Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Column, January 17, 2005

I DON’T doubt that some bicycles lay idle this weekend.
Worried parents will have kept their kids indoors, or in cars, not wanting them to be claimed so randomly as the four cyclists killed near Abergele on Sunday.
And who could blame them for that?
After all, here was a group of cyclists on an organised ride, in large numbers, perfectly visible and riding sensibly. If they aren’t safe, then can it really be safe to cycle on the roads?
Investigations will continue, but this was no case of road rage or speeding. The driver hit black ice and skidded into the cyclists, as simple, and tragic, as that.
Whether anything could or should have been done beforehand
If the cyclists had set out a minute later all that would have happened is a near-miss, something anyone who goes out on a bike has a multitude of to tell you about.
But they didn’t, with imperfect timing they were in exactly the spot they needed to be to be hit by that car when it hit that ice. And so a father saw his son die, and other families have been left without fathers, brothers, sons as a result.
Almost immediately questions were asked about the safety of cycling – with the implication that anyone who indulges in it is clearly taking an unacceptable risk with their life.
And the statistics would seem to bear the critics out - with cyclists being the only category of road user where the death toll is rising.
But reliance on such figures ignores the fact that cycling is becoming more popular and even more kids will have had a bike sitting under the Christmas tree this year.
But before those bike are put away unused in the garage, or worse flogged on eBay, let us remember that the reason we are so shocked by this terrible accident is because of its rarity.
Thousands upon thousands of people go out every day on bicycles and do so perfectly safely.
The health benefits of cycling for the majority vastly outweigh the risk of injury or death. In fact cycling has probably saved many more lives through increased fitness than it has ever cost in crashes.
I know it is all too easy to say that when four families are grieving though. But this weekend cyclists still made the journey out onto the roads of North Wales.
Perhaps a little more cautiously, and certainly their thoughts turned to those who lost their lives doing just that a week before.
But why take the risk? Why go out on a bike in the face of such apparent danger.
Because, after the first lung-bursting minutes when your legs ache, your back aches, your ankles hurt, your fingers are numb and the cold penetrates the very marrow of your bones, all of a sudden that all stops.
You crest a hill, your breathing suddenly becomes easier, you hit your stride and it is just…joyous. When Radio 4 asked listeners what was the greatest invention ever, what did they vote for? Not the light bulb, or even radio – but the humble bicycle.
I used to drop down the flanks of vertiginous hills in Wales with nought but a polystyrene helmet between me and my demise.
Nowadays the pace is more sedate, due to the presence of my two-year-old son strapped to his child-seat on the back.
I hope our outings are the beginning of his lifelong love of cycling for him. And when the time comes for him to set out on his own, of course I will worry and warn and watch him like a hawk.
But cycling is a little bit of freedom, and we should not abandon such things easily.
What we need are not fewer cyclists on the roads, but more. In Holland, where bikes seem to outnumber their riders, drivers have to look out for cyclists because they have sheer weight of numbers on their side.
Here we’re still seen as slightly odd, eccentric even, to favour a mode of transport that actually involves our own effort.
The whole issue of cycling has become politicised, partly because of a vociferous and well-funded motoring lobby that sees any curtailment of motorists ‘rights’ as the equivalent of ripping up the Magna Carta.
But now is not the time to make political points on the part of cyclists. Firtsly there is a difference between a cyclist being killed in a road rage attack and one who dies because of a patch of black ice. Both could perhaps be prevented, but the nature of the problem is entirely different.
Those who seek to make drivers take more care should not use this case to prove their point until they are sure of what exactly happened here.
In the meantime the most fitting tribute to those who died is exactly what happened at the weekend – a legion of their friends and fellow cyclists taking to the roads to enjoy the sport they loved so much.

IN Pwllheli, supermarket plans, it would seem, are like buses – just when you least expect it, two come along at once.
The traders of the town are already fighting tooth and nail to prevent a Walmart development. Sorry, did I say Walmart, silly me, that’s the vast US superstore giant name for it, I really mean Asda – much more cuddly.
At a packed public meeting – and try getting 113 people out on a cold January night for anything else and see how far you get – 108 were against the development, two were undecided and three were for it.
But just when they thought a two-story Asda was bad enough it’s rumoured that outline planning has been granted for a site at the opposite end of the town and word is that Tesco are interested.
Which would leave the independent traders of Pwllheli caught between two loss-leading, price-cutting, stack ‘em high and flog ‘em cheap even if they don’t want it, supermarket behemoths.
And what a fantastic experience for the shopper Pwllheli is going to be in 10 year’s time when every independent shop has gone to the wall.
Never mind, you’ll have Tesco or Asda to choose from, just like you have in every other benighted town in the UK.
Still, it seems Pwllheli Chamber of Trade is up for the fight and let’s hope the unstoppable tide of supermarket clones is turned back on the Llyn.

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