A bad cyclist braving the streets of Cambridge

Lili Bidwell 25 March 2017

I last rode a bike a decade ago, but had no qualms starting again at the start of this term – you never forget how to cycle, after all. Or so I had been told! I discovered the lie the hard way: this empty turn of phrase was useless for cushioning my fall towards the bicycle rack I foolishly first tried cycling next to. It was only thanks to good (albeit highly amused) friends that I was spared a rather uncomfortable landing.

My cycling tales didn’t end there: a few loops in college, and I had regained enough balance to think myself ready to head straight for the roads the next morning. I hoped I was ready, not just for my sake but for everyone else’s. To many, I am sure, it sounds as though I have joined the ranks of the handful of cycling menaces on the roads of Cambridge – with cycling being the means of getting to work for a third of residents, there are undoubtedly some on the roads who are less able than others.

So what does make a cyclist road-worthy? There is a section of advice on cycling in ‘A Newcomer’s Guide to Policing and the Law in Cambridgeshire’, supplied by Cambridgeshire police, which says that cyclists must have “front and rear lights” and a bike “in good condition with efficient brakes”. My bike met these requirements; I had the right tools, but that of course doesn’t determine if I can use them.

My evening crash course taught me several things I needed to know but didn’t, including how to use brakes. To the more experienced, the sheer idiocy of this is probably painful, but when I last cycled (in school playgrounds) the most effective means of stopping was dragging your heels along the ground. Clearly, responding to a changing traffic light, a pedestrian crossing the road or an upcoming junction by dropping my feet off the pedals and scrabbling for the tarmac would be far from ideal. So, I was quickly introduced to the secrets of the art of braking: the left I could use as liberally as I pleased, the right in life-or-death situations only lest I be thrown head-first over the handlebars (neither of which sounded particularly reassuring to a novice).

Braking properly was one of the easier things to learn, however; more challenging, and more alarming I will admit, was signalling. For some unknown reason, I found comfort in clinging to the handlebars for dear life; it is as though I subconsciously associated the strength of my grip with my ability to stay upright – which of course posed a problem at junctions. Initially, when I was flanked by friends for every cycling expedition (deserving of that name when I was in tow; anything could happen), my feeble, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it attempt at signalling was compensated by their skillful one-armed cycling capabilities.

When the time came to ride my bike in Cambridge unsupervised, I discovered another issue with my signalling: despite plucking up the courage to hold my arm aloft for long enough to actually be seen by drivers, I found that signalling to the left caused me to veer right, and vice versa. A tad problematic, as any driver would be in the dark as to what direction I wanted to go, a touch of danger was brought to my travels until I learnt to keep moving in a straight line (which is more difficult than it sounds!).

This, of course, is not something to joke about: in 2015, 60% of accidents that resulted in injuries or death in the city center involved bicycles. Why on earth am I still cycling, then? Not only do I confess to being incompetent on a bike, but now I’m pointing out it can be dangerous too. Well, both of these things might be true, but the more I cycle the better I become and so the less dangerous it is.

Besides, I follow the Highway Code and wear a high vis jacket; it warns everyone that the bad cyclist is coming.