Thursday, 18 July 2013

Cycling, the Obree Way

Reflections on cycling in the UK after hearing Graeme Obree tonight

David Millar on Byres Road, Glasgow last month. More of my pictures here
The British national Road Race Championships passed through Glasgow last month, a dry run for the Commonwealth Games road race event next year. The amazing thing was that in both the men's and women's events the field was lead by athletes familiar to most of us watching in the impressive crowds at the side of the road. I used to love watching the Tour de France when Channel 4 started showing it. In those days the only British cyclist that I knew was Robert Millar. He appealed to me because he was Scottish, won the King of the Mountains and was a bit prickly, which is no bad thing. Beyond that, unless you were in a cycling club or subscribed to Cycling News you'd be largely oblivious to what cycling went on for the rest of the year. Now that Mark Cavendish, Nicole Cooke, Chris Hoy, Victoria Pendleton, Bradley Wiggins and their ilk have achieved great success, are we now a nation of cycling enthusiasts? We might like watching it, but a holiday trip this month across the Netherlands, Germany and Denmark has shown me clearly that we are not a nation which cycles.
This week it is 20 years since Graeme Obree broke the long-standing one hour cycling record. To mark the anniversary he talked about his attempt last night, with Dougie Vipond as host, in Glasgow's Oran Mor. Although he is building up to an attempt at the "human-powered vehicle" land speed record and has a book out soon on his training methods he wasn't here tonight to sell or promote anything, but just to talk about his achievements in 1993. And he can talk. One question could lead to a long tale about his home-spun training regimes, bike construction or the haphazard plans for the day of his attempt which would all sound far-fetched if it weren't for the fact that it was all true. The snippets shown from a French documentary attested to that. Although he did split hairs with some versions of events in the film of his autobiography, The Flying Scotsman starring Jonny Lee Miller, again he attested to the veracity of parts of the story which sound like Hollywood invention. After using a different bike on his "manager's" advice and feeling buffeted by the circus around his record attempt he missed it by a few hundred meters. Despite feeling at rock bottom, as his hire of the velodrome was for 24 hours he persuaded everyone to return at 8am the next morning. After drinking litres of water through the night to keep him wakening regularly to stretch out his aching muscles he was ready to try again. After some cornflakes and a litre of water at the start (he is dismissive of a lot of the nonsense from advertisers of sports' nutrition and energy drinks) he got on his homemade bike "Old Faithful" and took the 1 hour record by 445m in the aerodynamic crouch position he devised himself. Largely unsupported he got the record through grim determination despite crushing debts, whilst trying to provide for his young family. It is easy to think of him as a super-specialist but he was British road champion, set time trial records and wore the rainbow jersey of world champion in 1993 and 1995, knocking Chris Boardman into third in 1993 and Stuart O'Grady into that position in 1995. That was the level he was at, but he is clear that his 24 hour career as a member of a professional road racing team ended when he made it known that he wouldn't take performance enhancing drugs, which he was made aware were a requirement in many teams of the day.

Dougie Vipond hosts an evening with Graeme Obree
He managed to achieve what he did by having ability and determination. He was willing to put in the hours and burst a gut in training. It's not just the notorious washing machine bearings that led to his achievements. He is a humble, normal west of Scotland man who doesn't blow his own trumpet and has had a turbulent time with his well publicised mental health problems. However he is clearly one of Scotland's most driven and talented sportsmen and sometimes that is forgotten in the thumbnail sketches of him.
One point I found interesting was his response when asked if he was disappointed Chris Boardman broke his record soon afterwards (he quickly won it back). He said that he was delighted for him, and that after experiencing the "gutter moment" of just failing himself, he wouldn't wish that on another. Obree seems mainly to be racing against himself.

Why cycle?

The answer to this question really depends on who you ask. Graeme Obree has never had a car and as a child getting a bike meant that his "world got 16 times bigger". He felt that as he could travel four times as fast, he could now go four times as far in all directions.

For me, I cycle to get from A to B in town in a way that gets me a wee bit of exercise too. I'm no regular cyclist but I do go out on my bike reasonably often. Whereas the fashion here is for super-light hybrid bikes with suspension and carbon fibre frames I've always been more inclined towards a cheap workaday bike so I that won't despair when it is inevitably stolen. I have friends that have taken it much more seriously and where are they now (oh yeah, working in a bike shop).
However cycling in the city in Britain does not feel safe. Every week tales of cyclists killed on the roads are in the news. In the last three weeks three cyclists have been killed in London and sadly in today's news a teenage cyclist has been killed in Scotland. The countries with the highest injury and fatality rates for cyclists are the USA and UK, both countries with very low rates of cycling. The countries with the highest rates of "kilometres cycled per inhabitant per day" are the Netherlands and Denmark, which also have the lowest rates of injury and deaths to cyclists. So which came first? Are people safer when more are cycling or do safer roads make more people cycle?
The reason I've been pondering this is that I've just returned from a trip through Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands. I was really struck by the amount of people on their bikes in all three countries and it turns out that they are the countries with the highest rates of cycling. In kilometres of cycling per day per inhabitant Netherlands leads at 2.5km per person per day, then Denmark at 1.6km and Germany (and Belgium) at 0.9km. Britain comes in at a feeble 0.2km per inhabitant per day with the USA half of that.

Company bikes at the Lego factory in Billund, Denmark
In the countries which I was in this summer (in my car I'm afraid) I realised at the first roundabout that I came to when I got off of the ferry that I had to pay particular attention to the cyclists. As well as protected, separate lanes along the roads, they had a distinct lane on the roundabout and cars must give way to them. Crossing the road in Denmark I soon got the hang of looking left to cross the cycle path before getting to the road (sorry to the cyclists who patiently tinkled their bells at me to teach me I was on their bit). The Danes have allocated space and free carrying of bikes on trains. You can even borrow a bike with trailer from IKEA to get your flatpacks home.
Holiday snap in Lubeck, Germany with
random old woman on bike
In Germany it took me a few days to realise I had to get off the pink bit of the pavement where cyclists bombed up and down safely away from the cars (but not from the dumb tourists - sorry). 80% of Germans own a bike and since 2002 the government has been putting money into getting people out of their cars. As in Denmark people don't wear helmets but they do obey the rules of the road. I was amazed to see cyclists stopping at red traffic lights on big empty roads where clearly no cars were coming. Where everyone sticks to the rules of the road I can imagine cars are happier to give way to bikes at junctions when bikes patiently await cars when it's their turn. Many German side streets where I was staying in Hamburg were one-way streets for cars, but signs indicated that bikes could use them in either direction.
If I was pleasantly surprised at how many people were cycling in Germany and Denmark, the Netherlands makes them look like amateurs. The streets are swarming with cyclists. Again usually in protected lanes and with nobody wearing a helmet. Going out for an early morning jog I was amazed at the amount of people carrying their children on various racks, seats and boxes attached to their bikes to drop them off at nursery. Old men and women tootle about on their bikes like everyone else, the train stations are surrounded by bike parks for commuters and even the roundabouts in children's swing parks are designed to train them from a young age.
Training toddlers to cycle with a roundabout in a Dutch swingpark
One day it was raining everyone still was on their bikes, either in their waterproofs or cycling along their protected lanes whilst carrying an umbrella in one hand. The fact that there's barely a hill in the country surely helps but the streets are designed firstly for bikes, then cars. Some small roads I drove down, too narrow for two lanes and cycle paths, had a cycle path at each side and one lane in the middle for cars going in opposite directions to share. Compare that to Glasgow's pathetic pretence at cycle paths which if they are painted on roads are often covered in parked cars.
Multi-storey bike park outside Amsterdam station

Would society benefit if more people cycled?

Unequivocally, yes. According to Sustrans, on average, cyclists live two years longer than non-cyclists, they breathe in LESS traffic pollution than car drivers and 2kg of carbon emissions are saved by every short journey done on bike rather than car. Every car off the road reduces congestion for everyone parking is generally free, you often arrive quicker by bike than by car and you get a wee workout for your heart and lungs too.
From what I've seen on holiday the government has to take the lead and build protected lanes for cyclists. There will be a debate in Parliament on cycling in September and British Cycling is asking people to write to their MP to get them to participate and move cycling up the political agenda. Green MSP Alison Johnstone is trying to raise the issue in the Scottish Parliament, proposing a more substantial infrastructure spend. This is clearly where it has to start. My three kids can all cycle and although I was out on the streets at their age on my Raleigh Arena I'd be terrified to let them go out without me accompanying them I am sad to say. So I am happy to support these campaigns which aim to copy a model that has already been shown to work in Europe.
In this instance there really is no need to re-invent the wheel.


  1. Above you pose the questions: So which came first? Are people safer when more are cycling or do safer roads make more people cycle?

    The answer is the people fought to have the roads made safer and mass cycling followed. We can have the same thing here, but only is we fight for it, we don't have the sort of politicians (in Government) who are going to lead from the front and make a difference. That is why we started Pedal on Parliament as a grass roots campaign.

  2. Your comments are really very interesting. The way I read it, you make it fairly clear that there's no simple solution and I'd tend to agree with that.

    I looked at Kim's blog but couldn't see the videos. Interestingly though there is a point about deaths in 1971 so I guess that may be when the Dutch campaign started. That was over 40 years ago when there were far fewer cars on the road as there are now and, even then, Britain wasn't exactly a hive of cycling activity. To try to replicate the Dutch solution now would cost an absolute fortune at a time when austerity measures are in place.

    As for your question; "So which came first? Are people safer when more are cycling or do safer roads make more people cycle?" that's almost impossible to answer because there are (certainly by now) many cultural issues involved but I suspect that it's more the former than the latter.

    There's a massive "us and them" attitude between cyclists and motorists that really doesn't help. I've often seen cycling campaigners criticising motorists for not giving them room, cutting them up and so on yet you regularly see cyclists ignoring the law and riding straight through red lights, riding unpredictably, 2 or more abreast, without any signals and without lights. More recently the push for 'strict liability' by many cycling campaigns is liable to exacerbate the issue rather than be benfitial (except to the insurance companies)! Many campaigners point at the strict liability laws in other countries but seem to forget those are countries where cycling is already far more ensconced in their culture so cannot really be compared to the UK.

    I do think something needs to be done in the UK to increase the use of cycling as a means of transport and as a leisure activity.

    Like you I used to be out on my bike (a Puch Puma, in Bishopton, Erskine and all round that area) all the time as a kid and it disappoints me that my children don't seem to want to do that where I live now. I do worry about the dangers to them if they were to go out but, to be honest, I suspect that fear has been instilled in me through the media and some of the prejudiced cycling campaigners who use cyclists' deaths to try to get the government to do something rather than focusing on the positives.

    My eldest daughter has done a cycling proficiency scheme, which took all of 1/2 a day, but it seems to me that more could be done from that point of view. Making sure cyclists are more fully aware of the dangers, of how they should behave while cycling on the roads (i.e. keeping themselves safe, signalling, being visible, following road signs etc) could, I think, be a useful exercise and something that could be (at least partly) the responsibility of the schools (helping to increase the number of children cycling to school instead of going by car)!

    In addition though we need better driver training. Most drivers will have been cyclists at some point so part of the solution needs to address the motorists' perception of cyclists and the dangers. I personally believe mandatory driver re-testing is essential in this country and it's about time it was brought in, with some emphasis on knowledge of the danger the driver can cause to cyclists!

    The cost of infrastructure changes though is such that it will take a very long time for the UK to catch up with places like The Netherlands and at the moment motorists (like me) are already being hit with all sorts of restrictions that are helping to demolish driving standards. I would certainly back more modest improvements though (better storage facilities at popular destinations including workplaces with more showers!).

    In the meantime I think it makes more sense to introduce schemes to try to help cyclists and motorists to respect each other's safety and understand each other more. Both cyclists and motorists need better education and training and I think that a more formal training scheme for cyclists, along with mandatory driver re-testing could be of benefit.


Due to the volume of spam which some posts attract, all comments are moderated, which may cause a delay before they appear. Thank you for your patience.