Staying alive

Now you have the Bee Gees singing Staying Alive in the back of your mind, let’s look at perhaps extending that philosophy to cycling.

Broadly speaking, and with many exceptions, cyclists tend to be split between the Vehicular Cycling (VC) crowd, and the Segregation bunch, and a great many epic online battles of words were fought over those two approaches.

It is of course pure rubbish when applied to the present moment, as the sad reality is that cycling provision in the UK at the moment ranges mostly from poor to non-existent, with very few exceptions. Sure, there are rays of hope, like the new cycling “super highways” in London which seem great, despite the appallingly stupid name.

Having called the spat between the two groups rubbish, I wouldn’t at all be surprised if I end up with a virtual lynch-mob after me, but stick with me a while longer and things will become clearer. Hopefully before any virtual blood is spilt!

To nail my colours to the mast, I believe segregation is the only real way forward to grow cycling. Now to add a heap of confusion into the mix, I must admit to being a Vehicular Cyclist, and I very much fit the stereotype demographic: fast(ish), white(ish – I’m actually racially mixed) and male. Oh, and middle-aged and dressed in Lycra. No, only when cycling – I wear Lycra for practical reasons, not because I have a fetish!

Anyway, if like me you ride regularly on the roads, you’ll probably have found that the only real way to increase your safety in to ride like a Vehicular Cyclist. You may not like it, you may call for decent, Dutch-quality segregated infrastructure, but in the absence of that, you’re basically left with two options: ride on the roads using VC techniques, or slowly pootle along on the crappy shared pavement.

In theory there is a third option too, cycling in the gutter, but that will get you run over.

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So what’s so great about VC techniques, I hear you ask? Well, let’s examine that in detail, shall we?

For starters, VC cycling stipulates there are two parts of the road to ride one: primary position and secondary position. Primary position is riding smack bang in the centre of the lane, while riding in secondary position means riding between 50cm to 1 metre away from the kerb.

The thinking behind the concepts is fairly sound – you ride in primary position when cycling past parked cars, as that vastly reduces the likelihood of getting hit by a car door suddenly being opened in your path. You also ride in primary when going through a pinch-point or on narrow roads, as that will reduce the likelihood of a driver trying to bully their way through when there simply isn’t enough space for them to safely overtake. Other times you should ride in primary is when cycling past the mouths of junctions, with the reasoning being that drivers are more likely to look for traffic in the middle of the lane.

This, plus the ability to have a sprint-speed of 20mph or more is the foundation of vehicular cycling. In essence, you cycle as if you’re driving a far bigger vehicle, and if followed correctly it should keep you safe on the road.

Except it won’t. I wouldn’t go as far as to say VC is complete and utter tosh, but the sad reality is that it WON’T give you the safety you’ve always been told it would.

What VC techniques will do is reduce the risk a bit, particularly overtakes through pinch points, but it will also lead to a new experience: the punishment pass.
Basically, some drivers have the mindset of “Oh, so you think you can deliberately prevent me from overtaking when and where I choose (even if it isn’t safe for you)? Well, I’ll show you! I’ll get as close to you as I can without actually hitting you!”.

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VC techniques will, if followed blindly, get you in a whole bunch of trouble and I must admit I’ve had days that left me seriously considering quitting cycling.

So what’s the solution, I hear you ask? The only real solution is segregated cycle lanes that are continuous (especially through junctions), that don’t desert you when you need it most, that are direct and doesn’t force you to yield priority all the time. Until we have that, there is no solution, only coping strategies.

I cannot tell you what you should do, but I’ll tell you what I now try to do:

Out on the roads, you will often be in a situation where you are 100% in the right and the driver 100% in the wrong. An example would be where a buildout restricts a normally-two-way road to a single car’s width, usually with signed priority for one side or the other. Even if you have clear signed priority, you will often find drivers ignoring that and driving straight at you.

At that point, you can dig in your heels and stand your ground, but I won’t be doing that. A car is far bigger and heavier than me, and I won’t stand a chance if the driver absolutely refuses to stop. As a result, I’d rather get myself out of the way than risk being run over.

The Net is awash with YouTube helmet-cam videos from cyclists who got into a spot of bother because they insisted on defending their priority. Yes, technically they may have been right, but they still ended up with their lives endangered, and were left angry, shocked or sometimes traumatised by their experiences.

Why not try something else? If a driver pulls out on you, but you have plenty of time to take evasive action, do yourself a favour and let it go. That idiot isn’t worth your time, or your emotion. You deserve better.
After all, what is the point of getting into a full-blown argument at the next set of lights? How exactly will that improve your life? Remember, this isn’t about the driver, but about you.

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Finally, because sometimes run-ins are unavoidable, after having had a run-in with a driver, regardless of the cause, I try to NOT get ahead of them. The last thing I want is a pissed-off driver having the opportunity to give me a punishment pass. Or worse.

This isn’t about allowing them to get away with things. In reality they’ll get away with it one way or the other, as police more often than not will refuse to act on anything short of you getting knocked off and even then most probably nothing will come of it.

This is quite simply about staying alive. Because hanging back, or even waiting a few minutes to let the idiot driver get well clear, is infinitely preferable to getting killed.

Out on the roads it’s not a game, even if some may see it as such. Sometimes, it quite literally is a matter of life or death and given the choice, I’m sure you’d agree that choosing life is by far the better option.

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