One family's escape from road rage

Park Life
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The Independent Culture
THE BOYS have more gears on their bikes than they've had birthdays, along with cantilevered brakes, fat tyres with ferocious grips and bull- bar handlebars that would look bizarre if we weren't so used to them now. All this is par for the course since the mountain-bike craze swept ordinary pushbikes off the road 10 years or so ago. But I can't help feeling that they're slightly over-equipped for their needs.

After all, the boys only use them once a week at most, when we trek across the pedestrian crossing for a 20-minute spin around the park. Not a mountain trail in sight, unless you count one slightly raised path that winds through the trees beside the railway line.

Earlier this century, at a time when no one had any gears, tens of thousands of cyclists would stream out of our towns and cities every weekend to picnic in the countryside. By the time I had graduated to three gears, at some point in the late Sixties, my mother would happily pack me and a friend off for the day on our bikes, with saddle-bags full of sandwiches.

I can't imagine that this sort of parental insouciance lasted much longer, at least in the more built-up parts of the country. I have a vivid memory of what seemed to me the turning-point in the battle between the free- roaming child cyclist and the motor car, a process which must have been replicated countless times up and down the country: first, a girl who lived a few doors away was knocked off her bike; then, a few months later, an 11-year-old boy from a family we all knew was killed on the by-pass.

Tom, my elder son, is almost 11, and I can't imagine allowing him unrestricted access to the roads for the foreseeable future, no matter how high a score he records in his Cycling Proficiency Test. Perhaps I am over-protective; I know that many children of his age cycle to school, even in London. But I hardly even allow myself to cycle in London any more.

I was - still would be - the perfect candidate for commuting by bicycle; after all, I loathe sitting in a traffic jam or standing on the Tube, and I'm always pathetically keen to boost my fitness. So when The Independent installed showers a few years ago, I duly invested in a bike, a helmet, one of those shiny, stretchy shirts in garish colours that act as red rags to car drivers, and got peddling.

I knew that it was relatively unsafe; that cyclists were at risk from ignorant, oafish drivers; that the sort of carelessness which may lead only to a dented bumper and a sullen exchange of paperwork if cars are involved may well be fatal to a cyclist. One colleague suggested that I must be the type who missed challenges in modern life so needed to dice with death to feel properly alive. But, for a couple of years at least, I felt completely safe, and cycled to and from work every day, in all weathers.

Then, two or three years ago, something changed. The traffic in London became somehow denser, more aggressive: the drivers seemed narrow-eyed and looking for trouble, as if in response to the recent naming of road rage. Close shaves or exchanges of verbal abuse with drivers multiplied from occasional to weekly occurrences. Within the space of two months, my sister and two friends of mine were unceremoniously dumped from their bikes by passing cars. In each case, the bicycle was written off, the cyclist survived, and the car driver, presumably fearing manslaughter charges, sped from the scene.

At about this point I lost my nerve, and resolved to keep my sons off the road for as long as possible. My hopes of getting back on the saddle rose at Labour's election victory since, in opposition, the party had sounded friendlier to cyclists than the Tories. Silly me: they were only after my vote. Since May last year, I have waited in vain for action from John Prescott, Glenda Jackson or anyone else who holds sway in transport policy, but they have sat on their hands for fear of offending the various road lobbies (although this week's announcement that Trafalgar Square may be closed to traffic sounds promising).

Which is why, a couple of times a year, I load up the bikes on a rack attached to the back of the car and drive south to Kent and the Penshurst Off Road Club (acronym Porc, featuring a fat pink pig in shades), a veritable cyclists' paradise. At least, it's a paradise if you're 18, own a specialist bike with sprung forks, and enjoy cycling in full body armour. I am not joking: there exists such a thing as a cycling breastplate.

The trails at Porc are steep, narrow, heavily rutted tracks through thick woodland valleys; demanding for the toughest adult mountain cyclist. At seven, Darcy is usually the youngest cyclist present, and even at his gamest finds it difficult. Last weekend, he achieved the Full Fawlty ( fury with inanimate object), attacking first a large fern for impeding him and then his bike for being "stupid". Tom and I fell off our bikes laughing. But at least there were no cars.