Like cross-country running and the cub scouts, riding a bike is one of those things that made me nervous as a child that I also assumed I would simply no longer have to do as an adult. I grew up next to a busy main road, and my mum’s continual fretting rubbed off: I have a lifelong suspicion of the ol’ two wheels and I was grateful that, after the age of 11, not riding seemed entirely socially acceptable.
Recently, though, I have been having second thoughts. For starters, I’ve been teaching my five-year-old to ride a bike, and I’m concerned I lack credibility on the subject. More seriously, the positive arguments for riding a bike seem increasingly compelling. I do want to do something good for the environment. I don’t want to get Covid on the train in the morning. I feel like I should do some sort of regular exercise, but I absolutely don’t want to go to the gym.
The thing holding me back is essentially fear: of the effort, of doing it wrong, and of having an accident. In this it turns out I’m far from alone.
“Perceptions of danger are a barrier to more people cycling,” says Dr Ian Walker, an environmental psychologist specialising in the psychology of traffic, whose book Endless Perfect Circles details how he became an ultra-distance cyclist in his 40s. He helped commission a national survey as part of the BikesIsBest campaign in which more than half of respondents said they’d consider taking up cycling if only our roads were redesigned.
In fact, he says, cycling increases your life expectancy. Yes, collisions do happen. But there’s a reason he is massively against the word “accident”: “because they can be prevented if we want to,” he says. Basically, if everyone follows the rules of the road, you’re fine. In fact, the health benefits of cycling outweigh the dangers, because overall a physically inactive lifestyle is more dangerous than an active one.
This is all good stuff, but maybe equally concerning (to me at least) is the idea that cycling is just plain hard. I don’t really want to deal with punctures, I don’t like the idea of getting lost, or rained on, and I’m yet to really see how a bit of light pedalling around my local streets is exactly going to translate into negotiating the seven-mile journey to my office. Walker makes the fair point that we spend hundreds of pounds and countless hours learning to drive a car. But I feel like I could now do with some slightly more soothing advice.
Cycle mechanic Grant Wildman from Schwalbe is a goldmine of reassuring advice. “The infrastructure now is better than it’s ever been,” he says of the UK’s cycle lanes. He has a simple idea that weirdly never previously occurred to me: try to make your cycle journey fun. “Take a longer, more scenic route if you can. Leave a little earlier and don’t get so hot and bothered, take it easier,” he says.
There is also a pretty nifty way around puncture worries. Schwalbe’s Marathon Plus tyres are not literally puncture-proof, but they almost are – the gold standard for pneumatic tyres, with an India rubber puncture belt “so dense it’s almost like kevlar”, says Wildman.
This is very reassuring. I really like the idea of not having to repair tyres. It had never occurred to me at any point that this might be “fun”. I am really into the idea that if you just follow the rules everything will turn out fine. This is not to say that I have actually fully psyched my way up to become a dedicated commuter cyclist just yet: I think it’s fine to still be a bit nervous. But I’m building up to that. The fact is I’m running out of reasons not to cycle – and you probably are too.
Five top tips for a safe cycle commute
1 Plan, plan, plan
Yes, a long commute can be daunting. So take it easy on yourself. “Scout your route at the weekend if you have time,” says Wildman. “And make sure you’ve got enough time to get to the office.” He adds that for Londoners, TfL’s cycling maps are an invaluable resource.
2 Make your presence felt
Yes, traffic is scary. But hiding from it is not the answer, says Wildman. “Make yourself visible, don’t ride in the gutter. If you make yourself known, cars can overtake you where it’s safe rather than try and slip past.”
3 Sensible safety kit
No need to go mad with the clobber. Again, it’s about making yourself known: “You don’t need to load up on expensive stuff: lights and a helmet are all you really need,” says Wildman.
4 Look after your bike
You don’t need to be a qualified mechanic to make sure your bike is running in peak form. The big one is looking after your tyres and tyre pressure, which Wildman recommends checking once a week. “You don’t need to run your tyres at maximum pressure but if it’s higher you’re less likely to get a puncture and it will roll better.”
5 Treat yourself to some (virtually) puncture-proof tyres
Schwalbe’s Marathon Plus tyres are indeed the business. “It’s a benchmark tyre,” says Wildman. “People will go into a bike shop and ask for a Marathon Plus without even knowing who makes them. They’re not puncture proof, but they come very close.”
To find your flat-less tyre, visit schwalbe.com