November was a horrific month for London cyclists. Six cyclists killed in two weeks which included two within 24 hours, here in East London.
It’s a frightening thought for someone who until a few months ago had not ridden a bike for more than a couple of decades. Then, I was a fearless kid tearing up and down the street we lived on in North London, and even more fearless because it was a hilly street which gave me a bigger thrill riding down hill, always narrowly missing the big red mail box at the bottom of our road
Over the years I never gave cycling much of a thought until last year but somewhere along the way I had developed a fear of it and a less than benevolent feeling towards cyclists in London. As a driver, I cursed them daily (sometimes still do), dreaded driving through some routes at rush hour and even thought they were balmy for cycling on some of London’s roads. I still do. You see despite what Boris Johnson and others say, I believe cycling in a city such as London is inherently dangerous. Lets face it, two wheels is no match to the mighty power of a motor car engine – and that’s what scares the hell out of me. I feel protected in a car, but even a car is not a guarantee, so I tell myself there’s no point living in fear. I’ve done things a hell lot more reckless and dangerous and I’m still here to tell the story.
Why do I want to get back in the saddle again despite my views? A combination of things. Health – I need a keep fit routine that doesn’t feel like a chore, I want to get out of the car, especially for short and local trips and because I loath public transport and sharing space with so many people in close proximity to me. I want to be able to head straight for my destination, instead of the slow slug of a bus or the claustrophobic feeling of the underground. I need a new out-door hobby and what better than cycling. I’m surrounded by lovely parks here in Hackney and other neighbouring boroughs, not to mention canal paths, marshes and some lovely quiet streets complete with bollards. “Go to a gym instead” some people have said, I tell them they couldn’t pay me enough to. I’m no militant environmentalist and not trying to save the planet, I just figured it’s time for a lifestyle change.
Reporting on horrendous cycling accidents and deaths on this site made me apprehensive about just cycling off on my own, so I contacted Cycle Training UK who work in partnership with Hackney Council to deliver cycle training to people who live, study or work in the borough, from total beginners to the most experienced, they have it covered.
Registering as a beginner I believed I may need stabilizers, but surprised myself by getting on the bike they provided and with just a slight wobble and took off from the Pavilion at Hackney Downs to the basket ball court where the training began.
Proper take off position, mounting and dismounting the bike, start/stopping, changing gears, stopping quickly with control looking around you, correct signalling, even checking tires and brakes are just some of the things I learned. My instructor eases me back into something that was so natural to me at one point in my life, but now I view as a challenge, however I’m determined to forge ahead. We talk about the common mistakes cyclists make, mistakes I see all the time and those I don’t.
After my two sessions I feel I’ve gained more than if I just bought a bike and started riding willy nilly, and can’t help but think if more cyclists adhered to basic cycling safety, things could be a lot different. Drivers have to pass a driving test, and if cyclists are making so many demands to the government and local council for better cycle friendly roads and drastic changes to the infrastructure, surely it should take more than buying a bicycle and peddling away with no real training, especially when sharing road space with vehicles. No I am not blaming cyclists for everything that’s wrong, but they are the weakest link when competing for space on the roads.
I learn that Cycle Training UK also delivers training to HGV drivers to give them a cyclist’s perspective of riding on busy roads, an understanding of areas of conflict and issues faced by vulnerable road users.
Head of Marketing at Cycle Training UK , Jean Mowbray, tells me it makes a big difference to HGV drivers: “They are sometimes surprised by the positioning of cyclists, because in some roads with parked cars, positioning for the cyclist is the middle of the lane not to the side. The drivers learn to appreciate that cyclists are in the middle of the road to avoid being “doored” by people opeinging car doors ” amongst other hazards”.
She tells me experiencing the surface of the road on a bike, the noise of traffic, how close a vehicle is when they are over taking, goes a long way to help them to see things from a cyclists perspective. According to Mowbray, up-take on cycle training is high in Hackney and feels the borough is leaps ahead of other inner London boroughs in creating permeability in its cycing infrastructure which she says is viewed as an example, by other boroughs who look to imitate its success.
Explaining my apprehension about cycing on main roads and responding to my question about controversy of the cycle superhighways, she tells me; “Some are good some not so good. As a cyclist your responsibility is for your own safety, so you have to take a view on this.
“It’s not a legal requirement to cycle on them or cycle lanes and if you think you are at risk don’t use them.
“Sometimes cycle lanes are near to the mouth of a junction, and thats not a good place for a cyclist to be because cars sometimes creep out, they can’t see the traffic when they want to turn out or left or right, so the cyclist needs to be out where they can easily be seen”.
I figure it’s a judgement call and don’t plan to be anywhere near busy main routes anytime soon. Living in Hackney, London’s cycling top spot I’m in the right place (if ever there is one in London), Hackney has the highest number of people cycling to work in London, the second highest number in England, has a reasonable permeable infrastruture and the highest membership number of London Cycling Campaign (LCC). It goes some way in encouraging me.
Armed with my free copies of TFL’s route maps, my growing confidence, excitement of getting a new bike, I’m good to go!