Robert Hanks: The Cycling Column

Why bicycle bells are best left to the composers
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Indy Lifestyle Online

A few years ago, I took part in a performance of Eine Brise by the Argentine composer Mauricio Kagel. He subtitles the piece, "a fleeting action for 111 cyclists", and I was one of the 111, riding along the street, whistling, shushing and ringing my bell.

It's a difficult work to perform (just one person braking too hard can set up a chain reaction that breaks up the formation), but it was rather beautiful. That was, I think, the last time I used a bicycle bell.

Given the perpetual clatter of modern cities, you would think that the virtual silence of a well-maintained bicycle would be smiled upon. But the number of times I've heard people complain about bikes sneaking up on them; and the number of times I've had people demanding to know whether I have a bell on my bike.

The thing is, there are no good answers here. I've been shouted at for not using a bell, by pedestrians surprised at my sudden arrival; and shouted at for using one, by pedestrians surprised at my sudden tinkling. I have tried other ways of warning people. For example, leaving brakes maladjusted so that they squealed appallingly, but I got abused - I mean, really cursed - by an old woman who assumed that if my brakes were making that much noise I must be riding like a maniac.

These days, I stick to yelling, either, "Excuse me!", or, on the canal towpath, "Bike coming!". The problem with that is that any speech above a certain volume tends to be taken as aggression, and if you try to sound polite, you can end up sounding merely sarcastic.

Now there is a new enemy, the mobile phone. Last night, I had a nasty near miss with a pedestrian on her mobile, who couldn't hear what I can only call, in all modesty, my foghorn bellowing. She walked straight off a pavement in front of me.

In the end, maybe the answer is to not put yourself in a situation where you need a bell - ride well out from the pavement, give pedestrians and other cyclists lots of room, and if you can see a potential collision ahead, slow down. You'd be surprised how few people think of that last one. Leave the bells to avant-garde composers.

As holiday time approaches, I've made some unwise promises to press officers to publicise their worthy causes. So, here goes. First up is Pedal with the Parcs (pedalwiththeparcs.co.uk), a series of sponsored rides at CenterParcs in aid of the National Byways Trust and Sparks, which is to do with sporting celebrities and children's medical research. There's a family Fun Ride (ie, short), and a much longer Challenge Ride. And celebrities, too! The venues are Longleat, next Sunday; Elveden Forest in Suffolk on 6 August; Sherwood Forest on 13 August.

Then there's Sustrans (www.sustransrangers. org.uk/workcamp.htm), which is running a work-camp in Somerset from 5 to 26 August, where you can spend your holiday building a new section of cycle track between Chedzoy and Bawdrip, while Sustrans rangers patrol up and down with sunglasses, shotguns and bloodhounds, mowing down escapers. Presumably. No experience necessary, go for as long as you like, training provided.

And finally, Marie Curie Cancer Care (www.marie curie.org.uk/great500) is running the Great 500 Cycling Challenge, in which 500 riders will converge on Warsaw, Marie Curie's birthplace, on 17 September. You can do the Gdansk-Warsaw route, recommended for beginners, or Prague-Warsaw for tougher nuts. Bicycles are provided, its £235 to register, and you have to raise a minimum of £1,800 in sponsorship. Again, there's a celebrity angle: Edwina Currie, who is, apparently, mad about cycling and therefore, within the confines of this column, above reproach.

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