Cyclists: Saving A Loved One’s Life

Yesterday, I watched an ambulance, blues lights flashing, struggle to get through heavy traffic in central Reading. I don’t know what emergency they were hurrying to: a heart attack perhaps. Quite possibly, seconds and minutes lost on the over-crowded roads will have made a difference to whoever they were trying to get to.

If more people were cycling, there would be less traffic. Ambulances would be able to get to emergencies a lot more quickly.

If you’re not the person in need of the ambulance, it might be someone you know – relative, friend, loved-one.

And if you cycle yourself, you will be healthier than if you don’t. You’ll probably be less likely to have a heart attack.

So, why not cycle whenever you can? And whether you’re cycling or not, why not always look upon every cyclist you come across as a good thing, making the roads that little bit less congested, and ambulances that little bit more able to come quickly to the help of someone you care about? You’d have to be daft not to.

Some things are just so starkly simple … it seems faintly ludicrous that you have to say them.

Observations And Reflections On Using Flashing Rear Lights Whilst Cycling

I’m very fortunate – I’m able to do most of my bike riding during the day, on (relatively) quiet roads. On the whole I don’t feel I need lights, high-visibility clothing and so on; I don’t feel that vulnerable. (I would have a very different attitude if I was riding in towns / commuter traffic.)

Lately though, the days are just not brightening up and there’s a lot of general murk around, and so I’ve been riding with a flashing red LED back light on at all times.

The interesting thing about this is that I’m pretty sure it does make the average driver give me a wider berth as they overtake me. For that I’m grateful – it all contributes to making for a more pleasant ride.

The very interesting this is that the average driver is giving me a wider berth but often taking quite significant risks to do so – going over the central line despite approaching blind corners; in some cases despite approaching traffic.

I don’t know how I feel about that. On the one hand, I’m still the winner – I’m getting a wide berth and if drivers are taking risks to do so, that’s their look-out.

On the other hand, it would appear that by riding with a flashing back light I’m creating a conflict in drivers: they feel compelled to give me more room than they might otherwise, but they can’t fight what seems to be a deep-seated urge to get around me even at considerable risk to themselves.

No, I don’t think I would feel guilty if, in overtaking me, a vehicle takes a risk and they don’t get away with it. I can’t be responsible for another’s actions and, surely, it’s reasonable to expect competent adults – especially those judged capable of driving a vehicle – to be able to exercise a degree of foresight. They can easily wait for a safe spot to overtake me.

That said, I drive a car too, and I know how deep-seated the urge is to get around something that’s going very slow; how innate that urge seems. I’ve been there – I’ve felt it.

The upshot, perhaps, is that we need to look at the expectations that are somehow engendered in drivers, of driving; what is it that makes the urge to get by something slower so strong. Is it over-crowding – are we feeling too pressured, too hurried to cut anyone any slack? Is it the image of motoring that’s ‘sold’ to us – the very attractive myth of forging ahead on an open road?

I don’t know, there could be any number of reasons, but I know the problem’s real, and I know that while I might not feel guilty if a car overtaking me foolishly then crashes, it’s not going to be a life-enhancing event for anyone – me included.

And the other upshot? Using flashing red LEDs at all times seems sensible. While we wait for a solution to the urge to overtake, perhaps cyclists will have to learn to live with witnessing accidents. Witnessing is better than being involved.

A Worthwhile Legacy

There are enough words written already about the London Olympics and, now, about the ‘Olympic Legacy’. I’ll try and keep my bit brief.

As a nation we’re proving very good at cycling; I’ve heard punters on television talk about this being a great time for cycling and cyclists. When riding today, what I wanted to hear about is a legacy goal that would be meaningful for all cyclists whatever their motivation, age or ability. I wanted to hear of someone taking up the cudgels for applying a decent national standard to road repairs and maintenance.

Reality? Reality is that no-one will take up that fight because it’s not glamorous. The cretinocracy we live in has promoted ‘leaders’ who only do ‘sexy’. The chance of anyone high profile, with power, fighting for something as basic as a decent standard of road mending is nigh on impossible. It is easier to imagine little Martians cleaning the lens of the camera on the Curiosity Mars rover than it is Lord Coe using the momentum of the games and his new role as ‘legacy ambassador’ (whatever that might be) to achieve something meaningful, that will help people other than elite athletes.

Away from the glitz, what’s happening is depressingly criminal in the amount of money being wasted. Councils, private contractors and anyone else with the power/responsibility to dig up and/or mend roads need to be held to account. It is that simple.

Out today, thinking this, I stopped along a lane and took some pictures (below). I didn’t have to hunt to find examples – this was just where I happened to think of taking photos. Looking at them now, here are a few draft regulations, made up as I write:

  • The surface of any road works must be within 5mm of the adjacent road surface, measured six weeks after the repair was carried out to let it settle.
  • The edges of any road works must be sealed with a liquid tar to make it waterproof.
  • The practice of smearing tar and stones over a road surface without it having been properly mended first must end.
  • There needs to be a national standard of road repair, not a council-by-council patchwork of varying quality.
  • Whatever the minimum size hole currently is (bigger than which they have to repair it) needs to be reassessed so that it reflects the needs of cyclists.

And so on and so on and so on. As it is, a depressingly high proportion of those responsible for digging up/mending the roads are trashing the national infrastructure and getting away with it.

It’s not an argument about cycling that has to happen. This could be about the health of the nation. If that’s not good enough, then focus instead on the need to safeguard future generations by reducing greenhouse gasses. If that doesn’t ring your bell, then try the cost-savings to industry by reducing congestion by dint of having more cyclists and fewer cars. Or reducing costs to industry by having healthier workers. Or reducing the costs of local government by having more cyclists and fewer vehicles on the road and thus less wear-and-tear on the roads themselves. And so on and so on and so on.

For funding all this, the lesson from HS1* should be applied to HS2** and the plug pulled on the latter now – before the pockets of any more lawyers, consultants or other leeches are lined. Everything else aside, more people would benefit from diverting the money to decent national road surfaces than will ever gain from the HS2 new rail link, even if the forecasting isn’t blindly optimistic.

Roads. Ugh. How boring. It’s all so worthy and dull. What’s daft is that if a big league politician took up that fight for real and delivered on it, they and their party would win more votes than they can possibly imagine. They’d also be doing real good for real people.

But as we all know, politicians with brains, bottle or vision are in horribly short supply. Politicians in the pockets of the road transport lobby or the oil industry or any other of the big hitters in the current status quo … they’re two a penny.

Please, someone, prove me wrong.


The same problem in the road, mended four times.

This is the same problem mended (at least) four times. The joins aren’t sealed so it will be a falling apart again shortly. You might as well just burn a few hundred quid – perhaps have a ceremony on market days in town centres: “Look, this is how much we’re wasting this week”. Whoever’s doing the mending must struggle to not laugh all the way to the bank.

A fresh hole in a road at the site of an old problem

A new hole appearing along the line of a previous mend. The sun comes up. The sun goes down. The previous mend wasn’t sealed so water gets in. A new hole appears. Heaven forfend that someone might do a job properly.

Smearing tar and gravel on a road achieves nothing for any road user

Take a road in need of repair. Don’t bother to repair it, just waste a load of public money smearing tar and gravel over it. It won’t last a few months. It will be difficult to cycle on and it will mask problem holes, thus making it dangerous too. It won’t even be safe for motorists as that sort of surface offers poor traction. Never mind, some quota’s been filled, some box ticked, some bonus earned somewhere.

Go West …

Go west, and on the way you can see:

Colour appearing on the verges

Colour appearing on the verges

  • Blackbirds with beaks full of food; second broods, presumably.
  • An old, sparrow-thin lady, looking disproportionately worried as road works are set up near her home.
  • An idiot cyclist getting the turnings muddled up in Tidmarsh. That’ll be me then. Sorry about that, Ford Ka driver, and thanks for cutting me slack.
  • Relatively few cars and even fewer pedestrians; again prompting thoughts of this as a ‘golden age’ for cycling.
  • Friendly people when and where you do come in contact with them.
  • Colour on the verges: not in overwhelming amounts and not everywhere, but in many places the monopoly of purely shades of green is being broken up.
  • Red Kites galore, as far west as Aldworth at least.
  • Crop spraying tractors; having seen the drivers in the cabs of these things wearing air filter masks in the past, these days I always try to hurry by without breathing in. It can be a test.
  • Several examples of well-mended roads. West Berkshire seem to do the job pretty well. South Oxfordshire should come and take lessons.
  • An old and sweaty fat man on a bike, heaving himself up hills. That’ll be me then.
  • And rain clouds gathering further off to the west, engendering a sense of satisfaction in getting a decent length ride in, in time.

Your Mantra (Wet Weather Riding For Cyclists)

Things to remember when riding in the wet:

  • Painted lines on roads can be very slippery.
  • All iron work on roads can be very slippery – drain covers etc.
  • If you’re not totally sure how deep that puddle is, don’t risk just ploughing in to it.
  • Remember, the politicians have decided to spend your money on keeping their friends the bankers in bonuses, so the country’s infrastructure is rotting. A lot of puddles are concealing pot-holes.
  • Don’t swerve to avoid puddles or water-logged pot-holes without looking behind you. (Not that you ever should swerve blindly.)
  • Your brakes don’t work as well as they might, especially not in the first instance you apply them. (Once they’ve cleared the water from the rims they often bite just as well as in the dry; be careful you don’t over-do it and they don’t then snatch.)
  • Even if/when your brakes are working, the issue is more likely to be grip on the road. In the dry it’s easy to make a bike skid because you’ve such little rubber in contact with the road; in the wet it is very, very easy. When you’re skidding, you’re accelerating.
  • (Tyre tread on a bike on the road is pretty irrelevant: the role of tread on car tyres is to shed water and prevent aqua-planing; you are very unlikely to ever go fast enough to aqua-plane on a bike! If anything, less tread means more grip – just like slick tyres on racing cars.)
  • Motorists’ visibility may be obscured – don’t assume they’ve seen you. (Not that you ever should make that assumption.)
  • For some strange reason, traffic often speeds up in wet weather. Allow for people responding to what I imagine is some primal urge to get home quickly, even though  they’re in a dry car.
And finally, remember your mantra! Take your pick. ‘I am not a sugar lump; I will not dissolve in the rain’ is pretty good. ‘Oil will make my chain better; the bearings are all sealed’ can be a comfort too.

Bold and Brave

When Red Kites were first becoming more common around these parts you could guarantee that if you neared one perched, typically, in a tree, it would fly off. No matter how high the tree and lofty its perch, just a human coming along would make it put in what often looks like a lot of effort and lift off. The first thing they learned was that cars weren’t a problem – they wouldn’t fly off for a car going by, but they still would for a pedestrian or cyclist. They are continuing to learn: today one landed in a tree as I approached, not far out of Caversham, and it just ignored me cycling along – it wasn’t even high up in a tall tree.

I don’t know if you can apply concepts such as bold or brave to animals; I rather suspect not. They’re just becoming familiar with people. Quite naturally, familiarity breeds if not contempt then certainly some awareness that the typical human is no threat. Dolled-up in lycra and balanced on a bike, they may be an eyesore – but not a threat.

Just a few yards after being ignored by the Kite, two girls came hurtling along down the lane – the first in something like a new-ish open top little Renault, the second in what looked like a fairly tatty Ford Fiesta. I might be wrong. They were racing each other – I could see the one in front was paying more attention to her rear view mirror than to the road ahead. It wasn’t a close shave for me or anything faintly resembling it, but if I’d been even a mid-sized van like a Transit, things would have been a bit fraught all round.

I’m know I’m old enough to suspect anyone under about the age of 30 is in fact barely 12, policemen included, but these two weren’t ‘women’ in the sense that that word means mature female – they were girls. If they were over 20 I’ll be surprised.

I doubt you can call the actions of youth bold or brave either. We’ve all been there – there’s a feeling of invulnerability that’s so common in the young. You can’t be bold or brave without the alternatives crossing your mind – without considering the timid option, without feeling fear. I suspect the fact that they might be risking a bad car crash for the fun of a chase down a lane simply never crossed their minds.

I don’t know how you can legislate for that; the best you can do is attempt to educate – to show the fragility of it all.

And if it had gone horribly wrong for them and they’d ended up crashing, thrown from their cars, dead in a ditch, I don’t know what the right response would have been. It would have been just nature really – you get old if you can survive the follies of youth. That’s true for pretty well all animals.

We wouldn’t have been able shrug it off though, even if we should. There would have been an outcry of some sort about dangerous roads, some public hand-wringing about kid drivers, and some media fool standing outside where one or other of them lived and talking to camera about the shock it’s been to ‘the local community’. No-one would say it’s just nature.

And if the first to the ditch had been that Red Kite, viewing a corpse for the carrion it is, there would have been an outcry about that as well – even though that’s just nature too. A cull for birds of prey would probably be just around the corner.