I’ve cycled all my life. I grew up in the countryside and if you wanted to go anywhere you were expected to make your own way, back then. You walked, you got a bus or you cycled. Only rarely your parents would get a car out and take you, so for example, if you wanted to go to Tellisford to pretend to be fishing, five or six of you aged eleven or twelve would tie fishing rods to your bikes and cycle along the main A361. That was, admittedly, the rubbish bit, sharing the road with huge trucks full or processed meat and pork pies from Bowyers.
When I was fourteen I cycled 40 miles over the Mendips to go and stay with my uncle one Easter. I practised the route for a few weekends, seeing the dawn come up for the first time in my life near Farleigh Castle, on the lanes and unbeleivable main roads Ben drove in Not Your Heart Away. A few miles further on, about six in that summer morning, I turned a corner just before Kilmsersdon hill and found a warren of rabbits hopping about the road. None of them had heard me; there was no other traffic around.
I’d had rubbish bikes before that, single speed steel framed things that were like that not because it was a hipster statement but because the3-speed Sturmey Archer hub gear had seized solid years before. And steel-framed because all frames were, hand-brazed in Nottingham just the way they were in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. Craftsmanship for some people. Mind-numbing drudgery for more.
But this trip, that trip was on a beautiful lime-green Carlton Continental, the kind of bike we’d now call a light tourer or an Audax, but then we just called it a racing bike, because it had drop handlebars wrapped with white cork tape and 14 gears. Yes! Fourteen!! Could there actually BE that many??? That was my first real bike, £40 I paid for out of my paper round. That was a serious amount of money back then.
Yesterday two more people were killed when they were crushed under a bigger vehicle that didn’t see them. Instantly, lots of people are going to say that’s why children shouldn’t be allowed out on bikes and why every cyclist should be made to wear a helmet.
Horrible though it must be to be hit by a lorry the figures say otherwise. The statistical illiteracy that seems to be fashionable doesn’t help. A BBC report clamoured alarm when bicycle accidents increased by 3%. But bicycle journeys had increased by 4%; bicycling per mile had actually got safer.
In 2000 , 2.3 million new bicycles were sold in the UK. In 2011 that had gone up to over 3.5 million. Over four out of ten adults in the UK have access to a bicycle, even if they don’t own their own. Three quarters of a million people cycle to work regularly. Three million people cycle at least three times a week. (All figures from CTC).
In my cycling life I’ve been hit by a car mirror and separately a Lambretta. In rural Suffolk a car driver deliberately try to ride me into the ditch after I politely thanked him for driving towards me at 50 mph and missing me by less than six inches. He bravely stopped, turned around and showed his small son some definitive good parenting role-model work by driving at me. I got into the middle of the lane. I couldn’t do anything about it if he actually chose to drive into me; I could make sure he couldn’t pretend it was an accident. At the first junction he pulled over and demanded I come and talk to him. He got the fingerand I rode off. I didn’t have to use my D-Lock.
In London in the 1980s anyone riding expected about one close call a week on a bike. We found the flat of a hand banged on a car boot was the best retaliation. Some people recommended a Jiffy lemon filled with battery acid but I was always worried it would leak in my pocket. The flat of the hand on the boot worked for me. Inside it sounded as if their car had exploded. When they stopped and got out screaming there was nothing for them to see.
Whatever petty vandalism you do on a bicycle the ending is the same: in a collision with another vehicle on a bicycle you are going to come off worst. If you go up the inside of a bus or lorry at the lights you’d better make sure they see you in case they turn left. If it was a bus with a door at the front I made sure I got eye contact with the driver, so he knew I was there. With a truck you haven’t got a hope.
I used to hitch-hike when I was a student. If you’ve ever been in a truck cab you’ll know there’s a patch at the bottom of the passenger door you can’t get the mirrors to show. If you’re on a bike and you’re in that blind spot then you are in mortal danger. That isn’t being dramatic. If those wheels roll over you that’s it.
How would you know the driver can’t see you? Well, can you see the driver? It’s as good a test as any. Even if you can, you still don’t know if he can see you.
So dress up like a Christmas tree. Put extra lights on your bike. Wear a hi-viz vest. Wear a helmet if you really think a bit of plastic is going to stop 30-tonnes of lorry going over you from doing anything lasting. But whatever you do, don’t go up the inside of anything at the lights. They can’t see you. And odds are you won’t be there for long for anyone to see.