Next month I am planning to take some Bikeability Level 2 classes. My main motivation is not really the training itself because I feel, perhaps hubristically, that I am a competent ‘vehicular’ cyclist, fully versed in the speed and positioning required to travel safely (most of the time) in motor traffic. Instead I want to get a flavour of what these classes involve, and what is being taught to relative novices.
In preparation, I’ve done some homework, and purchased a copy of John Franklin’s Cyclecraft, the Stationery Office publication that is
closely associated with Bikeability, the National Cycle Training Standard, for which it is the recommended course book and required reading for cycle training instructors.
Chapter 5 of this book is entitled Basic Cycling Skills. Within this chapter, on pages 60-61, there is this passage, which I find quite remarkable -
Cadence and sprint speed
Cadence is the number of times a cycling turns the pedals in one minute. A steady, comfortable pedalling rhythm is essential for efficient cycling, while increasing one’s cadence strengthens the leg muscles and enables more rapid acceleration. Increasing cadence also makes it easier to increase your sprint speed – the maximum speed that you can attain over a short distance, such as through a roundabout.
Racing cyclists know well the benefits of having a high cadence, but there can also be important safety advantages for everyone. Generally speaking, you are at your safest in traffic if you can move at a speed comparable to that of the other vehicles. Increasing your cadence and sprint speed will allow you to achieve this more often, particularly at those places where it matters most – junctions with complex manoeuvring. It will also be easier to restart quickly in a low gear at traffic signals and roundabouts, and to get yourself out of trouble if you are on a potential collision course.
Increasing cadence and sprint speed are two of the most positive steps a cyclist can take to enhance safety.
A good cadence to aim for is about 80, while a sprint speed of 32 km/h (20 mph) will enable you to tackle most traffic situations with ease. To increase your cadence, select a gear lower than you would normally use for a given road and simply force yourself to pedal faster in order to maintain your usual speed. Gradually, your leg muscles will become accustomed to the higher rate and your cadence and strength will increase.
So there we have it. The most positive thing you can do to enhance your safety as a bicycle user, on Britain’s roads, is to turn yourself into Mark Cavendish.
To repeat, this section is included in an early chapter entitled ‘Basic cycling skills’.
Now I cannot fathom what audience John Franklin thought he was addressing when he was writing this passage. It surely cannot be ordinary people. I have cycled getting on for 30,000 miles in my life; I rarely use a car; I regularly cycle 40-50 miles at a weekend. I find that sustaining a flat speed of 20 mph is hard. And if it is hard for me, it’s ludicrous to present it as a reasonable piece of safety advice – in fact one of the most important pieces of safety advice – for the general public.
This is not good enough.
I wouldn’t have so much of a problem with this kind of ‘advice’ if Franklin was presenting it as a kind of stop-gap measure, a way of surviving on Britain’s roads until they are changed sufficiently for them to be safely and pleasantly negotiated by anyone on a bicycle (and by ‘anyone’, I mean people who don’t know what ‘cadence’ is, or who can’t accelerate to 20 mph onto a roundabout from a standing start).
But that isn’t the impression one gets at all from Cyclecraft. While Franklin is willing to admit that
There was a time when the ordinary right turn was considered to be the most complicated manoeuvre that a cyclist had to make. Since then, the preoccupation of traffic planners with accommodating growth in motor traffic has led to a host of new problems for cyclists as they strive to share roads which were never well designed for them. Add to this an increase in faster and more aggressive driving, and it is scarcely surprising that many people are deterred from cycling by today’s road conditions.
it is clear that his governing principle is that cyclists should always be on the road, mixing it with traffic. If that means telling pensioners and young children to try and cycle at 20 mph, then so be it – common sense is apparently going to be sacrificed on the altar of defending cyclists’ right to use the road network (aka Cycling’s Bogeyman). Here is this logic in action, from Franklin’s own mouth (my emphasis) -
I think we all need to recognise that cycle ‘facilities’ may sometimes be a useful way of adding to the places where you can cycle, but they must never be a substitute for cycling on the ordinary roads. Maintaining our right to cycle on any road (other than motorways) must always be a top priority, for if we lose that right we can have no expectation of being treated any better elsewhere.
I’m pleased that most of the cycling community is united on this, but there have been exceptions and I think that this has fuelled the ‘cycling is dangerous’ myth that invariably leads to calls for cycling to be restricted. I also think that in the UK there remains a general recognition by the public at large that cyclists ought to be on the roads and we need to reinforce that perception and not weaken it.
The problem is that Franklin doesn’t appear to have thought through the implications of adopting ‘the right to use the road’ as a governing principle; or, if he has, is apparently unconcerned by those implications.
One of those implications is – as I have already established – giving people entirely unrealistic advice in order for them to cycle safely.
Here’s another. I have not cycled on a dual carriageway or rural A-road for a distance of more than a mile or so for about a decade, except when it has been too onerous to find an alternative route. I just don’t fancy it any more. It’s not pleasant. Now to my mind, a reasonable campaigning strategy for cycling would be to argue for separated provision alongside these kinds roads. But Franklin – defending the right to use the road – is compelled to oppose these kinds of measures, because by his logic they weaken the perception that cyclists ought to be on the roads. Unfortunately he is so fixated here he fails to appreciate that there aren’t even going to be any cyclists on these roads that need their rights to use them defended. They will have stopped using them, like I did.
Another implication. This time from Cyclecraft, on negotiating gyratories -
There may be occasions when it would simply be too hazardous to follow the path taken by other traffic. This applies especially to slower riders, but even the fittest can be in difficulty if the gradient is against them or the road very wide. Under these circumstances, you may have little option but to follow a route nearer the outside, but to do so needs the greatest care… To cross intermediate exits, it may be best to pull in for a while to await more favourable traffic conditions, or simply to be sure what following vehicles are doing.
That is, on some gyratories, ‘even the fittest’ will sometimes have to stop and wait for traffic to quieten down (good luck with that) before proceeding. Again, a reasonable strategy here would be to put aside an attachment to the ‘right to use the road’ as an overriding principle, and accept that good quality separated provision for cyclists is the obvious solution.
Large roundabouts are one of the few places where speed and strength can be needed as well a vehicular technique. Centre islands and other pinch points on busy roads are causing real increases in risk that vehicular cycling cannot always counteract… None of these problems, however, has a segregated solution, but needs redress in the context of a genuine mixed traffic environment.
Franklin hates the idea of separated provision so much (again, because it will conflict with his priority of maintaining our right to cycle on roads) that he won’t even consider it as a solution where the lack of that separated provision means that cycling is inconvenient and dangerous, by his own admission, for even for the fittest and fastest cyclists.
I think that speaks volumes.