Posts Tagged ‘speed’

Cycling Speed

August 1, 2013

I have multiple cycling speeds that I can’t rank ‘better’ and ‘worse’. 10 mph enables me to ride with kids and potter about town. 15 mph feels comfortable for longer rides out in the countryside. 20 mph I’m either going downhill or training. And then there’s 25 mph.

How fast?

25 mph is the speed of performance cycling. Road races typically average around this speed, and time trialling at 25 mph makes you half-decent – that’s something I set out to do this year, to ride 25 miles in under the hour, and 10 miles in under 24 minutes. The other night presented probably this season’s best chance of a sub-24 minute 10 mile ride; a warm, dry and calm evening – perfect conditions, on one of the fastest courses in the country, up and down the A590 near Levens in the south Lakes. My mate Jon also rode, similarly intent on breaking the 24 minute barrier. We make good training partners because we’re about the same level, which creates healthy competition between us and means we push each other to go faster.

Warming up

Time trialling emerged as a clandestine activity at the end of the nineteenth century in response to a ban on road-based bunch-racing. Darkly-dressed riders set off at regular intervals around dawn, to ‘test’ themselves over a secret course. Nowadays it’s almost the opposite – signs are erected around and along the course warning motorists an event is taking place, with riders encouraged to make themselves conspicuous through fitting a powerful rear light to their machine.

It might seem one of cycling’s conservative enclaves – most riders come by car (as a teenager my mates and I would cycle long distances to race, but these days Jon and I are unusual in cycling so far as twenty miles to Levens, and back, to take part) to pedal fast through intensely motorised space, using specific and costly bikes and equipment to enhance performance. Yet there’s politics amidst this personalised search for cycling speed.

Like the more overtly political Critical Mass, road time trialling claims increasingly motorised space for cycling, but instead of collectively claiming urban road space it (alone, I think) maintains cycling’s precarious presence (at one minute intervals) on big, busy and fast roads through the countryside. Only such fast cycling as this has hope of survival here; almost as if technological progress has enabled time trial speeds to keep up with broader accelerations in societal speed.

Perhaps less like Critical Mass, time trialling doesn’t seek to subvert the logic of these speeding corridors of automobility – the draughts produced by big vehicles passing close by help you ride faster! – so much as break the near monopoly which motorised movement imposes on them, by insisting cycling (and play, actually) is possible even here. If that seems a dangerous game, think how cycling’s almost lost its right to these roads – roads hugely important to cycling futures – and how without time trialling they’d become motorways in all but name. (What we really need on roads such as these is high-quality dedicated space for cycling, of whatever speed, along either side.)

Warming up at Levens

I set off one minute after Jon, by which time he’s disappeared into the distance. With five straight miles until the big Meathop roundabout, I concentrate on sustaining maximum power whilst keeping my cadence smooth (the graceful blend of immense effort and relaxed poise, neither of which I have, is what makes a great time triallist.) I know immediately I’m going fast, but more surprisingly, it seems a speed I can sustain.

Riding hard along a road which seems made for speeding cars, trucks, and vans with trailers is a strange experience. I have an abstract awareness of my flimsy and fragile exposure to other vehicles’ bulk and speed, yet my physical effort renders me almost oblivious to the specifics of their presence, unless they get uncomfortably close, in which case I use their proximity to boost my speed, accelerating as they pass; a rare bonus from less courteous driving.

Perched on the front of my saddle, tucked aerodynamically in, I gobble up the road. (I fit aero bars to my road bike ahead of a time trial, enabling a more ‘tucked’, streamlined position.) My fear as I approach the roundabout to return the other way is I’ve had a tail wind out and will hit a head wind back, but the second leg feels harder only because of the effort I’ve so far made. Although I refuse to believe it until my ride is over, it seems increasingly likely I’ll beat my target by a good margin.

Heading home

Jon does too, and we ride home happy, both knowing we’ve ridden 10 miles faster than we’ve ever done before. From a serious cycling perspective our times remain unimpressive (we finish 22nd and 23rd of 44 finishers), but they’ll do for us for now.

(Yes, Jon’s helmet is on backwards; it’s just the kind of thing he does, riding home from a time trial – during which he wears it the right way round.)

Heading home 2

At a personal or cultural level there’s nothing wrong with the search for speed; it’s part of a rich and varied cycling life. But I worry that, although cycling has variable speeds, it seems more generally to be speeding up, just when we need it to be slowing down. Cycling promotion seems often to want to speed cycling up, to make it better fit a fast society; the quicker we can make cycling, the more ‘competitive’ it becomes: inter-modal competitions regularly pit the bicycle against the car to prove cycling’s superiority through urban space; Copenhagen’s ‘Green Wave’ speeds cycling up by giving it priority through junctions; and high-profile British success in cycle sport continues cycling’s acceleration, displaying cycling as something best done fast, not slow. Speed becomes everything.

But making cycling fast makes it less democratic. Cycling is most popular in places where it’s slow, because slow cycling requires less effort. And isn’t life already too fast, and cycling better used to slow it down? A slower life is fairer, greener, and probably more enjoyable. There’s no single cycling speed; all speeds matter if cycling is to play the fullest role in society. But for most people most of the time cycling is best done slowly, and unless we create places where people can ride slowly the British cycling experience will continue to resemble a race amidst speeding traffic – an environment where a few might test themselves but most simply dare not pedal.

20’s plenty

October 22, 2009

Last night I went along to a public meeting at the Storey Institute in Lancaster. Organised by the local Green Party, it was aimed at building support for the introduction of 20 mph speed limits on all residential roads across the district.


John Whitelegg was I think the engine behind the meeting happening, and he opened it, speaking as articulately and persuasively as ever. Then Rod King, from 20’s Plenty for Us, very eloquently and authoritatively elaborated the case for 20 mph speed limits on our streets, and filled us in on recent promising developments across the country.

I am absolutely 100% behind 20’s Plenty for Us, and I suspect that anybody reading this will be too. So I don’t want to go over familiar ground here. But I do want quickly to mention a few of Rod King’s remarks which really stood out for me as I sat listening to him talk, on a street near where I live, last night.

Rod asked a question, which he called ‘a moral question’. “Is it right to be encouraging people to walk and cycle without first changing the conditions for walking and cycling?”. This question also strikes to the very heart of my job on the Understanding Walking and Cycling project. Unsurprisingly, most of the people I’ve so far been talking to through that job are pretty clear that they would walk and cycle more, and let their children walk and cycle more, if – and only if – it was safer, and felt safer, to do so.

Straight from last night’s meeting, Griet and I walked away from Lancaster city centre, along Meeting House Lane, to chat with one couple who are part of our ethnographic fieldwork. Like Sue and me, they have an eight year old son who’s learning to move around a bit more independently. They are being brave in tentatively trying to give him a bit more freedom, he is being brave in beginning tentatively to exercise that freedom. Such processes wouldn’t of course disappear with the arrival of 20 mph speed limits, but they would probably be less stressful to negotiate.

Rod said other things which bear on our Understanding Walking and Cycling project. We are very interested in how people make decisions about how they move around. Rod said that typically, people make their decisions about the speeds at which they drive out on the roads, whilst they are in the process of driving and interacting with the road environment. He said that in contrast, decisions to comply with an urban wide 20 mph limit were made in the home. Although I’m not sure what evidence he has to back up this claim, if it is indeed the case, it is really very interesting.

It suggests to me that where communities have taken action to implement 20 mph limits, then individuals and families across those communities are then thinking about and reflecting on what streets are for, and the role which they themselves can play in producing and reproducing those streets in one way rather than another. It suggests that people might be imagining their streets as they want them to be, rather than merely reacting to them as they currently are. It suggests they are thinking morally ahead of their actions, which then become ‘moral actions’ (whereas thinking on the road, whilst driving, is likely to be more practical, and to produce ‘strategic’, and potentially more self-interested, actions). So if it is correct, this change in the location of decision-making processes over driving behaviour as part of a community getting-to-grips with the idea of itself as a place where traffic speeds stay below 20 mph is really significant, and great news.

Obviously, we urgently need radical and national government action to change the ways in which our streets are used, and the ways in which we move around. But that action, certainly at the widespread and structural level at which it is required, is still not forthcoming. One of the things which now seems to be happening as a result is communities, with the help of inspired and inspiring people such as Rod King, are beginning to fill the moral vacuum created by the lack of a strong governmental lead as to how our streets, towns and cities should be.

Rod seems confident that the time for widespread introduction of 20 mph speed limits across the streets where we live has come. What is required now is for people to push for them. People in places such as Portsmouth, Oxford, Norwich and Leicester have pushed for them. Action is coming from the grassroots. The anarchist in me thinks that’s brilliant. But I also think that it shouldn’t have to be a battle to get 20 mph speed limits imposed where people live, work and play. Such a maximum speed limit should simply be recognised as a fundamental and indisputable right, and imposed.

Rod used an incisive, powerful phrase – he said that “speed becomes greed” when it adversely effects other people’s abilities to move around in ways which they would like. When the speed of motorised vehicles passing through our neighbourhood’s streets means that with heavy hearts and bruised souls we feel we must say “no” to our eight year old sons’ pleas to walk or cycle to school on their own, then the speed of those vehicles is greedy, wrong, and should be cut.

This isn’t just about kids, but I think that kids might be central to effective communication of the moral claims being made. Last night there was discussion about taking school children into meetings at which decisions about speed, about streets, and about the life and death of our communities are taken, often by politicians whose views seem too often to be formulated from behind a car’s steering wheel. Those politicians might do well to hear and to think about perspectives from the pavement; the perspective perhaps of a six year old girl walking to school.

Rod’s observations that we should get down to the height of a six year old child, and try to experience the urban environment from their perspective, see how big the lorries going past look from down there, made me think – about how my own six year old daughter experiences her journeys around the city, and about how in the Understanding Walking and Cycling project we should make sure we assemble video footage of such experiences, ready for when – later on – we’re talking to practitioners and policy-makers about the need for revolutionary changes to our urban environments.