Electric Bikes And Ballpoint Pens

Sustrans Route 1 between Rochester and Gravesend

Electric bikes are like ballpoint pens. Perhaps I should explain that I have just bought an electric bike, and that my journey from electric bike to ballpoint pen began on a test ride around a local park. Riding with a young and knowledgeable member of staff from my usual bike shop, I learned that the shop manager had suspicions about the type of machine I was riding. Reading between the lines I think the boss felt that riding an electric bike wasn’t really cycling.

As a writer it’s to be expected that negative reactions to electric bikes should make me think of ballpoint pens. Perfected and patented by László Bíró in 1943, ballpoints allowed people to write more easily and quickly. A writer no longer had to stop writing to dip a nib in a pot of ink. There was no waiting for ink to dry before piling one page on top of another. It was a simple matter of grabbing a ballpoint and putting your thoughts on paper. Naturally this convenience caused controversy. People of a traditional frame of mind worried about falling standards and lazy handwriting. In 1950, an American magazine called the Federal Teacher went so far as to claim that the ballpoint pen would be the ruination of education. A similar situation arose when word processors came along in the 1980s. New convenience once again met objections from traditionalists. Author Fay Weldon, for example, uneasy about word processors, wrote of the mystical qualities of writing in longhand. Whether she wrote about these mysteries with a ballpoint or a fountain pen, I don’t know.

An advert for a Bíró pen in the Argentinian magazine Leoplán, 1945.

Which brings me to my electric bike. While this lovely machine makes cycling quicker and easier, it does not diminish cycling, just as ballpoints or word processors did not diminish writing. According to my iPhone, weekend rides on my electric bike are using more calories than the rides I used to take on my normal bike. This is because I am enjoying the rides more, staying out longer and going further. While I am using more calories my legs are less sore, since the effort of peddling is steady rather than a series of peaks and troughs. A normal bike uses gearing in an attempt to smooth out spikes of effort, allowing a rider to pedal at a similar rate on gradients or a flat road. But gearing can only go so far in smoothing out effort. The electric motor does a better job, allowing me to use more energy with less fatigue. When you are doing more rather than less, it is difficult to dismiss electric bikes as the refuge of a lazy cyclist, just as it is difficult to cast aspersions on the effort of a writer, who is producing more work with a ballpoint or word processor than with a nib and pot of ink.

A bike has always been a machine designed to enhance and magnify human effort. A conventional bike has wheels, an ancient form of force multiplier, reducing friction between a moving body and its environment, allowing a given amount of energy to produce more movement. Wheels also allow us to tap into the force of gravity. Riding downhill there is often no human force involved, but the bike is still moving. Since the days of penny farthings, bikes have always allowed a rider to do more with a given amount of energy. An electric bike just takes this process one stage further.

Route 1 at Gravesend

My most recent ride took me over to Rochester where I joined the wonderful Sustrans Route 1, following a mixture of track, quiet roads and lanes through Kent countryside to Gravesend. It might not seem like a great adventure to go to Gravesend, but it’s a different story getting there on Route 1, crossing great expanses of water meadow pulsating with chattering bird life, dodging through hidden alleyways behind old warehouses, emerging beside the Thames to see a white cruise ship, spinning wind turbines, and towering dock cranes, on the far shore. Sitting in a Gravesend coffee shop, I felt that electric bikes are the future of cycling in the same way that ballpoint pens and word processors were the future of writing. Bikes have always been designed to amplify the strength of human legs. Electric bikes move this on, making the whole experience of cycling more accessible.

The Excitement Factory – This Sporting Life

Since sport requires leisure time and a surplus of money to spend on it, we can thank the Industrial Revolution for our weekend off to watch football, motor racing, tennis or rugby; and for the money to buy the necessary ticket or TV subscription. The 1850s were the crucial decade, when mills in northern England started to close at 2pm on Saturdays. According to A.N. Wilson in The Victorians, Wordsells of Birmingham was one of the first factories to give its workers Saturday afternoon off. It is no coincidence that the 1850s were the time when large scale sport really began to develop. Horse racing grew hugely in popularity with sixty two new horse racing meetings added to the calendar. Meanwhile, rugby and football were evolving rapidly into the games we know today. And as sporting events became established, trains were available to take people to them, thanks to the boom in railway building.

A century later we come to David Storey’s This Sporting Life, a novel about a factory worker who gets signed by a Rugby League team in a 1950s northern town. This Sporting Life might be set a hundred years after the Industrial Revolution kickstarted sport, but it is clear that sport and industry still go together. Rugby League is a kind of sporting heavy industry. This is a game played in vast stadiums by big men who have specialised jobs on the field, just as they follow specialised trades in their factories. Rugby, a sequence of systematic, repeated moments, is in effect a mill for producing sporting excitement, with sparks flying on the pitch as clouds of steam from nearby cooling towers drift overhead.

Even so, there is still a sense in This Sporting Life that Rugby League strives for something beyond the daily grind. The players are seen as heroes by local sports fans, reminiscent of those Greek heroes who took part in running and chariot races in Homer’s Iliad. The town’s gods – wealthy industrialists rather than deities on a mountain – run the club. Just as in Homer, the gods support some heroes at the expense of others, using their influence to trip up or push forward individual athletes as they see fit.

This Sporting Life is really a study of what it is to be one of these modern sporting heroes. Seemingly living lives beyond those of ordinary mortals, they are admired wherever they go, receiving free stuff and fan mail. Yet, a famous player also seems something less than human. The narrator and central character, Arthur Machin, often remarks on feeling like some sort of ape man who doesn’t belong in normal society. One of his lady admirers actually calls him Tarzan. The contradiction of popularity and a feeling of exclusion causes havoc with Arthur’s personal life. In his gruff way he loves his landlady, the widowed Mrs Hammond. This troubled young woman becomes interested in Arthur when he makes the metamorphosis from ordinary factory worker to sports star. At the same time she is unable to view him as a normal man she could be with. She always seems worried that Arthur will be off with one of his many female fans. Nothing Arthur can say will convince Mrs Hammond otherwise. Arthur’s fellow players Frank and Maurice are fortunate in having wives who treat them as normal men.

This Sporting Life is a study of professional sport and the celebrity it brings. Published in 1960 it is an uncompromising tale, interesting in the context of sport history, and in its prescience about the kind of developments that would follow in sport and celebrity culture generally.