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The weekly shop by bike

Last weekend I got the car out. Older readers will be all too familiar with this phrase, because getting the car out was a major undertaking. Younger readers will be unaware that cars required a weekly lubrication service, and that consequently using a car was a lot of hassle and something only done on special occasions. These days it's a lot easier, isn't it? I say no. It's true one no longer has to grovel underneath applying a grease gun, but paradoxically that very ease has made motoring even more unpleasant, for reasons I'll come to.

Thirty years ago I did my shopping by bike, because I didn't even have a driving licence, let alone a car. My shopping trip necessitated struggling with a set of cheap but inadequate panniers and an unpleasant journey along the A4. It was hardly surprising that I, like almost everyone else, aspired to car ownership. Employment meant that within a year I had both a licence and a car, and my transport cycling days were over. Now it was the bike that came out at the weekend. Except over the years it came out less and less, and my weight slowly went up. I never hit any clinical milestones, but eventually I decided to do something about it. I made sure I went swimming every week, but it got very boring, and the Northfield baths (which passed their use-by date decades ago) were just plain depressing. So I thought back, and realised what was missing was my regular transport cycling. By this time I had a better bike and much better panniers, and geography meant I could avoid the nearest trunk road (the A38) rather than being forced on to it. Since then, for a number of years now, I have done almost every weekly shop by bike. My weight has returned to what it was when I was in my early twenties, and my car has fallen largely into disuse.

So why did I get the car out last weekend to do the shopping? Various reasons, though perhaps the most amusing one was that I was getting concerned about a car I hadn't moved in over a month. Would the battery be flat? Would the engine be starting to seize? So I decided to stock up on heavy stuff and headed up the road surrounded by what felt like an awkwardly large box. As I approached the Selly Oak Triangle I needed to transfer to the bus lane to make the left turn, and I could see the queue was long. It took ages to get to the head of the queue, and once I was there and making the turn someone in an SUV turned out of the lane to my right and nearly took off my front wing. I then joined the long queue that winds around the Triangle. Thankfully I wanted the right-hand side of Chapel Lane, so I didn't have to play chicken with drivers exiting Homebase. Someone did however switch lanes and force me into the filter lane for Sainsbury's, but fortunately I was going that way anyway. On leaving Sainsbury's I had no intention of doing yet another slow lap of the Triangle, so I headed for Gibbins Road. It was closed, and some blokes were building a traffic island at the junction. I could see the traffic heading the other way formed a queue as far as I could see, so I pulled over on Harborne Lane to consult the A-to-Z. This showed clearly I could go down Reservoir Road, Burnel Road, and then Bottertourt Road to allow me to get back to the A38 heading south. On Reservoir Road I was tail-gated by a private hire car driver who then tried to overtake me just as I was about to pull out to overtake a parked car, so I was pleased to take the exit for Burnel Road. Unfortunately when I got to Bottertourt Road I found it had clearly been closed long ago with a huge mound of earth. That would not have been a problem had I been on my bike (which is why I was actually rather pleased to see this closure), but in my car it meant I had to divert via Paganel Road, Swinford Road, Stonehouse Hill (where I had to consult the A-to-Z again, partially blocking the road to the astonishing amount of traffic that uses it), Stonehouse Lane, California Way, and the B4121. I realise I'm turning into a pub bore here, but that's what motoring does to one. I hate the B4121 because the council couldn't make up their minds whether they wanted the left-hand lane to be left-turn-only or not at the many roundabouts, and even if the ahead lane does turn out to be the left-most, there will always be someone desperately trying to overtake before the parked cars in the left-hand lane on the far side of the roundabout. So I was pleased to exit on to the rat-run down Whitehill Lane, and thus get back to the A38 so I could head north towards home. My normal journey to Sainsbury's and back on my bike is just so much quicker and easier.

The traffic jams, impatient and aggressive driving, unintuitive junction designs, and lengthy diversions are my normal experience of motoring. It's also not uncommon for me to find it takes longer than cycling. And at the end of it I feel tired and stressed out. For me, shopping by bike is pleasant and entirely achievable, even though I have what was originally designed as a fast road bike, not a load-lugger. That single bike is enough for a weekly shop for two for most weeks of the year. This year I even did my Christmas shop on that bike.

It should be pretty clear that two adults could do the shopping for a family of four using ordinary bikes, but equally clearly there are ways in which things don't work out that neatly. Apart from anything else, monster packs of toilet rolls are a problem, as is bottled water (personally I drink Eau d'Elan, delivered under gravity à ma cuisine from the wild and remote Welsh mountains). Fruit juice is a bit of a struggle too, but UHT fruit juice can be stocked up slowly. These problems are not insurmountable. Any bike-shaped-object can be fitted with a trailer. Alternatively, given the many thousands of pounds it costs to buy a car and keep it running, one or two grand for a cargo bike doesn't seem quite so expensive (one of our members has such a bike, and I've invited her blog about it). Electric assist will make climbing any hills with a full load easy. Some reading this might be thinking that the weather sucks most of the year, but in fact I've rarely been rained on, and the distance to my local supermarket is such that cold isn't a problem. Ice is, but I'll come to that. So what's the real problem? The real problem is infrastructure. I originally gave up transport cycling because the A4 was just too unpleasant. I'm lucky in that my current weekly shop allows me to use back roads and footpaths until I get to Selly Oak, but others clearly wont be so lucky. In large parts of Europe this infrastructure issue was dealt with decades ago, which is why most northern Europeans think nothing of doing their shopping by bike, and they can do this all year because cycle paths are kept clear of ice and snow. Isn't it time we caught up with them?

Shopping by bike in GermanyShopping by bike in Germany Shopping by bike in the NetherlandsShopping by bike in the Netherlands

Practical Tips

Any conventional bike can be modified for convenient carrying of a substantial amount of shopping:

  • You will need at least a rear rack. This needs to be sturdy, and the uprights need to hold the pannier away from the rear wheel. Four uprights is best. A sprung clip built into the platform is useful. The rack need not be expensive or heavy (mine is made of light alloy).
  • A snelbinder is useful for holding additional items securely, and also comes in useful if you are out and about without panniers and collect something unexpectedly.
  • Good panniers tend to be expensive. You need to choose a high capacity pair, preferably with an expanding neck. They need to be tough and waterproof.
  • Take a small rucksack with you. If you don't need it it wont burden you, but it can prove useful if you buy a bit too much.
  • Long items can be strapped along the top tube, so it's a good idea to carry a small bungee. These come in handy for all sorts of other things too.
  • A front rack allows you to carry a bit more, but you would need a bike designed to carry the weight. On the other hand a front rack can be used to distribute the load more evenly, which makes the bike handle better.
  • A trailer allows you to carry more, but will be less convenient than panniers.
  • Low gears are essential if you have any hills to climb. Most bikes on the market these days have adequate gearing.