Monday, December 19, 2011

You shelter me from rain, but it is the bike that sets me free

Tuesday, 13th December: More meetings, this time out on the East of the city, and as is my custom, I tried to squeeze in a bit of extra distance. I must have been pretty sleepy that morning as I paid little attention, actually no attention to the weather.

It wasn’t a super-formal meeting, so I wore clothes that were perhaps more comfortable for cycling than smart – but I did wear long trousers and a yellow cycling jacket, although the trousers could be converted to shorts by un-zipping the legs. I also took with me my MP3 player so that I could catch up with a pod cast or two including – More or Less on radio 4, by Tim Harford.

My plan was to cycle out along the NCN51 and then loop back through the Wilbrahams and Fulbourn and back into Cambridge. My meeting started at 10am it was relatively easy setting off in plenty of time for my extra-curricular cycle ride, or so I thought.

Although it was quite cold (around 5 or 6C) there was some sun around and it felt quite blustery. Perhaps there was a clue in the blustery-ness and the dark clouds in parts of the sky. However, once I reached a reasonable cycling temperature it was very pleasant until I passed through Newmarket Road P&R site. Was that rain I felt, I decided to press on with my plans, but by the time I reached the A14 underpass my legs were soaked. So I stopped to take refuge and decide what to do next.

The trouble is when you are wet and it is cold then you end up getting cold. So O walked up and down a bit in the tunnel and took a couple of pictures. I know this underpass well, having cycling through it quite a few times, so it looks fine to me and is well lit. But it got me thinking, the underpass I used at Fenstanton looked pretty unwelcoming and I guess this one does look a little dark and damp at times. Whilst I appreciate that the intent is to keep the costs down and provide a route that is functional, it demonstrates how institutionalised the approach is  in terms of treating cyclists/pedestrians as second-class citizens by road planners.

The trouble is that this approach does not just save cost, IMHO it also increases the risks for those “vulnerable road users”. Successful transport routes seem to be measured in terms of vehicle throughput which of course skews things in favour of cars. You only have to look at the issues in London at the moment to see that there is an endemic problem with road planners seeming to sacrifice the needs of cyclists and pedestrians to the great goal of throughput. Although reading Cyclists in the City apparently Boris has claimed that there will be a “step change”. Why does the cynic in me think this will mean more bouncing off and on shared use paths with nasty kerbs to trick the unwary. Or as Vole O’Speed nicely puts it a London Cycling Superhighway is “rather an overpriced and massively engineered road sign for the benefit of those who choose to drive”.

Even worse a recent report has also suggested that there is also a huge North/South divide in terms of the spending on transport projects. In London the amount is "£2,731 and her in the East £43.   In the North-east it is £5. (Yes your read that correctly Five Pounds.)  Apparently this is due in part to spending on the Olympics, although in my mind that just makes it even more of a slap in the face to the North-east.

I wonder what the Dutch do to ensure that cars do not use their cycle routes. Here in the UK the approach is to put up poles, either concrete, metal or wooden as barriers. Fine in principle but I can’t help wondering why we put up with this approach. Am I the only one that thinks that there posts are dangerous for cyclists?  Or is the assumption that cyclists only go out during the hours of daylight. Or am I just being over-critical, in the case of this tunnel there is a kink in the path at one end and a T-junction at the other, so perhaps these posts serve to slow cyclists down. The trouble is they appear all over the place and whilst on a bicycle they might not be that bad you want to try them on a tandem (which I have) or with a bicycle trailer or a tricycle.

After some time stuck in the tunnel the rain dies down so I changed my plans and decided to cycle back and the down Airport Way cycle way to cut my journey short and hopefully avoid too much rain. The only problem was that this meant the wind was against me. For some reason I had not realised quite how bluster it was on my way out of Cambridge, perhaps because the cycle route was relatively sheltered.

Also have you noticed just how loud the tyre noise is along Airport Way, it is not the fastest bit of road, but quite busy and I guess cars and vans generally do 50mph+. The tyre noise on the wet road was awful, so loud I struggled to hear my MP3 player.

The good news was that my trousers started drying out in wind (they were designed for cycling), until the next shower and they were sodden. Fortunately the last bit of my journey was dry so I arrived dry and surprisingly comfortable I reckon that it helps if a cyclist’s short-term memory isn’t too good, that way you quickly forget any problems and just feel the buzz of a bit of exercise in the fresh air.

Since my plans to cycle a slightly longer route had been foiled on the way out I decided I would give it a go on the way home. I headed back through Fulbourn and the Wilbrahams. As I headed down into Fulbourn along Hinton Road I had the double benefit of both the wind behind me and a slight down hill, it only drops by 5m but that’s steep in these parts.  So I reached the bottom at over 40Km/hr without even trying. As I reached the corner the road I was on has right of way whereas the traffic coming from Fulbourn Old Drift (east) has to give way.

However if you are driving a white van then you are, of course, excused from such a minor technicality when it is only a cyclist who has right of way coming down the road. Of course being a cyclist you can’t afford to trust non-vulnerable road users and I was covering the brakes. Yes he pulled out in front of me and then clearly so stunned that I was travelling at more than a snail’s pace slowed down in order to straddle my lane for even longer. I’ve seen it quite a few times, they seem to freeze in my non-existent headlights and gawp out of their side windows at me. You can almost see the speech bubble above their heads “where the f*** did he come from”.

Modern cars and vans have quite large A pillars, to protect the occupants from poor driving skills and awareness. The trouble is it actually makes it means the side view is compromised and unless they look twice woe betide any  cyclist or motorcyclist – you are just another SMISDY.

Now like all good cyclists I have a bell on my bike, but it isn’t much use when trying to alert those poor motorists insulated from the nasty outside world. So I shouted, no words, just a shout. At least it made me feel better.

I have yet to listen to it but here is the Guardian’s take on “Are Britain’s road safe for cyclists?". I’ll let you know what I think when I heard it.

As the weather was unpredictable I kept going rather than take pictures. However after passing through Little Wilbraham by way of primrose Farm Road I had a choice to make safe-cut or short-cut? The clouds looked rather forbidding did I feel lucky, or did I feel lucky. In the end I took the slightly longer, but in my opinion, safer route via Bottisham and onto the NCN51. I didn’t get wet, the Little Wilbraham Road seems to be and out and out drag road for cars and although they have reasonable visibility I prefer not to have boy (or girl) races tear past me.

A quick round-up of some weblinks hanging around on my browser.  In what can only be described as a typical Daily Mail type of headline “Frankenmoth: Health fears over plans to release millions of GM insects designed to destroy pests”. Whilst I think that GM has a role to play in agriculture and does in many parts of the world, this type of experiment doesn’t fill me with confidence.

It also turns out that one of the Icons of a British winter the Robin Red Breast is in a battle to survive as population crashes by 88% in three decades.

And finally if motorists fail to notice level crossings what chance do cyclists have? (A crash between a lorry and train in Wales.)

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