Taking regular exercise and trying to stay fit is only common sense, and an increasingly popular way to do it is cycling. But in these days of congested roads and fast-moving traffic, just how safe are cyclists out on the roads?
Only a few generations ago cyclists could feel confident they'd be unlikely to meet too much traffic, and even if they did it would probably be fairly slow moving, quite small and likely to treat them with courtesy. In those days many people cycled out of necessity, with car ownership out of the reach of most families and the traditional 'pushbike' offering a cheap and reliable alternative.
Whether it was going to and from work, getting to school or just nipping to the shops or to see friends, jumping on a bike and pushing those pedals was the norm. Cycling clubs thrived and many keen pedal pushers set out on cycling holidays, all feeling pretty safe from other traffic.
Gradually, as car ownership became more accessible and people started to work and shop further from home, cycling entered a steady decline. Many once-proud British cycle manufacturers went bust while others struggled to stay afloat. Fewer bikes were made and sold, while others gathered rust and cobwebs in forgotten corners of garages and sheds.
In the past few years though, cycling has made a big comeback as a leisure activity. Advances in bikes, some of them now high-tech machines costing thousands of pounds, have certainly helped. Meanwhile more people are looking for ways to stay fit as we move away from physically demanding jobs. The success of British Cycling in sports events such as the Olympics and the Tour de France has also boosted its popularity as both a sport and leisure activity.
Today's cyclists can choose from a massive range of bikes designed for a variety of purposes, with features including lightweight frames, push-button multiple gear systems, suspension for added comfort and powerful hydraulic disc brakes. The range of accessories for cyclists is huge, encompassing everything from specialist lycra clothing to trip computers, halogen lights and carbon-fibre helmets.
But there is one huge downside facing 21st century cyclists – 21st century traffic! Our roads are more congested than ever, with cars and vans capable of much greater acceleration and higher speeds and drivers reportedly becoming more aggressive. Lorries up to 60 feet long and weighing up to 40 tonnes are found not just on motorways and major highways, but on smaller local roads never designed to accommodate them.
Cyclists who take to the roads today are literally taking their lives in their hands. Ironically many people who have opted for cycling had done so precisely because of congestion. In Britain's major cities, where traffic moves at a snail's pace during peak hours, a growing number of commuters have recognised the time-saving and cost-cutting benefits of taking to two wheels.
But in many of our cities there is a conflict brewing between drivers and cyclists, nowhere more so than in London. On one side are drivers who claim too many cyclists blatantly ignore the rules of the road putting themselves and others in danger, while on the other side are cyclists who argue too many drivers show them no consideration and routinely put them at risk. One thing is beyond argument – that in a collision between a vehicle and a cyclist, the cyclist will come off worst.
In some places imaginative schemes have been implemented to make cycling a safer option, from exclusive cycle paths to dedicated 'cycle-only' lanes on roads. Some have worked, others have not. One of the cyclists' biggest fears is large lorries, whose drivers might not even see them.
Now the Mayor London is proposing banning lorries from the capital unless they meet strict new standards on visibility levels for the driver in the cab. He wants lorries rated from zero to five stars based on their driver's ability to see other road users, with any rated under three stars banned from London by 2024. The Road Haulage Association has already accused him of demonising lorries, but in reality most would be adapted to meet the new rules, improving safety but not reducing the number of lorries.
For those cycling for leisure, there is the option to go 'off-road' using modern mountain bikes or trail bikes. More and more cycle trails are being opened up, away from dangerous traffic, but 'off-roading' isn't for everyone. It is also common to see people loading bikes onto cycle racks on their cars to drive to the bike trails, which sort of defeats the object.
There are no doubt lessons to be learned from places where cycling has always been popular, such as China or, closer to home, Holland and Belgium. But for now, if you are going out on the road on a bicycle take care, and always wear a helmet!