Even if you haven’t mounted a bike since you were young enough to non-ironically enjoy listening to Steps or Westlife, you’d probably find it easy enough to rent out a Boris bike and cycle around the local park. But what about when you take the bike from quiet country lanes, to the chaos of the big city?
That’s where TfL Urban Cycle Skills course comes in. It’s designed to take you from nervous cyclist, to confident big city biking extraordinaire.
TFL cycling lessons
Whether beginner, advanced or family – TfL is on a mission to improve cycling skills for all. With around £913 million being spent over a decade long period as part of Vision for Cycling, the number of cyclists in London has more than doubled – so it only makes sense that an incentive like this is available to anyone who is interested.
As someone whose new commute is about to get lengthier and busier, I decided to book onto the Urban Cycling course to see what I can learn about cycling in London.
How do I book a class?
After a quick Google search during my lunch hour, I entered some basic details into the TFL website and was booked onto a two-hour Cycle Confident Urban Cycling session for the following Sunday morning. It was as simple as that! My tutor, Lucia, emailed and called me to discuss what we were going to cover. The one-on-one lesson would take place in the park right next to my flat at 9am. This meant I would be able to enjoy just the one cocktail the night before (an Amaretto sour, in case you were wondering).
What did I expect to learn?
I had visions of coming away from the session as the next Victoria Pendleton but quickly realised that I’d never have hair as glossy as hers. Realistically, I wanted to gain more confidence by having better knowledge about the decisions I make during cycling. I only started cycling last June after a trip to Copenhagen (I know, so cliché). I also don’t drive, so I feel quite intimidated by cars and I’m unsure about the ‘rules of the road’.
What happens in the lesson?
OK, some of this might seem like blindingly obvious information but it’s worth refreshing your mind and identifying your bad habits. Think of it like a pack of rich tea biscuits – you know they’re not worth the calories but you persist in getting through a whole packet by dunking them in tea. By the end of the week you’ve gained a pound and you’re reminded never to buy those plain, calorific offenders ever again. You’ll choose chocolate Hobnobs instead because they are definitely worth gaining a pound for.
So, sit up straight and pay attention!
Despite the cold wind and early Sunday morning start, my instructor Lucia’s enthusiasm was infectious and warming. Before mounting our bikes, Lucia talked me through checking them with the ABCD (Air, Brakes, Chain, Direction) method.
My second-hand Dutch bicycle was bought from a well-dressed woman via Gum Tree. If I’m totally honest, I bought it because it’s so darn pretty. I had to confess to Lucia that I’d never checked the bike over properly and wouldn’t really know what to look for. It turns out that I should get new front brake pads fitted and need to tighten my handle bars – information I won’t be sharing with my constantly worried mother.
Signalling and shoulder checks
We got on our bikes and started a few laps around the park, focusing on checking over the shoulder and signalling. Of course, I am very aware of the importance of these two actions and I always signal at each necessary turn. But I am guilty of sporadic shoulder checks and this exercise showed that I need to get into the habit of checking more regularly, even if I’m on a straight quiet road.
Taking position on a road
Next, we took the bikes to a busy, narrow road where sleepy parents were dropping their kids off for football practice. Lucia taught me to stay prominent and visible without relying on reflector jackets or lights – another bad habit that I am guilty of. To do this, I learned to stay central and have more confidence in commandeering on narrow roads.
Turning at a T junction
In keeping with letting all the cats out of the bag in this post, I am once again guilty as charged – this time, of cutting corners when turning into a road. This point was proved as I cut the corner during practice and didn’t see a car coming down the road I was turning into. I learnt to keep central and check over my shoulder when turning at a T junction as well as getting a clear view of any oncoming vehicles.
Lucia encouraged me to communicate and negotiate with pedestrians and drivers. This can mean eye contact, hand signals and even just slowing down and looking around to signal that a change is about to happen. As someone who automatically thinks that pedestrians and drivers hate me because I’m a slowpoke on a bike, I found this part of the session to be very encouraging and helpful.
I cycle over Tower Bridge as part of my commute and it is a terrifying stretch of traffic lights and impatient drivers. I usually weave and squeeze past vehicles but Lucia advised that sometimes it’s best to just sit behind a car and wait rather than try to reach the bike box before the traffic lights change. No more trying to beat the bus!
I hate roundabouts. Despite numerous driving lessons (with no licence to prove it because I was just terrible at it), I just still don’t get them. I avoid roundabouts wherever possible and usually dismount at the side of the road if I see one coming up like a monster in the distance. But after a demonstration from Lucia, a discussion about correct signalling, a better understanding and a growing inner-confidence, I successfully took on two mini roundabouts. Go me! I won’t be embarking on a tour of London’s greatest roundabouts anytime soon but I won’t be avoiding them either (unless they’re like, really big and scary).
Confidence and prominence
Throughout the session, the biggest lessons I learnt were to be more confident, make myself prominent and stay calm. There’s no need to ‘freak out’ as long as I make sure that I am visible to others on the road and regularly check to see what is going on around me. I also realised that car drivers, bus drivers and lorry drivers have no more right to be on the road than cyclists – we are all equal. I am going to refrain from pulling out to the edge of the road for bigger vehicles to pass by, like I usually do, if I don’t feel safe. Lastly, I learnt that patience is one of the virtues that a cyclist must embrace, as nothing is worth trying to overtake a large lorry for.
Would I recommend Cycle Confident classes?
Absolutely – I urge all new urban cyclists to make use of these free lessons. Everyone loves a freebie, right?
This session highlighted some bad habits that I’d like to correct to be a safer cyclist. It also taught me how to check my bike for air, breaks, chain and direction – I now know that I need to get my brakes replaced and I can identify what needs to be looked at on regular check-ups. I feel more confident with tackling roundabouts and traffic lights, and I will learn not to rely on reflective gear alone to make myself known on the road.
I always was an excellent student.
Just like riding a bike for the first time, these new habits will become natural with more practice. Lucia is arranging a follow up session, where we will cycle my commute that takes me into the City. I am really looking forward to it, which is probably the first time I’ve ever said that about my commute.
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As seen on The Guardian, BBC and The Independent.