This article was published in 2009, in Newsletter 87.
Back in the early summer, I undertook Level 3 cycle training with Rob King of Outspoken. Even though I have been a commuter cyclist for well over a decade, I felt there were probably useful tips I could take on board from a pro.
Rob was courteous, patient, and an effective communicator. He found me to be a highly competent cyclist, which you might expect after 15 years of cycling, but he did indeed touch upon useful advice such as ‘claim your position in the road’, which I think is essential to new cyclists. Too many cyclists hug the verge or pavement, tempting motorists to squeeze past them too close and too fast. By claiming their position in the road, cars are obliged to slow down. However, it does take nerves of steel to do this and I think this is one of the contributing factors as to why there aren’t more women and girls cycling. Personally, I’ve simply resigned myself to the fact that one day I’m probably going to be hit by a carelessly driven vehicle. As I love cycling so much, I’ve just learnt to live with that risk rather than the alternative, which would be to give up cycling.
I was impressed that Rob had observed that many women, like me, when faced with a problematic or daunting situation find an alternative solution, such as getting off the bike and wheeling the bike across the road as a pedestrian, in preference to cycling amongst the traffic at the roundabout in front of Addenbrooke’s. I was pleased that he saw this as something acceptable.
I described to Rob several harrowing incidents that I had experienced as a cyclist and he was shocked. As a professional cycle courier, he had experienced rather less harassment than I had. I put this down to a couple of factors.
Firstly, he uses a bike with a big courier box and this makes his bike substantially more noticeable. Secondly, it seems to me that Level 3 training is principally for urban cycling. My five-mile daily journey to work starts off in the countryside, between Whittlesford and Little Shelford. I have a half-mile stretch where there is no cycle path, no pavement and no street lights. After 15 years of living at this address, it is my experience that drivers of all ages and both genders, on seeing a bit of open road, put their foot down and are horrifyingly careless with cyclists. This includes when my children were small and I would have my daughter in the child seat on the back of my bike and my son cycling on my inside.
Frequently, however, on this stretch of road, I am astonished by the poor quality of driving exhibited and I feel no training can prepare you for this. I have come to the conclusion that the most important defence is being highly visible, so I make a point of wearing bright colours on dull mornings and claiming my position in the middle of the road – cycle lights don’t do much in daylight. Certainly, claiming your position on S bends on country roads does feel like suicide sometimes, as you hear engines roaring up behind you.
Indeed, one memorable morning, my daughter, then about 3 years old, suddenly started screaming as we were cycling along. I couldn’t understand what had happened so I stopped the bike and got off to examine her. She showed me a fresh cut which was bleeding. The only explanation was the the car which had just passed us travelling in the opposite direction had come round the corner so fast that it had caused stones to fly up and that one of these had grazed my daughter’s bare leg (it was summer). I did report the incident to the police who weren’t very interested, especially as I couldn’t supply many details of the car (e.g. dark blue hatchback, young male driver).
Thirdly, Rob aside, Level 3 training seems to take little account of the differences between male and female mentalities. At the risk of being contentious, I feel it is worth saying there does tend to be a difference, and a new petition on the Sustrans website supports this. Many females (and some males, admittedly) feel it is too confrontational to claim their position in the road and simply don’t feel able to be that assertive. Cycle training needs to be customised and made more specific to the individual or individuals being trained.
Overall, although Rob’s delivery of the training was excellent, I feel Level 3 training is fine as far as it goes – but it doesn’t go far enough. A significant number of people cycle into Cambridge from outside the city environs (the necklace of villages surrounding the city) and the needs of those not cycling in urban environments are ignored by current Level 3 training.