Is a Helmet Necessary?

Bike helmet croppedDo you wear a helmet when you’re cycling? I do but I’ve been reading recently that I am probably wasting my time. I have to be honest and say that I only started wearing one when I moved to London. In all the years I cycled in Bristol I never once put one on my head. I made the decision to wear one before I moved here as I knew the traffic was going to be heavier and the roads unfamiliar to me. It just seemed like a sensible thing to do and I never considered the possibility that there was little or no point in wearing a helmet.

I quite reasonably assumed that a cycle helmet would reduce the possibility of serious head injuries were I to be knocked off my bike. According to the Bicycle Helmet Research Foundation (BHRF) this is not entirely true. They suggest that studies into the effectiveness of cycle helmets are not wholly accurate. One research project into whether bike helmets should made compulsory found that there was no evidence to prove that wearing a helmet made any difference to head injury rates. They did discover that there was direct link between head injury rates and the consumption of alcohol and drugs among cyclists. Many of these cases were not, however, wearing helmets.

There is further suggestion that motorists will give cyclists who are not wearing a helmet a wider berth when passing them. So perhaps helmets are seen as a magical defence against serious injuries while out on the road. I never really gave any of this much thought. I will say that I have had a few sanctimonious moments when I look at other cyclists who are careering around and flying through red lights whilst not wearing a helmet. It is up to them of course whether they wear one or not but I have felt a little smug in my protective head gear. It would appear that I was maybe fooling myself (which probably serves me right for being smug).

Any serious collision involving a bike is likely to result in serious injury or death with or without a helmet according to an article in the Metro last year. The BHRF also suggest that cyclists who wear helmets are more likely to take greater risks whilst wearing a helmet as opposed to those that do not. I have to say that I don’t fully support this theory as I have seen helmeted and bare headed cyclists do some pretty stupid things over the years; myself included. Helmet laws would also significantly reduce the number of cyclists out on the road according to more research by the BHRF. They would be less inclined to ride a bike if they felt that they had to wear a helmet. It would also have an impact on bike hire schemes. Their web page is worth a look at.

This is an interesting little film about a new bike helmet invention. It is called the invisible bike helmet and seems to work in the same way as an airbag would in a car. It is worn around the neck and triggers when involved in an accident. It has a one-time only use, which is the same as a bicycle or motorbike helmet, and has a little black box in the collar that records the data of the accident for research. With a price tag of 399 Euros I doubt if I will be buying one anytime soon though. For the fashion conscious among you you can accessorise your collar with special fabric add-ons that come in at 59 Euros.

I’ve become rather comfortable wearing a helmet, and will probably continue to do so regardless of what the evidence suggests, as I do feel a little safer with it on. I don’t look at it as a magical remedy to getting squashed I see it as a precautionary item that will hopefully keep my head in one piece should I get knocked off my bike. For me that’s reason enough to wear one.

Five Horrible Junctions

Here are my five most hated junctions on my route across south London.

1 Forest Hill: Forest hill junction

This one is terrible first thing in the morning. There are two lanes as you approach the junction next to Forest Hill station from Lewisham and they get a lot of use in the mornings. The traffic backs up from Waldram Place, along London Road, until it reaches the south circular. There can be a little impatience sometimes and it pays to keep well and truly focused. There is a turning as you approach the Forest Hill junction and a queue tends to form behind those wanting to turn left. Not all of the cars and lorries in the queue want to turn left, however, and there can sometimes be a few angry lane changes so be careful when negotiating a way through.

2 Streatham Hill: Streatham hill junction 2

There are four lanes to get across here and the traffic is very heavy most of the time. Also there is a bus depot with a steady stream of buses going in all directions. This is probably the one that I hate the most to be honest. There is a crossing further down the road but I never use it for some reason. Whether coming from the Wavertree road direction or the Telford Avenue direction it is not a pleasant junction to cross on a bike.

3 Telford Avenue, Streatham Hill:

This one doesn’t at first seem like a particularly dangerous roundabout but it depends on which direction you are approaching it. If you are approaching the roundabout from the west then you have to make sure that the cars coming from the left have seen you. Because the approach is on a hill you are lower than the cars until you are right in front of them. There is a blind spot for the motorists so it is a good idea to stand up and make your-self a bit taller.

4 Shannon Corner, New Malden: Shannons corner

A particularly horrible roundabout no matter which way you approach it. The Kingston by-pass towers overhead and vehicles come on and off the slip roads very fast. Luckily it is traffic light controlled on all but one of the junctions which makes it a little less daunting. There is a cycle path which takes you safely around it if you don’t fancy tackling the road.

5 Fountain Roundabout, New Malden: Fountain roundabout 3

This one is just a bit further along from Shannon Corner. It does get very busy and the traffic tends to back up on the roundabout making it difficult to cross sometimes. A crossing off of one of the junctions is the main cause of the back-up and there are a few drivers who are unwilling to yield any space.

These are just the junctions I find to be the most dangerous on my route to and from Kingston. There are far worse ones in London but they all need a little common sense and diligence when using them.

Seems like a lot of money to me is all I’m saying.

Boris Johnson must really hate Lycra. He must have an extreme dislike for it if he is planning on spending £913 million pounds to “de-Lycrafy cycling” as he puts it. The new plans for a Dutch style cycle network in London, which he unveiled ten days ago, are ambitious not to mention expensive. I welcome any plans to make cycling easier and safer in London and would take full advantage of the new networks when they are completed. My only concern is the amount of money he is spending.

There have been massive public sector cuts and people are losing their jobs. The budget on Wednesday will see just how much more everyone has to pay before this financial mess is over. There have been protests over the bedroom tax and cuts in education. There are proposed cuts in police and fire brigade services in London with some fire stations and front offices of police stations closing. The proposed downgrading of Lewisham hospital will take vital services from the local community and will mean people travelling further for an A and E department.

These are just some of the problems ordinary people are facing in their everyday life. Now I’m not an economist but I think that £913 million is a tad over the top for a cycle route or two. True it will give employment to those who are going to be building this phenomenal plan of which I have no problem. The cycle network in London is not perfect as it is but surely a tenth of that amount would be enough to improve it. Some might say even less.

If they do improve the junctions at Elephant and Castle (a particularly dangerous spot for cycling in my opinion) and Vauxhall then that would be fabulous. I’m all for less traffic on the roads and more cyclists as well. Will this plan really see an army of commuters dressed in suits taking to the highways of London though? The weather is a major factor people take into account when choosing whether to cycle. The reason why some commuters wear Lycra is that it is light weight and dries quickly. I wouldn’t fancy riding a bike in a three piece suit in the pouring rain.

I am sure there are people out there who can think of better ways to spend nearly a billion pounds; education, health and emergency services being just a few of them. How has Mr Johnson come to have such a huge sum of money at his disposal anyway? I thought we were in an economic mess. I love cycling and the freedom it affords me. In the summer it is a great way to get around and it keeps me fit; kind of.

I applaud his decision to make it safer for cyclists in London and to try and get more people out of their cars and onto a bike. Some motorists could do with being a little more patient with people on bikes and not treating them as an inconvenience to their travel. Some people on bikes could do with a bit more common sense out there on the road. A little less arrogance from both sides could be done with at times. It just seems like a lot of money to me is all I’m saying. Still who am I; I’m not even a fully-fledged Lycra wearer anyway.

Recovering and Security

My bike lockedA few weeks ago, whilst about to cross Westminster Bridge on my bicycle, I was approached by one of those community police types; you know the ones, they look a bit like a police officer but they are not really (I’m kidding, they are very hard working and are doing a job I would not want to do). I had just hopped onto the pavement onto what I thought was a cycle path, it was thankfully, when one of them starting walking towards me and gestured for me to approach him. Police have this wonderful way of stirring a guilty feeling inside me even when I know I have done nothing wrong. I checked the floor again to make sure it was a cycle path, relaxed slightly, and waited to see what he had to say. I wasn’t about to be hauled off to the cells, I was pleased to discover; instead they wanted to tell me about a new scheme that assists in the recovery of stolen bicycles called Bike Register.

I popped around the corner where a (real) policeman painted my bike with some invisible ink, took note of my frame number, and told me a bit more about the scheme. If, please no, my bike does get stolen and is recovered by the police, then they can scan the invisible number, check it against their records and hopefully get it back to me. Of course it is a big if that it is recovered, there are more than one blue Trek bikes in the world, but if it is recovered then I have a better chance of getting it back than without the scheme. Oh, did I mention that it was free, or at least the nice police man did not charge me anything.

This is all very good but you do not want to return to where you had left your bike a few hours earlier to find it is gone. This is very annoying and can be a major pain in the whatsit if you happen to be a long way from home. It is recommended that you always use a good sturdy bike lock. In fact it is recommended that you use two good sturdy bike locks. I have two different types of D-locks and one of those plastic coated flex cables for looping through the front and back wheels. Even this is probably not enough if someone is determined to take my bike but why make it any easier for them than is necessary. The little man who sold me my bike suggested that I spend at least 10% of the value of my bike on a lock and I have no reason not to believe him as he didn’t try to sell me one. Kryptonite locks seem to be the most popular and the most reliable in my experience but if anyone has any better suggestions then I would be happy to hear them (whilst researching locks I did come across a YouTube video on how to pick a kryptonite lock with a Bic pen, but it appears that this is old news and not possible with new Kryptonite locks; I hope).

Having only had one bike stolen in my lifetime I would say that I am luckier than a lot of cyclists out there who use their bikes regularly. I do remember how I felt when I returned to find my bike missing and do not want to repeat the feeling any time soon but we are not in complete control of these things unfortunately. I do get nervous leaving it somewhere that I am unfamiliar with and will often try to keep it within eyesight if I can. This is not always possible and you just have to trust your security arrangements or risk ruining your day out. Invest in a decent lock, register your bike with the police and get some insurance are some preventative measures.

According to the London Cycling Campaign website (this is a good website and well worth a look at), 21,770 bike thefts were reported to the Met Police in 2012. This is an enormous figure and just goes to show just how many bikes there are out there and just how many are capable of being stolen. This information just makes me more determined than ever to keep little bike that I have. I think my locks are in need of an upgrade though; much like myself.

Keeping a Fit Conscience

I do love riding up a steep hill; in fact, the steeper the better. There was a time, not too many years-ago, where I would have done all that I could to avoid riding up a hill. Not today though; today I actively seek out hills to ride up. In the city that is. I am not one of those crazy types who ride up and down mountains at great speed using a mountain bike for its proper use (although it does look like fun, I am just too much of a coward). No, I seek out urban hills to climb.

The reason for this is simple; I am trying to get fit. I have said before how much I despise running and I do cycle long distances, but I am not the healthiest person in the world when it comes to food and drink (oh and smoking). So I’ve always got that little bit of extra padding around my middle which I tell myself every day I will lose. Of course it’s all about staying healthy and absolutely nothing to do with vanity; really. Well, the smoking is being handled, the beer has been given its marching orders and I am forcing myself to not eat crap all the time; hence the hill searching. I figured that if I cycled up a few hills on the side then the fitness would come a rolling in. There are (funnily enough) quite a few hills in Forest Hill and they are humdingers to say the least.

An article in Men’s Health magazine puts the argument for cycling versus running in a very succinct way. Cycling is a low impact sport and running can bugger up your knees. This is not exactly what it says but it is the gist of it. As cycling is a low impact sport it is possible to go longer and further than when running. Unfortunately for me and my spare tyre it says that because cycling is done sitting down you don’t burn off as many calories as when you are running. Ten minutes of cycling will help to shift 97 calories whereas 14.2 minutes of running will see you shift a hefty 200 calories. It takes 27 minutes of cycling to shift that amount.

Of course vanity is one thing but all of this cycling and fitness seeking could be used for more charitable purposes. The British Heart Foundations London to Brighton bike ride is a possibility and for a very good cause. The event takes place on Sunday 16 June 2013, is a 54 mile ride, and you can register here to take part. If that seems like a lot to take on in one ride then you could go for ‘Around the West in 80 Miles’. This is a bike ride for the charity Temwa which is based in Bristol and raises funds to implement community-based projects in Malawi. The ride is broken up into two days of cycling and is at a leisurely pace. The point is that you can keep fit and do your bit for a good cause at the same time should you so wish. There are more charity bike rides out there to suit the beginner or the hard-core Lycra cyclist should you want to take part in one.

I’m going to keep on keeping my heart beating and looking for those hills to ride up for a while. My spare tyre has a limited life span even if it doesn’t know it yet.

Is It Summer Yet?

It is currently two degrees out there today. It was one and a half yesterday (with a wind that felt like it was minus two). It was thirteen last weekend. It is that ever changing time of the year when the weather comes over all peculiar and has hot flushes in between bouts of biting cold.

How many of you braved the snow the other week and cycled to work? I took one look at the blanket of snow on the floor and caught the train instead. I did not see too many cyclists on the roads but there were a couple of hard-core types who were putting me to shame as I walked to the station in my warm clothes and comfy walking boots. Personally I thought that they were slightly mad yet I doffed my woolly hat to them all the same.

Thankfully it does not seem to rain as much here in London as it does in the West Country. When I first moved here I thought I had entered some magical world where rain would only appear at night and cyclists did not drown going a few miles down the road. That’s not to say I have not gotten wet, just that I do not feel the need to wear an all in one cagoule every time I get my bike out.

The point is that the weather changes from week to week here in England and as a cyclist it pays to be prepared for every eventuality. Too many clothes on at the start of your journey and you sweat profusely and need to start stripping off at the side of the road. Too few and it is likely to rain or the temperature will drop considerably.

Now I have never fully embraced the lycra. I do have a couple of pairs of lycra leggings, a pair of shorts and a full length pair with the spongy crotch. I am not, what is called, a Mamil (middle aged man in lycra) even though I am nearing middle age. I will say though that it does have its merits when the wind is bitterly cold out there. It dries pretty quickly, is rather comfortable, and keeps the cold out.

I have no intention of going the whole hog and squeezing into one of those all revealing lycra suits that a lot of cyclists wear. You know the type, they have expensive looking bikes, are thin as a rake, the little clip on shoes that attach to the pedals, and whizz along at terrific speed. I suppose I’m a little jealous, being as if I were to wear something like that, I would look like a sack of potatoes wrapped in cling-film. No, I think I’ll spare the world that vision for now.

Comfort is the key to riding a long way. I prefer to wear shorts but sometimes the weather does not allow this as my knees would fall off.  Gloves, though, are the key to surviving the cold and the wet weather. A breathable cycling jacket is the other essential. Without gloves my fingers would have fallen off a long time ago. I have actually seen people cycling in the cold and the wet without gloves. I don’t know how they do it to be honest. It is just crazy. Wind proof, water proof gloves that keep your fingers free from frostbite will make the cycling experience a lot more enjoyable.

A good jacket can be very expensive. I, unfortunately, bought mine very cheap. It does keep out the rain and is good for keeping me warm but only for a short period. It is 100% polyester and heats me up like a microwave after a couple of miles. It is only really useful in extreme cold weather. There are many decent jackets out there on the market and it pays to shop around which is advice I should take myself. Of course all of this will change when we get that summer sun beating down on us (derisory snort). The lycra can be put in storage, the jacket will only get few brief outings, and the gloves will only be needed at night. This is one cyclist who cannot wait for the winter to be filed away for another year. It won’t be too long will it?

Red Means Go?

Colliers wood traffic lights“Oi,” shouted the taxi driver, as he pulled up along-side me, just past Colliers Wood station, the other day. “Not only did you jump a red light back there, but you are wobbling all over the place; are you trying to get yourself killed?” and then sped off round the corner before I could tell him politely to “go pick up a fare”. Now, in my defence I would like to say that: a) I did not jump a red light; I had pulled up at the pelican crossing (or is it a Toucan, a puffin or an equestrian; I’m not sure) so that people could cross the road; b) I was wobbling because a huge gust of wind had just very nearly de-saddled me in the middle of a very busy road; c) I was concerned about the idiot taxi driver who was trying to: first get round me on my right, and then my left.
The debate surrounding cyclists who jump red lights is an on-going one and has been raging for a long time. There are cyclists who cannot see what all the fuss is about; there are cyclists who follow a very strict adherence to the law; there are motorists who despise all cyclists; and there are motorists who couldn’t care less, but like to tut now and then. Let’s get one thing straight from the start; it is a matter of legal fact that you are not allowed to go through a red light, no matter whether you are on a bicycle or behind the wheel of a car (RTA 1988 sect 36 & TSRGD reg 10(1). That being said, there are many cyclists who do jump red lights (there are also a large number of motorists who jump red lights as well; I’ve seen them). The Times reported in 2012 that, of pedestrians injured by vehicles jumping red lights, 4% were caused by cyclists as opposed to 71% caused by motorists. I must say that I have been guilty of jumping the odd red light myself. I do not, however, go through red lights at busy junctions, nor do I tear through red lights at pelican crossings dodging pedestrians. I’m not placing myself on some sanctimonious pedestal here; I just have other plans that do not include being under the wheels of a lorry or bashed by an irate pedestrian. (A note to the horrible little cyclist who scattered pedestrians in Brixton last Friday: If that fellow had gotten hold of you, I think he may have found a place to park your bike for you).
The Times reported on January 2 2013 that 122 cyclists had been killed in 2012. This was, it said, a five year high. In London alone, fourteen cyclists were killed. This is obviously 122 too many, but a surprisingly low number if you take time to notice how many cyclists are out there on the roads. I am relatively new to this city and I will say that I do feel safer cycling here than I imagined I would before I moved here. There are idiots on the road; there always will be, because there are idiots in life, simple as that; but that doesn’t stop us from having the right to cycle without being squashed. We as cyclists have to be extra careful and extra diligent when we travel across this congested, wonderful land. Unfortunately there are times when we have no control over our safety, but that does not mean that we should ever let our guard down. My simple rule for cycling is: Do not trust anybody and do not put yourself into unnecessary danger.
Although there are many cyclists who jump red lights, there are also a larger number who are very careful and adhere to the highway-code (or at least have some semblance of common sense). Unfortunately these law abiding souls are overlooked by the ranting, cycle hating motorist. I have actually spoken to people who have admitted that they go into a furious rage when they find themselves behind a cyclist. However, the more cyclists that ride the main roads of the UK without lights, without any protective clothing, with headphones on, whilst arbitrarily riding through red lights at busy junctions, and then shout obscenities at the motorists who nearly hit them (I actually saw someone do this the other evening in Tulse Hill) the more that the cycle haters opinion will be strengthened. Anyway, must go, I have a taxi waiting.