Thoughts Around Sustainability in Everyday Cycling

In which it can be demonstrated that the future belongs to the unwashed riders of old steel fixed-wheel bicycles...

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 includes a warming climate, 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 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.

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 “rip” 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 fast fashion from China and Bangladesh”. 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. 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.

Many articles around sustainability seem to include pictures of trees, and forests and so on.. so here’s one of those to brighten up what would otherwise be something of a text desert.

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. 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 “rip” 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.

In tangentially related news, the first of the bluebells here appeared last weekend. Proximity of the ocean means slightly warmer nights in winter and early spring, so these may well be among the first in the country. If global warming continues to exacerbate the weakening of the Gulf Stream, bluebells in March might become a thing of the past.

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. 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:

 

Carbon

[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, but in the current context, and knowing that, I couldn’t consider it in future.]

Aluminium is better but its production is still more emissions intensive (about 6x), and toxic, than that of steel, so…

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 flashiest and 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 tube profiles 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…

I’ve owned four carbon bikes in total since I saw my first one at a race in the 90’s, and will never have another, but this is probably the most sustainable machine I ever owned, and far and away one of the most fun. It was an old 1980s Eddy Merckx Corsa Extra SLX frame I found in tatty condition. Sent it off to for a repaint and to have the rear dropouts set at 120mm for a fixed hub, hung a bunch of second hand, but still funky, parts off it, and had a blast. The ride was sublime and I wish In hadn’t sold it.

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.

 

eBikes

[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 much 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; that could quickly change 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 that otherwise might not have done so. While  increasing numbers of folk who might 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), and 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.

 

Wear Merino

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 choose a natural fibre if reasonable to do so; recycled polyester is good 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.

 

Showering

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.

Flying

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, but you can find my reasoning in the comments below.  ]

 

Camp responsibly…

Disposable BBQs

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.


Links etc:

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).

 

35 thoughts on “Thoughts Around Sustainability in Everyday Cycling

    • hey, well that’s a relief, cheers! It’s a bit different from the usual flavour of stuff on this blog so I did wonder how it might be received…!

  • Yes I agree Mike…a good article. I think you’re writer friend was spot on with his advice about what you should base your article on. It’s time cycling as a whole took a look at its self – we are a large, diverse community and our actions add up, negatively & positively. There should be more of this discussion and we shouldn’t expect government to lead the way all the time…even if they knew how to. Our purchasing ability is a pretty big carrot & stick and how we behave out on our rides can make useful, incremental differences.

    Keep going with your blog…it’s good to hear your perspective.

    • hy Matt, thanks for taking the time and the vote of confidence! It’s a hard balance to find, just telling everyone they’re “doing it wrong” probably won’t achieve much, I’m hopeful for some sort of osmotic transformation…

  • Great stuff, thanks Mike. So many gems in there, and lots of links to good stuff to read at leisure. And it’s nice to be left laughing with “…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”.

  • Enjoyable read, Mike, and thought provoking. Can pat myself on the back for a few things (e.g. no Zwift, no energy bars/drinks, repairs where possible) but fail miserably on others (carbon x2, e-tap on one of them & Strava). All in all, it’s a ‘could do better’ in my case.
    P.s. that used Campagnolo cassette you sold me ages ago is still going strong.

    • :-) cheers! Nice one on the cassette, that’s amazing! On the other stuff, oh well, no-one is perfect eh?! On the carbon and stuff, hehe, it’s not what the industry would want you to know… ;-)

  • Wow great job. I run a sustainability consultancy in Denmark, rare that I read such well reflected texts with also really good info. Do you have any idea on Titanium vs Steel? .. thanks for having taken the time for this!

  • Interesting and hard to disagree with, well maybe showering!
    Although no mention of growing sales of battery assisted, thick frame e-bikes to riders who are not physically impaired is a surprising omission. That will be a much bigger issue than power meters and electronic shifting.

    • hey Nick, thanks for the feedback. re “not physically impaired riders”, well I did include ebikes as an aside, and considered a dedicated heading as yes there are a lot of e-bikes around, however determining who is impaired and who is not from appearances only is very difficult (cardiovascular or muscular/joint issues for example don’t necessarily manifest themselves in ways obvious to bystanders), and 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. I will stick my neck out and say, that from talkng to my friends at the bikeshops around here, people buying them for reasons of age, mobility, making it easier to ditch the car for commuting, currently outnumber those buying them who are mainly too lazy to pedal up hills. So while I agree the impact relative to other things is significant, and the motivations for buying one should be cause for reflection, on balance I still think, as a whole, they’re a net positive. Humans can be lazy devils however so that could well change…

      Anyway it was a good comment, cheers, so I’ve updated the post to put them under a dedicated heading.

  • Really interesting and plenty to think about. Tyre/inner tube recycling is news to me and I’m pleased to hear about it.

    Thank you!

  • On driving-to-ride: if I can’t ride from my door I prefer (or at least I used to, pre-pandemic) to catch the train with my bike at least some of the way. Train travel is not as low-carbon as riding all the way there but – although the numbers depend on a lot of factors – I’d argue it’s better, both socially and environmentally, than driving. The problem is that train operators seem determined to put people off taking bikes on trains by making it as difficult and stressful as possible. Bike storage space is limited and poor quality, and the rules on when you have to reserve it and when you don’t are Kafkaesque. The train typically also takes much longer than driving. I dislike driving so much that I’m willing to put up with the train for the right trip, but it’s hardly the widely accessible option it should be. Bring back the Cyclists’ Special!

    • hey Matt, thanks for writing! I see absolutely nothing wrong with that, and you’re spot on about trains being socially and environmentally streets ahead of cars. So much more efficient in fuel, space, and general pollution (both particulates/emissions and noise). What I feel is a problem is the dogged reliance on cars in situations when there’s really no need… especially here in Cornwall, it’s not exactly the urban jungle down here….
      The train thing does my head in.. it’s just so hard. I once tried to bring my bike home from Heathrow by rail after months away. In its box, straight off the flight GWR said “no, it’s not a bike, it’s luggage and therefore it’s too big”.. but assembled it was also too big for the stupid little spaces allocated on their trains. I needed to get home and riding the 300 miles over a couple of days in pissing wet and dark December didn’t appeal so gave in and had to rent a car. Deeply frustrating. I’d feel able to explore so much more of the UK by bike if only the trains and buses weren’t so jobsworth when it comes to bikes.

      This is a quite interesting summary from the European Environment Agency of different transport types https://www.eea.europa.eu/highlights/motorised-transport-train-plane-road “The assessment concludes that rail travel is the best and most sensible mode of travel, apart from walking or cycling”

      • I’m with you on car use. People are addicted to them – my neighbour drives 0.5km to work. It’s unbelievable! But trains designed simply to pack in people (with no real consideration of luggage or bikes) don’t help offer an alternative. Those newer GWR ones on the long-distance routes are terrible. As that EEA info shows it’s such a missed opportunity.

        • good grief, 0.5km.. that’s appalling! People seem to have really low baselines for physical activity. I was talking to a guy, late 30s I’d say, outside my front door last week, I’d nipped 3km up the road to pick up some stuff, he expressed shock that I could cycle 3km without stopping… Cars have taken away any self-belief or confidence in physical abilities.

          I suppose the train thing boils down to the fact that the modern, privatised business model cannot accept any space at all that isn’t earning revenue for the shareholders….

  • As always a thoughtful and well presented article. Rigid steel mtb’s all the way for me, all second hand frames built up with largely recycled components. It’s incredible what can be picked up at significantly reduced prices from a certain online auction site which have been sitting in someones shed never fitted to a bike. For me the cycling industry has a lot to answer for. While I understand that they are running businesses which are required to make a profit, they could far more than paying the small amount of lip service regarding the environment than it seems they currently do. Finally, I am fortunate to be in a position with my partner of running a smallholding and being largely self sufficient which means on a daily basis keeping check on all resources, be it water, electric, fuel, food etc. and I am constantly in dismay at our general throw away society. If only we were able to put people in a self sufficient situation for a short amount of time most people would nit believe what level of waste and rubbish they are creating! Rant over!

    • Hey Chris, cheers for taking the time. Older stuff rocks, it really does. I don’t know if you use Insta but this chap has a really interesting feed you might enjoy (if you don’t know already): https://www.instagram.com/juans_bicycle_repair/
      As for the industry, I did see an article that discussed the sustainability of manufacturers practices but the spin it had was that in rolling out electronic gearing, new component standards and endless new models, all the businesses were doing was responding to consumer demand, which I think is utter bollocks. Riders didn’t know they “needed” 12 speeds, or press-fit BBs, or whatever until it was pushed at them, hard. Unsurprisingly the article turned out to have been sponsored by an industry trade body.

      I know the feeling re throwaway… it’s upsetting sometimes whle out riding even just to see the stuff that people chuck out on the pavement for garbage collection. Smallholding sounds ace though; I do have a dream of just having a small Passivhaus place on a patch somewhere.

  • An interesting article. As before I learned from it. The fact that steel has less impact than most of the other materials is a relief as I am a fan of steel. That said, I can’t help but think that if we got everyone out of their cars and on to carbon bikes with electronics or e-bikes we would gain rather than lose. I am surprised at your soft recommendations on flying. If cycling is better than driving to go cycling, doesn’t the same apply to flying? It seems silly to me to build a basic steel bicycle and bring limited kit and then fly to Vietnam to ride it. I don’t mean to attack you personally, but it seems to point to the underlying problem that we all face; having to give up the things that we love. I have been thinking about this for a long time. What would it take for everyone to be considerate about their environmental impact? The Corona crisis has given me hope. In the Netherlands, where I live, I am impressed at how well everyone adheres to very strict and life-changing rules, and how much is sacrificed. What it would take to stop people driving cars and using the internet less etcetera? I don’t know. What do you think?

    • Hi Jan, thanks, that’s a really great comment. Re “having to give up the things that we love”.. YES! I know I was soft on flying, I wanted to be blunter on that (and other topics) but I wasn’t because, from what I’ve seen, simply telling people they mustn’t fly or do certain things, mustn’t holiday overseas for ex isn’t overly helpful.. so while I would happily direct enormous amounts of ire at influencers, media, sports stars, and in general anyone who takes it for granted.. what seems to work better is showing people how they can start to make changes and think a little about what they’re doing. So with regard to flying then ditching multiple flights a year would be an imperative – and it’s easier to encourage people to do that as a first step rather than saying “you can’t have summer holidays abroad any more” (business must also take a large share of responsibility for cutting down (https://www.businesstraveller.com/business-travel/2021/03/31/majority-of-flights-taken-by-a-small-percentage-of-flyers/)). Similarly I didn’t say “you mustn’t buy carbon bikes”, rather what I wanted to do was present some information and thoughts that might help people to make a more sustainable decision when thinking about a new bike. The vast majority of folk have no idea, or even interest, in what’s involved in the manufacture of carbon. Same with electronics. Maybe I should have been more blunt, I don’t know; I don’t feel as if I have a ‘right’ to tell people what they should or shouldn’t do.. and flying seems to be an emotive issue given its intrinsic link to “the summer holiday” – especially here in the UK which, for most folk, has poor, high “hassle factor” surface connections to Europe (I do envy you in Europe with the abundance of surface travel options relative to this island), so perhaps it was a cop out in that respect, it’s easier for me to try and encourage folk to change.

      As for “What would it take ..” honestly I don’t know. I fear for that for most it will require staring extinction in the face…. by which tim it will of course be too late; it’s already too late to avoid profound changes. I did have some hope re corona, but I look around me in the UK now and think “nope, that hasn’t changed a thing..” and at times it would appear to have made things worse judging by the sheer volume of discarded single use facemasks I see lying around and that in trying to avoid public transport more people appear to have bought cars then bicycles.

      anyway.. thanks for the comment, much appreciated!

  • Thanks for your reply, Mike. I think what I tried to say about high tech bicycles is I would rather see people on them than driving cars. I do understand why you chose to be soft rather than blunt. But since a bicycle is a form of transport, why not use it to get there? As for people on their summer holidays, I would also be reluctant to say: “You can’t anymore.” But I hope they will come around and reconsider.
    I spoke to a guy on a ‘Pedelec’ a year ago and he said he will never go back to his car, so e-bikes do seem to be an alternative!
    And yes, profound change we are already facing, but I am optimistic that some awareness will grow in the near future. Reading your stuff has contributed to that, so thank you.

    • hey yes I realised that while out riding this afternoon, I’m such a doofus, I do apologise!!

      my cargo bike changed everything for me. the only thing i use a car for these days is getting a sea kayak to the ocean. I drove less than 500 miles in all of 2020, and have not yet driving any miles in 2021. I hate that I need a car to do that at the moment, and I’ve considered packing in sea kayaking just so I don’t have to drive, ever. For everything else i just can’t imagine using a car any more.

      • I have seen Xtracycles with kayaks on them, couldn’t you use the Big Dummy? Or maybe a trailer, like the brilliant Surly trailers? I have a kayak myself, for very sedate peddling in canals but still love it. No apologies necessary!

        • yes, I do carry my surf kayak on the dummy but with sea kayaking the issue really is a day would easily involve towing a 5.5m long sea kayak, + gear, through narrow lanes for between 20 and 50km in each direction. Physically I’m not sure I’m up for that with a long day on the water in between.. some days paddling can be 40km or more with rough seas.

    • hehe, true.
      maybe I need to suck it and see anyway. my nearest favourable launch spot is about 20km each way, and for more relaxed days on the water I think that would be fine. Hopefully drivers can cope with the long kayak under tow… often a bigger worry around here…!

    • another thing I envy about the continent! the UK is slowly improving but many roads are still a relatively hostile environment for cyclists.

  • Having a road to yourself is great and makes riding serene. On the other hand in the Netherlands we have very few trails or gravel roads.

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