The other half of the cycling story

© Frank Tasche

I’m writing this article while sitting on my backside on the train. I have some reasonable excuses (a slight sniffle and about four inches of snow on the ground being two of them). But the reality is that if it was only up to me, I’d be riding my bike into work regardless.

The truth is, the bike has been left in the shed because the other half asked me to leave it in the shed. Naturally, a discussion resulted from such a request – some might call it a debate – but in the end, the wife won. But the episode got me thinking – about the perception of how dangerous cycling is compared to the reality, as well as a fair amount of surmising about the reality too, but also about the selfishness some of us show when taking to the bike.

Loved ones are often more affected by a decision to ride to work through busy traffic than the cyclist. As cyclists, we can jump on, push off and become absorbed in the exercise of riding a bike within seconds. Loved ones, however, can only hope that they arrive at their destinations safely.

Without wanting to over dramatise the dangers of cycling in major cities (a BBC documentary already did a good job of that) there is an inherent danger involved in cycling in busy traffic. And while experienced commuters may feel that the majority of those dangers are reserved for newbie riders, this isn’t always the case.

Experienced riders are killed on our roads too.

There’s a stretch of road on my commute that reflects well the attitude many experienced commuters  in the UK have. A straight run, the road in question has a perfectly good, two-way cycle path sharing the pavement on one side. A rough assessment, however, would suggest that about a third of those cycling in rush-hour traffic use it. The rest are on the road, inches from a perfectly good, segregated cycle path.

It’s a strange sight and, from the point of view of drivers, quite difficult to defend. As drivers stack up behind cyclists, tutting (sometimes honking and shouting) at them for refusing to use a dedicated cycle path, the cyclists continue regardless, satisfied in the knowledge that use of the path is in no way obligatory.

The point here, however, is not to investigate the moral issues of cycle-path usage, but rather to investigate the psychology of cyclists. I hold my hand up to being one of those who uses the road rather than the cycle path more often that not – one reason being that I have to slow to mount the pavement, another that I can maintain a faster speed on the road, and another that I think (probably incorrectly) that the cycle path will have more debris than the road.

But the crucial issue here is that I’m willing to accept the increased risk of doing so.

That means the prospect of drivers who are potentially angered because of being held up by a cyclist despite the presence of an empty, segregated cycle path (in my experience, drivers pass closer than they do when there isn’t a cycle path – perhaps because they believe I should be on it and, as a result, would only have myself to blame.)

But consider how illogical such a decision would appear to loved ones, or, even, to those cyclists who commute to work by bike in Amsterdam or Copenhagen. Loved ones (at least those who don’t cycle) probably think that cycle commuting is dangerous and will be angered if we didn’t take every opportunity to reduce risk, never mind purposefully make choices that increase it.

Those cycling in bike-friendly cities, meanwhile, will simply not understand why we choose to ride with traffic when it isn’t necessary. 

If, in the UK, we are to successfully recreate the type of cycling culture that exists elsewhere in Europe, this type of psychology must change – we must accept a drop in average speed and the necessity to slow in order to mount cycle paths. We must see cycling as a means of transport, and not as method of training.

And by doing so, our loved ones would be able to worry that little bit less.

David Rae

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  1. andy reeve

    Interesting article, never viewed myself as selfish before but i kind of see it as my wife trusts me to ride rsafely. not sure if she would agree though.

  2. Post
    David Rae

    Hi Andy, it’s interesting isn’t it – my wife would prefer me to take the train, purely from a safety perspective (although she might change her mind after a few detours via the pub on the way back from the station 🙂

    I guess the point is to put yourself in the position of loved ones when cycling, and ride accordingly…

  3. andy reeve

    Indeed, if cycle paths were designed properly there wouldn’t be any need for a debate on whether or not to use them

  4. Woody

    I try to use the cycle lane where possible, to facilitate smooth runnings for all.
    However, you do not need to doubt your presumption that cycle lanes contain more gubbins and detritus…
    They do.
    Plainly evident in the so called cycle freindly City of Brighton UK

  5. Christopher Wallace

    Christopher Wallace • If you spend time riding with the other half at a comfortable speed for them, they might see the cycling in a different light. They will probably never go on a training with you but you can still ride at their pace and help them evolve as a cyclist in their own right.
    Too many men will not be kind to their spouses to help them become casual, or daily, or to the store, or small trip, or commuter cyclist. The other half would love to have you ride shoulder to shoulder with them on a fun short ride. This simple act increases the cycling population, the understanding of sharing the roads, good love between partners, reducing carbon foot prints, and a love of cycling. Or you could sit on your ass and watch tv with her.
    Once you have done your good deed with your loving partner, Go chase cars on your own for your training ride. You do not need to stop being a racer, just become a more evolved racer.

  6. Christopher Wallace

    I did not understand “gubbins and detritus, ??” Unmaintained paved paths? What was the meaning of “we must accept a drop in average speed and the necessity to slow in order to mount cycle paths???” Is speed reduction so you reduce danger to other cyclist that are not training for race day? A personal question, Are cars obeying posted speed limits or are they lawless in their use of the roadways? I am not in the UK and some of this sounds the same as our issues, and some of it sounds like pub talk.

    We have male and female riders that daily ride in ankle deep snow, ice is tough unless you have steel studs in your treads. Most side streets are unrideable we walk our bikes to the main streets and go from there. Bike paths are for road bikes in the spring, summer and fall, and then wide studded tires take us through the snow on the path. We measure our energy for training purposes, 300 watts of energy produced does not care how fast you go, just how much energy you can produce.

    Most of us are not Olympic quality or even national team level of cyclist. We can ride a cycle cross bike with narrow tyres/tires for speed in the summer and Studded monster tyres/tires for rough, unkempt surfaces. If we are speeding along the roadway at or near the speed limit, then we are traffic, the important thing is (Have Fun) how ever and where ever you like to ride.

    1. Post
      David Rae

      Phew, lot of points there Christopher. Here goes…

      The other half (my wife) is perfectly happy in life without getting on a bike (we’ve been there). And while we do go out on the weekend in the summer, sometimes down the river, sometimes to the park and always with kids in tow (one trailer and one bike seat) this doesn’t save her worrying when I ride to work.

      My point about slowing to mount cycle paths is that to mount the cycle path in question, slowing down is a necessity (unless you fancy a bit of road rash). As a result, the majority choose not to and as a result remain on the road, so ignoring the path. If we are to enjoy an Amsterdam-style cycling culture, however, I reckon this type of attitude will have to change.

      And yes, answering for Woody, detritus and gubbins, is debris.

  7. StuW

    Hmmmm…. leaving aside the thought of my better half re my cycling to work in busy traffic, cycle path schmycle path IMHO. My route to work, in fact any ride out that isn’t a race should allow me to ride as part of the flow of traffic as an equal so that I can get wherever I need to be as seamlessly as possible and without additional hinderance – aka cycle paths.

    They have their place, they do a great job of providing an alternate route for the less confident of us and I for one would use them with my better half and definitely with my kids. As part of an integrated transport infrastructure however – they suck! The only one I can think of that I have ever ridden and enjoyed is the Fishponds to Bristol Sustrans cycle route but that’s an old rail line so not really the same.

  8. Woody

    Gubbins is a great word, pretty Northern possibly.
    I commute 5 days a week, rain or shine myself.
    I am by no means interested in any racing or speed for speeds sake when using the roads.

    Brighton is supposedly a progressive city and is run by the Green party.
    Tell that to the fat bloke in the road sweeper who only sweeps the car portion of the road, disregarding the cycle lanes. I’ve seen it, so reported via the Brighton and Hove council website.
    Credit to the coucil the lanes did get swepd, once, but you shouldn’t have to ask to get cycle lanes maintained like the rest of the roads, even in these times of bank induced austerity.
    Cycling just makes too much sense to on so many levels, why to the powers that be dither so much on the issue of promoting it?
    Why do motoring lobies get the ear of poiticians more than NHS advocates ?

  9. Maria

    I can’t understand why the hot weeathr would stop you from riding. Actually, there’s a reason why I try to head north to a locale such as Michigan, Wisconsin or Canada in August. I just can’t stand that St. Louis heat.

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