefit. The human body is incredibly good at metabolising basic foodstuffs when supplied with a balanced diet; cyclists cross continents and mountain ranges on diets of little more than crackers, tins of sardines, and water. On that basis, and on the basis of my own decades of pedalling, the Sunday club run doesn’t really need a ‘nutritional program’.
What you can do: go to your local bulk foods shop, buy a load of oats, dried fruits and other things and make your own. There are loads of recipes online. Frequently I just take peanut butter (palm oil free) and jam sandwiches; nom. Carry stuff wrapped in baking paper or a reusable food bag. Also… consider just drinking water.. if worried about the bonk, mix in some fruit juice or something (although…. Tetrapaks are also awful). Chances are most will be stopping at a cafe for cake anyway.
Driving to Ride
It’s good to explore other areas by bike, but habitually driving to the start of the Sunday club run, or driving a few miles down the road to ride a particular trail when there’s no real need also seems to be increasingly a thing. It’s different with kids but driving simply to avoid tacking on 5, 10, 15 miles each side of “the ride” seems a bit unnecessary given that the thing being transported in the car is a terrific form of transport in itself, and the purpose of the ride is, in part, to keep fit. Speaking from local experience it’s dangerous too as popular spots become congested with badly parked cars, ironically making it risky for passing cyclists, as well as irking local residents. That latter has been quite visible locally in spots during lockdown so it’s pretty much a certainty that it’s not out of area visitors. It’s really not a good look.
What you can do: Umm… ride. Inner cities aside, there aren’t really that many spots in the UK where good riding cannot be had from the front door so perhaps reserve slinging the bike in the car for genuine “farther afield” explorations.
As an afterthought, things are changing slowly but cycling in the UK still feels quite immature. To a degree it feels like something to keep spending thousands of pounds on the latest gear to do on a Sunday before driving to work on a Monday. If cycling life consists mostly of hanging that year’s latest carbon bike (or e-bike) off the back of an SUV on a Sunday morning to drive out somewhere for a ride (or zwifting if it might rain), and then getting back into that SUV on Monday to go work, go to the supermarket or whatever, then that model of cycling is not very sustainable at all. It would be easier to avoid all the hassle and just stay at home burning some tyres or something.
Humans are creatures of habit, and changing habits can be hard; nurturing some critical self-awareness and building a habit of thinking beyond the superficial appeal of the newest pretty thing on the internet can help with that. I also think some tolerance on both sides of the debate, an attempt to understand the reasons behind the behaviour of people as well as recognition of the pressures of a consumerism-obsessed culture, and some gentle encouragement can go a long way.
Also, cargo bikes are awesome.
I’ve rounded up all the links used in the post to make it easier to browse should you so desire. Of course google is a veritable lucky dip of information and it’s important to be aware of the vested interests of the author or a piece (industry-sponsored papers especially), potential confirmation bias and so on in reading anything (my stuff included).
- Science Daily – Gulf Stream System at its weakest in over a millennium
- Recycle Nation – Carbon Fiber Better for the Environment than Steel?
- Recycle Nation – What Aluminum Extraction Really Does to the Environment
- Low Tech Magazine – How much energy does it take (on average) to produce 1 kilogram of the following materials?
- Low Tech Magazine – The monster footprint of digital technology
- WebFX – Powering the Internet: Virtual Carbon Footprint
- Wired – The spiralling environmental cost of our lithium battery addiction
- CBS News – The toll of the cobalt mining industry on health and the environment
- Smithsonian – The Environmental Disaster That is the Gold Industry
- Bloomberg – The Toxic Effects of Electronic Waste in Accra, Ghana
- ERI – Why Lithium-Ion Batteries Pose a Major Recycling Risk
- Friends of the Earth – Microfibres: the plastic in our clothes
- Low Tech Magazine – Mist Showers: Sustainable Decadence?
- The Atlantic – You’re Showering Too Much
- Treehugger – Is Bamboo Fabric Truly Sustainable?
- BikeBiz – National bicycle tyre recycling scheme to launch
- Cycling Industry News – UK to make scrapping of bicycle tyres illegal
- The Guardian – Delivery disaster: the hidden environmental cost of your online shopping
- The Guardian – 1% of people cause half of global aviation emissions – study
- Greenpeace – The biggest problem with carbon offsetting is that it doesn’t really work
- My Green Pod – Time to Ban Disposable BBQs