Like riding a bike

Cyclox held a conference in September aimed at getting older people onto bicycles. We called it ‘Like Riding a Bike’ which everyone understands to mean that once learnt there are some skills you never forget – like riding a bike.

This delightful aspect of cycling is undervalued – like all skills there is a pleasure and pride in its expert execution. Urban bike riding is a skill which combines several elements, but the balancing, propelling and stopping the bike is fundamental. Seeing young children on bikes reminds you of the joy and pride of self-propelled independence. Little legs spinning, eyes glued to the road ahead, manic grin from ear to ear, they have no thought for anything but the joy of the wind in their face and the sense of freedom. 

Roads with traffic demand much more from our skill set, so much so that the fundamental skills must become automatic – nicely described as ‘unconscious competence’. Even if you haven’t heard this term before you have probably worked out that the earlier stages in learning a skill are ‘unconscious incompetence’ – you don’t know you don’t know –  ‘conscious incompetence’ – you realise the extent of your ignorance, and ‘conscious competence’ – you have the skill but it requires a lot of thought and concentration. 

This is relevant to urban bike riding. There are many skills that help the urban cyclist make safe enjoyable progress but which riders may not even know exist. Perhaps the best example is positioning on the road – being in the right place to signal your intention clearly and prevent car drivers from trying to squeeze past. 

Another vital skill is ‘the art of the backward look’ before a right turn – being able to check the traffic behind you without wobbling or swerving. A mirror is a useful addition for this but the great thing about a very clear backward look is that (observant) drivers can interpret your glance as evidence that you want to turn right and will give way. 

This interaction between driver and rider has social benefits as well as practical ones. All road users need to respect and accommodate others, and the more we see each other as fellow humans on the move rather than anonymous members of an opposing tribe the easier our lives become. 

A third example of an urban skill is anticipating vehicle drivers’ reactions.  Riding alongside a car, watch for the driver’s hand reaching to their indicator stalk which can give you early warning of their intentions. It helps to know where bus stops are but in general it’s worth not undertaking buses at all. 

Finally, with segregated routes such as along Headley Way, one skill we need is the ability to ride over a bevelled dropped kerb, which might have quite a step and needs to be approached at the right angle to avoid a spill. So many tricks of the trade. We haven’t talked about listening for traffic, let alone toeclips, trailers or trackstands. No wonder cyclists describe riding in town as ‘relaxed concentration’.

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