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First of all I want to quote some words of Paul Churchill aka ‘Winston’ that I published on Moving Target 14 years ago

You’re riding casually along Oxford Street when one of those idiot parents decides to use their child in a pushchair as a “traffic tester”. There’s an impact, you feel terrible, it’s not your fault and the policeman spots you’ve got no brakes…. Think about the consequences….

I think it was maybe around 2002 that the brakeless thing started to become really fashionable amongst London’s bicycle couriers. Couriers had ridden fixed-wheels in London since bicycle courier year dot (1983 or thereabouts).

Fixed-wheel bicycles remained popular in the UK long after the invention of the free-wheel and variable gears between the wars. I remember John Humphries asking me if people still rode fixed-wheels as he used to in the 50s. But by the 80s, fixies were rare, and if you rode fixed, most people thought you were wierd, and you would get accosted by old men who would reminisce about their own fixed-wheels of yore.

By the 90s, lots of couriers were riding fixed. It is fair to say that we helped to popularise fixed-wheels. But we all, without exception, rode with a front-brake on the road.

The first time I ever saw a no-brake fixie was at the first Cycle Messenger Championships, held in Berlin, 1993. I was one of 5 or 6 guys riding fixed out of the several hundred attendees, and two of the others fixie riders, Eric & Steve both from Washington D.C., were riding no-brakes. I thought it was dangerous and stupid, but I was too polite to say so. They told me that a lot of messengers working in cities in the eastern part of the U.S., rode fixies, and some portion of those rode no brakes

Later on in the 90s some guys from Philly came over & worked in London with their fixies, and the riders at the company that they worked at, Creative Couriers, insisted that they put brakes on their bikes. I mention this to illustrate the point that at that time, not only were all fixie riders riding braked, but they considered that it was the right thing to do. It is also important to point out that at no point have fixie riders, front brakes or not, been in a majority amongst London’s couriers. There were times when almost no-one rode fixed, and other times when quite a few rode fixed, but never time when most rode fixed.

It was only after 2000 that this attitude towards front brakes on fixies changed. I cannot identify the exact cause, but there is no doubt that peer pressure and a desire to be like the coolest kids on the street were a major factor. A lot of European couriers had started to ride no-brake fixies, and when London hosted the 2003 European Cycle Messenger Championships, I am sure that a number of London couriers were influenced by hanging out with their European comrades.

And there is no doubt that couriers, in the same way as they had popularised fixies, also made it fashionable to ride fixed no brakes.

By the time that I published the article that I quoted above, a lot, but by no means a majority of London couriers were riding no brakes. I have no comment to make about what other courier companies were doing, but at the company for which I was by then a controller, we made it clear to our riders that we would not let them work unless their bike was road legal, i.e. had a front brake, and we checked their bikes. Some of the guys & girls were pretty resistant to our instructions.

Tofu, who I knew quite well, and was a good friend, was a loud no-brake advocate. He was an excellent courier and a really, really good urban bike rider (it’s not necessary to be a good urban bike rider to be a good courier, and not all good urban bike riders are good couriers – the skill-set is completely different), so arguments about not being safe and so forth weren’t effective, not least because I did not believe the arguments myself. He had been riding no brakes for years, and was unlikely to get himself into trouble on the road without a brake. So our only recourse was to say that he had to do it because we said so, and send him home when he did not have a front brake.

The day after we had sent him home, he called to say he was on the way in. I asked him if he had a front brake, and he said yes. A little later in the day, one of my co-workers told me that he had seen Tofu, and his bike did not have a front brake. Furious, I called him and started berating him for having lied to me. He said, “but you didn’t ask me if the brake was on my bike, you asked me if I had a front brake – I have – it’s in my bag” – I retell this story to illustrate how strongly people felt about it.

I felt equally strongly that it was stupid and wrong, but I was so sick of the constant rows about it, that I had someone, a very experienced and well-known courier, who had participated in proper bike races, including many seasons on the velodrome riding track bikes, and had in fact organised well-attended races for couriers on the velodrome, to write the piece which I published on Moving Target. Paul pretty much said everything I would have said, and I disagree with nothing at all that he wrote.

I write all of this to illustrate not only did I do everything that I could to discourage people from riding no-brakes fixed on the road, I even foresaw not this exact incident, but something very like it. Of course, I did not foresee the extent of the media coverage (it made national news, and not just for a day, either), but I was worried about the potential for such a case to cause big trouble for the cycling community. So I can say, I told you so, I told you this (or something very like it) would happen.

And for all those of you in the courier community saying Charlie Alliston is nothing to do with us, well, no, you are wrong, our community helped create the social conditions in which Charlie Alliston thought it was ok to ride around London without a front brake. By the way, I do not believe that Charlie Alliston did not know that his bike was not road legal. He bought the thing off the LFGSS forum, so he must have come across posts about the legality or otherwise of not having a front brake on the road.

An old friend (also an exenger) called John Mack and many, many others have sought to defuse the media furore by pointing to other fatal crashes and the lack of reaction to them. This is plain wrong. Tu quoque (sometimes called ‘whataboutery’ or more simply ‘but these other people did something worse at some other time’) is no defence at any time in any place. Seeking to excuse one crime by pointing at others is wrong-headed.

This whole thing is incredibly painful and upsetting, not least because someone has died in an unnecessary crash, which we would not know be talking about if Charlie Alliston’s bike had had a front brake fitted. Why did he not have a front brake? Probably because he thought it was cool not to. Why did he think it was cool? Yeah, right.

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Tom Demerly with advice for Specialized on managing the PR disaster that is Café Roubaix.

tomdemerly

By Tom Demerly.

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Thursday, 12 December, 2013. Addendum to this Story: 

On Thursday, December 12 Specialized Bicycles Founder Mike Sinyard traveled to Cafe Roubaix Bicycles to delivery a personal apology and retraction of legal threats against the retailer.  Read the complete story here.

 

 

Saturday, 7 December, 2013.

Bicycle mega-brand Specialized created controversy today when news of legal threats against a small, Canadian veteran-owned bicycle retailer surfaced in the Calgary Herald newspaper. The story reports that Specialized Bicycles has threatened legal action against Dan Richter, owner of Cafe Roubaix Bicycle Studio, for using the word “Roubaix” in the name of his business. “Roubaix” is a widely recognized word in cycling usage from the famous spring classic bicycle race, Paris-Roubaix. Specialized Bicycles also has a series of bicycles named Roubaix for which they own some naming rights.

The story has gained inertia on social media sites Facebook and…

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Beanbag photo shoot from Moving Target, 1989

Rob Penn writing in the Observer magazine today about the development of cycle fashion – rearranging the words 1980s Rapha Vulpine lycra lurid MAMIL stylish successful – has the following line: 'the “heroin-chic” cycle messenger sub-culture in the late 80s'.

Not really sure what he means. I thought heroin-chic was invented in 1990s, and that the 1980s was the era of power-dressing and busty super-models. Bicycle couriers or cycle messsengers are generally pretty skinny, although not always. Maybe I'm over-thinking this.

Perhaps he was an assiduous reader of Moving Target back then, and he is referring to occasional fashion shoots that Charlie Bayliss like to put in? Anyway, no further prompting needed – here's a Beanbag shoot from a 1989 issue of Moving Target. Ah, Beanbag.

A more innocent age, dear reader – before anyone had conceived of fakengers, hipsters, before most people had heard of fixies. The usual cliché is 'halcyon days', isn't it?

 

Quite a nice piece about a London bicycle courier (or messenger, if you prefer) avoiding the normal sensationalisation and clichés on BBC news – if you ignore the use of Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Crosstown Traffic’.  Couple of quibbles: 80 – 100 miles a day? Back in the day, maybe some of the Metro riders were clocking this up, but not many.  Average mileage was/is more typically something around the 100k or less, i.e. 60 miles.  This number is not scientific, but is taken from my own measured mileage over a period of months, and compared with other riders measured mileages.  I doubt that the BBC’s numbers are more accurate.

Earnings are quoted at £200 – £600.  Again these are old numbers.  I don’t know where the BBC got them from.  As I said in this post on Moving Target in 2009 (since when earnings have gone down):

The only systematic survey of London bicycle messenger earnings was conducted by Ben Fincham in 2003, and published in the Sociological Review in 2006. The average earnings were given as £65/day, which is £325/week. I was on the road in the early 90s on one of the biggest circuits, Security Despatch, and I can tell you that it was rare that anyone made more than £500/week. Of course, there were a few guys doing a bit more than that at other companies, but there is no way that we ‘expected’ to make £1000. The best single day’s earnings at SD was around £125 in 1993.

Lower down in the article, the chief exec of City Sprint is quoted as saying that they charge £2 for WC1 – EC2. It’s not clear if that is what the rider gets paid, or whether that is what they charge the client. If it’s the latter, then I guess the rider might be taking £1.50 on the docket (which would be generous), which would mean 266 dockets a week to make £400, which hardly seems likely.

Anyway, whichever way you do the numbers, I would be very surprised if most guys in London were making, on average, more than £250/week at the moment. Which is around minimum wage BEFORE paying for equipment.

I reckon a more representative number would be £50 – £500, with the £500 being very much the outlier. £50 is probably more common, as there is a high turnover of novices who try it for a week or two, see what they are making and quit, to be replaced by more novices.

Another inaccuracy is the statement: because of the obvious risks couriers find it impossible to get life insurance.  This is not true.  The Combined Insurance Companies of America have been insuring couriers against injury, illness and death for at least 20 years.  The policies aren’t cheap, but they do exist.

Dr. Robert Davis and the remains of a City Hall buffetI went to the ‘Cyclists and the Law’ panel discussion at City Hall the other night.  It was a little disconcerting to find myself back in the cycle-campaigning fold, however slight my current association to any cycle-campaign group is.  I wasn’t surprised to see that Dr. Robert Davis is still well capable of clearing any buffet put before him, but I was pleasantly surprised to see some new faces in the otherwise familiar crowd of old friends.  The formal outcome of the evening I’ll leave for another post. (Updated: a fairly complete account of the proceedings was forwarded by Jenny Jones’ office.)  I wanted to put down some opinions and impressions.

Andrew Gilligan is very impressive.  I was initially very sceptical of his new calling, viewing his appointment as ‘cycling tsar’ (his ironic title) as a crony sinecure, and doubting his ability to make real changes, but I was very wrong.  He appears to have mastered the brief (get more people cycling), and is committed to evidence-based policy, as opposed to anecdotal subjective stuff, such as we have seen from Boris before.  As was said in our chat on the Bike Show, I estimate that this is because Boris was genuinely dismayed by how badly he was received in the cycling hustings before the last election, and realises that he has to do something serious and substantial if he is not, in the words of Sonia Purnell, to be seen to have failed London’s cyclists.  I was especially struck by the fact that Jenny Jones of the Green Party, who was chairing the discussion, was pretty fulsome in her praise of him, and Jenny is usually very selective in her use of praise.

People use statistics in a very slap-dash way, even people from a well-educated and well-briefed audience such as this.  One chap got up and said that no cyclists get killed in Paris, which is a big load of pony, complete and utter rubbish.  He used the 2011 ‘Paris 0 London 16’ canard, which I discussed in one of my first posts.  He also seemed totally unaware that 5 cyclists were reported killed in Ville de Paris in 2012 (remember that Ville de Paris is much, much smaller jurisdiction than Greater London, roughly equivalent to Zone 1).  From this I deduce that he got the numbers from the media reports last year about the garbled Paris numbers, which shows the danger of taking statistics from secondary sources, and not looking a bit harder to find out what the real story is.

I find it totally reprehensible that people use whatever dodgy number comes to hand to make a case, no matter how unreliable the number may turn out to be.

Detective Chief Superindent Wilson also used what I thought was a questionable metric to support his assertion that UK traffic police have nothing to learn from their continental counterparts about reducing road death and injury.  The metric was road deaths per head of population.  He had the UK (I think it was UK, but may have been England & Wales) at 31 per million, Germany at 49 & France at 61.   I’d like to see this number correlated against average vehicle speed, modal share, total distance travelled at the very least for a like-by-like comparison.  The number by itself is far too crude a measure to tell us anything very much.

I read somewhere (apologies for lack of source!) that France has 5 times the length of road as the UK, which seems plausible, as France is much, much bigger topographically.  With roughly the same number of vehicles, this is likely to mean much higher average speeds, which in turn is likely to lead to increased injury and death.  This is not the result of the UK’s authorities doing anything particularly clever, just the natural outcome of having congested roads on which it is not often possible to go very fast.

20 miles per hour speed limits are really important.  David Arditti thinks they are virtually irrelevant, as he has again said, to the goal of achieving mass-cycling (no need to call me ‘Chidley’, David, you can just call me ‘Bill’), but Wednesday night showed me that if you are interested in getting more people cycling, you need to support 20 mph limits.  All the walking organisations, and especially those representing special interest groups like Guide Dogs, are passionate supporters of 20 mph limits.

Darren Johnson, chair of the London Assembly, who said during the evening that there was a growing cross-party consensus in the Assembly forming behind the ‘cycling agenda’ isn’t a cyclist.  He doesn’t  use a car at all, as far as I know, but, like most Londoners, uses public transport to get around.  He is very, very concerned that the pro-cyclist agenda does not impede or impinge in any way on pedestrians and public transport users.

Clerkenwell Road looking west towards St John StreetAt some point, bicycle lanes will start to interfere with buses, if a segregated and safe bicycle path is built alongside every main road, as David Arditti is pressing for.  When the narrow width of some of London’s main roads is raised as a potential obstacle, the ‘Go Dutch’ answer is to lose a motor-carriageway, making the road 2-way for cyclists, but one way for motor traffic, and diverting the other carriageway to some other street.  As I said before, this is likely to be necessary on parts of Clerkenwell Road.  This will inevitably mean diverting buses around a longer route.  Given that the Bus must always get through, to borrow a phrase from the 1920s, at least as far as TfL seems to be concerned, this is likely to be a sticking point, and not a minor one either.  To push major alterations to the London transport network such as this through will require lots of political will and support.  Given that cycling is in a single figure minority, it will require the help of other groups apart from cyclists, such as those representing pedestrian interests.  It is therefore very, very unwise to go around saying that 20 mph limits are irrelevant or unimportant to cyclist’s interests.

The Cycle Task Force nick a lot of cyclists.  I was shocked by the numbers, really shocked.  The breakdown was 50% motor-vehicles, 26% HGV & PSVs and 24% cyclists, which seems an awful lot of cyclists, given how little injury is caused by bicycles.

I’m not suggesting that London cyclists are paragons of law-abiding road-users.  In fact, I have argued elsewhere that because the laws of the road manifestly do NOT protect law-abiding cyclists, it makes no sense to obey the law, because the laws aren’t there to keep cyclists safe, they are there to make motorists life easier.  On reflection, however, there may be something in these numbers that is really interesting.  The share may actually be yet another indicator of how many of the vehicles in central London are bicycles.  That is probably a number for someone with a very big brain, like Geography Jim, over at Drawing Rings blog to crunch.

It’s not a great idea to suggest to a bunch of hardened cycle-campaigners that they should be wearing helmets.  Kevin O’Sullivan of Levene’s solicitors suggested that it might be, and he was lucky to escape with his life.  There were howls, full-throated wails, of protest at this.  Top marks for courage, zero marks for wisdom.

It’s not a big secret that I am a big fan of The Bike Show.  I occasionally listen to other cycling podcasts, and have yet to find one which is as consistently entertaining and enlightening as the Bike Show.  Even if you haven’t been involved in the Bike Show directly, I think it must be obvious from the continuing excellence of the show that Jack is constantly striving to take his listeners to places they might not have gone left to themselves, and alway pushing himself to maintain and exceed his already high standards.  It is sort of superfluous for me to publicise the Bike Show, as I’m sure that most regular readers of this blog also subscribe to the show, but if you’re not, you should!

The latest edition is one of my favourites, and ties in with my last post about my neighbour’s Claud Butler, as she mentions that her first ‘proper’ racing bike was a CB.  An interview with the amazing and inspiring Eileen Sheridan, the first British female professional cyclist, who, like Reg Harris, was a star of the 40s and 50s, which period is widely accepted to be the Golden Age of Cycling.

Eileen Sheridan: The Mighty Atom | The Bike Show – a cycling radio show and podcast from Resonance FM.

I hav been appearing as a guest on the Relatively Good Radio Show over the past few weeks.  The show is hosted by my dear friend Richard Guard who, amongst other things helped to organise the 1994 Cycle Messenger World Championships in London, and whose book Lost London was recently published. The show is a mix of London related chat and music, and the house band, the Relatives, specialise in ‘turning the everyday into folk legend’, with songs such as ‘Smash and Grab Robbery in Brent Cross’.

It’s light entertainment, but not lightweight.  It’s on Resonance FM on Sundays at 3pm for at least few more weeks.  You can listen to the most recent edition via the Soundcloud widget below, or just go to the Soundcloud page.