When Bradley Wiggins and Shane Sutton, two of the most experienced and skilled road cyclists in the country, ended up in hospital within 24 hours of each other cycle safety was briefly elevated to front-page status. Questions were asked in the Commons and daytime television sofas alike, all asking why so many people riding bikes on UK roads are seriously injured or killed every year. Many talking heads or muttering hacks quoted Department of Transport figures that show 104 people riding bicycles have been killed on the roads so far this year, with a total of 107 killed in the whole of 2011.
It was a brief but welcome (apart, of course, from the incidents and injuries to Wiggo and Shane that generated the interest) moment in the limelight for an important issue and before the debate got superseded by other stories some progress seemed to have been made towards a recognition of the importance of cycling as a transport and health solution, and of the need to make cycling safer for anyone and everyone who chooses to turn a pedal. The downside of the debate was that it focused attention once again on the dangers of cycling rather than its benefits but given the origins of the story – Britain’s only Tour de France winner and a senior member of his coaching team put in hospital by errant drivers – this was hard to avoid.
As someone who rides a bike regularly, I am often asked by friends who might be considering taking to the roads on a bike, whether for the first time or as a returner, for a bit of advice. Top of the FAQ list is safety. While trying to be as reassuring and encouraging as possible, I also try to make sure that my answers are considered rather than flippant and realistic rather than dismissive of the risks and hazards associated with cycling on busy roads.
My most frequent response comes in two parts. First, in terms of your long-term health the benefits of cycling vastly outweigh the risks associated with being on a bike on the roads. Second, once you are on a bike on the road you need to make a conscious decision that you are going to be part of the traffic and ride accordingly; obey the rules of the road but do not be afraid to assert your right to be there. This first part is now a well-documented aspect of public health policy and is generally accepted by anyone who has read a newspaper or engaged broadcast media with any regularity in the last decade. The second part is a conclusion drawn after some two decades of regularly riding a bike at home and abroad on a great variety of roads and in a great variety of traffic conditions. However, it is easier said than done, or at least a lot more easily done by a confident, experienced cyclist than a novice.
Having been carefully honing this response over the years, I was delighted to find that there is now a third element to be added: get a copy of Cyclecraft, a guide to cycle safety written by John Franklin and published by The Stationery Office (what I still like to think of as HMSO); I’ve put the details on the links page of this blog. This excellent and highly readable book explains clearly and with great authority what I have inexpertly been trying to convey for years in my reference to deciding to be part of the traffic. In his succinct explanation of the primary and secondary riding positions Franklin explains for the benefit of novice and old hand alike not only why you should be riding in the middle of the lane on certain occasions (the primary position) but also why you have the right – and an obligation – so to do despite what some ill-informed road users (you know who they are) might think. This latter point should be a comfort and an encouragement to everyone riding a bike, as should the explanation of why the secondary position – slightly closer towards the kerb than the middle of the lane – does not involve riding in the gutter or making sure you don’t inconvenience drivers of motor vehicles.
Cyclecraft is not a radical publication. It is not written by or for road warriors, nor is it an anti-car diatribe. It is simply explaining to anyone using the road that a bike is a vehicle that is, as the Highway Code points out, entitled to the same consideration and the same space as any other vehicle. This issue of the same space is what should make the primary and secondary riding positions more acceptable and more readily adoptable to anyone whose limited bike handling skills and self-preservation instincts prevent them from adopting some of the more extreme tactics of the urban cycle militia.
Riding a big bike with a precious cargo brings the issue of road safety, and in particular road positioning, into sharper focus than it might have been when I was riding solo on a road bike or a pub bike. Perhaps as a parent I am now consciously or unconsciously less likely to take risks but certainly as the pilot of a bike with a passenger in it I am aware of my responsibility to deliver the cargo safely and comfortably to her (or occasionally my) chosen destination. For many less experienced cyclists the concept of riding out in the stream of the traffic, well away from the kerb and well in the way of the cars, vans and buses also using the road, is counter-intuitive; even experienced cyclists might feel that their instinct to ‘take the road’ is about competing for space rather than using the space that is legitimately available to them. However, for the rider of a cargo bike, it becomes a necessity.
Once I started riding a Bakfiets I quickly became aware that my riding style had changed. Sitting upright and pushing a significant weight meant my speed was generally going to be slow, so nipping in and around other vehicles was not going to be a feature of my journeys. The fact that a cargo bike is pretty wide also meant that I was not going to be slipping up the inside or outside of many traffic queues or squeezing between buses to grab a few extra yards. Instead I found myself taking my time and taking my place within the traffic, becoming part of the traffic rather than competing with it. I finally realised that I was actually following the advice I had been offering all these years: I had had the decision to be part of the traffic forced upon me by dint of the size of the bike I was riding.
By being obliged to travel more sedately I have taken to travelling more serenely. Now I take my place on the road in what I now know to be the primary position, offering generously exaggerated hand signals and cheery waves as I go. The reaction of motorists has been to respond in kind, almost without exception, offering space on the road and clearance as they pass. Such consideration from fellow road users is probably a reflection of their surprise at coming across such an unlikely bike or their incredulity that anyone would be so irresponsible to pedal their own child about in a small skip on wheels; it may be down to the fact that we have become something of a local talking point, although given that we live near the Headington shark locals are very hard to impress. Whatever the reason may be, I feel as secure on a bike on the road as I ever have.
On the odd occasion that I have had to remind a driver that they might like to reconsider their decision to take my space, I have been able to do so with the confidence of someone who has read Cyclecraft and is quite prepared to discuss its recommendations in detail. Which is enough to frighten even the most hardened motorist.