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With the launch of a new Bicycle User Group (BUG) at Colchester hospital this month, we talk to Paul Byrne, Consultant Rheumatologist at Colchester Hospital and chair of Colchester Medics for Safer Roads and the new BUG about his love for cycling and why making cycling part of your day to day routine can help address many health conditions related to inactivity.
PN: How long have you been a cyclist?
PB: I've been cycling since the age of 5. I was given my first bike as a birthday present, an RSW 14. I woke up and there it was in the room, this beautiful blue machine, and that was the start of the love affair. It had a little speedometer on it. I used to go and visit my friend on a farm, just outside Stafford where I lived, it was eight miles away, and along the way there was a long steep hill . I used to go so fast down it that my eyes used to water and my front wheel wobbled and the speedo read 40mph! On 14 inch wheels that was scary! By the age of twelve I'd outgrown it and so I saved for a year. I realised that if I sold my RSW 14 that would be another chunk of cash, so I painted it, with car touch-up paint. I managed to paint the entire bike by using a nail brush and by the end it looked fabulous! I received £17 for it and that went towards the £42 I needed for my new Falcon racer. This opened up all sorts of new horizons for me. I used to ride to and from school, tucking in behind the bus, so I could slip stream. The bus took a right hander and I didn't realise and so i went straight on, straight over the handlebars, much to the amusement of everybody on the back seat of the bus! I took my bike to University and got great use out of it. I painted it white and pink so it wouldn't get nicked! At Cambridge, every one was encouraged to ride bikes, as the University purposely deterred people from using cars and everyone benefitted from it. Bikes have always been a part of my life.
PN: Did you manage to do as much cycling after you got married and had a family?
PB: When I moved to Colchester in 1997 we purposely bought a house that was on a bike route. It's at the end of a bridle path and from here we could cycle to the schools, and I could cycle to the hospital reasonably safely, and easily. So right from the start in Colchester we always planned for the bicycle. My wife and I would take it in turns to take the kids to school on a tandem with a trailer bike, and it always worked very well. It turned a lot of heads. Kids would say: "Hey, cool bike, that's for two – no, it's not, it's for three!" Our children grew up going to school on bicycles.
PN: Did you take any trips further afield?
PB: We had a tandem before our children, and cycled around the Loire, and southern Spain. When the our children arrived, it was tricky to try and work out how we could accommodate them. Initially it was a handlebar seat, and then it was a child seat behind. Then it was a trailer bike, then a tandem, all various combinations until eventually it was two tandems. We had a memorable holiday in Holland, it's the perfect place for family cycling.
PN: How did your interest in cycle campaigning come about?
PB: When our children left home, it gave me a chance to re-evaluate; what's this all for? Why am I working so hard? Etc! Part of that re-evaluation was the realisation that I should start cycle campaigning so that the next generation of kids could enjoy cycling in the same way that I enjoy cycling. There were a lot of cars around in the 70s and 80s, but not as many as there are now, therefore children are slowly getting squeezed off the roads. Cars are a huge deterrent. It's interesting going over to Holland to see just how much freedom the kids have. Their parents trust them out on their bikes and don't worry about them. They can cycle more safely, and exercise as much as they like on their bikes. Kids in the UK get frustrated because they want to be with their friends and their friends might live three or four miles away and that requires a car journey because there might not be a bus, and in the old days they would have cycled it. Children's freedom has really suffered from today's Car Culture. One country that has corrected this problem is the Netherlands , and I was interested to see a recent survey saying that Dutch kids are the happiest in the world. That was my motivation to get into cycle campaigning, to impress upon the powers that be that we need to do this for the current generation of children.
PN: Were there many people that cycled to work when you first went to the hospital?
PB: Not that many, it was twenty years ago, and the number has always stayed fairly static. I'm aware that more doctors are interested in cycling but the interest is recreational, they have their nice racers and go for blasts at weekends. But not many doctors commute, it's a smattering of the hardened few. There is great potential at the hospital with 4,500 people working here. And great need at the hospital as of course parking is becoming more and more difficult, along with congestion around the northern end of the town. But people will only commute on their bikes in significant numbers when it's safe and pleasant. That's the message that needs to get through to the authorities. There's a big desire at the hospital to have more people cycling, but we can't make routes in and out of the hospital more pleasant or convenient or safe, only the county council can do that, so we at the hospital must lobby our management and the local authorities to influence them. Many people at the hospital have said to me that they would cycle, but they're not going to because it's too dangerous and too unpleasant.
PN: Do you think the new Bike User Group that was launched last month will help people to be a bit more motivated?
PB: Yes, I would hope so. We're hoping that more people will become more confident about cycling, at least on nice days, at least on one day a week, and the BUG will help people make that decision.
People seem to worry about the weather. Probably two or three times a year, I'll get wet going in to work as well as going home. I find it quite liberating being an all-weather, all-season cyclist because I'm going to go in on my bike enjoy the weather, enjoy the seasons whatever, and it doesn't matter if I get wet, because it's all part of the fun of it. It just alters one's mind-set otherwise I dare say I'd probably find excuses not to take the bike. The only time that I pause about taking the bike is on day three of the snow, when it's packed down and then it becomes quite treacherous, and common sense prevails. The first day of cycling on snow is lovely, and cycling on day two of snow is quite fun, but on day three of the snow, I leave the bike at home.
PN: We were talking at a recent meeting about the NHS and its role in promoting active travel, why do you think this is so important?
PB: As a Rheumatologist, I deal with musculo-skeletal problems. I see a lot of people who are having problems with their joints because they're too overweight, and too unfit. Exercising on sore joints is very difficult, and I sympathise with these patients who are stuck, needing to exercise to reduce the weight. Cycling would help the majority to take some exercise. Often many of them don't live in the right part of town or haven't got a bike or haven't got the inclination and changing the habits of a lifetime is not going to happen with the doctor saying warm words of encouragement. We need to ensure people can exercise as part of their daily routine. I cycle around 40 miles a week commuting on my bike, so when I get home I don't need to think about going to the gym, and I don't need to regulate my diet too much because the exercise takes care of that. The best way for people to exercise is as part of their daily routine i.e. on the way and from work even if it's to and from the train station. The road designers of the past have tried to facilitate door to door driving and it's a major factor why hospitals like ours are struggling with an epidemic of diabetes, overweight children and obese patients wrecking their health and joints.
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