CAMBRIDGE, England - On this summer evening we stroll along the River Cam, enjoying the breeze. We have walked this path all week, most often in the lull between dinner and bed, and know to be on the alert for the sound of rolling tires and the b-r-r-ring of a bike bell. Which is why we leap as a cyclist roars up from behind.
“Out of the way!’’ he bellows as he flies past, his booted feet pumping with the speed of a jackhammer.
So much for British civility. For a country that prides itself on etiquette, Britain seems to have granted cyclists absolution. They dodge, they weave, they yell. They pass on the right, they pass on the left. And God forbid that you get in their way. The drivers aren’t much better. In the week we’ve been in Cambridge, where I teach a summer writing course at Gonville & Caius, one of the oldest of the legendary university’s 31 colleges, we’ve seen one cyclist on St. Andrews Street tossed from his bike as the car to his right got too close and another challenge a lorry on Trumpington Street and lose. We’ve read about a TV celebrity chef purposely running a group of cyclists off the road.
We turn and head home, defeated. Avid cyclists on our own turf, my husband and I had envisioned cheerfully pedaling through verdant fields and thatched-roof villages. Cambridge, after all, is known as the Biking Capital of England, the compact city of flat terrain where one out of four residents bikes to work, and 1,900 cycles cross the Riverside Bridge every day. The city with an intricate web of bike paths and lanes. Yet with the fury of the boot-clad cyclist still ringing in the summer air, we question our courage. We question our skill. We question how anyone can safely navigate through this city of cars and crowds to get to the rolling countryside.
Instead, we walk. Down King’s Parade, through the market that dates to the Saxons, around the Backs to view St. John’s and Trinity colleges from the river. Everywhere we walk we see cyclists. When I spot an older woman in a cardigan sweater and kilt pedaling past the 1,000-year-old Round Church on Bridge Street, I know that we are cowards. “If she can bike,’’ I say to my husband, “so can we.’’
We must learn to “bike British.’’
Cycling in Cambridge, it strikes me, is not about Lycra and lightning speed. It is about getting from A to B. The destination may be the market for strawberries or Parker’s Piece for a cricket match. It may be the neighboring village for afternoon tea. Whatever the target, the cyclist is not an athlete out for a fast sweat, but a commuter who claims his space on the road. As we learn from the man behind the Cycle Cambridge booth at the annual summer fair, the number one tip from all British cycling organizations is to ride assertively. To hesitate is to tempt collision; you may linger too long in the motorist’s blind spot. To hug the curb is to be invisible to drivers. Better to move quickly, with confidence, in a spot on the road where drivers can see you.
The man hands us a map of local cycle routes that extend from the inner city all the way to Ely. This is heartening. We learn that Cambridge wants to reduce traffic congestion by planting more commuters on bikes. The goal is to mirror the Netherlands, where over 40 percent of all journeys are by bicycle and where the sheer volume of cyclists has made the roads safer. Studies both there and in London have proven that the more cyclists, the fewer casualties because motorists are more aware of the space required to avoid collision.
“What about helmets?’’ I say.
He shrugs again. “We want people to cycle,’’ he says, explaining that cycle organizations do not promote helmet legislation because other countries have found that forced helmet-wear reduces biking. Besides, he adds, “helmets don’t do any good when you’re hit by a lorry.’’
Our teenage sons are thrilled. For the first time in their lives their parents will let them cycle helmet-free. But as we stand in St. John’s Street with our rented bikes and naked heads, we hope that biking British doesn’t land us in Addenbrooke’s Hospital. There are nine of us on this cycling experiment: my family of four, a visiting uncle, and two colleagues and their teenage daughters. One colleague, Sandhya, has not ridden a bike since her childhood in India. She smiles bravely. I remind her that that all we need to do is ride through a six-block labyrinth of cars and crowds before we reach the bike path. “Ready?” I say. “Be assertive.”
Down St. John’s Street we ride, ringing our bells, forcing the throngs of visiting Spanish students to part as we pass. At Bridge Street, we navigate a right turn, which is tough when you are riding on the left side and have to avoid a trolley and masses of tourists. But we plow through, claiming our share of the road. We head down narrow Thompson Lane, avoiding potholes and pedestrians, and within minutes we are on Jesus Green and the bike path. “Phew,’’ says Sandhya. And that’s it for drama. In single file, we ride the path beside the Cam. Then we veer from the river and cycle beside meadows and 17th-century stone farmhouses. “So lovely,’’ my colleague Lisa says. We relax on a green before heading back.
We arrive back at Caius without incident. Fourteen miles and no crashes. We encountered only one rude cyclist - we were too pokey - and no rude motorists. Maybe we were lucky, or maybe common sense with a dash of courage is all it took. We will keep our bikes for the week.
Tomorrow my husband and I will ride down King’s Parade before the shops open, through the dreaded Trumpington Street intersection, and onto a bike path that will lead us out of town. We will encounter a rotary, speedy motorists, and a fellow cyclist who swears at me for dismounting at the Cyclist Dismount sign.
On the last morning of our rental, my husband, Lisa, and I talk about our next stint in Cambridge, and how we will rent bikes for the whole six weeks. We talk about buying extra strong locks - 10 bikes per day are stolen in Cambridge - and taking the city-sponsored bike safety course. We agree that despite a survey stating that no injuries were suffered in 72 percent of the bike accidents reported in Cambridge and Oxford, we will look unmistakably American. When we return we will wear helmets. We can only be so British.
Sue Hertz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.