Thursday, 29 November 2007

City Cycling and Richard's Famous Bicycle Book

I gather, from my perusal of the Crockatt and Powell archive, that Richard Ballantine has brought out a book called ‘City Cycling’. Is this the same Richard Ballantine who wrote Richard's Bicyle Book which the ex-h and I owned years and years ago when we were v. young, v. poor and cycled everywhere?

If so, hooray! and I must get a copy. Without RBB we would never have survived – we would not have been able to maintain our bikes and I would not have known how to cycle in London.
As it was, in those days, I could strip a bike down to its component washers and ball-bearings, dismantle (and re-mantle) a derailleur gear-set, break, clean and reassemble a chain (you need a special tool which, thanks to Ballantine and his BB, we did) and even mend a puncture without removing the wheel from the bike. This last skill saved me being late for lectures on many occasions and I vividly remember squatting on the pavement on Vauxhall bridge on one occasion, mending a puncture in ten minutes flat and getting to the Centre for the Disorders of Human Communication, part of City University in Islington, on time.
We were living in Southampton and, every day I arrived at Waterloo at roughly the same time as one of my classmates who lived in Petersfield, also in Hampshire. She got on the tube to Islington, I cycled (we were very broke, did I mention that?) and I was always there before her. What’s more I arrived feeling green, virtuous and - amazingly, given the industrial quantities of fumes I was breathing in - healthy. She arrived feeling grumpy and still not entirely awake.

Cycling in London is not for the faint hearted and was no different then. In fact, it was probably worse twenty years ago as the traffic congestion wasn’t quite so acute and the cars were able to go faster. It would have been very easy to be squeezed into the gutter on a daily basis and I think, without Ballantine’s advice, I might have been. But he was very firm about a bike’s place on the road. Ride ‘high side’ was his advice – ie well into the road, avoiding all the pavement-side obstacles - drain covers, potholes and pedestrians side-stepping into the road without looking. Behave like traffic – keep up a good speed and make cars respect you. And, if they disrespect you or try to push you around, give them the finger! An author, in a book, giving you permission - nay expressly telling you - to give somebody the finger! Heady stuff when you're young and callow.

He was, I recall, even more strident about cars that overtook bikes without giving sufficient space. Bang on the roof as they go past, he said, that’ll give them something to think about. I didn't dare – too scared of road rage or whatever we called it then - but I certainly did all the other stuff, including shouting and the finger.

But ‘behave like traffic’ also entailed not doing some of the stuff which routinely gives cyclists a bad name – weaving in and out of stationary cars, nipping on and off pavements, cycling down the inside of slow-moving traffic. Don’t do it, he warned, you’ll get hurt and you can’t expect them to give you space if you don’t show you’ve earned it.

All good advice. I cycled from Waterloo to Islington daily for two years and the most scary thing that happened to me was getting caught in rain full of Chernobyl fall-out. I never got hit, forced off the road or even nudged by a taxi.

Mind you I did make myself visible – I was lit like a Christmas tree and festooned like one too, though in fluorescent belts and strips rather than tinsel. From helmet to ankle-bands I was a walking advert for being seen on your bike. I had a heavy-duty, dynamo-charged halogen front light which lit up traffic signs and must have confused car drivers on the road from Eastleigh into Southampton (‘Why is that motorbike going so slowly?’) When I see cyclists in Canterbury cycling around with neither lights nor reflectors I routinely shout at them. ‘Get a light - nobody can see you!’

It probably scares the living daylights out of them but, then again, it might save their life.

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