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De Motu Urbanorum
Celebrated cycling physician Dr Williams makes good use of humour. Here is an extract from an article first published in The British Medical Journal 4th Oct 75
'Our descendants will look back on a time of some difficulty for Homo sapiens as he had hopefully and with some reason called himself. An originally privileged subgroup of the species failed to readapt. They came to believe that they could not move any distance unless they were carried, either by their cars or by some other propulsive aid. They ceased to do any significant muscular work, and by one of those strange twists of history they became in the end the prisoners of the machines which were to have set them free....This pitiable creature was known at first as Homo vehiculo constricfus, but as it rapidly became apparent that he was constricted not only in his freedom of movement but also in his world view and his arteries he came to be called simply Homo constricfus. The writing was on the wall and by the end of the holocene he was gone. All future races of mankind descended from the other more active subgroup - Homo se propellens. This very advanced human primate was clever, keen and cultured. His archetype in many societies was the cross-country runner. He walked or went on a bicycle, and he survived.'
Dr Williams is a member of Friends of the Earth and the London Cycling Campaign. He is in addition a very conventional cyclist. He told me how much he abhors the 'liberties' taken by some cyclists: 'They give us all a terrible reputation. We need to be law abiding citizens. We don't pay tax on our bicycles.' He cycles at some speed but sticks rigidly to the laws of the road. For example, he avoids wherever possible cycling up the inside of a column of stationary traffic. When he started cycling eleven years ago Dr Williams did not abandon his motor car. He has one still and uses it mostly at weekends, having vowed for practical reasons never again to bring a car into the busy city centre.
I took my leave and pedalled off into the tainted London twilight, a little happier about the stuff I am obliged to inhale. I soon .found myself at it again, contemplating the workings of my biological power unit. I reflected that I am, while cycling, more efficient than any other animal or machine in terms of energy consumed in relation to distance travelled and body weight. The motor car cannot hold a candle to such efficiency: in moving forward it uses only 20 per cent of its fuel's combustible energy and wastes the rest. And here is another thought to warm your blood pump: unlike the engine of a car, which can only wear out, our own tissues actually improve and adapt with regular use.
Furthermore, the engine of a car clogs up with carbon and other residue whereas cycling increases our heart rate thus helping to prevent the bore of our arteries becoming furred up with fatty substances. Narrowed arteries offer resistance to the heart, leading to high blood pressure, strokes and coronary heart disease. It is heartening to know that among the over 75 year olds in the Fellowship of Cycling Old Timers the incidence of coronary heart disease is 10 times less than in the general population of the same age.
Dr Williams' writings are of a high standard and have been noticed. They have for example, been quoted in The Penguin Book of the Bicycle. So it is sad that they have apparently failed to persuade other members of the medical profession to take to the bicycle. When the bicycle first made its mark doctors gave weighty Latin names to the various fantastic physical deformities which they claimed cycling would cause. Only in the later decades of the 19th Century, when the invention of the large wheeled tricycle made cycling respectable for the professional classes, did doctors take to the pedals in significant numbers. Their tricycles proved practical and were often used by country doctors, especially for night calls. Then with the advent of the motor car, doctors seem to have shared with the rest of society a general cultural aversion to the use of muscles. Public health education, that most unglamorous branch of medicine, is beginning to make a come-back and will, we hope, encompass cycling.
Doctors are intelligent people. Although they are not yet leaving their Volvos en masse, they are pushing preventative health care at last. The day may well come when bicycles are dispensed on the National Health. A quotation from Dr Williams: 'We are designed to move ourselves and the bicycle is arguably the most civilised form of transport in towns that we have. Forty per cent of our adult weight consists of muscle and the health of our body chemistry seems to depend to a surprising extent on this particular tissue being adequately used...It is serviced by biochemical and neuronal systems evolved over 5000 million years under conditions more rigorous than we can imagine. For the owner of such equipment to disregard it totally seems a pity, to say the least.'
A Convivial Life
Who owns the roads?