There's a concert in the middle of my head, right where the earbuds put it, loud and sweet. I’m spinning down Oxford Street in London, occasionally possessed by the urge to conduct – as if AC/DC would take my direction anyway. The pavements are consumer conveyor belts unable to hold all their cargo, which is spilling into traffic. Everyone is searching for the path of least resistance. Moving in the same direction and about three inches to my left is a towering red Metrosaurus. There’s another one to the right charging straight at me. I’m on the DOT-painted borderline, my body split into two jurisdictions. I inhale sharply, automatically, dumbly aware that doing this won’t shrink my handlebars by so much as a millimetre. To dwell upon the velocities and vectors in the smoky light of day might introduce a wobble into the equation. The muscles retain their own memory of how these things are done. There always seems to be just enough room no matter how unlikely the scenario or crowded the interstice. The great beast to my right continues its way to Penge; I carry on, eager for my next encounter (not so intimate this time), perhaps with a taxicab, or two veiled sisters from Saudi Arabia stepping off the kerb after purchasing an entire department of Marks & Spencer.

Is this any way to cycle?

very old pic

Bad habits
Off the bike and on the computer I find a quiz “for people who have experience of cycling on the roads. The object is to see if you have got into bad habits” in your road positioning. Entitled Are you safe on a bike?, it consists of nine questions which I answer only partially in the spirit intended; possessing some idea of what quizmaster Peter Fox considers proper technique, I sneakily attempt to tailor my response to this honestly helpful agenda rather than submit heartfelt answers, which would have to be something along the lines of “it depends on so many factors I couldn’t even begin to commit myself to a response to which I would remain loyal for the purposes of my theoretical (re)education.”

All the questions are variations on a theme: a cyclist is presented with a situation like waiting at a T-junction to turn left into traffic, or using a cycle lane, and chooses where he or she should be stationed for maximum safety. You must sponsor a Resevoir Dogs –inspired figure (I’ll choose… Mr Pink to ride outside of the solid white line on that cycle lane). I manage a score of six, prompting the assessment that I’m “at risk”. Later I’ll retake the quiz giving totally random answers to achieve a three, putting me at “serious risk”. Not sure what my mouse roulette proves except that acting without regard to consequences still gives reasonable if less than stellar odds.

The quiz gets me thinking: What is a ‘safe’ cyclist? Am I one? How can I find out other than checking that my pulse hasn’t gone moodily quiet? Time to hit the books.

MUSTn’t grumble
The Highway Code. You must’ve seen it in WHSmith. It’s usually part of a small library of literature devoted to getting motorists to pass their driving test so they can get the hell off their bicycle and public transport. It proclaims itself to be “Essential reading for everyone.” This might be why I’ve had so much trouble getting through it. I’ve made almost as many attempts as I have with War and Peace, which probably has just as much relevance to the way the British transport themselves every day. “Did you know that you have a 1 in 200 chance of being killed in a road accident... and pedestrians and cyclists account for 1 in 3 of those...?” reads the back cover of my copy with statistical satisfaction. Not even Tolstoy was this grim.

It isn’t that we disagree on points of law and etiquette. In fact when I finally do tie myself down to a chair with nothing but a glass of tepid water and a copy of the Code to pass the time I discover that we’re in accord about all the major diktats, including the need for extra loud motorcyclists to stuff Russet potatoes into their tailpipes, which is what I wrote in the margins the last time I got this far.

The text is chillipeppered with MUST / MUST NOTs as if alarming typography will set the roads to rights. Everything is biblically numbered. This makes it easy for true believers and heathens alike to quote chapter and verse provided they’re reading from the same edition. (For example, the Unauthorised Taxi Version translated from the original Cockney states that cabbies are only required to stop at occupied zebra crossings if they’re going less than 30mph.) The problem is, all the joi de vivre has been squeezed out of what can be a marvellous occasion: locomotion. We’re meant to move. There’s no reason we can’t enjoy the experience – particularly us cyclists, who have more reasons than most to cherish the eternal desire to travel from A to B. The only laws I’m really interested in are the laws of Newton.

The bicycle is after all the greatest invention of modern times, so say the occasional surveys which leave a reasonable margin of error for Top Gear viewers. However, on the mean streets the grin factor is often a grimace. What are we doing wrong?

The Cyclists’ Apocrypha
Many who seek enlightenment find it in another book, Cyclecraft: Skilled Cycling Techniques for Adults, by John Franklin. Like the car-centric Code this velo volume is published by The Stationery Office, a government agency which doesn’t stock kittycat calendars or refills for your biro. Not long after I became a born again pedaller in the mid-90s this went into a new edition garlanded with blurbs. “For the price of a half-decent cycle lock this book teaches all that is needed about surviving on the road,” wrote a CTC reviewer, who may have overestimated the public appetite for skilled cycling techniques by suggesting that “extracts from it should be serialised in newsletters, newspapers and the wider media.”

A safety advocate for over a quarter century, Franklin boasts an impressive CV. I certainly have no problem admitting him as an expert witness, a role he often undertakes in real courts rather than the ones I convene in my back garden for errant magpies.

Cyclecraft shines brightest for me in its well-wrought introduction, ‘Cycling for health, safety and you’, in which the author distances his effort from The Highway Code with the brave statement that “a cyclist is too vulnerable to follow rigid rules irrespective of danger.” He reaches the pinnacle of good sense promising that he’s going to concentrate on “how to deal with the existing order, rather than lamenting the fact that conditions could be better.” What follows are 195 pages of advice illustrated with Code -style diagrams, the most avidly studied of which will likely be the ones dealing with roundabouts.

It’s a catechism chiselled with commandments great and small, quibble-free with the odd exception. “You should use your brakes as little as possible,” Franklin exhorts whilst waxing poetic on the conservation of momentum, the mention of which gets frequent flyer miles. “Not only does their use waste valuable pedalling effort, but the performance of cycle brakes is not very good compared with those of other vehicles. It is better to use your brakes only when essential.” Is there a rubber shortage? I love momentum as much as the next calorie-burning machine, yet lament how many cyclists follow this line of reasoning right through red lights - which I hasten to add isn’t something the author endorses. Later he opines that bells and horns are more or less useless as it’s better for cyclists to give all their attention to taking evasive action when confronted with an obstacle. ‘Evasive action’ is James Bond speak for braking, in my book. No matter how acute your powers of observation and well ordered your rolling itinerary you’re going to be doing a lot of it; you might as well be spared the guilt trip.

If there’s a mantra in Cyclecraft it’s good road positioning, which is “not about keeping out of the path of other traffic as much as possible,” according to Franklin. “You are quite justified in restricting the movements of other vehicles where this is important in protecting yourself, and you should not hesitate to do so when necessary.” He is forever chiding the cyclist who even thinks about letting cars overtake. As someone who’s convinced that there’s nothing more dangerous than an impatient driver, I’m a Doubting Thomas. However his point is well made: It’s about spending quality time in the motorists’ “zone of maximum surveillance”. Front and centre (‘Primary riding position’) is prime real estate, much better than getting bullied into the edges where car doors lurk and apparent invisibility invites mishaps galore.

Oddly enough I found Cyclecraft to be a rather alarming read. In the process of underlining passages containing the words ‘danger’, ‘hazard’, ‘fatal’, etc., my pen nearly ran out of ink. Though it obviously wasn’t the author’s intent, the effect is a subliminal accretion of dread.

Road Test
Is there a proper way to ride a bike that cyclists, motorists, and excitable tabloid editors can all agree on? Perhaps we could adopt a point system. Score yourself as others will be scoring you out on the road.

Stop at red lights (+1) Only stop when you get home (0)
Cyclists who blow lights are the single most successful ambassadors of bad will to civilians. Franklin may “not be concerned with setting examples to others”, but I cannot help but be aware of my status as a potential miscreant in the eyes of those who are already of the opinion we take our orders from a cycling Moriarty intent on total anarchy on the Queen’s highways, undoubtedly receiving the evil signals directly into our little handlebar computers. And no, couriers don't get diplomatic immunity.

Ride on the pavement only when it’s safer than the road and empty of foot traffic (otherwise walk your bike when mingling with civilians) (+1) Have a scoop attached to the front to keep pedestrians from getting caught in your spokes (0)
Unfortunately, in Britain the wheeled and the unwheeled don’t mix as well as they do elsewhere in Europe. After traffic signal colour blindness this is the second most common complaint lodged against us. It’s chiefly down to the kamikaze riding style of a select unfazed few. Ideally you should be comfortable enough mixing with other traffic that you never have to leave the road, unless you’re a hardcore mountain biker and never get on it in the first place. Note also that the pavement is seldom a cyclists’ utopia just because motorists (usually) stay off it; there are opportunities aplenty for after-ride visits to Casualty thanks to the less than ideal environment for rolling stock. Kerbs and signposts anyone?

Wear a helmet (+1) Not wear a helmet (+1)
All that matters is that you're on your bike.

Use cycle paths and other dedicated facilities when they’re safer than the road (+1) Never use them (+1) Always use them (0)
“Facilities segregated from the carriageway mainly benefit riders who fear motor traffic,” according to Franklin. This can be a point of contention with civilians livid that a few pence of their taxes have gone to creating what they may assume to be an underappreciated cycling paradise. The Highway Code is noncommittal, content to suggest you use cycle routes where practical and stay within the lines which mark cycle lanes, paint being a notoriously efficient safety device. You can happily cycle your entire life avoiding them, or you may love them, but if you ride on them be aware of their myriad shortcomings, which often include an extremely car-friendly design brief.

Signal when you can do so without endangering your balance (+1) Let ’em figure it out for themselves (0)
You owe your fellow travellers a clear statement of intent. This isn’t an auction: wiggling your right ear doesn’t cut it.

Use appropriate lighting at night (+1) Assume wartime blackout conditions are still in effect (0)
If it looks like a duck and it quacks like a duck... Your bicycle has wheels; a steering mechanism which you may deign to use unless you have talented hips; brakes; and possibly cost as much as a car, or at least a Skoda. In other words it’s a vehicle, if a lovely half human hybrid, and as such deserves to have its path lit and its presence made known to others. Those considering adopting the Christmas tree effect may want to read what Cyclecraft has to say about conspicuity, or being seen, and perspicuity, which is the fine art of being understood, in this case as a cyclist and not an unidentified multiblinking object of uncertain origins and capabilities. David Martin’s ‘Theory of BIG’ is another resource for those reading up on perspiconspicuity. Copyeditor: don’t bother spellchecking that.

Have at least a passing familiarity with The Highway Code (+1) Prefer a Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy (0)
Lack of joi de vivre isn’t a crime. It even helps to know the difference between a pelican crossing and a toucan crossing, or so I’m told. If you share my prematurely awarded grumpy old man credentials you MIGHT get annoyed by the nannying on helmets and much else (“You should keep both feet on the pedals” – “dear,” it could have added).

Respect other road users, including pedestrians when they dare stray onto tarmac (+1) Feel that merely owning a non-polluting vehicle is the first step on the road to beautification (0)
This is the “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” category. It includes such social pleasantries as occasionally yielding even when you don’t have to, acknowledging receipt of a kind gesture, doing your best to keep a calm head, and realising your fellow man doesn’t actually want you dead although he may at times seem to be proving otherwise. If all that doesn’t sound too much like nannying.

Look after your bicycle (+1)
Even if this consists of taking it to the local bike shop “because the tyres look a little low,” give yourself a point for caring.

Enjoy yourself (+1)
That's what it's all about, and life's too short not to.

1-4: Check you haven’t left the stabilizers on.
5-7: Well along the road to enlightenment.
8-10: Passing grade for my school of advanced cycling. You might even be able to calmly read this as you’re riding, making notes in the margins to aid in the construction of a well-reasoned letter to the editor.

Peter Fox’s online safe cycling quiz is meant to be “ideal for finding out why you're having such a stressful time on the roads when others don't seem to have those problems.” Mine has been constructed for the same basic purpose. According to my calculations, there should be an inverse correlation between a high score and the restful state of your blood-pressure, because if you ride in the upper + zone, in my book you’re a proper cyclist and the world’s your oyster. You’ve cracked it.

Back to school
Judging by my Oxford Street thrill ride I clearly revel in my bad habits, e.g., adrenalin-heavy filtering techniques, deliberately disabling one of my vital senses, and arguably, appalling taste in music. But are they really so bad? Doesn’t managing to stay upright, unharmed and unharming constitute a passing grade? In next month’s C+ I go back to school to find out.

Cycling Plus, August 2005