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
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
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.
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?
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.
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
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
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.
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
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?
a helmet (+1) Not wear a helmet (+1)
that matters is that you're on your bike.
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.
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
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.
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).
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
Plus, August 2005