Dr. Hutch: Still terrifying to ride in London

A one-off ride in London leaves the Doc bemused that cycling in the capital has got more popular but no less terrifying

I used to live in London. This was back in the days when few who lived there rode a bike. I moved out substantially because I wanted to enjoy my riding more by being able to do it in the countryside.

No sooner had I left, of course, than about a million bike riders slunk out from behind the bins, said, “Has he gone? Good!” and started a Cycling Revolution. But we’ll get back to that in a moment.

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I was back in London last week, and found myself admiring some quite stunning dedicated infrastructure. Wide, fully segregated, spacious, beautifully surfaced, with dedicated lights and properly designed with its users in mind. But the users were pedestrians, and the facility was a wonderfully wide pavement, with benches, trees, and one-legged pigeons for small children to kick.

Normalising ‘normal’
I found myself wondering what exactly the pedestrians had done to deserve all this. Pedestrians have no national campaigning body, whereas we have two: BC and the CTC. Pedestrians have no omnipresent media spokesperson, whereas we have two of those as well: Chris Boardman and the Chris Boardman clone that is the only plausible explanation for how he manages to be everywhere, all the time.

Pedestrians have no Critical Mass, no die-ins, yet they’re provided with everything except special racks where they can lock up their loafers.

I suppose it’s because walking is ‘normal’, though ‘normal’ is of course a relative concept. When the first fish developed legs and strode off up the beach, all the other fish must have told it to wear a helmet and a hi-viz vest, before issuing an editorial demanding that walking fish pass a test and wear registration plates.

Stop for a moment to imagine what our cities would look like if every pedestrian wore all the kit we feel we’re supposed to — hi-viz, flashing LEDs, helmets. A lot less normal? A lot less human, too? And I don’t think it takes a lot of imagination to see they’d get a very different response from the traffic every time they tried to cross the road.

Evolving the revolution
The thing about cycling in London, when I got back, is not that it has changed. It’s that it hasn’t changed. Once upon a time, I did the downhill run across Trafalgar Square at rush hour with my buttocks clenched so tight you could have used me like a corkscrew to pull the seatpost out of the bike. Now I do exactly the same thing, just surrounded by hundreds of other equally clenched riders. For all the revolution, outside a handful of new facilities in London and elsewhere, urban cycling is exactly as alarming as it always was, just more popular.

I’m clearly not the only one who feels that the best way to feel safe is to ride fast and with the traffic. If riding fast in a busy city is hair-raising, cycling slowly must be terrifying.

It’s not really a revolution. It’s an evolution — of riders, not cities. We all thought that, as cyclists increased in number, we would become more familiar to non-cyclists, who would welcome and accept us as they have pedestrians. But it hasn’t happened. Natural selection in a hostile environment is making cyclists faster. Tougher. Meaner.

It’s only a matter of time before the influence of all that hi-viz results in a mutation that means urban cyclists will start glowing in the dark. Soon the only things on Earth visible from space will be fluorescent lightning bolts as glowing sprinters crackle from one side of the UK’s cities to the other.


How to… describe your ride

Unless you have your family very well trained, or they’re on the brink of throwing you and your bicycles out of the house, when you get back from a ride the chances are they ask you how it went. This is a trap.

If you say it was wonderful, and a dreamy look comes across your face, you’re in trouble because you’ve been off round the countryside selfishly having a good time. If you say it was a misery of burning lungs and freezing fingers, you’re in trouble because you’re spending all that money on bikes and not even enjoying it.

Instead, give them detail. Give them so much detail that it drives them demented with boredom. A PowerPoint presentation after dinner is a good option. The full ride on a helmet camera, in real time, is an absolute minimum. Ideally, you’ll accompany this with scrolling graphs of heart rate, cadence, and power.

Be sure to freeze-frame the interesting bits of the ride, and don’t be stingy with the designation ‘interesting’ — such points should occur about every two minutes. It’s not just for hills and corners and cardiac episodes. Include potholes, drain covers and amusing pieces of road kill.

You can create interaction with a ‘what happened next?’ round of questions. And the answer to “what happened next?” should be something along the lines of, “I passed some unusually grey gravel”.

Get all of this right, and you can guarantee you’ll never, ever be asked how your ride was again. Your family will, of course, think you’re the dullest person in history. But they probably thought that anyway.

Dear Doctor

Dear Doc,
I read with interest Mrs Doc’s suggestion that all drivers ought to have their mum’s phone number written on the back of their car. I’ve thought of an improvement: they ought to have their actual mum sitting on the back seat of their car.
Charlie Connolly, email

Ingenious, Charlie. In fact, if everyone’s mum was as hard to keep happy as mine is, no one would ever be allowed to drive at more than walking pace, which would force anyone who ever wanted to actually get anywhere to ride a bike instead.

bookMichael Hutchinson’s new book Faster: The Obsession, Science and Luck behind the World’s Fastest Cyclists is available now.