Cycling to work: The Rules of the Road

With the weather (allegedly) improving, the spring ushers in scores of new cyclists to the city's streets. Cycling is a 'good thing', but with the greater density of cyclists on the road, it can be intimidating for those wanting to give it a go.
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With the weather (allegedly) improving, the spring ushers in scores of new cyclists to the city's streets. Cycling is a 'good thing', but with the greater density of cyclists on the road, it can be intimidating for those wanting to give it a go.

I decided to take to the saddle around a decade ago. It was cheaper than public transport and I was broke. It was also the quickest way to get anywhere in London. These twin clinchers got me wheeling to work and have kept me doing it - both remain true.

Add to that: free fitness, I have no need for the gym; the freedom to not worry about train or bus times; and the exhilaration of zipping down Clapham Hill every morning; and the tube comes up short every time.

There is some risk on the roads. Tragically, two cyclists have been killed in London this year. Last year 16 were killed. This is far too many but a small proportion of the overall number of cyclists. The majority of serious incidents happen when cyclists are caught as long vehicles, lorries and buses in particular, turn left at junctions. If you are caught on the inside - the left hand side of those vehicles - you are in serious danger.

There have also been cases of cyclists suffering the abuse or worse from psychotic drivers. I have experienced minor things on the road but they have been rare incidents over thousands of rides. Such things are not remotely common and the positives vastly outweight the negatives.

Before I launch into this, there is one debate that definitely divides urban cyclists: helmets. On the one hand, in the event of some sort of accident a helmet would obviously give your head protection. On the other hand, this study conducted in Bath shows that those wearing helmets are more likely to be hit by cars in the first place. The BMJ recently questioned whether a helmet law would reduce hospital admissions, looking at data from Canada. Then there is another but - if you were in an accident, the helmet would indeed protect your head, and so the argument goes on and on, around and around.

The answer has to be that you must decide. If you are new to the roads, probably a helmet is best. Amazingly, there is a best of all worlds option: the Hovding, like an airbag for cyclists - a genius idea but a little expensive.

Oh, and before you set off, plan your route. While the blue cycle superhighways are great, they are now heavily used - quieter alternative routes may be a better bet. Both TFL and Google's journey planner have cycle options for you to nail down a route. If you are new to cycling to work, it does take up to six weeks for your fitness to improve, so keep at it.

But stay safe and avoid dangerous situations. The London Cycling Campaign has some excellent tips for staying safe on the road, but here are my 10 tips for happy urban cycling.

1 - Be seen. Put on your lights at night. If traffic is static, make sure you are either at the front of the queue of cars, or right in front of a car so that the driver can see you. When attempting to turn, catch the eye of the passing drivers so you know they have seen you and you can join traffic safely. If they don't catch your eye, or if you are not sure they have seen you, assume you are effectively invisible so be cautious. Remember that drivers tend to have blind spots around the middle of the car, particularly on the left hand side, so as you pass a car be aware - they probably cannot see you.

2 - Be heard. Ring your bell often. Drivers will not always pay attention, and nor will pedestrians, who have a habit of wandering into the road. Use your bell. If they seem perplexed or can't fathom where you are then shout - better than an undignified mangle of pedestrian, cyclist and bike. The sudden shock on the face of the pedestrian is often quite winning, too.

3 - Don't pass long vehicles on the left. Doubly true for lorries and buses. Many lorries and buses now carry warning stickers warning cyclists to be careful passing on the left. If long vehicles turn and you are on the inside, it can be extremely dangerous. When passing vehicles on the right, the correct side to overtake, ring your bell if you are unsure they have seen you. Buses seem to always pull away as you are passing them. Ring that bell.

4 - Look over your right shoulder. Behind your right shoulder is your blind-spot. Look over every time you move in case a vehicle or another cyclist is bearing down on that space. It's easy to forget that there are well established rules of the road [] and a cyclist should follow them (as should the other vehicles of course), so check before you move and indicate where you are going with hand signals.

5 - It's not a race. Whether you cycle quickly or slowly, you will spend the same amount of energy from door to door, just in a shorter time if you cycle quickly. Manic or competitive cycling on the road is tiresome and probably more dangerous. In the city, frequent stops due to traffic lights, crossings and various jams means that cycling more quickly has only marginal time advantages. If you don't believe me, try for yourself. I learned by switching to a Brompton - the small wheels and low gears mean it's not the quickest bike around, but checking my journey times the switch has made a negligible difference.

6 - Be comfortable - while day-glo and Lycra are ubiquitous, this is not essential. The recent collaboration between H&M and Brick Lane Bikes shows how cycling clothing can have some style and be practical. Wearing plastic coats will make you sweat more, the same reason Bradley Cooper goes jogging in a binliner in Silver Linings Playbook. Taking clothes in a rucksack will also make you sweat more. Once your fitness increases, you will sweat a lot less, so it might no longer be necessary to change.

7 - Avoid very expensive bikes. The cycle to work scheme reduces the amount you pay by up to 42%. Consequently London is awash with super-expensive carbon fibre models with super-thin tyres. As described above, they offer little time advantage due to frequent stops. Also, the variable quality of the roads will certainly give you a more uncomfortable ride. The Dutch, masters of the urban commute, go for the slow but steady sit-up model (basket optional) and never wear lycra or helmets on must be the optimum city machine.

8 - Stop at red lights. There is no excuse, and the police will occasionally ambush lights and apprehend those disregarding the rules of the road. Taking red lights is one thing guaranteed to annoy other road users and pedestrians and give cyclists a bad name. Don't do it.

9 - Keep your tyres pumped. Easiest way to an easy cycle is to have rigid tyres. The smaller the tyres, the higher the pressure needed, and the more you have to do it. But it's worth it. With tight tyres you will sail into work. Let them deflate a little and you will trudge to work exhausted.

10 - Keep at it. The more you cycle, the more you will enjoy it, and the more you want to keep doing it. In London large numbers of cyclists start to cluster around the hot weather, with few on the streets during winter. But the rain comes infrequently and it's rewarding and fun all the time, not just in summer.

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