Three years ago I spent my summer researching and writing the book Pedal Power. It was a hazy summer and I would escape the stuffy heat of my houseboat to sit in parks and beer gardens, tapping away on my laptop as I trawled through internet articles and conducted interviews with my chosen subjects, gathering information and honing it into something I hoped would be interesting. My brief of writing 60,000 words in two months was as daunting as it was exciting. Everything I did that summer was about the book.
The final product contains 90-odd pen-portraits of people from all areas of cycling, from those whose names you will probably know, such as Eddy Merckx and Beryl Burton, to those you almost certainly won’t. Some of my favourite stories are those where ordinary people have found extraordinary things through riding their bicycle.
There’s Graeme Willgress, whose mental breakdown and depression meant that a trip to the shops was almost too difficult. Getting out on his bike enabled him to work through the mental health difficulties, and he ended up cycling around the entire coast of Britain.
Phil Jones was warned by the doctor that his obesity meant he was unlikely to see his 50th birthday. Through cycling he lost eight stone, reversed his fatty liver disease and is now a British Cycling Ride Leader.
Nan Little found that fast-paced cycling relieved her Parkinson’s symptoms, a disease that had gradually been making even simple tasks such as brushing her teeth impossible.
There are a great many more, from sports stars to pioneers of women’s cycling, frame makers to urban designers, stunt-riders to unicyclists and penny farthing riders.
The book has now come to the end of its print run and will no longer be available from my publisher, Summersdale. I would love for people to continue to discover these inspirational stories from the world of cycling, so am selling my remaining stock. If you would like to order a copy, please complete this form: https://forms.gle/q3SVYfQG8akdYPyU6
a signed copy of Pedal Power, plus personal dedication if requested
an Eat Sleep Cycle bookmark
the chance to buy Eat Sleep Cycle for £6 (RRP £8.99)
courier delivery by the author if you live within reasonable cycling distance
What do people say about Pedal Power?
“There are plenty of books about bicycles so it’s refreshing that Pedal Power is about people, not machines – it’s full to the brim with inspiring pen portraits of the men and women who have helped to shape cycling, and continue to shape it today.” – Carlton Reid
“A wonderful collection of cycling tales" – Mike Carter, author of One Man and his Bike
“A snappy exploration of all things bicycle that will motivate and inspire you,” – Alastair Humphreys, author and adventurer
Amazon user: “A great book that isn’t just for cycling fans. It has given me the motivation to get back on my bike after years of not riding!”
Perhaps fittingly, my own experiences bookend the stories of others: the intro is a personal missive about why I ride a bicycle, and the final chapter tells of a cycling organisation that changed my life. Both passages are copied below.
Click here to order a copy of the book.
Pedal Power, Introduction
I recently taught a ten-year-old girl how to ride a bicycle. Older than most of the children I teach, she had passed that stage of innocent abandon, when the stabilisers come off and just a push and some encouragement will do. The feeling of pressure was growing; she felt embarrassed to admit to her friends that she wouldn’t go to the park with them because she couldn’t ride a bike. It was such a simple yet significant thing. In our lesson she was determined and focussed, persevering even though it was hard work and the saddle was uncomfortable and she kept losing her balance. Her smile when she pedalled independently for the first time was incredible. She made me a card saying,
‘Thank you for teaching me to ride a bike. It was the best day of my life. I will never forget it.’
I can vaguely remember my own first tentative attempt, wobbling down next door’s drive; I’m sure most people can remember when they learned to ride a bike. Riding a bicycle means freedom. And it’s that freedom that can take us anywhere: to the park with friends, to school, to university or work, to the shops, to the countryside, on holiday. It can take us further afield, following in the footsteps of such adventurers as Dervla Murphy and Alistair Humphreys. It can lead to the world of sport – where speed, strength and skill are nurtured – through road racing, track racing or BMX, finding inspiration in such masters as Eddy Merckx and Laura Trott. It can be used as a way back to health from injury, a respite from mental health problems, or as an adrenaline rush for those who seek the thrill of downhill mountain biking, difficult terrain or extreme height.
The bicycle has huge historical importance, from the women who used it as a symbol of independence in their fight for liberation, to the workers who had a means of escaping to the countryside for the weekend, and the ‘Good Roads’ campaigners who literally paved the way for the road networks of today.
For me, the bicycle has always been important. It was a passport to exploration when I was a child, an independent means of getting to school as I got a bit older and a cheap way of travelling when I was a cash-strapped student. As an adult, it was a way of keeping fit on the way to work and it eventually became my work when I began teaching cycling for a living. It has also been my gateway to adventure: in 2011 I cycled 4,000 miles around the coast of the UK, leading to my book Eat, Sleep, Cycle: a bike ride around the coast of Britain, which details the adventures to be had on two wheels. Through cycling I have met many people and made many friends. I have been on protest rides and leisure rides, I have joined groups who use the bicycle as a tool for social change, and I have raised awareness as well as money.
This is what this book is all about: a collection of stories from every aspect of cycling that have inspired me and many others throughout the ages, and which will continue to inspire people for a long time to come. I hope you too will be inspired.
Final chapter: Otesha – Wheels of change
"Otesha changed my life." – Anna Hughes
In the summer of 2012 I spent six weeks pedalling around the South West of England with a group of eight women. We rode from the luscious Wye Valley on the border of England and Wales, through the plains of Gloucestershire and Somerset to the vicious hills of Dartmoor.
Our trip had everything one might expect from a bicycling tour: impressive mileages, challenging terrains and weather that ranged from throat-parching heat to luggage-saturating downpours.
Along towpaths, country lanes and disused railway lines we rode, lugging trailers piled high with equipment up near-vertical inclines. We slept on hillsides in farmers’ fields and watched shooting stars fill the sky. We camped in barns and in forest clearings, and pitched our tents by the gently lapping waters of the Dart in the shadow of vineyards. Cycling from remote countryside to bustling cities, clothes grime-encrusted from long days in the saddle, we begged our way into sports centres to wash our hair. Everything was accompanied by the subtle smell of woodsmoke. Our food was a luxurious collection of vegetables provided by local farms, cooked each night on our camping stove.
But this was no ordinary tour. Eight strangers, we had been drawn together by the Otesha Project, a social enterprise with sustainability at its core. United by an enthusiasm for cycling and the environment, we pedalled around the country, spreading an environmental message. All of us were volunteers, some experienced cyclists, some not so, all young and passionate and hoping to create change.
Otesha is a Swahili word meaning ‘cause to dream’. The project was founded by two Canadians, Jessica and Jocelyn, who met in a travelling field school in Kenya in 2002 and experienced first-hand the effects of climate change on the African nation. The global repercussions of our Western consumer lifestyles suddenly seemed very real. In that moment they resolved to live more sustainably, impacting as little upon the environment as possible.
As they made small adjustments to their daily habits, the power of the individual to make a difference became apparent; personal change is often the only thing within our means, and it can be a powerful tool. And if they could make changes, why couldn’t others? What revolution could they spark if this mindset were to spread amongst Canada’s youth? Jessica and Jocelyn suddenly had cause to dream.
A year later they set off on a 164-day bicycling adventure from one side of Canada to the other, with 33 members in their team, giving presentations to more than 12,000 young people across the country. Through a mixture of drama and workshops, they examined how lifestyle choices can affect our environment, inspiring audiences of young and old alike.
‘It’s about re-evaluating our daily choices to reflect the kind of future we’d like to see – rethinking what we really need, conserving resources, and voting with our consumer, citizen and community power.’
That was the very first Otesha Project Cycle Tour. The organisation spread across the world, with projects springing up in Australia, the Philippines, France and the UK. Each year, groups of cyclists take to the road to spread the message of environmental sustainability and social justice. This is how I found myself riding with these women.
In every location we visited, our play and workshops were presented to schools, youth clubs and community groups. The purpose was to inspire people to question the choices we make each day: what we eat, wear or buy, as well as how we clean ourselves, use energy and travel around. As we journeyed further into the tour, it became clear that it wasn’t just the audiences that would be influenced: it was us. Cycling from place to place, we discovered the joyous simplicity of living on the road. Our vegan diet was more than sufficient to keep us energised and happy over those long hours spent in the saddle. We sought out local community projects and shops rather than following the mainstream. The workshops that we ran with the children opened our eyes to issues we tended not to question.
I have been vegan ever since. No longer do I shop in supermarkets; it’s very rare that I buy clothes from anywhere other than a charity shop. I consider air miles; I always buy organic. I try to resist the pull of advertising. Living without a shower for six weeks forced me to wash my hair less frequently, a habit which stuck; the old adage that the more you wash the more you need to wash, and hair will start to clean itself if you leave it long enough, is true. I use less and I waste less. I step a little lighter on the world. I am not a different person but I do things differently.
There were hundreds of other things that I could have done that summer – necessary, important, mundane things – but they would have faded into the blur of the past after a while. Yet I will remember that trip for the rest of my life. Early on we were asked to share with the group our motivation for having signed up; I said that I wanted everyone to fall in love with cycling.
That’s what motivates me: the simple joy of riding – the fresh air and the freedom that people have felt ever since this remarkable machine was invented. I would far rather spend a few months on a bicycle than a few hours on a plane. It’s about making the journey mean as much as the destination. It’s amazing how much one can achieve on a bicycle: we travelled substantial distances with relative ease, and though our equipment was heavy and extensive, we hauled it all with us. It’s the simple fact that each epic journey begins with a single pedal stroke. As a form of exercise, it can make an athlete of the most unlikely of riders. Yes, it’s frustrating when the winds always seem to be headwinds, tyres puncture and the trailer breaks as you are crawling up a long incline. But the empowerment, the freewheeling, the fresh air, the freedom, the sun, the sky, the views, the strength, the camaraderie and the cake-scoffing make it all worthwhile.
Otesha eventually closed its operations in the UK and Canada, 13 years after that grassroots idea sparked a worldwide project. But those years were packed with bicycle tours and workshops and theatre presentations and youth engagement activities. In that time it reached hundreds of thousands of young people and gave them an alternative to the lifestyle choices with which we tend to be presented. There’s no way to measure the true impact of the work of Otesha. But as well as meaning ‘cause to dream’, Otesha also means ‘cause to grow’. The seed of change has been planted. Maybe now it will grow.
Pedal Power was published by Summersdale in 2017. Order your copy here.