Life in the bike lane: James Stout Reflects on a Year with the Kona Ute and Car Free Living

Words by James Stout

When it comes to shooting gaps, diving corners and throwing elbows (even the occasional head-butt), I’m a man who enjoys the odd criterium, but I can’t fu**ing stand the supermarket on a Sunday afternoon. I really like riding bikes, I have raced just about all the kinds of bikes that I can and love all of them. I really hate cars, I’ve even driven a bloody SUV (at a bike launch no less), and I honestly couldn’t care less. It was too small to sleep in and it didn’t have bars for a bike rack.

We talk a lot about passion these days. We seem to be engaged in some kind of rhetorical arms race where it’s never enough to “not mind” anymore. Only superlatives and industrial strength emotions will do. I recently saw an advert looking for cleaners who were “ passionate about the job” (nobody is passionate about cleaning. If you are, it’s called OCD and there are people who can help you). However, if there is one thread that has stitched together my adult life, it’s a two-wheeled thread. It was biking which allowed me to get to my first job waiting tables, bikes which allowed me to sneak out and meet girls and it was biking which gave me my first pay cheque outside of academia, it is bikes that have taken me all around the world. Even after 20 years of riding a bike just about every day, it only recently occurred to me that there was so much cycling I was missing out on.

A car is, for many people, the first major financial commitment they make. It’s a big part of “growing up”. For many, it’s a reason to leave cycling behind and adopt a more “adult” form of transport. I had a car for a while at 17, but I soon worked out I could ride the 23 miles to school and back and avoid what always seemed to be the onerous task of driving there. I also worked out that riding removed my responsibility to collect my little sister, and thus gave me the liberty to spend my Saturday afternoons at the pub, nursing a concussion and a shandy after rugby matches. I remember my friends saving up for cars, modifying them and driving them fast and my only interest being their fuel efficiency for driving to races. After my sister crashed that first car, we obtained what we called the “punishment car”. Competitively priced at £150, it featured a hole in the dashboard (into which we inserted our boombox), unmovable windows and a heater permanently wedged in the maximum position. But it got me to bike races and that’s all I cared about (well that and the gaffer tape racing stripes we applied to it). I resented every penny it cost me; I’d have rather spent that money on tubulars than radiators.

I’ve had other cars since then. One which notably caught fire on the way back from a criterium, and a much loved Subaru which I bought with race prize money and which recently decided that instead of a race in Colorado I needed a weekend in Las Vegas. It made its point by blowing a head gasket and having me push it down the strip. I was probably not the kind of pusher the tourists were expecting to see in the heat of the Nevada desert. The sun in Sin City was only mildly more intense than the heat that came off my brow each and every time I attempted to get anywhere on four wheels in my brief time in Los Angeles. I’ve had a pretty bad go of it as far as cars go.

For some time I’ve struggled with the car culture in the United States and its public health consequences. I recently decided the time was right to stop relying on dead dinosaurs and instead to spend some quality time, and money, on a bike to do the jobs that my car had done. It has occurred to me recently that one day, I’m going to be thirty. I can remember my dad turning thirty. It seemed old. In what is perhaps a pre-mid-life crisis, or just a release from having to pretend to be a grown-up because I might actually look like one soon, I’ve decided to do away with my four-wheeled burden. Instead, I have committed to try to do more of what I love, and love more of what I do, even if it’s just riding to the shops.

I find it remarkable how many of us who truly love the time we get riding bikes, don’t make more time to ride bikes. I don’t mean leaving your partner in bed on a Saturday morning as you don your aero helmet in the hope of crushing souls on your local Saturday bunch ride, or driving three hours to battle for masters’ glory (or road rash) in an office park. I mean the everyday journeys that we all take in our cars that we could easily take by bike. Chiefly, I’ve worked out, I used my car for the following things: going up and down to university to collect student papers, getting heavy grocery items, driving to friends’ houses to carpool to races and motorpacing. Mostly though, it accumulated miles through me forcing other people to borrow it because it just sat idle in the street and I was worried about it being considered abandoned.

I needed a bike then, which would serve all the functions my car did, apart from the last one. I needed to be able to move stuff, and quite a lot of it, for a reasonable distance (I live 19 miles from the university where I teach). I’ve spent long enough living in the Benelux countries to know that you can attach a wheelbarrow to the front of a bike and move a large family of nylon wearing Flandrians around (it’s a little-known fact that the national costume of Belgium is made by le Coq Sportif). I’ve also sat through enough physics lessons to know that this “box on a bike” arrangement is not conducive to going fast, going around corners, or going uphill. In an attempt to avoid relegating myself to pedaling a snowplow, I asked my resourceful twitter following for advice. They did not disappoint. Within a few hours, I knew what I needed was a long wheelbase cargo bike. Emails were sent, my identity was confirmed (no, seriously someone suggested I might be someone else masquerading as me, anyone wanting to do that should also seek help) and soon enough my car insurance had been cancelled and the rebate was headed off to Kona HQ in return for the aptly named “Ute” (the Australian term for a pick up truck).

The first night the bike arrived happened to coincide with a dinner meeting in a swanky restaurant downtown, followed by a bit of bar hopping with friends. Luckily it was shockingly easy to build, albeit my “climber’s” physique was not compatible with getting it into a stand (and you’d need one hell of a stand anyway. The cargo bike immediately proved its worth as my girlfriend designated me the evening’s driver and proceeded to hop on the rack and pronounce it her new favorite form of transport. It’s shockingly easy to go from a 14lb road bike and 150lb rider, to a package of bike, rider and “supporter” of over 300lbs. Riding bikes, whatever kind of bikes, is fun (especially when you’ve had enough to drink to disqualify yourself from driving). Within a few hours (and after a few pints) we were engaging in some spirited street sprints with the local fixed gear kids and experimenting with the possibility of skidding the huge 700x40c tires.

There are, of course, differences from going out for a “training ride”. For one, cars seem to universally treat me with more respect and courtesy. I have yet to have a single negative interaction on my cargo bike. Recently a car did pull over after passing me, and I readied myself for a verbal tirade, only to see the driver wind down the window and ask if I made the bike myself. People, it seems, can’t look at such a contraption and not crack a smile. Also, training rides are not compatible with picking up a week’s worth of groceries or helping a friend move a keg of beer. Cargo bikes, however, relish the prospect of 30kg of IPA.

The cargo bike is also slower, which isn’t as bad as it seems, I’ve seen parts of my town I had never seen before. Remember the first time you rode along a route you normally drive? It’s like that again. I take shortcuts that give me fascinating glimpses into people’s lives, I ride through the park because it’s more beautiful and more direct. In traffic, the bike doesn’t handle like a race bike (no surprise) but once I mounted some wide mountain bike bars I stopped hitting things with my panniers. Oh and I don’t have a power meter, or a Strava compatible device. And I won’t be getting one.

The differences between my cargo bike and my car are also profound. For one, I don’t have to worry about parking it, getting parking tickets on it or putting fuel in it. Never again will I deal with the joy of “dealer warranty” or have to buy parts, or labor from an “Audi approved technician”. On the downside, I get wet when it rains, sweaty when it’s hot and tired when I decide to buy a 24 pack of lager at the bottom of the hill. Every journey feels like a little adventure when wind, route, hills and “sensations” determine your arrival time and your state on arrival. It is now much more enticing to nip out to the shops, carry papers to work or grab a beer in the evening. I enjoy riding to do my errands and I enjoy riding home from them. Even the errands themselves seem a little less onerous when I think that I’ll be whipping down the bike trail on my way to pick up some flat rate postage supplies. Also, I can go out for a few more beers a week and still look like a bike racer when I get in those extra miles that I would have driven.