James Daley: The Cycling Column

If town biking is a war zone, try the countryside
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Indy Lifestyle Online

The perpetual conflict between motorists, pedestrians and cyclists has taken up more than its fair share of column inches over the past few months (not least in this column). But in recent weeks I have come to discover that it's not just in the cities where cyclists get people's backs up. We seem to court controversy wherever we go.

When I'm not commuting on my bike to work, I'm up in the hills south of London, tearing down the forest tracks around Leith Hill and taking in the beautiful scenery. Of course, my mountain-biking friends and I are not the only forest users. Just as we share the town roads with cars and pedestrians, so we share the forest with walkers, horse-riders and indeed, wildlife.

But, while conflict amid the stress of the city has a certain inevitability to it, I was amazed to discover that exactly the same thing goes on in the tranquillity of the countryside. Walkers and horse-riders are the cars and pedestrians of the forest - seemingly resentful of the fact that they have to share the countryside with cyclists. Furthermore (although I'm fairly sure they cannot speak with any authority on this), they claim that the animals themselves don't like us biking through the woods!

My first first-hand experience of this miserable bunch of moaners came just a few weeks ago, when I encountered two walkers on a narrow footpath. I duly pulled myself and my bike aside (into a bush of stinging nettles, I might add) to let them pass. But, in spite of me being perfectly civil, they started bleating on about how bikes shouldn't be riding along paths like that one. "Haven't you seen the sign? This is a FOOTpath."

This, I discovered, was the anti-biking movement in its mildest form. After doing some research, I found that there are pockets of organised anti-biking groups all around the country, some of whom seem prepared to stop at nothing to get mountain bikers out of the countryside. One avid biker told me how he had been reported to the police for assault by an activist trying to get one up on him. It could have left him in an awkward situation had he not had the perfect alibi - at the time of the alleged incident, he was in fact in hospital recovering from a heart attack!

Others have apparently resorted to draping dead animals over fences on the edge of footpaths and then claiming that the animal killed itself while trying to escape from a herd of mountain bikers.

Although I have little sympathy for motorists who want bikes off the roads in cities, I can at least understand where the walkers are coming from. It must be frustrating to have your quiet Sunday stroll interrupted by a bunch of bikers tearing past. The protests of the extremists, however, are totally absurd.

But there's a simple solution to the problem, both in the countryside and in town - invest more money in creating separate mountain-bike tracks and urban cycle routes. The towns and forests are big enough to accommodate everyone. If the Government is serious with its latest policy to promote healthy living and to encourage people to do more exercise, it should be doing much more to help the growth of biking.

Although the number of mountain-biking tracks is growing, it is still a very slow process, held back by a lack of resources. And Britain's urban cycle networks are an embarrassment compared with our European peers.

Encouraging more people on to mountain bikes would not just create a healthier society either; it would also provide a welcome economic boost to our local rural economies.

Alas, I get the feeling that the necessary investment may be some time coming. In the meantime, we need to work at getting on with each other.

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