Mark Robertson lies back, thinks of Scotland and ignores all the sniggering school children to discover the joys of laid-back cycling
Remember that ad from the early 80s flogging the Yellow Pages where the kid asks for a bike for his birthday? The grim up north dad is banging on about a saddle looking like a razor blade but buys his lad one anyway, mumbling, ‘Well, I were right about thon saddle.’ That’s me, that is. Me, confronted by what diplomatically can only be called a contraption. Recumbent cycles - the technical name for this laid-back travel - look like your little sister has been monkeying around with the Meccano set, or perhaps like a genetically modified mountain bike that has been bred with an ironing board and a dragster. ‘People treat ideas like this with suspicion, even some hardcore bikers do,’ says David Gardiner who offers customised recumbent cycle tours of the city and beyond out of a modest corner of The Bicycle Workshop in Marchmont, He also sells bikes that start at around £800 and can go up to, well as much as you like really, several thousand pounds, given that they’re handmade by specialist companies for the most part in mainland Europe and manufactured to the same spec as some of the finest mountain bikes in the world.
Unsurprisingly, the laid-back cycle is most popular in the open-minded, bike-happy Netherlands, and that’s where Gardiner sources much of his merchandise. An adventure sports nut in general, he was attracted to them several years ago because they were so very different.
Gardiner’s enthusiasm for his funny-looking machines is infectious. ‘They were first designed just after the Second World War and it was found that they outperformed normal cycles in certain road racing conditions,’ he tells me, as we prepare to take the cycles out for a spin. ‘Unfortunately they were banned by the sports authorities and have remained a cult concern ever since.’ As well as selling the bikes, Gardiner can tailor Sunday afternoon jaunts, to your interest and aptitude, for which he charges a very modest £15.
As nothing more ambitious than a commuting cyclist I thought I’d end up upside down in a hedge after ten minutes, but instead was treated to an hour’s leisurely cruise round the Meadows. We did look a bit strange, and at one point a whole class of kids stopped to gawp, point and shout abuse, as if I wasn’t self-conscious enough. The odd thing is that once you get on (actually it’s as much a ‘get in’ as a ‘get on’) a recumbent cycle it feels surprisingly natural. Your weight shifts from straight down - as it would on a conventional bike - to pushed forward. There’s no pressure on your hips, and it is a lot easier to propel yourself forward than you might think. Because the laid-back cycles are closer to the ground and more aerodynamic, it feels as though you’re going faster than you are, although Gardiner tells me that speeds of over 40mph can be achieved on the right road. Tarmac is their prime environment as the set up doesn’t really permit off road biking. And the saddle? Less like a razor blade, more like a hammock. A new way to travel in style indeed.