Friday, 6 May 2011

Of primary and other optimistic cycling techniques

My wife is starting to cycle - my enthusiasm has clearly had an effect...

It is amazing to go out with someone completely new to cycling on roads and understand what they think.

Firstly, my wife is currently petrified of interacting with cars on a bicycle. She prefers to wait behind parked cars rather than go around unless the coast is completely clear behind her.  This can be somewhat time-consuming. It also renders my talk about secondary and primary and asserting oneself as being completely pointless. She doesn't want to assert herself in traffic, she wants to disassociate herself from it.

Secondly, it has highlighted to me how complicated we have made cycling. A phrase I heard from an online talk by Jim Davis (cycling embassy of Great Britain) kept recurring when I was trying to explain how to negotiate traffic - "in the UK we have bent over backwards to make the most difficult mode of transport easy and the easiest mode most difficult". I thought it wise that she attend a cycling "bikeability" course. She was irritated by my suggestion that she needed formal training to cycle. I suspect her reaction isn't unique, and may lead to many just giving up. I dared not introduce her to "Cyclecraft" and the talk about cadences for fear of the withering response.

Thirdly, it was marvelous to see her actually enjoying cycling. She doesn't drive. Therefore her transport is public or walk. Even in an area well connected by public transport she really liked the extra mobility a cycle can give. Despite her real and deep concerns about cycling on the roads, she has persisted.

Fourthly, she made me realise how different a "non-cyclist's" requirements are to a "cyclist". I hear the disparaging term "POB" (pedestrian on bike) used by "proper" cyclists (as if the cycling community can actually afford to be divisive!) My wife is a POB. Whilst we in the "cycling community" blog, poring over helmet statistics, use cameras, talk of primary and secondary, and debate fiercely over road design she just wants to pop to the shops, or see her friends or have a cycle down the canal path to the pub. She thought the underpass on the Chingford Road under the A406 was super and, if one ignores the broken glass, it actually is kind of neat. I also realised how disruptive car parking in the cycle lanes is - she doesn't travel quickly, and moving into the traffic path was simply something that really concerned her.

I hope she continues. Nearly all the cars that past us showed great consideration - some stopping to let her out, but there is a significant minority that, as we know, treat cyclists very poorly, and my concern is that she will give up if she happens upon one of these characters. She has said that there will be roads she will never use - Tottenham Hale gyratory was pretty high on her list. And this is a shame that the freedom her being able to cycle would give us is curtailed because some key roads have designs which are so hostile that they form barriers to cycling.

I leave you with a "traditional cyclist" (me) negotiating the Stratford one way system (again). And the inevitable ridiculous antics of some drivers who appear oblivious to the cyclist. Whilst roads such as these forms rings around shopping areas and town centres, I am not sure how we think that the "non-cyclist" will entertain the idea of using them. My wife has suggested shopping more in Walthamstow and Leyton town centres which haven't got racetracks built around them, and less in Stratford and Tottenham Hale which are being strangled by speeding traffic. I think it is a very sensible idea. 


  1. "POB" (pedestrian on bike)
    I hadn't heard that before but it is a great description.

    I look at it as a positive thing. We need many more of them.

    Hurrah for the POB!

  2. That's a fitting term for my neck of the woods actually, since here in Finland we basically have the hardcore-cyclists who ride throughout the year in any weather, and then we have those who only ride during the summer months (the majority) and they have no clue how to behave and give cyclists a bad rep by being reckless. They truly deserve the title - Pedestrian On Bike.

    Your videos are great, even here cars force their way past a bicycle even if that bicycle is driving 30km/h on a 30km/h road, they simply cannot tolerate being behind one. Drivers are also eager to rush to the red lights so they can queue there. Your videos also prove that cycling in urban environments is fast (then again I don't know if you ride seriously fast in these videos!) compared to the congested car traffic.

  3. The video shows the key flaw of the whole "primary position" thing. It assumes that vehicles behind will accept bicycles in this position and wait patiently, rather than try and squeeze past, sound their horn or get otherwise upset. They do this regardless of your speed or the oncoming obstacles, because they are thinking one move ahead: "how do I get past this bicycle?"

    Due to this irrational need to overtake, if you are in the primary position, when someone gets past you it's often pretty traumatic -they have to do something fairly dangerous to do it.

  4. OldGreyBeard

    It is a positive thing in my opinion as well. Are the cyclists in Holland or Denmark all "serious cyclists"? No they are not - they are simply people using a cycle as a convenient method of getting places. If the numbers of people cycling increase significantly, they will be people who don't care about cycling except to get places. Which is exactly who should be catered for.

    My analogy is to my life as a motorist. I know very little about how cars work. I couldn't repair one. I don't really care about my car very much as long as it works when I want it to. Most people's relationship to a cycle and cycling would be the same.

  5. SteveL

    The only advantage to taking this type of primary position is at least it gives the cyclist some kind of escape route when skimmed by a vehicle. I don't doubt that if I had been hugging the kerb the two drivers in the video wouldn't have even bothered moving the steering wheel or amending their speed when they went past.

    The whole vehicular cycling ethos relies upon drivers behaving in a considerate and rational manner. Some may say that assumption is flawed...

  6. Actually, there's a third assumption about vehicular cycling: the drivers are paying attention. I think that's actually got worse over time, not better, with mobile phones being the key problem -and using a bluetooth headset doesn't suddenly make you pay attention to where you are going compared to a handset. It is the conversation with a remote person that creates the distraction

  7. This makes for an inspiring read - may the path always be clear for MrsGrumpy and may she continue to enjoy riding. And she is absolutely right, of course, the roads ARE scary places to be at times, and no amount of assertiveness or holding the primary is going to change that. 3 cheers for P.O.Bs!