The perils of cycling

Terrorism has driven thousands of wobbly novice cyclists on to the roads. Robert Hanks explains the pitfalls - and potholes
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The Independent Online

In the last few weeks, since the bombs went off, cycling has taken off in London. At one bike shop I frequent, the staff reckon sales have gone up by 300 per cent; at another, they told me they'd doubled their takings. It has been reported that 50,000 extra cyclists have taken to the streets.

Since cycling makes people healthier, helps reduce congestion and doesn't cause pollution, this is good news. Not everybody feels this way, though. You may have seen a letter in this paper last week, from a long-term cyclist complaining about "the new influx of bikers - often incapable of riding in a straight line, ignorant of how to use their gears, bereft of road sense and clad in pointless plastic helmets which they seem to believe render them sufficiently indestructible to ride through red lights or against the traffic in one-way streets." Ah yes, because up until two weeks ago the sight of a cyclist riding through red lights or the wrong way up a one-way street was practically unknown. But this grumbler is not alone: one of my bike-shop acquaintances told me he'd had a lot of customers complaining about newbies.

Personally, I'm a cyclist not simply in the sense that I ride a bike, but in the sense that some people are socialists or Christian fundamentalists or ethical realists - that is, cycling is my ideology, a system of thought based on purity and economy of motion, kindness to the environment and drop handlebars, and I want to convert others. With this in mind, I offer some basic advice for the novice cyclist.

GET A BIKE

It doesn't much matter which one. The quality of bike manufacturing these days is simply superb. Drop handlebars are more comfortable and more elegant, and take very little getting used to, but many people just feel more secure with flat handlebars. Get a bike with lots of gears - young, fit people in bike shops will tell you that gears aren't important in London. That's because they haven't got dodgy knees yet.

Get toe-clips, or even cleated cycle shoes and pedals to match. Many people think that securing your feet to the pedals is dangerous, but in 24 years with toe-clips I've never had any trouble whisking my feet out when necessary, and the mechanical advantage of being able to pull the pedals as well as push them is tremendous.

After some adventures with a Brompton, I've taken against folding - smaller wheels make for a less comfortable ride, and the gearing isn't enough for my knees. But if space or commuting make it essential, don't let me stop you.

ACCESSORISE

Get panniers to carry your chattels around. Failing that, use a rucksack. The shoulder-bags that couriers use will land them up at the osteopath's in 10 years' time; stuff falls out of baskets and can get tangled in wheels.

Get small, bright lights - flashing ones are supposedly illegal, but (speaking here as a driver) far easier to see. Get some maps - Transport for London's website will send you free cycling maps, and they're excellent. Get a good bicycle maintenance book. Richard Ballantine is the best cycling author, because he understands that cycling has to fit into your life, and because he tells you how to kill a dog that's bothering you.

BE BOLD...

In traffic, with lorries thundering around you and impatient cars hovering at your elbow, fear and good manners suggest that it's a good idea to keep in to the pavement. This is the worst possible thing to do. If you meet with trouble, you've no room for manoeuvre. Cars coming out of junctions can't see you. Motorists will take your acquiescence as an encouragement to overtake even when there isn't the space to do it. When you encounter a parked car - and it's the car that's parked rather than the one that's moving that is the cyclist's worst enemy - you'll have to swing out into traffic, and that's when accidents happen.

Far better to be out in the traffic in the first place - not right out in the middle of the road, but enough so that if the car in front screeches to a halt you've got some options about where to go. Out here you've got space and visibility, the cyclist's friends. Motorists are forced to treat you as another vehicle, not as a mutant pedestrian who has wandered off the pavement. You aren't going to be killed by some person opening a car door.

...BUT BE CAUTIOUS

In statistical terms, the idea that cycling is a safer alternative to public transport, even when public transport is under terrorist assault, is laughable. Cyclists are the most vulnerable creatures on the roads - moving fast, precariously balanced, and with only the human body's natural crumple-zones and padding to protect them. You should wear a helmet, unless you've got a good reason not to.

In any case, cycling is freedom, and we all know what the price of freedom is, don't we? All right, then, it's eternal vigilance. Keep both eyes open and both hands on the brakes (except when signalling a turn). Be paranoid, because even if they aren't actually out to get you the effect is the same. Keep looking over your shoulder, and if you can't do that without veering off course then for God's sake don't try riding in traffic: take the bike to a park or a cul-de-sac and practise until you can. In between looking over your shoulder, listen out for engine-noise - so no iPods, no mobile phones.

If the road feels too crowded, or you feel too hassled, there's no shame in getting off your bike and wheeling it if the roads feel too hostile. Cyclists in this country are unnecessarily macho about this - they think that getting off the bike is admission of defeat.

Never assume that a driver has seen you, or if he has, that he cares. In any case, give the car in front lots of room, because bicycle brakes are, compared with car brakes, absolute rubbish: he can stop much more quickly than you can.

BE NICE

We like to think that motorists hate us because they envy our freedom, but mostly it's because we ignore the rules and we lack consideration for non-cyclists. Cycling on pavements is fine, but remember you are the pedestrians' guest, and behave accordingly. On roads, give clear signals whenever you can, obey red lights, and if you do end up in a dispute with a motorist, try smiling and apologising: my experience is that the motorist will be so surprised he will drive off in a daze.

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