I know quite a lot of people that I think should be on a bike. John, for example. John’s at the age – mid-40s – where things start to spread and immortality is no longer guaranteed. Plus I know he loathes travelling on the tube, which also costs him getting on for a hundred quid a month. So there’s no doubt in my mind that John should get a bike.
But he won’t. Why not? One reason, I suspect, is the capital expense. Knowing bugger all about bikes, and suspecting – probably rightly – that a hundred quid at Halfords is a route to disappointment, John thinks a bike would cost him £500, give or take. And £500 is, while not unthinkable, what you might call a significant disincentive.
I suspect discomfort is also a factor. It rains sometimes, and John doesn’t much like getting wet. Maybe too there’s a certain lack of enthusiasm for the sheer physical effort involved. But actually I don’t think in John’s case that’s really much of an issue. He’s not afraid of physical effort. No, I don’t think that’s it.
I suspect the main reason is that John doesn’t want to die. Fair enough. It would be a drag for him, and his wife and kids probably wouldn’t be any too thrilled either. You can see his point. And the fact that it’s extremely unlikely cuts very little ice. I guess it makes a difference that while I’ve been riding on the roads of London since I was eight or nine, John hasn’t. And I can see how they could look pretty intimidating to the uninitiated. All those buses and cars and cabs and – god help us – white vans. Many driven by idiots, some by psychopaths, almost all going much faster than a bike. It’s dangerous – that much is obvious.
Well, yes and no. Just cause something’s obvious don’t make it true. Statistically, the average fatality rate is around one death per 12 million miles cycled. Which isn’t bad odds, when you think about it. If John cycled into work, his journey would be about 10 miles a day – five each way – which means he could do it for over 2,000 years before he’d have even an evens chance of getting killed. But then again, you can see how statistics wouldn’t necessarily be all that comforting to someone contemplating going out on London’s snarling roads.
Might a few practical tips help? Such as: make sure your bike is in good condition, and properly set up for you. Saddle and handlebars at the right height, for example, brakes in good nick. But above all, ride sensibly. Which mostly means keeping your eyes working constantly and your mind in gear. What’s around you? What might it do? What could you do if it did? Ensure your safety despite others’ stupidity or thoughtlessness. So, for example, be very careful overtaking parked vehicles or lines of traffic: people suddenly open doors; people suddenly pop out from behind vans. Try never to ride so close or so fast you couldn’t stop in time if something you couldn’t have foreseen suddenly happens.
There is, it’s true, no way to guarantee safety. Very safe cyclists get killed – sometimes by idiots, sometimes by aggression, as often as not by sheer bad luck. But you can certainly improve your chances, to a point where they compare favourably with those associated with, say, driving, or walking in the city. And if longevity really is your thing, along with the one death in 12 million miles statistic, you can also tuck away the fact that a regular cyclist has the fitness level of someone ten years younger.