Are we all riding the wrong bike?

As I fiddled with the locks that had kept my Bakfiets secured to the bike stand outside one of my local supermarkets I watched with interest, then wonder, then alarm as a fellow shopper carefully hung a bag on each end of her mountain bike’s handlebars and then lifted a shrink-wrapped case of six two-litre bottles of mineral water on to the crossbar. For a brief moment she considered the possibility of trying to ride away but before gravity was forced to illustrate the error of her ways she thought better of it and wheeled the heavily laden machine towards home.

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Amsterdam: the bike as an everyday tool

It was a relief to watch her walk away. It had been all too clear all too quickly that here was a shopping trip that could have ended in broken bottles, broken bags and, in all likelihood, broken bones. I suspect she would not have made it more than ten yards without mishap and whatever your thoughts on bottled water (and it is difficult to escape the conclusion that no one who lives within a 500-mile radius of where I live actually needs it) its transport should not involve bloodshed.

This little tableau was another small speck of grist to a mill that has been grinding in the back of my mind for some time. The question that has been occupying me on and off for months is simply this: are we all riding the wrong bike?

Now I’m the first to admit that not everyone wants to ride round on a skip on wheels but there does seem to be an obvious disconnection between the bikes that the majority of people are riding and the job that the majority of people want a bike to do. Even in Oxford, which is a cycling city, the off-road bike – or at least a bastardised version that has been inspired by the mountain trail – is prevalent. The majority of these bikes boast enough gears to allow you to tie your chain in knots and still ride up your roof but few seem to have anything that is specifically designed to enable the rider to carry anything that is not strapped to their person. While the wicker basket is not unusual (as I say, I live in Oxford and some traditions, however self-regarding, hold fast), it seems increasingly obvious that most of the bikes on our streets are not fit for the purpose of using a bike as an everyday aid to living.

If you are lucky enough to be choosing a bike that is going to accompany you on life’s great adventure there is a fairly simple question-and-answer session that you need to attend to before you saddle up.

Question one: do you want to get dressed specifically to ride a bike? If your answer is ‘yes’, you are a roadie and you will be carrying only the things that can fit into the three small pockets on the back of your jersey or in the bottles fixed to your frame. You will have no interest in going to the shops and, owing to your likely choice of pedals, no ability to walk round them if you did. Move on; there’s nothing for you here.

If your answer is no, it is more likely that you just want a bike to get about on, one that will save you the faff of getting on the bus or getting in a car and trying to find a parking space when all you wanted to do was go up the road to get something, visit someone or have a drink. And so to question two: are you likely to need to carry something on any of your journeys in the next six months? If your answer is no you have to go back to question one and face the fact that you are actually a roadie and condemned to riding only the narrowest of tyres and narrowest of saddles for the rest of your life, like a cycling Sisyphus.

The only possible answer to question two is ‘yes’; of course you are going to need to carry something. Whatever your purpose, be it work, pleasure or duty, you are going to need to carry a bag or some books, a coat or a bag of chips in the very near future. Therefore you are going to need a basket; or a rack with a springy elastic cord; or some panniers; or one of those natty, 1950s-style saddle bags.

So why do so many people ride around with countless gears but nothing in which to put their gear? There will, of course, be as many reasons as riders but among the most common factors will be happenstance (this bike happened to be available/handy/unlocked/still in the shed), cost (a Chinese-made pseudo-mountain bike with plastic brake levers was the cheapest thing I could find) or availability (I went into my local bike shop and it seemed to be full of high-end mountain bikes or road bikes requiring a specific, highly colourful and highly unflattering wardrobe).

If riding a bike is to become an everyday transport option for a sizeable proportion of the population, rather than a lifestyle choice for the committed, the bicycle has to be reduced to the status of a convenient tool, rather than shrouded in mystery or fetishised as the choice of champions. The everyday bike needs to be sturdy, upright and at the front of the shop. There should be a choice of sizes (small, medium and large should do it), a choice of colours (black, blue or red; anything else as a special order) and a variety of carrying options (basket, panniers or the common Dutch, which entails a folding, front-mounted rack designed to hold a beer crate or a friend; the full Dutch involves the aforementioned skip with wheels and need not concern us for the moment). There should be a minimum number of gears neatly contained within the rear hub (who needs more than three?) and a minimum amount of fuss surrounding the selection process. There should be a sympathetic individual to reassure the purchaser that, yes, while it is quite a lot of money to shell out on a bike, it will cost you next to nothing to keep on the road, you’ll still be riding it in 20 years and it will be a source of joy, all of which is in stark contrast to having anything to do with a car.

It is no coincidence that when you go to Amsterdam the first thing you notice after you have marvelled at the sheer weight of bicycle traffic on the streets is that all the bikes are almost identical. The two things that might dissuade you from hiring a bike to get around the city for a couple of days are first, that you will struggle to find anywhere to park it because every available stand and railing has a bike chained to it and, second, that if you did find somewhere to leave it you may well struggle to find it again among the massed ranks of black, sit-up-and-beg bikes. In Amsterdam no one really seems to care what their bike looks like as long as it does the job of getting them and their bag to where they need to go. It is a lesson we should learn in the UK as we strive to emulate our Dutch brethren.

So with two simple questions, you are on your way to a life of bicycling convenience, free from the necessity for special clothing or the dangers of things hanging from your handlebars. There is a third question: do I need a bike that can carry another three or four people, a month’s worth of groceries, three bags of sand or a barrel of beer? If the answer is yes we may need to talk skips.

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Het regent!* Onboard and undercover

*Dutch for “It’s raining!”

If you use a Bakfiets virtually every day eventually you are going to have to deal with inclemency. This year we have been dealing with inclemency since the summer began but now that the winter is here with a vengeance biting winds have been added to the rain. What is the purveyor of a precious cargo to do?

With a really big bike as your chosen mode of transport you have a choice of two options and, given that the Dutch have very similar, if windier, weather to that of the UK, both options have been catered for by the Bakfiets design team.

Option one: the hardy approach

The first option is the hardy approach. If you are an adherent to the old adage that there is no such thing as bad weather, only inappropriate clothing, this one is for you. The hardy approach involves kitting out your cargo in their best wet-weather gear, jamming the hats firmly on the head of cargo and captain alike, and heading off into the squall. The Bakfiets design feature included as standard that will meet your needs in this instance are the four holes in the floor of the box, one in each corner. No matter how hard it rains, you can be confident that you won’t be pedalling with water in the bilge. How much weight is taken on board by the absorbency of the cargo is down to the appropriateness of the chosen clothing.

The second option may be termed the deluxe approach. This approach involves using a Bakfiets rain hood, an elegantly designed and sturdily constructed cover that fits simply and quickly to the Bakfiets box, ensuring that the cargo is warm and dry at all times. Freed from the worry of a dampening and increasingly disgruntled bikemate, the captain is left in peace to cope with the effects of side winds on a tall structure and marvel at the improvements to the drag coefficient that the rain hood appears to bring. There is also an added benefit in that the rain hood offers some protection for the pedaller’s legs, particularly if you are able to maintain a reasonable pace.

Option two: the deluxe

This second (deluxe) option does mean additional expense – some £160 – but this, having braved the first option during a very wet August, was our preferred option. Although the hardy option has much to recommend it and is still employed on those ‘will it, won’t it’ days for short trips, the rain hood has already seen plenty of use and has proved invaluable. No matter how bad the weather, you can be confident that your cargo will arrive at her destination warm and dry, although the warm, dry conditions do tend to create a very snoozy environment, which may or may not be a cause for concern depending upon your planned bedtimes.

Putting the expense to one side, the drawbacks of the rain hood might be said to include storage – away from the bike the hood comprises a large triangle of heavy-duty plastic that really needs to be hung somewhere that is both out of the way and accessible (a garage in our case) – and that fact that it does not stow – once it is attached to the bike it won’t fold down during the journey. However, the positives are plentiful and persuasive. It is very simple to install upon delivery, requiring only a few screws to fit the four clips and anchors. it is quick and easy to put on the bike on a day-to-day basis, which means you will actually decide to use it rather than thinking, “I don’t have time to fiddle about with that now.” Most attractive of all, it works. The cargo is warm. The cargo is dry. The cargo is happy. And so am I. Excellent value at almost any cost.

Staying safe on the road with Wiggo and Shane

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.

Frequently answered questions

Part of the joy of tooling around town on a great big bike is falling into conversation with people along the route who are fascinated by this unusual mode of transport. These are some of the questions that have created a pleasant delay in my journeys in recent weeks, along with some of the answers I have come up with when politely put on the spot.

Did you make it yourself?
Er, no. You wouldn’t have to be Mycroft Holmes to work out from a quick look at my hands that I don’t spend much time working with metal but it is a question that always makes me laugh; and think. Given that I still haven’t painted the new staircase in my house two and half years after it was fitted, I hate to think how long it would take me to build a bike frame of any description and the Bakfiets is too elegantly finished to be the work of a back-garden workshop. However, there has been a strong tradition of manufacturing in the city so perhaps it would not be beyond the skills of some of my neighbours.

Is it difficult to ride?
Not once you have got used to it. Here I tend to fall back on the analogy of the difference experience of driving a van when you’re used to driving a car. Once you are familiar with the turning circle and the handling, it becomes second nature quite quickly. You need to read the far too lengthy article on A Precious Cargo – Getting started: riding a very big bike – dealing with just this question.

Is it Dutch?
Yes it is! Well spotted. The dot.nl web address on the side of the cargo box might be a give away but it seems that a lot of people in the UK, and not just people who cycle, understand that the Dutch have a very positive attitude to solving transport problems using bicycles. The conversation usually continues along the lines of how sensible the Dutch approach is rather than suggesting that they must all be stoned in the Netherlands to come up with such a contraption. This bodes well for the continuing efforts to promote cycling as a viable and accessible transport solution for the UK.

Is it very expensive?
Er, yes it is. There’s no getting away from it, you get little change out of two grand once you’ve had it delivered and no change at all once you have added a rain cover; and that’s a lot of money for a bike. However, once you begin to balance it against the cost of running a car, or perhaps for some people a second car, it begins to make a little more sense to a lot more people. For hardcore bikies you can just point out that it’s about the same amount  they might pay for a decent carbon-framed, Campag-equipped road bike. And you can’t carry a bag of sand with Campag.

Is it as much fun as it looks?
Oh yes. While it may be much more fun for the cargo, it is still a great way to get about even if you are the one having to pedal. The question is usually prompted by a smile and wave from the passenger but it is a question that cuts right to the heart of the cargo bike experience: it is just much more fun for all concerned than trailers, rear-mounted seats or trailer bikes.

Can you give me a lift?
Why not? Although conveniently enough, I never seem to be going in the same direction as the questioner. I must soon do a gentle road test with a bigger passenger so that I can invite the next person to ask this particular question to hop in.