Swimming With Buses and Soaring With the Ducks: Commuting by Bike

By Reader Che Hatstoke on at

I guess it all began many years ago, on a big blue tricycle, speeding down the street where I grew up. Of course, you're more stable with three wheels, but still, at that pace, only one thing can happen when you hit the bend at the bottom of the hill. Over I went, screaming for my mother, and of course I had the biggest scab in the world to show to my streetmates the next day.

These days, I'd take that downhill a bit differently. I'd be riding a yard or so out from the curb, to keep myself in any driver's normal line of sight. Approaching the bend, I'd slow down (yes I've learnt that much!), then move out further from the curb, almost to the middle of the lane, to prevent drivers trying to overtake me on the tight right hand bend. That may sound crazy, but only a tiny number of accidents are impacts from behind, and if you don't give drivers room to squeeze past, they generally don't. Once I was 'round the bend, I'd move from that primary position back into the secondary position a couple or three feet out from the curb, all as described in the Stationery Office published manual, CycleCraft. The person behind could then overtake me as soon as it was safe to do so. Which is just as well, as my friends aren't as interested in scabs now as they once were.

Of course I'm not back in the '80s very often (apart from the odd Friday night in December). So a more typical journey to work begins with choosing the route. My office recently moved closer to my house meaning it's now just a 15 minute cycle ride to work. The first couple of weeks after the move, I rode down the bus lane and then a short two lane stretch.

It's always fun riding along with a double decker that feels like it's just six feet behind you, but they're never a problem, there's never a stupid overtake to be had from them. Approaching the traffic lights is more interesting -- normally there's just a stop line, but here the bus and bike lane become a bus-only lane, with one of those bike-only areas ahead of the bus stop line. To get into that area, there's a small bike-only lane leading in along the curb. That lane is the only legal route into the advanced stop bit, forcing me to approach almost in the gutter. After all those stories we've heard from London, we (now) know that's a really bad idea. So instead I approach from the primary or secondary position, reach the first solid white stop line, and stop as the law demands. And the bus pulls up behind me, with room for us all to breathe. The only safe and legal thing to do is not to use the advanced stop area. Anyhow, I'm often the one following the bus, and then I just wait behind it for the lights to change.

Once we get a green light, it's on to the two lane stretch. The only safe place for me seems to be the primary position near the middle of the lane. I'm fairly fit so I can ride happily at 10mph, which is the average traffic speed in Central London and my town. When the traffic speeds up, I can keep with it to 15mph and a bit more, which normally gets us to the next set of lights. Of course, if I'm feeling tired or just more relaxed, or it's not rush hour, the secondary position is a better idea -- or indeed a segregated cycle lane.

And mostly, that's where I find myself now. From my street, I go 'round the corner, along the tow path looking at the ducks (I got lucky on Monday -- I saw a heron!), and then a couple of easy streets to the office. And no sweating. As I said, pretty good!

My colleagues are cycling too. One of them has just found an alternate route to get off the busy commuter artery near his home. He can't believe that 50m away from the main road he can pick his way through alleys and side streets in a quiet, dark place with no people. He charges his lights carefully, as you can imagine.

Another colleague enjoys picking a car on the edge of town and seeing if he can beat it through the traffic into town, using the segregated bike lanes. He wins every day, and loves his half hour journey. The guy sitting next to him agrees that 30 minutes is about perfect -- his bike commute is only 19 minutes and complains it's too short, as by the time he's got going he has to stop at the office.

With our office moving into town, some of my colleagues have longer commutes now -- the traffic in town is bad enough that one out-of-towner is planning to park in the suburbs and pull a Brompton bike out of the boot for the final couple of miles. I can say that everyone is enjoying better lunches now that we have an urban office.

My most difficult encounter was riding along a street with lots of parked cars. There was a gap of about three car spaces, and I knew I'd be past it pretty quick -- if I pulled into the gap I'd get stuck, and I knew I was within my rights to hold my line. With traffic lights a hundred yards down the road, there wasn't much to be gained by passing me, but even so I could hear the vehicle behind me rev up. He dived around me, and started to pull back in while still alongside. I stayed calm, and received a gently clip to the elbow from his wing mirror. As we both slowed down for the lights, I pulled alongside his 4×4 to find out how he thought that had gone.

His window was already coming down and he shouted out "sorry mate," but by this time my prepared line of "how do you think that went?" was already in the air. I've never heard a more wounded "I've said I'm sorry" in my life. I replied with an "ok, ok mate, thanks" and let him pull ahead again. Now that was by no means ideal, but driver and cyclist kept their heads and talked, and there was no injury. Far from the worst incident the roads have ever seen.

So, that's the first few weeks of commuting by bike. Ups and downs, as our culture changes. Cycling, as one of my Twitter pals @doctor_hutch says, is becoming a normal part of life. It will take a while for our roads (and us) to accommodate that. While that change occurs, enjoy the ride, and however you're travelling this afternoon, take care of yourselves and each other.

Che Hatstoke lives in a town just outside the M25. He enjoys having London at arm's reach and the countryside on his doorstep. He is a member of CTC, the cycling charity, and reads about lycra at inrng.com. Oh, and he's just set up @CheHatstoke. (Copyright, all rights reserved Che Hatstoke.)

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Image Credit: Cycling from Shutterstock