Some thoughts on Mountain Bikes

I am currently riding My brother’s Hard-tail, carbon fibre mountain bike to work, because driving to work was doing my head in. This is about as good as a trail-riding bike gets, and his pride and joy. However, it’s my belief that mountain bikes are the work of the devil, and put the cause of utility cycling back a two decades.

First, big, knobbly tyres are bloody hard work on roads. On a road-bike, my commute took 18 minutes. On a mountain bike, this morning it took 27 minutes. That’s 50% more over 4 miles. Even allowing for the fact I’ve not ridden for a few weeks, that’s a simply enormous difference. True, I could put slick MTB tyres on, but that’s like putting lipstick on a pig.
Second, the saddle it came with, a spongy number, was agony in seconds. I have put my Brooks on it, and it’s much better now. If you don’t like cycling because it’s uncomfortable, failure to buy a leather saddle is the cause.
Third, it’s muddy on the roads. With a road-bike, this isn’t much of a problem. You can either put full mud-guards on, like Crud Road-Racer IIs or a seat-post mounted filth prophylactic, and the vast majority of the mud remains on the bike. This morning, EVERYTHING was covered in splatter. Arms, legs, chest, face. A mountain bike spreads the muck so liberally, you cannot consider wearing street clothes if you want to ride it to work.
Fourth, it’s no use for carrying stuff at all. There is no rack, 
I am sure, though I’ve yet to try it, it’s great on the trails getting muddy and rattling downhill. I doubt it’s more effective (in terms of speed over ground) than a cyclocross bike. Where it will excel is the “technical” trails which litter woodland the country over. Over anything like a normal A-B route, even a muddy footpath, a mountain bike will not be the quickest or most efficient machine. The mountain-bike is a toy, not a means of transport. It’s something you put on a car to take somewhere. It’s a hobby. And since about 1985, it’s been the dominant form of the bike. Halfords and Argos are still selling cheap versions to people who don’t know better. Because these are so popular, to the uninitiated, the MTB, not a drop-handlebar road-bike, is what a bike should look like.
And because their first bike is a full-“suspension” number which is slow, heavy, tiresome and covers you in shit, rather than a cheaper, lighter, skinny-wheeled 10-speed, people reject the concept of cycling from A-B. The few who enjoy it, end up spending thousands on their hobby and enjoy it very much, at the weekend. You can see them in BMW X-5s with two mountain bikes on the roof, failing to understand why the be-lycra’d roadie is still slogging around in the traffic, rather than having FUN in the trails.
And that’s the Tragedy. Even people who’ve learned to love the bike still reject it as a means of transport, They’re putting it in a car to go and use it on a man-made obstacle course rather than getting their enjoyment in every day on the way to work. Riding a bike to work or the shops simply doesn’t occur to the moutain-biker, as their bike is not, to them a tool on which to get about. (Many of them also own road or utility bikes, this is not a post about N+1) This entrenches the abhorrent car-culture which makes British towns so unpleasant to be in. A carbon-fibre, suspension mountain bike: never in the field of human endeavor has so much technical accomplishment achieved so little.

Build Cycle Lanes, the Motorist Benefits.

Most conservatives/libertarians/UKIPpers are viscerally pro-car and anti-bike. To the likes of regular commenters Simon Jester or Patrick the use of the car is natural, and facilitating anything else is a dastardly plot to subvert his way of life. This is a perverse and willful misreading of my position. I will try to deal with the commonest arguments of the Gin & Jag set in this post.

I shall refer to the first sentence of my last post.

…most journeys of longer than a few miles, and for moving goods about the country, the motor vehicle is simply the best tool for the job.

Pro-bike is not anti-car. MOST JOURNEYS even in Holland, are undertaken by car. even In Amsterdam & Copenhagen, Bicycles account for less than half of journeys. Even in the most bike-friendly countries on the planet, the car remains well provided for by infrastructure, and a popular transport choice. It’s just the bike is ALSO well provided for.

What’s that next to this Dutch cycle lane? That’s right, a dual carriageway.

The solution to congestion isn’t as most Libertarian/Tory/UKIP Internet wallahs think, “more roads” because the problem isn’t a lack of road space, it’s the fact that everyone wants to get to the same places at the same time. The Problem is a lack of road-space at key points. For example the hanger lane underpass, or the Blackwall tunnel in London become choked beyond their capacity every single morning. If you build bigger roads to these spots, you make congestion worse, not better. This is what the M4 Bus Lane was all about.

A cursory search on Google Scholar will quickly put pay to the “build more roads” argument. This is from the first to pop up.

“Our decisions provoke unforeseen reactions. The result is policy resistance, the tendency for interventions to be defeated by the response of the system to the intervention itself… road building programs that create suburban sprawl and actually increase traffic congestion…”

So, barring a few pinch points such as the M25 around Heathrow, and by-passes which sensibly route through-traffic round town centres, more road-building is not the answer.

Then there’s the money. Libertarians, UKIPpers and Tories regard themselves and economically literate, in contrast to Labour who think economics is about getting water to flow uphill. People who should know better, however lose all economic sense when discussing their favoured means of getting about. Just because one group is taxed, doesn’t mean the money should be spent on them. If it were, income tax would largely go on well-tended grouse moors for the ultra rich who pay a significant chunk of it, the NHS’s lung-cancer wards would be the envy of the world, and vomiting drunks would have their hair held back by liveried booze-tax-funded drunk-helpers every Saturday night. Instead the money is put into a pot and spent by the government as it sees fit.

Taxes levied on motorists are not therefore some sort of “road fund” for their exclusive use. They’re more akin to rent. You don’t live in a house for free; you pay for the capital cost as well as the running costs. You pay rent (or taxes) on the land. If the money spent on roads each year is the running cost of our road network, it’s akin to utility bills. The rest of the tax motorists pay covers the cost of building the road network and financing it – 2,000 years of capital investment. You’re also paying for the “externalities” of car use.

There’s the word “externality” which brings libertarians out in hives because they think it’s part of some ghastly plot to deprive them of their car. It isn’t. It’s about paying your way. Some externalities like Carbon are explicitly calculated, in the Stern review for example. And of course, we are paying several times more to drive a car than would be the case if that was the only externality in the price. There are other externalities too. Some are trivial: I don’t like seeing fat people, and cars cause obesity for example. Some externalities however have real economic effects: Congestion is an externality imposed on other motorists with real economic costs. To ensure those costs are borne by those who value roads most, you pay through the nose to drive. This is why it works. Other externalities merely affect quality of life. Noise, danger, stress, particulates damaging to health and so on. To these I would add the social costs in atomisation and fragmentation of society facilitated by car-based urban sprawl.

People who in any other facet of life think markets are great at providing solutions to problems utterly reject them in transport. There should be a market between competing means of transport. However at present, all the investment goes to road and rail, nothing to any other potential means of getting from A-B, which might take some (SOME – not ALL, idiots) pressure off the road network at peak times. At the moment the market is grotesquely skewed in favour of the car, even where a bike would otherwise make sense, crappy infrastructure and subjective feelings of danger put people off using it. And it is this we need to address.

A bike on a commute is one fewer car in your way. Encourage cycling, and motorists benefit.

The externalites of urban sprawl, lack of local amenities, dead town centres, noise, pollution, social atomisation and social division which accompany the total domination of the car are uncosted but paid for in the “rent” you pay in taxes over and above the road budget. These bills could be reduced by better, bike and pedestrian friendly urban design. Some argue the externalities are more than covered by the current motorists’ tax-burden. Others think not. But to deny the existence of externailites alltogether is anti-economics, a stupid rhetorical position normally occupied by the left.

The experience of the Netherlands is if you make a small (relative to the road budget) investment, over a long period of time in making the roads feel safe for cyclists, everyone (including motorists) benefits. Many People then DO choose the bike because it’s quick, cheap, convenient and fun for SOME journeys. In Amsterdam just under half of journeys are by bike. And this benefits motorists in less congestion. Getting kids to cycle to school in particular frees parents from the chore of acting as a taxi service, and massively reduces congestion at rush hour. It also gives kids a bit of much needed freedom. Proper cycle lanes would mean fewer cyclist holding you up, a “problem” existing only in the fevered minds of anti-bike nut-cases, but oft cited none-the-less. More cyclists means more local shops as people get back in the habit of making short journeys instead of reaching for the car keys every time you leave the house, so you can get your paper and irn bru when you have a hangover on a Sunday morning without having to drive anywhere. It means your local pub is more likely to stay open, giving you a chance to gain that hangover in a social environment instead of tossing yourself off alone to the x-factor with a can of supermarket lager. It’s no coincidence that towns and cities with the highest bicycle modal share feature regularly at the top of indices listing “livability” and happiness. Even in these, most people own, or have access to a car.

The point is a change in the build environment to favour the cyclist or pedestrian doesn’t mean the car becomes obsolete. Rather it becomes one tool in a quiver for getting about, one chosen when the journey is long, when the weather is bad, when the load is heavy, or when you just don’t feel like riding a bike that morning. Cyclists are drivers and drivers are cyclists, eliminating hostility. However, in the UK many people who wish to ride a bike are currently denied that opportunity, to the detriment of all by infrastructure entirely inappropriate for their needs.

Any comment which ultimately says “I need a car for some journeys, therefore you should use one for all” will be deleted, unanswered. Read the first paragraph of this post again before pressing submit.

To deny there are any problems caused by the total domination of the car of our built environment is perverse and willfully blind. To pretend there are no solutions is stupid and unbelievably ignorant and selfish. Even Jeremy Clarkson sees that a town with fewer cars is simply more pleasant to be in – that is he admits the benefits of car use are offset by costs largely borne by others. No-one wants to see the freedoms granted by the private car lost. But I do want to see a return of the freedoms it has taken away.

The Great Car Economy.

I often get accused of being anti-car. I am not. For most journeys of longer than a few miles, and for moving goods about the country, the motor vehicle is simply the best tool for the job. I just accept the car is often not best tool for the job, and universal car use has a number of negative effects. This leaves an enormous number of journeys for which the car shouldn’t be the first choice. My problem is that people are forced into cars, as other options have been, effectively, denied through short-sightedness and poor urban design.

Would you use this? More Rubbish Infrastructure here.

Margret Thatcher hailed in 1989, the “Great Car Economy”, embarking on a grand scheme of road-building, which like so much the Tories do, brings out the crusties in vicious and bitter protest. A decade of Swampies living up trees led to the abandonment of “the biggest road-building scheme since the Romans”.

More recently the claim is often made that petrol taxes “hurt the economy”. Of course they do, but the question should be whether fuel duties hurt more, or less than other taxes. I argue they don’t hurt any more than income taxes. The Conservative-led government faces protests by drivers who don’t want to pay & feel there should be more roads, that road-building will be the key to stimulating the economy. This is one of the few areas of expenditure, along with the provision of free-parking, that the tax-payer’s alliance can be relied upon to support. It ignores the costs of motoring.

Let’s go through the hidden costs of “the Great Car Economy”.

Cars make towns noisy and stressful. You can estimate the cost of this by looking at houses on main roads, which often cost 30-40% less than those in quiet cul-de-sacs less than a hundred yards away. There’s an economic externality of car use, costed for you, right there.

Every 40 cars, roughly, represents £1,000,000 in capital expenditure. For much of the country, that’s £2,500 per year, per car. For 95%of the time, this capital is sitting, unused in parking lots. Is this not a colossal waste of resources on a scale equivalent to the Great wall of China? Those parking lots are unsightly, and represent an enormous waste of potentially valuable land, which reduces the value of the area around it. This too is a waste of resources.

Cars facilitate harmful behaviour. People under-estimate how much a long commute makes them miserable, and over-estimate how much a big house makes them happy. People therefore live a sub-optimal distance from work, a long way from family and friends. People are less happy than they would otherwise be.

Cars have changed the built environment, brought about urban sprawl, which atomises society. Cars have driven other options – bicycles and walking out of the picture, by making them so unpleasant. It is simply not enjoyable to share space with tons of speeding metal. As a result, there are few ‘local shops’. The car encourages big-box shopping, ripping the heart out of town centres.

Once you have spent 60% of an annual salary on a car, you tend to use it for every journey even ones where (once you’ve parked) would be quicker to walk. This leads to obesity and ill health. Driving, especially in heavy traffic, is stressful. Adrenaline and Cortisol, when not accompanied by exercise, is hard on the heart and encourages fat deposits. Even if you go to the gym, the damage done by stress hormones while driving is difficult to burn off.

The problem, ultimately is that overuse and over reliance on one transport technology has created a sub-optimal equilibrium. People cannot see beyond THEIR car and the need for it. Blinded by a set of cognitive biases and perverse incentives, the car is used for every journey. And of course, as we’ve organised society completely around it since the mid-70’s, people feel they’ve no choice. They’re probably right. At present, there is no alternative to having £30,000 worth of depreciating metal on your drive. Public transport is simply nasty, as I laid out in detail in this post, a while ago, and we now live too far from everything to consider any other solution.

Ultimately the conclusion is that more roads and more cars isn’t the answer. Cars simply fill any extra space, and if you build “enough” space, you get Milton Keynes. We must do things more cleverly.

So, the experiment in the great motoring society has gone as far as it can go. Any further increases in the number or use of cars are likely to generate negative returns to human happiness. It is Government’s role therefore to provide infrastructure to other alternatives: a network of cycle tracks and city infrastructure – not to exclude the car, but to provide an alternative, to both tribes’ benefit. Motorists should remember the most tireless campaigners for smooth roads are cyclists for whom a pot-hole is not only a punctured tyre, but potentially a broken collar bone. The infrastructure can and should be built with all road-users in mind.

The solution to these problems, is to organise a system where there are fewer cars, used more intensively.

Technological change will help. Nevada has just issued a license for Google’s automatous car. This will, in time, enable fleets of driver-free vehicles to act as taxis. It doesn’t take much imagination to see this working very much more cheaply and efficiently than a situation where everyone has their own depreciating asset, though this is several years away. Fewer cars, not being driven by people, means a safer and less threatening road environment for other users. Although the total cost of hiring a self-driving car for each journey may in time become lower than owning a private car, the fact you’re making a marginal decision for each journey, rather than the costs being concentrated in one enormous sunk cost of purchase, will tend to make people consider alternatives in a way they currently don’t. Even if the volume of vehicular journeys increases, driverless cars will be more efficient users of fuel and road-space. They will also be safer.

People are simply not designed to drive. Our lizard-brains simply can’t cope. The road environment and the cars on it have been made forgiving to the inadequacies of people driving cars, but it is something no-one can do successfully. Don’t believe me? Ask the insurance industry. Racing drivers, those who ACTUALLY can control a car better than anyone else are not considered a good risk. People tend to compensate for extra safety features in their car or any extra skill, by taking more risks. The risks are most keenly felt by people without a ton and a half of steel wrapped around them.

In time, insurance costs will dictate that cars will not be allowed to be owner-driven on the public roads. At present, the only tool with which you can, by recklessness kill someone and escape gaol, is the car. This will change and machines will make better drivers than us.

I am not anti-car. I accept the benefits, and the necessity for widespread car ownership at present. It’s just that it’s used for over 90% of journeys. People don’t walk to the pub anymore, neither do kids cycle to school. And the reason is that the car has changed towns – there are no local services in suburbs any more; ourselves – most of us are fat, and feel the need to change into special clothes to walk a mile; and the environment – the roads are simply too hostile to allow your kids to cycle to school.

If you can address the inappropriate journeys – in particular the school run, much of the congestion motorists currently suffer, would vanish. Kids SHOULD enjoy the independence of making their own way to school, as they do on the continent. This requires investment in infrastructure to separate the cyclist from the motorist. Many (not all, obviously) people would like to cycle to work, but feel it’s too unsafe. Investment in infrastructure would take a few of these cars off the roads at peak times too. And if we can encourage delivery driving overnight though a fuel tax rebate, we can have smoothly running roads for everyone, all day.

Every cyclist commuting to work, is one fewer in other motorist’s way. But the the entire national cycling infrastructure budget is less than that to widen 4 miles of the M25. Even footpaths are often sub-standard and blocked by (what else?) parked cars. Ultimately, those who want to walk and cycle shouldn’t be put off by crappy infrastructure because the car enjoys 99.99% of the spending and an absurdly privileged place in society. If we can change this, then those who still want to drive will have a more enjoyable time too.

Why do cyclists “Hog the road”

Have a look at this video (1-minute, safe for work)

My reward for getting out of the way of the considerate driver of the Merc (the reason he took a while to pass as I moved accross was that he was giving plenty of room behind – thanks) was a near left-hook from the John Lewis lorry following him. The problem is, once you let one car through, everyone else thinks they can pile past, even when there is no room. This is why it’s often safer to “hog the lane”.


I’d rather annoy you than be killed to death by the arsehole behind. And if I’m annoying you, at least that means you’ve seen me.

The answer to any question about why cyclists do something which appears irritating or selfish, the answer is usually “because some drivers are arseholes”.

Traffic and why “I Hate Cyclists”

Why do cyclists evoke such strong feelings from some drivers?

It’s not that cyclists behave dangerously. On any objective measure, cyclists are far, far less dangerous to other road users than cars. According to one study, In over 90% of the cases of death or serious injury to cyclists investigated in Toronto, the motorist was at fault, not the cyclist. Cyclists kill pedestrians substantially never, and when they do, it makes national news. It’s not that cyclists hold the traffic up. Compared to the endless queues caused by other cars, cyclists rarely cause any problems. It’s not that cyclists disobey the law more than drivers; other motorists routinely break speed limits, run red lights (motorists tend to do this as the lights are changing to red, rather than going early), and park illegally. Cars, not cyclists are the major cause of death in healthy people in the developed world. Yet the risks posed by cars to their occupants and everyone else are accepted, yet people seriously talk about compelling cyclists to wear helmets, something which would save few, if any lives.

So what is the reason for the extreme hostility cyclists experience? Ultimately it’s down to a series of subliminal messages experiences noted by a motorist’s hind-brain causing instinctive reactions that young, stupid, low-status men driving shitty cars in particular (as well as the kind of arsehole who thinks buying a BMW is something other than the behaviour of a cunt) are ill-equipped to handle.

First, there is a lack of understanding. Few people cycle. The laws of the road, and indeed the roads themselves are designed by drivers of cars, for drivers of cars. Other car drivers’ actions can be understood in context. Cyclists’ actions are not so comprehensible: nipping in and out of stationary or slow moving traffic for example, seems a LOT more dangerous to someone sitting in a car than it does or is from the point of view of someone on a bike. Ditto going through a light on red, when it’s safe to do so. A motorist understands and condones the “amber gambler”, but not the guy on the bike going through the crossroad during the pedestrian phase (obviously, without getting in the way of pedestrians of which there are often none). If more people cycled, more motorists would understand what cyclists are doing and why. Usually they’re getting out of the way of several tons of angry steel.

Cyclists flash through motorists vision. Objects, road markings, for example move across a motorists vision at “human” speeds, and they do so by design. The dashed white line on the motorway moves across a driver’s retina at the same speed as a human running towards you ten yards away. Other cars move towards you on the other side of the road rather slowly, before almost instantaneously accelerating through your peripheral vision and vanishing. Cars ahead and behind going the same way are almost stationary. Cyclists, pretty much are the only things which move faster than this relative to the driver. When passing a cyclist at speed, the car flashes past at relative speeds of up to 50mph. When a car is in traffic, stationary, cyclists flash past close to the driver at 15-25mph, often crossing the stationary motorists’ vision, unexpectedly and from behind, without aural warning. This causes involuntary endocrine reactions in the driver, increasing stress and reinforcing a subliminal message: cyclists are dangerous. This reinforces point one. This is also true of pedestrian’s reaction to cyclists.

Cyclists are people, and this is obvious to the subconscious, as well as the conscious brain. Cars, on the other hand depersonalise the person within. Look at the language used when discussing traffic. Often people will talk about the CAR doing x,y or z. Whereas people talk about the CYCLIST doing a,b or c. Cars are impersonal objects. Cyclists are people. When a slow driver holds someone up, it’s not subliminally felt as SOMEONE deliberately getting in your way, but as SOMETHING. A cyclist is a person, therefore when inconveniencing a driver, (however mildly) it’s taken more personally than when a mere object does so.

Finally, there is a message delivered by the very obviously human cyclist holding you up: He’s probably pointing his arse directly at you, perceived by the hind-brain, subliminally not consciously, as an extremely hostile act. Riders of upright bicycles report far fewer hostile interactions than those of racing or mountain bikes where the handlebars are lower than the saddle. Cyclists don’t mean to do this. It’s just a function of wind resistance!

The motorist is not consciously aware of these subliminal signals, but feels much more hostility towards cyclists as a result of the subconscious interactions and the result is the almost daily threats the cyclist experiences.

People are simply not designed to drive. Our lizard-brains simply can’t cope. The road environment and the cars on it have been made forgiving to the inadequacies of people driving cars, but it is something no-one can do successfully. Don’t believe me? Ask the insurance industry. Racing drivers, those who ACTUALLY can control a car better than anyone else are not considered a good risk. People tend to compensate for extra safety features in their car or any extra skill, by taking more risks. The risks are most keenly felt by people without a ton and a half of steel wrapped around them.

Ultimately, the feedback loop doesn’t work. Every journey completed without incident may be one in which you discombobulated another road user without knowing it, leaving no opportunity to learn from mistakes you never knew you made. Every “close call” noticed, on the other hand results in self-congratulation about an accident nearly avoided. This creates the belief common to all drivers that they are more skillful than they really are.

Sooner or later, cars will drive themselves and the problem will be moot. But until then, if you drive, assume you’re an idiot, barely capable of the task you’ve set yourself and drive accordingly. Drive like you’re drunk and there’s a police-car behind you. And if you’re not a motorist, forgive them, for they know not what they do.

Either way, read this: Traffic, why we drive the way we do, and what it says about us. Tom Vanderbilt is not responsible for the theories about cars vs cyclists, I am. These are just the thoughts I had when reading his excellent book and extensions and extrapolations to the central thesis. He is more interested in the theory of traffic congestion, but his book will hopefully make more humble drivers of us all. It is a more fascinating read than it should be.

Cycle Safe

Today’s cycle-safe debate in parliament was attended by 75 MPs, not alas, mine. He was speaking to a handful in the main chamber on pensions.

So. Basically, everyone agrees with the Times’ campaign. Labour’s shadow transport minister basically laid out a list of cyclists’ demands. Of course she did, Labour can’t see a bandwagon without jumping on it. There was however one key concession mentioned by the minister for cycling (I did not know we had one). Cyclists are to be written into road design criteria.

That’s where campaigners have to focus. If we can get every junction, and where possible & appropriate every road, redesigned for safety for all road users, as and when they’re maintained, then in 10 years we will have a network to be proud of. Even transport for London are starting to take notice. There’s clear political momentum. Unfortunately, my experience of Tory councillors in particular is one of visceral, tribal, savage loathing of cyclists. Cyclists, you see are assumed to be Liberal Democrats.

Thankfully the biggest win of today (and it’s not much) is that the idea that Cycling is a fringe activity, for weird beards in sandals, with thermos’ of nettle tea, is a thing of the past. There was no money. Did anyone expect there to be, at this stage, in this economic environment?

London’s Brave New Cycling World. Will I Like It?

Dutch-style cycle infrastructure is on the way to London. It’ll be half-arsed at first but we’ll get there in the end. Making cycling a viable transport option’s got a kind of political inevitability, like smoking bans and compulsory “traffic light” badges on food, because cycling has developed a lobby, which is growing in power. (As I am talking about politics, whether it’s RIGHT is utterly irrelevant). I can see politicians being brow-beaten into jumping on the cycling band-wagon, and this is good. This post by “As easy as riding a bike” shows how the new infrastructure works. Bikes cross junctions on their own phase, without control, then when they’re out of the way, the Cars go. It’s all very Ernest, but one comment…

This may, of course, be more problematic with higher pedestrian movements, or with rather less civilised cycling behaviour…

… got me thinking. Herein lies the problem: The Current British cycling culture. I left London 6 years ago, when cycling for transport was very much a minority pursuit. As a result, I am conditiononed to be hyper-aware, and hyper-aggressive in traffic, because that’s what you needed to stay alive back then. Red Lights – pah! Much more important to get out the way. Cars – the enemy, who will be smashed for the slightest transgression. Helmets – for the weak. High Viz – symbol of supplication to the God car, and evil. In short, on the road, I have developed a War-zone mentality.

Will I use the new infrastructure when it’s built? I don’t use the cycle lane between Russell Square and Tottenham Court Road, though it’s the only near-Dutch standard infrastructure around. Why not? Because I know the road and it’s users and much as I fear a car, I can predict a car’s movements in a way you can’t predict the movement of an immigrant on a Halford’s cheapo, or tourist on a Boris Bike. Years of conditioning have got me bum up, head down, sprinting to keep up with the cars, I become as one, and I rather like it. I imagine new cyclists will start in on the bike lane, and some of the fastest and strongest will join me on the road. As I get older and slower and buy a Pashley, I may find myself pootling down the bike lane, as I do when I find myself on a Boris bike (which I suspect are made of the same stuff found in the core of impacted stars). But as it is, the smell of diesel fumes brings out the competitive, aggressive road warrior in me. It’s not just me, the Mayor is another paid-up member of the “muscular commuter” tribe, who regarded the daily dicing with death as merely adding spice to life. How did he describe navigating Euston circus underpass, or Elephant & castle roundabout?

“OK if you’re confident…”

Of course, it’s people like me & Boris who have put of the old and the young, the women, the parent off cycling. You have to be young, strong, fit and confident to be a “vehicular cyclist”. We’ve enabled road engineers to ignore cyclists by finding a way through the streets. We give the APPEARANCE to politicians, that cycling is an option to people aged 8 to 80, when it isn’t. Things which appear to the uninitiated as reckless were merely survival techniques as we navigated roads designed without a thought to the cycle, but this enabled to blame the victim when cyclists get killed (90% of fatalities are the Motorist’s fault). For example, I actively sought out the most congested routes on the basis that a stationary car can’t kill you.

Lots of new cyclists have joined the ranks since then, hordes of us now swarm up and down Old Street every day. And the future is clear – London, will become a cycling city and the rest of the country will follow (and be much better off for it). The newbies politely stop at red lights and pootle along, in the door-zone cycle lane thoughtfully provided by a road engineer who’s probably never ridden a bike in 30 years. These new cyclists, trusting in the magic blue or red paint are oblivious to the danger of going inside a lorry, up the carelessly placed filter lane, to the Advanced Stop Line, where you wait, to be passed by a driver at his most careless and stressed. I feel safer in the traffic, occupying a primary position (known as “in the way” to a motorist) and where possible a long way down the road when the lights change. However London, broadly lets the new cyclist get away with stuff I’d never dreamed of doing when I lived there, because transport cycling is becoming mainstream and even idiot occupiers of angst-boxes are looking out for people on bikes. Most of the time.

Are we vehicular cyclists going to be an anachronism? An de-mobbed, away from the cars, and into the cycle lane. We’ll be safe, but will we be missing the action & danger. Will I cope in the bright, shiny, new, safer, more polite world, for which we cycling activists have been agitating for decades, but which will mean, in practice, waiting patiently behind someone dawdling along on an upright? Is it hyperbole to think of General MacArthur’s “Old Soldiers never die, they just fade away“.

Cycling Kit

Since I’ve abandoned car ownership, I have given a lot of thought to cycling kit, as it is my main means of transport.

First of all the Bike itself. I ride a Condor Squadra. This is not the bike I would have chosen were I to buy it again as it is an out and out road bike, with no eyelets for luggage or room for mudguards or tyres bigger than 25mm, it’s fine in the summer, but not so great in the winter. Carbon fibre, which is what the seat-stay is made from, isn’t the right material for an everyday bike.

So what advice would I give to someone thinking of selling their car for a bike. First, bicycles are still seen mainly as a leisure activity in the UK and the bikes available reflect this. Road bikes have tight clearences, skinny tyres and close spaced gears. Mountain bikes have strong frames, knobbly tyres and extravagent suspension. You do NOT need suspension on roads, it’s just weight. Both road and mountain are almost useless as an everyday commuting bike. You know why? Because they weren’t designed for it. Road bikes gear ratios are too high for climbing if you’re carrying anything at all, and knobbly mountain bike tyres and suspension make pedalling about 50% harder work than it needs be on most mountain bikes.

Buy a Dutch, Hybrid, Audax or touring bike, with clearances for big tyres for the winter and room for mudguards. Did I mention mud-guards? The Crud Road Racer IIs are excellent and make a road bike acceptable in winter, but a proper set of mud-guards are even better and certainly tougher. Most bikes in the UK are sold without mud-guards for aesthetic reasons. None of the bikes you see mountain-biking or racing on TV have them, so bikes with them look old fashioned. It is quite simple. With mud-guards and a decent coat, only the tops of your thighs get wet, in all but the most torrential downpour. Without mud-guards, you get soaked in seconds in the merest drizzle.

Frames should be steel or (if money is no object) titanium, not aluminium or carbon fibre. Why? Because steel and titanium are tough, and aluminium and carbon fibre are brittle and you’re going to be lugging stuff over pot-holes. You wouldn’t use a Ferrari every day, why would you use your Colnago?

Wheels. Any fewer than 36 holes on the rear is just stupid. Once more, Tour de France bikes have as few spokes as they can get away with for aerodynamic reasons. They have a mechanic who can and does true the wheels daily. These guys also weigh half what most of us weigh. You’re buying a bike to use every day, and it’s going to be lugging stuff over pot-holes. Leave the 28-spoke wheel for the weekend, on your carbon fibre road bike.

Gears. If you don’t have a hill to climb, 3 or 5 speed hub gears will be fine. Otherwise derailleurs are popular everywhere for a reason. Although they require maintenance, the close ratios and index-shifting make much more efficient use of the 1/2 horsepower you have available. Hub gears are however, basically maintenance free. Beware road-bikes. There is a culture amongst freds of Big-Ring masochism. Because Miguel Indurain could climb on a big ring, everyone wants to. This hurts knees. Get gear ratios apropriate to the task and your level of fitness. Were money no object, for my every day bike I would use a Rolhoff Speedhub, but as it is, I have a 9speed Camagnolo cassette and a compact front.

Saddles: Padded saddles are NOT comfortable for any more than a mile. There’s a reason why almost all round-the-world cyclists use the Brooks B17, a saddle which has been in constant production in the same factory in Birmingham since 1866. Because it’s the most comfortable. Trust me on this one. £70 for a saddle, and you will never, ever want another. I use the Brooks team Pro and I love it. If you’re sitting very upright and Comfort is your main consideration, try this, but really, if you’re using the thing every day, buy a Brooks saddle there is no other choice.

You can spend anything from £400 to £4,000 on an every-day bike. At the bottom end, you’ll get a reliable if heavy hybrid, and at the top end, you will have a hand-built steel or Titanium frame, measured for you with top-of-the range components. Remember the cardinal rule of cycling. Cheap, Light, Strong: Choose two. You get more benefit from tyres at the correct pressure and the saddle at the correct height (probably up a couple of inches) than an extra £1000 on the bike’s cost. You’re not racing, so don’t buy a racing bike. You’re not going off road, so you don’t need knobbly tyres. You ARE going on roads which may be wet, so get mudguards. Mudguards make all the difference to winter cycling. They’re even more important than the clothes.

Luggage is the other reason people give for not wishing to commute. Very few people need to carry more than a ruck-sack every day. Certainly two panniers and a ruck-sack will carry a week’s shopping. And if you regularly take big loads, I reckon this will carry more than a small car. Kids? No problem. For day-to-day use, I’ve a courier bag, from Bagaboo in Hungary, which keeps everything dry, even in the most torrential downpour, and can take a week’s shopping for one home from the supermarket. If you want a courier bag, I would highly recommend their Workhorse messenger, and they will even stitch your own design. Others swear by rucksacks. Most people who carry lots of stuff over a long distance, let the bike take the load with panniers, bar-bags and baskets. Trial and error, work with what you’re comfortable with as there is no right answer.

What about clothes? Well the commuting cyclist is well catered for now. One extravagence is a pair of Rapha jeans which are wonderfully comfortable. Another is a merino wool habit. This means I don’t have to dress up as a mobile billboard every day and can more or less cycle to work in normal day clothes. Merino resists odour, wicks sweat and keeps you warm or cool. Magic stuff. I have in the past kept suits in the office, and carried them with me. It’s not a great problem having to change. If you’re clean, you shouldn’t need a shower if you’re commuting less than 5 miles, especially if you take it steady. A pair of overshoes is a must, as is a waterproof, some of which are not eurofluro. Also look at Outlier and Velobici. It’s not cheap, but think of it in terms of full tanks of petrol. Ah, that merino Jersey costs one tank of petrol… see. Easy to justify.

These days there is no reason why you shouldn’t abandon your car entirely for all journeys of less than 5 miles. Try it. You might just start to like it.

Risk Fetishisation

Bicycle helmets save lives, don’t they?

In any given accident, they have a 16% chance of reducing injury. They have little or no effect, however when you are hit by a car. They do cause drivers to subconsciously assume a cyclist is protected, and less vulnerable and cause motorists to drive closer when passing. They may therefore INCREASE the risk of the type of accident where wearing a helmet won’t help. The cyclist himself may too take more risks if wearing a helmet. There is no data on this, but risk-compensation in other areas is well documented.

But by far the biggest effect of the cycle helmet is that it sends a message to non-cyclists: cycling is dangerous. By far the biggest effect on cycling safety is numbers: the more cyclists there are, the more drivers get used to driving with them, the fewer accidents. The fewer accidents, the more cyclists. By far the safest cities to cycle in are on the continent where everyone cycles and no-one wears a helmet. The health benefits of cycling both physical and mental far outweigh the risk of being killed or injured. This is why I cancelled my order for a cycle helmet this morning.

Of course cycle-helmet manufacturers want to encourage their use. Governments, aided by the popular press (who put whether or not a cyclist was wearing a helmet at front and centre of ANY story about cycling injury) assume they help, and are actively considering compulsion. Naturally those disgusting fascists at the BMA are foursquare behind a mandatory helmet law. Who benefits? Cycle helmet manufacturers. The police who have ANOTHER reason to stop someone at will. Other cyclists will not benefit from the safety in numbers as cycling remains a niche mode of transport, and cars will still be mystified by cyclists’ behaviour.

Where ever mandatory helmet laws are put in place, the kind of casual cycling for transport you seen in the most “livable” cities in the world – Copenhagen, Amsterdam disappears. Cyclists therefore become the Lycra Nazis. An other tribe of weirdos, bunny huggers. If only the cycling enthusiast cycles, its less safe for everyone. When Copenhagen started “encouraging” helmet use, the growth in cycling stopped. The car, with its particulate emissions and rapacious need for parking has another victory. Melbourne’s bicycle hire scheme failed mainly because of a mandatory helmet law, which reduced head-injuries amongst cyclists by amost exactly the same amount as cycling rates dropped. The law didn’t make people safer, it made one mode of transport appear more dangerous than another equivalently dangerous means of transport.

We’ve become scared; it is the fear that keeps people in line. We meekly accept ridiculous security theatre in Airports, ever tougher laws and police powers to “keep us safe” when we live in the safest, healthiest, longest-lived most protected lives in human history. It’s not just mandatory helmet laws. It’s banning boxing, limiting your right to have a pint in the pub at 23:01. It’s about limiting your right to have a cigarette with a pint at ANY time. You cannot even have a sly fag at the end of a train Platform, and you’re constantly harangued by disembodied voices and watched over by CCTV. Government sets people against each other in the search for legislative solutions to keep us safe and well. It is not US who benefit, but those who seek to control us.

It all started with the mandatory seat belt law and helmets for motorcyclists, that may have in themselves been good ideas. However we’re so far down the slippery slope, now look at us. People are buying helmets for children learning to walk. How long before they’re mandatory? And what are the side-effects of such a product inculcating a child with the idea that the world is DANGEROUS, not exciting?

Of all tyrannies a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victim may be the most oppressive. It may be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated, but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.

I give you our future.

In Case He Falls Over.