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Cycling Is Part of The Solution - Not a Menace
Cycling in General
Member Name: Nibelung
Cycling in General
Advantages: Cheap travel , personal exercise without the gym fees, low carbon-footprint
Disadvantages: Stiil perceived as a nuisance by dyed-in-the-wool car drivers
I'll nail my colours firmly to the mast now. I'm an accredited cycling instructor working for one of the outer London Boroughs, but before you raise an eyebrow and give one of those 'Oh one of THOSE!' looks, I don't mind you knowing that I own two cars and drive a modest 10,000 miles a year. I'd love to travel by train on long journeys but the fares? Who seriously thinks that I'd be prepared to pay £40 for a single from Waterloo to Crewkerne when I can get there and back on half a tank of diesel, oh yes, and take four people with me?
Since the "July Seven" bombings, there has been a sudden and sustained upsurge in interest in cycling, especially in the London area. It's already bad enough in The Underground in summer without the perceived risk of being blown apart or maimed too, and firms like Brompton, makers of, in my opinion, just about the best folding bike have never looked back. Of course, I'm biased; I've got one, and it stays in my car boot for all those occasions when I really can't get all or part of the way to work that day by bike.
The one thing I hear time and time again as a reason for not cycling in cities is that it's "so dangerous". It isn't. I've been hurt worse in a car crash than any vehicular contact I've ever had in 40-odd years of on-road cycling, and no, I've only just recently started wearing a helmet, and then partly because it's expected of me. Sure, I've fallen off in "one vehicle accidents", but you can't learn to ride a bike, or ski or skate for that matter without falling - if you're not prepared to take a knock, don't even start. Even joggers trip over.
As well as being able to ride a good line slowly*, you need to be able to look behind you, largely over your right shoulder, although both directions are eventually needed. You also need to be able to signal, or 'ride one-handed' as it might be viewed by the nervous. If I had to choose between signalling (looks like you know what you're doing), and looking back (impresses no-one), I'd opt for the latter every time. After all, if you look back and there's no-one there, to whom were you going to signal? If you signal and just 'do it', how do you know it was safe to do so?
*Any fool can ride quickly and steadily. Riding smoothly whilst at low speed is a skill needed in traffic if you are ever going to reap the full advantage of riding something 'thin' and get to the front of the queue every time, and on approach to such things as Give Way lines if you are not to keep on being brought to a dead stop.
You need a bike that fits. There are various theories here, mostly relating to how, or even if, you can touch the ground with your feet, and how much of your foot should be touching. My own preference for commuting is 'toes of both feet on the ground' whilst seated. However, some bikes have pedals situated further off the ground, notably off-road bikes with their need for more clearance, so these may leave you with legs not fully deployed when pedalling if you adopt my stance. This is very tiring and will convince you that you are just not 'up to it'. All I can say is, try out a lot before getting one, and don't depend on large chain stores to advise you properly; they've got a truck load out-back to shift. There's no real need to be afraid of second-hand bikes, they don't rust through like cars, especially aluminium ones, but take a cyclist with you. Check that the diamond-symmetry of the frame is still a diamond, not a trapezium! If you push a bike straight and vertical by the saddle, check that the steering doesn't keep flopping to the same side. These are both signs that it's taken a bash.
Another measurement often forgotten is how far you sit from the handlebars and whether this suits you. Too near can encourage your knees to hit the bars when steering sharply, forcing you to freewheel round corners with one leg splayed out. As with a car, you don't want to be too far removed from the steering, so a balance is needed. Most people are aware that saddle height can be adjusted, but look also for any scope to move the saddle backwards and forwards. Most are on two rails these days, and have a modicum of adjustment.
My own preference for handlebar height is to be level with the saddle. This isn't always achievable, especially with 'ladies' models' which are frequently built with a lower saddle to cater for the generally lower average height of the rider and higher handlebars, giving a quite imperious pose to the rider.
As for handlebars themselves, I don't like the racing 'dropped' design for traffic use. To my mind, they encourage me not to look where I'm going. Either that or give me neck-ache like 'ladies who've just had their hair done', doing lengths of breaststroke!
It really depends on how far you're prepared to walk if you get a problem, (doesn't it Kate?) notably a puncture. If you only ride a mile or two each way, then you probably don't need to carry anything much. My Brompton folder is a case in point - I carry a 10-way 'box spanner', a set of hexagonal drive 'Allen Keys' masquerading as a kind of pen-knife affair, with built in screwdrivers and that's about it. Notably, I don't intend fixing a flat when out on my Brompton - I've only ever had one, and then I came home on the bus! For my 'main bike', I add a spare inner tube (preferable to doing a road-side repair), although I do carry a repair outfit too as this gives me the tools to lever a tyre off. I also have a small stock of those electrician's cable ties, useful for securing recalcitrant mudguards, making citizen's arrests and such like. This selection I contain in a tool roll along with all the 'proper' spanners, screwdrivers and wrenches needed when presenting myself for work at a school.
Oh yes and don't forget a decent pump for the type of valves your bike uses. There are generally two types in current use, the Schrader (car type) or Presta - more suited to higher pressures and leaves a daintier hole in the rim which is important if they are already slim.
CYCLING IN TRAFFIC
Personally I have less of a problem with this than what you might perceive as an idyll, a 'nice quiet ride in the country'. Bear in mind that country roads often have 60 mph speed limits, quite often impaired vision thanks to hedgerows, bends aping the feudal system of field boundaries and plenty of opportunities for having to swerve around pedestrians at no notice at all. To cap this all the locals exceed the speed limit, except when dragging the muck-spreader out of one field and a mile down the road to the next and the roads are generally quite narrow.
Compare this to cities. Wider roads, traffic crawling with an average speed of 12 mph (30 limit? The chance to go that fast would be a fine thing!), and lots of ways to get to the front of the queue. Hell, there might even be a bike lane, but only 'might'. Sod's Law clearly states that it WILL disappear just where it's most needed.
The novice venturing out for the first time ever, or perhaps for the first time in years will probably try to ride about one foot out from the kerb, in some vain effort to keep out of everyone's way. Wrong. The closer you ride to the kerb, the closer motorists come to you. For some reason, and it works, (I've tested the theory myself when driving), the further out from the kerb you ride, the more room you get given. Riding at least a yard/meter from the kerb has two effects. One, the driver behind has to wait for a proper opportunity to overtake, and then two, they leave you the same margin again because it's then safe for them to straddle the central white line. OK, some drivers don't but as a rule, I find it works. Curiously, the better protected you are in terms of hi-viz jackets, helmets etc, the closer they come to you. If I were you, I'd wobble a lot - that'll keep them away a sure as shark-repellent in Birmingham.
The current wisdom is that a cyclist should adopt the dominant position in a traffic lane, especially at junctions (stop, give-way lines what have you). Your own safety is something you need to be selfish with, and not feel you need to apologise for. It can be highly dangerous to let another vehicle share your lane at the lights, and getting trapped beneath the wheels of a left-turning 'artic' is a well-documented way of getting yourself killed. This might sound gruesome, but it's so easily avoided. If you see a big truck signalling left (or just looking like that's where it's going next), just don't get next to it, hold back. Simples!
As an adjunct to this 'dominant position' advice, I would however make one plea. For crying out loud, get a move on. Look like you mean business. You'll be a lot steadier too as your speed increases.
DOING A TURN
For obvious reasons, left turns are easier, especially turning into a side road - here there's no obligation to stop except for a pedestrian already committed to crossing the road. This of course includes those going the same direction as you, and therefore with their back to you, texting as they go, or with their 'hoody' fully deployed, neither of which encourage them to look back and wait on the kerb!
In the run up to such a left turn, it's important to check behind, signal, and then as you turn make what we're calling a 'Life-Saver Look', a term borrowed from the days of motorcycles having no mirrors. If there is a long vehicle making the turn with you, it's better to know about it than have it cut you off as you turn. Of course, if you're approaching a Stop or Give Way line as you turn INTO a main road, you need to look off to your right just as you would when crossing on foot. You can't look too much but if you apply everything you know from being a pedestrian and/or a driver, then looking for 'where the traffic's coming from' shouldn't come as any real surprise.
In the case of right turns, it's especially important to position your bike so that 'body language' gives away your next move. Unlike a car, you can't signal forever - little things like needing both brakes and having to steer get in the way! A position more towards the centre of the road, but still dominating the lane is what's needed here, unless of course, it's a multi-lane road, in which case, it's reasonable to expect other road users to be passing you on the left. Despite a growing feeling of agoraphobia, this is the right place to be; showing what you're going to do next and wearing hi-viz just where people can see you are always best. Please, please, NEVER turn right from a left-hand kerb. If you find yourself in this position from sheer weight of traffic and/or cowardice, find a crossing, or somewhere else to do a U-turn and come back to make a left instead. After all, if the road is that busy, there's also going to be somewhere for pedestrians to cross. Sink your pride, get off and be a pedestrian for two minutes. No-one said you've got to do everything a car driver can. I try to, but then I'm out to make a point!
If like many cyclists, your preference is for quieter side roads, watch out for the proliferation of parked cars. Irrespective of who's behind you and how impatient they sound, always leave room for a carelessly-opened car door as you pass stationary vehicles. Don't weave in and out of cars parked quite close together, but do pull over a bit when you get the chance to let the person behind you past. After all, they're bound to be much more important than you if their apparent hurry is anything to go by! Anyway, life is so much nicer without someone blipping their gas-pedal behind you.
NEVER MIND THE BUZZCOCKS
When you are out on your bike, you are in control, we hope, of a bona fide road vehicle. Income Tax and Council Tax pay for roads, contrary to what many motorists will opine in that "At least I PAY for the bloody roads" tone of voice.
It's a speech that I love to give when I get given that old flannel. If you really want to complete the set and counter the old "Well at least I'm insured!" riposte, it only costs less than £40 a year to be a member of The Cycle Touring Club, which bestows upon you a good deal of third party insurance and legal protection. You also get a nice magazine several times a year!
To be fair, your road vehicle status does also behove you to meet certain regulations. A red rear reflector is needed to comply with the minimum requirements - something to do with showing which way you are facing in the dark. Lighting is only needed if you venture out when lighting is required. However, it's sensible to have some as in winter especially, this can include during heavy rain at mid-day, or even around school-chucking-out time with or without the optional rain. You are now allowed flashing lights to be fitted to your bike. Previously you could festoon your own body or rucksack as you saw fit, but your bike's lights had to be non-flashing. Now, as long as the brilliance complies with the law, flashing is back with a vengeance. LED lighting has revolutionised this area, with as little a 3 watts being all that's needed even to see where you're going in unlit streets. With this comes a huge improvement in battery life, so dynamos are not anywhere near as popular as they used to be.
Unless you ride a 'fixy', a fixed wheel bike with only one gear ratio and no freewheel, you must have 'two means of stopping', normally taken to mean 'two brakes'. It's quite alarming how many kids turn up for our courses on a BMX bike where some genius has actually REMOVED the front brake. Scary.
Your tyres have to meet wear and tear rules, but as far as I'm aware there's no mention of tread depth, or even tread at all, which explains the existence of 'slicks' for cycling. I've had these for a while. Excellent though they were in transforming my bike into something much easier to pedal, wet roundabouts became quite 'interesting'.
LOCK IT OR LOSE IT
Simple enough I guess. Now's not the time to recommend or denigrate any particular kind of bike lock. Pad Lock? Combination Lock? Both better than No Lock! The rigid D-shaped locks look the part, but their rigidity brings with them one salient problem - you can only lock one part of the bike, probably the frame if you've got any sense, to a lamp post, leaving your quick-release wheels to be...errrr....quickly released, just not by you though.
A chain or sturdy cable, whilst possible not as sturdy as the D-Lock, enables you to protect both wheels and frame, making a complete illicit strip-down of your bike less likely.
ALL THE GEAR
Firstly clothing; assume you're going to get rained on, and then you won't be disappointed! Full waterproofs don't need to be expensive or indeed bulky and can easily be carried for when the weather takes a nasty turn. Bring back the cape, that's what I say! Helmets needn't cost the earth either. I buy an £8.95 job from Tescos EVERY year. Jeans are hopeless. They're heavy, and get even heavier with the application of any moisture from whatever source. Some kind of trousers turn-up restraint is needed, either as a clip or in my case, a Velcro cuff pressed into service around my ankle. Whatever you wear, make sure it includes a substantial part of that yucky hi-viz colour, and preferably some silver striping for being seen at night. Likewise, there's no point in going to all this hi-viz trouble just to put a black rucksack on your back. If your budget runs to it, fit a pannier rack and panniers. These frequently double as shoulder bags once removed, and keep the payload down low where it can't affect your balance.
ALL THE GEARS
Yeah, yeah, I know. You've got 27 gears and I've only got 21. Most bikes on sale these days use a ratio system called 'dérailleur' because it's French for de-railer, which is exactly how they change gear, by applying sideways pressure to the chain, making it take the hint and jump off its current track onto another cog. A typical layout would be to have three ratios 'at the front' on the main chain wheel, and seven, eight or nine at the back wheel, hence 21, 24 or 27 gears. However, this is not the same as having 27 gears in the accepted sense. For a start some of the permutations of front-to-back ratios are indiscernible from each other. Also, it's bad news to adopt the lefthand-most* front gear and the righthand-most rear gear (or the other way round). This causes the chain to be well out of line, and in any case gives a similar final ratio as adopting a 'medium gear at both ends'.
*Is that a word? It is now!
I did sit down once and compute all 21 of my gear ratios. In the end I concluded that there are about 9 meaningfully different ones!
Pros? Cheaper to buy. More ratios that you'd need to climb a wall!
Cons? Frequent maintenance needed to keep them clean and adjusted. Can't be changed standing still (quite a bad failing really).
All of which brings me neatly to the subject of hub gears. These don't actually appear to be there at all, there being nothing to see but an enlarged rear axle hub. All of your ratios are what they say they do 'on the tin'. Generally speaking, nine speeds are the most you'll get in the real world of budget cycling; although a German firm called Rohloff does make a fourteen gear hub, with a bomb-proof reputation but a wallet-busting addition to the price of your bike of £695!
Pros? Beyond the odd drip of oil, hub gears are largely maintenance free, which is just as well really because anyone taking one apart is likely to be met with what the Monty Python team described as 'Spring Surprise' when comparing chocolates. Their major advantage is that you can change them standing still, freewheeling or pedalling. Only the latter activity requires you to ease off the pedals a bit. This might not sounds like a huge advantage, but if you ever get brought to a halt abruptly on an uphill stretch whilst in a highish gear, you'll see that it is.
Cons? Make the bike tail-heavy and may be heavier overall. Possibly not as efficient as well-maintained dérailleurs, although anything's better than dirty rusty ones! Some make removing the rear wheel fiddlier.
SUMMONING UP THE NERVE
I can't speak for other authorities, but my own employer runs evening classes for adults who either live or work in the borough, and at three sessions for £15, jolly good value they are too. Here, complete beginners and people who just want their 'hand held' to go round a roundabout can pick and mix what they want from the course. We also take individuals out for specific rides and are getting into after-school clubs at senior schools. Our borough has a second-to-none track record for inviting EVERY year 6 child for on the road training - unless of course they don't turn up for whatever reason.
Your own area may also do something similar. I was surprised to see that my home borough (not my employers) have a comprehensive road safety programme for children and adults, although I think the school sessions are charged for. This is a shame as there's no correlation between ability to pay and road sense!
If you really don't know where to turn for tuition or advice, the CTC web-site (www.ctc.org.uk) lists not only local authority activity but also independent accredited cycling instructors, area by area. I'm not on that list as I get all the work I need from my employer!
In the London area, you can contact the Transport for London web-site www.tfl.org.uk to get maps showing the various preferred ways for cyclists to get around. Up to 9 maps will be sent post-free on request.
Good luck and see you around Hyde Park Corner some time!
THE SAME TIRED OLD DISCLAIMER
None of the opinions expressed here are endorsed specifically by either my employer (good job I didn't mention them!) or the CTC (whoops, I just mentioned them). Some of what I've written is the official party line, some of it is modifed with my own take on the subject.
Summary: Cycling On Road