The Carbon Footprint of Cycling

To be honest, wrapping my head around the near-infinite chain of events that slaps a carbon footprint on everything we do in life makes me dizzy, but this wouldn’t be much of a blog on the effects of cycling on our world if I didn’t at least try.

Firstly, I should say from the start that I am a diehard cyclist and I am convinced that the bicycle is the most wonderful machine there is. I am equally sure that people who choose to ride their bike rather than  drive their car, for any reason, must be doing something good (or at least less bad) for the environment.

There, that’s out of the way. Now down to business.

Manufacture – Nearly all bikes are made in either China or Taiwan these days, even the vast majority of high-end road bikes. They could be assembled somewhere close to you (enabling the label to read ‘Made in ____’), but the truth is that the bike, like the car, is an amalgamation of many different parts, coming from all over the world. I am guessing that the making of your bike (and getting it to your door) will have the largest one-shot impact on the environment.

Riding – When looking into this article online I ran across several sites that talk about the amount of energy we consume when cycling as a contributing factor to our carbon footprint. The argument goes something like this: since you burn more calories riding (about 35 calories per km) than say, driving a car, this must be taken into consideration when talking about our carbon footprint. The argument continues on to compare a hypothetical cyclist that fuels him/herself with hamburgers, bacon or flown-in asparagus, to a vegan who drives a very fuel-efficient car. All other factors being equal, our Big Mac-eating rider will produce more CO2 than our veggie driver.

Depending on the political leanings or contrariness of the writer, different conclusions are made from the above argument (which I can’t contest…I do stuff my face more when I’m on my bike). One will say that the holier-than-thou cyclist should stop and think about the consequences he or she is inflicting on the planet, then cut out meat and buy a Prius. The other posits that, while the food we eat is an obviously important factor in our overall carbon footprint, most people who ride bikes a lot tend to be more or less health conscious and probably won’t be fueling up on triple cheeseburgers anyway.

Gear – The average cyclist will have more than just a bike to worry about. There are of course minimalists that will ride in civilian clothes and forsake bike gloves and even helmets (tsk, tsk..), but there are also those who have 10 bikes and whole sections of their dwelling consecrated for their bike stuff. I myself have two bikes now, a trailer, numerous panniers, several racks, bike bags, 2 pumps, god-knows-how-many inner tubes, enough allen keys to start my own shop, and a few boxes downstairs filled with things I never look at now, but that just might come in handy some day. Needless to say, everything we own has a carbon imprint.

In my defense, I try to hold onto things till they either wear out or are hopelessly unfashionable, whichever comes first. In addition, most hobbies require ‘stuff’, and my trailer, for example, means I can haul all my gear with me on trips, rather than using a car or even a train to transport it. That should offset any carbon I’ve released by buy my BOB.

Recycling – Many bikes and their various accessories will inevitably end up in trash heaps. Carbon fiber is especially hard to recycle because it is a composite of different materials, i.e. you just can’t melt it down and make something else. I’ve read that some manufacturers are starting to address this issue, just like computer makers are taking back old PCs, but this is still an issue, and a growing one since the cost of carbon fiber frames is going down year by year.

Fashion – Cyclists run the whole gamut here. In France, where I live, there is much focus on style. Image is important. Therefore, not only do you see some seriously expensive bikes on the road, there is a tendency towards good-looking kit as well. But hey, you need to wear something on the bike, and probably a t-shirt from The Gap has about as big a footprint as a Rapha jersey (that is for my British friends…I’ve yet to see anybody in France wear Rapha!). Each country seems to have developed their own cycling fashion, but there is certainly a whole subsidiary industry that has grown up next to this latest surge in interest in bikes, and of course adds to your carbon footprint.

Events – This is one that I am keenly aware of this year, since I started doing sportive races. I don’t own a car, but end up renting one for nearly every race, since they are, for the most part, far away and out in the boonies. On a much grander scale, the Tour de France has to be one of the most environmentally unfriendly sporting events on earth. It is basically an enormous road trip of 3500 km each July, with hundreds of tour buses, team cars, cop motorcycles and especially the Caravan, with its ludicrously big floats of plastic horses and girls with water hoses! This is not even considering the many thousands of people (mostly in annoying RVs) who follow part/all of the Tour each summer, leaving a massive amount of CO2 in their wake. At least the riders can sleep tight knowing they rode from start to finish.

Travel – I do most of my travel by bike these days and I haven’t flown in 3 years. However, I live in Europe (where I want to travel at the moment) and have infinite possibilities when it comes to interesting routes by bicycle.

Before moving here I used to fly over just to cycle, as thousands of people do each year. If we are talking solely about carbon footprints then anything with an airplane involved is pretty bad news – I would probably double my entire footprint for the year by flying overseas once. So, although I would not think twice about doing over what I did a few times in the past, flying so you can ride your bike is not the most environmentally-friendly way to go.

That being said, there aren’t very many ways to get overseas these days if you don’t fly. If you are planning a trip to Europe and it is a toss-up between renting a car, traveling by train, or cycling, it is a no-brainer which one will be better in terms of carbon output.

Conclusion (so far) – Like any activity we engage in, we can overdue it, by over-consuming for example.  A bigger carbon footprint might be the result. But, it is simply true that getting on your bike will make you healthier, probably reduce your stress, and give you a sense of well-being that cannot easily be quantified. Bonne Route!

7 thoughts on “The Carbon Footprint of Cycling

  1. Congrats on the new blog. This article really strikes a chord. We’re very environmentally concerned in our household too, and use our bikes rather than the car whenever possible. You might be interested to read this post I wrote back in 2009 about the Tour de France where I wondered about its environmental impact:
    I have to confess we usually take bananas with us as cycling fuel. Hmm. Might have to rethink that since they have a pretty huge carbon footprint I imagine. And so does chocolate, our other favourite energy boost. The greenest things would be homegrown pumpkins (the only thing we seem to be able to grow well here!) but I’m not sure slices of roast pumpkin would go down well with the kids en route. Back to the drawing board.
    Good luck with the blog!

    • Thanks, Stephanie. According the Guardian article, even though bananas come from far away, they keep a long time and arrive here by ship (really?), plus they have their own built-in wrapper, so not too bad in terms of carbon output. I’m glad to hear that, if it’s true, because I’ve recently discovered the banana-protein powder shake. I’m not sure I can continue cycling without it.

      Good article on the Tour and interesting that you came up with the same conclusions, i.e. there’s a lot of waste going on, but vive le Tour!

  2. Sorry I rabbitted on in your Mr Patterson blog, and now I am having a go here as well!
    I must say, I really could have sworn that I was reading what I think about!
    Good on you for starting this new blog. I think that cyclists, by their nature, end up being a bit more environmentally aware( a positive by product of their initial intention of cycling mearly for fitness ??), as you are so much more in tune with your immediate surrounds, and you have time to look around and notice change etc.
    Salient topic, congratulations.

    • I’m sure that’s true in general, Steve. Just the fact that we ride makes us environmentalists in our own small way, I guess, unless of course we go all the way across the country twice in two months to ride around for a few days (guilty as charged…)! I’ll try to offset that CO2 by drinking more local beer…

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