Monday 27 February 2023

Freewheeling: Why the cyclist-motorist war?

Last week the broadcaster and TV news presenter Dan Walker was knocked off his e-bike while cycling around a roundabout in Sheffield, on his way to work. 

The selfie he posted on social media while in the ambulance, his bloodied face sandwiched between two smiling paramedics drew hundreds of wellwishers conveying their sympathy and bidding him a speedy recovery.

Dan Walker after being knocked off his bike (photo: D Walker)

The former Football Focus presenter was hit from behind by a car as he crossed the four-lane interchange of the Eccleshall Road roundabout, and was sent flying. Looking at the camera footage shared by another motorist it appears that the 45-year old took the brunt of the impact to his face. According to Walker, paramedics said that wearing a helmet saved is life.

The aftermath of the incident has been dominated by many reactions, and notably fuelled the acrimony between cyclists and motorists.

As well as Walker posting a selfie on Twitter, he followed it up with a personal account and opinion-editorial in the The Times newspaper about his misfortune. This has begun to backfire on him.

Many readers have become tired of the publicity he is apparently trying to milk out of a seemingly minor incident, given that he did not suffer any significant injuries apart from an achy body and bruising to his face. "I've been knocked off my bike several times and it never made it to the papers once," commented one reader.

Others have suggested he caused problems for himself by not wearing any hi-vis clothing. "How can someone who values his life choose to cycle around a major roundabout when there was an alternative traffic-free cycle path?" Said another.

Let the battle commence! 

Local cyclists claim that the cycle path, which passes under the roundabout is riddled with potholes and always has broken glass, not to mention "shady" characters that hang around in the subway.

Cycling campaigners went further by railing against local councils that won't maintain cycle paths, and spew out the hackneyed retort that if cyclists have to wear hi-vis then motorists should drive brightly coloured vehicles!

Motorists hit back by describing cyclists as an arrogant, self-entitled bunch who think they are above the law, jumping red lights and not following any rules.

Then other cyclists rail against motorists being the scourge of society. If they behaved correctly on the road cyclists would feel safe, wouldn't have to wear hi-vis, helmets, and could ride anywhere without the risk of a near-death experience!

Then others question the effectiveness of helmets. One reader sent Mr Walker a message containing data demonstrating that helmets don't protect against injury.

So the battle rages on!

I must say, for my part that in more than twenty years of travelling around by bicycle I have never been knocked off my bike. On two occasions a vehicle turned left across my path and I managed to take evasive action. I have been involved in a mini disagreement with a motorist on two occasions. There have been around four or five instances where I caught up with a motorist or bus driver at the traffic lights after they had overtaken me too closely. I would generally explain their dangerous manoeuvre to them in a polite civilised way, and most of them would apologise (even if a couple of apologies were uttered in a "sorry, not sorry" kind of tone).

This incidence rate over a 22-year period is very low, and hardly what I would describe as a battle between motorists and cyclists. In fact, that is no more than the number of road rage incidents between car drivers.

Furthermore, I would say that I personally encounter more acts of friendliness than negativity on the roads when cycling. 

Motorists generally do give way to me when I am waiting to turn right. Some even slow down and allow me to move into the middle of the lane before I have begun to signal or manoeuvred. Just the sight of me looking over my shoulder gives them a clue about my intention.

I did my cycling proficiency in primary school back in the 1970s, and I must say I still follow the rules I learned back then. I also do dress so that I can be seen. 

I definitely don't jump the lights. Interestingly, while waiting at the lights I have had pedestrians look at me with curiosity, before complimenting me for following the rules!

I am not trying to be smug about my bike riding, but I do feel that there is a correlation between the way cyclists are treated by motorists and the way cyclists behave on the roads, and take responsibility for their personal safety. 

Obviously there will always be a small percentage of reckless drivers, and those people behave like that towards all road users - not necessarily singling out cyclists. 

The problem is that so many cyclists don't follow the rules and don't take ownership of their actions. Many club riders wear fashionable dark-coloured kit, some youths ride in black, and with no lights at night. And in my experience the majority of cyclists jump through the red lights. I have even had other cyclists shout "What are you waiting for?" While I was waiting at the lights as they plough on ahead.

These days I don't describe myself as a cyclist given that cycling is one of a variety of modes of transport I use - car, motorcycle, public transport, walking. I even rollerskate, though I wouldn't trust myself doing so on a public highway. I value my life!

For me, using different modes of transport is important because it means that I naturally put myself in the mind of other road users, and crucially this removes the notion of a them and us culture. 

Perhaps if road users and cyclists looked at road usage in a holistic, multi-functional way, that could go some way towards eliminating these road wars.

Tuesday 14 February 2023

The Monkey Motorbike Diaries - Episode 4

I have passed my motorcycle test - yay!

I knew I would get there, but it seemed to be a slow-going, at times, frustrating process. My multiple choice test, which I took last October had gone smoothly after I put in the hard hours and practicing. I assumed that with the same amount of application I could also sail through Module 1 and Module 2. Not so.

On Module 1 I missed the pass by a whisker, on two occasions, both times after messing up the hazard avoidance test - the last exercise of the test. When I passed I found it hard to celebrate because I was conscious of the fact that I still had some way to go. Passing Module 1 doesn't get you a motorcycle licence. 

What passing Module 1 had taught me was that even with all the practicing in the world you can still fail on the proverbial slipping on the banana skin. So I needed to really focus on the next few weeks so that I could get through Module 2 without too many re-takes.

Fast forward to the start of this year when I took Module 2. The weather was not a great omen - pouring rain and low visibility. I was very tempted to not attend the test, but a little voice inside me willed me to go along anyway - pass or fail, at least I would have had the eexperience of riding in challenging conditions. And at least I would have an instructor accompanying me in a protected environment.

During the test, in which the route went around places I knew in Thornton Heath, Pollards Hill and Mitcham Common, I felt relaxed and it was more like an ordinary day riding around - albeit in the rain - something I wouldn't normally opt to do.  

Everything seemed to be going okay, until once again I messed up on the final instruction of the test.  That area of London has a lot of roads with 20mph speed limits, and I had gotten used to riding along those roads throughout the test, and respecting the enforced speed limits. 

Then when I turned left on the south side of Mitcham Common, returning to the cycle test centre I slipped on the banana skin. The thing is, I didn't realised I had slipped on it until I returned to the test centre and heard the dreaded words, "Unfortunately you have not passed the test on this occasion."

Riding along the A236 road along Mitcham Common southside, I was unsure what the speed limit was. All the other roads bordering Mitcham Common had been 20mph zones, so surely this would be the same too. Or maybe not. I wasn't sure. I could either ride at 30 mph and fail for breaking the speed limit, or I could do 20 and hold up the traffic, which would probably just be a minor error - after all I wasn't breaking the speed limit. To hedge my bets further I rode at 25 miles an hour.

Then that familiar voice came through my earpiece "May I remind you that the speed limit is 30 mph." Feeling embarrassed, I sped up to the maximum permitted speed. But apparently, according the the examiner during his assessment, I still didn't get up to 30 mph quick enough and I had caused a long trail of impatient drivers behind me. To be honest, I deemed that to be just London driving! I didn't think it would necessarily be a fail. But that was it - one major error and you're out. He also noted minor errors that I didn't agree with - riding around speed bumps meaning that I was too close to parked cars, taking a left-hand turn to wide, being hesitant at a junction. My disagreement with him was probably more to do with emotions I felt on receiving the shock news that I'd failed. I thought I'd ridden okay, and hadn't felt at all nervous during the ride. I had treated it just like another day out on the bike.

In the interim period when trying to book to do the retake the test was cancelled twice - once due to icy roads, another time due to roadworks outside the test centre.

I had also contemplated taking the test in other places where the speed limit rules may have been less complex - like at Tunbridge Wells. At least there, it is just the one local authority making the rules of the road, as opposed to Mitcham where there Croydon, Merton, Sutton all govern different sections of the area and impose their different rules.

At one point it looked like I wouldn't be able to get a booking until April, and so I signed up to be tested at Tolworth. I was beginning to wonder if I would ever be able to get a test, and after all that I could still fail again!

So by the time I presented myself to the test today I was relieved to have got there - I arrived one minute before my scheduled test time - though I was not feeling especially hopeful.

My examiner was the same man I had for my first attempt at MOD1. He was polite, but not especially reassuring in his delivery. My frame of mind was just to focus and get this damn thing over and done with.

The route overlapped a little bit with a test route for the area that I had found on YouTube and practiced - around Beddington Farm, Purley Way and Mitcham Common, However, there were a lot of the back streets in Wallington that I was not familiar. To compound matters the traffic lights were not working on a big junction between Beddington and Wallington, and I was asked to go through that area on two occasions.

On returning to the test centre after my exam I didn't feel very positive. I was aware of little errors I'd made, and it would just be a case of whether they would be classed or major errors or minors.

"Well done, I am pleased to say you've passed," were his words. It was quite a pleasant surprise that came out of the blue for me. I was elated today as I'd been angry five weeks previously!

I could have kissed the examiner - but I quickly came to my senses and realised it wouldn't be the best idea. Given what day it was, receiving this test certificate from  the examination would beat any Valentine's card! 

Related posts

The Monkey Motorcycle Diaries - Episode 3

The Monkey Motorcycle Diaries - Episode 2

The Monkey Motorcycle Diaries - Episode 1

Friday 10 February 2023

Farewell Look Mum No Hands!

The downturn in the economy really is biting. Many businesses have gone into administration - shops as well as service industries. A café in my local area, Joanna's, which had been a fixture in Crystal Palace since 1978  had to close down. One of the local bike shops in Penge was helped thanks to a crowd-funding campaign by local cyclists when the proprietor received an astronomical fuel bill.

Very sadly, we have now received the news via an Instagram post from the owners of Look Mum No Hands! Cycling café & workshop that this establishment, a mainstay of the London cycling community is closing its doors. This was quite a shock.

I guess it was something that we could have seen coming. Businesses affected by the loss of revenue because of the coronavirus pandemic had previously received subsidies from the government. However, this could only have been a short-term fix, particularly as many businesses in Central London were slow to return to their pre-coronavirus level of commercial activity, if at all.

In the case of the Look Mum No Hands! café and bike workshop a lot of business came from people who worked in the area - whether they were taking in their bikes for repair or to eat at the café. The effect of the pandemic had been for people to change their working patterns, notably by working from home instead of in an office at least part time, if not permanently. 

Sam Humpheson, the head mechanic, and one of the co-founder and owners of the business had told me at times about the decrease in footfall in the area. 

Furthermore, the café had previously hosted events and presentations almost on a weekly basis - be it product launches, parties by cycling clubs, group meet-ups, celebrity interviews, and film screenings. Since the pandemic this level of activity had dropped after people became reticent about attending large gatherings.

To add to that, all businesses have been feeling the pinch over increased business rates, fuel bills and other running costs.

All of the above created the perfect storm which ultimately led to Sam and fellow co-founder-owners Matt Harper and Lewin Chalkley deciding to close the doors on the famous Old Street premises.

This has been a real blow to the cycling community, as could be seen by the thousands of messages across the social media channels. Look Mum No Hands! was a well-known institution not just in the London area, but also in many parts of the UK and beyond. A number of cycling cafés that were set up during the thirteen-year existence of Sam, Matt and Lewin's joint modelled themselves on Look Mum. I remember interviewing a café owner in Harrogate who had the London café in mind when setting up his own establishment. Even more impressive was UpCycle, a Milan-based café-workshop which cited Look Mum as its inspiration in a local newspaper. 

So it is all the more ironic that this cycling café & workshop in Old Street that spawned a new trend in cycling hubs, has now received its own last rites.

My first experience of Look Mum No Hands! was in 2009, almost six months before they opened. A group of local women cycle racers, including myself, Maryka Sennema, Rebecca Slack, Liz Rice, and Charlotte Easton (Sam's then girlfriend) were setting up the London women's cycle racing league. At that point Sam, Matt and Lewin proposed to sponsor our fledgling project. Initially I was as sceptical about the offer as I was about the name they'd be giving to their new business! I had heard about cycling sponsorship deals that had fallen through and I was concerned that we may leave our league exposed to risks. 

Lewin Chalkley (2nd right) with competitors in the London Women's Cycle Racing League in 2010. (L-R: Emma Patterson, Maryka Sennema, Claire Beaumont, Elise Sherwell)

But everyone was excited about this prospective partnership, so we agreed a deal and we had a very fruitful inaugural year with the London Women's Cycle Racing League. So I will always remember the guys at Look Mum No Hands! as having played a significant role in helping local women's cycle racing. 

The cycling café also became very well known very quickly after it opened. I remember attending some pretty fun parties there too. I must also add that Sam is a very competent mechanic, as I found when he serviced my different bikes.

So I am going to miss Look Mum. I am glad to have been there, and been part of that history, and I hope that Sam, Matt and Lewin can feel comforted that with their café-workshop they did make their mark in cycling culture.