Vanessa McCorquodale, MSc student in Carbon Management, School of Geosciences and Projects Officer at the Department for Social Responsibility and Sustainability, University of Edinburgh, tells her inspirational story of discovering the joys of active travel.
I am unfit. I have been for far too long. It’s a difficult cycle to get out of, pun intended! So what can I do about it? I live in North Queensferry in Fife, a significant 13 miles from my work. My usual form of travel, the good ol’ train commute… busy, unreliable, pretty expensive too (ooh going political now). Let’s steer back (another intended pun – love those puns!).
My story begins with starting a new job at the University’s Department for Social Responsibility and Sustainability and sharing an office with a cyclist commuter, Charlotte. She took up the cycle commute 12 months earlier for similar reasons and lives 10 miles from work. Mmh, similarities, see where I’m going? After several weeks of discussion about her 12-month transformation to a regular bike commuter, my new buddy offered to cycle home with me on the next beautiful summer’s day with the promise of no wind against me and limited uphill travel. Several months and many excuses late (it took some persuading!), I finally conceded and brought my bike on the train to cycle home together.
It was hard, beyond hard. Here we are at the top of a ‘gentle’ hill climb, managing a smile, but my body experiencing internal combustion explosions.
It was after that day that Charlotte suggested I try the University’s Try Before you Buy e-bike scheme. It is a scheme run by the Transport Office and allows staff to borrow one of the University’s e-bikes for up to 1 month FOR FREE and allows you to get a long-term test ride and get a real understanding if cycle commuting and e-bikes are for you.
So I applied, its free, so it’s a no-brainer really, even with a refundable £50 deposit. So I made an appointment, I got all the kit I would need; helmet, lock, pannier bags and battery charger and even a brief training session to make sure I was able to use it. It does take a few goes of pedaling/gear changing to get the idea, but you certainly don’t feel out of control, so cast your fears aside. I took the bike home on the train as I wasn’t dressed for the cycle, it was Friday so… meh, I would start on Monday (more excuses!).
Now for a few diary entries and reflections…
Post-weekend blues made me think of taking the bike on the train and cycling home was a good idea. Immediately realising this was a mistake; two consecutive trains were packed and I couldn’t get on them. Made it on the 3rd train but the bike was pretty heavy for an unfit body to shift onto the train and into position… conclusion decided e-bikes are only for road use really. However, the cycle ride home with Charlotte was literally a breeze. I alternated between ‘normal’ mode and the exciting thrill-inducing ‘SPORT’ mode… I’m in love, e-bikes are my new thing… I must have one!
Cycling to work and back. Ooh, ouch, have discovered my sitting bones (or bottom!), some pain and a good reason to buy a bike or saddle in a shop where you can get advice on the best saddle size for your pelvis shape. Somewhere like the Edinburgh Bike Co-op who have since been fantastic.
Feeling amazed by the performance of the bike and the riding experience. I arrived at work after cycling 13 miles, feeling in no way worn out as I would have been on an ordinary bike, but that I had still exercised in a gentle way. Also got the hang of the gears today, which is great. It’s good to change gears (on the right hand) to make riding easier rather than change only using the left hand (e.g. normal and sport mode). Also, it’s best to keep Sport mode for hills or if tired, as it does use the battery faster.
Have noticed an amazing sense of community spirit on my route… I’m getting lots of smiles, nods, waves and ‘hellos’ and even a beaming ‘are you alright?’ when I pulled over for a rest… possibly looking disheveled like I had just had an accident.
I am amazed that someone stopped to check I’m not in some kind of trouble. I can honestly say, I would doubt someone would check on me if I looked the same stopping for a rest walking in town, or even broken down at the side of the road in my car. So if you’re feeling that community spirit is dwindling, I would highly recommend getting out of the urban chaos and onto a cycle highway. You will discover a group of cycling commuters, walkers and pooches approachable and likely to lend a helping hand if needed… I even got a high five from a young lad, who perhaps saw that I was struggling! It’s all enlightening, a heart-warming experience and passing the lady who sings on her bike every morning seals the deal… it’s safe to say I’m hooked.
I have realised that there’s an element of speed restriction on the bike, particularly noticeable when going downhill. It a legal requirement in the UK that limits the rider going over 15.5mph on e-bikes. It works by disengaging the battery assist so the bike feels as though it’s getting heavier and harder to pedal again, however as you naturally slow down the assist happily returns. Although this was frustrating at first, it actually reminds me of days gone by when I had a classic VW campervan. They have a fairly modest top speed, so you just had to sit back, go with it and enjoy a more steady chilled pace in life. It’s the same with these bikes. While they feel fast going uphill, they are slower on the downhill than a normal bike and perhaps also the flat compared to fit road cyclists. I would say these bikes are not for those racing for a personal best, but for those wanting the leisure of ordinary clothes (without go-faster stripes) and arriving at your destination with minimal sweat and crumpled clothes. That being said, if you are going downhill and switch the battery off altogether… the pace really picks up! Great fun.
Jumping to week 3…
An odd sensation… I think I’m getting fitter! Am finding Sport mode too easy and even Normal is a little too easy on the flat. A small flicker of hope ignites; perhaps I actually could go back to my normal bike after I give the e-bike back?
Challenge accepted… am now going to try and stick to Eco mode/the least assist for the remainder of the Try Before You Buy period and see if I get fitter still.
I’ve been cycling the whole week in Eco mode. I’ve realised that not only am I less out of breath when doing things like climbing stairs, but I am also stronger. The bike isn’t as heavy as it was, my old back and knee injuries feel improved and am able to put more stuff in my pannier bags without feeling the weight of it. This ‘Try Before You Buy’ scheme has in fact acted as a stepping stone for my body to get used to movement and exercise again. Instead of launching into a, let’s face it, quite expensive purchase that an e-bike is, I’m going to go back on my old bike and see how I get on.
Fast Forward: 6 months and counting…
It’s 6 months to the day since that first cycle home on my normal bike with Charlotte, when I thought it was all impossible, 13 miles – 26 mile round trip – definitely impossible!
Amazingly enough, it isn’t impossible, even for the unfit, the desk workers, those with old injuries and perhaps like myself, with all the excuses in the world… adding mostly up to fear of failure, fear of it being too hard or worse, flaring up old injuries and making us feel, perhaps past our best. Since no one wants to feel that way, I totally understand the avoidance of exercise or active travel as a commuting option.
So, I’ve taken a break writing this article, because I wanted to be sincere in my recommendation to people to have a go on this e-bike scheme. After handing the e-bike back to the Transport Office, I realised that Charlotte’s support throughout the summer, together with colleagues at work who patiently listened to my daily commuting stories and my family and friends, they, they are the ones who have kept me going. That is a priceless level of support when you are ready to give up. I decided to rope my fiancé into cycling with me for four weeks to give me some social energy since I had given up the electrical energy – it worked, I even cycled faster than I might on my own and guess what? He is now hooked too. The bug has spread… so much so that our neighbour has even got his bike out of the shed and is cycling halfway with us to his place of work.
Not only has this been transformational for my health and wellbeing this year, my fiancé and I now spend more quality time together and get to witness beautiful sun rises and sunsets together and see local wildlife every day including; pheasants, geese, squirrels and rabbits as well as sheep, cows and lovely smiles from dog walkers and cyclists.
If you’re worried about your health and fitness but can’t see a wait out or back into it, I can’t encourage you enough to try out the e-bike, it may be just the stepping stone that your body needs to return to health and fitness and perhaps a love of the outdoors again.
A final note…
I haven’t mentioned climate change so far, but I want to highlight it as we all have to make choices in how we get about, whether it be through personal transport such as a car or taxi, or whether we share the emissions load of a vehicle by choosing public transport.
I’ll admit it, I’ll put my hand up; I used to commute to work by car, emitting carbon and increasing air pollution in the city. Sometimes it feels like you have no other choice. Though with some behaviour change and seeing opportunities in public transport, to read, for example, I swapped for the train. Trains and buses are more eco-friendly and a hugely better choice than the personal transport of a car. However, if you might manage active travel (walking or cycling) even a day or two per week, you will vastly increase your contribution the health of our planet, our city air, and not to mention the positive impact to your health.
I really do feel an immense sense of pride that I’m able to give up my car commute and go fully emission free. I may have to take the train sometimes, due to severe wind or weather, but generally its two wheels for me now and I can’t see that changing in the future.
I wish you luck with your journey and please do get in touch if this story has made you think of your own possibilities. As I found, it is the people around you that are more likely to will you to success, than perhaps your own full of excuses self.
- The University’s Try Before You Buy scheme pages
- An accessible introduction for people considering cycling to work
- How to plan routes
- A list of reasons to ride an e-bike
- A personal story about using an e-bike to continue cycling following a shock diagnosis of severe young adult arthritis
- A testimony of using an e-bike to take on the hills of Derry