Risky Business

I am all for children taking risks. I think it is essential that all children grow up being encouraged to take risks. It is only through taking risks that they can learn how to manage risks.

We all want to keep our children safe all the time. No parent wants to see their child hurt. But they have to learn to keep themselves safe.

We can’t always be there to catch them, they need to learn how to fall.

I don’t mean that we should encourage them to jump down the stairs or run in front of buses. In fact it is a daily battle to prevent my daughter from engaging in just such acts of assured self destruction.

I mean measured risks.

If the consequence of taking a risk and failing at something is a bruise or a scrape then I will let my children take that risk. Bruises and scrapes are not that big a deal. If the consequence could be broken bones or being flattened by a bus then I will not let them take that risk.

I see it as my job as a parent to keep my children safe and I take that responsibility very seriously.

But it is not my job to prevent them from ever falling over.

I am happy for my children to take risks and discover their own limits.

Two weeks ago, my nearly-five year old son decided it was time he learnt to pedal his bike. He got a balance bike for his second birthday. When he got too big for it, we got him a pedal bike. But he insisted on riding it as a balance bike with the pedals off. Until now.

In typical my son style, he decided out of the blue that he was ready to pedal, and that was that. Off he went. He is brilliant on the bike. He handles it really well and is absolutely flying.

He is clearly a child after his mother’s heart – he loves to cycle.

He is used to bikes for transport. We have been using the cargo bike to get most places for over two years.

So naturally, he wants to ride his bike everywhere we go. After all, that’s what I do.

So far, this has worked fine with his bike attached to the cargo bike. He goes in the cargo bike on the roads and on his own bike on the cycle paths. Another huge benefit from owning a cargo bike. We get to race along the paths and ride together chatting.

But, he doesn’t really want to keep getting on and off. He just wants to ride his bike.

He wants to ride on the roads, just like Mummy and Daddy.

I’m not talking main roads. I mean the ‘quiet’ roads that are part of the cycle routes.

I am happy for my children to take risks and discover their own limits.

But this doesn’t feel like my child taking a risk. It feels like other people (drivers) taking risks with my child.

And the potential consequences are huge.

I am not happy with that. Not at all.

So what now?

Do I:

A) Let him start riding on the roads with lots of instruction and guidance.

or

B) Explain to him that the roads are unsafe so no, he cannot ride on them.

The trouble is, neither of these options sit well with me.

Here are my issues:

Option A:

I know how some drivers choose to drive. On a daily basis, cars cut me up, pass with centimeters to spare, pass on blind corners, drive straight at me, and share their views on my chosen mode of transport with some colourful language.

I know really that this is the minority of drivers. Most are absolutely fine. But that minority of drivers are taking a risk with my life. The potential consequences of that risk are very very serious.

I cannot let them take that risk with my son.

Option B:

There are so many problems with this option.

I want my children to love cycling like I do. I want them to love cycling like Danny does at the moment. If cycling becomes a frustrating experience of being told no all the time I am going to take this away from them.

I want my children to grow up believing that people are inherently good. We all make mistakes but people are good at heart. I try to believe this despite the close passes and colourful language. I cannot expect my children to believe this if I tell them that some drivers make the roads unsafe for cyclists. They make the roads unsafe just so they can get where they are going 2 minutes faster.

And then, how do I answer questions like:

“But you and Daddy ride on the roads, does that mean you are not safe?”

“But you ride the cargo bike on the roads with us on it, does that mean we are all not safe?”

“When will I be old enough to ride on the roads?”

And here’s the thing. When will he be old enough? My mum regularly tells me how much she hates the thought of my cycling on the roads. I’m in my 40s.

So option A and option B are both unsatisfactory.

I need an option C.

Anybody got an option C?

“That woman with the bike”

Pretty soon after I started using the cargo bike on a daily basis, I realised that I was no longer just ‘a cyclist’ to the people I came across. I became “that woman with the bike”.

I know this because I have a friend who is lovely and who looks the part of a playground mum. She is ‘in with the playground mum chat’. What I do not know is the tone that people use when they say “that woman on the bike”. I like to think that it’s not snarled through gritted teeth but sometimes I suspect otherwise.

I also find it incredible how many other cyclists tell me where else in the city they have seen me on my distinctive bike.

And I find it incredible how many people say “oh, you’re the woman with the bike” when I am off the bike but talk about it.

It is a strange feeling not being anonymous.

It makes me realise how often we are anonymous in daily life. We don’t really recognise people that we don’t know, even when we see them every day walking or driving or cycling around our streets.

Trust me, you do get recognised when you ride the only bakfiets in the village.

It also makes me realise that there is more than one way to ride a bike.

I consider myself a safe cyclist.

I consider myself an assertive cyclist.

Others perhaps consider me an aggressive cyclist.

Others definitely consider me an annoying cyclist.

Here’s the thing. I take the issue of safe passing distance very seriously.

There are plenty of articles available online detailing close pass statistics. A quick Google of ‘close pass cyclist’ will provide plenty of links. I’m not going to bother repeating them here.

I am going to speak from daily experience.

Close passes are scary.

Close passes can be terrifying.

Close passes are completely unnecessary.

In my more generous moments, I think people pass me so close I could reach out and touch their car / van / taxi / bus because they just do not realise how vulnerable cyclists are. They do not realise how close they are. They do not see the potholes that might mean I need to move further from the curb.

In my less generous moments, I think people people pass that close because they really do think that their journey is more important than my life and my childrens’ lives.

West Midlands Police recently ran a campaign to educate drivers about the dangers of close passes. Other police forces also showed interest in this and Cycling UK are running a kickstarter campaign to provide close pass cycle mats  to every police force in Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

I think this is a fantastic initiative.

I think it can make cycling safer.

Even more important, I think it can make cycling more attractive to people who currently don’t cycle.

I think it could encourage more families to take to their bikes.

I hope it could encourage more families to take to their bikes on the school run.

Back to why I know I am an annoying cyclist.

I do not cycle right next to the curb. I cycle around half a metre from the curb. Maybe more, maybe less, depending on the state of the road. I have always done this. Long before I realised that this is exactly what the police would advise. I have always seen this as providing me with somewhere to go if a driver does pass me too close for comfort.

Sometimes, this means that a vehicle cannot get past me as soon as they might like to.

But it does mean we are safe.

Anyone who has had any experience of the school run will know the kind of parking which goes on. This narrows some of the roads I have to use to one lane. If I squeeze into the kerb and drivers pass me as close as they can, then there is still room for them to pass me immediately.

But that means we are not safe.

So, I won’t allow it.

If a road is narrow and there is not room for a car to pass me with at least a metre to spare, I will cycle much more than 0.5m from the kerb, to make drivers wait until the road is wider before they pass me.

And that means that we are safe.

There are a couple of roads where I do this every day.

I can appreciate that this must be frustrating for some drivers.

I am not trying to make any kind of point. I am not trying to upset anyone. I am just keeping us safe.

The roads where I do this every day are not very long.

The delay to drivers cannot be more than two minutes.

The minority of drivers who react to this by shouting abuse are not going to make any difference to me.

I will still cycle.

I will still cycle defensively.

I will still wonder, does two minutes really make that much difference to a person’s day?

Lycra in the Playground

When my son started at the school nursery, I became ‘a playground mum’. Playground mums are those mums who are lucky enough to be able to drop off and collect their lovely offspring from school or nursery each day. When I stopped work and became a ‘stay at home mum’, I gave this aspect of my new role no thought whatsoever, absolutely none. I did, however, give a great deal of thought to how I was going to get to school with my 2 children in tow. We live about a mile and a half from the school. We have a car but this seems a ridiculous distance to drive and also, I just don’t seem to have the appropriate attitude for driving and parking around a school at peak times. I can’t seem to help myself.  I just can’t shake my deeply held belief that other people also have a right to life, and to parking in their own driveways, and being able to travel safely along a public road. Also, try as I might, I can’t seem to stop believing that people go to the trouble of painting double yellow lines and zig zag lines for a reason other than to provide a colourful place to park.

Back to my school run quandary. So, just the thought of driving to the school filled me with fear. Anyone who has ever attempted walking a mile and a half with a 3 year old and a 1 year old on a regular basis will know why this was an unthinkable option (think lateness and arguing day in, day out). Enter….the cargo bike…..

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Oh, how I love my cargo bike! More on this in another post but, suffice to say, I get to ride a bike (albeit very very slowly), every single day, whilst looking after my children. I know exactly how long the journey will take, I don’t have to worry about finding a parking space, the children actually love it, and the only downside seems to be the fair number of drivers around the school who do not share my deeply held belief about right to life, etc, etc.

So, mode of transport sorted. Now, what to wear. When Danny first started nursery, he had an afternoon place and Ellen still needed a nap after lunch. She would happily nap on the bike, and what a mileage winner this was. After I dropped Danny off, I had an hour long route on cycle paths (ok, so an hour was only about 8 miles, who cares, I was cycling!) which would be about as long a nap as Ellen needed. That gave me a little while to play back at home before hopping back on the bike to collect Danny from nursery. I had not been able to cycle this much since Danny was born and it was brilliant. It reminded me how much cycling was a part of my identity and something I needed to do to feel like me. It also reminded me why cycle clothing involves padding and lycra after a few weeks of an hour and a half a day cycling, wearing jeans. Oh my goodness, my poor arse! So, cycle clothing it was then. Cycle clothing, for the school run. It was then that I started to notice the playground mums.

I do not know how they do it. Every day the playground is filled with mums, dropping off their children, and looking amazing. Their hair is straightened, their makeup is perfect, they are stylishly dressed. Not just one or 2 of the mums, it seems like almost all of them. Nobody warned me that this was part of having children. That I would suddenly feel like I really should make more of an effort about my appearance. And not a single one of those playground mums was wearing well used and very very comfortable lycra. I obviously cannot say for certain, but I am pretty sure that I am in a very small minority in having a padded insert in my trousers on the school run. Nobody warned me that the playground is as intimidating for the mums as it is for the children. And I felt like the weird one in the class who is only just realising that the way they are dressed is wholly inappropriate for the situation. My arse felt so much better though. And I was on a bike.  So I got over it (mostly…I still feel a bit like the weird kid in the class).