Friday 25 October 2013

Advice for New Cambridge Cyclists

Earlier in the week Local Secrets gave us a really naff article with 'advice' for new cyclists. They took it down quite quickly after a storm of criticism, but I'm afraid they haven't yet gone further and really looked in to writing a decent set of advice for newbie cyclists in town. So, without further ado, here's my attempt to enlighten those taking to two wheels in Cambridge...

Cycling isn't just the best way to get around in Cambridge, its the iconic way to travel here. Think Cambridge, think bikes. If you possibly can, getting around by bicycle is simply how we do things here - and I hope that you'll enjoy riding around as much as the rest of us do.

Don't feel like you need to read loads of advice on how to ride here - mostly, if you've been on the roads of the UK for any time at all you already know the basics. If you can ride a bike, get yourself kitted out and off you go. Its no more complicated than that.

But if you do want a bit more on the subject first, please read on.

Things to know for cycling in Cambridge...

(1) The Commuter Peloton
You won't be alone out on the roads, especially if you're running late for starting work or a lecture at 9:00 AM. Cambridge is the most cycled city in the UK, and you will be one of thousands of cyclists getting to their destinations. Don't be spooked by being in a crowd of other riders - just follow some simple steps and you'll be fine. Don't accelerate or brake hard in a big group of riders - don't try to surge hard and brake, it's simpler and safer to keep cool and keep your place in the crowd. If you MUST pass, then do so on the right like any other overtaking vehicle would, you won't startle other cyclists that way. In fact, generally speaking, undertaking another cyclist in the left is a very bad move - if they swerve in towards the kerb or turn left without indicating you're both screwed.

(2) Riding with friends
The highway code says you shouldn't ride more than two abreast. That is fine, usually, but its not going to happen on Kings Parade at five to nine in the morning, where you'll be in a massed crowd of cyclists all over the place. And its not going to happen in the heavy traffic on Mill Road! Generally its okay to ride alongside a friend if you're on a quiet road - its polite to move aside (usually the rider on the outside slipping in behind the rider on the inside) if anyone faster (like, a car driver) wants past - but often that isn't necessary if the road is wide enough for safe overtaking without. Just look out though - just because its legal, and even when its perfectly safe, this can get a certain amount of aggression from motorists.

(3) Where to be in the lane
We have a few cycle routes in Cambridge where you're fully out of the traffic, but I'm afraid not many. That said, the greens and commons around the city are (mostly) fine for riding, and if you can incorporate them into your commute you'll have a more relaxed start to the day than if you only come along the roads! 

Where you need to be on the road is a tricky question - many experienced cyclists advocate a 'primary position', meaning near the centre of the lane to dissuade overtaking without the car behind coming out and around you. Some motorists, if they don't have to swerve to miss a cyclist who is in the gutter, won't do so - so you'll be passed with millimetres to spare, and if this makes you wobble in to the kerb you could be done for if you then fall in to the traffic. This is partly why the 'primary position' is used. So keep a safe distance from the kerb; just don't be a dick. If you can move aside to safely let a faster vehicle go, do so. But where and when its safe is YOUR call, not the guy behind you. 

(4) The law
Yeah, yeah, you know, red lights and stuff. Obey them except when its going to be flat out dangerous not to - so if you're heading to a light that is changing and you hear the car behind revving in a way to make it clear he's going through you might be forced to yourself. Or if you have a great big lorry pull up alongside you at the lights so the driver can't see you, don't be a martyr because you don't want to break the law. Its almost always safer to obey the traffic lights - and it certainly pisses people off less, but use your judgement. Never go through a red light just because you want to, only when you must for safety.

Bike lights are also a requirement when its dark - typically when the street lights come on but when its cloudy you'll want them earlier than that. And yeah, they're a hassle, but if you're knocked off without them then you'll struggle to get the motorist held responsible, even if he did see you. Odds are bike lights won't be deciding factor in whether you have an accident, but this is a law that IS enforced here, and however inconvenient having lights seems its less of a hassle than going to the Police station. And when you get out of the brightly lit city centre you'll certainly be a bit more visible with lights.

Oh, and one way streets. If you get it wrong once in a while when you first move to Cambridge, thats quite understandable, very often the shop exits and college entrances don't have any signage to say which way you can go. But if its a city centre route thats only wide enough for one vehicle and the cars are coming at you, take the bloody hint. And next time have a look for the signs to be sure.

(5) Security
Your bike will be stolen if it isn't locked. I promise you. So lock it up, securely.

(6) Maintenance
When you push your bike forwards, holding the handle bars, check that the brakes stop the bike. If they don't you need to get them fixed - this really matters, you never know when you'll have to stop in an emergency.

Get some oil and get a bike pump that works. Trust me, you'll enjoy riding a lot more with tyres that are pumped and a chain that isn't fighting you. And take your bike in to one of the shops in town for a check up once every few months or whenever something seems wrong - you'll save money this way. A wobbly wheel might be fixable, but not after you've been riding it making it worse for weeks. 

(7) Other gear
Helmet? Hi-viz? Yeah, if you like. You can worry yourself daft over things like this - probably won't hurt, but don't assume they're the biggest factors in staying safe. Gloves will be invaluable when its cold and if you're going to ride in the rain a lot think about getting a good waterproof, maybe even waterproof trousers.

(8) Other road users
Mostly they're not out to get you.

Some of the 'professional' drivers will take more liberties than you'd think - taxi drivers and bus drivers have really tight schedules, so watch out for them taking risks. They're also sitting behind the wheel of their vehicles all day, so they're angry for a lot of the time.

Drivers can't always see you. Rule of thumb is that if you can't look a motorist in the eye, they can't see you. So don't go up the side of big vehicles, its really dangerous.

Pedestrians who live in Cambridge know to look out for bikes. Pedestrians who are visiting probably don't - they're listening for cars but not for you, and they're probably looking up at the buildings rather than at the roads. They'll step right out in front of you - look out for them. Just because they're not looking where they're going doesn't mean there's any excuse for hitting them.

And thats it. It turns out you already know most of what you need to know to ride a bike in Cambridge. Have fun!


  1. Pretty much agree with this.

    Was just thinking what a great slogan 'think Cambridge, think bikes' is. Googled it as it sounded familiar, but looks like it's only you and one other site using it.

    Incidentally, said site came out with this gem: '70% cycle injuries are to the head, as you'll quickly find in A&E'. Yeah, bollocks.

    1. It does indeed sounds good - I wouldn't claim it as mine so if you guys can use it that'd be great.

  2. '70% cycle injuries are to the head, as you'll quickly find in A&E'

    That may well be true, I don't know, but importantly that's not the same as 70% of all cycle injuries are to the head.

    If you fall off and scratch your arm you're unlikely to go to A&E. If you fall off and bash your head you might be more inclined to.

    It's like saying '84% of all admissions to A&E are intoxicated' and then extrapolating that into 84% of people in general are drunk at any one time.

    It's a misuse of a meaningless stat, which is kind of par for the course in politics and especially so in the cycling community.

    If I hear one more person tell me how safe cycling is by looking at the stats I think I may scream. Cyclists have a very narrow demographic, mainly fit young adults. These people have a very low mortality rate regardless of whether they ride a bike or not. If you were to get thousands of primary school children and pensioners onto the roads as they are now, I predict the mortality rate would soar dramatically.

    1. I rather suspect that yes, cyclists are self-selecting based on capacity to survive in a hostile world. But getting past that I suspect that cycling is quite safe for other folk, they're mostly just too bloody scared to get out on the bikes, and the typical 'man up' advice is entirely inappropriate.

    2. Ah, I think you've missed the point of saying cycling is safe. Cycling, as an activity on it's own, is gloriously safe. Think of cycling along a nice wide cycleway with nothing else around you. That's why separated infra is great.

      When you add in other road users you do get the issues you talk about, but that's not cycling's fault!

  3. All good, although a slight, and really very slight, correction on primary position.

    Primary (or control) position is in the middle of the lane or a little bit more on a wider road. It's used when you really don't want to be passed. It's when turning at a junction, passing a junction, moving out to pass a parked car, and in narrow lanes.

    Secondary (or sharing) position is around a metre from the kerb. And this is so you don't get knocked into the kerb, for the very reason you outline above.