Feeling the fear

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I broke through a barrier yesterday – I used my bike for actual transport for the first time.

Until today, my riding has consisted entirely of recreational cycling. I’ve cycled down the voies vertes for fun, and on the local lanes for the same reason.

Yesterday, however, I headed for a friend’s house to deliver apples and pick grapes – an actual utility ride, for which I could have used the car. I loaded up the panniers with a crateload of Braeburns and knew I’d be cycling for a short while on a main road for the first time.

In fact I encountered more traffic in the first 100m than anywhere else – four massive maize trucks getting the crops in. I stopped for the first one and the others pulled into a field to let me pass.

But it is getting rear-ended that is my cycling terror (no matter, Trish, that rear-endings account for only 3.6% of accidents, almost all of which are at night…). Although I have a mirror, the convergence speed between my slow Dutch-style bike and the other road traffic is something that scares me to death. Blink and they’re on you. Consequently, I have stuck mainly to tiny side roads with virtually no traffic and where speeds tend to be about 70kmph.

Most of my journey was like that yesterday, other than a couple of hundred metres on the main road from Ambrières to Gorron, where the road is a wide two-laner and the speed limit is 90kmph (not that anyone obeys it).

I did not enjoy the experience. Going, it wasn’t so bad. It was a right turn and I was heading downhill, using the assist to get up to about 28kmph. I also ‘took the lane’, as cyclists are told to do, forcing any following traffic to pass me in the same way as they would a motorised vehicle, by pulling out into the opposite lane.

And this they did. In that 200m stretch, I was passed by two vehicles, and both gave me a wide berth and were perfectly courteous. I checked my mirror, indicated right while coasting (I am still not happy about taking a hand off the handlebars while pedalling) and turned down my friend’s private lane. Phew, safety.

What I hated though was how quickly the cars had appeared. Although I checked my handlebar mirror what seemed like every few seconds, with a convergence speed of 60kmph, I did not see either of those vehicles until they were right behind me, which I really do find frightening.

Going back, then, was not something I was looking forward to – it meant turning left, crossing traffic, going uphill around a blind bend and then turning left and crossing traffic again at the summit. I seriously thought about walking the whole thing facing the oncoming traffic and my host agreed, saying he wouldn’t do it on a bike, but when I got to the road, the grass verge was really a bit too narrow and steep to push a 23kg bike up it, especially loaded, as it now was, with about 20kg of grapes.

So I rode it, and it was fine. There was no other traffic. I shot up there with assist level 2, indicated left, crossed the lane, and everything was OK. But I don’t see myself doing it again. The French are turbo nutter bastard drivers with a reckless attitude to safety, and the fear of being squashed by someone who simply didn’t anticipate that there might be a slow-moving object in the road is, at my current level of experience, just too much for me.

On almost every journey into town, I see someone behaving like a twat: tailgating, turning without indicating, trying to overtake and failing (and ending up having to do an emergency stop in someone’s driveway). Our doctor was killed on a stretch of road that the local youths use like a switchback, and a friend came off on a bend in the same place. Only two weeks ago, a friend of a friend was killed on a zebra crossing, in broad daylight, in the middle of town, by a driver blinded by the low autumn sun. The French have twice the road deaths for the same amount of road as the British and they do not teach defensive driving.

It does freak me out a bit. I need to enjoy my cycling, and for that, I need to feel safe, and so for all that I try each day to do something new and test myself a little further, it felt like a ride too far.

Would I walk up this hill in the middle of the road? That would be no. And my bike, going uphill, was not all that much faster than walking. Do the French obey the 90kmph speed limit? Also no. And plenty of heavy freight traffic comes along this road.

I’ll be sticking a bit closer to home until I get my bottle back.





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