Robert Hanks: The Cycling Column

The best present I could have - meeting my hero
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Indy Lifestyle Online

Off to Primrose Hill, London, to meet Richard Ballantine. Richard is the author of Richard's Bicycle Book, which was followed by Richards' Ultimate Bicycle Book - misnamed, as it turned out, since it was in turn followed by Richard's 21st Century Bicycle Book.

I bought my first copy of Richard's Bicycle Book in 1981, when I was 16 and just getting into cycling, and it is the only book that expresses what I think cycling is for.

Cycling literature too often falls into one of two categories - dry how-to-fix-it stuff, or sub-Clarkson excitement about going fast and spending money on the latest kit. Ballantine views cycling in more practical terms, as a mode of transport - the most efficient, environmentally friendly, enjoyable mode there is - and a way of life.

Some people regard his books as eccentric, because as well as the usual technical material on gearing ratios and wheel trueing, he offers excursions into bike history, suggestions for ways of incorporating bicycles into domestic life, and practical tips on how to behave when you're on your bike. The one I'm always quoting is his advice on how to kill a vicious dog. Put in such blunt terms, it sounds a little extreme. In context, hedged with admonitions to be cautious and considerate around dogs, and statistics on the prevalence of dogbites and the extent of dog involvement in bike accidents, it comes across as a matter it's painfully necessary to consider.

So meeting Ballantine, for me, is like Christmas coming early. As it happens, at 65, with a white beard and pony-tail, he looks something like a hippie Santa if you squint hard - the hippie part possibly accounted for by an upbringing in Woodstock, New York. His mother is British, though, and he spent childhood summers here. Returning to the UK in the early Seventies, when he was doing his first bicycle book, "I took one look around and I said: 'Ha, civilisation, this is for me.'" He's been here ever since.

The family home is, as you'd expect, crammed with bicycles. How many? "I don't exactly know. But at any one time I'll be running three or four." He lists them: town bike, work bike, mountain bike and, for speed-work, the "Rat 9", a red sport-class recumbent. Recumbents and HPVs - human-powered vehicles; in essence, covered, streamlined bikes and trikes - are his big thing: he's chair of the British Human Power Club and president of the International Human Powered Vehicle Association.

Most cyclists feel that the recumbent position - low down, travelling feet first - is more dangerous. Ballantine doesn't like the restricted view, but says that you just have to think further ahead. Visibility is not a problem: cars notice recumbents, if only because they're unusual, and give them room. Overall, he reckons they're safer: "I've come off upright bikes, and boy, it knocks the wind out of you. I've come off recumbents, and it's nothing - there isn't far to fall."

Cycling in Holland this summer, he was shocked to find, on approaching junctions, that cars stopped to let him through: despite the fact that many more journeys there are made by bike, accident rates are a fraction of Britain's. "It's about forcing motorists to think about us," Ballantine suggests. Cycle-lanes are, of course, a bad thing: "I cannot be too harsh about the design of cycle-paths." By taking cyclists out of the main flow of traffic, they allow motorists to forget we're there; but sooner or later, every cycle lane crosses a road. Still, he's optimistic. His theory ("or hope") is that there is a tipping-point: once 10 or 12 per cent of journeys to work are made by bike, we'll be part of the scenery.

There isn't space to give you a tenth of the wisdom of Ballantine: I'll be returning to it in the future. Meanwhile, the 21st Century Bicycle Book has slipped out of print; the campaign to get it back into print starts here. Tremble in your boots, Pan Macmillan.

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