When a picture is worth a thousand words

They say a picture is worth a thousand words. This photograph, taken this morning on my regular ride to work, won’t be winning any Pulitzer prizes but it does have a lot to say about the state of cycling in London in 2012.

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In the foreground you can see a row of newly installed stainless steel bike parking stands, made by Cyclehoop, a company founded by the talented architect and product designer Anthony Lau and one of a growing number of small, hip London-based start-ups who are playing their part in current bike boom. At the far end is a shiny new Lezyne track pump encased in a towering column of brushed steel. It is free to use for anyone whose tyres need a top up.

Pump

It is all very high specification stuff, and I expect it cost a pretty penny to install the stands and the small expanse of cobblestone paving, but also to remove the pair of traditional black Sheffield stands that previously stood on this site, and can be seen in this image from Google Street View:

Street view

Of course, cycling in London is très fashionable and everyone wants their bit of the bike boom. The Times is campaigning for cycling and politicians are falling over themselves to get with the cyclists. They’ve given us subsidised hire bikes and even as they struggle with bruising cuts to public expenditure they are renewing perfectly serviceable Sheffield stands and throwing in top-of-the-range track pumps for good measure.

None of this goodwill goes as far as challenging the primacy of the motor car on the public highway, reducing speeds or re-allocating even a modest amount of road space so that people aged eight to eighty can ride their bikes in safety and comfort. But it’s the little things that count and a stainless steel track pump really shows us that they care, doesn’t it?

gutter

To the right of the track pump is a bicycle locked up to the new stands. It’s low end road frame with skinny tyres, deep section rims, mountain bike handlebars. No chain case, no mudguards, no pannier rack and no basket. The chain is poorly maintained and orange with rust. In other words, it is the typical bike offered to the prospective London commuter cyclist by the major London bike shop chains. Look more closely and you’ll see it’s a Claud Butler ‘Criterium’, a 2011 model (now discontinued) whose recommended retail price was £299. It is still available online for less than £250.

criterium

Claud Butler was a framebuilder from Clapham, just down the road from here, and one of the giants of British bicycle history. In the days when every London neighbourhood had its own frame builder, Claud Butler’s lightweight racing machines stood above the rest and helped define a golden era of mass cycling in Britain that began in the 1930s, blossomed in the years following the Second World War and lasted until the Great Extinction of the late 1950s when mass car ownership began to consign the bicycle to a marginal, mostly recreational role.

Cycling in Great Britain, 1949-2010

The 1950s Sport Anglais model, pictured below, shows the very finest of the Claud Butler marque. The elaborate bi-laminated lugwork, the partly chromed biplane fork crown and detailed box lining are the height of skilled craftsmanship.

In those days a Claud Butler bicycle would cost a full month’s wages, maybe two. And many Claud Butlers from this era (and later) are still ridden today. Our sub-£250 ‘Criterium’ model makes more modest demands on the cyclists’ wallet for it is a standardised, mass-produced product of the global economy and not build to last. Who knows where it was made, by whom, in what conditions. I draw a little comfort from the thought that somewhere in a far off eastern land, someone cared enough to ensure that the fork, frame and saddle each boast the distinctive ‘lemon and lime’ colourway that any Claud Butler connoisseur will immediately recognise as the distinguishing feature of the 2011 ‘Criterium’.

If he weren’t spinning in his grave, I am sure that Claud Butler, as a former racing man, would share my own doubts about the suitability of the ‘Criterium’ model that bears his name for anyone taking part in an actual Criterium race, such as the London Nocturne, which returns to Smithfield Market this summer, sponsored by IG Group, ‘a world leader in the trading of financial derivatives’. Even the financial whizz kids of the City want their share of the cycling pie.

But I digress. Back to our street scene.

Cycling in London

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The two cyclists we see are wearing yellow high visibility tabards, standard issue kit for the London commuting cyclist whose major concern is getting home without bodily injury. Not that wearing such a garment will ensure against a lorry crushing you to death under its wheels (click here to read the Coroner’s report following the inquest into the death of London cyclist Emma Foa).

The cyclist waiting at the red light is unusual and I don’t mean because it’s unusual to see a London cyclist waiting at a red light. How so, you might ask. Is this not the archetypal London cyclist? It’s true, he’s one of several hundred thousand people who have made use of the London Cycle Hire scheme (aka Boris Bikes) and, like many other London commuting cyclists, he’s sporting a helmet and a casually cycle-specific outfit comprising of a pair of baggy black shorts and the aforementioned high visibility tabard. But it is the combination of these two choices that makes our man a most unusual sight. Overwhelmingly, people riding Boris Bikes wear neither helmets nor high viz and find their normal clothes more than up to the task. Most often they ride in a smart suit and tie, sometimes in a long, flowing flowery dress and occasionally a pair of velvet loon pants. In short, people on Boris Bikes wear their everyday wardrobe, whatever that may be.

While their contribution to London’s overall transportation mix has been minimal, the 8,000 subsidised Boris Bikes have done more to promote the possibility of everyday cycling in everyday clothes than any amount of cycle chic blogging, tweedy runs or state-sponsored bicycle catwalk shows. Boris Johnson, our dishevelled, tousle-haired cycling Mayor is as good sartorial ambassador for everyday cycling as you could expect to meet. Unfortunately, he is also the person with the most real power to improve London’s roads for cyclists yet he thinks that it’s fine to cycle down the Euston Underpass or around the Elephant and Castle roundabout, as long as you keep your wits about you and he thinks that the best way to make London a world class cycling city is to splash a lot of blue paint around.

"Super Highway"

Returning to the photograph, you’ll notice that unlike both of the cyclists, the large black minivan has no high visibility overgarments or markings.

Cycling in London

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An observant reader tells me that this is one of the new style London taxis made by Mercedes Benz. Its driver clearly doesn’t care much about his own safety on the road, preferring jet black for a sleek, stealthy, Knight Rider look. Nor does he care much about the safety of others, including our pair of safety-conscious cyclists. Not only content with occupying the 5 metre long cyclists’ Advance Stop Zone he has encroached a further metre over the stop line towards the pedestrian crossing. There is a large police station very close by to where this photograph was taken, but the taxi driver need not concern himself as according to this London barrister the police have a ‘total tolerance’ policy in relation to this kind of traffic law violation, as most drivers know.

Thanks to the taxi driver’s casual indifference to the rules of the road, the Boris Biker is perfectly placed in the vehicle’s blindspot, ready to to be tipped off his bike should the taxi turn left when the traffic light turns green. Let’s hope it is on its way west towards Kennington and not south towards the Elephant and Castle gyratory system towards which the cyclist in the middle of the crossing may well be heading. You may want to wish her luck for at the Elephant and Castle she will find herself in no doubt that whatever the politicians say about a cycling revolution, no matter how many stainless steel track pumps appear like futuristic mushrooms on London street corners, we are still deep in the period of the Great Extinction of cycling. And there is a long way still to go.

  • http://twitter.com/zymurgic Simon Hewison

    The minivan is actually a modern Mercedes black cab taxi, (Check the taxi plate on the back, the wheelchair ramp, and the taxi sign on top).

    • http://thebikeshow.net/ Jack Thurston

      Good spot, Simon. I’ve amended the text.

      • http://www.quickrelease.tv carltonreid

        I fit SPDs to my Boris bikes.

        • http://thebikeshow.net/ Jack Thurston

          The pedals are about the only part that’s not tamper-proof.

    • Cj Joseph
  • Simon Nurse (Cyclestuff)

    Good piece Jack, there is indeed a long way to go. I’m hopeful for the future though; there seem’s to be a fair bit of life in the old dog and the recent inventions of cycle chic, tweed runs etc. can only be a good thing for reaching a new audience. It’s a pity that the Cardiff version of the Boris bike (my home city) didn’t get the support it so richly deserved; that scheme recently ended as a footnote in cycling history. A great shame in a city that has rich potential to exploit it.

    To pick up on your final point about politicians, I threw down a gaunlet after a very, very near miss. As yet, I’ve not heard of any politicians that want to share that tandem…..

    http://cyclestuff.wordpress.com/2012/03/14/when-zombies-drive/

  • Gordon Freeman

    While I agree there’s a lot wrong at the moment (both culturally and withint the infrastructure provision) I think this article is pretty erratic in places.

    I don’t think were in the middle of the Great Extinction, I think it’s more at the point where the funny little furry things started wondering what was happening to all the big lizards.

    First off, you’re cherry-picking your data by using numbers that cease in 2006.

    Secondly in one paragraph you’re slagging off people for installing well-designed, high quality infrastructure that should last, and then lamenting the quality of bikes compared to the “good old days.”

    I would have thought the vast majority of bikes from the Golden Era are no more than rust now. The £250 bike you mention could last a long time if it was looked after, just like the Claud Butler, and just like a bike from today that cost 2 month’s wages. It’s the level of care that matters, once you get beyond a certain level of engineering robustness.

    The Far East Manufacturing trope is well-worn too. Mass production goes where the economics work. I love high-quality bikes, and I’ll pay to have one. I’ll go to a UK independent for my next one. But for people who want the bike as a generic mode of transport why shouldn’t a bike from Taiwan do just as good a job?

    I hold great hope for the future. I feel (and I freely admit this is anecdote) that over the last few years in London, specifically, there are a load more riders on the road. Eventually evolution will win out, and we’re the ones adapting best.

    • http://thebikeshow.net/ Jack Thurston

      Gordon, thanks for dropping by. And for leaving a comment.

      As far as statistics on cycling go, I’m not aware of a long term time series that ends more recently than 2006. I’d love to have one.

      In London, where the cycling boom has been most pronounced (at least in some of the inner London boroughs) the official London Transport Demand Survey recorded a 3% increase in the number of people cycling between 2005/6 and 2008/9. The increased number of trips taken by bike is accounted for by an increase in the number of trips taken by each cyclist. As Transport for London put it in a December 2010 report:

      “Evidence suggests that the growth in cycle travel between 2001 and 2008 was largely caused by cyclists increasing their cycle trip-making. There is no evidence of a net increase in the number of cyclists overall.”

      I hope my poking fun at the stainless steel track pump was taken in the good-hearted spirit it was intended. I am a great fan of Anthony Lau and Cyclehoop. Of course, it’s great to have a place to top up one’s tyres (though I’m less sure I approve of the removal of perfectly good Sheffield stands just for the sake of it). The underlying point I’m making is that politicians seem willing to get involved in the fluffy, side issues but dance around the core issue of car domination and road danger.

      I’ve nothing against well made bicycles from around the world, though I suspect the Criterium model is too cheap even for Taiwanese. I’d suspect China or Indonesia as the source. My main gripe is that this kind of bicycle is being sold by London chain shops despite the fact that it is woefully inappropriate for everyday cycling in London. I think this is changing and more utility style bikes that don’t require a lot of maintenance (e.g. drum brakes, full chaincases, integrated racks etc) are appearing in some of the shops.

      And as regards evolution, you’re absolutely right, and I would like to have ended my piece with the final sentence in your comment, to generate a little more uplift!

  • Thameside Info

    Gordon – I couldn’t have put it better myself. I ride everywhere myself in and around London and have done so for 20 years now. Although huge improvements are still required I am heartened to see the increase in cycling on the roads and the facilities available to us.

    Time is a great teacher and we need to trial certain schemes before we get things right. Complaining about how things aren’t the same as the good old days and moaning about new schemes does little to spread the word.

    Many cyclist give a poor impression on our roads and we need to educate cyclists as much as motorists. If anything I believe we are potentially in a new golden age of cycling and to ensure this continues will take a lot of risk, bold decisions and a significant amount of PR.

    After all, I also own a car and with the best will in the world and being alert as possible I almost hit a cyclist last week through no fault of my own. Accountability on the motorist and the cyclist must be paramount.

  • Jack

    I prefer the old sheffield racks. More supportive.

  • Cj Joseph

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