I’m a big fan of Bradley Wiggins. He’s done a huge amount for cycling, he’s sharp, and to top it off he’s a Kilburn boy. Needless to say when I learned that he and Team GB coach Shane Sutton had both been knocked off their bikes within a 24 hour period, whilst riding as ‘everyday’ cyclists, I was concerned for their wellbeing.
However, the incidents and the resultant media coverage got me thinking beyond their respective recoveries. This is also likely because within the same 24 hours, just before said incidents were reported, I attended my first meeting with Brent cyclists and was unwittingly drawn on the most controversial debate in cycling: the merits of cycle helmets and whether they really do improve safety overall. I was also asked at the meeting if I might consider writing a general cycle blog. Given the Wiggins/Sutton news, the subject of safety more broadly seemed like a reasonable opener.
Every weekday I commute 8 miles from Brent to Tower Hamlets and then back again. Every day I wear a helmet. Whether cycling in the city or the country, at home or abroad, this has always been the way. It was drilled into me as a youngster by my similarly cycle-happy parents and I’ve never questioned it. Wiggins was also wearing a helmet on Thursday evening when knocked off his bike, and in August after his Olympic success he suggested it might be worth everybody wearing one.
But is it worth it or is this a red herring when it comes to improving safety? The Netherlands is the safest country in the world in which to cycle and very few people wear helmets.
At my first Brent meeting, with more experienced cyclists and active campaigners than myself, I was schooled in some of the evidence about helmets and learnt it is largely inconclusive. For example, studies show that a helmet-wearing cyclist is likely to feel safer and therefore take more risks on the road. Also, motorists tend to see a cyclist with a helmet and think them less vulnerable than those without, and therefore have proportionate disregard for the space they give them. Both may cancel out the benefits a helmet will only bring should your head ever hit the floor.
Unlikely news to many but it was to me, and I don’t mind admitting my naivety here. I joined the LCC last month because I cycle daily and want to become active in my community, but the last few days has really driven home how much there is to do improve the environment for cyclists, and this goes way beyond the helmet vs. non-helmet debate. Or for that matter, me giving the finger to the odd motorist in order to teach them a lesson when they have done something idiotic. Awareness and respect between cyclists and motorist is crucial.
But if high-profile cyclists – the most experienced and best in the world – are damaged on an everyday ride, it puts the fear into people and could set the campaign back. Every week at work various friends and colleagues comment on how they would never dare get on the road. Even more unfortunate for women’s cycling, they are generally female. These latest and sorry events only sparked further negative comment. I’ve always thought the number of women cyclists compared to men on London roads was a shame. And now many considering it may think well, if experienced male cyclists can’t handle the roads, how could I?
The Times Campaign and the British Cycling calls for action are all helpful, and none focus on helmets. Last week it seemed even more important and therefore equally tricky, in the wake of these events, to call for improved safety without scaring people off cycling altogether. On Radio 4 on Thursday Chris Boardman, always a sensible and readily available spokesperson, articulated well the need to strike this balance. Maybe I can try and do my own little bit back at the office. Not sure I will give up the helmet yet though.
Nicola O’Brien, New LCC and Brent Cyclists member, KilburnShare this item