The New Normal || Life cycle: To flatten a curve you need gears

The New Normal is a four-part series that explores some of the ways our lives have changed as a consequence of Covid-19. As we edge towards a return to our familiar patterns of life, we are beginning to understand that our lives have changed forever, but not necessarily for the worse. Part 2 of the New Normal sees us change gear to explore the new cycling revolution.

Ever so tentatively, we are changing gears, returning to work, returning to school, inching our way back to the cafe.

There we are, all 10 of us, surveying the menus in a restaurant. The app on our phone provides details of those who sit at the next table, just 1.5 metres to the left.

The data the app collects is banked to help track and predict infectious risk.

Somewhere else artificial intelligence is being employed to keep high-risk individuals quarantined. A drone flies overhead instructing us to observe social distancing at the beach.

Economic meltdown points to a depression, even greater than the Great Depression.

World leaders rewrite history on an almost daily basis.

You're right, this is not now, this is... the day after tomorrow.

Life is dear to us, but we have also built, deep within our psyches, a sturdy suspicion of surveillance and control mechanisms. Culturally we are attuned to resist the totalitarian gaze. We are not comfortable with a dystopian future.

Covid-19 shut the doors of the gym, closed the pools and cancelled sport. It also caused a major drop in traffic on the roads and made public transport a risky business.

That's when you started to hear the music. I think it's the soundtrack from 2001 A Space Odyssey, and then as the apes rush off into the distance, the humble bicycle emerges from the darkened garage, glittering in the sunlight, rolling back onto the street. Not just incidentally, but in huge numbers.

The bike is back!

The sudden surge has caught the cycling industry off guard.

Demand has outstripped supply and Australia has virtually run out of bikes.

Across the country bike mechanics are working overtime to cope with the sudden influx of repair work as disregarded machines seek road-worthiness.

We live in a society that generally looks to the future and often tries to forget its past.

But now the proud bicycle is revealing its unique assets to show us that the way forward could also involve looking back over our shoulder and recognising the simple yet sublime technology of the two-wheeled machine.

In this age of disorientation, what we seek is connection and certainty, and we are finding these comforts in uncomplicated places.

Some are finding a type of certainty in the garden, some in the kitchen, some conquering the crossword, walking by the river bank, turning a new page, finding the elusive piece of the puzzle.

I found it in my shed, spinning the wheel of the bicycle I had not used for more than a year. The soft rhythmic whirr, the rolling links of the chain.

I stare in wonder at it, flick gently through the gears watching the derailleur shifting the chain from sprocket to sprocket.

Gears! Are they not proof of what humans are capable of? A device that can assist you up the steep incline of hardship, and offer you all the sweet acceleration of a downhill run.

Gears, what an amazing thing they are, what a brilliant piece of ingenuity and engineering. How perfect they are in their simplicity, turning minimum energy into useful power.

What do you need to flatten a curve? You need a good set of gears.

Are they not proof of what humans are capable of? A device that can assist you up the steep incline of hardship, and offer you all the sweet acceleration of a downhill run.

Okay, the wheel, obviously, it was a breakthrough, no reinventing that.

But you can imagine somebody strolling out of a mud hut and seeing a boulder rolling down a hillside, and thinking to themselves, hmm, that could be useful, I'll modify that and call it a wheel.

But gears, they are things of such magnificent ingenuity. Who could have thought of them?

Archimedes did the geometry. He thought they might come in handy for plotting the movements of the stars. Aristotle scribbled down some important notes on the subject and Leonardo da Vinci played around with them for ages, but basically gears were just hanging about for a few centuries waiting for bikes to turn up.

Well yes, there was the Industrial Revolution and gears were pretty fundamental to that particular epoch, but surprisingly the bike was slow to emerge from that great age of innovation.

When bikes did make an entrance they didn't have gears, which meant one rotation of the pedal was equal to one rotation of the wheel, which, as you can imagine, is no way to try to ride up a hill.

Amazingly, geared bikes with derailleurs weren't allowed to be used in the Tour de France until 1937. Up until then riders had to be satisfied with a two-speed bicycle at best. And if the rider wanted to change gears, they had to stop, remove the wheel, flip it around, and remount it before getting on their way again.

Since then, bikes have barely changed. They've got lighter, faster and a bit more comfortable. But cycling is, of course, a balancing act, and there is no point in denying that cyclists themselves are... well, people.

And their behaviour on the road and in competition is sometimes questionable, sometimes just very bad.

Obviously competitive cycling has been sadly marred by the whole drugs in sport issue, and the credibility of races like the Tour de France has been irreparably damaged with seven-times "winner" Lance Armstrong playing the modern villain in that drama.

From the outset, the early professional road race has a terrible history of cheating and foul play. Back in the day, riders were known to jump in cars and even catch trains to improve their position.

And drugs in cycling go way back to the late 1890s. Cocaine "dynamite" was rife in the 1920s and the use of drug-taking in the Tour de France was so accepted that in 1930 the official rule book helpfully reminded riders that drugs would not be provided by the race organisers.

The sport has struggled to eradicate the use of stimulants ever since.

But bad behaviour isn't confined to professional sport. Cyclists and motorists have been at war forever over their right to the road.

Sure it's a two-way street, but to be honest cyclists often don't do themselves any favours. Tired cyclists get lazy when it comes to obeying road rules, jumping gutters up on to footpaths to avoid stopping at lights, cruising through stop signs, sliding up between banked-up cars to get the first use of a green light, riding two abreast on tight curves, forcing traffic to slow or wait to pass.

I know this because I've done all of these things. On the other hand, every cyclist knows what it is like to be harassed and abused by car drivers or have their safety endangered by careless driving.

If we can modify that combative culture and get away from the 'us' versus 'them' mentality between cars and bikes, we can develop a better and more sustainable transport system.

And now is the time to make it work.

On Friday, NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian warned that public transport systems were the main reason Covid-19 had spread across metropolitan areas, and as people in major cities returned to work, maintaining any effective social distancing on public transport will be almost impossible.

This means that even more people will use cars to get to work, putting even more strain on already overstretched road networks, or as one transport expert called it, "carmageddon".

It might be worth our while to consider that one of the best solutions to our physical and mental health problems, to our polluted and toxic air, to our collective anxiety, to our disconnected communities and traffic-congested cities is already here.

It is a solution with two wheels and 10 gears.

When we contemplate progress, we have been too often seduced into thinking it is digital, virtual, cyber-spatial (while still accepting the fuels of oil and coal).

Cycling can be the next revolution.

This is not about suiting up as a high-viz Lycra-wearing warrior, it's about riding to work, riding to the shops, riding to visit friends. It's not just about exercise, it's about going places.

And the place we want to go is forward.

The bike is the most efficient human-powered machine ever built. It is an economically and environmentally sustainable and affordable machine that could be a great tool for creating the future.

Gear up for tomorrow.

Read Part 1 of The New Normal

This story Life cycle: To flatten a curve you need gears first appeared on The Canberra Times.