Ireland's obsession with cycling: Is it just a passing fad?
We are being led to believe that cycling is the one thing that can save the entire human race, the huge rise in popularity here might just be a passing trend.
Ireland is on its bike. There was a 16pc rise in the number of cyclists in Dublin last year, where nearly one in ten journeys is now made by bicycle. There is even a cycle path being built from Dublin to Galway.
There is a National Bike Week every June (what do you mean you missed it?) The dublinbikes scheme is busier than a family-planning helpline the morning after the Leaving Cert results. Entire aisles of Aldi and Lidl are given over to cycling accessories, like stalls selling souvenirs above in Knock. It's hard to grasp why a wet hilly rock in the North Atlantic would suddenly take to the bike. Unless you view it as a religion. Let's call it New Cycling.
Look at it from a non-believer's point of view. A drive in the country isn't complete until you get stuck behind a gang of middle-aged men cycling two abreast. A ten-minute walk along any urban footpath could involve three near-death experiences with someone on a bike. You could be mistaken for thinking these cyclists are careless eejits. They are not. They are just devotees of New Cycling. They are like the busy parish priest of old who didn't mind breaking the rules because he was doing god's work. These cyclists are righteous people. And unfortunately the path of the righteous man happens to be the one you are walking on to get to work. So be careful out there.
The self-righteous New Cycling brigade is convinced that cycling is the cure for what ails us. They take it as a given that the environment will be saved and middle-aged men will live forever if only the country would get on its bike. Crucially, in a country where your inferiority complex comes as standard, they believe that cycling can improve our standing abroad.
Thanks to the dublinbikes scheme, the capital is currently ranked ninth in the Copenhagenize Index of Bicycle Friendly Cities. You read that correctly, it's called Copenhagenize. You might say that has the whiff of a sinister mass movement about it, if you were being generous. As you can imagine, the top two cities on this list are Amsterdam and Copenhagen. This makes sense.
The New Cycling is a huge hit with the type of hipsters who are disgusted we aren't more like the Dutch. In fairness most Irish people suffer from a touch of Dutch envy. It's because a lot of Irish men went to Amsterdam, took some space cake and paid €50 to do something very new with a woman from Indonesia. That's not the kind of thing you can tell Mammy. So we pretend to admire their social democratic model and the way they keep the North Sea in the North Sea. Not to mention the way they look so cool on bicycles.
One of the key tenets of New Cycling is Be Like The Dutch. That would be fine if we were just talking about soccer. It's daft when it comes to bicycle worship. The Netherlands happens to be a flat, densely populated place with an okayish climate. Ireland is none of the above. Most of this island is up there with the Sahara in terms of places unsuitable for a bike. There was a time when we understood this. That was a time when you'd pass a Dutch couple cycling up a mountain in Kerry in the rain, with 50 miles to the next shop. You'd feel sorry for the poor eejits because they didn't understand that large tracts of Ireland are off limits for a pedaller. We have lost that basic insight about our own country. We have gone crazy for the bikes, particularly in Dublin. That's understandable enough. The capital has flat, wide roads and is overrun by a plague of hipsters. That ticks a lot of bike-boom boxes. But most of the rest of the country does not. A majority of the streets in Cork City can just about fit a donkey as long as he has small ears. And still the city council put down a patchwork of bizarre cycle lanes which have left locals scratching their heads. Lanes crop up promisingly only to disappear into a footpath 100 metres down the road. A lot of these short isolated strips of tarmac look like the work of a guerilla street artist looking to make some obscure point. (You could call him the Banksy of My Own Lovely Lee.) But then religion makes people do strange things.
You can see why New Cycling appeals to some people. Bikes are pure catnip for certain parts of the middle class. Particularly that strand which is constantly on the lookout for new ways to rub their world view into other people's faces. They recently converted from Being a Foodie to New Cycling. You can't blame them - cycling is a much more elegant form of showing off than wearing a T-shirt saying, "I just bought some kale."
Extreme Cycling, where you might travel from Rosslare to Singapore, is picking up followers all over the world. Devotees aren't just in it for physical fitness. Extreme Cycling is also a form of penance for anyone who spent 20 years on the piss and is pre-disposed to feelings of guilt. Step forward your average 40-year-old Irish man. And get down to your nearest Aldi for a head-to-toe dose of Lycra.
It might have its attractions, but New Cycling is on borrowed time. In fact the backlash has begun. Gardai can now issue an on-the-spot fine to cyclists who crash a red light or mount a pavement. The middle-class snob brigade will find something else to advertise their superiority. The middle-aged men will return to the couch with swollen knees. And we'll eventually look out the window at the rain and say, "Shag that, I'm taking the car."