On a pothole

A few weeks ago I decided to go swimming before work. The pool opens at 7, so if I get up at 6 I can get a 40 – 45 minute swim in and only be about half an hour later at work than I would usually be. So I’d had my swim and was rolling briskly down towards the station. As always, I was aiming to pull up on the left and walk round the corner to where the station is. As always, there were two lines of traffic queuing for the lights. The traffic cannot turn left here (though I have seen a couple of idiots do it, straight into pedestrians crossing on a green man), so it is quite safe to scoot cautiously down the left hand side of the traffic queue.

Because I was later than usual, the queue was longer than it usually is when I get there, so I was moving left higher up the hill than usual, and probably carrying a bit more speed than sometimes. So as I moved to the left of the rearmost car in the queue, I hit a pothole, which was just the right shape to swallow the small wheel of the Brompton and off I came, ending up in a heap at the side of the road. Fortunately I wasn’t going that fast, and I got away with a hole in the palm of my hand (which bled quite a bit) and a scrape on one knee.

A nice gentleman came and picked me up (well picked the bike up out of the road), but accepted my embarrassed assurances that I was ok. However, something had knocked the rear wheel of the Brompton squint so that it rubbed and wouldn’t turn. I dragged it down to the station and got on a train and then got the little tool set out and managed to sort it enough to cycle for the rest of the day with just some friction… it took rather more faffing at home to get it fixed properly.

The scrape on the palm of my hand took a little while to heal. If I had been wearing gloves, they would have protected my palm, of course. I always wear cycling gloves of some kind on the road bike (or TT bike) for comfort. (Except if I am racing a short-distance triathlon, when time spent putting gloves on is time wasted. Except if it is really cold!) On the Brompton, I wear gloves when it is cold, to keep my hands warm. I did have a search around and found some quite pretty “cycle chic” fingerless gloves with a nice crochet style back. But in the end you wear protective gear because you expect an accident to happen, and I would rather cycle around looking as though I don’t expect an accident to happen. After all I have had the Brompton for 8 years now I think, and that is the first time I have broken skin falling off it. The only other bad fall I have had was this one. Mind you, those gloves are very pretty. Maybe I can get them as a Christmas present….

One thing I did do was report the pothole on “Fill that Hole”. I mentioned that I’d come off my bike as a result of hitting it, and it seemed to get filled rather quickly. Hmmm…

On getting cycle space

There’s an advertising campaign going on around here. It is just a Scottish thing. I’ve seen some adverts on the back of buses, but the film I’ve only seen online. It isn’t bad, I think. It is better than the Nice Way Code, anyway, even if we would rather the money was spent on building cycle lanes (what length of cycle lane do you get for the cost of one advertising campaign?), or even on campaigning for proper, segregated cycle lanes. “If I can touch your car, you are driving too close to me”, is not a bad rule of thumb. Of course there are subtleties – one is “unless I have chosen to put myself in that position” (there being a difference between filtering through stationary traffic, when I am in control of what is happening, and being close passed by a vehicle doing 60mph, when I am not). I know that campaigns for minimum passing distances talk about 3 feet or even more, which is more than arm’s length, but arm’s length is at least a start.

So I thought I would have a play with the whole arm’s length idea. When I’ve been moving out to pass a parked vehicle, instead of stopping signalling once I am out, I’ve kept my arm out if I don’t want someone to pass me there. If I am going through pinch points, or there’s oncoming traffic such that I don’t want to be overtaken, I’ll stick my arm out. This makes me look bigger, I think, and is probably a bit confusing as it will look as though I want to turn right. I don’t mind confusing motorists, though, at least they are looking at me… I don’t know how much difference it has made – I did got hooted at by the driver of some massive coach, but if they thought that there was space to overtake me then they were wrong and my signal worked!

You can’t control traffic with arm signals alone, though, as I was reminded to my cost the other evening. I was heading up South Charlotte Street to get to the George Street cycle lane. South Charlotte Street is wide, slightly uphill, and has a shocking surface. There wasn’t anything behind me as the lights changed, so I set off, and suddenly a whole pile of traffic came flying up behind me. I was just too far to the right of the right-hand lane, and got a bunch of close passes at what felt like over 30mph. (Bring on 20mph speed limits…) And the Powers That Be wonder why there aren’t that many cyclists in the George Street lanes, when you need nerves of steel to get to them?

On the Women’s Cycle Forum

The other week I went to the Women’s Cycle Forum, part of the excellent Edinburgh Festival of Cycling (EdFoC). I really enjoyed last year’s, so I was looking forward to this one. I really liked the fact that the 2 main speakers were not actually cycle campaigners, but women from successful campaigns in other areas – “No More Page Three” and “Playing Out“. The No More Page Three woman was particularly interesting and did a good job of talking about the lessons she’d learned that could be applied to other campaigns. “Playing Out” was also interesting; it is a very different kind of thing to No More Page Three in that it is an ongoing happening rather than a single-issue campaign. I really enjoy this blog which is (partly) about a play street in London.

Once we’d heard the two main speakers we divided into groups and this is where I think I made the wrong choice. I joined the group lead by Katja Leyendecker who is the leader of the Newcastle Cycling Campaign. I grew up near Newcastle and enjoy Katja’s blog so I was interested to meet her. Unfortunately the discussion in the group all got a bit technical for me and I didn’t feel there was much I could contribute (or do with what I learned); in retrospect I think I should have gone to the group about women in cycle campaigning. Anyway at the end of all the discussion we came out with the Build A Better World Bingo card. Which is nice, and fun as well as serious, but leaves me feeling like I don’t really know where to start. I mean, I merrily take the lane on a 40mph road with pinch points, and mostly avoid routes away from roads because then I have to slow down for pedestrians and dogs so in some ways I don’t need change for me. And yet; I do use some shared paths rather than mix with traffic, and I dislike having to deal with big trucks, and I know that just because I have learned to have a brass neck for my own safety, it doesn’t mean that most people are content to be shouted at just because the learner driver took their time overtaking me; so there are things I would like to change. And of course most people don’t see cycling as a viable or sensible way of getting around at all. That doesn’t give me any good ideas about what I can do to change things. Maybe I just need to pick something small and do it. 

On Road Bike versus Brompton

The Brompton is in the bike shop just now, having its gears looked at. Hopefully I’ll get the bottom gear back which will make coming home from the pub a bit easier… Anyway, because I have a rack on my road bike (and a rather nice pannier to use on it) I can use the road bike as a backup utility bike without too much hassle.
This gives me the opportunity to contemplate the question, does the same person, wearing (roughly) the same clothes, get treated differently depending on what bike they are riding? I have to admit at the start that I don’t have any firm conclusions, just some thoughts.

Firstly, I’m actually wearing a different coat. My warmest winter coat is a big long thing that flaps out behind me and makes me look “like the wicked witch of the west” (I quote). And my usual spring/autumn coat is a leather one that is also quite flappy. I don’t fancy riding the road bike in that coat, though, so I am wearing an anorak which does not flap. So I wonder if I look smaller and possibly more competent to a driver approaching from behind.
Today I did up the flappyness levels a bit by wearing a skirt! I’ve never tried wearing a skirt on the road bike before, but after seeing David Brennan wearing a kilt for PoP I thought I should give it a go. I suspect my skirt was more flappy than a kilt, but it was ok and the crossbar didn’t get in the way – in fact the point where I felt most inelegant was swinging my leg high to get on in the first place!

The theory behind this discussion is that if you look more competent then drivers will give you less space. There’s also the study that showed that a man wearing a long blonde wig got more space than the same man not wearing a wig (I assume he looked reasonably feminine at a glance – if I spotted a man cycling around in a long blonde wig I’d probably react differently to the way I’d react to a woman! ). Anyway I have short hair and have been taken to be male when wrapped up in winter clothes, so that effect is not always useful to me.

One thing I do find is that I feel it is harder to look behind me on the road bike because I am not in such an upright position compared to the Brompton. This means that keeping a good eye on traffic while negotiating the pinch points is a little bit trickier. However I have not had a bad incident this week. Yet. Going towards the station the road bike tends to pick up more speed and oddly I sometimes feel less safe, I wonder if this has something to do with the fact that it takes cars marginally longer to overtake. Or something.

Anyway it is about a week since I started this post and so far I don’t think I have noticed a difference…. so there goes that theory, at least as far as my anecdata is concerned. I’m quite enjoying the fact that the road bike gets me places faster; but the saddle is a lot less comfortable (I usually ride in it in padded shorts) and it is a lot more difficult to carry up and down steps, so I will be glad to get the Brompton back (the hub gear is going to be replaced, which at £70 plus labour is 2 or 3 tanks of petrol. But I digress.)

On reengineering the Lanark Road

In my last post (about bus lanes), I talked about the Lanark Road, and described the fast and scary descent. Scary not because it is steep, but because of the attitudes and behaviour of a minority of impatient drivers. As I said, the road is four lanes wide at that point, so in theory there is plenty of space for cycle lanes. So I thought I would have a go at rearranging it.

The uphill side is easy. Pavement, then cycle lane, then car parking, then one lane for motor vehicles. It is a reasonable hill, so no one will be cycling up very fast, and the lane will of course be wide enough for a faster cyclist to overtake a slower one.

It is the descent side that I wonder about. The obvious thing would be pedestrian space, then cycle space, then parked cars, then the lane for motor vehicles, just like the uphill side. You definitely need car parking on the downhill side, as there are flats with little or no off road parking. The problem is the fact that it is downhill, and bikes go fast downhill. Well, slow down, I hear you say. But it is not that simple. Really slowing down on a long fast descent like this means being hard on the brakes all the way down. That is hard on your hands and wrists, and wears out brake pads and wheel rims. I guess that under current conditions my Wonderful Boyfriend doesn’t touch his brakes at all during that section, unless he has to. I tap mine, to scrub the very top speed off, and I’m still hitting 25 mph. I’m really not convinced that having bikes doing that sort of speed right next to pedestrians is at all safe. On the other hand, I suppose I am thinking of the very narrow lanes we are used to in this country. Maybe a good wide lane, with really obvious dividers, so that it is clear that there is a hazard there, would be the way to go. I do think you would need plenty of space so that it was easy for pedestrians to take the crossing in two stages; look for bikes, cross the bike lane, stop, look for cars, cross the road.

I’m not totally convinced, though, that my response that cyclists can’t slow down is the right one. I don’t think we’d take it from the drivers of motor vehicles. At this point the usual question would be “What do the Dutch do?” Now one of the things that is pointed out about the Dutch when it comes to cycling is that they don’t have hills. The person who is saying this is usually trying to imply that people in the UK won’t cycle uphill. But the (alleged) lack of hills in the Netherlands also means that they don’t have downhills and therefore don’t have the “problem” of people being easily able to roll at 15 – 20 mph without effort (if it is a problem, of course). I do think that Dutch cyclists go more slowly. Any photo you see, they are all pootling along on those lovely, solid, heavy Dutch bikes. But pop them all at the top of the Lanark Road and I’m sure they’d speed up.

There’s another thing. The speed limit on my hypothetically rearranged road will obviously come down from 40 to 30. At 30, the faster cyclists (the ones we currently have) won’t be going much slower than the motor traffic. So they’ll probably use that lane anyway. I probably would. And then you are back to the problem of the minority who think that doing less than the speed limit is terrible. But at least if there is only one lane in each direction it should feel a bit slower and opportunities to pass will be less. What about taking the limit down to 20? Well at 20 the fast cyclists are going faster than the cars – and speed limits don’t legally apply to bikes anyway. So I’m sure you’d get people on bikes trying to overtake people like me doing exactly 20 in a car. They’re the same kind of people who get really cross with me for driving at less than 30 in a 30 just now. Which all goes to say that human nature is a problem that can’t easily be solved. To go back to the Dutch for a moment, I understand that their philosophy of road design is to use the infrastructure to make things as safe as possible for everyone; but it is beyond my (non-existent) skill as a road designer to apply that to the Lanark Road.

On bus lanes

There’s been some discussion in Edinburgh about bus lanes. The council are consulting on the idea of making them all part time. Apparently the fact that some are part time (by which we mean morning and evening rush hour) and some are all-day (something like 7 – 6:30 except Sundays) confuses people. So they think it would be better to make them all the same. You could, of course, remove the confusion but making all the bus lanes all day bus lanes, but that would involve removing road space from the drivers of private cars, and that would be terrible – sarcasm aside, I suspect it would be (or, more importantly, the politicians think it would be) politically difficult to increase the bus lanes times…

Anyway there was a bit of a debate on the cycling forum about how important or not bus lanes are to cyclists and should “we” (as cyclists) be getting involved in campaigning about infrastructure that really isn’t going to encourage any new cyclists onto the road (after all you still have to share them with buses and taxis, and while Lothian Buses are usually well and patiently driven, the standard of taxi driving is a lot more variable…) One of the things that came out was that those of us who use all day bus lanes really like them, while someone else whose only (regular) experience is of part-time lane wasn’t really bothered, because to them the bus lanes are places where cars and vans park and parked vehicles are a hazard to a cyclist.

I’m very much of the opinion that bus lanes are very useful to existing cyclists. And why would you do something that is going to make life worse for cyclists who already use the road, when you are (allegedly) trying to encourage more people to cycle, not put them off? (Or is what they really want to say; “We’d like more people to cycle, but, well, somewhere else. Not here…”)

I went out on the bike the other Saturday, and came home down the Calder Road. This is a 40mph dual carriageway, with all day bus lanes. “You came down the Calder Road?” said Wonderful Boyfriend, in a disbelieving tone of voice. And then, “Oh. It is Saturday, that is OK. I don’t like in on Sunday when the bus lanes are not working.” W.B. is a stereotypical vehicular cyclist; male, confident, fast, happy to mix it with traffic, thinks everyone else should just man up and take the lane. And here’s him saying that he avoids a road when the bus lanes are not in operation.

The bus lanes I use most regularly, however, are on the Lanark and Slateford Roads, on my “long commute”. This stretch of the Lanark Road is a reasonable hill, so in descent you go quite fast. It also has a 40mph speed limit and has 2 lanes each way (but is not a dual carriageway). The houses on the top section mostly have off-road parking so that bit is ok as there’s plenty of space for people to get past. Then the road flattens out, climbs a little (but not so much as you lose much speed) and then goes down again. This is the bit I find scary, because the houses here don’t have off-road parking so there’s only one usable lane and there are a couple of traffic islands forming pinch points. This is the place where Andrew McNicoll was knocked off his bicycle and killed by the driver of a lorry who overtook him, cut in, and knocked him off with the lorry trailer. So I particularly don’t like it for that reason. I’ve had a couple of occasions where a driver has followed me far too close – and that makes me nervous so I slow down, but I don’t move over until it is safe, which I don’t suppose helps the temper of the impatient person behind me. If there were no bus lanes on the Calder Road, I think it would be like that all the time. A place where theoretically you can cycle but in practice you’d need nerves of steel.

After the dodgy section there’s another little climb but by this point we’re past the parked cars so I can pull left and drivers can get past. Then (finally, you might think) we get to the bus lane, and if I’m really lucky there will be a big queue of traffic in the other lane and I can whiz smugly past all the people who were getting annoyed at having to do 25 in a 40.

After the lights there’s a bit more bus lane which I ride really centrally to make it clear that I am there, as eventually the lane runs out and drivers do have to move left as there’s usually queuing traffic in a right turn lane. Then there’s the Chesser Road junction and then the Slateford Road which does have a bus lane. There’s car parking on the left, but I can ride nice and wide, away from the parked cars, and the drivers can roll past in the other lane. There is, of course, the odd bus, but usually at that time of day I only need to pass it once. I nearly always seem to hoof it along there, it is still slightly downhill and by that time I’ve got my fast head on… If the bus lane were not there, drivers would mostly stick to the left and they’d all have to pull out to pass. I think I would get a lot of close passes.

Actually, I don’t always whiz along there. That’s also the way back from a running group I join sometimes. So sometimes I’m coming along there on the Brompton, really slowly because I’m really tired. Admittedly, that’s later on and the bus lane isn’t operational anyway, but drivers do tend to stay out of it and I can pootle along.

The bus lanes on the Dalry Road near to Haymarket aren’t so useful. There always seems to be something parked in them. On the way up the hill I just get out into the middle of the other lane and pootle up. If you create road conditions where you have to be obstreporous in order to cycle safely, then you get obstreporous cyclists…

So, I think all-day, well observed bus lanes are benifical to existing cyclists, and I hope that the council don’t change them. I wrote to my councillors saying as much, and got some platitudes back. I don’t know when the decision is going to be made.

On an evening with Jens Voigt

Wonderful Boyfriend thinks I spend too much time on cycling forums. He’s probably right. However the other day I did see a post saying that Jens Voigt was coming to a local bike shop called Criterium Cycles to do a question and answer session. So I emailed Wonderful Boyfriend asking if he’d like to go. This appears to have been a stupid question. So we went and it was really interesting, and I thought I would put down some of my impressions. The questions were put by the journalist & broadcaster Jonathan Legard who was excellent – he started off with some questions of his own but also would follow up questions from the audience with another question or two to draw out some more about whatever Jens had been talking about.

Jens was asked about the best cyclists he’s raced with and mentioned two: Fabian Cancellara and Chris Boardman.  He obviously has a lot of respect for Boardman – he was helpful to Voigt when he was an up and coming young cyclist. (At bit of research on Wikipedia suggests they were both in the GAN/Credit Agricole team). Voigt spoke of the career of a sportsman being like a circle; in the early part you learn from others, and towards the end you give back what you have learned to younger people; and he said he got that from Chris Boardman. He respected him as an athlete too.

Voigt was also asked about his best moments as a cyclist. I thought his answer was one of the most interesting things he said. He gave two. One was a Tour de France which his team leader won the overall classification and all of the team (all 9 riders) made it to Paris (I can’t remember what Voigt said, but I think this must have been the 2008 Tour, with Carlos Sastre the winner). The other was a Paris-Nice (I think) which a good friend of his won and Voigt was happy because he’d done everything he could to help his friend win. Wonderful Boyfriend said afterwards that that sums up what Jens was really good at, being a good domestique and working for the team.

The elephant in the room when talking to a pro cyclist is, of course, the subject of doping. I thought that, given the nature of the evening (come and have a nice Q&A with our friendly cyclist) , the elephant might have been left in the corner and ignored. After all, anyone who knows who Jens Voight is would know all about doping. And indeed, no one in the audience asked anything about it. It was Jonathan Legard who brought the subject up and asked about Lance Armstrong. Wonderful Boyfriend thought Voight looked quite uncomfortable, but he did answer the question. Well, what he said was that he thought that Armstrong had been heavily punished compared with other dopers and he should be allowed to do stuff like run a marathon for charity. And he said something about young cyclists not having to deal with the issues and pressures he and his generation had to deal with. It did come over a bit that he was waffling to say the “right” thing.

Something that might have surprised someone who didn’t know much about pro cycling was his attitude to crashes. He was asked about his worst accident and told us about one (which is I think quite well known) where he crashed on a descent and had some very nasty injuries, including a head injury of some kind. He said that for him it was important that that was not the end of his career, and although his wife would have preferred it if he had stopped at that point, she understood that he had to continue. He wasn’t worried about crashing again but when he started back he was concerned about how the hard efforts would affect him; once he knew that was ok he just got on with it.

Jens was asked about the Hour Record a couple of times. He said that in retrospect he could have gone harder in the middle 20 minutes but he had in mind that Eddie Merckx said something along the lines of the Hour was the hardest thing he (Merckx) had done so he didn’t want to overcook it. But the last few minutes, when he knew he’d got the record and it would be the last thing he’d ever do as a pro cyclist, they were great (if painful). Apparently his attempt got some massive number of hits/views (after all, a person cycling round in circles for an hour isn’t that interesting, in theory) and he reckoned that at least some of the subsequent interest has been due to other sponsors/teams looking to generate similar interest! He was also asked about Bradley Wiggins – he appeared to consider “Do you think Wiggins can beat the record?” a bit of a stupid question, given Wiggins’ TT abilities and track background, it was more a question of how much. Jens thought 54 – 55 km, and that once that sort of standard was set there won’t be so many people wanting to have a go – there are no prizes in this one for being second!

Jens and his wife have 6 children (he felt the need to make it clear that this is his only wife, not some complicated arrangement from various marriages!) He was asked if he would encourage them to make a career in sport: his response was that he and his wife agreed that their children should participate in sport, because that has lots of benefits for them as people, but he would neither encourage nor discourage them from making a career of it. He did say that his oldest son, who is 15, is in a cycling club but decided he doesn’t want to race, just enjoy the social side of things. And Jens, perhaps slightly to his own surprise, is absolutely fine with that. Maybe one of his daughters, who are younger, might be the pro… that brought out a strong statement in support of women’s cycling, women work just as hard as the men, they suffer as much, their sport needs more support.

On retirement: Jens was very emphatic that he’s not going to make a comeback. What was more interesting was his statement that he needs some space away from doing sport. He hasn’t touched his bike for months (he’s been running and doing inline skating to keep active and ‘train down’) – he’s got no desire to go out in the cold and the rain. Maybe when the better weather comes he’ll feel like going for a ride. (Then he did admit that he’d looked at some crazy mountain bike race in Alaska or somewhere. Once.) What he has done is get a qualification to be a directeur sportif and he intends to get experience observing and assisting others so it appears that that is something he’d like to get in to. I think it was mentioned that he’s doing some media work as well.

After the Q&A was over an enormous queue formed to meet the man himself. Jens had said that he wasn’t going until he’d met everyone who wanted to meet him! Wonderful Boyfriend and I therefore didn’t rush to join the queue, but chatted to a few people we knew before queuing up. I’ve got a really rubbish photo of W.B. and Jens, but one of the shop people took a rather better one of the three of us. Rather absentmindedly, I went and stood by Wonderful Boyfriend and not by Jens, so in the photo W.B. is in the middle. Note to self, if you are getting your photo taken “with” someone, go and stand by them…