I have always for as long as I can remember cycled in cities. As a medical student I bravely rode from University College Hospital in central London over Hampstead Hill to Golders Green. I rode come rain, come shine. It saved me so much money and kept me super fit. It cast a dice for future cycling adventures much later in my life; TransAmerica: Los Angeles to Boston, Cambodia, Rajasthan India, Austria and St Malo to Nice.
I’ve cycled through a lot of big cities. Perhaps India was the most exciting, it wasn’t just the sheer volume of traffic in cites but all the animals to avoid. Sheep, goats and pigs tend to get out of the way but camels and the sacred cow deserve very special respect. It’s imperative to cautiously cycle round the rear end of a cow or camel!
I’m think I’m lucky to have cycled in many big cities. Cycling infrastructure is slowly getting better globally. My wife, Jo (not a seasoned cyclist) and I rode a bicycle tour around New Orleans this year on cruiser bikes and discovered on many segregated cycle ways a new city. You get to places on a bike you cannot get to in a car. It’s becoming very popular to rent bikes and go on inexpensive cycle tours in many big cities worldwide. Every time we go out cycling something happens. Cameron McNeish the walker and broadcaster told me that you will often meet somebody on your ride that makes your day really special, he called these meetings, “trail fairies”.
I have always been very careful in traffic and have fortunately never been involved in any serious crashes. It’s always useful to make good eye contact with any close by drivers, I always look into cars to see if a door is about to open. I look for shadows under cars, I’m always wary of people walking between cars. I never go up the inside of a lorry or car. Just wait patiently behind. I make a very definite habit of thanking pedestrians and cars who give way to me and I’m wary of unleashed dogs and pedestrians with any form of headphones. I have a small bell which I use a lot, a gently ting, ting and a polite thank you is nice when on any shared cycleway. I am cautious with my speed, I can barely cycle much faster than 15mph on a good day, so I welcome the widespread introduction of 20mph limits in the UK, it’s got to make active travel safer. I must say I’m pretty cautious in my home city of Edinburgh with the tram tracks, if you must cross them they do need attacking with your bike at right angles to the tracks, they will catch out the unwary. I always wave and say hello to other cyclists when out riding.
I try to commute by bike when I can. To be honest I don’t like riding in the dark. If I do go out at night I light up like a Christmas tree. I have a fluorescent yellow helmet and bright laser lights. When I rode TransAmerica I rode with a bright red light on the rear of the bike even during the daytime, this light was so bright it could be seen a mile away, it’s a habit I still continue in the UK, but people still ride up to me and say that I’ve left my rear light on! I’m very wary of riding in snow and ice, we get a few too many students who ride their bikes on icy days and fall off. I have never bothered wearing a facemask in heavy traffic but have had to resort to a buff to cover my face in a dense sandstorm in Cambodia. At the other extreme to ice I have ridden across the Mojave Desert in California in 50degree plus centigrade heat, this was some of the most challenging riding I’ve ever done as the metabolic requirements to just keep going were enormous, much harder than any city cycling. Despite drinking 10litres of water one day I barely was able to produce any urine!
Cycling has significantly changed my life in so many ways; after being morbidly obese I had a gastric band, lost 12 stone and got fit again by cycling. Becoming a Professor of Physical Activity for Health was not really expected when I weighed 27 stone! Nobody saw that coming. Cycling has been quite a life changing adventure for me. I hope I can inspire you to get on your bike, ride and meet some trail fairies.
Guest blog from Professor Chris Oliver, Honorary Professor of Physical Activity for Health, Edinburgh University Physical Activity Research for Health Centre and Consultant Trauma Orthopaedic Hand Surgeon at Royal Infirmary Edinburgh. You can follow him on Twitter @CyclingSurgeon.