Wednesday 27 February 2013

The perils of country cycling

At today’s session of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Cycling’s evidence session on cycling, a representative of the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) made the point that it is not All About London (central or suburbs), there is countryside too, and rural A roads are something like 15 times as dangerous as urban roads for cyclists, with half of all fatalities occurring on them.

I can attest to that – not that I have been involved in an accident in the country, although I have been knocked off my bike four times in London, but it just feels really, really dangerous.  So dangerous in fact, that when I first had the brainwave that in addition to being a useful way of commuting, cycling could be a pleasant way to get exercise at weekends, I went out on my trusty Dawes CityVision 7 for a randonnée à velo on the local roads.

An hour or so later, having sampled the delights of the B2131 Petworth Road, to the east of Haslemere, I more or less went straight to Cycle Works and peeled off an unfeasible amount of money for a Specalized Rockhobber “Hardtail XC” so that never again would I have to ride on a road, I could stick to the bridle paths on the commons which surround me.  (And if you have never tried them, here is my ringing endorsement.  Hindhead, Witley, Hankley, Thursley, Rodborough, Marley, Lynchmere etc commons are the bees’ knees for off-road cycling.  Easily accessible via Godalming or Haslemere railway stations and you should be able to get a bike on the train at weekends).

Why?  Because I was terrified.  Rural B and smaller A roads are narrow, windy, have no footways, poor sightlines, but the traffic still races around them.  In fact, most rural roads once you step away from the town limits have the national speed limit for single carriageway roads, which is 60mph, and many drivers apparently believe that 60 is the obligatory speed, not the maximum.  It did not take long to figure out that, while that builder’s van which creamed past me just now passed safely, all it would take is for a 4x4 coming unseen around the bend ahead to hove into view at just the wrong moment, and van driver would almost certainly smear me across the tarmac rather than collide head-on with another motor vehicle.

Cycling on roads like these is for “none but the brave”, and I do in fact see cyclists out and about at a weekend if the weather is fine – I saw three lunatics, all lycra and carbon frames and wraparound shades and gritted teeth, in a five-mile stretch of the A286 only last weekend.  I think they were all below-middle-aged men, though when they are dressed like that it can be hard to tell.  What you would most assuredly not see is a lady on a Pashley, or a more mature gentleman on his Raleigh.

Take a look at the snip of map below.  

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Here we have a line drawn on what might be a plausible route for someone to take from their home in Holdfast Lane to Haslemere railway Station, to commute by train to work every day.  This is a random choice of location, but there are several houses along here which could plausibly be occupied by a rail commuter, in a local authority district which, according to the Guardian's excellent interactive map of commuter transport modes reported in the 2011 census, has the highest proportion of train commuters in the wider area - more than 18% of all adults, which makes nearly 30% of those who actually travel to work. 

The distance is just under 2 miles – an easy distance and only half a mile more than I cycle every day to the station.  It undulates a bit, but quite within the capabilities of a decent Shimano or Sturmey hub gear.  In fact, why stop at commuting, why not pootle into town for a coffee or to collect your newspaper or a pint of milk, the sort of trip where a bicycle could actually be quicker and be more convenient than driving and hunting for an empty parking space?

Now take a look at the road you have to take – you can link to Google Streetview and move along it to get a fuller picture. (If anyone knows how, if it is possible, you can do an animation of driving/riding along a Streetview route, please let me know).

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It is not always possible to find a Streetview which has no cars in it, and this road is not exactly a high density route, but that of course is largely why it is so fast, and you can see that it is rich with hazards for a pedestrian or cyclist.   During the peak hours for commuting you can reasonably expect there to be quite a few vehicles travelling along here.

Would you be persuaded to take up cycling as a novice if this was the route you were asked to follow?  Would you not sympathise at all with anyone who were to say, “thanks, but no thanks, I’ll stick to my car”?


  1. some of your route -

    if you can stomach the car ad, driving sim and rear view in places.

    PS This area is approx. on the outer boundary of an ordinary there-and-back day circuit for me so I endorse your sentiments.The area is really pretty and in principle should make for good cycle touring (as well as the local uses you refer to), but there is hardly anything to help cyclists between Haslemere and Guildford, and as you say, too many drivers don't drive with due care (a good reason to incorporate cycle awareness in the driving test IMO).

    I would imagine that a lot of head teachers and parents in the area appreciate this judging by the lack of sign-ups to the Big Pedal in a vast swathe of country between Chichester and Kingston-upon-Thames (well there's one to the S of Haslemere), considering there are 1200 sign-ups in the country as a whole.

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