Unfortunately we in Britain are not as forward thinking as some of our northern European cousins. We lack the proper infrastructure here to make cycling a proper alternative to driving and any infrastructure that is in place tends to be piecemeal, disjointed and clearly designed by someone who wouldn’t know a sprocket from a crank. The end result is that if you want to get anywhere then you really have to be willing to cycle on the roads and share your journey with traffic.
This can be daunting and there is no doubt that you feel exposed when competing for space against five tonnes of high speed metal with an operator who probably curses your very existence if they even acknowledge it at all.
To my mind it is all about confidence and this can only really come from experience. As a kid, cycling meant taking a mountain bike on the pavement to the park and so we didn’t have any exposure to cycling on roads and as such didn’t need to learn the rules (both written and unwritten).
Ironically I would like to make an analogy with driving and specifically learning to drive. I was 17 years old when I first started to take lessons to drive and I was basically terrible to begin with and so we spent the first three lessons in an industrial estate with no other cars around. This allowed me to develop my driving skills and get used to the feeling of driving the car. Many lessons later I was deemed ready to take my test. I failed the first one and aced the second one and so it was that I was judged competent to safely drive a car. But truthfully, the real learning would now begin, out on the road and out on my own.
Those first few months were terrifying to the point where I used to dread going out in the car and dread a red light that tended to be a precursor to a stall. But eventually I became more confident and could even handle music being played while I drove. What used to terrify me was driving on roads that I was not familiar with but now that is just another part of driving (and now we have better SatNav of course so getting lost is pretty much impossible).
The difference with cycling is that we don’t generally have lessons or tests to prepare us for cycling on the road but the same lessons apply. There are certain things that you can certainly practice so that cycling with traffic is less daunting. Practicing cycling with one hand means that you can properly signal your intentions to other drivers. It is important to be predictable and steady when riding with drivers.
Practice the ability to look over your shoulder while pedalling so that you know what is happening around you at all times.
Once you are fully confident in your bike handling abilities then there’s really nothing else to do except get on the roads. But not all roads are created equally if you are a cyclist and there are certain roads that whilst it might be allowed to ride on you should avoid at all costs. Just because you can doesn’t mean that you should. Spend some time planning your commute route to work so that it uses the best roads for cycling. This might mean cycling a greater distance to find quiet roads or cycle paths but that extra effort will be well worth it in the end. Stand beside the bike shed at your work and ask other cyclists about their commute and believe me when I say that you will have no problem getting them to open up about it since we can be pretty evangelical about the benefits of commuting by bike.
Once you have chosen the perfect route, the next step is to go on a dry run at the weekend when the traffic is less busy. Dress as you would for your commute, including your rucksack, and check the time it takes and if there are any busy junctions that you could avoid next time.
To put it into some perspective, during the three years that I cycled pretty much every day to and from work on typical city roads this is my incident report card:
Fell on a corner where there was a thin film of oil (I work in an industrial estate). Ripped my trousers and had a nice cut near my bum. I am not going to lie, it hurt and was slightly embarrassing. I was also thankful for my helmet in this particular crash.
Smashed into the back of a car at full speed when it pulled in front of me and came to a stop. Wet brakes on a wet road so the despite my best efforts the crash was inevitable. I almost went over the top of the car but miraculously the bike and body more or less survived intact. My jaw does click now though.
There have been a few near misses along the way but nothing so serious that I would consider leaving the bike at home. The clicking jaw does annoy my partner though.