The other evening, on my way home, driving through Richmond Park, I nearly hit a cyclist. Rather, I was tootling up the hill in my tiny Fiat 500 Twin Air when down came a Lycra-clad missile. Hunched over the handlebars, legs pumping furiously, he was doing far more than the park's speed limit of 20mph. Fortunately, I saw him with only a split second to spare and swerved – or else we would have collided head-on.
Richmond Park is like this all the time now. Ever since cycling forced itself into the popular consciousness, via Chris Boardman, Chris Hoy, Victoria Pendleton, Bradley Wiggins, Mark Cavendish and now Chris Froome, it's a sea of ferociously pedalling riders.
In the morning and early evenings during the week, they're on their way to and from work. Later, in the evening and at weekends, they're cycling, and racing, for pleasure.
They're doing so in ever larger numbers – on a Saturday and Sunday morning there must be thousands on Richmond Park's circular road. Most are wearing the colours of one of London's cycling clubs. Many are fighting against the clock, at speeds that if a car recorded them would see it pulled over by the police, but are ignored.
The proof of this is on a cult app called Strava. Using GPS technology, a cyclist's journey time is logged on the Strava website and ranked against the times of other cyclists. They can do it for any trip, including daily commutes, and build up league tables. Those who come top on an established route are awarded the title King of the Mountains, after the prize for the best climber in the Tour De France.
Plenty has been written about Strava, mainly by cyclists waxing lyrical about how addictive it is, how it brings out their competitive edge, how every ride becomes a race. I know if I was a MAMIL (middle-aged man in Lycra) on my Boardman wunder-machine, I would strive to be King of the Mountains in my local Richmond Park.
I wouldn't be alone – it's one of the most popular Strava battlegrounds in the country. And therefore one of the most dangerous. At some point, there will be a terrible accident in the park, either involving a cyclist and a pedestrian, a car, motorbike, one of the grazing deer, or another cyclist. The speeds the cyclists are reaching are far in excess of the legal maximum.
How do we know this? Not because the police are clocking the racers – they say they can't, since unlike cars the cycles don't have speedometers. But because the times are there for all to see, on the Strava website. All the police have to do is look at the listings and compare the average speeds with the statutory limits, and prosecute.
Something has to be done. Don't get me wrong: I love cycling – one of my joys is an amble at the weekend around the park with my eight-year old son. Notice, I use the word amble – we're not threatening any law or anybody's safety.
One solution would be to ban cars at certain periods – weekend mornings for instance – lift the speed limit and allow the cyclists a free road. That way they could Strava to their hearts' content (although God help the walkers and deer).
The Strava problem, however, is not confined to one small corner of south-west London. For Richmond Park, read the country at large – anywhere cyclists choose to ride.
It's only going to get worse, with the announcement this week by David Cameron of a £77m investment in new cycling infrastructure. Of course, the money is needed to ensure safer riding for cyclists – only this week I blanched as I saw a lone cyclist struggling in the left-hand lane along London's ferociously busy Cromwell Road, as lorries and cars roared past. We need more properly defined cycling lanes; our roads must be made more accommodating for cyclists.
It's ridiculous that only 2 per cent of all journeys in the UK are made by bike, versus one-third of all journeys in the Netherlands. It might be flatter over there but the Dutch also ensured that all new roads comprised parallel car and cycling lanes. In short, they insisted on treating cyclist and motorists the same. They have equal rights – one is not more powerful than the other.
I'm all for that. If we can get more people riding, we get a fitter, cleaner, healthier nation. But the process has to be two-way. Cyclists must also take responsibility for their own safety and that of other road users as well – and that means obeying the speed limit and the Highway Code the same as everyone else.
It's a weird feeling, one that I never thought I would experience – but I have to admit, I'm in some agreement with Ukip on this. Nigel Farage's party advocates: greater moves by the police to tackle bike thefts; a simple annual flat rate registration “Cycledisc”, stuck to the bicycle frame, to cover damage to cars and others; the Cycledisc would carry clear identification details, again to help counter theft, and also deter dangerous cyclist behaviour; and mandatory cycle and safety training for school pupils. Local authorities would be given additional powers to enforce “no cycling” or “cyclist dismount” notices at busy junctions, roundabouts and other spots where there are safety concerns.
All this seems eminently sensible. Where I think Ukip is going too far is pushing for parking charges for bikes. Otherwise, I can't see much wrong with what is being suggested.
It's likely – although I'm sure Farage would disagree – that some in his party have an in-built hatred of cyclists, regarding them as unreconstructed good-for-nothings who obstruct hard-working, tax-paying car drivers. Likewise, there will be many in the cycling community who regard adherence to speed limits, police examination of Strava records, and the Ukip proposals as abhorrent interference.
This blinkered polarisation has to stop. We want more safe cycling, pure and simple.Reuse content