Domhnall MacAuley: Cycling spo(o)ked

Domhnall MacauleyAt the Commonwealth Games I met the cyclists. At the end of each day we grouped together in the television room to watch the edited highlights of the Tour de France. Towards the end of the Games, I went to watch the road race and was hooked. As the sun went down on my first sporting interest, I took up bike racing. It was fantastic. My learning curve climbed faster than my physiological decline and the racing was superb.

Later, a club mate training in the springtime evening was struck by car blinded by the low sun. His xrays were a radio opaque mechano set but when he was off crutches, we planned his comeback. One summer evening, two friends were riding side by side on the hard shoulder of a wide open road. The guy on the inside turned his head to say something to his pal only to see him catapulted 100 metres up the road on the bonnet of a passing car. He had a long and difficult recovery but is doing well now. Another friend, a former international cyclist and one of riders I first met at the Commonwealth Games, was struck by a car during a club race. The driver was rushing to the airport.  He is dead.  One beautiful sunny afternoon, while travelling down the coast, I passed a charity bike ride. Sunshine, a wide open road, and great support from passers by. It looked magical and I must admit that, as I drove along, I was tempted by the thought of getting back on the bike. Minutes later, coming through a small town where the road narrowed, a lorry caught a cyclist on the inside of a corner just in front of me. On the scene within moments but it was too late. She had already lost consciousness and died overnight leaving a young family.

Cycling is on the front page of the papers again this week. British cycling is on a high. A superb world cup season, medals at the world championships and high expectations for the Olympics. But, it’s not all fun. The Times is running a campaign on cycling safety after one of its journalists was critically injured in London. They have done a lot to highlight the risks and how we need to change the culture of driving. Cyclists deserve our support; we need to address the risks of riding on the road and make cycling safer.

Still, every time I see a group of cyclists, I look over enviously, jealous of their camaraderie, chat, and banter on the training runs and the buzz of racing. My heart aches. But my head rules.

Domhnall Macaulay is primary care editor, BMJ

  • Stephen Ginn

    Sometimes when I’m on my bike I get the feeling that I’m swimming with sharks, so I wonder whether I should stop.  Thing is, I really like it.  It’s cheaper, I get to work quicker, I’m brighter throughout the day and I get some exercise.

    By and large UK roads are inimical to both pedestrians and cyclists, speed limits are too high and often ignored.  It would be nice to think that a way could be found for all transport methods to rub along congenially and that shared spaces such as the new Exhibition Road layout could work.  However my observation is that people tend to show distain for anyone slower then themselves whatever way they seek to travel.  Just as many motorists harrass cyclists, canal pathways are now practically no-go areas for morning walkers due to aggressive communter cyclists. 

    Since separate roads for cyclists are never going to happen in our crowded land, my suggestion is a reduction in the maximum permitted size of city motorcar. 

  • notactualsize

    Yes, “we need to change the culture of driving”. But I think we need to challenge the dominance of cars and motoring in UK culture as a whole – for so many obvious health and health-related reasons.

  • jhwalker

    Hi Stephen,
    Like you I enjoy cycling but often wonder if I should stop. I have been cycling much less recently because I am not sure if it is worth the risk. But I don’t think that changing the size of city cars would make a difference. Lowering speed limits would have a greater effect. The danger is not caused by the size of cars, but the speed that people drive at, and bad driving. Lowering the speed limit would keep people’s driving under control and make cycling along roads more pleasant.
    I know that realistically having separate roads for cars and cyclists is unlikely to happen, but I still hope that eventually London will become more cycle friendly.

  • Paddy

    It’s a strange balance, so far as health is concerned.  (Commuter) cycling is absolutely the most convenient form of exercise for me at the moment, besides benefits such as saving money, saving a little time compared to a tube journey etc.  But spending over an hour on London roads on a bicycle each day isn’t safe at all.  I try to minimise the risks by wearing a shedload of bright gear, lights, helmet etc., and above all by cycling cautiously on relatively safe routes, but I really don’t see a way to minimise them into insignificance. 

    I had hoped that the rise I’ve seen in cyclists on London roads would make us individually safer (greater visibility in numbers; greater lobbying power for the provision of safer cycling routes etc.), but the stats don’t seem to bear this out so far. 

  • Pwward

    I felt frustrated and angry reading this blog, although I understand why you feel like you do and acknowledge your right to say it.

    You give anecdotes to powerfully illustrate a point about your perception of cycling as high risk.  This is then partially echoed by some respondents.  

    My perception is that cycling is not high risk and wish to back my argument with evidence.  I wish not to be trapped by the prison of my own limited experience.

    Mayer Hillman (Policy Studies Institute) looked at this properly in 1993 (when cycling was more risky than now).  He concluded that the risk-benefit ratio is 20:1 in favour of cycling.  That means there are about 2 years of life expectancy gained for every 30d lost due to cycling accidents.  This is accepted by the UK government and the BMA as rather conservative estimates of cyclings public health benefit.  Overall risk in comparison with car driving and walking have been estimated to be more of less the same calculated on a per hour spent basis.  (  
    If you use a per KM travelled comparison cycling is safer than walking, more risky than driving, but this comparison would put rocket travel as the safest mode so isn’t appropriate.

    As a car driver and ex cyclist you have (v slightly) worsened your risk profile.

    In comparison with other countries the UK is about twice as risky as Holland (but double a tiny risk is still a tiny risk) and about the same as Germany, safer than Italy and Spain and much safer than Australia and NZ.

    I know you cannot take big population effects and apply them to individuals but the greater story here is that cycling even in today’s scary, car orientated road environment is in fact incredibly safe.  It would get even safer if we could get more people on bikes, something this blog entry will not help.  Instead you  further reinforce the cultural myth of cycling as hazardous.

    This has little to do with the Olympics and track cycling though.  It’s interesting that the cycling sport obsessed Aussies, Kiwis and Brits have little interest in in normal cycling.