Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Leaving the tarmac behind - what to expect off road.

I often cycle with a friend of mine, both of us on touring bikes, but recently his is showing signs of becoming an off-road cyclist.

The first occasion was last spring, on a cycle tour through Wales. There was a particular section of the Lon Las Cymru that was most definitely off road - so much so it broke a spoke. It was hard but he came out smiling.

Second, he bought a GPS, so I showed him how to put OpenStreetMap on his Garmin and how to find and record new routes, and also told him about the odd but fun activity known as Geocaching. The next thing I know, he and his daughter have been conquering the local fields to pillage the treasure, and of course, putting something else back instead.

The week after, we went for a ride, on our touring bikes from Cottenham towards Ely, and somewhere in the middle of nowhere we are picking up speed down a hill when the brakes are heavily applied.

Me: What's up ? Is something broken ?
D: We missed a turn.
Me: Err, what turn ? I didn't see one. <scratches head>
D: The one back there marked on my GPS.

We doubled back and what was the turn was someone's driveway with a finger post pointing down it.

Me: Ah, that's a footpath.
D: Brilliant, lets take it.

D sensed my lack of enthusiasm, but I could see his and reluctantly followed.

This, was a short cut to a road on the other side of the field (apparently). In typical Fenland style, this was actually a footpath down the side of an arable field with no obvious sign of recent use. D was enjoying his new found sense of adventure even though it was bumpy and we were cycling at walking pace. I have a full suspension mountain bike at home, and for good reason. I nearly whooped for joy when he gave up after 400 metres.

It was at this point that I realised that there are a lot of people who have never ventured off road on a bicycle. So, lets cut to the chase.

What is offroad cycling like around Cambridge ?

It's a great way to see more countryside.

This isn't Wainwright country so get over the lack of hills. After a while the landscape does become interesting for different reasons. The furrows, the crops, the farm buildings and machinery, the skies and the bird song.

Away from the cars.

I don't like riding with cars buzzing past all the time. The National Cycle Network and back roads help, but a bridleway can't be beat for lack of cars. You only have to share with horses, walkers and the odd tractor.

I have a route home from Cambridge, 37km and about 50% off road. I hardly see a car for one and a half hours.

Getting away from the crowds.

People keep telling me that the East and South East of England is crowded. On a bicycle, you really can get to places where you cannot see anyone else for miles. They probably are there but you cannot see them. These uncrowded places are away from villages and beyond the distances that dog walkers get to.

Off-roading is hard work.

There's a good reason we have roads - that smooth surface makes for easy fast journeys. Once offroad, the surfaces you come across can be so variable. They will often change through out the year depending on the weather. All non tarmac surfaces add resistance and that is going to slow you down.

The Fenland soil has some extremely sticky mud and it can be every bit as punishing as a mountain incline. I sometimes use a heart rate monitor, and can remember a day in the mud, on the flat feeling truly exhausted. I was doing 6km/h with a heart rate of 160bpm. That's running pace effort to go walking pace.

Its Bumpy

There's nothing like a smooth hard packed mud route, but often bridleways are full of lumpy mud. Each bump deflects your bike upwards, causing you discomfort and saps your speed. Big fat tyres can really help you to go faster. I typically run 2.1 tyres at 30 psi as they roll over bumps easier and provide more comfort. Suspension helps too but it's not always necessary.

Best case, I can average 24km/h on a 50% offroad route. It is extremely hard work however. 10-15km/h average is more typical and more fun.

Where can you go ?

You can go most places on a bicycle. Bridleways and Byways are what you should be searching for. Footpaths cannot be legally used whilst riding, but can be useful links to other routes. Often they will have styles which even if pushing, it can be a pain to keep lifting your bike.

Quite often in the Fens you see a footpath that is wide and obviously used by tractors. There doesn't seem to be a logical reason to not allow cycles. Personally, I cycle these so long as it is safe, and not busy.

Expect punctures.

Make sure you can fix a puncture before getting too remote. I have watched someone get four punctures on one ride. I have also snapped a valve core whilst pumping up so a spare tube is also advisable.

Its always takes longer than you think.

You never quite know how long an offroad route is going to take but it will always take longer than you think. It could be puncture, blocked route, mud, or getting lost.

If you need to get somewhere in a hurry, it is always quicker by road.

It's rewarding

The hardship and ups and downs of cycling offroad can really make for a great adventure that feels so rewarding. Its great fun - get yourself a map and go exploring. Most of this green and pleasant land has not been covered in tarmac.

Monday, 14 March 2011

B1049 Cottenham to Histon cycle path: a detailed analysis (part 2)

Note: The Cottenham-Histon cyclepath has now been upgraded and this post does not reflect its current state.

Part 2 - Histon boundary to the A14

[ continued from Part 1 - Cottenham to Histon boundary ]

The northern part of Histon has this shared use cycle path alongside a 40mph road. To a new or returning cyclist, this path would seem a much better option than being on the road.

In the photo's background, there is a white lorry parked across on the path. Of course nobody wants to inconvenience road traffic, but for the cyclist using this path, they have the difficulty of merging from a footpath, onto the road without priority. It is hard merging with 40mph traffic when you are only doing 10-20mph. If you were cycling on the road you would already have priority and the worry of overtaking is with the (safety protected) motor traffic.

Blocked cycle paths and lanes are very common.

Cycling requires real physical effort, and that is one reason why many people don't want to cycle. The path surface is not as smooth as the road, and has continuous dropped kerbs which act a little like speed bumps.

The result is that cycling is about 20% faster (or more efficient) on the road than the path. A headwind is bad enough, but the combination really saps speed.

It takes an average person 30-45 minutes to cycle from Cottenham to central Cambridge. That is a consistent time, unaffected by traffic queues and A14 crashes. The time and effort that journey takes can be significantly reduced by not using the cycle path.

This photo shows a very good reason for not using the shared use path.

Driveways often have obscured vision due to plants and bushes which means that car bonnets (and people) can pop out into the middle of your path.

If this cyclist had chosen to use the cycle path, they may have been involved in a nasty accident (for the cyclist).

At the junction of Cottenham Road and Glebe way there is a popular bus stop.

This brings you into close proximity with pedestrians which means you need to slow down again.

At Garden Walk, the pre-upgraded shared use cycle path comes to an end. This junction shows a classic problem with shared use paths.

If you cycle on the road, traffic at the side road or wanting to turn in has to give way and because you have priority - you simply cycle past this junction.

For the cyclist using the shared use path you lose priority and have to slow down or stop. A bigger problem is that it is not just the side road traffic you have to watch out for, in addition you have to watch for traffic turning into the side road.

Thats three different directions over a 270° range. Garden Walk is low traffic so risk is low but you still need to slow.

With the cycle path ended, you must join the 40mph road traffic.

At the extreme right of the photo you can see potholes. A cyclist can fall off if they hit those so need to go round them. That can be dangerous with traffic that overtakes too closely.

The newly put in on-road cycle lane - at its thinnest part it is 112cm wide.

Cambridge Cycle Campaign research says that recommended widths by many different bodies should be 2.0m wide for safety.

The cycle lane legitimises close passing which increases the risk of collision. Without the lanes, you got more room by overtaking vehicles.

The cones in place, artificially show how much room is left if a car was forced over by oncoming traffic.

In general, motorists do not want to cross a white line as it is a psychological barrier - if crossed, they are in a danger area where they could have a head on collision with oncoming traffic. As a result, vehicles will try to squeeze between a cyclist and any white line.

Correct positioning of the bicycle on the road can help control the room left by overtaking cars, but with this lane design that task is made more difficult as there is pressure to use the (too thin) cycle lane.

The upgrade has started and is doubling the shared use path width to 2.4m in most places. Pedestrians and cyclists will be able to pass each other much more easily.

The upgrade will encourage more cycling by young and timid cyclists which is a good thing. One unfortunate side effect will be the increased pressure for advanced and fast cyclists to use this path which will increase danger to those cyclists and pedestrians.

Nearer to the A14, Bridge Road's on-road cycle lanes have already been upgraded. The increased width is much safer in both directions.

The final part, I will mention is the A14 roundabout. To get over it, almost all cyclists use the shared use paths around the edge. The problem is the crossing of two slip roads.

The traffic on and joining the roundabout is traffic light controlled - cyclists do not have their own signal control. They will needs to cross each slip road in the gap between one traffic light going to red, and the other to green.

Most traffic does not indicate so it can be difficult to work out which vehicles will turn off the roundabout and is compounded by the speeds on this fast trunk road junction.

There are a lot of teenage students tring to get to college in this area. They probably take more risks than adults and are unable to read the road as they are not yet drivers.

Final comments

The dangers pointed out in these posts should not put you off cycling. One reason for posting them was to help point out the increased dangers so you can avoid them.

The danger from traffic is mostly perceived and your chances of being involved in an accident are very slim, especially if you get adult cycling training or read advanced cycling books like John Franklin's Cycle Craft.

The overall health benefits of cycling outweight any other risks.

All but the last photo were taken by me, and have been uploaded to the Photo Map on Cycle Streets.

Friday, 11 March 2011

B1049 Cottenham to Histon cycle path: a detailed analysis (part 1)

Note: The Cottenham-Histon cyclepath has now been upgraded and this post does not reflect its current state.

Part 1 - Cottenham to Histon boundary

I have been using the B1049 Cottenham to Histon cycle path for six years. It's bad for cyclists. This has been recognised, it is being upgraded, but unfortunately only some of the problems are being solved.

In its current state, a cyclist feels compelled to use this cycle path, even though it adds inconvenience and danger to their journey. If you use the road, you will be hooted at in anger by a small minority who obviously feel that because there is a sign that says cycle path you should be using it.

Of course, once the upgrade has happened, there will be even more pressure to use it, even if it still adds danger. Those drivers who don't use it, will not understand the issues and will be trying to intimidate cyclists off the road even more than before.

What follows is a detailed break down, from a cyclists perspective of the cycle path. As you follow, think about the different users, confident adult cyclist, timid/inexperienced adult cyclist, and teenager. Would you want your child to use this cycle path ?

The cycle path starts at the edge of the 30mph zone, also the end of the village.

Before the cycle path starts, you must cycle on the road within the 30mph section. However, you do get close overtakes from frustrated drivers. Twice now, I have managed to speak with drivers who were dangerously close (actually one threatened to run me off the road) and they both thought I should have been on the cycle path - except there isn't one within the 30mph zone. It an easy mistake to make, the shared use cyclepath looks like a footpath, and to be honest, it is a footpath with a blue sign erected.

When arriving in the village, a lot of cyclists continue on the footpath because it can be difficult and dangerous to cross two lanes of rush hour traffic. Because you have to do this twice (first in Histon), it can be safer to avoid crossing and take the road.

The initial plans for the upgrade to the cycle path had a traffic light crossing. These were removed from the plans due to cost.

The path continues in a straight line next to the road. Something you notice as a cyclist is that the surface is not as smooth as the road, and this sapps your speed and makes cycling harder work. On a bike with racing-thin tyres it can be uncomfortable. On the way into Cambridge it is rare to see a cyclist on the road - you feel compelled to use it.

One of the rare times I cycled on the road, a woman wound her window down and swore many times at me. You would imagine from her anger that she was held up for a long time but this was not rush hour and there was no oncoming traffic. This kind of behaviour is somewhat like racism but sadly is not that uncommon.

The path continues in a straight line past Cottenham Skips. Here, the path is often dirty.

When wet, it can be a little slippery. The slipperyness isn't a great problem, until the day you have to make an emergency stop.

Even with mudguards, your feet and panniers can end up splattered with mud. When dry, large vehicles kick up dust as they pass.

Prior to this post, it has been uncleaned for about three months. A few weeks ago, I notified the council, but this is obviously a lower priority than pot holes and other maintenance.

Between Cottenham and Histon it is unlit and sometimes pitch black. Standard bicycle lights are very inadequate here. More on this later.

Notice the ditch to the left. I know of one person who has ended up in that ditch whilst cycling ... but he was drunk at the time.

Here we reach the thinnest section of the cycle path. Along the whole path it is difficult to pass other cyclists and pedestrians. Sometimes, people try to pass without one party first stopping. If they were to clip, one could end up falling into the road.

A second problem is that the road is also fairly thin. Sometimes, you get the 50mph wing mirrors from buses and HGV's overhanging the cycle path on this corner - at head height.

For comparison, compare my wheel to the wheel in this cycle path in Holland and you can see how thin our cycle path is. If overlaid, it would cover only a tiny strip of the Dutch cycle path. This is a small part of how cycling in Holland has been made so popular.

The picture is borrowed from a fascinating post in another blog I follow by David Hembrow: How wide is your cycle path

At night

You've seen above how thin the cycle path is. Now try to imagine cycling this at night, perhaps with only a weak spot from your cheap light illuminated in front of you. Now there is oncoming traffic giving you temporary blindness. For extra fun, its raining and you are wearing glasses. Occasionally a totally invisible pedestrian or road works sign will appear from nowhere.

It is really hard to capture this on film. This is the best I have done so far.

[ continues in Part 2 - Histon boundary to the A14 ]

Sunday, 6 March 2011

Cambridge Traffic Jams

On two wheels I can filter past traffic so I rarely get stuck, and consequently I can choose a different route to work if I fancy a change. I think I have approached the outskirts of Cambridge from every direction and there is a queue from every spoke road that crosses the radial cordon.

The longest queue is normally from the A14-J30 (Oakington and Dry Drayton) all the way down Huntingdon Road and into Cambridge - some 4 or 5 miles. I have no idea how long it takes.

As I filter past on my motorcycle I always wonder why so many people grumble but do nothing about it. It's always someone elses fault. My two favourite grumbles are:

1) The frustrated car commuter pointing the blame at school run mums without questioning why their use of road space is more legitimate.

2) The frustrated car commuter unable to overtake a cyclist puts the blame squarely with the cyclist. On my motorcycle I often find myself being held up by a car unable to overtake a cyclist when I could.

From the my viewpoint, the car is a selfish use of road space when used to transport a single occupant.

When, as a driver, you are stuck behind a lorry who can't easily move through the city due to its size. Who gets the blame ? The lorry or the car ? I think most drivers would blame the lorry driver for bringing such a large and unsuitable vehicle.

In a similar way, when I see a car who cannot overtake a cyclist, they are usually being impeded by other cars from overtaking, not just the cyclist.

I've seen many dangerous overtakes by frustrated drivers on Histon Road at the location pictured. There is not enough room to overtake a cyclist safely when there are oncoming cars. Typically there will be a stream of oncoming cars, the line of parked cars and the queue of moving traffic behind the cyclist.

I have no doubt that the driver is annoyed but that road is really quite wide. Much of the width is taken up by three cars needing to be side by side.

The popularity of the car has made it a victim of its own success. If there were not so many oncoming cars there would be time to overtake in the other lane. Also, even those cars not being used are causing a problem. Just by being parked they are taking up space that prevents overtaking.

What we have here is a cyclist taking up only a small amount of road, and collectively, cars taking most of the space. A single car driver is being impeded by the cyclist within that one lane, but is unable to escape from that lane due to all the other cars oncoming and parked.

When you look at the problem of congestion and capacity from a road space per occupant point of view it is clear that the larger the vehicle, more more selfish it seems if it is only carrying few passengers. It's not just cars - central Cambridge fills pretty quickly with buses too, and if their average occupancy is low, they are part of the same problem.

The best video that represent the traffic in central Cambridge is below. What's interesting is how many individuals pass through the junction on bikes and how many in cars and vans. Imagine Cambridge with students trying to get to lectures in their cars. Then you would see serious congestion.

I'm not so blinded to think that two wheels suit all. A whole range of transport options are needed if Cambridge is to grow.