Monday, 5 December 2011

Adrenaline junkie asks: is cycling in Cambridge more dangerous than extreme sports ?

The Cambridge News recently had one of its usual sensationalised articles on cycling. The title:

This of course lights the blue tough paper locally - look at the amount of comments. Personally, I am waiting for the day a Traveller cycles to the Guided Bus and sets up camp on one whilst claiming benefits - I think Cambridge will literally explode.

As a fully paid up extreme sports junkie, I thought I had better pass comment.


My background is littered with skateboarding, BMX street and ramps, Mountain Biking in various forms, such as riding down stairs, jumping up and over obstacles down hilling, and rut riding in the slippery Fens. I did a taster weekend of paragliding, only living too far from hills stopped me taking that up, and I still have the equipment for kite-buggying (being pulled around and sometimes up in a tricycle), and kite-land-boarding (think kite-surfing on a skateboard). I currently Mountain Bike, throwing myself down some rather knarly descents in the Peak District, mud, snow and ice don't stop me commuting and I also motorcycle on a 600cc bike capable of 0-60 in under 4 seconds and 130mph.

For my entire adult life I have had people tell me that I am nuts, foolhardy and doing some really dangerous activities. The oddest thing is, I have never broken a bone (touch wood, think I have been close though), I get a few bumps and bruises from time to time.  Even odder, is that in many work places I get the sense that those who actively avoid risk are the ones who get themselves into accidents.

At this point, before you think I am some SAS hard nut, I will reveal that I am actually a Scaredy Cat.  Danger makes me seriously nervous.  I hate heights and I never go on rides at Fun Fairs, but there is something about conquering your fears and the adrenaline rush that makes these activities addictive.

What I have learned from a lifetime of doing dangerous things is that the people who do these sports cannot simply be classified as reckless.  Everybody has their own level of danger that they will accept, and you can do these activities without risking your life. How far you progress is is a balance of fear, courage, bravery and skill.  Get the balance wrong, and you will get injured, or perhaps your fear will prevent you from taking part.

The Fear

'Fear' is a word we hear a lot when we ask why won't people cycle.  I get the fear big time in all of my activities but it is something I listen to and embrace.  It is your subconscious telling you that something is wrong, that you are about to exceed your risk and skill levels.  Instead of letting fear prevent me from doing something, I learn from it. How can I lessen and mitigate the risk ?  For cycling, that might be to read Cycle-Craft, about road positioning, or perhaps to avoid risky roads and stick to National Cycle Network routes.  By upping my skill level, I can mitigate risk. You can't avoid all risk, but you can let yourself near a bit at a time, learn from it and conquer it.

In the kind of fear I embrace, I am generally in control.  If I don't like the look of a rocky downhill, I stop avoid or go around. But when I cycle to work, the thing that gives me the biggest scare is traffic. It is the overtaking traffic while on my pedal that I fear and gives me the biggest scare.  I feel I have done all I can with road positioning, and now all risk to me is in the hands of other people.  And being a Scaredy Cat I don't take risks on my life very easily. Passes that I consider close are brushed off as nothing by other cyclists I know.  Close passing motorists are a risk that I cannot easily prevent.

Actual risk

So which type of cycling is the most risky in my life ?  Mountain Biking, Motorcycling or Cycle-commuting?

I can tell you that I fall off my MTB several times a year.  I have never fallen off or crashed my motorcycle or while cycle-commuting. I have regular fear inducing close passes a few times a year while cycling.  For incidents, MTB'ing is most risky, then cycle commuting, then motorcycling.

In all honesty though, the sheer speed of motorcycling, (max 50mph between home and work) is enough that if I am involved in one incident I might die.  On the bicycle, I feel I am unlikely to be rear ended at speed, and if hit I will probably be pushed aside with a glancing blow.  Mountain Biking, is likely to be broken bones.

The answer

Is cycling in Cambridge more dangerous than extreme sports ?  Perhaps a little, but not significantly.  However, there is a huge amount you can do to mitigate against that risk.  I wonder how much the couple in the story above knew about road positioning ?  Most people have never heard of primary road positioning or the door-zone and by not knowing they expose themselves to risk on the roads. Those same people will probably take the same attitude to risk to extreme sports and get themselves injured whilst doing that.

Its a shame that cyclists and motorcyclists have to take their level of knowledge to such advanced levels to stay safe but that is not going to change in the near future. Use the safe cycle facilities when you can, but when you take to the road, use your fear and learn from it. You'll live longer, and get less bruised along the way.

When I hear somebody categorically say cycling in Cambridge is or isn't dangerous I don't believe them. That can only be their personal opinion based on their own skill and bravery levels. The fear of the couple is legitimate.  Only training or better cycle routes can help them cycle right now.

An interesting link:

Motorcycling is dangerous right ?  Think again.  Look at the graph in the link below.  It looks like weekend biking contributes significantly to motorcycling death rates. Motorcycle commuting feels safer to me than cycle commuting with my skill level. By avoiding being a speed freak weekend biker, I think I have at least halved my risk of being a statistic.

BBC News: Bikers account for 1% of road traffic, but 21% of fatalities.

KSI per billion miles travelled:
Motorcycle 1659
Pedal cycle 880
Pedestrian 514
Car 27

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