Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Attitudes towards cyclists: UK vs France

On a group ride I am always the first to grumble about close passing. I spent most of my life avoiding road riding by off-road cycling instead. Most people cite the reason for not cycling is fear, so it seems I am not alone, except that most people avoid cycling apart from their holidays to Centre Parcs. It is only in recent years that I have needed to cycle commute and take to the road on a regular basis.

I keep cycling by telling myself that: most people are good people and are not out to intentionally harm me; statistically I am very unlikely to be involved in an accident; and that I can increase my chances of survival by following tips from John Franklin's CycleCraft.

Having just returned from a 250m/400km cycle tour across Normandie, France, it has given me the chance to reflect on the differences between cycling in the UK and France.

In the UK, a passing motorist will typically overtake between the cyclist and the centre white line which quite often leaves about three feet. This is the minimum I feel safe at, and it really depends on the speed of the overtake, 20mph is fine, but a 60mph overtake at three feet is a scary experience. (Using tips from CycleCraft you can have an effect on the space given by cycling away from the gutter).

In France, given an open road, the difference is stark. The default overtake for drivers is to pass completely in the oncoming lane, to the point where their wheels are at the very edge of the road, leaving as much space as possible. The space given whilst overtaking was a reliable indicator of the nationality of the car. I don't recall any UK driver crossing completely to the opposite lane to overtake.

When the traffic gets busier, and waiting for a gap would be futile, a French driver would go between the oncoming car and cyclist (me), but would squeeze the oncoming car rather than the vulnerable cyclist. Even when the passes were close like they were in the UK, I felt that the French drivers were looking out for my safety. I must say at this point that we did get a couple of hoots for riding two-abreast on empty roads, but there were not long blasts like in the uk, more 'I am here' pips.

Why is there a difference ? I can only imagine it is mostly down to the enthusiasm for cycling in France. Of course, there is Le Tour de France - a race which somehow captures the hearts of the world - and how proud it must make a Frenchman.  It is not just the race. I tackled a TdF climb last year, the Port de Pailheres, some 1800 meters of climbing and I was encouraged along by a shout of Allez Allez from a stopped motorist. Whilst touring we saw so many older riders on road bikes, and even motorcyclists were giving us a friendly wave.  In addition, a tour guide told me that the police were now cracking down hard on motoring offences.

So we finished the riding in France, started our travels back and got back to Cottenham. A too-close pass happened, no oncoming traffic, so I did my usual thing of gesturing my arm to the right - I normally do this to cause following traffic to pass wider but there was none. The driver saw me in his mirror, did the same gesture, then practically skidded to a halt.

I never enter into a heated conversation or swearing, it never changes peoples minds and will probably make them hate cyclists more.

The driver had his window down when I arrived alongside and immediately said "you should be on the cycle path". I've had this a few times now, its a common misconception that Cottenham has a cycle path - it doesn't, it starts on the southern edge of the village, not helped by fearful cyclists using the footpath in question. All I managed to calmly say was "that's a footpath not a cyclepath" before he drove off.

I don't like be driven at or intimidated on purpose so I report people like this to the Police. Without an independent witness the police will not follow up, but at least it records the fact that there is a problem - as the police say, if you don't report crime they can't solve it - and should that car be involved in another more serious incedent it might form part of the case.

One question I was asked by the police was "did they threaten you?". Well, not in a face to face way. I consider the motorcar to be a viable weapon, the police do not. If I was to say he waved a knife near me I am sure they would be round with blues and twos blazing.

I am always left a little puzzled at what would cause a driver to go out of their way to purposely risk the life of a stranger. I can only draw parallels with racism where the driver thinks I am not entitled to equal access to the roads and that perhaps they fear my transport choice. 

Meanwhile, on goes the cycle renaissance in Britain, and long may it continue, for one day I will not be seen as a minority.


  1. Hello - interesting post. I've just moved to Impington from south east London and now cycle to Cambridge station every day. On balance, I have found drivers give more room on my new commute than they did on my old one, but the increased traffic speed has taken some getting used to and I have had a few lorry-induced wobbles. I have to say, apart from a plucky few, the village doesn't feel at the vanguard of a cycling revolution. My heart sinks when I see people driving less than a mile to go to the local shop. I watch the videos on David Hembrow's blog with resigned envy. Is there any sort of cycling campaign group centred around Histon / Cottenham / Milton?


  2. Hi Peter, welcome to the area.

    I guess the feeling of safety comes down to that bubble around us that we call personal space. Even as a pedestrian, if somebody gets too close we start to think of it as a threat. We did cycle through London between stations and oddly I felt more safe there than my friends. As you say, I think it is down to lower speeds around you, plus if you are experienced and assertive, you can have a influence on driver behaviour. There is very little you can do with a 60mph passing car.

    Re the cycle campaign groups. The Cambridge Cycling Campaign cover our area. Areas outside 5km didn't get a great deal of attention but since the Cycling England money came along, there has been a lot of focus on the outskirts of Cambridge. Three members cycled out to the northern edge of Histon when I met with Mike Davies (project manager for all cycle improvements in our area).

    I have heard of a few cycling groups if fitness is your thing, such as Cambridge Triatholon Club. For recreation cycling, you are pretty well placed with the guided bus track. I can very much recommend the Lodes Way out to Anglesey Abbey, Wicken Fen and then onto Ely if you have the legs.

  3. Thanks for this, im thinking of cycle to Paris and this has made me feel a lot safer :-)

  4. Hi Sue, I too have thought of cycling there. There is an interesting looking route - Avenue Vert - which looks nice and safe. Don't forget hi-viz if you go, now mandatory for cyclists between towns when dark. And cash for all those fab pattisseries, also mandatory ;-)