I was driving to Ely last week. This involved the busy single-carriageway A10 — perhaps the least-loved road in Cambridgeshire. It’s also where I started my cycling career, or at least the ‘adult’ part of my cycling career.
I lived in East Cambridge, and used to do a there-and-back ride on the A10 to a roundabout outside Ely, amid a stream of traffic, fumes, honking horns and the occasional lobbed Coke bottle full of urine.
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This was because I was an idiot. It was also because I rode a bike like I was driving a car. In my search for a training route, I just got out an AA road atlas and approached the matter like a man in an articulated lorry. The little grey squiggles were unpredictable and alarming, so I stuck to the nice big coloured roads only.
In my defence, getting lost was a lot easier before the smartphone. On the other hand, I was riding in the Fens, so I could still see my house from anywhere within a 30-mile radius if I stood on tiptoe.
In time I grew to ride a bike like a cyclist. Unspoiled byways and quietly winding roads to nowhere. Everything was normal.
Then, in a disturbing development, things moved on. I started to drive like a cyclist. Not just the obvious things, like the way a cyclist driving a car over a speed bump will sink down in his seat a little to bunny-hop it, or the way he will slow down very, very gradually coming up to a red light so he won’t have to stop and unclip.
I mean my navigation. Cyclists develop a detailed knowledge of back roads and villages. They know how to assemble these into various routes. A handy side effect is that if there’s a traffic jam on a local trunk route, the cyclist can dive off into the lanes and outsmart the satnavs.
Wasting time a-wheel
At least, that’s the side effect you’d expect. The problem is that your typical bike rider can create a route that is smooth, or goes to the good cafe, or avoids the Saffron Walden one-way-system. He knows what roads to keep away from in winter because of low sun.
He knows where the field with the cute llamas is. He has not the faintest idea how to join them all up and find the quickest way to anywhere. With the exception of the commute, the typical bike rider is normally out to waste time, not save it.
On one such cross-country mission with Mrs Doc I took a delightful, if lengthy, route back home to avoid a stationary A505. I showed her all the things that made the route one of my favourites: the old corrugated iron church from the 1920s, an 18th century watermill, a fantastic smooth stretch of newly laid road, and I pointed out the big pothole just outside Ashwell. (No, I didn’t stick my arm out the window and point down at it.)
“So this is what you do when I think you’re training?” she said. “You bumble around the countryside as if you’re a simpleton, describing things you see and memorising where the potholes are?”
I thought about this accusation, and paused for a moment to make the depth of the wound clear.
“Just watch this then,” I said, turning into a tiny singletrack farm lane. “This goes straight to the road behind the village post office. You’d never know it was here if you weren’t a cyclist.”
The rear of the post office hove into view. And there, separating the lane from the street was a gateway. It was wide enough for a bike. It was not wide enough for a car.
“It’s OK,” said Mrs Doc. “I’ll walk.” And she left me to reverse three-quarters of a mile back to the turn off.