Sugden suggests starters stop cycling

How I loathe the new Times website which prevents me from sharing an article by Joanna Sugden entitled: My message to the novice cyclists: get off your bike (p.16, 11 August 2010). For this article deserves to be noted and scorned publically.

Written by a self confessed evangelical cyclist, it seethes with vitriol and attacks the latest wave of wheeled brethren who dare brave the road using those new marketing steeds of the British bank which are scattered liberally about London’s streets. Under the pretence that this comment piece is concerned with the safety of the new fledgling cyclists of London town, Sugden cries out that novices should remain novices and off Boris’ Bikes. Why? Well the London roads are dangerous and they (the new cyclists) in the naïveté will be unable to cope with the perils that the town will throw at them. “Yes yes gather round my children and pay attention to me,” cries Sugden, “Do as I say…but not as I do.”

Now anyone who recalls their first fumblings upon the metropolis’ highways and byways will recall the fear and perhaps trepidation they felt when braving the city’s arterial routes – and even the quieter backstreets – and surely Ms Sugden should be included in this number, unless like Athena, the Greek goddess for wisdom et alii, she sprung from some great cycling god’s head, armoured with the fully developed capabilities to tackle the mean streets of London town…As we have all learned the only way to overcome such fear is to confront and grow aware of it – not to stand on the pavement and ignore it – and at the same time nor should we grow complacent, for as soon as the cyclist grows overly confident, soon enough the urban jungle will throw up some challenge to shake and inspire a reassessment of our positioning on the road (both metaphorically and  physically). Now Sugden argues that the new bikes are heavy and unwieldy – ill suited for those that are mounting the plastic saddle and taking to the streets, where speed and quick wits are the only difference between life and death…what rot.

Has Sugden not seen the steeds and their riders that populate the streets, or is she blinded by the Barclays logo saving her ire for them alone? Though London is densely populated with many a thoroughbred bicycle, light of frame and thin of wheel, that gallops at rapid rates down the road, so too are there the stately sit-up-and-begs, the vintage set that have removed their parents’ old work horse from the retirement paddock and with barely a touch of oil and taken to the streets once more and then there are those who realise that to travel by bicycle in London does not require lycra nor the journey being a race. So to criticise these wheels for hire over their slowness is to ignore that already there is a vast discrepancy in styles and speed amongst the cycling family of London town – and that those on the new bicycles are merely a more ostentatious addition to an already known breed.

Much like another summer instigated initiative, the smoking ban in public places, Boris’ Bikes have come at a most opportune time. The roads are already populated with those that never leave their moulded seat – no matter the weather. Now with Summer upon us, the fair weathered many which like so many damsel flies have filled our streets with colour and gay abandon, only to disappear at the end of the summer months – at no other time are the London roads filled with more bi-wheeled types, and drivers as a consequence will have grown to know (if not like) the unpredictability of the cyclist. Joining this critical mass now are those mounted on Boris’ Bikes – no other time could have been safer for a novice cyclist, no matter their bike, for it is more than likely they will be pedalling along with other brethren, who hopefully (unlike Sugden) will be more understanding – though they may huff and puff a little in faux vexation (I for one am guilty of that), and as it has been proved, there is surely safety in numbers – for the experienced and not alike.

However, perhaps what is assumed throughout this article is that all who take to the hire bikes are novices. This is far from the case – for there is no such thing as a novice cyclist. Our novice stages were in our youth when our feet first graced the pedal and propelled us around the backyards and roads of where we grew up. What we are seeing is a return to the road, admittedly in far more dangerous conditions, but of a congregation finding their feet predominantly with an understanding of what it means to be on the roads – even if it is when wrapped up in a steel cage and upon four wheels. It would take a special kind of idiot to assume that they could just hop on a bike with no experience of riding, and with a “Hi ho silver and away” join the steel throng of the road.

It is such a disgustingly negative article with no worthwhile solution that really gets my goat going. Hell, I will readily admit that I prefer pedalling in the winter months when the cycling traffic is less and that those on the road are more competent road users – but I am also aware that they learned these skills through time and making mistakes – which is exactly what Boris Bikes will enable to those returning to the fold. I am sure that a sizeable proportion of those who experience the road on them will wish to upgrade and own their own steeds – and with more cyclists will come increasing pressure to ensure that there is a better cycling infrastructure in London. It cannot happen overnight, and will require support from road users and the media – which is why Sugden’s arrogant and selfish article that is just a step away from the message a cyclist hears frequently from motor users (ie “Cyclists don’t belong on the road so gerroff”) is so bloody unhelpful. A comment piece should achieve something – and at the very least have a suggestion for improvement. Instead it desperately searches for any excuse to belittle the scheme – so that Sugden can really moan that “these chaps on the new bikes are slowing me down – how dare they!” It is not the safety issue which really concerns her, but the fact that she is inconvenienced.

This scheme requires support if we are to see a London better suited to pedalling. What it does not require is a national newspaper belittling it due to one of their journalists having a pet gripe.

NB Written with terrible haste…

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