We’re all familiar with the saying that you never forget to ride a bike. There’s a lot of truth in this, in that the basic skill of balancing on a moving bike is something that, once learnt, stays with you. As far as I remember, between leaving University in 1993 and starting to cycle to work in 2007, I only cycled on 2 occasions. I don’t recall any process of relearning to cycle when I started cycling to work. I test rode the bike the evening I bought it on a 1 mile loop round the block and then struggled to work a few days later.
However, cycling safely in London traffic is a different thing. The basic bike handling skills are a given, and you need to be able to ride the bike unconsciously. Dealing with traffic, road positioning, signalling and anticipating are all added complications. Drivers have an obvious advantage, in understanding the “rules of the road” and, probably more importantly, knowing how other road users are likely to behave and where the danger points might be. There are obvious differences too, changing speed takes longer on a bike and you can’t rely on physical presence to assert yourself on other road users, or at least you have to be more subtle to do so. Positioning yourself in the lane is also different, but a driver undoubtedly understands a lot of the basics and a regular driver gets the feedback of seeing how cyclists appear to drivers.
It must be so much more difficult for children. Especially children who barely know how to cross the road, like my own. As we’ve been cycling more to school, I’ve allowed my boys onto side roads more. I was really pleased to discover that our local Council offer free family cycling lessons and we have now had 2 sessions with the same instructor: the excellent Nick Hamilton.
For our first session, in October half-term, me, my wife and 2 boys met Nick in a local park and we spent an hour slaloming around a basketball court, practicing signalling, turning and braking sharply. After the first hour we ventured onto the road and learnt to start off and stop safely and turn right at a T-Junction. Nick talked us through it all and was really good at engaging the children with what they needed to do and why.
I learnt about the importance of holding my lane and not allowing cars to overtake unless it is safe to do so. The idea is that if you squeeze to the side, you are more likely to get a car squeezing into the car sized gap to the right of you, so you should only leave such a gap if it is big enough. And the other danger of being too far to the left is that you are in the “door zone” which is pretty self-explanatory. This has made for some hairy moment with the children cycling along the centre line of the road on the way to school, but with cars parked on both sides of narrow road in most of London, there often isn’t the space for a car to overtake safely wherever you are, so you might as well be more visible and not tempt a car to overtake in a gap that might be just wide enough, or not.
Yesterday was our follow up lesson, without my wife, so the three of us practised our route to school under Nick’s expert eye. We consolidated what we had learnt in the first lesson and the children practiced a right turn on their own with Nick and I watching on.
We’ve all come out of it learning something, the children’s confidence and competence is massively improved. Sometimes the best things in life are free.