Cyclist Deaths in London

Croydon Cyclist Death

In the last 10 days, 6 cyclists have been killed on London’s roads. This is, perhaps, the highest number ever seen in the city in such a short period of time.

Without knowing the facts behind each individual case, it is impossible for me to comment in any informative way about these deaths. I see the arguments from all sides, since I am a car driver, a cyclist and a police officer. I’ve been in car accidents where I’ve hit another vehicle, I’ve been hit by other vehicles in my car, and I’ve been knocked off my bicycle by a car. I’ve attended dozens more RTC’s in my career, some fatal, some not.

Any road death is an absolute tragedy. Nobody sets out on the roads intending to kill anyone else. All too often, loved ones set out on a routine journey and they don’t make it to the other end. This happened to the fiance of one of my workmates, who now works in road death investigation, but she still lives with the consequences of a coach driver’s momentary inattentiveness to this day. 5 years later and it still haunts her. All too often, people get a sense of road rage, whether borne of frustration, annoyance at being late or held up – whatever the cause, the consequence is the same.

I read the news over at Road.CC and despair at some of the comments made. In many cycling forums, whenever a cyclist is killed, it is usually assumed that the cyclist is wholly innocent and that the car/bus/lorry driver must be at fault. I do not believe that is the case. These forums, where people are so blinkered that they cannot possibly conceive that a cyclist can do anything wrong, are not helping the cause to make roads safer. I have seen bad car driving, but I have also seen a metric fucktonne of bad cycling. Almost every day, I get people cycle at me while I cross at a green light. Almost every day, I get someone take a shortcut on the pavement around me as I walk.

Until cyclists take some responsibility en masse, nobody will listen to our concerns seriously. The counter-argument to cyclists’ demands for improved road safety measures is, “You don’t use the ones that are there anyway”. That means you need to ride in cycle lanes, where provided, stop at red lights and walk your bike if you want to go on the pavement. Don’t charge at pedestrians when they’re crossing. Don’t undertake vehicles that are turning. Don’t ride in blind spots and make sudden swerving manouevres. Ride sensibly.

No ride is so urgent that you should play with your life. Sensible riding is the only way to improve safety and get the added measures we all so desperately want. At the moment, nobody’s listening, and the righteous thunder of the Road.CC forums aren’t helping.

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Boris Bike Thefts

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Unlike cycle schemes in other cities, the rate of Boris Bike theft is remarkably low. In May 2013, only 143 bikes had been reported stolen. Assuming that number is now up to about 160 (and not counting bikes that have been stolen), that means that a bike gets stolen only about once in every 200,000 hires undertaken. By comparison, the Velib scheme operating in Paris had 16,000 of its 20,000 bikes damaged or stolen in only its first couple of years’ operation.

Why, then, are TfL’s bikes so rarely stolen compared to those in Paris? Part of the answer lies in culture; high unemployment in Paris, particularly amongst the youth, has led to something of a rebellion against a form of transport perceived to be primarily used by those affluent enough to do so. London has its areas of poverty and unemployment, but generally these aren’t in the Barclays Bike Hire footprint, most of which is in the most central parts of London. You won’t find many bikes in Newham, Tower Hamlets or Hackney, for example. But the other part of that answer lies in the security measures built in by TfL.

Barclays Bikes all require the user to enter their credit or debit card details when taking out a bike. It is simply impossible to do so any other way. Cash is not accepted. The other clever security feature lies in the absence of any locking mechanism, save for returning the bike to its dock. Walking around London, you simply won’t see Boris Bikes chained up to railings or casually left in the open for people to steal. The loss charge of £300 is enough to focus the minds of users and ensure that the overwhelming majority of bikes are returned at the end of their journeys.

Whether TfL will be able to retain this level of success if the scheme is rolled out more broadly across London remains to be seen, but credit should be given to the Mayor’s office for stopping the bikes going the way of shopping trolleys and Piaggio mopeds.

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Real or Fake?

Much like football supporters, cyclists often like to wear the team kits of their favourite stars and I’m no exception. Regular readers of this blog will know I’m quite the Team Sky fan, as well as being a regular follower of the GB National Team, and own a pile of cycling-related junk relating to both of them. Eventually, I decided I wanted to wear the kit as well, and wondered if a bit of Wiggo’s speed or Trotty’s skill would rub off on me.

Football shirts are often seen as a rip-off, but compared to the price of official team kits for cycling, they are a bargain. I was astounded at the cost of a (mostly) polyester and Lycra jersey. To kit myself out in Team Sky clothing would set me back something in the region of £175; more if I went the whole hog with gloves, overshoes and helmet. I found this staggering. Since Rapha Condor took over the clothing sponsorship for Sky, the prices have got even higher and a full jersey / shorts combination, made from exactly the same materials as the pros wear, will set you back closer to £300. These prices are staggeringly high. Of course, it doesn’t matter if you are one of the handful of pros riding for Sky, but for the rest of us, it feels like a bit of a rip-off, no matter how well made they are. These kits aren’t bespoke tailoring; they’re mass-market sportswear. If you crash and rip your jersey, that’s a big investment just gone down the plughole.

Having even a brief look at eBay, you will see how much these prices have fuelled a massive market for counterfeit clothing. At a conservative estimate, searching for “cycling team jersey” on eBay will return 90% Chinese copies of genuine team kit. The prices for these are considerably lower, and even including shipping, a jersey / shorts combination won’t set you back more than about £20 – probably around £150 cheaper than the genuine article.

I wondered – are they any good? I’d seen one of my work colleagues with some fake BMC gear from eBay and couldn’t spot the difference, so I decided to have a go myself. I purchased a couple of Team Sky kits from China and they duly arrived about a fortnight later.

I was surprised at the quality and feel of the kits. There was no poor quality printing, no cheap feel to the material, no glaring errors on the kit – in short, none of the shortcomings I expected to find. I tested the kits out on a couple of bike rides and found them both comfortable and durable. They’ve all been through the wash several times and still look as good as they day they were purchased.

When I went into Evans Cycles last week, I handled the real team kit. Apart from the Rapha logo on the left blue stripe being made out of a sort of raised gel-type printing on the genuine shirt (just printed on mine) and a slight variation on the “Believe in Better” slogan on the inside of the neck, the genuine Team Sky kit felt and looked the same in every way. I felt disappointed that this jersey, on sale for £75, had been equalled by a Chinese copy costing around 1/4 the price. Advocates of the genuine article may say, “The real ones are made of better material!” or “They last longer!” but that hasn’t been my experience in the last few months. Instead, it feels like there is rampant profiteering on the “official” kits – which cost far more than any Premiership football shirt. Perhaps it’s because cycling is a sport that appeals to the well-heeled who are prepared to spend money on flashy accessories and glamorous kit, but I can’t help but feel that the manufacturers are just taking advantage. This will surely fuel far-eastern counterfeiting in the future, and teams will lose out on sales altogether.

With all these thoughts in my head, I looked inside the Team Sky jersey to see where it had come from just before I put it back on the rack.

Printed on a white panel inside, it simply said, “Made in China”.

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Cycling World Cup – Manchester

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This weekend, I was up in Manchester for the Cycling World Cup. If you’ve never been to a velodrome, it’s well worth making the trip – very easy to get to and Virgin Trains do some great deals to Manchester; my travel only cost me a whopping £12.50 all the way from London.

I was particularly pleased with the picture above, which was shot on my iPhone, showing the GB Men’s Team Pursuit squad on their way to winning a gold medal. And I just about managed to get a shot of my favourite cyclist, Laura Trott, after she won gold in the women’s event:

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UCI Proposes Two-Tiered Cycling Structure

It has been reported today that the UCI are discussing proposals to have a two-tiered structure in professional cycling, with promotion and relegation between the first and second division. There would also be a third grouping of the Continental teams, for which it doesn’t sound like there are any plans to offer promotion to the professional circuit.

While this may seem like it is bringing cycling into line with other professional sports, is it necessary or feasible? The current system on the World Tour relies on second-ranked teams being offered wild card places to enter the big events, a system which would seem largely unchanged by this proposal, but the only way they can move up to the World Tour is by proving that they have the staff, resources and setup to compete at world level. Under the new proposals, they could compete full-time on the World Tour by finishing in a high placing in their division, while another World Tour team is relegated. I’m not sure that this is good for either the teams or cycling in general.

Team Sky recently posted a video on their YouTube page giving a behind-the-scenes look at their Service Course (the division that supplies and maintains their equipment for touring) and it is nothing short of staggering. Most cycling teams could not compete with that support network without major sponsorship. If the teams had that kind of networks and sponsorship already, they would also be competing on the World Tour. But what would happen to these teams if they were “relegated”?

Major sponsors, already scarce in cycling, would not be interested in a team condemned to compete only in minor events for the coming season. If they pulled out, it is unlikely the team would be able to get back to World Tour standards anytime soon. However, if they did, it could lead to considerable uncertainty and see-sawing as teams cyclically hire and fire staff according to which division they compete in for the coming season. Football can sustain this – the structure is more supportive – but I’m not sure cycling can.

I also wonder, would the UCI really drop one or more of the current World Tour teams from the top level of cycling just because of a poor season? Cycling depends on these high level teams for its fan interest and consequent funding. Would the UCI seriously kick Team Sky out if they finished bottom? It would be the end of the team, and a significant revenue stream for pro cycling.

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Helly Hansen Base Layer Review

Helly Hansen Dry Stripe T-Shirt

The other day, I purchased a Helly Hansen Dry Stripe T-Shirt, based on the overwhelming number of positive reviews I’d been reading online. The shirt cost me £22 from Wiggle and seems to be a generally similar price wherever you go.

Base layers, as I’ve learned, can be very useful even in warm weather – but especially so now that we are in the Autumn and coming up for Winter. The Helly Hansen range of base layers features something that HH call “LIFA Stay-Dry Technology”, which claims to be able to keep you feeling dry, even when you’re sweating buckets out on a ride. HH produce a range of base layers, but the two big sellers are titled either “Dry” or “Warm”. I purchased the “Dry” t-shirt so that it can fit comfortably underneath my cycling jerseys, but you can also get them with long sleeves as well.

The shirt arrived within a couple of days from Wiggle, packaged in a little green and white box. The shirt itself feels quite thin and rough to handle (part of the “LIFA Technology, I guess), but is comfortable when worn. I had to place quite a lot of faith in HH’s size guide, which had me down as a “Large” size. Being a bit on the tubby side, I’m used to buying clothes in an “XL” size, but HH’s guide was accurate and the shirt was a snug fit. It is meant to be a bit clingy, since other clothes are worn over the top of it. I decided to test the shirt out on a 40-mile ride out to Reading in Berkshire on a warm day.

The base layer performed admirably when being worn under a standard lycra jersey. I was sweating and puffing all the way round, but not once did I feel wet or uncomfortable with the Helly Hansen on. When I stopped for a quick lunch break, I felt my skin and I was dry. There was no uncomfortable rubbing and I didn’t feel like a boil-in-the-bag dinner underneath my top. I was impressed. I was also surprised that I didn’t feel overheated at all throughout the ride.

The second test I gave the HH was during one of my early morning commuter rides. Setting off from my house at 5.30am almost always means that it’s cold, whatever the time of year, so I wore an Altura Night Vision jacket over the top of my lycra kit. Usually this means I sweat a lot and despite the jacket’s vents and best efforts to keep me cool, the inside is usually wet to the touch by the time I get to my station just 3 miles away. However, wearing the HH underneath, for the first time in just about ever, I was dry when I arrived at the station. I was hot & sweaty, cycling in the cold, but my clothes were dry – the HH had taken it all – and I didn’t feel uncomfortable in the slightest. I have worn it on every cycle ride since.

I only own the one Helly Hansen base layer shirt, but will purchase more as soon as my finances allow. It is one of the best bits of cycling clothing I’ve ever bought. Personally, I couldn’t wear it as a “t-shirt in its own right,” as Helly claim – mostly because I’m a fat bastard and it would make me look like I was wearing a stripey gimp suit – but I can see how cyclists of a slimmer profile could do so. The shirt is warm (even the “Dry” product) but not uncomfortable even in warm weather, where its “wicking” properties come into their own. This comfort is worth £22 of anyone’s money, so do yourself a favour this autumn and join the hordes of happy reviewers on the internet.

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Raising the Class

Professional races are graded by the UCI into four categories, signifying the amount of points and prize money on offer for competing in the race. There is an excellent explanation of these categories over on Wikipedia, lifted straight out of the UCI’s manual, so suffice it to only summarise here.

There are three grades of cycling team acknowledged by the UCI, excluding National Teams:

  • ProTeam – The highest level of professional team, competing at the very highest level of events – cycling’s Premier League. Examples include Team Sky, Garmin-Sharp, BMC Racing, Canondale and Movistar.
  • Professional Continental – A professional team employing at least 14 riders and support staff on a full-time basis. The team tours in specific regions around the world (e.g. Europe, Asia) and can only enter World Tour events along with the ProTeams after being invited by a wild card entry. There are not many teams in this category, with Asia having only one Chinese team (Champion System) and Oceania having none at all. Europe is dominated by French and Belgian teams, and there is no British (team) representation at this level at all.
  • Continental – The lowest grade of team, which may contain a mixture of professional and amateur riders – details are left up to national federations. They never compete in World Tour events. British examples include Raleigh, UK Youth and Node-4 Giordana. Owing to the somewhat more lax operating conditions on these teams, there are many more of them. Like the Professional Continental teams above them, they race events in their specific continental region.

The UCI does not deal with regional or club cycling teams, and they do not feature in UCI rankings. As such, even the Continental teams above should be regarded as being of a very high standard.

To go with these grades of team, the UCI grades races as:

  • WT – World Tour – The highest category of race. ProTeams are obliged to enter. These races include the Tour de France, Paris – Roubaix, the Giro d’Italia – all of cycling’s premier events.
  • HC – Hors Categorie – Open to ProTeams, who are only allowed to make up 70% of participants at a maximum, Professional Continental teams, Continental teams and National Teams of the organising country (e.g. UK Youth)
  • 1 – Open to ProTeams (50% participation maximum), Professional Continental, Continental and National Teams
  • 2 – Professional Continental, Continental, National, regional and club teams may enter

A race may further be designated a category 1 or category 2 race – this simply denotes whether it is a one-day event (Category 1) or a stage event (Category 2). The Tour of Britain is a 2.1 event, meaning a class 1 stage race, with 50% ProTeam participation as a limit.

The main difference between the categories is the amount of prize money and world ranking points on offer – the winner of an HC race will win 100 ranking points, but the winner of a 2.2 race will only take home 40 points. The winner of the Tour de France takes home a whopping 200 points. The scales of points are also different between categories, with the bigger races dishing out points to lower-ranked riders than those in the smaller events.

The grading of a race is entirely arbitrary and down to the judgment of the UCI, and there is little material available to explain the process on their website. It would seem to be down to the level of race organisation, support from sponsors, crowd support (including television potential) and the quality of the course itself. Readers of this blog will have noted that I am fairly anti-UCI, but to my mind, this is one of the only areas of the sport where they have any real influence.

The Tour of Britain is a Class 2.1 event and has been ever since its inception. This limits the field of top-tier riders and the amount of prize money on offer. This grading is no longer appropriate, given the levels of support for cycling in this country, and puts us below tours of Turkey, Denmark and Austria, all given the “HC” class. It also means we sit below Oman, and the mighty Tour of Qinghai Lake in China on the Asia circuit. We are equivalent to the Tropicale Amissa Bongo in Gabon on the Africa circuit. Surely Britain’s current position within world cycling demands a higher grading than this? Unfortunately, after another successful tour this year, the UCI have once again turned down the Tour of Britain’s request for a reclassification, and not even offered an explanation as to why. I’m not suggesting that the Tour of Britain should become a fourth “grand tour” (we don’t have the space for it or the diversity of landscape), but we should have a premier road cycling stage race that forms one of the highlights of the cycling calendar.

Britain is currently pumping a lot of money into cycling as a sport, generating revenue for companies all over the world. We are producing some of the finest riders, in all categories of cycling, ever seen. Public interest in cycling has never been higher in Britain than it is now. Cyclists have won the BBC Sports Personality of the Year award, voted on by the public, on the last two occasions, and three times in the last five years. The 2012 Tour of Britain drew an average of 382,000 viewers for the live coverage and 526,000 for the highlights every daydespite being stuck on a backwater channel like ITV4 which barely half the population can even get, and which draws an average of 1% audience share. We deserve a Tour of Britain that reflects our national status and interest in the sport, and that means one that offers significant prize money and big-name riders coming to town.

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RideLondon Freecycle

Back in August, I took part in the Prudential RideLondon Freecycle, taking in an eight-mile traffic free loop of Central London. Registration is now open for next year’s event, although if you fancy the 100-mile ride out into Surrey, then you’ll have to already have registered as interest has proved overwhelming, with 50,000 people signing up in the first 24 hours alone!

Outside Buckingham Palace

For a TWT like me, the London-Surrey 100 is about 50 miles too long, but I was still able to enjoy punting around the capital this summer on my faithful hybrid. The route was an 8-mile circuit which could be joined anywhere. Mine started at the Houses of Parliament, where I then made my way down towards Green Park, along the Mall, out onto Whitehall, along the Victoria Embankment, a short climb up to St Paul’s Cathedral, a twisty route into the City of London, out the other side onto Tower Hill and then back towards the Embankment to do the loop all over again. It was an opportunity to see some stunning scenery without having to ride through London’s notoriously dense traffic.

For me, the first lap I did was by far and away the most enjoyable. Officially, I shouldn’t have started on the course until 9am, but I sneaked on at 8.30 (along with several others who had already done likewise) and was able to enjoy one of the most blissful 40 minutes’ cycling I’ve ever had in London. It was just me, wide open roads, no traffic and a whole city to play in. The second lap was much the same, only more people had started to join the route so there were times when I had to ride slightly slower. I then bumped into my parents, who had decided to come up and have a look at what this whole “cycling” thing was about, and didn’t get away onto a third lap until about 11am. By this time, so many people had taken to the road that it was completely impossible to move at a decent rate, and I found myself practically crushed in a crowd pedalling along at a leisurely 6mph. Unfortunately, children rarely have any idea how to ride in a group, so there were lots of youngsters swerving in front of other cyclists, groups suddenly stopping in the middle of the road, and pedestrians sometimes stepping off the pavements in front of us; it became less about the riding and more about “hazard avoidance”. Sadly, it stopped being fun, and I made sure that my third lap was my last – even though I could have gone twice the distance. The sheer number of participants had just made it impossible to move at anything like a decent pace – and I am absolutely not a fast cyclist!

The roads for the RideLondon event had been closed from 0500 so, in a feedback survey to the organisers, I asked a simple question: why not open the course up from 0700 so that those of us early birds who like to go around a bit quicker can do so – then leave the rest of the day to the families and children? I haven’t heard back and it’s far too early to get detailed plans on next year’s event, but I hope this is the case. I don’t want to see limits placed on numbers, which would seem to defeat the object of a “freecycle”, or any attempts at lane segregation (I can’t see how that could be enforced), or age restrictions, so I think an earlier start time is the fairest for all and balances the desires of “faster” cyclists like me (with the proviso that it isn’t a racing event!) with the needs of those with young children and more “leisurely” participants.

These last-lap hiccups weren’t enough to ruin my day, though, and overall it was one of the most enjoyable cycling events I’ve ever taken part in. The entertainment laid on at Green Park, St Paul’s and Tower Hill was magnificent and while I’ve heard a few complaints in the Evening Standard about road closures and the impact on businesses in London, the numbers taking part and out enjoying themselves spectating dwarfed the complainers. It felt like a one-day festival of cycling, and I was proud to have been part of it.

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Altitude Cycling

I’ve now passed 15,000ft in climbing this year, according to Strava. This may not sound like much to hardcore road cyclists, but you need to remember that I’m a fat bastard on a heavy hybrid with a wife, young baby and round-the-clock job which prevents me from getting on my bike as often as I’d like. I’m happy with myself 🙂

Brasilia, from 15000ft above ground

I went searching on the internet and found this image of the Brazilian capital, Brasilia, from 15,000ft, which is the view I would have if I’d been cycling like E.T. this year.

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Womens’ Road Racing

The other day, I read this interesting article over on Road CC where Lizzie Armitstead criticised the lack of action from the UCI in establishing a proper womens’ professional road racing circuit and called on professional teams to be forced into developing female riders as well. I think she has a legitimate gripe. I’ve always thoroughly enjoyed watching the likes of Jess Varnish, Victoria Pendleton and Laura Trott on the track, and I see no reason why I wouldn’t enjoy watching a proper road racing calendar as well.

While I can reel off many male professional teams from the top of my head – Sky Procycling, BMC, Orica GreenEDGE, Omega-Pharma Quickstep, Movistar, Euskaltel Euskadi, etc etc, I can only name just one professional womens’ team – Wiggle Honda, and it is only through a bit of internet research for this article that I’ve learned of Team TIBCO. Even then, I only know of Wiggle Honda because they are based here in Britain. To my knowledge, none of the big teams I’ve just named have got female development squads and they are some of the biggest names in the sport (Orica are also a co-sponsor on one female team, Orica-AIS, but they are different teams). Only Argos-Shimano in the Netherlands have a direct female equivalent team, but they’re a second-tier outfit relying on wildcard invitations to get into the really big events. As can be seen from the list in this link, there are very few female pro teams.

There are some womens’ sports I don’t enjoy watching, such as football, cricket and boxing – they just don’t capture my attention in the way that the mens’ game does. Football I find too slow, the cricket I find lacks the big hits of the mens’ game and boxing I just don’t like, despite being a fan of the male sport. Yet I do enjoy tennis, athletics, swimming and cycling – so far confined only to the track – immensely. There is no valid argument that can be made to support the position that:

  1. Women can’t compete in endurance sports: they can (ask any marathon runner, biathlete or swimmer)
  2. There would be no audience to watch it: there is (look at the crowds for London 2012)
  3. There isn’t enough money to develop a women’s team: there is (cycling makes more money now than ever before – Armitstead estimates that Team Sky make over £10m per year)
  4. There isn’t enough room in the calendar to accommodate a womens’ schedule: there is.

This fourth point, to me, seems easy to address. Why not simply have a womens’ race set off an hour before the mens’ race in any professional event? The infrastructure would already be there, the planning has already been done – all that would be needed would be some more outriders and a slightly longer period of road closures. For an even braver decision, it could even be possible to have a combined start and mix the female riders in with the men, albeit they should be classified separately, much like happens in the Touring Car championship. Wouldn’t this also give the crowds at road races something extra to cheer and enjoy? I’ve stood out on Guildford High St before for 4 hours just to catch a 2-minute glimpse of some of the world’s best cyclists. If there had been women on the Tour of Britain last year, I might have doubled that.

At present, the situation for womens’ professional cycling is completely unacceptable. Recently, most of the peloton withdrew from the Giro della Toscana on the very final stage of the race, including the overall leader Marianne Vos, because they were expected to negotiate the course in amongst the general Italian traffic. Would we consider making women run the London marathon on a Monday rush hour? They are also forced to ride different courses, different routes, participate in different events (by which I mean classifications) at the same championships and scrabble around for funding – yet when it comes to track cycling, I would argue that Laura Trott is probably the biggest name going right now. This cannot continue for much longer, and I’m not the only one saying so.

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