Saturday 4 February 2012

My personal journey with the bicycle

Reading ‘The Times’ this morning, and in particular the article by newscaster Jon Snow, got me reminiscing about the history of my relationship with bicycles.  It is approaching 10 years since I got into cycling in a major way and I hope you will forgive this uncharacteristically personal story.

Jon Snow and I met on a bike ride around Blois to raise money for a charity, Saving Faces.  My former colleague and mentor (a senior barrister who was very kind to me when I was a pupil) fell under the care of a skilled facial surgeon who was an old University friend of Jon’s; hence our mutual support for this worthy cause.

Until 2002 the extent of my cycling was to cycle the 5 miles from my home in Earl’s Court to my work in The Temple, on an old battered bicycle.  I was terrified of traffic and my route took me through quiet sidestreets through parks and even (I now shudder to recall) along some pavements.  I invariably wore ‘ordinary’ clothing.  It would take me around half an hour to cover that distance.  I was unfit, slow and posed no danger even to pedestrians.  I felt I was doing my bit for the environment and to keep fit.  Devoting the hours I now do to cycling was in those days completely unthinkable with the twin demands of trying to make my way in my profession and of a young family.  I cycled but had no real interest in cycling.  I had only the vaguest idea who Lance Armstrong was, or when the Tour de France took place, and had no real conception that sportsmen, let alone ordinary cyclists, could easily travel distances of the order of 100 miles.

However I was prepared to make an effort for this charity ride.  I went along to my local bike shop (I had now moved to Berkshire) and bought the cheapest road bike they had.  It felt very awkward having drop handlebars and such skinny tyres and I struggled with learning how to change gears through manipulating the brake levers.  Not only did I accept advice as to the bike, I also bought a pair of cycling shorts though these were always safely concealed under an outer garment.  I cycled this bike through parks and cycle tracks to Staines, 10 miles off, each morning and then put my bicycle in the guard’s van, back in the days when cycles on trains and rush hour were not mutually exclusive.

On 7th April 2002 I started the 100 mile ride with Jon in the Loire countryside.  Jon had all the kit and a bike that cost more than I imagined a bike could.  He laughed at me in my old boat shoes.  I reciprocated with astonishment at his ‘clipless’ pedals, I had seen nothing like them and he patiently explained their advantages.  To Jon’s mild surprise I kept up with the lead group on this ride and even chased them down successfully after I had had to detach and discard my plastic toe straps (into a bin, Mr Parris, if you are reading) which were disintegrating under the strain of the ride. 

Once I got home new pedals were required so I returned to the local bike shop and got some ‘clipless’ ones.  After a few embarrassing falls I never looked back.  I kept cycling to Staines because I enjoyed it and even sometimes beyond though my continuing fear of traffic made it difficult to advance far into London.  Doubly affected one year by Breast Cancer I undertook with friends a charity ride to Cambridge for ‘Breakthrough Breast Cancer’.  Spotting that I could do that, another colleague (who sadly but tellingly has been off his bike now for six months as the consequence of a vicious and unprovoked assault when he was pushed off his bicycle in the lanes of Kent) invited me to join him on a French sportive ride where my enjoyment of cycling reached an even higher level.  Shortly thereafter I ended up in a racing club, got used to the advantages of lycra and became truly hooked (to the cycling).

Early in the process of becoming a cyclist I suffered the worst ‘accident’ I have yet had on a bicycle.  I was travelling to Staines one morning along a cyclepath.  The cyclepath took me onto a roundabout for a right turn towards Staines.  A motorist, who did not expect me or see me, came from my left broadside into me.  My precious first roadbike was folded in half under her wheels while I got a sharp smack to the hip from her front and a second sharp smack to my shoulder from her windscreen before being thrown forward onto the tarmac as she finally braked.

It was entirely her fault not giving me priority on that roundabout.  However the accident would not have occurred had I not been so fearful of traffic.  When I cover the same route now I am not on the cycletrack emerging from a little used road onto the roundabout, I am on the main road, dominating my lane where I cannot fail to be seen.  I read John Franklin’s excellent book ‘Cyclecraft’, trained to Bikeability 3 and became a fully converted vehicular cyclist.  I have had a couple of minor collisions with careless motorists since but they have been anticipated and controlled, and have left me with no significant injury.  The three occasions I have needed medical treatment since the Staines crash have all followed from my sliding to the ground in icy or greasy conditions when I have been pushing the boundaries.

So, since I became a ‘vehicular’ cyclist I have had no serious collisions with traffic.  I have however been shouted at, abused and even, once, assaulted.  An explanation, though certainly no excuse, for this is that many motorists and even some cyclists do not understand my positioning.  I will, when my safety requires it (which is much of the time), take the primary road position (centre of leftmost lane relevant to my direction of travel) and never ride closer to the kerb than the secondary position - a fluid concept but broadly about ½ metre left of the traffic flow (where the vehicles would put their nearside wheels if you were not there) but never (ok, hardly ever, and usually I have regretted the exceptions) closer than ½ metre from the kerb.  This naturally leads to avoidance of the lethal undertaking manoeuvre (forget the red lights it is the cyclists who undertake me, six inches from the kerb, when I am slowing for a hazard or even indicating to turn left, that wind me up).

Getting back to The Times, I have praised their campaign and like tens of thousands of others signed up my support.  Their guide to safe cycling does make the point about positioning but it is a bit half-hearted compared (say) to the advice to wear a helmet.  Point 3 is that ‘Some cycling instructors say that your primary cycling position should be in the middle of the road and your secondary position to the left’.   This gives the impression it is potentially a minority view and so far as I am aware it is not.  Every suitably qualified instructor will surely agree that the primary position is in the middle of the lane.  By contrast Point 1 in the same guide is to be sure you have the right kit namely, Helmet, High viz jacket. Over the page is a double spread about James Cracknell and his belief that cyclists who are not wearing helmets are irresponsible and selfish.  No some people believe you should wear a helmet about this

Vehicular cycling is though not an easy solution for everybody.  The main reason for this, however, is because too few motorists understand Bikeability training.  If they did and it were part of the requirements for a driving licence, then surely the old and the young as well as the bloody-minded would find it easier to do what was universally expected of them rather than to do what is currently regarded with suspicion or even aggression.  It is not, in my view, inherently difficult for bicycles and cars to share the road once everyone is clear about the rules.

This brings me finally to Jon Snow’s contribution,  I am very favourably disposed towards Jon who I have explained was an inspiration to me 10 years ago (and I love it when I hear him on TV mentioning that he hopped on his bike to interview the Prime Minister/President of the World Bank/Pope or whomever).  I agree with his article entirely until he gets to the point where he says cars and bikes do not mix and cannot share the same road, he argues for segregation.  I can see the force of providing infrastructure which will lessen the perception of hazard to would be cyclists.  However saying cars and bicycles cannot mix is perilously close to the motorist view, which I have encountered, that cyclists should not be on the road.  I am left worrying today that this could all develop into an emphasis on danger, helmets and segregation.

I have referred to everybody knowing the rules.  This to me is key, as is enforcing the rules.  This is the part that is too often glossed over.  Rebecca Romero has it right in her contribution when she says that the critical thing is respect for road users who aren’t in motorised vehicles.  ‘I think the penalties for causing injury or death on the road are far too light.  The consequences-the deterrent-have to be massive’.   I am encouraged to note that this is a stand being taken by British Cycling following the tragic death of Rob Jefferies in Wareham.  We often talk about new laws.  The truth is we have laws but they are not adequately enforced or end up being watered down from the deterrent they could be.  There is a literal lawlessness on the roads which would never be countenanced in the workplace or anywhere else.  Too often the authorities are just not interested in enforcing laws that could save lives, or give a passable impression of prejudice against cyclists when it comes to the enforcement of the rules.

Is it divisive, going around as I do expecting motorists who endanger or threaten me to face consequences for their actions?  I do not think so.  There is a small but dangerous core of motorists who are actively hostile to the presence of cyclists on the road.  For some, education and explanation may never be enough to alter their attitudes and behaviour.  Appeasement never works and ultimately these people should be denied the privileges conferred by a licence to drive.


  1. Hi Martin, I really enjoyed reading this, and I just thought I'd share a few thoughts from my own experiences.

    I have been fortunate enough never to have had a crash involving a vehicle in my 1.5 years of proper road cycling and 5 years before that of 'cycling to get around' on a hybrid. I think the points you make about vehicular cycling are absolutely spot on, and that style of cycling came naturally to me once I started going along more major roads instead of on the path next to them once I was 17.

    But I have always felt that the key element of asking to be treated like a vehicle is to try to act like one as much as possible. The point I am really making here is that speed and predictability are essential if you want motorists to concede their precious tarmac to you. Having just started learning to drive myself, it is immediately obvious just how difficult and unpredictable slow-moving cyclists are. I'm not saying that we should ban non-lycra clad two-wheelers from the roads on the grounds that they aren't moving quickly enough. But nevertheless I can see how easily some motorists can develop an attitude that 'all cyclists are a moving road obstacle' rather than another vehicle on the road.

    Saying that, even when absolutely dog tired and moving at a snail's pace, I think that a cyclist could still appear predictable enough for other road users by bossing the road, especially by telegraphing your movements by looking directly behind before when making a significant manoeuvre. Perhaps, then, the issue is that too few cyclists can look directly behind and hold a straight line - after all, a motorist should always check their rear view mirror before altering speed/direction. It's not too late to demand that cyclists should do the same, and perhaps this would go a long way to incorporating cyclists into the road, rather than having them inferior or segregated.

    I've never had the pleasure of an actual argument or worse with another road user, although I know several who have (I don't think that general abuse from Geordies in County Durham counts). In particular I know one rider who would take great offence at the smallest infringement of our space and would hare off to have it out with the man in the van at the next set of traffic lights. But it was obvious that it would achieve nothing but the hardening of another mind against cyclists in general.

    My own legal career is slowly developing (currently on the GDL, then LPC, then training contract in the City), but we studied the death by dangerous and death by careless driving offences last week and I have to agree that the sentences really are too small at the maximum level, let alone in practice, to be a fully functioning deterrent.

    All in all, I would hope that the small but dangerous core of motorists who are actively hostile to the presence of cyclists on the road find themselves with impossible insurance premiums or banned due to some offence. For myself, I'm sticking my hopes on there being a tipping point where there are so many cyclists on the roads that motorists simply have to fall into line. Perhaps the government's money would be best spent on bikes and locks for everyone, and cities full of secure bike racks, rather than expensive schemes for urban re-planning years too late. Just a thought.

  2. Thanks for an interesting, lucid and human story.

    You remind me that I often wish that traffic rules were widely known and regularly enforced. My experience is that they are neither and my hunch is that they might never be.

    In the debate about segregation I am most concerned about the cycling options for children and other vulnerable or inexperienced people. At present, even walking can be full of traffic hazards. As for cycling, in many places and for many purposes it's just impossible.

    For vulnerable groups, who would really benefit from the chance to cycle some of their journeys, segregation from through traffic is fundamentally necessary.

    Personally, the bicycle as a vehicle is where I feel comfortable. I don't like shared paths and I don't like narrow painted cycle lanes. But, like you, I have spent time and gathered experience and I've been lucky with my collisions. For my children and grandchildren though, I wish cycling cold be part of their normal day. And as I get closer to 70 I think I will be spending more time on the cycle paths around Bristol and a lot less time on main roads.

    Politically I think that making routes just for cycling could build a new generation of cyclists who are not (like you and I) minority eccentrics with a sense of adventure. Cycling should be for ordinary folk who learned to cycle at 4 or 5 and who can do the Bikeability stuff fluently by their teens. And, more importantly, such chldren will have learned to cycle and venture onto grown up roads well before they start to drive a lethal motorised vehicle. (perhaps the future will take most of those away)

    1. Quite agree. Segregation is not needed for "cyclists", but it's essential if we're ever going to have mass cycling. Only with the potentially-lethal motor vehicles safely out of the way will ordinary people, and children, ride bicycles for transport.

      Very few of those people who ride bikes in The Netherlands would consider themselves to be "cyclists", they're just using bikes as the most convenient way to get around.

  3. Just a brief comment from me in saying I really enjoyed reading this and the above comments. Thank you.

  4. From Dr. Robert Davis, Chair RDRF:

    Speldid combination your personal history and the poltiics of safety on the road:

    I think you are spot on in noticing how the Times campaign gets into the usual nonsense about helmet advocacy ( a quick plug for while I am at it) and can easily avoid getting to grips with the real issues.

    I do like:

    "have laws but they are not adequately enforced or end up being watered down from the deterrent they could be. There is a literal lawlessness on the roads which would never be countenanced in the workplace or anywhere else. Too often the authorities are just not interested in enforcing laws that could save lives, or give a passable impression of prejudice against cyclists when it comes to the enforcement of the rules.

    Is it divisive, going around as I do expecting motorists who endanger or threaten me to face consequences for their actions? I do not think so. There is a small but dangerous core of motorists who are actively hostile to the presence of cyclists on the road. For some, education and explanation may never be enough to alter their attitudes and behaviour. Appeasement never works and ultimately these people should be denied the privileges conferred by a licence to drive." much I am quoting these passages back at you.

    Ultimately it is not about cycling, but the problems of inappropriate use of motor vehicles.

  5. Vehicular cycling is the only way to cycle with some degree of safety in the current road conditions. But it doesn't guarantee safety: even vehicular cyclists are injured and killed in worrying numbers. While I will ride in a vehicular manner, this doesn't work when riding with my young family to or from school, or at weekends.

    There are just too many conflicts with motor vehicles. If you are hit by a car, you will be seriously injured or killed, however experienced in vehicular cycling you are.

    We don't need to segregate cyclists away from cars, we need to segregate cars away from people: to remove the danger from our roads, not to try to live with the danger. This can be done in various ways, depending on the road type:

    1) Removal of through routes via residential roads to motor vehicles: removal of all rat runs. This means that the only motor vehicles in a residential street are those who live there. It also makes cycling or walking quicker and more convenient than driving "the long way", which also reduces motor traffic. Cheap and extremely effective.

    2) 20mph speed limits, to maximise the time a motor driver has to avoid crashing and to minimise the impact then they do. 30kmh is common in continental Europe, and is becoming the limit in many UK towns and cities. Cheap and reasonably effective.

    3) Segregated cycle routes, with priority for cyclists and constructed to be properly useful for all cyclists, on the few main roads designed for through and long-distance motor traffic. More expensive, but long-lasting and very effective at allowing ordinary people and children to cycle for transport.

    What the Dutch and Danes, do, in fact: well-researched and tested solutions that have proven themselves to work over 30 years.

    The Dutch, even with very high levels of cycling compared to us, and even with some of the safest roads for non-motorised road users in the world, are still investing in segregated routes, and upgrading older facilities. They even moved a canal a few metres sideways to make space for cycle paths on both sides!

    This isn't difficult technically, and it's not expensive at all compared to motorway widening schemes and road building. It just needs our political masters to focus on safety, sustainability, and quality of life instead of always trying to maximise motor traffic speeds and volumes.

  6. My concern is that jon snow would not even encourage his own relatives to cycle, and he's the presidentc of the C.T.C . so much for safety in numbers.

  7. Great blog, Martin. Thank-you.


  8. I always enjoy your blog and your insights, but I think you miss a vital point with your post: you are not really "normal"!

    Not everybody will "graduate" to vehicular cycling. Not everybody can. Not everybody wants to. Not everybody sees it as a "graduation'. In my view, the percentage of the population willing and able to ride like you describe is actually very low.

    I only cycle now as an adult because I lived in the Netherlands for several years and "re-learned to ride" after stopping many years earlier in my adolescence. I subsequently moved to London and continued riding, although now sharing with buses and taxis, taking the lane when necessary and all the rest of it, but the enjoyment I get out of riding diminishes rapidly when I'm in the sort of situations that require that aggressive/defensive type of cycling.

    I would trade nearly anything for a network of segregated paths as found on major roads in NL. People may not believe it, but I'm really not going to suddenly "realise" that it's fun or pleasurable to ride with the traffic. It's just not going to happen. And I'm pretty sure that the majority of the people feel that same way I do.

    This is why I urge people to support the call for segregated facilities. For people like me. And virtually everybody else!

  9. I agree with Iswas's comment above. I first got used to cycling in in continental Europe. There is just a world of difference between vehicular cycling and proper cycling infrastructure. I would also like to see liability laws for accidents involving cyclists change. I understand that in some countries, the car driver is always in the wrong. Perhaps we need something as radical as that to change the way drivers behave towards cyclists. Having said that I would also like to see penalties for cyclists without lights, and those who habitually flout traffic rules.

    1. It would be interesting to hear Martin's response on this given the 2 facts that:
      (I'm leaving cycle-pedestrian interactions out of this discussion - just cyclist-car)
      1. The law is only supposed to protect us from the actions of others
      2. Cyclists flouting traffic laws don't harm anyone else
      Why not just scrap them? We allow pedestrians to walk into the road with priority - no-one suggests this causes death or injury to car drivers. I suggest the laws are anachronistic and a hangover from when vehicle laws were initially created and bikes were lumped in with cars.
      Have you, Veridictum, seen anyone in a car suffer at the hands of a law breaking cyclist?

    2. This point is put far better by Prof Robert Davis (Author of 'Death on the Streets' a must read book)...

  10. Followed link to "Bristol Traffic " and your
    post is being quoted already !
    Your post inspired a lengthy reply which is in my blog , could be of interest to many ?

    Keep up the good work for ALL US Cyclists ! i enjoy encouraging others to follow your blog !

  11. Hi Martin - I enjoy your blog immensely and have a huge admiration for the stand you take against anti-social behaviour using vehicles.
    I would like to comment, as some have above, on the vehicular cycling stance. When I first started to ride as an adult (having done so a lot when a kid - never sporting just getting about) I developed into a VC supporter. Coupled with what I read about 'safety in numbers' I felt this was surely the way forward.
    Some years later, having studied the subject in an amateur capacity, I am now not so sure. I am 100% convinced that the solution lies with road design that takes the Dutch principles of reducing conflict and promoting cycling above motors. I am sure safety in numbers does have some effect but can only be effective after we have got people to use bikes en masse.
    In Bournemouth we have seen roads and junctions completely ripped up and replaced in the last few years with risible facilities for bikes. A few ASLs is the standard 'improvement' but there's always talk of improving the efficiency of the junction (for motor traffic) which we know results in induced demand.
    The only work the Police do towards making cyclists safer on the roads is the annual clampdown on cyclists without lights. Never one on ASL breaches, driving in mandatory cycle lanes or dangerous overtaking of bikes.
    When I was assaulted by a driver with witnesses and camera evidence (he picked up my bike with me on it as well as verbally threatening me) I was told by the officers who attended that 'no offence had been committed but they would have words'!
    I have on my desk a picture from the local paper - it shows a class of junior school kids with their teachers all in high-vis. The captions reads "xxx & xxx (local companies) helped donate 50 hi-vis jackets to xxx school to promote safety in the community". Not for cycling - for walking. It epitomises the approach we have in this country to 'road safety' which for the last half century has been funded mostly with donations from the car lobby.
    We desperately need a change of attitude from the government down in the way we build roads and deal with traffic.
    Please, if you don't already, do read as it highlights the differences in approach of UK & Dutch authorities.

  12. @crapbourne.... a definitive yes. Many times. And as a driver and cyclist I myself have been affected by cyclists with zero bikeability sense.

  13. P.S. "cyclists flouting traffic rules don't harm anyone" a sweeping statement if I ever heard one. Where is your evidence for this? Ironic given that we are commenting on a barrister'

  14. When I ride on my own I ride a la Cyclecraft / Bikeability guidelines. "Vehicular Cycling" is very difficult and much less desirable when I'm travelling with my children onboard my bike though. When I'm with the kids I go a long long way out of my way to get to destinations using segregated facilities when available. Pushing 60kg up to the speed of motor traffic at junctions and up slight inclines just isn't realistic. Nor does it feel safe to guide the bike out into the lane at 6mph to join 30mph traffic.

    My mother feels the same way now that she suffers with her knees. She used to cycle everywhere, but can't get up much speed now, so drives instead as her rural location is totally failed by any other options (local public transport is dire).

    So the options for some without segregated alternatives is ride under pressure (a stressful experience) or just stop cycling. Sadly the latter is often the choice that most will make.

  15. I very much enjoyed this piece, which reflects aspects of my own personal journey as a cyclist.
    On the point about how cyclists breaking the rules harm no-one, I pointed out in a recent blogpost - - that in 2010, an unusually high year for cylist-on-pedestrian fatalities - cyclists killed four pedestrians. They accounted for fewer than 1 per cent of the 405 pedestrian fatalities and only 0.22 per cent of the 1,850 road fatalities. Both these figures are considerably less than the roughly 2 per cent of traffic that cyclists make up - and way, way below the considerably higher proportion of traffic that cyclists make up of traffic in the urban areas where most accidents occur. Any road death is regrettable - but it's motorists who represent the risk and need to be dealt with.

  16. I second crapbournmouthcyclist's comments completely. I am a great fan of your blog and would describe myself as a competant vehicular cyclist and passionate advocate at work to get more people on 2 wheels to commute.

    But - not for my children! I would not dream of them taking the route I have learned to tolerate to work over many hairy years. Vehicular cycling is not the solution for the majority of people and better segregated infrastructure is needed to get more people making more journeys by bike and not car.

    This does not and should not erode a cyclists right to be on the road and for all users to be law abiding and tolerant. In some places though, the mix is always going to be fatally flawed.

  17. I read your blog regularly, and enjoy it, but I am concerned by this post.

    It seems to me that you are defining a 'cyclist' as someone who rides in a particular way - a style of riding that does not include people who use bicycles as a form of transport.

    Then you discuss vehicular cycling as a better way of cycling - an improvement over your previous style of cycling - citing the differences in accidents as proof of this betterness.

    This post felt like it was creating a 'us' and 'them' distinction - and a distinction where I would more naturally be in the 'them' category, since I wear normal clothes when I cycle, and I couldn't do 100 miles in a day.

    I want to see a Britain with mass cycling, but even in that Britain, 'cyclists' would be in a minority.

    Vehicular cycling might be the 'best' style of cycling, but it is not the style of cycling that people will adopt when they start cycling, and nor is it the style of cycling that I will want to be using when I am 90 years old.

    Tackling lawlessness on the road is of vital importance, and I would never suggest that cyclists should be banned from roads - but segregated infrastructure on main roads would provide an environment in which mass cycling could thrive, in a way that strict enforcement of road regulations would not.

  18. It is a shame that segregation has become a dirty word in most UK cycling circles. Whilst vehicular cycling is probably the best way for cyclists to deal with the road network as it currently is, it isn't much of a solution for people who aren't 'cyclists.' As Fonant says, we need to segregate cars away from people, rather than cyclists away from motorists. It might not sound like a big distinction but it means the difference between the cycle infrastructure which is common in the UK and the cycle infrastructure which is common in The Netherlands. It is important to oppose more of the same awful infrastructure, but without giving up on getting something better in the process.

    Whilst I agree that none of this would be needed if we could get all road users to behave appropriately, people are pretty useless unless they care about a cause, and getting most people to care about the cause of modal equality is probably a more gargantuan task than bringing the road network up to Netherlands standards. I have written before about lessons we can learn from recycling; trying to make people care enough to recycle didn't work, but giving them the infrastructure to make recycling easier than not recycling made it into something almost everyone now does, without thinking or caring much about the underlying issues. By taking the same approach to road transport by changing the road environment, the drivers who cause cyclists problems now will change their behaviour without realising it is even happening; when a person is fairly indifferent to a certain issue, their behaviour is largely informed instead by the environment they find themselves in. Once the issue of subjective safety is addressed, with the same changes to the road network making the private car less attractive for shorter journeys, cycling will be able to recover.

    Dr C.


    If the perp here is really an instructor, I don't think driver education is the solution. Maybe this cyclist needs a lawyer, or just a lot of persistence and friends in the CPS!

  20. Much as I love the blog and appreciate the work you've done in seeking justice against some less responsible motorists, I have to add my voice to those arguing against CycleCraft.

    The book is undoubtedly good advice for an individual, and if a friend or relative wanted advice as to how to stay safe, it would be the first thing I recommend. However if the government asked me for advice (!) I would definitely be asking for *properly designed* cycle infrastructure.

    The roads need to be for everyone, and i'd say most people aren't comfortable with cycling in the middle of the road at 20mph heading onto roundabouts.

    At the moment, cycling safely in heavy traffic is something reserved very much for the physical elite.

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  22. Your bike journey is really inspiring. Your insights on bike rides as your means of transportation daily is a good discussion. Thanks.