Andy Jackson: View from Above the Stem

View from Above the Stem by Andy Jackson
Read our exclusive excerpt of Andy Jackson’s humorous look at cyclists, View from Above the Stem. In this extract, he considers the cycle tourer …

Chapter three: touring

  • Otherwise known as: seeing the world
  • Best exponent: anyone in the CTC (sorry, Cycling UK)
  • Training tip: get decent panniers

Touring is a wonderful way to spend time on a bike. The world travels slowly by and you have time to survey the scene. If your attention is captured by something, you have it within your capacity to stop and see what it was that captured your attention. If you take a bit of time and plan your route, you can avoid the worst of the towns and cities, which in a nutshell means traffic.

Some tours are done with full kit and a fully laden bike. Literally everything that is required is within touching distance. Sleeping arrangements are all taken care of, as is catering, hygiene, fashion accoutrements and accessories, weather provision and bike maintenance. It’s all right there. Some are trans-continental and last for quite a while – years in some cases.

Some tours are lightweight affairs – in terms of what is carried on the bike anyway. Sleeping is at BnBs who also supply a hearty breakfast where the astute tourer will load up on anything and everything on offer. Cafe stops fill in dietary requirements through the day or whatever you’ve managed to snaffle from the BnB breakfast table in the morning. Evening meals are a debit card affair dressed in a T-shirt, the lightest of lightweight slacks and flip flops.

Neither type of tour is better or worse. They are different and provide a different type of enjoyment. Each requires at least a nominal amount of forethought, although some tourers I know leave the house and don’t even know if they will turn left or right out of the driveway. And when asked how long will they be, the answer is ‘when I get back’. Now that’s freedom!

Most people with a family could not do this. I would have my legs broken I suspect and that’s just from the kids. I do harbour malicious thoughts of going on a tour whose mantra is Wherever I Lay My Hat, That’s My Ride Done, as Paul Young never sang.

It is also worth a thought to double check your bike before setting off on a jolly somewhere. Bear in mind that no component on a bike is deliberately manufactured to squeak, grind, crunch or any other unpleasantness that makes forward motion a noisy experience, other than the bodily groans I emit, which sometimes drown out the impending mechanical failure(s). It can lead to completely unnecessary kerbside repair… apparently.

The golden age of bike touring was the 1950s and ’60s, when the car wasn’t king and the world was opening up. The motor was generally getting cheaper but was still out of reach of the common people (didn’t Paul Young sing something about that too?) The bike, though, was a cheap and indeed cheerful way to get out of town and see the sights that good ole Blighty had to offer.

Women were finding their freedom (sort of) and the forward-thinking bike clubs were opening their doors to tours for anyone who wanted to tag along. Have bike, will tour, sort of thing. There are books laden with old black and white photos of groups of smiling cyclists who seem content with their lot. It must be funny to travel back in time and realise that the 1950s was not in fact black and white. As if one can just noodle back in time…

The CTC, or Cycling Touring Club, is the standard bearer for supporting people who want to ride with no sporting pretensions whatsoever. At least, that is what it was called when I first joined. It was the Bicyclist Touring Club before that, but is Cycling UK now.

I guess you stick with what you know so to me it will remain the CTC, probably because a friend I ride with has an old blue winged CTC jersey and I know of no one with a Cycling UK variant, so I am yet to be fully confronted by my own view of time passing.

Either way, the insurance cover that comes with being a member is pretty good and is a great repost to motor morons who shout at you from a car window that you don’t even pay car tax or insurance, to which the reply is: A) neither do you my fine man, you pay vehicle excise duty and as a car owner, so do I, and B) as an upstanding member of the Cycle Touring Club, which I’ll have you know has recently undergone a name change, I have liability at least as good as your car insurance and often better. Any more questions or do you want to drive on in ignorant stupidity? Or words to that effect.

Abuse from car drivers comes in many forms and is a very unfortunate by-product of sharing the queen’s highway with motor-powered transport. I fail to grasp the mentality of certain individuals who go out of their way to inflict pain and suffering on other humans whose only ‘crime’ is to be on two wheels rather than four and to have the effrontery to be on the same stretch of road.

The vast majority of car drivers I encounter are brilliant and understand that we all are just going about our business in our own way. We are all road users and understand the need to share the space in this isle of ours. Works well.

Then there are those who would literally kill you to gain 10 metres or 10 seconds, whichever was greater, so zoom past, wing mirror closer than a gnat’s widger. I have had the misfortune of being hit by one (a wing mirror, not a gnat’s widger) and it really hurts.

The idea put out there that cyclists should be given the same respect and accompanying 1.5 metre overtaking room as horses is a jolly good one. I think the main reason car drivers respect horses more than cyclists is that when a one-ton horse lands on your bonnet they inflict a serious amount of damage.

The difference is if I ride into a car, it inflicts a small dent and the driver a slightly troublesome insurance claim, but if a car driver drives into me, the minimum I can expect is broken bones and a trip to the hospital.

The corresponding questioning of the car driver from the police is of little consequence because drivers have killed cyclists and got no more than a paltry fine for their troubles and sometimes not even that. Apparently the ‘sorry, mate, but I didn’t see you’ pitiful excuse of every road user who’s ever caused a near miss has the hitherto unknown power to actually mend broken bones, like some kind of mystical spell.

I was completely unaware of this, but just say those magic words and all will be well. It is therefore perfectly OK to drive around without a care in the world, and definitely not looking out for the most vulnerable of road users because you have a shaman chant up your sleeve. It must be true or else car drivers would take more care.

But the CTC, damn…Cycling UK, can help here too. They have a very good legal department that can pursue perpetrators of driving incompetence and show them what’s what. The CTC will also lobby for the good of all cyclists and have always had campaigns to improve the lot and standing of your average two-wheeled user.

Back in the day, in 1934 to be precise, what was then known as the cyclist and tricyclist club, ran a campaign to have the same rights for a bike as for a motor car. I think history will tell you the way the outcome went.

Want to read more? View from Above the Stem is available to buy now in paperback and ebook formats.