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Robert Hanks: The Cycling Column

Common sense is an uncommon quality, I find

A theme that keeps cropping up with other cyclists is a widespread sense of injustice at the way the image of cycling is tarnished by the selfish, stupid minority who insist on jumping red lights, riding at night without lights and getting elected leader of the Conservative Party. All that the rest of us can do, I guess, is try to make up for them by sticking to the rules and letting the world see how co-operative and pleasant we are. But this is not always easy when the rules are written by people who clearly don't have any experience of cycling in traffic.

Anyway, a couple of books have plopped on to my mat in time to recommend for Christmas. The first is written by somebody who has clearly done a vast amount of riding in traffic: Cyclecraft, by John Franklin, the only book I've come across that offers a comprehensive discussion of the techniques of cycling - basic techniques, like how to steer and use your gears properly, along with the more elusive skills of positioning yourself in traffic, and anticipating aggressive or inattentive motorists.

Nearly all of this is common sense, but reading it gives you an unnerving sense of just what an uncommon quality that is. Every day, it seems, I see hoards of cyclists heaving their way off from traffic lights, wobbling and shuddering with effort because the bike is in too high a gear. They block traffic and put themselves in jeopardy by being unstable, and deprive themselves of the option of sprinting away from danger. Did nobody explain to them that you always change into a lower gear before you stop?

Not that I speak from a position of unconquerable superiority: reading Cyclecraft made me realise how much I have to learn, and how often I fail to put into practice what I know. Among other things, I know that it's safer to ride well out from the pavement, in the flow of traffic, where you have room to manoeuvre and cars have to think twice about overtaking. In practice, I tend to get shy about getting in other people's way. Madness: being polite that way can get you killed.

Cyclecraft has been around for seven years. These days, it is published by The Stationery Office (TSO), which gives rise to a mild irony: TSO also publishes The Highway Code, which Franklin happily defies. For example, the code advises sticking to cycle lanes where possible: Franklin almost seethes with contempt for the lanes and the people who design them (your accounts of pointless or dangerous cycle lanes will be gratefully received).

The other book isCycling in the UK, the official Sustrans guide to the National Cycle Network (NCN). The NCN consists of, by and large, sensibly designed cycle routes, that I think even Franklin would OK. Seeing a map labelled "National Cycle Network routes open in 2005", the heart swells: see how thickly the green and red lines - green for quiet roads, red for traffic-free routes - crisscross the country. Then the swelling subsides a little, as you realise that a lot of the lines are pink, meaning they are on the drawing board. But still, the network is starting to look impressive: you could follow it from Land's End to John O'Groats - pick your route carefully, and you could almost do it without seeing a road. On the downside, the book's layout needs tidying up. But look at this: foreword by Sandi Toksvig. And there was I worry that cycling had an image problem.

Also, thanks to everyone who e-mailed advice on shoes, toe clips and dynamos - an entire column on the battery versus dynamo question awaits us. But, so far, we haven't had a single e-mail from a woman. Is it because we're in the motoring section, or do I need to think harder about my aftershave and personal hygiene?