Case Study

How to change someone's life - cycle training Oxford undergraduates

Julie Rand's picture
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After local MP Nicola Blackwood questioned the lack of cycle training for new students at Oxford during the 'Get Britain Cycling' debate last August, CTC stepped in to offer a day of free sessions for freshers.
Student and cycle instructor
Many students are new to cycling

Recruiting people for cycle training is harder than you might imagine. Which is strange when you consider that there can’t be many other human activities that people do without training: swimming, riding a horse, driving a car – would you attempt any of these without being shown how to by an expert first? Often the ones that could do with cycle training the most don’t  take it, even if it’s offered for free. The exceptions are usually women who are nervous riders but realise that a bit of instruction can help build confidence.

Oxford is definitely a cycling city and we want our students to enjoy cycling safely during their time here.” Dan Tomlinson, vice-president for Charities and Community at the Oxford University Student Union.

After taking more than fifty names of interested students over the course of two days at Oxford Freshers’ Fair, we ended up with about ten interested in attending a session of CTC cycle training in the city on Saturday 2 November.

Lucy was the more experienced of the first three trainees, having ridden a lot in London. But she was sensible enough to realise that a couple of hours with an experienced instructor could teach her things she had never thought about before, such as how to ride away from the gutter and to make eye contact with drivers. Chantajit and Kay had also ridden a bit before but not in the UK so needed to learn the rules of the road and  riding on the left.

The sessions started with a check of clothing, helmets and bikes and a quick refresh of the Level 1 to ensure that the students’ bike control was good enough to tackle riding on the roads – braking, steering, clear signalling and looking behind are all skills to be mastered before progressing on to Level 2.

Level 2 teaches students to assess the usefulness of cycle infrastructure and judge for themselves as to whether it makes their journeys easier or not. There was a cycle lane marked on the road right next to our training area in a large car park but the problem with this particular lane was its proximity to the exit to the car park – putting riders very near to any emerging vehicles.

A cycle lane that serves no useful purpose is probably best ignored

The students worked out for themselves that, as the road was pretty quiet, it was probably sensible to ignore the cycle lane and use the centre of the carriageway for maximum visibility - the cycle training mantra is 'See and be seen'.

Leaving the quiet roads, we negotiated  traffic-clogged streets  to reach the residential area of Jericho. Cycle lanes and advanced stop lines were assessed for usability and important lessons about not riding up the inside of large vehicles learnt. Turns into and out of minor and major roads were discussed then ridden in turn.

It was interesting to see the wide diversity of cyclists on the streets of Oxford. We even spotted a dad with a very small child of perhaps five or six on her own bike about to turn from Walton Street into the busier road network, showing that Oxford is one of the few cities in the UK where cycling has been encouraged - albeit with some questionable infrastructure in parts - with the result that riding a bike is seen as a ‘normal’ activity, as it is in many European towns and cities.

Kay perfects the right hand turn

      Kay perfects a right hand turn

A quick dash back to the car park and a short debrief and we were ready for session two. This was to prove slightly more challenging. In my naivety, I had inexplicably assumed that the students with foreign sounding names would be male! So when an Egyptian student who said they hadn’t ridden since childhood turned up, I was surprised to find he was a she wearing an ankle length, voluminous skirt. It was decided that a change to trousers was really the only option but she then reappeared wearing equally voluminous ‘trousers’ that had more material than many skirts!  Lesson on not making cultural assumptions learnt.

You are really showing me something that will change my life!”  Rugdha

Balancing, pedalling and steering a bicycle all seeming like basic skills but are much harder to do as an adult without the fearlessness of childhood. But, as always, I was impressed by the persistence of the determined adult learner – despite a couple of small tumbles, Rugdha eventually achieved pedalling independence. “You are really showing me something that can change my life!” she exclaimed, revealing exactly what being able to ride a bike means to those that can't do it.

It started to rain and, as the next two scheduled students did not appear, we did what any self-respecting cyclists do: found a café for restorative tea and cake. Bike Zone is a shop with cyclists' café Zappi's upstairs. A friendly Oxonian offered to share his table as a brainy looking student took up most of another one with his maths coursework.

Zappi's bike cafe - an excellent place to shelter from the rain

Zappi's bike cafe - a great place to shelter from the rain

The final session with Megan, who had been given a  lovely new bike as a reward for achieving a place at Oxford but had never ridden it, just flew by - it’s hard to condense a lifetime’s cycling skills into just a couple of short hours but any longer, and enthusiasm and stamina begin to wane. We had barely scratched the surface of what it is possible to learn – at Level 3 we would look at roundabouts, multi-lane junctions, filtering and more. But, hopefully, the students had picked up at least some new skills and would follow up with further sessions in the future.

This autumn CTC will also be providing cycle training to students at Plymouth, Reading and Leeds universities.

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