Subversive Suburbanite



Since I last posted, I seem to have taken up ‘vehicular cycling’.

I don’t even know exactly what this term means – something to do with mingling with the rest of the traffic and cycling like you’re driving a car. (Which is what you’re forced to do if you would like to actually get somewhere by bike in this country, seeing as you don’t have a protected lane to cycle on.) In any case, I’m finding myself doing more journeys by bike that I wouldn’t previously have considered to be bikeable journeys.

What gave me the confidence to strike out and cycle in traffic, pretty much anywhere, was in part the Redster’s Bikeability course last term. I realise it was designed to give her confidence, but it probably had more of an effect on me. As we cycled to and from school every day for the week-long course,* while the Cutester took the bus on her own, I learnt a lot from following the Redster on her bike – mainly about staying out of the ‘door zone’ and taking up my position assertively in the lane. I stopped shrinking out of the way of passing cars, and remembered that I do also have the right to use the road. And if I seem to be right in the middle of it, holding up the driver behind, that means I won’t get flung by an opening car door into his or her path. I remind myself that the driver behind would probably not have their mental health enhanced by running me over.

As for the kids on the school Bikeability course, it was a case of survival of the fittest. Those who couldn’t cycle straight or whose bikes were falling apart were weeded out in the playground on the first day. The next day they did quiet roads, and de-selected anyone who wasn’t coping. The next day they did A-roads. On the last day they dumped them all on the North Circular and anyone who made it back alive got a certificate (this last sentence is the only one that isn’t true). Actually, there were no casualties that I heard of – though not one of those children who made it to Level 2 (‘competent to cycle on A-roads’) is now cycling to school. Neither is any other schoolchild in the borough that I have noticed, in seven years of school runs, bar two (both boys). Hmmm. Perhaps we need more than cycle training to get kids to ride bikes to school…

Then I started going to Mini Holland meetings, and one of these was with members of the Waltham Forest pro-Mini Holland group, who suggested we meet halfway somewhere in the Lee Valley. And when seasoned cycle campaigners arrange a meeting, however far away it is, you know you’re not going to drive to it, are you? So I set off on my bike in the wake of a couple of others from Enfield, both veteran (male) cycle commuters who think of nothing of cycling for more than half an hour, in the dark, just to get to a meeting.

It was totally liberating. All the counter-intuitive factors of the journey: riding in the dark, choosing to go 30 minutes by bike rather than 15 minutes by car, not knowing if it was going to rain – did not, in fact, result in disaster. It was fine. It worked! There was a beautiful full moon, and hardly any traffic on the roads; we could cycle two abreast and chat at times; some of it was along the River Lee itself (and I didn’t fall in); it ticked so many of my favourite subversive boxes that I found it electrifying, or would have done if it hadn’t been such good exercise that by the time we got to the meeting in a Harvester pub I cared much less about Mini Holland and a lot more about apple crumble and custard.

After that, all my (partly subconscious) mental defences against cycling just fell apart. ‘It’s dark!’ So what? I have lights. ‘It’s raining!’ So what? No such thing as bad weather, etc. ‘I have to turn right at that tricky junction!’ So what? Take the lane, be assertive, check carefully before I turn. ‘It will take 10 minutes longer!’ Just – so what? (And as often as not, it’s actually no slower than driving.) I’ve also developed a strange absence of fear when cycling in traffic. I think this must be based on sheer ignorance. I can’t possibly be as safe as I feel with buses and HGVs rumbling past me. It could be because cycling makes me daydream – I’m likely to be thinking about a blog post or a scene in a novel or a limerick (or reciting ‘vee – hic! – ular’ on a loop in my head. What a great word). I’m sure the first time I have a proper near miss, I’ll feel differently.

So I can see why people get so evangelistic about cycling. There’s nothing like that feeling of independence you get from using your own body to get somewhere under your own steam, without being enclosed in a metal box. It’s doesn’t change the facts though – most people just don’t want to cycle in traffic, and certainly not people who are much younger or older than I am or who don’t suffer from my strange illusion of safety. We need safe, segregated space for cycling, or the joy of bike is going to carry on being the preserve of the same small percentage.

And really, as I’ve whinged about before, the sticking point comes back to transporting children. If the child can’t or won’t cycle the necessary route, or if the journey is to pick them up from a friend’s house, or an after school activity they didn’t cycle to – I have to resort to bus or car. Usually car, if the bus route would be too inconvenient, or it’s an evening, or a Sunday afternoon.

Which brings me on to the very exciting solution we have found to this problem – but I’ve rambled on long enough. That very exciting solution will have to wait for my next post. Stay tuned – and see below for a clue…

Ta-dah! Start of a beautiful relationship

*and can I point out that ALL the other parents cheated by driving their kids’ bikes to the school at the beginning of the week and storing them there throughout…?