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Isolated Incidents: What does it mean for cyclists to 'stay local'?

This is a local ride, we'll have no trouble here! How to think global and ride local...

There is a lot of fuss, confusion and hand-wringing going on now about exercise, and what constitutes 'local'. There's also much kerfuffle about a certain seven mile cycle ride which really hasn’t helped matters at all. 

Isolated Incidents - Protect and Survive

Both of these address the age-old conundrum of what the general public thinks is a reasonable way to travel by bike (not far) and what someone who rides a bike regularly considers to be a totally normal distance (substantially further). Even within the latter there is an enormous amount of divergence, with ride lengths of 'normal', 'proper' and 'decent' being open to a broad swathe of interpretation and ego.

There are an awful lot of bits of string, of a multitude of lengths, to answer how long a bike ride is. The kind of distance that might feel like riding to the end of the world for one person might just be a commute to another, and to another one who likes to dress up specially it’s hardly a warm-up. We’ve all had the conversation when asked how far you’ve ridden (see here for more on that) that results in the incredulous look and questioning about whether you might want to consider using a car over a distance that you regard as entirely unspectacular to ride by bike.

Similarly, 'local' is a vague term to interpret at best. My 'local' pub is a mile away despite there being several between here and there, and my local bike shop is five miles away. There are others that are closer, but it used to be my local bike shop before I moved further away, so I still consider it as such. For a city dweller 'local' might be just round the corner, and for someone more rural it can be a country mile. I will ride my bike all the way through someone’s local to get to what I consider to be my own local. It's an indeterminate space and can stretch from what you can see to as far as you can't see.

I’ve lived where I live (give or take a few numbers on the postcode, and the odd jaunt away for college and stuff) for the vast majority of my life and all of my cycling days, so I’ve seen how much my idea of what qualifies as 'local' has changed. Its boundary has slowly extended with age and experience, and as my pedaling ability has stretched its legs, it continues to creep outwards, albeit at a slower rate. There is a old fashioned sense that 'local' can mean 'what you know', and for all of us that radius of knowledge is different. Some can stand atop a hill, sweep their arms out full and have a deep understanding of all that they survey, while others can get lost within sight of their house.

As kids on bikes the local was as far as your furthest friend, and for me that was up the hill, across the main road and halfway down the other hill. This might be extended a little bit for the excitement of going to the sweet shop round their parts, as they did those penny chews yours didn’t. This local patch that had less than a mile radius (school was a mile away, we never went further) was ridden around every weekend and all the holidays, and it was to a certain extent governed by what your parents said was ok. You knew every inch of the roads, parks and woods you were allowed to scamper in.

As I grew older the local slowly spread from that restricted circle of suburbia into town, and that still felt like an adventure even though it was less than five miles away. It would take time for that to become familiar enough to call part of home, whilst there was a whole new language of streets and alleys to check out and learn. I distinctly remember my first proper explore on a bike well outside of what I then knew from the front door. It was a full implausible nine miles to get there, and a route was planned via the local street map that took in all the safe roads. Directions were written down on a bit of paper that was then looped onto my handlebars by the stem. The limit of my world had stretched across a river and into another county, and required a packed sandwich. Phewf.

Now, that distance into a once exciting new world is a nothing. Over a long period of time the breadth of what I consider to be my local boundary has increased in line with fitness and experience. It used to stop at that road, then it bumped up to that road a bit further out, and thanks to years of gently wiggling bits onto what I already know, it now reaches all the way up there and off the edges of the map that once defined my planet. What I consider mine, my neighbourhood, my home turf, the local roads, now spider-webs over many square miles.

There are a specific set of roads and junctions that form imaginary boundaries and turn-around points in my mental local map, travelling beyond which would extend a bike ride into something greater than a normal loop. Within these borders I’ll know pretty much every road, track, lane and path. It's the natural consequence of living here all my life, poking my nose about and getting deliberately lost, so I can conjure up a ride without thinking. I hardly ever ride with a box of electronic gubbins on my bars to tell me where to go or how far I’ve been, because I know roughly how far any ride is and how long it might take. I can even adjust the route on the fly if needs be to suit weather conditions, inclination, ride faff, daylight and time. Travelling outside of these virtual boundaries isn’t venturing into a total wasteland and fraught with here-be-ye-dragons danger, it’s just where roads are a little more 'maybe' and junctions a bit more hesitant. I can usually wing it though, and there might be some uncertainty before an “Oh we’re here” moment, as I arrive back on home roads. If I do ever strap a GPS on my bike that means I’ll be travelling beyond my local, and when I turn it off again I know I’m back in my extended neighbourhood again and can homing pigeon it. The gentle tingle of excitement on leaving these roads is only matched by the wave of warmth upon returning to them; this is what makes them my local.

coronavirus pandemic Cyclists stay local sign
In this case, 'stay local' just meant 'not in our village'

Of course, what I feel is local isn’t to everyone’s interpretation. At what distance do the fingers start pointing, and do they keep pointing even when they can’t see you any more? Considering the public arm-flailing that went on after that recent seven mile ride, it’s possibly somewhere less than that, even if anyone who knows the difference between the front and back of a bike not-so-quietly guffawed. As a quick experiment I did a very brief play with route mapping, and with an arbitrary within-my-local-area ten mile radius from my house to play in, I can easily fit an 80 mile ride within that circular boundary. That’s with me living right by the coast, so half of that ten mile radius is dead to me. It’s what I’d constitute to be a nice bike ride too, using country lanes and chucking in a few hills without resorting to main roads, using the same road twice or tossing about any convoluted routing spaghetti to rack the miles up in order to make a point. If I wanted to do that then the possibilities for getting a stupidly long ride in within reasonable local limits are, um, limitless. As an exercise in obeying the spirit of the guidance whilst giving the intention a good kicking, it just highlights the absurdity of fluffy rules and what you can do versus what you probably should do. How long is your bit of string?

People have discussed what it means to remain local in more practical terms with one of the interpretations being not riding further than you might want to walk back from if you are the victim of a terminal mechanical that might ordinarily require outside assistance and a lift home. That's a worthy idea, but I can’t remember the last time I had this sort of issue... well I can, but it was a very long time ago. In my history of cycling I’ve only had to call for emergency extraction once, and at a stretch I could have made it home under my own steam. It was just getting very cold, very dark, I’d had eight punctures already and I was running out of patches, patience and fingers. I could have ridden/pushed/walked home and got a good anecdote out of it and some new cleats as it was under ten miles, but calling for backup seemed wisest. This was also before mobile phones (I told you it was a long time ago) so I still had to hunt down a phone box.

I’ve ridden a snapped frame home, I’ve patched slashed tyres with energy gel wrappers, I’ve walked home with a completely destroyed tyre (that packing it with grass trick categorically doesn’t work by the way), pedalled a few miles with half a right hand crank, and made it home fixed wheel but with gears when my freehub borked itself. Catastrophic mishaps are remarkably rare (oh, wait, there’s my friend George to whom stuff just 'happens') and most of the time you can make it back if you have to. Every ride I go equipped with the spares and tools to cover the vast majority of mishaps that can happen on a ride, and they don’t take up much room: multi-tool, tyre levers, a couple of tubes, puncture kit with a spare chain link snaffled in, or tubeless plugs if you’re that way inclined. Also, a proper pump that can actually inflate a tyre and isn’t just a piece of minimalist design and maximum marketing (I mean, why wouldn’t you?) That should see you from 50 miles to 500 as which point you might consider a few more spares just in case, maybe another tube. I’d actually be embarrassed to have to call for help; although, there was that time after a hefty and bloody 'mystupidfault' crash where I limped to the nearest train station and stopped off in Boots on the way home for salves and bandages. Whatever happens, there would have to be pretty extenuating circumstances because it’s not hard to be a totally self-reliant cyclist and ensure you can make it back from any ride.

You’re not a pro that has the privilege of being able to call upon a team car, or flag down the neutral mechanic. Any competent cyclist should be able to go on a bike ride, of any length, and be a totally self-sufficient isolated bubble with a couple of bottles of water and pockets full of snacks taking over from any of the usual mid-ride cafe stops. Slipping through the back lanes and getting as far away from other people as possible is something cyclists have been doing for years, some more deliberately than others.

The other commonly mentioned parameter is to ride your bike in such a way, and for a distance that neither will increase any potential burden on the NHS, whatever that means. Unfortunately it’s anecdotally safer for me (all cycle safety arguments trade heavily on anecdote for validity, right?) to get as far away from home as possible, as quickly as possible, as the few times I’ve had to be hospitalised from a bike ride have occurred when I’ve been within five miles of where I live (the record was 100 metres I think, nipping out to get some milk from the petrol station). Most bike rides I don’t plan on finishing in an ambulance or being a bother to anyone, and I shall continue to ride accordingly.

By being a responsible cyclist you can also be a responsible member of society; and because many of us can head out and pedal underneath the radar and under our own steam for quite a while, our understanding of what is local will differ from most everyone else’s. We're in a privileged position to consider our 'local' to be a vast open plain of opportunity, compared to many others whose idea and reality will be more cramped, be that by choice or circumstance.

The succession of lockdowns has changed many cyclists' view of what local is, as many have found positives in the restrictions by investigating and snuffling around places closer to home that they’d previously ridden in the past. They've ignored the endless quest for over there-ness, and in the process found new and involving places to ride. While doing this, their idea of what is in local has both improved and expanded, and with it a sense of what’s theirs, and what their patch is, has nurtured an increased level of appreciation, insight and ownership for their home roads. The new restrictions, which are pretty much the same as the old ones, are a chance for everyone to explore that further. I love where I live and ride, I can stand on top of the hill and cherish everything that I see. My life has been played out on these roads, and I have an intimate relationship with this particular bit of country. It has been both my punisher and healer, and I really don’t want that taken away from me by someone that doesn’t understand the importance of riding local.

Jo Burt has spent the majority of his life riding bikes, drawing bikes and writing about bikes. When he's not scribbling pictures for the whole gamut of cycling media he writes words about them for and when he's not doing either of those he's pedaling. Then in whatever spare minutes there are in between he's agonizing over getting his socks, cycling cap and bar-tape to coordinate just so. And is quietly disappointed that yours don't He rides and races road bikes a bit, cyclo-cross bikes a lot and mountainbikes a fair bit too. Would rather be up a mountain.

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