I have been thinking about writing this for a while. It's going to be in quite a few parts, so be patient. It's all about how the bicycle can help us to understand the modern economy and how we live. Freakonomics has been done - and I'm not going to call this Bikonomics.
This brain fart started when I recalled that a much skinnier and fitter mate of mine used to ride to Canberra every year with a group. That's a pretty good ride to do in one day - around 290km. I shudder just thinking about it. I reckon I could make it to Goulburn in one day, and no further. In fact, plenty of riders were collected by the sag wagon around the Goulburn mark, which is 200km. They just ran out of puff, and wouldn't make it to Canberra in time for the big dinner and piss up which marked the finish. I simply couldn't ride fast enough over a long distance to do Canberra in one day. Goulburn - maybe. Canberra - no way.
Apart from drinking lots of beer at the dinner in Canberra, what has this got to do with why we drink beer from bottles?
Stay with me.
Consider the logistics and technology that goes into that group of 30 or so doing that ride. For starters, they're riding on a good quality tarmac surface all the way. The worst grades have been leveled off with cuttings and bridges (although there are still plenty of nasty climbs to do on a bike). The road has at least two lanes in each direction the whole way, allowing plenty of traffic to move quickly. Imagine doing this ride 150 years ago when it would be nothing more than a dirt track through the bush. It would be really tough and slow, even on a modern mountain bike. It would probably take a few days.
And what would you eat over those few days? How would you get your food?
The modern bunch riders carry all sorts of energy gels, energy drinks and snack bars. On a long ride, I go by the rule of thumb that you need to eat something every 20km. Most of these fancy food things didn't exist 20 years ago. On a long, supported ride, you don't have to weigh yourself down with stacks of them either - the support bus that follows the riders can carry hundreds of kilos of them (and icy cold cans of Coke), so you just need to carry enough to get you from one pre-arranged stop to another where you can top up.
Now take away all those fancy space age foods and think about how you are going to get enough food and water in you over that 290km journey. According to this calculator, I'd burn about 11,000 calories riding to Canberra at about 22km/h. Crank that up to 26, and I'd need to take in closer to 13,000. Yes, you could stop at McDonalds and feast, but you'd still need to scoff a lot of Happy Meals in order to ride without collapsing - or 8 Combo Meals. At 400 calories per litre, the alternative would be to drink 32.5 litres of Coke.
In the old days, there would have been roadhouses all the way along the track to cater for travelers so you wouldn't have to pack too much food or water. But the food they served would have been very limited - when your means of transport is a horse of bullock cart, you're pretty much stuck with what's grown in the region or what you canned or preserved from a previous season. You wouldn't be getting out of season tomatoes and lettuce on your steak burger.
Baked Beans keep pretty well and were a staple food for a long time. At 70 calories per 100 grams, you'd need to eat 18 kilos of baked beans just to get to Canberra.
I wouldn't try that on a group ride - not when you're riding close to the bum in front in order to minimise wind resistance.
So we've looked at food and roads. In short, you're probably thinking that cycling is a pretty lousy option. Hot, painful, tiring and possibly gassy as hell. Now imagine cars had not been invented yet, and you had to go everywhere by foot, horse, bullock cart or perhaps a train (if you had a train line nearby). Transporting goods (and yourself) is no longer fast, convenient, cheap and easy. It's slow, uncomfortable, inconvenient and expensive.
Which is why as soon as people get rich enough, they throw away their bikes and buy a car. Until they get really rich, when they go out and buy many expensive bikes and spend their free time riding off their waistlines.
Give me a few more days, and I'll get around to the bit about beer. We've got a few miles to ride yet.