Fun Cycling

Riding Grizedale's Red Route

My twelve-year-old son Bob wants cycling to be fun. He’d love life to be one long, uninterrupted stunt show. He craves the adrenaline rush. He’s fearless, constantly searching for, then rising to the next physical challenge, driven to test his limits. Watching him play sometimes scares me so much that – not wanting to stop his boyhood thriving – I look the other way. If his body senses a barrier, it seems compelled to surmount it. Pleasure is for him bodily, not cognitive. He loves fun fairs, laughs out loud at slapstick, and takes wicked delight in playing tricks on sister Flo.

The more fun cycling is, the more he wants to do it. But much of his cycling isn’t much fun, like we’ve taken the fun out of cycling. He rides because he must, as part of a carless family. With enough persuasion he’ll join a family leisure ride. But the riding he wants to do is riding he finds fun: he finds time trialling slightly fun, bunch racing more fun, track racing still more fun, and BMX and mountain biking greatest fun of all.

On the boardwalk

But there are different kinds of mountain biking, and my idea of mountain biking isn’t fun: I want mountain biking to contain those things I find enjoyable about road riding – lack of impediment, smoothness, duration, flow; Bob wants the opposite – obstacles, friction, interruption, difficulty. The rides we’ve done since getting mountain bikes for Christmas have usefully built our off-road skills and confidence, but they’ve been so far away from what makes Bob thrive I almost wince. Slowly trudging over barren, windswept moor does not for him constitute fun, even if the descents are exhilarating.

So giving Bob the MTB fun he craves felt overdue. This means trail centre riding, the more challenging the better. Last year we hired bikes at first Mabie and then Grizedale Forests to get a taste of this style of riding, but we stuck to easy green and blue routes which left Bob unfulfilled, frustrated. Clearly it was time to move up a level, to try a red route. This is Grizedale’s Red Route description:

This trail will take you through the forest by way of sinuous singletrack, offering adrenalising sections of singletrack descent and leg burning climbs. Be warned, there are plenty of challenging boardwalks in case you needed more to be scared of! This trail is suitable for mountain bikers only and requires a high level of skill and fitness.

It doesn’t mention fun, but Bob’s eyes shone as I read it out loud; this is just the kind of language which speaks to him. This sounds like cycling fun!

Falling off

Bam! Bam! Bam! Riding singletrack is like being in a video game where things keep coming at you – rocks, roots, branches, trees – and you must decide whether to dodge or tackle them (my instinct is to dodge; Bob’s – because it’s more fun – to tackle). One thing is quickly eclipsed by the next; there’s no time to dwell, let alone reflect. On the toughest stretches you can’t take your eye off the trail for a second.

Our riding speed is somewhere between the two speeds we regularly move through the countryside – more slowly when hill-walking, faster when road cycling – but the sensation is quite different from either. Riding these narrow, rocky trails requires more intense concentration and quicker reaction than hill-walking ever does, and a much more intimate, nuanced and responsive relationship between terrain, body and bike than road cycling. Because I’m timid I stay mainly upright, but Bob falls often – he shrugs off his tumbles and fears falling so little that he takes risks and learns fast, racing from feature to feature as I follow clumsily behind. I feel my comfort zone intensely, but it’s a concept he seems not to know.

Features are most fun, especially the sections of raised boardwalks and rock paths. These represent specific challenges, test your skill and nerve, and make crystal clear whether you succeed or fail. If Bob fails he tries again. Although I have a go these things feel to me like obstacles placed awkwardly in our path, blocking our ride; which is of course exactly what they are, but Bob interprets them ‘properly’ – to him they’re the whole point we’re here, and form the heart of our ride.

Smooth singletrack

Road riding gives me enormous pleasure but I’d be hard pressed to call it fun. Riding Grizedale’s Red Route helps me see my normal cycling in fresh light – as slightly detached and ponderous. Compared to mountain biking in Bob’s exuberant company, my road riding seems a bit serious; it makes me wonder whether I’m a grumpy old roadie who’s got no sense of cycling fun.

Is cycling fun? Is cycle commuting fun? Could it be? Should it be? Youthful sub-cultures of cycling seem a lot of fun – looking cool on a bike, bicycle polo, alleycats, generally larking around and having fun on bikes. Can we learn something from cycling that’s fun – from mountain biking, from these youthful sub-cultures, from the fun that people – perhaps especially kids – get from cycling?

Is it time to inject more fun into cycling?

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18 Responses to “Fun Cycling”

  1. Kaighin, Chris JF (NE) Says:

    Hi Dave

    Your experience of single track seems very similar to mine. I took on a red route at Grizedale as my first ever experience of mountain biking, as my less than helpful friends didn’t tell me there was the option of a blue route instead. I spent most of the time thinking “why has someone left a tree root/rock in the way!” and the only stretch I enjoyed was the climb and that wasn’t particularly leg-burning, anyway. I did subsequently enjoy the blue route – I felt that the swooping berms did give me some of the sense of fun that enjoy about cycling. Six months later I haven’t been off-roading again, but I have noticed that I’ve felt tempted to give it another go, wondering whether I would enjoy it if I built up my skills, rather than diving straight into the red single track.

    But every day cycling is fun too – for me it is really easy to think of the fun I’ve had recently – swinging from lane to lane as I negotiate the one way system; chatting to Ronan as we ride back from the scout hut about what category the wee hill is; sprinting to the end of the cul de sac and trying to get past Ronan after I have let him take the corner first; leaving it until the last second then screeching to a stop outside the doctors’ surgery; trying to beat Barry to the top of the hill.

    Are you a grumpy old roadie? Only you can answer your own question. At our age I don’t think we will ever see think that falling off is fun, but maybe we should be relaxed about that, too. When I went skiing after 25 years of not skiing the instructor said to me that the reason I was picking it up again so quickly was because I was enjoying it so much and he was right – I didn’t care if I didn’t look god or if I fell over, I just wanted to whizz down steep slope really fast!

    Lets go mountain biking together one weekend…we would either enjoy it or we could grumble together.


    • Dave Horton Says:

      Thanks for all that Cen.

      I *did* enjoy mountain biking, and I certainly found it a thrill, but I guess I enjoyed it rather less than I do my usual riding (although it was of course great to share the experience with Bob, and to see him thrive), whereas Bob enjoyed it a good deal more. I wonder why some people prefer mountain biking and others road riding? Has it to do with age, personality, experience, skills, role models ..? All those and more, I guess.

      I love riding around town too, but it doesn’t always quite feel like fun – well, OK, riding at night, when the streets are quiet and the air is still, and maybe I’ve had a beer or two, yep, that’s fun. And riding in new places, strange cities (like, recently, Lisbon & Vienna) – that’s fun (in fact I’d say that exploring by bike is always fun, and when I’m on a bike I’m almost always exploring in one way or another). I suppose, though, that among the things I was thinking, as I wrote the post, were how:

      i) utility cycling is rarely promoted as ‘fun’ (and maybe it should be);

      ii) in thinking about how to make space more cycle-friendly, perhaps thinking how that space could be changed to help make cycling more fun *might* be worthwhile;

      iii) most people – unlike you, and also me I suppose, now that I think about it – certainly don’t see city cycling as fun. (It’s fear they feel.) But is it too much to wish that they might? Or do your experiences suggest fun city cycling as a widespread phenomenon is entirely plausible?

      One thing I most enjoy about mountain biking with Bob is how *I* can relax about him falling. I am not at all relaxed about the possibility of my kids falling off their bikes when we’re riding on the roads, but away from the roads – although I understand there are (in some ways greater) risks – I feel they have more freedom to take risks and make mistakes (and perhaps, especially for kids, having that licence is a very important prerequisite for having fun?).

      I’m certainly up for mountain biking some time – yes! (But Bob’ll probably want to come along too! (Is Ronan interested?))
      Thanks very much for thinking out loud
      Catch you soon

  2. psychobikeology Says:

    I enjoy your discussions of the phenomenology of cycling (and I recently posted something related to this myself).

    You give what seems to me an insightful discription of the pleasures of mountain-biking – insightful because you do not shre them. I also find these pleasures a bit baffling – rough terrain and mud and mountains are for walking and running for goodness sake. Yet you’ve almost made me get it …

    Is cycle commuting fun? you ask. Well yes it sometimes is actually – in a perverse sort of way. It’s about the awkwardness of thing, the fact that you have to exercise skill, that it’s all manourvre and rapid changes of acceleration. If you read (the sadly deceased) Richard Ballantine about riding in traffic it’s obvious that he enjoys it. All right then, let me quote him for you. This is from City cycling (2007):

    The beauty of traffic jamming is that you work and play with your skill at understanding traffic, as well as bringing on your full juice! This is when you are all there and everything else – your troubles, and the things you should or shouldn’t be doing – disappears

    It’s a bit of an acquired pleasure – and one that I have largely un-acquired – but I do understand it …

    • Dave Horton Says:

      That’s a great post over on your blog, psychobikeology, and I agree with you – I have cycled regularly since childhood, I cycle many thousands of miles each year, but still, just occasionally, I get this vague and difficult to pin-point sense of dread – based, I think, on some deep-seated fear about forever moving in the vicinity of machines, driven by strangers (some of whom will inevitably have ‘problems’), which could at any time, very simply, very quickly and very easily kill or maim me. (That they kill and maim people so rarely – though still, obviously, much, much too much – is in many ways remarkable.) (I tend to be what’s sometimes called ‘a vehicular cyclist’ (certainly, I’m confident, assertive and take my space), and for sure I get the buzz of mixing it with fast-moving motorised traffic, but I think the advocacy of vehicular cycling – however understandable – has a lot to answer for, when it comes to cycling’s present state, perhaps especially in the USA/Canada, Australia/NZ, and the UK.)

      And cycling does seem too much trouble; it particularly seems too much trouble to me when I’m in a new place and don’t know my way around, by bike. On the one hand, that’s wonderful – the opportunity to explore (and as I said in my response to Cen, have fun). But on the other hand, not knowing the best routes, the short cuts, and (especially if overseas) the local rules and norms of cycling – it sometimes seems too much. And sometimes when I’m contemplating making a journey with my kids (now 12 and 9), the thought of cycling seems too hard, too stressful, too potentially treacherous. As we know of course, that cycling seems too much trouble is the reason so few people cycle! (And the problem is with the environment – the conditions of travel – rather than with the specific materialities of bicycle/accessories; people might find the technologies of cycling troublesome (something much less true of low-tech walking), but they would surely overcome them, in a cycle-friendly world.)

      (Cycling sometimes seems the easiest thing in the world, but other times I’m almost incredulous that so many people still clearly find it possible to make journeys by bike, so implausible does that seem.)

      Sort of incidentally, I’m a huge fan of urban walking too. I assume you’ve read Rebecca Solnit’s wonderful ‘Wanderlust’? You don’t say why you’re currently unable to walk, but I hope you’re able to get back on your feet again soon (?).

      I don’t especially see myself as a phenomenologist (although I have read, and I suppose been influenced, by phenomenological writing), but it’s nice anyway that you say I think/write phenomenologically 😉 Cheers!

      I’ve written too much – sorry!
      Best wishes

  3. meganjanicke Says:

    A very good comparison of road and mountain cycling. My feelings toward mountain biking are like yours. I wish they were more like Bob’s. My mountain bike is very neglected.

    • Dave Horton Says:

      Thanks! I doubt I’d have started mountain biking were it not for Bob (although some of the cycle-touring I’ve done in the past could probably be categorised as mountain biking – certainly ‘rough-stuff’ as it’s known in England, anyway); but I have to say that now I am doing some, I’m rather pleased that I have, and I aspire to keep it as a small part of my ‘cycling portfolio’ – just to give a bit of diversity to my riding, I suppose – into the future. (I’m assuming it won’t be too long before Bob decides I’m too slow, too scared, and too uncool, and starts to strike out on his own mountain bike adventures.) I can’t ever imagine it displacing my love for the road – I just love the sense of unimpeded, smooth, flowing movement too much; and I can’t ever see it taking over my preference for walking when in remote places; but still, it’s good to have it in the mix. And it’s certainly improving my (generally terrible) bike-handling!

      (Maybe you should pull yours out, and give it another go?! – Bob has seen videos of mountain-biking in the US south-west (I think – Utah?) on the internet, and wants to go!)

      I love your blog; and thanks very much for checking out, and commenting on, mine – it’s appreciated 😉
      All the best

  4. Michael Frearson (@mcfrearson) Says:

    Check out “Why We Ride: A Film by and for Cambridge’s Young Riders” on Vimeo Last word: because it is fun.

    • Dave Horton Says:

      Thanks very much for that link Michael – what a fantastic piece of work! Really brilliant stuff, and all credit to all the people who made it happen; I could see it being used very usefully to promote cycling within schools much more widely than Cambridge.

      Yes of course, kids ride because it’s fun. It’s certainly what matters to Bob. But I wonder to what extent the ‘cycling is cool’ vibe, so clear with ‘hipster’ cycling in many of our bigger cities especially, ‘trickles down’ to younger kids? Are kids picking up on – and ‘getting’ – the ways in which cycling is being currently re-worked as a symbol of freedom & fashion by, perhaps especially, university students? (This matters I think because however much fun something might be, if no one else is doing it, you’re unlikely to do it too. Whereas if everyone is doing it, it becomes even more fun!)

      Thanks again, and best wishes

  5. oliverandottavio Says:

    I think it most certainly is. As a cycling instructor in London I teach a lot of kids, although what we teach is essentially ‘road safety’. For some kids this is a fun challenge and an exciting prospect, but for others already riding reasonably confidently I often fear they get little from it, other than skipping class. As you imply, (urban) road riding skills are primarily about assertiveness and knowledge of certain rules and how to interpret and act on them. Mountain biking is a practical, active challenge with more immediate and tangible results.

    Although cycle training is certainly not widespread, those lucky enough to have it available probably don’t use a great deal of what we teach – they’re already bombarded by messages about safety, and (probably valid) concerns from parents and teachers regarding the safety of riding in an urban environment. All this seems to limit the number of opportunities kids have to exercise real freedom and have fun with bikes. The most confident kids either have cycling parents who teach them, or gain their skills by ambling around the local parks, where the challenges are probably fairly limited; they may end up frustrated with cycling, and I suspect the novelty wears off once the challenges are exhausted.

    My problem with ‘cycling as fun’ is that it does tend to play to the already widespread belief that cycling is a frivolous and childish activity. I think if people recognised that the cycling achievements of children like Bob positively re-enforce other lifeskills, we might get somewhere.

    I guess what I’m saying is that we need more trail centres cycle parks, and less car parks…

    • Dave Horton Says:

      Thanks Oliver for such thoughtful comments. Isn’t what we’re saying, in a roundabout way, that the way to inject fun into cycling is to make the transport environment more cycle-friendly, so more people (including, importantly, children) can do it, and have fun? As you so nicely put it, cycle parks not car parks (imagine if every town committed to transforming one of its car parks into a car-free space in which kids could learn to cycle, practice cycling, have fun on bikes?) …

      Cycling is already, almost inherently fun, *so long as* conditions are conducive, but prevailing conditions are certainly not conducive to cycling, so cycling has by and large been removed from the urban transport environment, and a key source of fun has been removed from the city. It strikes me that kids can be found riding almost everywhere *except* the road! Parks, forests, cycle tracks, BMX parks … On a sunny Saturday here in Lancaster, the off-road cycle route out to the most popular local skate/BMX park, a few miles up the Lune River in the village of Halton, is jam packed with kids skating and riding their way to & fro, but (unsurprisingly – they’re probably told not to by their parents, even if they were to think it a good idea – which seems unlikely) I never see those kids riding around town (despite their having some amazingly advanced handling skills, developed through BMX, if also, it’s true, BMXs are bicycles spectacularly inappropriate to cope with current urban riding).

      I know what you mean about the association with fun sounding a bit like cycling is a game, the bicycle a toy, which as you say is part of the problem. But then I balk equally at the (policy-promoted) idea that the most useful thing about cycling is that it can get people to and from work, an association which seems to me to tend towards draining the life and meaning out of cycling.

      I think what we’re saying, overall, is we’ve created boring and dangerous urban spaces in which the journey between A and B by car has trashed pleasure, play, and the multiple social interactions so central to the production and reproduction of a good life.

      A lovely blog you’ve got – great to see! And thanks for reading mine.
      Best wishes

  6. Dave Says:

    cycling for transport and cycling for pleasure are two different (but not mutually exclusive) things.

    I have a similar feeling when people promote cycling for fitness / health / exercise reasons.

    Because I hate exercising

    I like cycling because it keeps me fit without me feeling like I’m exercising.

    • Dave Horton Says:

      Cheers Dave. I think I agree with you, but want to ask the question: “have cycling for transport and cycling for pleasure *become* two different things because the conditions under which most people (would have to) cycle for transport are so dire?”; couldn’t, in other words, all cycling be pleasurable?

      Thanks for reading, and commenting
      Cheers for now

  7. kevinmayne Says:

    As an “old roadie” I started MTB in Wales in the 90s just replicating cycle touring but getting to routes and places I couldn’t go with the road bike.

    I only really understood trail centre riding when I did just what we advise new road riders to do – get some training.

    The change was extraordinary, I finally began to understand the flow of the bike and the sort of thinking in a trail designers mind. It then began to put me in a similar place to when I learned to descend properly on a road bike, not just “go downhill”. I am never going to anything that needs body armour, but I can enjoy the challenge of a red run and really enjoy it, especially with my son who is now 22.

    It is a very different activity but it has its place in my cycling world.

    Can I thoroughly recommend the Youtube “Malcolm” which captures it brilliantly and I linked to in my post

    • Dave Horton Says:

      Thanks Kevin, that clip is just great. What I like about it most is you can tell how much concentration such riding requires, the sort of concentration of which lads in particular are sometimes seen as incapable, or at least find difficult. Sure, anyone who watches them at a computer knows they’re very capable of intense concentration, and focus, but here is concentration on earth, rocks, roots, trees, taking place in the fresh air, whilst pushing your body in a very visceral way.

      So mountain biking with Bob feels like a very acceptable compromise, or hybrid, of the kind of thing which works for him, but in the kind of environment which works for me. (And in a way I think we thereby learn about (and to appreciate) one another’s worlds.)

      We did some basic MTB training at Mabie Forest last year (with the highly recommended Bottle Green Biking), but I think that if I’m not to hold Bob up I might need to develop my skills further. Certainly I share your sentiment that, given a love for cycling, it’s great to feel able to indulge that pleasure & privilege in all its diversity. (And one reason I so love cycling is that, although of course I have and will probably always have my favourite ‘niches’ – for me that’s cycle-touring and road riding – cycling’s diversity is never ending.)

      Sorry I missed you at Velo-city. I saw you in the distance a couple of times, but was always ‘earnestly engaged’ in difficult-to-escape debate! (You know how it is … ‘-)

      Cheers, Dave

  8. david dansky (@FixedFun) Says:

    I suppose much of the buzz experienced by many urban commuters riding in the traffic flow, filtering right past slower drivers and back into the traffic stream, reading the road and extending and developing urban riding skillz is similar to the buzz Bob experiences on single track. (and when you add the Strava time-trial element or ride a brakeless fixed gear in a zen-like blissed-up state the buzz must be explosive)

    This would be sorely missed by many if people on bikes were separated from people in cars. Though perhaps when this happens and the road adrenaline junkie can choose to ride on car-only roads where cyclists are very unwelcome (Like some car-roads in Denmark and Holland) and abuse is even more extreme than on normal roads in the uk the adrenaline rush may be even higher.

    (and there’s always bungi jumping to work like spiderman when the petrol runs out ftw)

    • Dave Horton Says:

      Cheers David.

      I’m not sure how much irony to read into your points?!

      I know you believe in making cycling possible for all, but I know you’re also pretty trenchant in your belief that cycling shouldn’t lose its place on the road (and I agree with you on both points). But then, we both know, don’t we, that the ‘fun’ of road riding which you describe (and which I’m sure we both at least on occasion share) is completely unattainable to the vast majority of people (and I don’t believe it’s arrogant to say so)?

      So, what? – to make cycling fun for many inevitably requires the loss of some cycling fun for the few? (But perhaps the ‘fun of the few’ wouldn’t actually diminish, so much as change – fun being found in new things, such as feeling part of a mass of cyclists, watching different people riding bikes at different speeds in different ways, enjoying an exploding plurality of bike cultures in place of the current state in which a rather macho & antagonistic bike culture monopolises the road and most people’s understandings and imaginations of what cycling is, and could be?)

      Until cars are almost completely out of the way, we’re going to have to find some compromises here, eh?

      Hope you’re good, and you’re enjoying the sunshine.

  9. khal spencer Says:

    Cycling is fun unless it becomes something you HAVE to do! Its fun to ride to work because I’m out in the air and keeping a moderate pace. Far more fun than driving the car or riding the motorcycle even, as these tools are too much for the job at hand, as though one needed a pile driver to put a nail into wood. Weekend road rides are fun now that I stopped worrying about keeping in shape for racing, but just ride at my own pace (which occasionally can be pretty brutal–160 bpm for a 59 year old coot–such a pace puts you in a “mental zone”).

    Singletrack is a whole different experience. As you say, there are all sorts of problems to work out such as rocks, logs, turns, washouts, sand, etc. Its a whole body experience, kinda like dancing, and works all the body and coordination as well as the mind.

    There has to be a Zen to all of this for someone for cycling to be fun rather than a chore to endure. I think that is a bottom line. My problem with folks in the Streetsblog/Momentum tent isn’t that I disagree with them on making cycling more universal, but that they seem to want to make it boring and monotonous.

    • Dave Horton Says:

      Thanks Khal for all of that, and indeed for all the attention you’ve been giving this blog today. My writing here means different things to me, but for sure includes an attempt to resist (and ‘write against’) the ways in which cycling is rendered boring and monotonous. I hope that comes over at least occasionally, anyway.

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