As you will know, both myself and Kate are keen cycle commuters and have been for a while. We’ve already written some bits and pieces that can help you out but these mainly focused on clothing, sneaky ways of keeping your hair neat and not forgetting essential items….but something we didn’t touch on was the actual cycling part.
I constantly promote cycling to work left right and centre, and the first question I always get asked is ‘but isn’t it really dangerous to cycle in London?’ And my response? It can be dangerous if you make it dangerous. Yes, statistically there are more cycling accidents and deaths in London compared to some other European cities, but part of my point is that (shock horror) cyclists can be and (frequently are) to blame……
If you cycle in London, you will constantly see people doing downright dangerous manoeuvres on bikes. Jumping lights, squeezing through gaps they can’t really fit through, undercutting vehicles and other cyclists….is there any wonder that this isn’t going to end well? Sorry, but pit a bicycle against any moving vehicle and you know who is going to win. And it isn’t the one that is human powered.
I’m not trivialising the deaths on London’s roads, because it’s appalling what is happening, but I am just putting it out there that it’s not one way traffic; both cyclists and motorists need to put themselves in the other’s shoes and have a little respect for other road users. Cyclists, stop acting the victim and sticking a finger up at each and every vehicle, and motorists, stop bike-hating and giving chat about “urrrg they don’t pay road tax so shouldn’t be there.” (Note, I know these are generalisations and there are a lot of cycling motorists and vice versa and those who are all very pleasant and know how to share nicely.)
There was significantly more interest in the death earlier this year of Akis Kollaros, because he was a club rider. Although I have seen dubious behaviour by Dynamos in Richmond Park, there is an inclination to think (and often rightly so) that club riders are more experienced and therefore less likely to be pulling out some of the stupid moves I called out earlier. And I think that’s why it shocked a lot of the most serious cycling community – we think we don’t do stupid things, are more sensible about riding and are therefore immune from any danger. But it’s not the case. Sometimes, this means we’re more likely to try and save time (maybe hit a KOM on Strava?) and yes, I’m not going to say I’m always 100% perfect, there are some occasions when I have nipped through gaps where I shouldn’t have….but there are some who seem to think they are totally immune from the rules of the road because ‘they know what they are doing.’
I do want to stand my ground and say it’s not always the motorist’s fault. Yes, some drivers are idiots, they pull stupid moves, they open car doors without looking, they overtake with about 20cm of space….but far too many cyclists appear to be incapable of reading the road ahead and understanding what is a sensible decision to make in that specific situation. Yes, there might be an advance box at the lights, but if you have to go on the inside of an HGV in the cycle lane when you don’t know when the lights are going to change colour….is it really a good idea to try and get to it? The cycle lane is not gospel. It’s not the law to be in it, so if it is safer not to, don’t.
Take a look at this video which very quickly demonstrates the extent of the blind spot of a lorry.
Is it really worth the risk of nipping round? You have no idea when the lights are going to change, how long it will take the other 100000 cyclists to move out of your way, how quickly the lorry will move off…there are far too many variables in these types of situation. If you need to stay back, stay back. Don’t let people behind you bully you into putting yourself into a situation you aren’t comfortable with.
To summarise, here are a few things for you, my dear cyclist reader to consider, and for you, my dear driver to understand what cyclists are legally allowed to do. Note these apply to cyclists everywhere, not just those of us battling London traffic.
Assume the worst. Never assume that someone has seen you. To ride safely, you need to ride differently. Someone waiting to pull out? They won’t notice you. Car turning across you? They won’t have seen you. Always be ready to hit the brakes. Same with pedestrians. 90% of those anywhere near the city will be checking their phones and not looking before they step out into the road, and also seem to have no concept of the speed of a bike. Feel free to ring bells and shout at them!
Judge the situation, not the markings. Pay attention and make sure you’re cycling based on your surroundings, not what ‘must be OK to do because the cycle lane says so’.
Be assertive. Hold your ground, don’t dither and make decisions and stick to them. Be confident. This applies to a lot of the items in this list– yes, someone might honk a horn at you or try and bully you into moving over, but don’t give in to it. You have as much right to the road as they do. Own it.
Take the lane. As a cyclist, you have as much right to hold your lane as any vehicle. If it’s safer for you to be in the middle of the lane (Parliament Square comes to mind) then be there. Cars make more of an effort to move round you or they will wait behind you and not attempt a risky overtake. Act like a vehicle and you’ll be more likely to be given the space of one. Nice cyclescheme article here about road placement if you want some more guidance.
Get out of the gutter. This is something instilled in me from a young age by my mother. If you hug the kerb, then motorists don’t make as much of an effort to go round you, therefore staying closer and being scarier. I tend to ride a good metre in from the kerb – this means motorists have to make more of a conscious effort to overtake and will therefore do so in a safer manner, just like taking the lane. Also applies to people opening car doors on you….
You don’t have to use the cycle lane. Again, you have a right to be in the main part of the road. If you can see you’ll be ducking and diving out of the lane because there are cars parked in it (again) or if you are in a lane that just hates cyclists….then you don’t have to be in it.
Don’t take risks. I am fed up about reading stories of cyclists being knocked off because they were trying to turn left on the inside of a bus or lorry that is also turning left. It’s basic common sense. Yes, people might get impatient behind you but seriously, is it worth it? What’s an extra 20 seconds of hanging back versus the worst case scenario? Don’t be stupid.
Plan and look ahead. Don’t just pay attention to the here and now, pay attention to what’s coming. Do you need to move pull out around a car? Move lanes? Work out which of the 4 lanes you need to be in?! If you are starting to cycle to work, why not test the route at the weekend when it will be quieter? Then you can know your lanes and where you can use a superhighway or cycle path to cut out nasty junctions (E&C roundabout, I’m looking at you!)
Use the pack mentality. You know how cyclists bunch together in front of a bus at traffic lights? It’s great because motorists treat you as a larger being. Get used to being in your own little peloton and revel in the safety in numbers. But don’t feel pressured to join it if it isn’t safe to do so (remember the lorry above?)
Signal when you need to. Make sure people know your intentions. Exactly the same as ‘Mirror Signal Manoeuvre’ in a car. Make eye contact if you need to, just make sure it is clear what you are doing and where you are going – just like when you are driving.
Be seen! Seriously, invest in some good lights, a bright rucksack cover and some reflective stuff. Looking like a Christmas tree is often very effective. A recent Aviva report on accidents in London found that 33% of those in serious accidents after dark weren’t using lights…I guarantee that you are ASKING for trouble if you take this risk. It’s illegal to cycle after dark with no lights on. People don’t drive around with no lights on so why is it apparently something you can do on a bike? I have taken to carrying spare batteries in my saddle bag after being caught short recently.
Now I am SURE that this will have provoked a few good opinions – there are a myriad of thoughts on this that I chose not to cover (for example, being allowed to ride two abreast and when you should/shouldn’t, the WHOLE HELMET DEBATE à la Chris Boardman) so please comment and give me your take on things. You might also want to read my musings on ‘Girls on bikes’ if this is your sort of thing.
In the meantime though – stay safe!