THE ART OF ADVANCED CYCLING
It's as easy as riding a bike", as the old saying goes. Cycling is so straightforward that few of us give it any thought. The phrase "I'm learning to ride a bike" is taken to mean just that: mastering the physical process of movement and balance.
Compare it with "I'm learning to drive" – which means not just "I'm learning to operate a car" but also "and how to safely negotiate the road system with it". There isn't really an equivalent expression for cycling. Perhaps it's time we invented one.
"It is wonderfully easy to ride a bike," says cycling expert and author John Franklin, pictured. "But when it comes to sharing the road system with other people, there is a lot to learn about how you fit into the overall jigsaw of road behaviour. Under those circumstances, there is as much to learn about riding a bike as there is about driving anything else."
There is an art to effective cycling in traffic; a combination of observation, anticipation, communication and confidence that helps to make riding a bike even more enjoyable and safe than it already is. Because – shout it from the rooftops – cycling is incredibly safe. Despite The Times' recent high-profile Cycle Safe campaign and the few extensively reported tragedies that happen each year, the actual risk of serious injury from cycling is tiny. Depending on which study you look at, it can be proved that cycling is half as dangerous as driving (hour for hour) and considerably less dangerous than walking (per km travelled). But statistics are notoriously easy to manipulate and are frequently unhelpful; assessing relative risk on a per/km or per/hr basis is fraught with difficulty. What is universally agreed upon is that cycling carries a minuscule risk that is far outweighed by the health benefits. As Franklin says; "cycling regularly is the single most effective action you can take to increase your life span".
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That quote comes from the introduction to Franklin's Cyclecraft, a book full of practical advice on riding a bike confidently and safely in modern traffic conditions. So authoritative is this tome that it serves as the recommended course book for Bikeability, the National Cycle Training Standard (what we used to call Cycling Proficiency in the olden days) and is required reading for cycle training instructors.
But surely on-road cycle skills can't be learned from a book? John agrees that a set of rigid rules is not much help to anyone. "Cyclecraft is about responding to actual situations, rather than following rules. The behaviour of road users, the design of road layouts, external factors like the weather – all those lead to innumerable combinations of circumstances that are nothing like the sort of ideal that rules assume. So you need to learn to modify your behaviour according to what is actually happening around you, not according to some sort of theoretical best."
This is the focus of John's work, preparing riders for real-life cycling situations, to ride in a participatory way. Historically, town planners and cycling lobby groups have tended to focus either on grand schemes or the minutiae of infrastructure squabbles, and they often overlook the physical act of riding itself. Whenever the subject of cycle training is raised it is usually thought of as being something strictly for children. But things are changing – more and more adults are seeking cycle training, and even seasoned cyclists with decades of road-riding experience may find much to learn from Franklin's approach.
As well as the very basic stuff like balancing and signalling, his book explores more subtle aspects of cycling like attitude, judgement, positioning yourself in traffic and anticipating aggressive or inattentive motorists.
All this serves to tackle the common lament that the problems a cyclist encounters are largely caused by other road users, and that the cyclist is powerless to do much about them.
To a great extent their safety is in their own hands, says John. That's not to say that the responsibility is necessarily in the cyclist's hands; when problems do occur, in the overwhelming majority of cases it's the other road user at fault. "But in the majority of even those cases, the cyclist riding diligently – and when I say diligently, I don't mean submissively – can avoid the problems. It's all a question of understanding what's going on around you and adjusting your cycling accordingly."
Of course there are unexpected tragedies – as in the case of the couple who died recently while riding their tandem in Hanham. But John is keen to emphasise how unusual such occurrences are. He has been cycling daily for decades, but almost never has trouble with anyone else on the road.
"I'm responding to stupid driving all the time of course, but it doesn't actually cause me any problems because I know how to react. The way I ride doesn't let other people put me into hazardous situations, so it's only very rarely I come across anyone who really presents any great risk."
John places an emphasis on the cyclist as the driver of a vehicle. "That is legally what they are, after all," says John. "As well as Cyclecraft, I was commissioned a few years ago by the Institute of Advanced Motorists to write a book on advanced cycling for them, as a companion to their Advanced Motoring and Advanced Motorcycling books. I found when doing it that probably 90 per cent of the content is common to all three books – as far as behaviour on the roads goes, in the vast majority of circumstances it's very similar no matter what vehicle you're in charge of."
The word "accident" isn't one he uses much, because "few crashes actually fall into that category," he says. "An accident is something that happens simply by chance, effectively out of the control of human beings. Very few collisions or other mishaps that happen on the road are accidents under that definition. They're the result of somebody acting incorrectly, usually because they lack the understanding to be able to act in the correct manner for the circumstances. They're not accidents in any strict sense; they're matters over which human beings on both sides have some degree of control."
The other reason he doesn't talk of accidents is that such occurrences are so very rare – there were 21 fatalities per billion km cycled in the UK in 2011, meaning (statistical niggles notwithstanding) you can expect to cycle 1,839km a day every day for 70 years before the grim reaper scythes you down. No-one has or ever will cycle that much.
Whilst Cyclecraft does cover "collision avoidance", this is included "with a certain amount of reluctance", says John. "The thing I don't want to encourage is the feeling that collisions are somehow inevitable – most people will never be in a serious collision in their life. But nonetheless there is a possibility that it could occur, so there are certain techniques to be aware of.
"Above all, judgement and anticipation are key; cycling well is a dynamic activity, a question of being aware of what's happening in this moment and adjusting your behaviour accordingly."
Studying a book on cycle skills might seem a bit of a dry endeavour – so John is coming to Bristol for a lively discussion of Cyclecraft later this month, exploring the basics and the more advanced skills that mean cyclists can share even the most hostile roads with reasonable safety.
"It doesn't necessarily make them any more pleasant, but they're not something that's out of bounds, if you have the right skills to cope with them."
Of course, it can't all be learned from a book – gradual acclimatisation to cycling in traffic is the best approach, and John always recommends that people try some formal cycle training.
The good news is that newly released funding means cycle training is now free in Bristol and South Gloucestershire, so absolute beginners and die-hard super-cyclists alike can now put some cyclecraft into practice. I'll be trying a training session and reporting back on these pages next week – watch this space!
John Franklin will discuss "cyclecraft" at YHA Bristol on Wed 20 Feb, 7.30-9.30pm. Tickets £5 in advance, £6 on the door. See www.lifecycleuk. org.uk for details.