Jon Gunson cycling

Jon Gunson advocates wearing a helmet – just probably not this helmet.

Having returned to cycling after a hiatus of half a century, Jon Gunson offers his personal advice for others getting back in the saddle.

It seems that an increasing number of people are choosing to travel by bike, electric or otherwise, rather than by car. Obviously, this is a Good Thing – it keeps you fit, reduces your carbon footprint, saves you money, and helps you reconnect with nature (though on this last point, see below). However, some of us have not ridden for quite some time – in my case, about half a century – and, since there is much that one forgets, and much new stuff to learn, perhaps a few words about health and safety may be in order.

1. Not Falling Off

I had always assumed that moving bicycles were kept upright by some kind of gyroscopic effect, but apparently it is more to do with something called ‘trail’, a concept beyond my understanding. Whatever the cause, though, we have all had practical experience of the effect. If your front wheel hits an unyielding object, or falls into a pothole, you will go over the handlebars and probably land on your head. Wear a helmet. I have read a series of articles explaining that this is unnecessary, and tempts one into a dangerous illusion of invulnerability – and anyway, the Dutch don’t wear them, do they?

My conclusion is: wear a helmet. If your rear wheel skids on grit or dust or mud or ice, the bike will fall sideways. I suppose you might be unlucky, and break a leg; you will certainly feel like a complete bloody fool. There is also a rather exotic way to fall off which is specific to electric bikes. If you thoughtlessly depress a pedal when moving slowly in a tight curve, the machine will get excited, and accelerate faster than the wheels will allow. Do avoid this if possible.

2. Not Being Run Over

Not all motorists are trying to kill you; some are using their mobile phone, or arguing with the kids in the back seat, or perhaps having some kind of fit. From the cyclist’s point of view, the outcome is the same. Cycling magazines recommend that you should cycle confidently: I would go further, and suggest that you should cycle melodramatically, making gestures so exaggerated that only an idiot could fail to notice that you are turning right. However, do remember that there are plenty of idiots out there. And wear a high-vis jacket, or one of those reflective baldrics. How often do you get a chance to wear a baldric? One can escape from the motorists by using cycle paths, which, around Lewes, usually means the Egrets Way, or one of its tributaries. This is a delightful way to travel, but does, of course, present its own challenges. The network is very much a work in progress, and the surface under your wheels varies a good deal. Take care. As I have mentioned, you are more at one with the natural world, and it is pleasant to find yourself spinning along amid a charm of goldfinches. If you want to watch crows mobbing a buzzard, though, stop, and get off, before you end up in a ditch.

3. Cycling in Winter

If you have a mountain bike, fit decent mudguards. I suspect that cycling fanatics see a line of mud up their back as some kind of badge of honour, to be worn with pride. Nobody else does. If it rains – and it will, of course – you need a rain suit, which can be bought for under £20, and is worth its weight in gold. Wear something warm under it, and a good pair of gloves. Wind chill is not funny. As for cycling in the dark: lights and reflectors are a legal requirement. It is worth buying a decent front light, not only so that people can see you coming, but to show the hazards on the road in front of you. Having said all that: cycling home through a howling gale on a cold, dark night brings the kind of wild exhilaration you might feel if you had just completed an ascent of Pen y Fan, naked, on a pogo stick.

Mind how you go, now.