Desperate to get the country moving again, the government is promising a new era for cyclists, with pop-up bike lanes, car-free corridors and major investment to make roads safer across the UK. It just goes to show that sometimes you have to be forced to see the light. My own cycling conversion happened back in 2003, when the London congestion charge made it no longer possible to drive for free through the capital. I swore I would never pay it – and I never have.
Given the far bigger incentive of the Covid-19 crisis, this seems a rather shaming admission, except that it makes me an outlier. Most converts quickly fall by the wayside, but – apart from the occasional snowstorm, the odd multi-journey morning – I have never wavered, and that is because I’m not a zealot but a cycling pragmatist. I don’t cover huge distances – around 40-50 miles in a normal working week – but they are miles free from traffic jams and overstuffed tubes, and give me regular exercise while delivering me to my destination at a speed considerably faster than the seven-minute urban car mile. So if coronavirus is encouraging you to rethink how you get around, here are my top tips for a long and happy life on two wheels.
1 A bike is for life, not just for Christmas
It’s no good getting a posh road racer if your home is surrounded by potholes, which applies to most of us who live in post-austerity Britain. Meanwhile, those picturesque Dutch sit-up-and-begs are hard work if you live on a hill (you may not even know you do until you start riding up it), while mountain bikes are best saved for mountains. For everyday commuting, a reasonably priced hybrid is probably your best bet, while the extra poke of an e-bike will do wonders for morale after a hard day at the office. But don’t take my word for it: consult a bike shop.
My local indie, Push Cycles, reports a nationwide shortage of small bikes, while the Manchester co-op, Bicycle Doctor, has stopped taking on repairs so it can concentrate on new orders. But national chains Halfords and Evans Cycles have now reopened. Evans’ Castleford branch in Leeds reported taking its mechanics off furlough last week and says that the supply line for big brands – Trek, for instance, which is manufactured in mainland Europe – is sorting itself out.
2 Don’t let the scare stories grind you down
The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents points out that, according to its latest figures, there are just 1,011 casualties for every billion cycle miles – a little more than one per million.And while the bike website road.cc says there were more than twice the number of cycling deaths in the first month of the lockdown than the average for this time of year – 15 across the four nations – this begs an obvious comparison with Covid-19 casualty rates. It could also be a statistical blip.
3 The simplest precautions are often the best
With more than 100,000 bicycles reported stolen in England and Wales last year, your biggest problem is likely to be keeping yours safe. Lincolnshire police advise spending 10%-15% of the cost of your bike on a lock. Make sure it has a Sold Secure rating, which comes in gold, silver and bronze according to the value of your bike (your insurance will not pay out without one). You can add it to the national BikeRegister database free of charge and deter petty thieves by buying a kit to print the number on the frame. If you are buying a bike secondhand, make sure it is not hot property by running the number through the register’s BikeChecker.
4 Make visibility your mantra
The last thing you want to have to do at the end of a night out is abandon your bike because your front light has run out of battery or your back one has been stolen. It is illegal in the UK to cycle on a public road after dark without lights and reflectors and they must be on the bike and not your helmet. One solution is to invest in battery-free lights, which are attached to the frame of the bike and generate energy through the rotation of the wheel (my go-to is the Danish firm Reelight), combined with a couple of those little rubbery slip-ons, with names such as Knog Frog, which show that even if all else fails, at least you exist. On country lanes especially, visibility is your first and best defence – and make that your mantra for clothing, too.
5 Avoid the all-or-nothing fallacy
The weather forecast is the enemy of cycling morale. But even if rain is due, the odds are that if it is dry when you start out, you will not get wet. And with a little flexibility in your working hours, you will be able to have a dry run home, too. But it is better to cycle a couple of times a week than not to cycle at all. I do not cycle in central London, because I have had too many near misses with cab doors and happy-hour revellers, so if I am going out in the evening – obviously a fond memory at this moment in time – I will often ride to a nearby station and hop on the tube. So as not to arrive looking like Tin Man from The Wizard of Oz, I have a passably elegant handbag that doubles as a backpack. Try to carry a waterproof bag to put over the saddle, because there are few things more demoralising than riding home at midnight with a soggy bum.
6 A pannier is not just for carrying things
Handlebar baskets look good but are hopeless when it rains, while dangling shopping bags from them is a shortcut to A&E and nobody wants to end up there. A sturdy pair of rear-mounted panniers, preferably with reflectors or in a bright colour, will keep your centre of gravity low, which is good for balance, while encouraging motorists to give you a wider berth. No one is going to pick a fight with a pair of yellow Ortliebs.
7 Never forget your pump
Think about what you need to carry around with you and equip yourself accordingly. Always carry waterproofs, a spare inner tube and one of those dinky little pumps. Now’s the time to teach yourself to fix a puncture, but even if you can’t, the roads are paved with cycle samaritans who will be willing to help if you can provide the tube. You can even be one yourself from time to time.
8 Keep a change of clothes to hand
You are going to need decent waterproofs when it is bucketing down, but they can make you feel like a boil-in-the-bag on warm drizzle days. Not everyone wants to go full Lycra, or is lucky enough to have the use of a shower on arrival. Mudguards will stop the worst of the splatter, but the water that splashes up, or sideways, is usually more of a problem than that which comes down. Do not assume that an old pair of jeans is the solution: there is a reason why Scottish highlanders wear kilts. Keep spares at work. And remember: it is not shameful to look wind-blown or helmet-haired for the minutes that it takes to get to a changing-room mirror. It is the inner glow that counts.
9 Dominate the road
This was a piece of roadside wisdom from a cycling samaritan who stopped to fix a puncture for me: do not feel you make yourself safer by making yourself small. Counterintuitive though it may seem, timid cyclists have more accidents. Command the road, particularly on bends – not only because the edges contain all sorts of hidden hazards like sunken drain covers and untended potholes, but also because a motorist will instinctively match the distance between car and bike with that between bike and kerb. You may get some abuse, but words won’t cut you up.
10 … and have a happy holiday
Touring isn’t my bag, because I like to take stacks of books on holiday and can’t bear the faff of camping or the uncertainties of summer storms. So I have devised a daisy system where you drive to a single base and cycle around a different “petal” each day – that way you do not find yourself reading papier-mache and you earn your lunch. On our last fortnight’s holiday, we looped our way round 300 miles of rural France, none of it more than 20 miles from home. Have faith that bike-friendly trains will eventually be restored to the European holiday spot of your choice – Germany in particular is cycle heaven – but so long as that remains out of bounds, try devising a daisy trail closer to home.
The UK has 1,504 miles of dedicated traffic-free cycle routes, but even if none are in your neck of the woods, the lobbying charity Sustrans has a nifty little tool on its website that enables you to plan your own journey – by location, distance and road type – on the National Cycle Network. It also has a map of pop-up road closures imposed by local authorities to give cyclists and pedestrians a clear run through the Covid-19 crisis. Who knows, if enough of us make use of them, they might even be here to stay.