Tag Archives: safety

Potting Potholes

Kiosk By Moonlight, BexhillWhat with the economy in the dumps, councils running out of money and the English weather doing its usual worst, our roads here in Sussex have been growing ever rougher and more potholed with each passing week – and from what I gather much the same can be said for most other parts of Britain as well.

I don’t just mean bumps and rough spots in the road; I mean Third World style craters. These things are nasty enough when you’re in a car; hit one at speed on a bicycle and you could easily be thrown end over end, and if you’re really unlucky maybe splatter yourself in front of a bus.

They are everywhere and like a cancer on the bitumen they seem to be spreading, so that if you go out in the wintry dark like I do, you really want to keep a wary eye on the road ahead: what might have been a placid stretch of bitumen just last week may have some very nasty surprises today.

There has been one particularly dangerous patch of sunken, rutted and gouged-out bitumen not far from my house. Not only is this festering mess a major cycling hazard in its own right, but it is diabolically situated between a traffic island and the broken edges of a speed bump. Given the unfortunate realities of on-street parking along this narrowed stretch of road, and the layout of the traffic island and speed bump, the only way to squeeze through this bottleneck is to go right over the worst of the potholes – an unnerving prospect indeed if there is any traffic tailgating you.

Although I had worked out a way to weave through the worst of it, it required a nicely of timing and precision in bicycle handling and as such it was all too easy for an imaginative type like myself to imagine himself missing his line one morning and going base over apex, smashing himself at speed into the traffic island markers – for naturally this jumbled up mess is at the bottom of a fast hill – and tumbling under the wheels of a car.

And so when a Cycle Touring Club (CTC) e-mail newsletter lobed into my basket last month, giving a link to their Fill-That-Hole website, which forwards your pothole complaints and descriptions to your relevant council, I decided to give it a go and see what happens. I logged in, filled out the form, described the offending patch of bitumen, located the spot as best I could on their link to Google maps, clicked the ‘send’ button and sat back to see what happened.

By golly, when I went out this morning, and came spinning down that particular hill, I found a nice neat patch where the crater used to be. Admittedly, it took them a couple of weeks, but I am inclined to cut them a bit of slack given the snow and ice we’ve had on the road the past fortnight and the generally lousy weather; I am just glad to have it done.

So I am posting the link to the Fill That Hole site (here) in the hopes that it might be useful to others (in Britain, alas, not overseas) and in the selfish interest of doing my good deed for the month early, so I can go straight back to being my usual curmudgeonly self. I will compound my act of good citizenship by noting that in the e-mail they send you acknowledging receipt of your pothole complaint they include a link by which you can report the pothole has been mended. Use it. It is always nice to say Thank You.



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A Day To Remember

Not to want to tempt fate or anything, but the thought came to me this morning that it has been sixteen years to the day since the last time I came a cropper on my bicycle. Yes, indeedy, it was on this date in 1997 that I went flying over the handlebars of my bicycle – hopefully for the last time ever – while hurtling down a steep hill on the Rosa Glen Road, just south of Margaret River, in the wine country of Western Australia.

I was on my big journey around Australia then, and that afternoon had just said farewell to National Geographic photographer Ian Lloyd, who had joined me for a few days as I travelled down from Perth. He’d hopped in his rental car to go back up to the city, and his flight home, while I’d slung myself into the saddle and headed south out of town, figuring to see a bit of the great karri forests in Australia’s southwest before tackling the Nullarbor Plain.

I was moving at a cracking pace, as I recall, even before I reached the ill-starred hill, revelling in all the well-watered greenery around me and the sheer civility of the landscape. For months I had been riding through some very tough stretches of outback scrub and outright desert, covering vast empty stretches in appalling heat, with dust, flies, and thirst constant companions. But here everything was green and gentle, towns were dotted around, never too far apart, and air delightfully cool. In celebration of all this pleasantness, and on a road newly resurfaced, I spun right along, taking the curves and the hills as they came.

And then it hit me – the bitumen, that is. I was coming down a long curving sweep of hill into a patch of dense, leaf-freckled shade at the bottom where, unbeknownst to me, the smooth new road surface came to an end. First I knew about it was when my bicycle started bucking like a bull out of a gate. Had I been riding with my hands over the brake hoods, I could have slammed on my anchors and probably come to no harm – suffering nothing more than a good healthy scare.  Instead I was riding along as happy and carefree as if I had good sense, with my hands resting lightly on the tops of the bars, several inches away from the safety of my brake hoods, and in groping for them – swiftly, instinctively – as the bicycle jolted and bounced I lost control and, well, that was that.

It is a mistake I have never made since. Nowadays I always have my fingers wrapped around the brake levers, be it on the hoods or on the drops, whenever I hurtle down hills. That bit of carelessness, done at thirty miles an hour on the Rosa Glen Road, cost me several broken ribs, many stitches, lots of road rash, a fractured shoulder-blade and a messed up supraspinatis tendon in my right shoulder that to this day lets me know when the weather is about to change. I was also off the bike for nearly a month.

While the four weeks I spent recuperating in the Margaret River wine country was by and large very pleasant. I found the local reds far more conducive to pain-killing than the prescription-strength stuff the hospital gave me. Still, the memory of the violent smack of my body on the hard  bitumen and the seemingly endless, out of control tumbling of me and machine down the hill is still vivid and disquieting.

I would not describe myself as a timid rider, but neither do I blithely accept the odd flight over the handlebars, or spin-out on a curve or catching a rim on a pothole as just part and parcel of cycling, as quite a few of my contemporaries seem to do – at least the ones who post on internet cycling forums. To read some of the threads one would think that a couple of wipe-outs a year is par for the course, or at least nothing unusual. But I wonder. Unless you’re racing, I just don’t see why this should have to be so.

In nearly fifty years of riding I have come off exactly three times: that occasion in Margaret River in 1997, another time just a few months previous to that (in March of 1996) when a farm truck ran a red light and collected me at an intersection near Gawler, in the Barossa Valley, in South Australia (wine country again – maybe a theme there) and then my first ‘off’ way back in 1966 when I was eight years old and furiously pedalling my Schwinn down the footpath, clipped a crack in the concrete and put myself on crutches for two weeks. On each of those occasions I came away wiser, having learned some lessons – lessons that stayed with me. This is not to say accidents can’t happen – God knows they can – but I do make a conscious point of remembering, noting, observing, calculating, filing away the experiences, good and bad, gained every day along the road, and trying all the time to be a better, safer rider.

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On Running Reds

I like to think of myself as a fairly law-abiding citizen on my bicycle, although I must admit that when I am heading out of town at 4:30am I have been known to shoot through the deserted intersection at the bottom of our hill against the light. I just cannot see the point of standing there, straddling my bike all alone on an empty crossroad, in the spill of a street lamp, waiting for a light to change. On my way back home, on the other hand, when the world has woken up and the road is bustling with the start of the morning rush hour, I am a very good citizen indeed.

And why wouldn’t I be? There I am astride a 22-pound road bike, mixing it with cars and trucks weighing many tonnes and being driven by people who are in a hurry, feeling harried and not especially charitable. Who wants to be road kill? As I spin along Grand Parade, the boulevard that runs along the seafront here in Hastings, I try to be the very model of consistency and predictability, and I maintain this good citizenship all the way home – nearly.

There is, alas, one intersection not far from home where not only do I choose to run the light if it is red, I actually hope it will be red when I get there so I can run it and squeeze through the gauntlet of dangers that follow without a lot of fast and aggressive motorists breathing down my neck.

The intersection I am thinking of is part of a short but diabolically engineered stretch of road that starts just before the crest of a fairly steep hill. If you can think of a T-junction with the top bar of the T being the road I am riding upon, left to right, I will try to describe it. Just before the top of this hill the road narrows, passes over a very unpleasantly pitched speed bump and funnels through a an even narrower strait by a traffic island with a set of lights to control the traffic in this T-junction.

Immediately on the other side of the intersection is another narrow strait and traffic island with a series of sleeping policemen speed bumps. These, coupled with the abrupt on-street parking arrangements force you to ride on the outer part of the lane unless you want to be swerving sharply in and out of traffic. This is a genuinely dangerous stretch of road for cycling and I am always relieved to get through it unscathed.

There is no safe way to negotiate it in the general flow of traffic unless you get a jump on the red light. Greens here are dangerous. As for the traffic that is joining at the intersection, it is nearly always turning left and so none of these motorists are in any way inconvenienced or affronted by my running the light. What makes this all the more irritating is that this set of lights and ‘traffic calming’ measures are relatively recent additions – within the past few years – and what had previously been a free flowing stretch of road has become a bottleneck for motorists as well, most of whom are not at all ‘calmed’ by the gauntlet of bumps, lights and chicanes.

I like to try to play the game, and set a good example as a cyclist and so I resent being forced, for safety’s sake, to having to run lights. It would seem to me that with all the Government’s recent talk of cycling safety, a little thoughtful reappraisal of how intersections are designed would be a really good idea, and one that would benefit all road users, not just cyclists, and perhaps be a whole lot easier to implement.

(My apologies if my description is not clear. I’ve not tried taking pictures here because: a) it is too dangerous to muck about trying to take pictures while I am riding there and b) there are always lynx-eyed characters slouching in front of the shop that is right beside this intersection and if I tried my usual self-timer routines I am not sure I’d get to keep my camera very long)

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The Knog Gekko – A Handy Little Light

As I dragged my jet-lagged self out the door early this darkened morning to go for my ride I found myself grateful for a nifty piece of kit called a Knog Gekko – a rubbery, gummy little LED light you can snap on your handlebar at a moment’s notice – think rubber band – and thus ensure that you are at least able to be seen by on-coming traffic.

I love these things. They are dazzlingly bright, waterproof, fairly inexpensive and weigh next to nothing – the very thing to tuck in your saddlebag for the odd occasions when you find yourself riding a little later, or a little earlier than you’d expected, or in a gloomy rain shower, or, if you’re like me, you return home from overseas and find the march of the seasons have progressed to the point where you can no longer kid yourself that it is still summer and that it will be light or even greyish when you want to go for your ride.

In all the running around and catching up I have been doing since my return I’ve not gotten around to digging my full-on Lupine headlamp out of the back of my closet and recharged the battery. Three mornings in a row now I’ve been caught out like this and so have been grateful for this little Knog Gekko. It’s blinking row of LEDs won’t illuminate the road in front of me, but as long as I am riding on lamp-lit streets that’s not so big a deal. Between the blinking taillight on my seatpost and the blinking white light in front (not to mention a reflective vest) I feel reasonably confident that motorists can see me. And if I time my rides nicely, going out a bit later than usual, I can hit the lanes at just around the time when there is enough ambient light in the sky to for me see well enough to ride safely without a proper full-on headlamp.

Knog lights are designed in Melbourne Australia and come in an assortment of sizes and colours. There are headlight and taillight versions as well. I have a couple of their smaller Beetle lights (two LEDs) as well as the larger Gekko with its row of three. There are quite a few other variations as well, in varying sizes and brightness, all with the same sort of flexible silicon bodies that can snap on any size handlebars in seconds with no additional fittings.

As small and simple as these things are they nevertheless still have three function settings – two flashing modes and a steady beam and are blindingly bright. The Gekko uses a pair of AAA batteries and weighs 53 grams all up (including batteries); the smaller Frog uses two of those little pill-shaped batteries (CR2032) and weighs in at just 22 grams. All in all, very handy things to have around.

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The War On Britain’s Roads

Poster printed by the British Government around the time of the Battle of Britain

Sometimes I think that for a journalist I am appallingly uninformed. Apparently there is – and has been for some time now – a war raging on Britain’s roads, with motorists and cyclists engaged in a bitter Darwinian struggle for possession of the pavement. I’d no idea things were that bad. To be sure, I’ve seen my share of rude, inconsiderate, even dangerous examples of driving over the years, but that a hot-blooded state of war exists between cyclists and motorists on our streets is news to me indeed.

I am indebted to the BBC for bringing this to my attention. They have put together an adrenaline-charged one-hour documentary, imaginatively titled The War on Britain’s Roads, which will be aired sometime later this year on BBC One and which, their publicists gleefully crow, will “parachute viewers into the middle of a war that is raging between two-wheeled road users and their four-wheeled counterparts.”

The documentary will feature live-action in-car videos and helmet-cam footage shot by cyclists and will, the BBC’s breathless and wide-eyed publicity folks promise, include “heart stopping footage of interactions between road users to reveal a shocking picture of life on Britain’s roads.”

I can hardly wait.

Seems to me just about everybody who rides a bicycle or drives a car is well aware that things are far from perfect on the city streets; that impatience, ignorance and inattentiveness on the part of some motorists, and fecklessness on the part of some cyclists have set a stage ripe for conflict and misunderstanding, occasionally with tragic consequences. But a state of war? Honestly? Perhaps in the eyes of a few bullish road warriors of both the cycling and motoring persuasion, maybe. But from where I sit – atop a Brooks saddle, mid-traffic – the vast majority of road-users, motorists and cyclists alike, simply want to get where they are going with a minimum of fuss, and in the case of cyclists, with a minimum of risk.

Yes, things can get out of hand, and sometimes do, and yes, I know the camera never lies and that all the footage and the raw emotions displayed therein will be genuine and heart felt, but as someone who uses a camera quite a bit myself I know that this particular kind of truth – or rather, non-lie – can be highly selective and depends very much on where you are pointing the camera, when and at whom and under what circumstances. In skilled hands a camera’s subjective truth can be used to accomplish all sorts of things. In this particular instance it sounds as though it is being used to pour oil on troubled flames.

I hope I’m wrong. Cycling is booming, and cyclists themselves are fast becoming a political force to be reckoned with – as witnessed by last Saturday’s demonstration organized by the London Cycling Campaign which saw ten thousand cyclists pedalling through the rainy streets of London thousands to make their presence felt and to call for safer streets ahead of London’s mayoral election.

The remarkable growth of cycling in the cities and the challenges this is posing for planners and politicians and the competing points of view of motorists and cyclists makes for a compelling story and one deserving of far worthier treatment than what sounds to me a lot like a polarizing grab-bag of You Tube’s greatest hits, an emotive voice-over and a shock-horror tabloid-style declaration of war.

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There but for The Grace of God

I rode past the scene this morning of a very nasty accident that took place a week ago on Bexhill Road – a collision involving a truck and a cyclist, in which the cyclist was killed. It happened at about seven o’clock in the morning, on a bright clear day and along a straight stretch of road, with both the bicycle and the heavy goods vehicle travelling the same direction.

It is a stretch of road with which I happen to be unhappily familiar. I ride it nearly every day. Indeed, I’d passed along it that very morning, less than an hour before the accident took place. When I heard later that morning that a cyclist had been killed, and read the sketchy news account of what had happened, I had an uneasy feeling that I could probably pinpoint the spot.

Sure enough, when I pedalled down Bexhill Road this morning (for the first time since the accident) there it was, the bouquets of flowers and the police notice asking for witnesses tacked up on a telephone pole within spitting distance of one of the useless, stupid traffic islands on this overcrowded highway – traffic calming measures they call them, apparently without irony; a deliberate narrowing of the road that, in theory, should require motorists to slow down and exercise a bit of caution as they funnel through. And so they might, that is, if it’s just one car or truck slipping through after another.

But add a (relatively) slow-moving cyclist into that mix and suddenly you have a whole different paradigm. Instead of slowing down, and driving more sedately, motorists exhibit a nasty tendency to speed up, trying to muscle their way through the chicane ahead of the cyclist so they don’t have to slow down TOO much. It becomes a suicide squeeze, with precious little room for error; a casual life-or-death gamble the cyclist is dragged into by fast-changing circumstance rather than choice. Sometimes the motorist gets there first. Sometimes the cyclist does. Sometimes it’s a dead heat.

Time and a police investigation will determine if that is what happened here. I may be all wet, and they find that the accident was actually caused by something else entirely, but as I passed the scene of the tragedy this morning I couldn’t help but be reminded uneasily of the frequent near misses I’ve had in just these sorts of ‘traffic calming’ chicanes and think: There but for the grace of God go I.

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What Colour is Your Parachute?

When I read that Oscar-winner actor Gene Hackman took a tumble off his bicycle while riding helmet-less through the streets of a Florida city I knew it would only be a matter of time – hours in these days of instant communication – before his bare-headed state became a focal point in the wearying and never-ending debate of whether or not one should wear a helmet whilst riding a bicycle.

And by golly, when I finally got my internet to work this morning, I read in an American blog called Lovely Bicycle! a post titled: Did Not Wearing A Helmet Save Gene Hackman’s Life? The argument here – apparently – was that since it would be absurd to suggest that not wearing a helmet could save your life, it is equally absurd to draw the reciprocal conclusion that wearing one could save a life or avert injury, and that, what’s more, accounts of cyclists who have crashed badly and later credit their helmets with having saved their lives are uttering just so much emotive twaddle – well-meaning and sincere twaddle, to be sure, but twaddle nonetheless, anecdote and real-life experience being apparently no substitute for academia’s graphs, pie-charts, figures and statistics.


Regardless of any philosophical stance I might or might not have on the subject of helmet wearing, there is something so irritatingly glib and loopy with this argument that I just cannot resist following it to its absurdist extreme.

So here goes: on 3 January 1943, an American airman named Alan Eugene Magee was serving as a tail gunner aboard a B-17 on a daylight bombing raid some 22,000 feet over Saint-Nazaire, France when German fighters shot the right wing off the plane, setting it on fire and causing it to go into a deadly spin.

Wounded in the attack, Magee couldn’t get to his parachute and, making a snap decision that dying in a fall would be preferable to dying in a fire, he jumped free of the doomed plane. He fell over twenty thousand feet and crashed through the glass roof of the Saint-Nazaire train station, whose glass and ironwork framing apparently mitigated the fall. And while the 23 year-old sergeant wasn’t exactly in fighting trim when German soldiers found him on the floor, with broken bones, contusions, lacerations and damage to his kidneys and lungs, he survived, resumed flying again after the war and lived on to the ripe old age of 84 – and age Gene Hackman may yet attain if the Florida motorists leave him alone on his bike.

So, does this mean that not wearing a parachute saved Sergeant Magee’s life? Obviously this is as absurd as the conjecture about whether not wearing a helmet saved Gene Hackman’s life. Yet if we dismiss this parachute suggestion for the patent absurdity that it is, are we then obliged to say, with Lovely Bicycle’s doughty conviction, that the converse is true? That it is equally absurd to suggest that wearing a ‘chute would have made any difference, and that airmen who have leapt from burning airplanes, survived and later credited their ‘chutes with having saved their lives are talking (concededly heartfelt) nonsense? Me thinks not.

Yes, I realize that I have reduced the argument to an absurdity; that was the point. But – get this – the logic in both cases is consistent, if abstracted from reality. Indeed if you wanted to persist with this parachute comparison you could illustrate your arguments with numerous examples of skydivers and ejecting pilots who’ve become tangled in their chutes in mid air and died, or drowned as a result of being attached to them after landing in rough water, or been dragged mercilessly through beds of prickly pear cactus.

I remember when I was in Antarctica a few years ago a skydiver plummeted to his death at the South Pole while wearing a perfectly functional parachute – one that did him no good whatsoever because, as I recall, he’d neglected to adjust the barometer on his automatic ripcord to account for the South Pole’s 9301-foot elevation. Then there is the story about Lt Colonel William Rankin who baled out of an F-8 fighter in 1959 at 47,000 feet right smack over a North Carolina thunderstorm, and how the storm’s powerful updrafts kept sucking his chute (and of course him) upwards into the giant nimbostratus clouds, then letting him drop and whisking him back up again and again like some plaything. It took him nearly an hour to descend to the ground, by which time he was suffering frostbite, decompression and severe battering by large hailstones.

So then, are parachutes of debateable use if you have to step out of an airplane in an emergency? You first.

My point here isn’t to take the mickey out of a blog writer whom I generally respect, nor is it to preach helmet wearing, or present any argument for wearing them, whatever my own choice on the matter may be. I have never in my life felt a need or desire to tell others what they ought to do. It’s up to them. I couldn’t care less whether anyone chooses to wear helmets or not. It so happens that I do, and that’s my decision. But I certainly respect yours or anyone else’s decision not to wear one. What I dislike about the rabidly anti-helmet crowd is that so few of them seem to have the courage of their convictions, but feel obliged instead to come up with all kinds of weird and convoluted rationalisations and justifications for their points of view which not only don’t hold water but make them look a little uneasy in their own positions – as though they were protesting too much, trying to convince themselves as much as others of the soundness of their view, and not doing such a great job. Why can’t they just say they’ve evaluated the risk, chosen not to wear a helmet and leave it at that? Leave the denial of risk, the dodgy research, made-up science, contorted logic and massaged statistics alone. Just tell anyone who doesn’t like your choice to buzz off. If there must be a debate, for political or law-making purposes, present the helmet-free case on libertarian grounds – you’d get a far greater consensus among cyclists.

And perhaps instead of jumping up when they read about 81 year-old Gene Hackman getting knocked off his bike, and seeing it as an opportunity to serve up such a weird piece of logic on the so-called helmet debate, they could join the rest of us and forget the headgear (or lack of it) and think, gee, 81 years old and the guy’s out on his bike? Good on him!

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