For the past few weeks little A6-size booklets have been quietly spreading themselves around Edinburgh. You can recognise them by their front covers, four dark cyan and yellow ochre squares, each featuring an abstract smiley face. It's gone the middle of May already, which must mean that there's less than a month to go until the Edinburgh Festival of Cycling.
There are something like 46 different events in the EdFoc calendar, and nine of them appeal to me. Some, like the Brompton Fold-Fest, the King of Kaimes hillclimb and Ligfiets Zondag are frivolous but fun; among the more serious are Spokes' ever-present Bike Breakfast and roughly quarterly Public Meeting, and the Women's Cycle Forum. It can hardly be a year since the first WCF, can it?—but it is. And while the debate goes on as to why not more women are riding bikes these days, there is an undercurrent of hardier women cyclists who barely think about whether or not to ride a bike, because they've always done it and it's all they've ever known. Why is this?
A while ago I read an article that deconstructed "riding a bike" and its counterpart, "not riding a bike", reducing it to component parts that collectively could be termed an 'invisible bag' that one always carried, but I couldn't find the article this week when I looked for it. Having a bike in the first place might sound like a fundamental weapon in one's arsenal, but you can break that down further. In fact it was mentioned in a different (I think) article that looked more at privilege: one's wherewithal to buy or to deploy in some manner. But I didn't read it too closely, partly because riding a bike is all I've ever known, too, and partly because I was tired from riding my bike.
Murray Walker once described Martin Brundle as Formula One's "most experienced driver". In terms of number of races started or accidents avoided he might well have been at the time, but it wasn't Brundle who was always on top of the podium. Brundle wasn't a Senna or Hill or Schumacher, and quite honestly I think he preferred Le Mans and other endurance events. Cycling is equally perverse. If you have that much experience on two wheels, calmly anticipating incidents or knowing what food makes your best fuel, why should you ever have a bad day? I suspect it's because we're only flesh and blood and some skinny metal tubes, forever having to compete against hundreds or thousands of kilogrammes of steel possessed of unlimited amounts of power. When it became too much one day, I wrote several paragraphs that trod a very fine line, between angst and anger. If I had managed to get to that stage, what hope might there be for someone who hadn't even ridden a bike in traffic before?
With the Festival of Cycling looming next month, then, I recently realised I had a more pressing issue. Why do I feel awkward—nervous, even—about going to the Women's Cycle Forum? I supposed that the root of it might lie in the fundamental of not knowing any different, not having that experience of abject fear on the road, perhaps. I have been properly scared before, on a motorbike certainly, but only occasionally on a bicycle, and always because of an externality. How can I bring to the fore those paragraphs of angst, and what can I learn from them: what can I teach other people? If I'm brutally honest, it's not that much about riding a bike stuff at all, but by being in the company of many people my age, all ferociously intelligent and busy doing; creating; people in fact who can speak in public with a fluidity and allergy-free poise far stronger than mine. It might also have something to do with having always disliked how I sound, a weariness brought about by a lifetime of correcting people on the phone and perpetually avoiding recordings. Strange, then, that a stage will feel like an entirely natural environment as soon as I grab my beloved Rickenbacker and a microphone. But, from a fluid dynamics and vibration point of view, one's speaking voice and one's singing voice aren't the same thing at all.
At the last WCF I mentioned an approach I'd read about for improving "things", normally a project or an endeavour with an aim, and at its heart is a driver diagram. No, not Celestion and Electro-Voice and audio crossover circuits, but prerequisites. Every aim, and there might be more than one, is deconstructed to an objective, which is supported by tasks and by sub-tasks and micro-activities, and they can all interrelate as necessary: you draw arrows between them. Think of it as Keith Emerson's Moog Modular: input, process, output, with all those patch cords. In this manner, every morsel of an activity or a piece of information or a situation feeds into one or more more significant activities. In order to improve, you must know what elements are at its root, and the magnitude of each's contribution. In terms of being confident at riding on the road and able to avoid incidents, there are some very fundamental aspects.
I have a bike. In fact, I have more than one bike, but for the sake of argument it's a generic do-everything tool. Prerequisite #1: I can afford a bike, because I choose not to own a car, and I choose not to use my motorbike for every journey. Prerequisite #2: I can cycle to work, as much by luck and bloodymindedness as by design. Prerequisite #3: I can afford a bike not because I'm rich, because I'm not, but because I avoid consumerist acquisition for the sake of acquisition and one-upmanship. I buy stuff to use and wear out and repair. Other people might afford a bike because they have money to burn, or find they can't afford a bike because they have to have Apple's latest.
I have a bike that works. Prerequisite #4: I do my own maintenance so that it costs less money, and because I can. Prerequisite #5: I learned how to maintain my bike's systems by reading books I borrowed from my local library. One book was so good I actually photocopied entire chapters from it, because I didn't know where I could buy a copy for myself. Later on, I also had a job in a bike shop, building bikes. I read about maintaining bikes in case I have to buy newer components because the ones I'm used to aren't available anymore.
I have a body that works well enough to power my bike. The human body is a machine that gets stronger the more you use it. It evolved for mobility, originally on sand and fields, and its biochemistry rewards activity and exercise, and I contrive situations to allow for that. Prerequisite #6: I do eat crap from time to time, but food is fuel, and so if I pig out one day I try not to the next. Prerequisite #7: My body isn't broken (yet). My ankle sometimes gets complainy, and my knees have good days and bad days. I bought a wrap bandage to support my ankle when it needs it. I read about different knee problems and went to a physiotherapist. Prerequisite #8: Physio taught me about posture and alignment, so I found out about classes for yoga, Pilates and Tai Chi, and went to some free taster sessions and paid for some longer blocks of classes. See also Prerequisite #10.
My bike is comfortable to ride. It wasn't always that way. Prerequisite #9: My saddle fits me. I've had to buy and borrow various saddles to find one that actually suits my shape. Prerequisite #10: My saddle doesn't actually injure me. There is a reason that, outside the generic model I'm otherwise applying, I ride a recumbent bike most of the time. It's more comfortable than sitting on a hard little saddle and it completely eliminates the risk of re-injuring myself, something that has happened far too many times over the years. See also Prerequisite #3, and, much as I love my big enduro motorbike, #1 too. Prerequisite #11: My posture on the bike is comfortable enough. It's about handlebar height, handlebar grip shape, the distance from the saddle to the stem, the height of my saddle and the fore-aft position relative to the pedals, the length of my cranks, and the Q-factor of my cranks and pedals. See also Prerequisite #5.
And it goes on. Some are more practical:
I have somewhere to store my bike at home. I've made the space for it by not filling the place with hyperconsumerism. Or children. Perhaps not surprisingly, no little amount amount of space is given over to tools and the neat ordering of them. There is however a delicious irony in multiple bicycle ownership and me pleading against consumerism.
I have somewhere to store my bike at work, or when I go to the shops.. I've lobbied for it and I've advised on design and specifications.
I have a lock (actually, various locks) that is strong enough to protect my bike. I know how locks get broken, and I've learned how to lock my bike effectively and where the safer locations are.
I can ride in rain and snow and wind. I have clothes that allow me to do this in reasonable comfort. I didn't arrive with those get-ups: I had to learn by trial and error what was comfortable and what worked and what didn't work, like fleece gloves that didn't keep my fingers warm, or wore out the fingertips too quickly. I had a woolly hat that was too loose in the wind. I bought some shoes that I discovered put my feet at the wrong angle on the pedal, which then hurt my knees. I had some shorts whose pad was the wrong shape, and an earlier pair with lycra that wore out too quickly. I still remember the day, twenty years ago, when I wore my jeans and it rained, and I didn't dry out until going-home time. I can ride in snow. I have special tyres that allow me to do this safely, and I can fit those tyres myself because of Prerequisites #5 and #7.
Others are more strongly rooted in emotion and the socio-economic.
I ride my bike because I've arranged much of my life to accommodate it. I would love to throw my big heavy camera tripod into a car and drive into the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night to do astrophotography, but I don't have a car, and the motorbike isn't well suited to that. I could hire a car I suppose, but that costs more money.
I ride my bike because I don't care particularly what other people think.
I happen to be white and middle class. I'm thus possessed of a God-given right to be unremarkable or not.
There are of course a hundred more nuances, setting out why I ride a bike. So far so good. So why am I not driven to post videos of innumerable instances of bad driving, or bad cycling? I see them every day: car and bus drivers intentionally stopping their vehicles in Advance Stop Lane areas, cars with defective headlights and tail lights, people cycling on the footway (if, admittedly, usually at only jogging pace), people ignoring red traffic lights (yes, drivers and cyclists), cyclists not performing shoulder checks when they change position on the road, car occupants opening their doors without checking for oncoming vehicles or oncoming pedestrians, road users ignoring zebra crossing protocol—the list could go on. But I want to think about the more dangerous instances, particularly cyclists undertaking buses and HGVs, cyclists positioning themselves in a vehicle's blind spot, getting cut up by bus drivers, and close shaves with vehicles emerging from side roads. What am I doing that other people aren't, and are those methods useful to other women who do have a bike and do want to ride more safely?
John Franklin wrote a book called Cyclecraft. In it he set out his case for cycling on the road effectively and safely, and reading it has become almost a rite of passage for British cyclists. Much of the way that cyclists in Britain ride is a learned response to British motoring habits and the media; a game of cat and mouse where the only way to win is to not be the mouse. This generally means riding as though you were a car: fast, wide, obvious, attentive, and as necessary, courteously obstructive. Frustration at the difference of speeds compounds itself, and alternatively can lead to injury. Fast isn't always possible, because hills exist. Wide requires confidence, because you place yourself in direct line of others. But counterintuitively, as every vehicular cyclist knows, a wider position gives you three dimensions on the road, which encourages others to actively overtake instead of passing as though you have no width or length, only height. Courteously obstructive means getting in the way on purpose for specific occasions, when your own safety must take precedence over someone else's precious seconds. Being obvious is not just being wide but making your intentions clear to others. When you signal, for goodness sake signal with your whole arm and not a flick of the wrist and hand, and use expected gestures. What does waving your outstretched arm around mean to another road user? Help me? Overtake now, please? Perhaps you look as though you're waving to a friend, and the following motorist will divert their attention for half a second to try to see who you're waving to. That's half a second when they're not concentrating on you, or anyone else on the road.
Attentive in my experience is where far too many people are missing a trick. Motorbike training school teaches you an awful lot about observations: where to look and when to look. Shoulder checks, lifesaver checks, roundabout exits, right turns, tarmac banding, the colour and smell of an oil slick, road camber, drain covers, the facial expressions of others, escape routes, braking distances (do you practice "tar and tyres" when you stop behind another vehicle? Do you maintain a two-second gap when moving?). Imagine yourself to be The Terminator in enhanced vision mode. 'I see everything.' If you don't find it tiring, you're probably not concentrating enough. What was the last road sign you passed?
My journey on a bike must never be so important that the time I lose sitting stationary at a red traffic light is worth more than my safety. I've regularly been at a red light for two whole minutes; that's a long time to be waiting and sitting still—and feels even longer when it's raining or snowing. But five seconds might be the time between nipping through that gap and waiting for the last car to pass. Am I really in that much of a hurry? When my speed is up, of course the last thing I want to do is grab the brakes and convert all my hard won momentum into heat. Riding a bike is all about not having to slow down unnecessarily. But that speed might not be appropriate if you can't avoid a cracked piece of tarmac in time when a car driver is approaching from the other direction. Perhaps a pedestrian is about to step out from behind a parked car, too. And there's a child and some parents crossing the next side road: is that side road also your escape route?
I've spent ten years riding bikes that have two mirrors, left and right. Mirrors are fantastically useful: you can watch traffic behind you without having to turn your head! You need not wait until you're ten metres from a parked car before looking over your shoulder (if you even do that) and pulling out to overtake, only to find on your tail another cyclist on your tail who has already assumed the overtaking line and who is now adding to your own safety by acting as a deflector shield; you can plan that manoeuvre much earlier, judging the best time to signal (you did signal, didn't you?) and move out. The Highway Code might be stuffy, full of shoulds and musts and fiddly advice, and you might be bored to tears with the memory of The Ladybird Book of Road Sense, with children wearing reflective arm bands and ankle bands, the Green Cross Code, and bicycles with sticky-out flags, but the advice is if anything more relevant now than ever, our drivers too busy with their phones and imbued with a Top Gear sense of superiority and selfishness. There should be very little that comes as a surprise if you have mirrors and you use them. Don't use them too much, because you also need to be watching in front for drivers who haven't spotted you before they embark on a trajectory that Cyclo-math predicts will intersect precisely with your own.
Cut up by a driver? Ideally you should have seen it coming with a flick of your eyes to your mirrors. But could you have prevented it by riding in the middle of the lane instead? It's happened to me before. I watched a car driver tailgating me up a short hill, and stayed in a wide position on the road because I was less than 30 metres from a red traffic light and I didn't want the driver to attempt to overtake, cut in and hit the brakes. In the event, the driver overtook anyway at speed, then cut in on purpose. I hadn't expected that part, but I was already fingering the brakes in anticipation, my spidey senses perking up. And so I jammed my brakes on, steering only slightly to my left, which meant the driver overshot my position and while I was shaken for half a second I was untouched and intact. Cycling shouldn't have to be this way, but it is. Sometimes the best approach is to get to love your brakes, and teach your brain to stop pedalling in those instances. And if you're going to hit the brakes, you need to know in a split-second what is behind you. Turning your head is much, much slower than swivelling your eyeballs.
Observations. Anticipation. Decision making. Reaction times. And an improvement approach. I have a feeling that British cyclists are probably some of the most experienced in this regard. American motorists take prisoners: if the internet is to be believed, will kill you soon as look at you should you be cycling in the lane and not on the shoulder, thus preventing through sheer firepower the fast, alert style of cycling that involved give and take. Dutch people (and other countries with similarly high cycling modal share) probably have greater fitness on account of more everyday riding, but have infrastructure that greatly reduces the bicycle-vehicle interactions at significant speeds. In a town centre, if you reduce motor vehicle speeds to that of a moderately fit cyclist, the entire environment becomes more relaxed because you eliminate the element of competition and one-upmanship.
Your author is of course writing this from a very particular viewpoint: someone currently fit and fairly fast on the road, and who doesn't have to cycle with children. I'm a motorbiker, and I try to be aware of my abilities and the limits of those abilities. I still practice what I was taught when I learned to drive a car. And different bikes require different mindsets. When I tow a trailer full of shopping, I am not a fast cyclist. At all. My brakes have to work much harder, which means I go downhill more carefully, which means I am extra-observant about other vehicles and their intentions. When I pilot my velomobile, my speed on the downhill and level can be very high, but I have a lack of height. The safest thing then is to ride very wide, and I am extra-observant about vehicle blind spots and whether I can be seen in someone else's mirrors—not just wing mirrors but rear-view as well. High speed requires more planning for stopping distances; when riding up hills my slow speed means I watch my mirrors very closely so that I can tuck in as necessary (out of politeness as much as anything) or stay wide as necessary if there is a lot of parking on the road or if I will be making a right turn ahead. And in a velomobile I don't attempt to filter past vehicles unless there is an extremely good reason for doing so. It's too much of a risk to try it and find the ASL area blocked by a car, or to become stuck halfway because a manoeuvre requires turning more tightly than the steering will allow.
Your author is also writing from a viewpoint in which lycra is the preferred clothing, and who never seems to have found a good skirt for cycling in. This may be connected to my preference for riding a recumbent bike, which is more or less incompatible with skirts and baggy shorts. On an upright bike if I was cycling to a restaurant, then I would really rather look less "cyclist", mainly because everyone else would be doing likewise. Until the clothing companies start making trousers long enough for me I'll probably endure the dubious fashions of bepocketted plus-fours over lycra leg warmers that at least look a bit like stockings. And until the clothing companies start making cycling-cut coats with long enough arms, I'll carry on wearing my stretchy windproof fleeces.
I could adopt the non-cyclist attire of the Cycle Chic movement, but on my recumbent I'd get chain marks all over my jeans, and on an upright my jeans would give me saddle sores. I had them in the past and I don't want them again. The alternative might be courier-chic, but for me padded shorts are mandatory on an upright bike, and tights would have to go over the shorts, which would look ridiculous so I'd need to wear a skirt over the top, and then I'd get much too warm again. It would be fine in the autumn, except that it's then too cold on the legs for just tights. Perhaps I should turn Roubaix lycra inside out to have the fluffier side exposed. That would look less like lycra. Of course, the seams would then also be on the outside, so some custom tailoring might be in order.
I don't want to make a big deal out of clothing being the barrier to women not cycling more, because I think there is a lot to choose from nowadays for most averagely sized women. I won a prize recently for a 1000 metre turbo trainer time trial, and all the clothes I received were too small for me, but I'm not average. Cycling clothes do look less dorky if you buy them in greys and blacks, and also less dorky if you buy walking clothes rather than cycling clothes; I've stopped wearing traditional cycling jerseys since I realised that wicking t-shirts are far nicer. What is still a big deal to me is bike shops, and also bike shop mentality. Too much cycling clothing is marketed as fluorescent armour, when in fact how you ride on the road will stand you in better stead than assuming that hi-viz will mean everyone will play nice around you. Not in Britain right now, anyway. And far too many bike shops still have a blokey, hi-tech vibe to them, not helped when there isn't a single woman on the shop floor. If you feel smaller when you leave the shop than when you went in, take your custom elsewhere. You'll find that outdoor shops are much, much better in this regard.
My invisible bag, therefore, carries quite a lot. Cycling works for me because each journey is low in cost and surprisingly predictable in terms of how long it takes from A to B. I've worked hard to be able to maintain a bike, without paying someone else to do it. I want to carry on being able to do it, too, so I try not to take unnecessary risks, but measured risk-taking keeps up my level of alertness. So far, so good. Telling someone else to 'man up and take the lane' seems easy enough to do, after all, if I can do it anyone can, right? Wrong. I'm not them, and I don't know what's in their own invisible bag. More importantly, until they tell me, I don't know what isn't. And they can't find those things to put in their bag until they work out what they are and how to overcome each one in turn. That's a big part of what the Women's Cycle Forum is for.