Riding in the UK

April 22, 2012 at 23:26 | Posted in bicycles | Leave a comment
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I haven’t been around much recently, as we’ve been in the UK visiting family. All a bit of a whirlwind, but I did manage to do one thing I had planned – to go for a bike ride.

I borrowed my father-in-law’s bike to go for a spin through the Warwickshire countryside. It was nice to get out, and riding through the lanes in the unseasonably warm March sunshine brought back memories of my youth, spent exploring miles of similar rural roads where I grew up on my trusty Peugeot ten-speed. In those days I used to ride all day on an unpadded saddle and thin plastic bar tape, with no knicks, gloves, jerseys, sunglasses, energy bars or flashing lights. I was made of sterner stuff back then, apparently.

Mind you, my father-in-law’s bike did have some comfort issues. It was, in the parlance, more of a BSO than a bicycle. A double suspension mountain bike that was too small (and I’m not exactly tall), heavy (especially the forks!) and with suspension that bottomed out on the smallest pot hole. So as you can imagine, my ride wasn’t a very long one. However, it was nice to go for a ride without the added frisson of undertaking criminal activity simply by riding a bike. Wearing a helmet is optional in the UK, so I was able to go bare-headed with impunity. Indeed, the main cycling advocacy groups in the UK campaign strongly against compulsion (although not against wearing them, of course, a distinction that seems lost on out own woeful ‘advocacy’ groups.)

I note that the brand of my father-in-law’s bike – ‘Apollo’ – is the one sold by one of the UK’s largest bike retailers, Halfords. Halfords is not a specialist bike store; they are also an auto parts outlet. However, the Halfords branch I visited had a good 40% of the retail space given over to bikes and bicycle accessories, and had a bike service centre. The other brand they stock is the ‘Boardman’ range; generally well regarded mid-range bicycles endorsed by Chris Boardman. It’s a pity they stock so many BSOs, though – surely they could stock the cheaper ranges of the reputable brands instead? I’m sure that my mother-in-law thought she was buying a reasonable bike from a reputable supplier when she went to her local store to buy a ‘men’s bike’ as a present for her husband. Clearly she was neither sold a good product, nor given good advice about a suitable style of bike. Oh well, I suppose it’s all down to profit margins.

I further observed the bicycle riders in the UK divide into two predominant types.

The first is the enthusiast, mostly seen riding around the rural lanes. These further divide into two types; younger ones on lightweight racing bikes with lycra and helmets, and older ones on touring bikes with mudguards and beards, usually helmet-less. Indeed I saw several groups of riders all out together, some in helmets, others not. Which is just how it should be; people free to choose their headwear as suits them – and of no more significance than choosing whether to not to wear gloves.

The second group were seen in the urban areas, usually riding cheap mountain bikes rather similar to the one I borrowed, wearing everyday clothes, and invariably without helmets. Utility cyclists, in other words, getting from A to B across town on their bikes. There were quite a lot of these riders; many more than I remember from my last visit several years ago. Clearly the cycling boom is happening in the UK too.

The other noteworthy thing about these urban bike riders is that they were all, pretty much without exception, riding on the pavement. The UK suffers from the same lack of cycling facilities as we do in Australia, and clearly people were voting with their wheels and riding where they felt safe, away from the motor traffic – despite riding on the pavement attracting a fine. The rise of the pavement cyclist is not going unnoticed, as this article from the local paper shows. And, like here in Australia, somehow the debate seems to turn into an ‘us vs them’ argument, rather than focussing on the real issue – the lack of cycling facilities, and the relentless focus on building roads for the exclusive use of motor traffic, to the exclusion of all other road users (pedestrians included).

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Precious cargo, pavements and cycling advocacy

November 13, 2011 at 14:52 | Posted in bicycles | 3 Comments
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I’ve carried a lot of things on my Radish cargo bike over the last year or so – groceries, a table, teacups and even a person. However, there is no doubt that the most precious cargo I carry is my beautiful daughter. Since buying the BoBike seat, we use the bike quite often to get around; I take her to playgroup, and we go out to the park or to the shops.

She really enjoys it, and often talks about ‘going on Daddy’s bike’. And as we go along we sing and chat, and she points out the things we see (‘Doggie!’ “Bus!’ ‘Tree!’), and rings the bell for me when I ask her to. It is lots of fun for both of us, and we laugh together as we whizz down the hill, the wind in our hair.

I’m a confident cyclist, capable of holding my own on the road, happy to ‘take the lane’ when needed, very used to traffic and I think quite good at reading road situations and staying out of trouble. Indeed, I’ve escorted novices on their first few commutes, and help them understand how to ride more assertively on the road in order to make the ride safer and more enjoyable. I am also aware that riding a bike – even on the road in Sydney – is not actually that dangerous, despite what many would have you believe, and that your chances of being involved in an accident are actually very very slim – much less, for example, then when walking back from the pub after a few beers, or when playing football.

However, from the moment I first set off with Toddler Chillikebab on board, it was clear that I was going to ride differently. A bit slower, yes, after all it’s not going to be much fun for her if she’s bouncing around in her seat. But what was very quickly apparent was that I was going to ride on the pavement for all but the quietest streets.

Take this road, for example, which runs near my house. It’s one of those slightly uncomfortable roads for cycling – dual lane, but with lots of parked cars. Riding along you either have the option to take the whole available lane, and risk annoying  car driver behind you who wants to go past, or ride next to the parked cars, putting yourself in the door zone and inviting traffic to pass quite close to you in the adjacent lane. I’ve ridden down this road lots of times; it’s not especially fast and the traffic is well behaved on the whole. I certainly don’t think twice about it when I’m on my own; I just take the lane or pull in as seems appropriate and all is well.

However, I wasn’t going to ride it with Toddler Chillikebab on board. We cruised along on the pavement instead. It just seemed the natural thing to do.

This has really got me pondering how most people think about cycling. Most people who don’t cycle would I’m sure feel the same, even if they didn’t have a toddler on board. Riding on any sort of busy road just isn’t going to happen.

It also reminded me of some comments made online by Omar Khalifa, the CEO of Bicycle NSW (the state peak body for cycling). He wrote about riding down Harris Street, and finding it very unpleasant with many aggressive drivers. (He also commented that such cycling was inherently dangerous; which I thought was a particularly unfortunate bit of Whispering, considering he is supposed to be the lead cycling advocate in the state.)

I’ve also ridden down Harris Street, and I suppose a few months ago someone had commented on it, I’d have either given them some tips on taking the lane, or perhaps suggested finding an alternative route. But now, I might offer an alternative suggestion – just ride on the pavement. There’s a big, wide pavement on Harris Street, and not many people walking along, so it would be perfect. Of course, you have to ride much more slowly, and there are cross-streets which entail stopping to cross. You also need a different bike; riding on a  bumpy pavement on a road bike is very uncomfortable; hard skinny tyres and a hunched-forward position make it very wearing on the wrists. It also feels frustratingly slow. But on an upright bike, with big tyres to soak up the bumps it’s just dandy; you can cruise along and feel quite relaxed.

I suspect that that type of cycling isn’t the sort that Omar wants to do, and unfortunately most bicycle advocates, being keen road cyclists, just seem blind to its possibilities. I know that a few years ago I certainly was; it was only when I got the Radish that I started to see another way and I’ve been slowly finding out more about it over recent months. In the Northern Territory it is legal to ride on the pavement, and the NT has the highest modal share of cyclists, despite having the most dangerous roads and the worst weather.

Allowing cyclists on the footpaths would probably be a controversial move; no doubt people’s first thoughts would be of lycra-clad hoons carving up old ladies outside the shops. However, I’m not so sure that would happen; road cyclists want to ride on the roads – it’s non-cyclists who would ride on the pavements. They’d probably cruise along slowly just like Toddler Chillikebab and me, ringing their bells and singing songs. Now that doesn’t sound so threatening, does it?

Of course, what we’d really like are proper separated bicycle lanes. Without doubt they are the most comfortable way to ride. But while we wait for them to be built (and in Australia it could be a long wait) we could consider allowing cyclists onto the pavement, at least in areas where pedestrian traffic is light. It would probably get a lot more people riding their bikes than telling them that on dangerous streets you should take the lane.

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