Whenever I (slowly) pass a random lycra-clad cyclist on the road here in rural Wales, it is always with a mixture of awe and disbelief, writes Sarah Hoss. And I am not talking about their apparel. Motorists still seem a little oblivious to the inherent vulnerability of a cyclist. Sometimes it makes me wince. I have heard drivers complain about cyclists ‘hogging’ the road, and that attitude hasn’t reassured me about my own or my children’s safety.
The truth is, I’m too chicken to take to the roads on two wheels, and have only ever ventured out for a couple of miles up and down the lane where I live, and then only due to child pester-power.
Cycling on British roads to this middle-aged mother is a scary and potentially dangerous pastime. I also find the physical demands too much and have been known to start shaking as my metabolism fails to keep up with my enthusiasm.
But I’m still in love with the romance of the open road on a bone-shaking contraption. When I was a kid living in Wales’s capital city, a bike represented the freedom to venture further than one could reach on foot. My eldest brother got a bike as a birthday present when he was about 10. Not to be outdone, I also took to peddle power with a little help from brother number 2, who helped me to ride on two wheels, after we got our hands on a donated antique model with cantilever breaks, black and grey paint and a cross bar so high I nearly did myself a mischief. I was too small to touch the ground and couldn’t handle the brakes, but a push down the hill near our house was all it took to keep me upright. Fear sharpens one’s sense of balance.
Eventually I bought myself a new bike out of a catalogue by paying ‘club money’ – my weekly earnings from delivering newspapers. That bike also meant getting to school on time and the freedom to visit friends; as well as hanging my heavy newspaper bag on the handlebars as I went about my early morning and tea-time deliveries through the streets of Cardiff.
After I left home, the bike came too. That meant no need to spend money on bus fares. It took me first around my hometown, then later to Yorkshire, where I was working, and where I eventually abandoned it, in the shed of a boyfriend’s house when my career and wanderlust saw me off to London and then to the Middle East. But before that I cycled every day on busy British roads.
I can remember now the total fear of being whooshed into the road by the draught of lorries thundering by. The near-misses. The uphill asthma attacks. The sudden loss of blood-sugar rendering me a wobbly mess screaming for food.
My bike was a BSA lady’s ‘Shopper’ (no, not a ‘Chopper’ ah the bike of my dreams). Three cranky gears operated via a switch on the handlebar. It had a metal basket at the front and a frame of metallic green. I can picture it now. I remember spectacularly falling off with a basket full of books when the handlebar nut worked loose rending me incapable of steering. Happy days.
I experienced sane cycling on a trip to Holland when I was 15. I stayed for three weeks with a British family living in Utrecht. The entire town was laid out for cyclists. It was another planet. Flat, clean, wide, organized. I cycled to and from the local school and started to realize there was another way. But back in the UK, the car became king and cycling took a back seat. Fear of being knocked off is the main reason people don’t ride bikes. But that is beginning to change.
The supply of cycling equipment is a huge and growing industry. Serious cyclists may look slightly alien in their pointy helmets, spray-on lycra outfits and hi-tech low-weight bikes, but pedal power has seen a huge increase in the last few years as both urban and rural communities have seen investment in cycling infrastructure.
Bike sales are up 25 per cent in the last three years, according to the National Travel Survey. ‘Boris bikes’ have been a huge success in London, after copying the Paris Velib cycle hire scheme. Cyclosportives (organized cycle events with marked routes, feeding stations and a focus on taking part rather than racing) are being held virtually every weekend in the UK and take-up of places is increasing.
The government has also encouraged people to buy bikes for travelling to work by offering loans and discount ‘cycle to work’ schemes. These finance schemes have allowed people to acquire much more sophisticated cycles and safety equipment. Cycles and kit don’t come cheap.
The Cardiff World Naked Bike Ride made quite a spectacle (June 11 2011) as 80 mainly naked or nearly-naked cyclists took to the streets to, well, have a laugh, and also bring home the message that cyclists really are terribly vulnerable. The sun shone on their cycling skin laid bare for all to see that knocking a cyclist off their bike means bringing flesh into contact with metal and tarmac at great speed.
And on June 12th more than 600 cyclists turned up in the seaside village of Saundersfoot to participate in the Tour of Pembrokeshire Cyclosportive. As well as raising funds for the Welsh Air Ambulance Service, these intrepid cyclists were determined to see as much of the Pembrokeshire countryside as their lungs and inclement weather would allow. Three different routes were on offer depending on ability: 63, 82, and 117 miles. It was unseasonably-bad weather, despite having been pleasant most of the previous week. On the day it was torrentially raining, misty and blowy. Despite this, the desire to ‘just do it’ seemed to override any misgivings and the cyclists achieved their goals in a ride that organizer Peter Walker described (himself an accomplished cyclist) as ‘an exhilarating ride of unsurpassed camaraderie’.
James Beresford, one of the participants, described it as ‘rain plus wind plus flooded coastal roads equals the Tour of Pembrokeshire – awesome! Loved every challenging minute of it’.
Cycling is a way to combine the great outdoors, fitness and the ultimate antidote to rush hour stress; not just a cheap alternative to the car.
In Wales, the Celtic Trail is a network of cycle paths that extends from Chepstow Castle to the Ocean Lab, Fishguard, taking 220 miles to complete and including some of the most stunning coastal and rural views in Wales. The route includes a traffic-free section along the millennium Coastal Path from Pembrey. I have taken my own kids along some of it, in Pembrokeshire, from Neyland marina to Johnston and back, and it was really enjoyable. I couldn’t ride, because I was supervising my disabled son and my eager young daughter both on bikes with mother running between the two, but for the average family the route would make a lovely family outing.
As more of us road-users try cycling and not just driving down them, perhaps we will collectively start to slow down and care for fellow road users on two wheels. We all need to, if cycling is going to become safer.
Road safety is still deterring many from taking to their lycra shorts – I am an example of that. But perhaps, as we all look for a greener, cleaner way of travelling and keeping fit, maybe this mum will venture out again if I can just find the confidence, pit stops and safe routes to do it. Hmm, let’s just reconsider the lycra shorts ok?