Some people love school. I’m not one of them. Nevertheless I’m the first to arrive for class: the Faster Commuter course, freshly launched by Cycle Training UK in London. It’s happening at the Lambeth Mission, an appropriate enough venue for veloevengelism. The next to show is Barry Mason. He’s the Southwark Cyclists supremo and one of the moving forces behind the Dunwich Dynamo all night bike ride and light show extravaganza. Then Rose Ades, appointed by Ken Livingstone to the helm of Transport for London’s Cycling Centre of Excellence, cruises up to the kerb on a cool blue Riese und Muller Culture. Soon we achieve the sort of critical mass that spontaneously triggers action, in this case the appearance of an acolyte bearing a key to unlock the door. We’re in.

Parsley sage rosemary and porrange
CTUK, a not-for-profit company started in 1998 and now run as a co-operative, bills itself as the largest provider of independent cycle training in Britain. They aim to pollinate the country not just with competent, confident cyclists - much of their work is with year 5 and 6 children - but seed it with National Standards qualified instructors. In fact they offer practical lessons and tutoring in the fine art of maintenance to anyone who feels in need.

This crisp Monday they have half a dozen not-so-raw recruits to work with: Barry; Rose; Richard Ambler, a Lambeth Council cycling officer; Matt Beale-Collins, in charge of marketing and special projects for Surrey County Council; Nicola Wilson, a journalist with the Financial Times; and your friendly neighbourhood C+ correspondent. Chris Fleming of the Greater London Authority makes it a lucky seven. He hasn’t been on a bicycle in a dozen years and this is his inaugural ride in the Smoke. With four instructors (Ian Pearson, Marcus Ahmad, David Dansky and Charlie Allen) we’ve got the sort of teacher-pupil ratio that would be the envy of any educational institution, though Charlie, who looks like a courier in aspic, is primarily here to observe. Which is what I’d like to do if I can get away with it.

By the end of the day, according to official instructor’s notes kindly provided to me afterwards by Scottish expat Ian, “trainees should be more confident, self-reliant cyclists able to deal with a wide range of conditions, be able to make decisions about bike set-up, components and accessories, and know how to develop (and get the best from) their physiology. They should be able to cycle to work quickly, reliably and comfortably.”

I know all this stuff. That’s covered, too. I soon learn that I’m the kind of “know-all” this course is aimed at.

We wheel our bicycles into the Mission Hall and distribute them around the periphery. Inside this comfortable encampment there’s a circle of chairs waiting for us, encounter-group style. Before taking our seats we confront breakfast, which has been provided by management. Porrange. This is as it sounds once you know what it is: porridge oats and orange juice. Frightfully healthy, it’s the opening salvo of the curriculum: fast commuters need quality fuel. Everyone seems to appreciate it. In theory.

The Game of Commuting
In the aftermath of porrange we introduce ourselves, link arms and gently levitate, or so I was hoping. Instead we play cards. We’re dealt a light hand with instructions to read aloud the statement printed thereon and match it to a suitable place card on the floor: ‘bike’, ‘body’, ‘skill’ and ‘chance’. “Your fried breakfast is causing stomach pains - go back one square” says mine and say I, wondering if I should grab my gut for theatrical effect. There are no real squares to go back but this is pretty obviously a job for ‘body’. My second card confirms that I’ve made a good lane selection on the gyratory, a slam-dunk ‘skill’. By game’s end only one selection is looking conspicuously bare: chance. It’s no wonder. In the CTUK universe there is no such thing. As it says in the notes: “by creating the three classifications, we have defined the structure of today’s course.”

It’s about the bike
Time to impress upon us the importance of the right tool for the job. None of us rode in on mountain bikes so we’re all cushioned from the effects of a gently critical lecture on the unsuitability of knobblies in an urban milieu. As a true believer of the Way of All Smoothness I get a little overexcited when talk turns to road tyres, and have to forcibly restrain myself from shouting “Tread is hype!” as Ian, similarly enlightened, calmly extols the virtues of his Conti Sports Contacts. Straight -v- curly bars makes the expected topical appearance with the outcome never in doubt. “What are gears for?” he asks at one point, causing me to wonder if he’s slipped back into year 5 patter. Still, his heart is in the right place.

For the most part we seem content to let him ask and answer his own questions, a closed loop of certainty, though occasionally Barry and Rose throw themselves into the breach. There’s a bit of a tussle over luggage - Ian is sold on courier bags and panniers get short shrift. “Cyclists can be very pedantic,” Matt dryly comments later. “Could be the carbon monoxide.”

Next we dive into the alphabet. The ‘M-Check’ is a “systematic approach minimising the possibility of missing faults” which starts with the front hub and wheel, climbs up to the handlebars, scoots down to the bottom bracket, back up to the saddle and ends at the rear, stopping at all potential trouble-spots in between. Someone observes that if the bike is upended this turns into a ‘W-Check’. The lesson: safe bike = reliable transport = faster commuter.

We take a break (“No biscuits!” insist the notes), regroup, absorb standard and good advice about proper bike fitting. Then comes show and tell, which is always fun. No, we don’t get to wheel our mounts into the spotlight for a public display of affection, but I’m unexpectedly afforded the opportunity to share the diminutive fruits of my consumer prowess. I coyly produce my micro-mini pump, always a crowd pleaser. This is about the size of a track pump handle and looks like it would have trouble blowing up a soap bubble. It would in fact commit suicide if ever tasked to fully inflate my 140lb pressure front tyre. As a statement of small is beautiful it’s considerably cheaper than replacing shrinking mobile phones every six months.

Class is reminded that tyres need air and the proper amount isn’t ancient knowledge passed down through the generations but helpfully printed on the side-wall.

It doesn’t surprise me that the practical demonstration of puncture repair which follows sees a neat division of the sexes, with the only two women in attendance gamely wrestling vulcanised rubber while the rest of us offer encouragement or enjoy a moment of quiet reflection. I’m just relieved they haven’t asked me to demonstrate my brash advice not to even bother removing wheel from fork or tube from rim, but instead pull a loop out like a surgical procedure on an injured intestine.

Barry offers the sterling tip that London cabdrivers can sometimes be persuaded to rescue stranded cyclists. It had never occurred to me that commodious leg room is also spoke room.

My initial unease at remedial education has so far proved groundless. It’s all been very easygoing. We aren’t D-locked to our chairs and have no need for kidney-friendly collection bags on our legs. If I want a breath of fresh air I go seek it, perhaps wandering to the pavement outside to gaze longingly at the cyclists gliding down Lambeth Road, or to study the bulletin board in the lobby for upcoming events, many of which appear to involve Brownies.

We do a quick run-through of preventative maintenance and prepare for a field trip.

The instructors don their vestments (by their orange bibs shall ye know them) and we head out into the sun, happily awheel at last, collecting in a large playground near the Imperial War Museum. Here our bicycles are checked for roadworthiness as we are briefed on control skills: emergency stops, changing gears, signaling, and pothole manoeuvres which prove that my childhood games involving wheelies were actually laying important groundwork.

Shepherded by Ian and David we break into two groups so a disgruntled lollipop lady can’t wipe us all out in one go. Admittedly that isn’t in the notes.

Far too soon in our relationship Ian puts his life in my hands. Like everyone else I’m encouraged to hurtle towards him until abruptly ordered to halt. This I cannot do, which I demonstrate by braking prematurely when it’s my turn. It is impossible for me to ride full tilt at a human being, even Jeremy Clarkson, and even as a well-meant test of my familiarity with safe braking procedure. It isn’t a habit I can unlearn in an afternoon. Our Braveheart remains unscathed by his experience with the lot of us, though one wonders what fancy footwork he’s had to learn over the years.

The gear changing exercise is more calming. We ride in a circle and click up or down while attempting to maintain a steady cadence, the holy grail of fast, unflustered commuters. Everyone else has shifters on their handlebars as God intended after He’d thought about it for a bit, but I’ve got downtube levers and can’t just fake some wrist action and enjoy the jolly spin around the fulcrum of instructors.

My hand signals aren’t 100% kosher as I don’t hold my palm perpendicular to the ground in CTUK-approved fashion, preferring a no-nonsense pointing finger as the apex of my intentions. Nobody calls me on it. We spend some time practicing looking over our shoulder while signaling, later adding a one-hand-controlled stop, but wind things up before I can suggest we toss a few juggling balls into the act.

We end the session by running over Ian’s tool bag. He’s relatively fond of what’s inside, so advises us to pull up on the handlebars as we should do if it were the pothole it represents. Then we cycle back to the Mission Hall for lunch, which is “adequate and dull” according to Barry but suits me fine.

Speed play by any other name
After filling ourselves with veggies dressed in olive oil, potatoes, baked beans and fruit in various manifestations we discuss desirable component upgrades and sensible choices in attire. Did you know that fluorescent materials lose their special powers at night because headlamps don’t have the ultraviolet light they crave? I suppose I did, but it doesn’t hurt to be reminded.

Refreshingly, helmets are not a mandatory requirement for this or any CTUK course. This stance makes the company unpopular with many of the Authorities they solicit as clients.

Ian and Marcus, who’s also been recording events with his battered but trusty Nikon, then conduct an admirably thorough physiology lesson touching on warm-up regimes and stretches, the glycogen window, and ‘Fartlek’, which isn’t an uncouth comment on lunch but Swedish for ‘speed play’. This is interval training, as if you’re being chased by Lance Armstrong and then one of television’s Fat Ladies in turn. Then guess what? We get to go riding again.

On the road
“Most people are a bad advert for cycling.” - Ian Pearson

We fractionalise for the on-road syllabus and disperse into the not so far corners of Lambeth. Ian pairs with me. Not even a minute passes before we encounter our first casualty. Nicola has acquired a flat, the strangest looking one I’ve ever seen. The tube has leapt out of the tyre like a hernia, as if it had been paying attention to me earlier in the day. We leave her and Charlie to it and My Time of Nervousness begins.

It’s been a while since I took my driving test; I’ve never experienced its cycling equivalent. Chances are my shadow is not going to be pleased with some of my moves but I feel strangely powerless to alter my behaviour even to earn Brownie points. The fact that I’m alive and pedaling and still in a good mood after years of coexisting peacefully with the rest of London traffic is my testament that I must be doing something right, but that’s not necessarily how CTUK sees it. One of the instructors has already admitted earlier that he often conducts a dead pool in his head of the erring cyclists he encounters.

My chief failing appears to be not positioning myself for optimum visibility, with a few red marks awarded for too much time spent in secondary riding position. It must be the leftie in me. Guilty as charged on this occasion: I see nothing wrong with allowing faster traffic to pass. I also do this when I drive, even going so far as pulling over to let speed demons by. Actual kerb hugging is denounced in no uncertain terms by many safety experts, including John Franklin in Cyclecraft, a much dog-eared copy of which must be in the CTUK vault.

I sometimes inhabit the car door zone but have never been doored (“It’s only a matter of time!” insist the well-meaning Franklinites) because I have eyes which are like relentless minesweepers. It goes without saying that if I avoided the zone I wouldn’t need such highly tuned radar, which is a nice segue to Ian’s earnest advice about positioning. He tells me that some of my choices aren’t the best for seeing and being seen. This is hard to argue with given his observational window and my patent pending nonchalance. It’s quite possible I don’t appear to be fully cognizant of the latent dangers lurking all around us cyclists. I don’t suppose a sworn affidavit will help.

It’s reminiscent of my driving examiner who was convinced I wasn’t looking in the mirror enough because he didn’t clock the requisite neck swivels or my eye sockets making their appointed rounds. The truth is you can be quite aware of your environment without being obvious about it, or in this case, not being optimally placed on the road. I’m far from sold on the argument that motorists will dis you if you’re not front and centre. It’s endlessly debatable and many cyclists happily toe the CTUK line.

After a T-junction tutorial I request permission to monitor the other teams instead. They’re tackling busy roads and roundabouts and apparently enjoying themselves. The roadie session is all too brief. Ian promises it will be expanded in future.

The day ends in a rush, with feedback forms passed out back at the Hall and quickly scribbled on. The true feedback, for me at least, comes later in email exchanges with the other participants.

Barry rushes his review into print on the Southwark Cyclists website. “Will I get to work any quicker?” he concludes. “No... I don’t want to shorten my commutes anyway. I love them.”

“Overall, I’d say it was an interesting course,” writes Nicola. “I’m sure that most of us did know it all, but at times it doesn’t hurt to have that knowledge reinforced.”

Rose is convinced of the benefits of the CTUK/national standards approach to holding your lane and encouraging motorists to respect your space. However, “this magic did not last when I was riding through central London with vehicles accelerating and moving fast dodging around each other in the evening rush hour or after dark. In these circumstances there is little scope for communication, or control of the traffic, and the default has to be finding a way to get the hell out.”

Chris the cycling novice was “the most enthusiastic of what I perceived to be a rather skeptical group. I found all the tips and tricks... to be memorable and will I’m sure prove useful to me in the future.”

Matt would like to have seen “more about the culture and psychology,” but gives CTUK a thumbs-up overall.

Richard takes issue with the name of the course, preferring ‘Quicker’ to ‘Faster’ to avoid lycra-lout connotations.

Me? I enjoyed meeting everyone, and surely a day of thinking and talking about cycling is a day well spent, but was as happy to get out of school as I had been all those years ago.

A few days later I pop into the CTUK office to suggest a ride with Ian “as if we were just two mates riding together.” This involves a dash across the Thames, past Parliament Square to Westminster Bridge and back to cozy Lambeth Walk. Most important of all it requires that he leave his instructor’s vest on its hook in the closet. I want him to see me in my natural rhythm, unburdened by worries of doing the Wrong Thing. Only afterwards is he to offer me a grade, preferably by email so as not to deflate me too soon. “Be brutal,” I encourage him.

The following week his assessment drops into my In box.
“The great thing about your riding is that you are completely confident,” he writes, “and that is probably 80% of being an effective cyclist." Note to self: hack into CTUK computer database and reimburse the missing 20%. The email continues: "It means that you are confident enough to be assertive, and to position yourself in the correct (safest) position Also you were not tempted to use that pointless cycle lane,” indeed a waste of taxpayer money.

Ian was uncomfortable about my choice of filtering through a queue alongside a lorry as “the risk/reward ratio was not right" for him. Apart from that he professes to be "very impressed with your riding - good understandable positioning, forward planning etc. If that was a riding assessment for employing a new instructor, I would have very few problems with it.”

Easy as falling off a bike.

The Faster Commuter course costs £70, lasts from 9-5 and is inclusive of breakfast and lunch.

Cycling Plus, September 2005