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  • Writer's pictureMark Howitt

Invincible



Cycling in a peloton, I always had a feeling of invincibility, invincibility mixed with a slight sense of danger, a lot of moving parts, some quite sharp parts, and the less than comforting thought that should there be a crash - not that that would ever happen - any fall would be broken by cruel, unforgiving asphalt. Still, every pursuit has an element of risk, you could get a papercut from the page of a stamp album.


I love riding in a peloton, and I can’t get enough of riding in a peloton on the near perfect roads of Mallorca. There’s a friendship, or if not friendship, camaraderie in a peloton. I’m not talking about professional cycling, history is littered with fights there, Gino Bartali v Fausto Coppi, Bernard Hinault v Greg LeMond, Lance Armstrong v Jan Ullrich, Lance against everyone. But in a group on a cycling holiday there’s feeling of common purpose and togetherness.


I was last in Mallorca ten months ago. After the final ride of the week, we were gathered in the late afternoon sunshine at the Bike Stop café for a last beer or milkshake, they do exquisite milkshakes at the Bike Stop. It had been an exhilarating afternoon, there had only been seven of us and we had had to work hard for the final stretch into a head wind from sa Pobla back to base at Platja de Muro on the north east coast of the island. For the last half hour of the ride, our ride leader, Taff (I have known Taff for many years and he has no problem with this name, indeed I have no idea what his “real” name is, this being how he had first introduced himself when I met him ten years ago) had been blowing his whistle every 30 seconds to signal a change in formation, this to ensure that no one was at the front of the peloton for very long and that we all got a break from the brunt of the wind.


Over refreshments at the café Taff suggested that back home on a Sunday morning club ride - of which I have no experience - everyone has different priorities, even if it is only to get home in time to put on the potatoes. More likely there is a competitive element creeping in like trying to beat a personal best. That’s difficult when you’re all meant to be riding as a group. On trips like these it’s different. Although you might come with friends and - as has happened to me on several occasions - you might meet people you have met on previous trips, chances are everyone is “new” to each other, and you’re all working towards the same goal.


And that goal is simply to cycle together, roughly at a pre-agreed speed, stop for coffee and cake after about 40km, for lunch after another 40km and then maybe a final 30-40km to the Bike Stop, have a laugh along the way, enjoy the scenery.


And not fall off.


***


Of all the social media platforms the one I hate the most is LinkedIn. Despite this, I continue to look at it daily, telling myself that I’m not addicted, that there are contributors - tax lawyer turned investigative journalist, Dan Neidle for example - whose content I couldn’t access elsewhere. Even that isn’t true, I’m signed up to Dan’s Tax Policy Associates newsletter so am notified when he posts a new article. I’m kidding myself, I have a LinkedIn addiction, I’m the saddest sort of junky imaginable.


My main gripe with LinkedIn, aside from people posting cod philosophy like “Tomorrow is a mystery, today is a gift, that’s why we call it the present”, is that in general it’s just a back slapping forum and debates (“debates") that exist are one dimensional, with rarely anyone demurring from what is proposed in the initial post. Recently someone revealed that HM Revenue & Customs are now conducting compliance checks on 20% of all Research & Development (R&D) Tax Credit claims. LinkedIn users piled on saying that this was “dreadful”, “shocking”, “terrible”. Since their introduction almost 25 years ago R&D tax credits have been widely abused, in one example a claim was made by a restaurant for the introduction of a new pizza menu. With these fraudulent claims resulting in a massive tax loss to the public purse, a one-in-five verification seems quite light touch to me. Of course, I wouldn’t dare say that.


There is one exception to this Emperor’s New Clothes approach. I follow Chris Bruntlett, International Relations at the Dutch Cycling Embassy and Lior Steinberg, Co-founder of humankind, a Dutch urban planning collective based in Rotterdam. Through their posts and others similar fed to me by LinkedIn’s algorithm, I have read about imaginative urban change projects in cities throughout the world, giving space previously used by cars back to pedestrians and cyclists. These might be creating bike lanes, transforming car parking spaces into seating areas or bike storage facilities, or making city centre streets completely car-free. One thing you can almost guarantee is that somewhere in the comments on posts describing similar schemes being proposed in the UK, there will be someone moaning about the “war on motorists”, how “taxi drivers will take double the time to get anywhere”, how they’re sick of “money being wasted on schemes like this just to enable people to drink cappuccinos”, and - the classic - “cyclists don’t pay for the roads”. Yep, buy a bike and you’re exempt from paying tax for life. It’s all very depressing.


I don’t have a car, I did have for many years, but don’t now. I realise I’m in a privileged position in not having to have one, I can walk everywhere I need to go most of the time and if, exceptionally, I need a car, I hire one using the city car club scheme. That doesn’t suit everyone and perhaps if I had to drive every day or most days of the week I’d feel differently. But I’d hope that being behind the wheel more often wouldn’t make me behave as if my car was an extension of my being, and as if the city’s streets belonged exclusively to cars. Most streets in the centre of the UK's major cities pre-date the invention of the motor car in 1896 and the definitions of motorist, cyclist and pedestrian are not mutually exclusive, you can be all three.


Oh, and the world’s on fire, we can’t keep on keeping on.


***


I started work in 1985, finished in 2023. For a short while in the mid-1990s I had a company car, but - until late in my career - mostly I caught the bus to work, because, well, that’s how you got from your house to the office wasn’t it? I never thought to walk - it is with some embarrassment that I now recall that at one point the bus journey covered a mere six bus stops and, on a good day, might take around ten minutes - and it never crossed my mind to cycle, indeed I went several decades not owning a bicycle.


For me the lockdown that resulted from the coronavirus pandemic in 2020 was a golden age, selfish I know. I’d already decided to leave what I then thought was my last job (by which time I’d mastered the art of walking to the office), spent that summer cycling and, to begin with, the roads were blissfully traffic free.


I rarely get on my bike with a detailed route in my head. I might set out from my home in Edinburgh with the idea of cycling to, say, Innerleithen, Gifford or North Berwick but as to how - or even if - I reach those destinations is in the lap of the gods, I’ll see a road that I remember and change what vague plan I had. So many times, with the intention of cycling south east, something would pull me westwards, through Penicuik and up towards the moor road, drifting through Auchencorth Moss and Deepsyke Forest with views of the Pentland Hills to the north, before tumbling down the hill into West Linton. Likewise, another day heading back to Edinburgh from East Lothian I might swing by Trabroun Steadings. A beautiful, if seen better days, 19th century Category ‘B’ Listed farm building with a dovecot, it sits on a pleasing, fun to cycle ‘S’ bend which quickly straightens out, leading the way to Longniddry and then on to the coast. No trying to top the Strava segment leaderboard for me, no Strava for me, simply the love of pushing the pedals on the open road.


18 months ago - was it really only 18 months ago? - I started a new job, which really was to be my last. Thoroughly enjoyable, genuinely interesting work, made some friends, didn’t break anything, actually I did break a cafetiere, but it was time to start something new and I passed on the flame to someone else late last year. No regrets. Anyway, anyway …


The company’s office was - still is - on the other side of the city from where I live, about a 50 minute walk, and, with an awkward connection in the city centre, possibly longer by bus. So, in the twilight of my career, I decided to commute by bike.


Initially I was cautious, using bike paths as far as possible. Bike paths in Edinburgh are a mixed bag, the paths at the start of my commute, those that run through Bruntsfield Links and the Meadows, are certainly wide. But the sides set out for pedestrians and cyclists are demarcated by painted white lines, a division not always observed by those on foot. I found that the first ten minutes of my morning’s journey were incredibly anxiety invoking, having to weave in-&-out of parents taking children to school, dog walkers, students, other cyclists avoiding the same, and in winter, the paths were a low priority to be gritted. All in all they were more trouble than they were worth and it was a relief to get back on to a proper road at the north end of Middle Meadow Walk.


So I gave up on bike paths, headed straight down bustling Lothian Road, traversing the tram tracks at the junction with Princes Street, Charlotte Square, across Queen Street, down the cobbles to Stockbridge (should probably get those brakes fixed), sharp right past the Grange Cricket Club, through Inverleith Park, one horrible right turn, a last burst up hill, and I’m there. And I felt reasonably safe doing that, at no time did I feel intimidated by the traffic. The biggest danger wasn’t cars but pedestrians who seemed unable to assess the speed of a bicycle hurtling towards them or, as they stepped off the pavement, plain didn’t see me. I wasn’t so much invincible but invisible.


Helping to recruit Stacey to replace me was certainly my greatest achievement in that final job, but cycling to-&-from work was a close second.


***


The crash when it came wasn’t when I was cycling in a peloton, unless you can have a peloton comprising one cyclist, which, by the word’s very definition, you can’t. Nor was it when I was commuting to or from work.


It was early September, a few days after finishing up at work. I’d set out with the intention of cycling along the East Lothian coast to North Berwick, when after a mere 20 minutes, not even out of the city boundaries, I skidded on some gravel (I’m guessing at that bit) bounced into a stationary campervan and ended up lying on the road in a daze, thinking that I had probably broken something. Despite having had no formal medical training beyond my Cub Scout’s First Aid badge, that diagnosis was correct: I had broken my right clavicle and 12 ribs. Excruciatingly painful but nothing that four days in hospital, a supply of strong drugs, physiotherapy and plenty of rest at home couldn’t fix.


Walking around Edinburgh during the last six months, that accident has brought two things into focus for the first time.


First, motorised traffic moves fast, even 20 mph is fast. I’m not using this as an opportunity to advocate that all urban roads should have 20 mph speed limits, (although that seems like a pretty good idea) just saying that, having fallen off my bike where there wasn’t a moving vehicle involved, that was bad enough, and now that I’m looking at our streets, cars are big and they move quickly. And often, you can see the impatience of drivers overtaking cyclists. Only to have to halt at traffic lights 400 metres further up the road. More haste, less speed.


Second, I see so many cyclists not wearing helmets. I occasionally didn’t wear a helmet, ridiculously I didn’t wear one the times I went to the bike repair shop which is a five minute ride away. But primarily I didn’t wear it because I was going to the bike repair shop, not because it was short journey, what sort of twisted logic is that? Wearing a helmet on that ride last September prevented me from getting a serious head injury - the helmet was split right up the back, that would have been my skull. “But no one wears a cycling helmet in Amsterdam.” True, but I dare you try walking your dog in Amsterdam’s segregated cycling lanes.


***


Until now, I didn’t feel confident enough to get back on my bike, the prospect of getting back into traffic really freaked me out. On Sunday I decided to do a soft launch, a couple of times around the Meadows (with their painted line bike paths) but it transpired it was the day of the annual Meadows Marathon, the place was full of runners, no cyclists allowed, so I was forced on to Edinburgh’s roads. And you know what? It was fine. I pottered about for 40 minutes, then headed home, thinking that sometime this week I’d go a bit further, maybe take the Roseburn path down to Silverknowes. Perhaps by the summer I’ll finish that trip I started in September and make it all the way to North Berwick.


I don't want to underplay the potential dangers to cyclists that exist on our city streets. Since I started writing this, 11 year old Thomas Wong was killed on his bike by the driver of a bin lorry while on his way to school in Edinburgh. A tragic and utterly needless death, just a kid enjoying the feeling of propelling himself forward on two wheels, my heart goes out to his family and friends.


Outside James Gillespie’s Primary School on Bruntsfield Links there are traffic filters which block motorised traffic but allow cyclists to pass. It’s part of the Greenbank to Meadows Quiet Route created, among other things, to enable school children to safely cycle to school, in the process gaining independence but also meaning that they can cross safely to the Links for outdoor sports. It’s been an incredibly successful initiative and one that you wouldn’t have thought would cause controversy. As I cycled past on Sunday there was a middle-aged couple standing by the filters, clearly discussing them. It was a “debate” worthy of LinkedIn.


I didn’t catch it all but the highlight was an exasperated "cyclists are taking over our roads” followed by some head shaking. Don’t worry, we will, we're not going anywhere, we're invincible.



Image: Milsey Bay, North Berwick © Mark Howitt

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