Joining a cycling club ride is a wonderful way to get fit and enjoy the great outdoors – but there are rules and etiquettes to follow, explains Andrew Critchlow
“They’re throwing themselves into the road gladly! Throwing themselves into the road to escape all this hideousness!” screamed Withnail – the dishevelled actor played by Richard E Grant from the window of a rusty Jaguar MkII in the film ‘Withnail and I’.
The same thought crossed my mind recently when I saw two video clips of cyclists apparently trying to injure themselves on Britain’s roads.
The first clip of a bloke falling off his bike when trying to perform a two-armed victory salute after conquering the dizzy summit of Box Hill was just daft. The second saw a bunch of cycling “clowns” in Yorkshire ignoring the instructions of a race marshal to ride directly into the oncoming peloton of a proper cycling road race.
Both events are evidence of one thing. That thousands of (often overweight) middle-aged middle managers are now throwing themselves willingly onto the nation’s roads every weekend. You only need to take a trip to Richmond Park on a Saturday morning for further proof. The rise of the saddle-based weekend jolly is no terrible thing – cycling is a great sport, offering a myriad of health benefits, and its uptake is to be encouraged. But what worries me is that many of these cyclists don’t learn the basic safety lessons of road cycling in a group before hitting the tarmac. By failing to do so, they endanger their own lives and the lives of others.
Who am I to make such a judgement, you ask? After all, it’s a free country and if people want to spend £8,000 on a bicycle to go and huff and puff around Surrey every weekend to “escape all this hideousness” they’re within their rights to do so.
I spent much of my youth pedaling on Britain’s pothole strewn roads, racing from the age of 16. I raced for Great Britain on the road and on the track, while earning my dues as a bike courier (I still have the scars to prove it). I’ve fallen off so many times and broken so many bones that one of my old bike clubs awarded me their “Rider Instability Prize”. The national coach once told me I could win any race I wanted if I could only stay upright.
Andrew Critchlow races at the Porthole GP in 1999, where he came second to Gethin Butler
But enough about me. The serious point is that cyclists new to the sport (or the hobby, depending on how you view it) need to take the time to learn its rules and etiquettes. Riding in a straight line on the open road is harder than you may think. Fail to learn the technique and you run the risk of becoming a lycra-clad wrecking ball, an accident waiting to happen – or a ‘fish and chipper’, as they’re known in bike racing circles.
Here, then, is my 17-point guide to enjoying cycling safely and avoiding the dreaded ‘chipper’ label…
1. Join a local cycling club and learn something about the sport and how to ride. You’ll be surrounded by experienced riders who know how to conduct themselves on the road.
2. Be respectful to everyone on the road, including other cyclists. If you pass another cyclist say hello. If you see someone with a puncture ask them if they need a hand. Wave cars by so that people aren’t delayed on their journeys.
3. Support local races and get involved as a race marshal. You will meet proper cyclists and learn more about the culture of cycling. Put something back into the sport.
4. Never ride more than two abreast and always go into single file when a car approaches from behind. If you’re riding in a big bunch, suggest that you split into smaller groups – it makes negotiating traffic that bit easier.
5. Don’t ride in the gutter, it won’t save you from the articulated lorry with your number on its bumper. Instead, give yourself plenty of room and make yourself visible to other road users without hogging all the road.
6. Never perform a two-handed victory salute when riding uphill and never take your hands off your £800 carbon-fibre handlebars in a bunch unless you’re from Belgium.
7. Ride a bike that reflects your ability, not your ego. Bikes worth £10,000 are only cool when piloted by racing snakes who can ride 25 miles in under 52 minutes. I won my first race on a £150 third-hand Paganini, which changed gear of its own accord.
8. Don’t shave your legs unless you’re a woman, or you actually race. Sportives don’t count. While we’re on the subject of Sportives, numbers are for the back of the jersey and not the front of the handle bars.
9. Buy some mudguards. I admit I’ve been guilty of not having these in the past, but I now realise that it’s not cool for anyone behind you on a group ride in the wet to have water sprayed in their face. Failure to use mudguards in winter could make you a more hated figure in the bunch than Lance Armstrong.
10. Always look at the road ahead and not your GPS or the back brake of the person immediately in front of you.
11. Sign up to a bike race early on in your fledgling cycling career. What doesn’t kill you will make you stronger.
12. Never wear a rainbow jersey, yellow jersey, national jersey or any other type of winner’s jersey that you haven’t actually won (yes: that basically rules out everyone). This is also another reason to join a local cycling club. They all have their own kit and some of them are pretty cool. My own favourite was Ferryhill Wheelers.
13. Always share water with other cyclists and always wait for riders struggling on a group ride. No matter how strong you think you are, one day you will be the one hoping someone has waited for you.
14. Don’t “half wheel” in a group. This means nudging your front wheel slightly ahead of the rider next to you. Learn to ride at a balanced pace. If you want to turn on the gas, agree to a specific target before you set off. Town sign sprints are things of legend in most training groups.
15. Watch any cycling video of Bernard Hinault. The ‘Badger’ knew how to do it and would give ‘Wiggo’, Froome and the rest of the pro-peloton a kicking in his day.
16. Smile. It could be much worse – you could be a rugby player!
17. Wear a helmet. Obviously