Cycling Embassy of Great Britain

I actually spotted this in a motorbike shop in the US but I’m sure there’s barely anyone who cycles in the UK who hasn’t wanted to express such a sentiment (if not, perhaps, in so many words – personally I think leaving the last one off would be more cutting, and a little subtler). When I saw it I laughed and took the picture but then I thought the whole thing was a little sad. Why should taking to two wheels – even powered ones – be such a cause of open conflict?

I cycle happily on the roads every day. But then, I cycle on largely empty roads among vehicles that have to keep their speed down because single track roads won’t support anything else – if there wasn’t a bike ahead there could be a dog walker or a deer or a cow or a sheep and they won’t have lights or be wearing hi-vis either. For everyone else, cycling in towns is perfectly doable – it’s even not as scary as it looks – but you have to be the ninja cyclist: senses working overtime, including that sixth sense that tells you what the driver on their mobile is going to do next. And that means it’s not nearly as fun as it ought to be. For too long, cyclists in the UK have been taught to take their place in traffic, to assert their right to the road, ride like a car and blamed (even by other cyclists) when things go wrong. ‘Take the lane’, ‘Keep out of the door zone’, ‘ride like a car’, ‘accelerate out of trouble.’ It’s all true, and it all works, well most of the time. It’s just it only works if you’re fit and fast and brave. Can your gran take the lane and accelerate to 20 mph (the official advice for handling a multi-lane roundabout)? Can your seven-year-old? Can you? (by the way, I’ve been cycling for years and I still can’t. I either avoid big roundabouts or I get off and walk). Wouldn’t it be even better if instead of riding around muttering ‘can you see me now, asshole?’ we aspired to cycling like this?

Which is why Jim of the excellent Lo-Fidelity Cycling Club (really must update my blogroll) has founded the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain. Modelled on its Danish counterpart, it will be lobbying for and working towards real cycling provision in this country. Not for me, and my quiet roads. Not for the fit lycra-clad whippets who already ride, or the road warriors who relish nothing better than tackling the Elephant and Castle Roundabout for fun. But for anyone who doesn’t cycle yet, who wants to cycle, who used to cycle but got spooked, who cycles a bit but not to the shops because it’s too scary, who remembers the freedom they had on their bike when they were young but who can’t grant it to their own children because it’s just too dangerous. It’s for anyone who’s been knocked off their bike or almost knocked off their bike, who’s sick of daily assassination attempts: for anyone, in fact, who might feel at the moment they need the hi-vis vest above to cycle anywhere.

I had more to say on the subject but it turned into a rather incoherent overly-technical discussion on vehicular cycling which is something you have to have spent far too long in the cycling blogosphere even to know about. So rather than telling you what I think (there’s another 364 days of 2011 for that), why don’t you tell me? Particularly if you don’t cycle (or not much): what would have to happen for you to want to do it, or do it more? If you stopped cycling, why did you stop? And if you do cycle what is it about it that you enjoy and what would make you want to cycle more?

The inaugural meeting of the Embassy will be in London on the 29th of January. I’m planning to be there, and will also be doing my bit online to get it going. If you’re interested, sign up to the website and find out more. It’s still in the planning stages at the moment, but I’m hoping it’s something that will end up leading to real change. Come along for the ride.

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19 Responses to Cycling Embassy of Great Britain

  1. … I’ve just signed up. Oddly enough, I was just investigating train prices to That London for the 29th when I got your email about The Embassy…

  2. emma c says:

    Yes ma’am, you are so right. The vest is funny and sad too. Thank you for the encouragement to cycle – I live at the top of a hill, half an hour’s drive from work. Can I do it? I don’t know- but you have made me think longer than 3 seconds about doing it. Who knows… 🙂

  3. disgruntled says:

    Karl – excellent
    Emma – that distance might be a tough one to start on, but are there any shops or places you go that are a little nearer? And hills are never as bad as you think they’re going to be, honest!

  4. thecyclingjim says:

    Thanks for a lovely post. I honestly thought that I’d have a wonderful week of blogging and doing all the groundwork for the Embassy. But this is my first Christmas as a parent! In all honesty, I’m really looking forward to the inaugural meting before we proceed further and will be a significant starting block.

    What we are about to attempt is a major shift in cycle campaigning in that it is almost an anti-cycle campaigning campaign – we are campaigning for the novices that just want to get to work or the shops or the library or local swimming pool. We are campaigning for the parents that want to cycle with their offspring for everyday errands. We want cargo bikes to be rightfully considered and normal clothing as standard. I have every confidence we can make this work as we are speaking for the everyday person on an everyday bike doing everyday stuff.

    Again, great stuff!

  5. WOL says:

    What would it take to get me cycling? Someone would have to buy me a large tricycle, with one of those black and white tags across the carrying basket between the back two wheels that says “WIDE LOAD” (so it would be street-legal)– and one of those “aerials” with a flag on it and blinky LED lights run in a spiral around it all the way up and a really loud, really weird sounding bulb horn. Oh, and they’d have to pay the premiums on some really good health insurance for me. I’m being perfectly serious.

  6. disgruntled says:

    Jim – thanks.
    WOL – all perfectly doable. Apart from the health insurance part, which seems to be an intractable problem in the US…

  7. Kirsten says:

    Thus saith the local bike shop and cycling club:

    Thou shalt only wear spandex and other humiliatingly tight clothing.
    Thou shalt wear special shoes and clip into your pedals.
    Thou shalt ride a light, expensive racing bicycle.
    Thou shalt ride as fast as possible in all conditions.
    Thou shalt not have fenders, racks, kickstands, or other unnecessary items on thy bicycle.
    Thou shalt encourage all other cyclists to adhere to these rules…

    …which of course I can’t, what with my inexpensive, older bikes, street clothing, various lights, racks, fenders, and lately, studded tires (at *gasp* 900g each!).

    Clubs and cycle shops don’t seem to want more people fetching their groceries by bicycle so much as they want more people looking like “serious cyclists”, which is too daunting and expensive for most people.

    If a cycling embassy could provide support for regular people who want to cycle as part of everyday life, more power to them. In this area, that might be a tough fight with, of all people, the cyclists who should be helping this along.

    Sorry for getting up on the soapbox, but I did a club ride yesterday, in regular clothing, on my city bike. You can guess the result.

  8. disgruntled says:

    Kirsten – take heart, you are not alone… it’s exactly those people we want to encourage. And we’re mostly cyclists, or people on bikes anyway. But I know what you mean – for most of my time riding bikes I’ve been told (or felt) that I’m doing it wrong, not a ‘proper’ cyclist, baffled by bike shops etc. etc.

    Sounds like you need a different club

  9. […] Bikeability program may be saved from government cutbacks after all. Town Mouse touts the new Cycling Embassy of Great Britain. Road.cc offers their 2011 predictions, including copper-plated bikes and Andy Schleck winning the […]

  10. babymother says:

    Does that mean you want a bed for a night or two? That’s your niece’s 4th birthday party by the way…

    Every week I mull over whether we could bike to school. My problems are:
    – too long a slog uphill all the way for me to have the little one on my bike, or for her to cycle herself – 7 yr old might make it
    – Can’t afford the kind with the wheelbarrow attachment in the front, and anyway same lack of strength applies!
    – It’s NOT a quiet road. We’d probably have to cycle on the pavement, dismounting to cross every side road.

    All I can contemplate is the two kids on their bikes, with me on foot, to help the little one along. At least that way I might break into an occasional jog and get some exercise. The tricky part would be leaving the house fully 40 mins before school starts. AAAAAAAaaaaaaarghhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh

  11. disgruntled says:

    babymother – er, yes, probably should let you know these things more conventionally… I will email.

  12. zungg says:

    If your target is people who want to cycle to work or the shops but are scared of motor traffic – which seems to be what this boils down to – then I think the most effective thing would simply be high-quality, hands-on training to build confidence. I don’t know how available this currently is in the UK.

    Free or cheap basic bike maintenance training might also help. I bet there are people who get off their bike the first time they flat and never get back on.

    Talking about clothes misses the point. I don’t think there’s anyone who really believes that to ride your bike to work it is essential to wear a certain type of clothing. I think some people might use that as an excuse. People will wear whatever they’re comfortable in.

    Of course the other important thing is cycling infrastructure, but I get the sense that there are plenty of groups lobbying for that already (although more will never hurt).

    Not everyone can ride at 20mph, but anyone can take the lane where necessary; that just needs confidence. Either you ride in traffic and learn to do this, or you campaign for fully segregated bike lanes. Or, preferably it seems to me, do both.

    Well this seems to have turned into a rather incoherent overly-technical discussion on vehicular cycling… sorry about that.

  13. disgruntled says:

    zungg – it’s actually the opposite in the UK – there’s plenty of good free or subsidised training, which is great, but none of the existing groups are really pushing for proper infrastructure. Training, maintenance, confidence only get us so far (about 5% of all journeys by bike, it would appear). Separated infrastructure seems to be what gets the Dutch and Danes cycling at rates of 30 or 40%, which is what I’d like to see.

    (taking the lane on a multi lane roundabout takes more than confidence, too, it takes balls of steel)

  14. zungg says:

    Fair enough then. My city (Vancouver) has put in a couple of segregated “trunk” lanes over the last year or so – basically one north-south and one east-west into the centre – and I hope they lure plenty of people into riding to work. They’re certainly fun to use and given that there’s no real downside, I’m all in favour (like helmets, really – but let’s not go there!)

    I’m sure you’re right about multi-lane roundabouts. Thank god we don’t have them over here. I can think of about 100 four-way stops, though, that would be 100% safer and quicker to negotiate, by car or bike, as nice simple single-lane roundabouts. North America is really the land that roundabouts forgot. They installed a lovely one not far from me five years ago and it still inspires panic in the natives.

  15. disgruntled says:

    yeah, let’s leave the h*****s out of it as it only starts a fight. Be interesting to see how the Vancouver routes work out.

  16. Autolycus says:

    In my case it tends to be faintheartedness in bad weather, rather than about the traffic (about which I may be living in a fool’s paradise). I’ve been riding to work for a couple of years off and on, on a folding bike, with a rear pannier basket, in non-sporty clothes, at no great speed; and I manage to brave Tower Bridge into the bargain (it helps to find really clogged roads like that, where the traffic isn’t very fast, and wiggling the handlebars tends to scare drivers off).

    There’s something in the idea that the dedicated cyclists have been a bit slow to open up to the casual user. It’s an understandable side-effect of decades of relegation to a ghetto, perhaps – imagine if the bulk of garages had got into the habit of only catering for Ferrari drivers!

    In my bit of London, the rebranded Cycle Superhighway was leading to a substantial increase in use before the bad weather (relaying the surface helped a lot too), but there are also designated routes through back streets, or one can plan one’s own. But the inconsistency of public authorities is a bit of a problem: there can be sudden bursts of enthusiasm and investment, and then other priorities intrude (and that’s about to get much, much worse with the cuts). It can all be a bit piecemeal: a bit of a cycle-lane here, a few training and maintenance courses there, and no critical mass to keep it running – except from the diehard enthusiasts (which is where we came in).

    Perhaps what’s needed is something like the “walking bus” concept (planned walk-to-school routes where groups of children walk to school together with a rota of parents to walk with them). If groups of people with a regular route could arrange to ride together to schools and shops….?

  17. disgruntled says:

    Would you have tackled London Bridge when you first set out?

    I think the ‘bus’ thing is a good idea. I know they tried a ‘bike tube’ last summer during the strike, although I think takeup was low. But it’s a low cost idea that could potentially work really well

  18. Sue Guiney says:

    When we got “Boris’ bikes” in London, I said yippee! what fun! THey look so cool and I’ve seen people in Paris using such things as well. But I still haven’t tried it and doubt I will unless it’s for a rare recreational ride in a local park. I just think it’s too scary and dangerous to cycle on the streets of London, at least for me (I do know others that do happily). Without a real connected network of cycle lanes in central London, I just think it would be too scary for me…and the idea of a kid going to school? forget it!

  19. disgruntled says:

    Sue – thanks for that comment, a proper connected network of bike lanes is exactly what we’ll be campaigning for. But it will take a while…

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