Boris Bike lessons

Note: I’m not a proper cyclist. I don’t own a bicycle pump or a puncture repair kit. The Mayor of London takes care of all that for me. I have a Boris Bikes fob and I swan around on one of his sponsored blue bikes for a total of about three hours per week. But here’s what I’ve learnt anyway:

Don’t wear anything special. This is my top tip. In nearly two years of Boris Biking in the West End I’ve never had any grief, never been cut up by a truck, shouted at by a cabbie or come off the bike. I may just be lucky but I reckon I’m beating the odds here (at least if what other cyclists tell me is true). And I have a strong feeling (no evidence at all, though) that this is because I don’t dress the part. Motorists steer clear of me because I look like a fat loon who’s borrowed a bike. So: no helmet, no lycra, no hi-viz and no special glasses (what are the special glasses for anyway?).

Take up a lot of room. To be precise, try to use a whole lane. Science bit: if you politely ride in the kerb, you’ll give overtaking motorists the strong impression that they can probably just squeeze past you without going into the next lane or onto the other side of the road – and your polite side will want to agree. But you mustn’t because, people being people, they will actually try to do it. Pain and aggravation will follow. So, if you take up a whole lane, not only will drivers have to slow down and think carefully about passing, they’ll have to politely indicate and move into the next lane, disturbing the flow of traffic and making everyone think. All of this boosts your odds.

Get out in front. This is about being visible (so it does slightly contradict my ‘no hi-viz’ rule). I always used to wonder why cheeky couriers and fixie herberts were always right out in front of the queued traffic at the lights but it’s obvious once you’ve tried it. You need every driver on the front row of the grid to know you’re there and to have to use their time at the red light to plan a way around you.

Jump lights. This is related to the previous point. Going through a red light when it’s safe to do so will get you out in front of the traffic and give you a chance to get organised before the rush begins. There are, of course, many circumstances when doing this would be stupid. Common sense applies (and they should probably change the rules to allow cyclists to do it legally. Getting the bikes through the lights first would be safer than requiring us all to go at the same time). The other thing is, I think drivers actually get this and appreciate you making yourself visible (although they might not show it and might phone in to James Whale later on to bitch about it).

Go round the outside (don’t try this on the North Circular). This is obvious but can be a bit scary. It’s basically the rule about not trying to squeeze down the left-hand side of trucks and buses where you will be squashed. But the larger point is: don’t be afraid to be in the right-hand lane. You are probably safer there than in the gutter. I think that the more confident and prominent cyclists are – the more ownership we take of the road – the safer we will all be.

Communicate. Wave, shout, raise your hand in a sort of taciturn, blokey way, point and smile. It’s like life: sullen silence will get you sullen silence. Don’t assume everyone knows what you’re planning and don’t assume they know inwardly that you’re grateful when they give way. I am quite sure that substantially increasing the sum total of communication done on the road will improve everyone’s mood, change behaviour and save lives. And another thing: when I started with this cycling thing, I think I assumed that cyclists would be chatting all the time, swapping anecdotes at the lights etc. But that doesn’t seem to happen. Why not? Is it just me? (see ‘fat loon on a bike’ point above).


  1. All very good stuff IMHO, except the bit about jumping lights.

    I think this more than anything has contributed to the (entirely indefensible) attitude of many drivers that we cyclists are a sub-species who don’t deserve decent treatment on the roads.

    If we don’t stick to the rules, why should they, they think.

  2. Goodness me Steve, You are a valued member of the family & I like you, please…put the Boris bike back in its bike rack & catch a bus!!!

  3. Sadly I think Keri is right about jumping lights making us unpopular. Turning left when all pedestrians gone is the one I’d try and defend – and I think that’s legal in Oz. But then so is kangaroo smoking.

  4. Most good stuff except – as already noted the bit about jumping lights.

    I cycle in London every day – have been since 1973. The one thing that really annoys me – and other road users – is the fact that the majority of cyclists go through red lights. There are many reasons for this annoyance. It is illegal. It is illegal because it is unsafe both to the cyclist and other road users. It is important to obey the lights so that all road users know what is happening. Renegade cyclists going through lights is confusing for everyone. The only accidents I have ever had on my bike was other cyclists going through red lights at pedestrian and cycle crossing or, in one case, going through a zebra crossing at speed when all the motor traffic was waiting at the crossing to let pedestrians cross (OK, not a red light but the point is the same). On one occasion at a pelican crossing a fellow pedestrian pulled a cyclist off his bike as he attempted to cycle through those crossing. His excuse? Lights do not apply to cyclists! He was an idiot but there are lots out there. The short point is that encouraring cyclists to go through red lights cause them to think that they are exempt from the rules. They are not. I think you would be wise to resile from this particular piece of advice.

  5. You’re all lightweights. And, seriously, John, I think we actually agree. You describe a whole bunch of circumstances in which it would be wrong and stupid to jump the lights. There’s a very specific time when it’s OK and that’s JUST BEFORE THE LIGHTS CHANGE at a big junction when common sense will get you half way across and in a safe position before the cars have got away. Common sense must tell you that waiting politely in the gutter is much less safe than getting out in front. And I bet you’ve done it too! 🙂

  6. We are all lightweights? What do you mean by that? It sounds like you are suggesting none of the other posters here know what they are talking about.
    Anyway my point was that the majority of cyclists go through red lights all the time – not just before lights change. They do it at junctions if they can get away with it, at pedestrian crossings whether or not the are pedestrians crossing, at cycle crossings whether or not there are cyclists crossing and so on. It is illegal, dangerous and rude. i have been cycling a very long time and the general behaviour of cyclists is getting worse. There is much sympathy for cyclists out there but most of it gets lost when cyclists misbehave. I speak from considerable experience. In the last ten years I have been hit, as a pedestrian or a cyclist, 8 times by cyclists riding on pedestrian-only pavements, going through red lights, abusing zebra crossings etc. My neighbour has been hit 3 times and she doesn’t walk around anything like as much as I do. She loathes cyclists with a passion and, frankly, I don’t blame her. To make it worse, rather than apologise, most cyclists try to justify their stupid actions. I could go on. The short point is that cyclists cannot expect the public at large to give full support to their cause when the majority abuse the system. Sorry about the rant – But is time cyclists understand that they are road users and bound by the Highway Code just
    Iike everyone else.

  7. What’s fascinating is how things are changing. There are more cyclists on the road now and I think attitudes are changing. I think it’s acknowledged more now that we have to re-arrange our streets a bit and give greater priority to walkers and cyclists. Speaking as a member of both species (I’ve been driving for twenty-five years longer than I’ve been cycling!) I also think it’s clear that that the Highway Code is seriously out-of-date and the idea that it should be applied equally to cyclists is absurd. Those rules were written for people strapped into a ton of steel and glass. Something new is required. And, John, I’m struck by how unlucky you and your neighbour are. I’ve been walking around the streets of London for thirty years and never had even a brush with a rogue cyclist on a pavement or a zebra crossing. I know it happens but it’s never happened to me.

  8. If you have one rule for those wrapped up in a “ton of steel and glass” and another for cyclists, how would you expect each class to know the rules that apply to the other?

    BYW, cycling on the pavement is not allowed, by a law that dates back to 1835. I read that in the small print in the Highway Code!

    I walk on pavements. I cycle (sometime of pavements). I used to be a motorcyclist (passed my test). I have drive lots of vehicles (including a mini cab, for JIMMAC in Clapton). I have driven a 7.5 tonne truck, the biggest mashup of metal and glass that you can drive on a ordinary car licence. I am aiming to get a MIDAS certificate soon, so that I can drive a minibus.


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