“Let me just give your bike a check over and then we can head off.”
It was 9am on a Saturday morning and the first lesson with my cycling instructor, Richard. I found out a few weeks ago that local councils offer free cycling training sessions* to give people more confidence on the roads. After a few email exchanges, I was assigned an instructor and was ready to go.
Actually, I wasn’t ready in the slightest. I was nervous, unsure and felt like I was back in Year 6 doing my cycling proficiency test.
When I opened the door that morning and caught eye of Richard’s very professional, dropped handlebars, road bike, I suddenly found myself blurting out: “I have a basket on my bike!” As I wheeled the bike down the stairs from my flat, I wondered whether he going to take me seriously with my shopper bike. “Baskets are good,” he replied. I breathed a sigh of relief.
My plan had been to have a few cycling lessons to give myself the confidence to head out for rides alone. If I seriously want to get back on my bike this year, I have to go back to basics. But it wasn’t as easy as general niceties, jumping on our bikes and heading off.
“Your handlebars are loose and this bolt isn’t tightened properly,” he told me, pointing to parts of my bike I had never even looked at before. I stood awkwardly next to him, watching as he checked everything over and pointed out what was wrong. The brakes were uneven, the seat angled upwards, and the angle of my brakes on the handlebars were wrong. Thankfully, Richard had the tools to fix what needed to be fixed as I stood there, slightly embarrassed.
It seems ludicrous to me now that checking over my bike before heading out wasn’t my number one priority. In fact, I’ve never even thought about it before, let alone done it.
This was only the start of the biggest lesson I learned that day in cycling. Basic bike safety could not be more important. In 2016, 18,477 cyclists were injured in reported road accidents, including 3,499 who were killed or seriously injured. These figures only include accidents reported to police (many cyclist casualties aren’t reported to police at all).
Cyclists may not have control over other people on the road, but we can limit the risk of an accident by making our bikes as safe as possible. And that means, checking them regularly.
When I met Richard outside my flat my handle bars were wobbling all over the shop. Had he not tightened the nuts and bolts on my bike that morning, who knows what could have happened? That was #BasicSafetyLesson1.
This was quickly followed by #BasicSafetyLesson2, which was: despite thinking I was protecting myself by wearing a helmet, it was far too loose to actually do anything if I fell off my bike and hit my head. Helmet tightened, I was good to go.
I put my bike in the road and had already failed #BasicSafetyLesson3: The “car door rule”. About to set off, Richard pointed out that I was far too close to the cars. If a car door flung open while I was cycling past, I’d collide with it and fall off. Instead, I learned to cycle a door width away from the cars. Yes, I did feel like I was hogging the road, but I was doing it for my safety. Check.
As we rode off down my road (me in front, Richard behind), he kept reminding me to check over my right shoulder. Sounds obvious, right? This was #BasicSafetyLesson4: Know the roads. I was always so focused about what was in front of me - where I was going and what hazards were ahead - that I rarely checked behind me. Also, it made me wobble. I mean, seriously wobble. When I looked behind, I seemed to lose control of my straight line and veer off towards the left. I was an accident waiting to happen.
“Relax, your shoulders,” Richard told me. “Be confident, just relax. How many fingers am I holding up?”
I whipped my head back, answered him, and swung my head back to the front as quick as I could. Cue wobbling.
“How many fingers now?” I did it again. Slight wobble. And again, another wobble. A couple of 100 metres down the road, mild wobble. We practised it a few times. Before long I’d nailed the right shoulder check and realised it was just as vital as checking your mirrors when you’re driving a car. You need to do it constantly.
We were only 10 minutes into the lesson and I’d learned four seriously basic rules (check bike, check helmet, check position and check behind). I was more in control than I’d ever felt on my bike.
Of course there were many more safety lessons to be learned that morning, but if you’re dusting your bike off for the first time in a while, make those initial safety checks your priority. My eagerness to get out on the road and enjoy the ride, meant I completely bypassed the essentials.
Bike riding is a lot of fun but accidents do happen, so it’s up to us to do what we can to make sure we’re safe.
*I had a free cycling session through my local council in Wandsworth, London, but these sessions aren’t only exclusive to London. Search ‘Free cycling training’ along with your local council in Google to find out more about how you can do it in your local area. Some councils will give you a maximum of four free sessions with an instructor to give you confidence, while others will give more.