A few Sundays ago, I did my last big ride before the winter break (though it was more like torture). I have been working up to that particular session for the past few months, and the day finally came where I felt ready for the challenge. My aim was to ride at a very high intensity, over some very challenging terrain.
On Wednesday night I watched a programme on BBC 1 about the daily battle between cyclists and motorists called, ‘The War on Britain’s Roads’. It was insightful, graphic and painted a very real picture of what actually goes on.
It also highlighted what I have been convinced of for years: that the war between cyclists and motorists is very much a straw man concept. The real war is between road users, and bad road users. These bad road users happen to be BOTH cyclists and motorists.
I cycle in London every day, and I have no problem proudly stating that I am an excellent road user. However, despite the fact that I indicate, I use the lanes properly and stop at traffic lights, I have been subject to vile abuse and more than my fair share of collisions over the years.
A few of my favourites involve drivers trying to overtake while turning left, oncoming vehicles turning right and drivers who make sudden lane changes without indicating…
While I do think that much of this is down to purely moronic behaviour, a lot of drivers are simply unable to appreciate the roads from a cyclist’s point of view. Because of this, they make manoeuvres that would be perfectly okay if they were only sharing the road with other motorists and genuinely believe they have shown due consideration. The rest of this post is for those kinds of drivers; drivers who see the road as a cooperative space instead of a competitive one, but are still largely unappreciative of a world-view from two wheels.
Give lots of warning – if you intend to make a turn at an upcoming junction, indicate at least 10 seconds before the breaking zone. Cyclists generally ride on the inside of the lane, and there is nothing worse than cycling just behind a vehicle approaching a junction and the driver only indicates as he/she is braking to turn left (which usually happens in the the space of 2-3 seconds). Giving enough warning of your intention allows the cyclist behind to drop back far enough for you to turn safely without suddenly finding him/her along the inside of your vehicle, and potentially under it.
Your brakes are better than mine – it seems to be inanely obvious that the brakes on a car would perform much better than those on a bicycle, but many drivers take for granted the fact that a car will come to a stop much more efficiently than a bicycle going at the same speed. This is a particularly important consideration given the previous point.
Overtaking is not your right– yes, a car will generally move at much greater speed than a bicycle, however, your potential speed differential is not the only factor in deciding whether or not to overtake the cyclist in front. If it is not possible to leave a gap of at least 6 feet between yourself and the cyclist while overtaking, then wait! That might sound like an unrealistically large gap given that many of the roads in London can be quite narrow, but a bicycle does not handle in the same way a car does. The road surface closer to the curb (which is where the cyclist is usually positioned) can be particularly rough, and strewn with debris, drains and potholes that would be inconsequential to you because of the size of your vehicle’s tires, coupled with the fact it is equipped with a full hydraulic suspension system. Most cyclists will try to avoid these things where possible by moving out into the road slightly, and if you are trying to overtake on a particularly narrow section of road at that time without giving enough clearance, a collision becomes far more likely.
When you do overtake, do it properly – if you are overtaking a cyclist, please do not begin moving back over to the left until you have completely cleared him. Just because your front wheels are forward of his, does not mean you have completed the pass. The required 6 foot gap in my previous point is most poignantly applicable here. Please ensure there is a suitable distance between the REAR of your vehicle and the cyclist before you begin moving back over to the left. And for heaven’s sake, if you intend to turn left at any point in the next 20 seconds, do not overtake the cyclist in order to do so. You will not find your journey perceptibly longer for simply exercising a little patience and consideration in helping to ensure the safety of other road users.
If it’s wet or icy, let the cyclist go first – again, one of the little things that should be so obvious, but is generally taken for granted. A cyclist’s brakes are already limited enough in the dry, but wet conditions makes it even more so, and icy conditions render them completely useless. The only thing a cyclist’s brakes will do in the snow and ice is throw him violently to the ground as his tires skid along the slippery surface and the bike collapses underneath him. In wet conditions, the braking surface on the rim will pick up a great deal of moisture, causing a significant reduction in any friction the brake pads will be able to generate.
Check your mirrors – driving instructors are very good at getting you to check your mirrors while your vehicle is in motion, but almost completely ignore the fact that this is still a requirement even if you are already parked, or stationary. As a cyclist, one of my biggest fears involve car doors being flung open from parked or stationary vehicles. My position on the road might help the vehicles behind me pass safely, but it puts me at significant risk from unwitting drivers (and sometimes passengers too) in parked vehicles at the side of the road who open their doors without first checking it’s safe to do so. Sadly, the taxi driver in the BBC 1 documentary I mentioned earlier lost his grandson in exactly this fashion. A car door was flung open by a driver who failed to check his mirrors, knocking him off his bike and subsequently under the wheels of an oncoming bus.
We are vulnerable – any collision involving a cyclist is potentially fatal, and so we will often take steps to try and minimise the possibility of being caught out by both moronic and unwitting drivers. Sometimes these steps might annoy drivers, but please understand, we often feel that no one else has a vested interest in our safety and so many of us will use the road in a way that takes the choice out of the driver’s hands. For instance, when approaching a junction I have little faith that the drivers behind me won’t try to execute an overtake while turning left (having already been knocked off my bikes a couple times like this), so I will move out into the middle of the lane to prevent anyone getting pass until I have cleared the junction. Is it annoying? Absolutely. Is it necessary? I feel it is. A driver who gets too close to me, brakes suddenly, or changes lanes without indicating might get a slap on his vehicle and a shout. Is that aggressive? Maybe. Is it called for? I feel it is. My bike isn’t equipped with a horn, nor am I sat in an enclosed, protected cockpit. Slapping a vehicle and shouting at a driver is the only way I have of telling him that he is putting me in danger.
Pedestrians, look before you cross - I didn’t grow up in the UK, but I am well aware of the television adverts from many years ago that urged pedestrians to “stop, look and listen.” It even came with a catchy song and some pretty cool animated scenes. Unfortunately, the lessons don’t seem to have stuck, and I find myself often screaming at pedestrians while trying to brake with every last piece of rubber in my brake pads in order to avoid hitting them when they step out suddenly into the road. Just because you didn’t hear an engine does not mean the road is clear. You should also know that I don’t have mirrors, and in the half second it takes for me to react to your unexpected presence on the tarmac in front of me, I have no time to check if there is a vehicle behind me so that I have space enough to swerve and avoid you. Therefore, let it be known that I WILL NOT SWERVE! If my brakes cannot stop me in time, I’m afraid you will be getting run over. I am far more likely to survive a collision with a pedestrian than I am swerving into the path of an oncoming vehicle behind and getting run over. I’m sorry if that sounds harsh, but skin and bones heal; death doesn’t.
Parents, hold your children’s hands! - Bloody hell, this truly baffles me. I cannot understand parents who stealthily emerge from between parked vehicles with their kids in tow, and worse, they aren’t holding hands. Let me paint a picture for you, and forgive the graphic nature of this, but you need a reality check… You’ve just finished a spot of shopping so you’re laden with bags and other wonderful goodies for your family to enjoy. You’re tired, cold and probably a little frustrated from having to battle queues all day long. You need to get across the street in order to get your bus home; a bus you notice is only a few seconds from pulling up at the stop. You know that missing this bus will mean at least 10 minutes standing in the cold for another one to arrive, and there are no guarantees it will be empty enough for the driver let you on. So you take a cursory glance down the road to check its clear, but you didn’t notice the lone cyclist speeding along on his way home from work. You tell your kids to follow your lead as you prepare to run across the street to catch your bus, completely discrediting any responsible lessons they may have learned in crossing the road upon till that point. Suddenly, the cyclist realises that even though you glanced in his direction, you didn’t actually register his presence, evidenced by the fact you are now all on a collision course. His loud screams and the squeal of his brakes alerts you to what is about to happen, and after a moment of shock you try jump out of his path. Whilst in this moment of shock, the thought “my kids” spring to mind, but with your hands full of bags you have no way of pulling them back as you jump out of the way. The cyclist, completely unable to stop, has wooshed passed you, collecting your children in the process. They all go flying due to the force of the impact, their bodies landing in a short succession of cringe-worthy thuds. You release a blood-curdling scream as you drop your bags and rush over to your children laying in the street, blood slowly oozing from their faces. Your cries and screams continue as this very cyclist, who just so happened to be wearing a helmet, picks himself up off the ground. He has likely broken his wrist, and is in some pain from various cuts and bruises, but is not seriously injured. Your children on the other hand, having taken the brunt of the impact and their heads forcefully slamming to the ground, are very much in need of immediate medical attention. He rushes over to see if everyone’s okay and offer whatever help he can, but there is little he can do other than offer apologies and wait for the emergency services to arrive.
This was very nearly an experience I faced not so long ago, and had I been travelling at my customary 20-25mph instead of a mere 15mph because of the traffic ahead, that woman would have found herself holding vigil at her children’s bedside in the ICU instead of waiting an extra 10 minutes for a bus.
In a perfect world everyone who uses the road would look out for each other, and cyclists who flout the rules wouldn’t exist. Unfortunately, this isn’t a perfect world, but we can still make the roads a little safe by simply exercising a little consideration for others.
A lot has been said and written about Lance Armstrong’s involvement in doping over the past few weeks and months. Not since the Festina scandal of 1998, which quite frankly was long before I became a cycling fan, has the sport been so damaged by revelations of systematic doping.
Throughout this whole episode, Lance has maintained his innocence, and that USADA’s investigation into him was a witch-hunt. I’m inclined to agree with at least half of that statement, because while the allegations of his involvement in doping appear far more credible now than they’ve ever been, it seems that most people, including the investigators, have ignored the fact that the only way an elaborate and highly sophisticated conspiracy such as the one that is claimed was the case happens is if individuals at every level of the sport are complicit; from the riders, to the sport’s governing body.
We keep hearing that this was a time when a ‘culture of doping’ existed among cyclists, but the truth be told, it’d be more accurate to suggest that doping was institutionalised within the sport as a whole and not just amongst the riders. The fight to eliminate corruption from the sport ought to start from the top down, instead of effectively focusing all efforts on outing a glorified former athlete.
If USADA’s aim was to compile a comprehensive report of Lance Armstrong nefarious activities during his unprecedented seven Tour victories, they succeeded unequivocally. Ultimately though, in the grand scheme of things, their report fails in that it presents Lance at the pinnacle of a pyramid of depravity within the sport. The fact is, at best, he was merely a big fish in a very murky pond.
Justice isn’t served with Lance simply being brought to account for his actions, cycling can only truly overcome its troubled recent past if those who muddied the waters are also held accountable.
I spent all of last week planning, and preparing for a killer day in the Surrey hills on Sunday. The roads down there are pretty unfamiliar to me, and this likely being a solo ride, I spent hours studying maps to try and burn the route into memory.
As it turned out, I only realised on Saturday night that Stage 8 of the Tour of Britain would be in the area on Sunday, and a club I’ve ridden with before had planned to head down to Guildford to hang out by the finish line. A former flat-mate of mine, Christopher, had also suggested we go riding with a group of his friends from the Whitgift Health and Fitness club for a social ride through Surrey. He didn’t have much details about the route or the level of the other riders, and I really wanted a challenge especially after the last few weeks of doing entirely solo, or easy rides.
I knew the day was going to be cold and standing around in the wind in Guildford suddenly held less appeal, so I decided to take the risk and go cycling with Christopher and his friends. The promise of a hot lunch also helped to seal the deal.
As I set out on the 9 mile ride down to our meeting place in South Croydon, I came upon a group of 15 or so riders between Brixton and Streatham who were heading down to Guildford. All these guys looked like strong riders, and I suddenly began regretting my decision not to go with the club for a guaranteed hard ride.
I got down to South Croydon for exactly the time we had agreed the night before, but lo and behold, Christopher was still at home having breakfast! Yep, I was definitely regretting not going to Guildford now…
As I sat around waiting, the other riders started to trickle in one-by-one, two-by-two. In my mind, they all looked like middle aged, pot bellied leisurely cyclists out for a spot of sightseeing in Surrey. There was no redeeming this, and I promptly phoned my girlfriend to tell her how much of a wasted day this would be.
Not too long after that, Christopher finally turned up… 40 minutes late!
He introduced me to the rest of the group, and pointed out a couple of very fit looking riders, Stuart and Samuel, that I had completely overlooked in my tunnel vision of disappointment.
After a quick verbal refresher of the route, we immediately set out on the ride. Once on the main road, I left Christopher at the back of the group and moved up into second wheel behind Stuart, maybe hoping being at the front of a slow ride would somehow provide a bit more excitement.
Soon, we were joined by Samuel, a rangy, slim-built rider, and the pace started to pick up a bit. We got down into Coulsdon and waited for the group to come back together, after which, the group leader gave Stuart some quick directions on to Kingswood if we wanted to press on ahead. Stuart, Samuel and I set off again, this time at a much higher pace and joined by Christopher. There was a noticeable headwind, but if I was familiar with the roads I would have gladly shared the pace making. Instead, I continued on comfortably in second wheel.
We headed out into the country lanes and wooded landscape of Surrey is known for, and going over some rolling hills on the way to Kingswood at speed, I could hear Christopher puffing quite hard behind me. This wasn’t too bad after all.
Once in Kingswood, we waited for the rest of the group again, and met up with another rider who was joining us from there.
It was at this point the ride got really interesting. Stuart, Samuel, Christopher and myself were pretty much destroying the road from that point on. I held off a bit on the Pebble Hill descent down towards Betchworth, as the road surface was quite atrocious, there were cars braking ahead, and my tires were worn. I didn’t feel like losing my face by going headfirst into the tarmac that day.
After heading out from Newdigate, I immediately started to recognise some of the roads from the hours I had spent previously studying maps of the area. We went across the A24, and unto the A29 towards Ockley, then up Henhurst towards Leith Hill. This deceptively turned into a seeeerious incline. We took the first half quite hard, and then disaster struck. The gradient eased up a bit in one section, but I couldn’t get back into the big ring for some reason. And by the time I did, Stuart, Samuel and Christopher who had been puffing up the hills behind me so far, but somehow suddenly found his legs, had pulled out a 20m gap on me. Truth be told, I just didn’t have it in my legs to claw my way back up unto their wheel, so just did my best to manage the distance between us.
On one particularly steep and narrow section of the climb, I became aware of a driver patiently crawling behind me, so I slowed to a virtual standstill at the next bend which was wide enough for him/her to get by. I held my head up, looking for the other 3 who had gone on ahead, and they were nowhere to be seen. They couldn’t have been more than 50m away, but the road was so narrow, winding and covered by a canopy of trees that I wouldn’t have known anyone else was around for miles.
I made it to the end of that particular road, which joined Arbinger Road to the left, and Coldharbour Lane to the right. I had absolutely no idea which direction they had taken, and Christopher wasn’t answering his phone, so I figured the best thing to do was to wait for the group behind to catch up. It was a looong wait. An old lady, out walking her dog, that I had passed somewhere in the middle of the hill, appeared 15 minutes later. It was at that point that it dawned on my just how far behind the other group was. I was probably there waiting for another 15 minutes when the rest of the group appeared over the crest of the hill. We turned left onto Arbinger, only to find Stuart, Samuel and Christopher sat waiting just 50m away from where I was this whole time.
We continued on towards Leith Hill, noting a lot of people stood lining the edges of the road. The Tour of Britain! The riders would be coming by here any moment as this was one of the King of the Mountains climbs along the designated race route. It was an awesome sight. The 4 breakaway riders flew over the summit and down the other side so fast, I barely had time to press the record button to video it on me phone. Mark Cavendish and the Sky boys weren’t far behind with the peloton charging hard to close the gap on the breakaway.
It felt a bid odd, but literally 2 seconds had gone by after the peloton and all the team cars had passed and the crowd just spontaneously dispersed like ants. We too moved on and down the fast descent towards Arbinger Common where we stopped for lunch.
I can’t say the food tasted bad, but I was quite disappointed that the vegetarian option consisted entirely of chickpeas and two tiny pieces of buttered bread. It did the job though, and we were soon on our way again. At the junction of Guildford Road, I recognised the road opposite, Whitedown Lane. It was one of the roads I had planned to ride, so I knew it was pretty steep. With much enthusiasm, I shouted “lets go that way!”, pointing straight ahead. After some discussion, Samuel, Christopher and I decided we would take on the challenge of Whitedown Lane, while Stuart decided to spend some time alongside his girlfriend and the rest of the group as they went right along Guildford Road. We’d all meet back at Box Hill.
Whitedown Lane was tough!
I decided not to try and stay with Christopher and Samuel as it was becoming evident they like to go hard up the first half of the climb, and then settle into a rhythm to the top. On the longer climbs, I prefer to set a pace and stick with it, and then judge what my limits are. They never got further than 15m ahead of me, even if at one point I contemplated stopping to recover. I didn’t want to go home knowing Whitedown Lane had got the better of me, so I channelled Jens Voight and told my legs to “shut up!” With a renewed burst of energy, I pulled myself back up to their wheel and kept going. At the top, we hit an undulating road, a road I knew well from cycling to Box Hill a few times before. I also knew there was a killer descent coming up, and I wasn’t feeling very confident with my tires in the state they were. Ranmore Common Lane…
Samuel shot off down the hill like a bat out of hell, while I held on to my brakes the entire way down. A lot of good that did!
I knew I was at serious risk of losing some skin in trying to make it round the hairpin bend – the bike just wouldn’t slow down – so instead of attempting it any at all, I aimed for the bush straight ahead and hoped for a comfortable landing. It turned out to be a stinging nettle bush.
With only my pride damaged, and an incredible stinging sensation all over the left side of my body, I rejoined Christopher and Samuel at the bottom.
We headed over the A24 once again, and towards Box Hill. I picked up the pace and told Samuel I’d see him at the top. Christopher, sat on my wheel by this point, mentioned that my rear tire looked to be flatting. So now, completely beset with paranoia, and constantly looking between my legs to the ground below to see just how soft my rear was, all that I could think about was whether or not I’d have enough air to make it to the top. The carrot cake that I knew was waiting for me, kept me going.
We got to the top with Samuel not too far behind.
I checked out my tire, and realised Christopher was simply trying to throw me off my game. My tire was perfectly fine. No leaks, no punctures.
It was quite late in the day by this point, and all the carrot cake had finished. I had the coffee and walnut cake instead, which tasted quite good (after I scraped the coffee icing off the top that is).
We sat in the grass and waited for the rest of the group while the café started closing. To our surprise, it was Stuart’s girlfriend who first appeared over the top. She then mentioned that the rest of the guys were waiting at the bottom of the hill thinking we hadn’t yet arrived, and wanted to have a race with us up to the top.
“Maybe next time,” we chuckled.
After we all regrouped, we set off again, Stuart, Christopher, Samuel and I trading places on the front. The roads back into London were long and fast, and we still had some energy to burn… well, I did at least. Not content to hold a steady 29mph, I sprinted to the front and distanced the other 3 behind me. I didn’t realise there was a sharp, but short hill coming up, and the time I was expecting to spend recovering from my sudden burst of speed, was spent instead struggling to hold on to a little speed going up it. The guys behind me started catching up as I battled to keep above 20mph.
The 4 of us regrouped and continued pressing hard towards Kingswood. By this time I had indeed recovered and there were points we were hitting 35mph.
Once in Kingswood, we waited again for the whole group to come together. This was where many of the folks on the ride would depart and head home in their respective directions. We said our goodbyes, and left. Now it was only just Samuel, Christopher and myself left in the ‘elite’ group, as Stuart and his girlfriend were going a different way home.
We started again hard. I remembered the roads well enough, and took the front immediately. These were some beautiful undulating and twisty roads, but on one precarious downhill section, I let Christopher come round me to take the front. He had pulled out a 60m gap by the time I felt it was safe enough to start hammering again. Samuel was still on my wheel at this point, but I unleashed a devastating turn of speed to try and catch up to Christopher and a minute later Samuel had completely disappeared behind me.
So now it was just Christopher and myself taking turns on the front, and going hell for leather.
We got back to South Croydon where we had all met earlier in the day, and waited for Samuel to catch up. It was about 7 minutes before he finally arrived. We sat and chatted for a few minutes, did some stretching, and then headed off home in our separate directions before it got dark.
I used the 9 mile ride back home to warm down and spin some of the lactic out of my legs.
It turned out to be a really good day in the end. Some hard riding, mixed in with the social atmosphere, and the scenic routes I have been in need of for a long time. I probably wouldn’t have had as much fun if I had gone with the club, or done a solo route through the hills. So I’d like to say thanks to the guys from the Whitgift Health and Fitness club.
So, Sunday was my birthday. Despite all the craziness I deal with everyday on the roads of London, I’ve somehow managed to complete a quarter of a century of life. With that said, I decided to celebrate the only way I know how, and embark upon an epic tour of London’s hills. Just me, the bike, and lots of uphill tarmac… Oh, John Davis came along too.
Over the last week, while searching for an app to replace Google Tracks on my Android phone, I came across Strava. I tried it out, and it seemed pretty good – when I was able to get a GPS lock that is. The other downside is, my battery only lasts for like 2 hours, so while the idea of tracking my rides via my phone’s GPS and comparing them online seemed promising, it delivered little.
Anyway, I was really excited about using Strava to record my ride on Sunday, especially as I had planned the route carefully to take in some of the best and biggest inclines in London. And having never done Highgate Hill West, or Swains Lane before, I was a little bit nervous as well.
Before we set out, I spent about ten minutes standing around trying to get a GPS lock, but without success. It wasn’t until we were already 20 miles into the ride and my battery was half dead that Strava managed to get a GPS lock to start recording the route. It held up reasonably well after that, recording a 25 mile stretch from Swains Lane to Anerley Hill before my phone finally gave up the ghost.
Considering I did about 83 miles of cycling that day, and only had 25 miles of recorded GPS data to show for it, I was a little disappointed. It didn’t take a whole lot more encouragement for me to start lusting after a Garmin. And after seeing how obsessive I was becoming with reading reviews on all the models in the Edge series, lo and behold, my amazing girlfriend bought me one as a late birthday present.
It’ll be nice to go on a long training ride without having to worry about only having 1/3 of my ride to analyse afterwards.
Thanks 'baybe' :o)