April 4, 2014 12:08 pm

Two wheels bad. Please take train

‘Cycle-safety training is a good idea although nothing can prepare an 11-year-old for the wanton carelessness of motorists’
Illustration of a girl on a bike©Lucas Varela

The girl has just spent a week learning cycling proficiency at school. She now knows, for example, how to guide her bike through a line of cones. I don’t know why – there’s no call for slalom on the main arterial roads these days, although the close control can come in handy if you want to buzz a pedestrian.

Cycle-safety training is obviously a good idea although, frankly, nothing can prepare an 11-year-old for the wanton carelessness of motorists. But the lessons do strike me as somewhat outdated, teaching only such basic skills as how not to get yourself killed. That’s all well and good but so much more is demanded of the modern cyclist.

Two emotions power city cyclists: fear and anger. Cowardice cannot be taught, though many of us are blessed with it in large quantities. But a new cyclist needs the right kind of rage, and the girl seems to have emerged from her course entirely untrained in how to thump on a car’s bodywork at traffic lights and scream obscenities at a driver. You might think that this needs little training but there is a right and wrong way to do this – the latter being any way that the driver can catch up with you. It is no good yelling abuse if you will soon be cowering in fear, muttering “Sorry mate, no offence” when he draws level with you at the next lights.

Similarly, there is no point in provoking a motorist to violence if you don’t have your GoPro camera charged and filming. There are enough motorists out there ready to beat up a cyclist just for being in their way; if you are going to get a smack in the face, you need something you can put on YouTube. Many cyclists make this classic schoolboy error.

Today’s cyclist also needs advice when choosing lights for night-riding. All the major chains sell a range of lights that flash on and off with atomic intensity but care is needed: not all lights are guaranteed to blind other road users. Don’t get palmed off with the merely dazzling. Oh, and there are limits to how many lights you require. The Blackpool Illuminations do not go on tour.

There are, of course, many skills that have nothing to do with road rage. There is Lycra etiquette, for example. There must be people who look good in Lycra – Cara Delevingne, Channing Tatum or anyone who plays a superhero in a Marvel film – but you don’t see a lot of them around the Elephant and Castle. If Captain America is cycling to work in London, all I can say is he must be visiting a different Pret for refreshments. The only Lycra-clad heroes on regular display on my commute are the human scarecrow and the Michelin Man.

One can, of course, go for the rolled-up- trouser-leg look, though this may bring you into conflict with the Metropolitan Police, who take a dim view of anyone mocking Freemasons.

Another failure is that no one appears to have taught the girl that look of insouciance you need when you are overtaken by a cyclist twice your age or one decked out in the Laura Ashley spring collection. It takes practice to master the look that says “I’m just enjoying the afternoon”; the knowing smile that says “the A3 really is quite beautiful in the rush hour if you just take the time to look.” Oh, and no one told her that Bromptons are not cool. They may be a triumph of engineering but they are very heavy, very expensive and, one day, Big Ears will want them back.

Then there are the advanced modules. I understand that 11-year-olds cannot be taught everything at once but as concerned parents, are we really expected to let her out on the road while she still does not know how to text while cycling? All the best riders can take both hands off the handlebars for double-handed texting. I believe it was this skill that gave us the famous RUBL acronym – short for Rolling Under a Bus Laughing.

And once she’s mastered all that, perhaps the final lesson might be to take the train. What with yob drivers, inattentive pedestrians and other cyclists, it’s just too dangerous out there.

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robert.shrimsley@ft.com; Twitter: @robertshrimsley

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