Cyclists aren't restricted to congested commuter roads like car drivers. You can also use cycle tracks, towpaths, and bridleways – although not footpaths or pavements, unless you get off and push. The quality of these off-road routes varies widely: some are impractical, others fantastic. Most are shared with pedestrians. Don't behave towards them like some drivers do towards cyclists. No one likes to be surprised by a relatively fast moving vehicle than passes with inches to spare.
Slow down & ring your bell
You're obliged to give way to pedestrians and horse-riders on bridleways and to pedestrians on towpaths. Sustrans recommends giving way to pedestrians on shared-use cycle tracks too.
In practice, if you announce your presence by ringing your bell - or calling out 'excuse me' or 'cyclist behind' – most pedestrians that hear you will move to one side. Give them plenty of room, don't race by, and thank them.
There's no default maximum speed on shared-use paths but you always need to be ready to slow down or stop, which will mean moderating your speed. Fast commuters may be happier on road.
Roadside cycle tracks
Roadside cycle tracks are often pavements that have been divided with a white line. Stick to the cycling side but be aware that pedestrians may step onto your side without warning.
Roadside cycle tracks have lots of junctions with side roads. Instead of having priority, like the road the track runs alongside, you'll face repeated give way lines. This slows your journey and can increase risk, because junctions are where the majority of cycling accidents occur. Having two junctions close together – main road/side road and side road/cycle track – doesn't improve matters. Be vigilant!
Roadside cycle tracks have dropped kerbs where they meet roads. This is okay if you hit the lip square on. Where an on-road cycle lane diverts off-road, you may hit the lip at an acute angle… and crash. Cross it at a more perpendicular angle or pull up on the handlebar to lift the front wheel over the lip.
The surface of roadside cycle tracks is seldom as good as the road nearby. Debris doesn't get 'swept' to the side by the wash of car tyres like it does on road, so you may end up riding over anything. It's unlikely to be gritted either.
Some roadside cycle tracks have street furniture awkwardly embedded, such as signposts, streetlights, bollards, or bus shelters. Take care! Search online for 'crap cycle lanes' to find some stunningly bad examples.
Other cycle tracks
Cycle tracks away from roads often follow the course of old railway lines that were ripped up in the 1960s. Rail's loss is cycling's gain. These tracks, which are always shared-use, have gentle gradients and, crucially for commuting cyclists, take direct routes into cities and towns.
Surface quality varies. Some are tarmac, some crushed stone, others hard-packed earth. The rougher the surface, the more you'll benefit from fatter tyres and bigger wheels; think cyclo-cross bikes, touring bikes, or more rugged hybrids. In or near urban areas, broken glass and dog muck can be significant problems. Use puncture-resistant tyres with a smooth tread, and fit mudguards to stop anything getting flicked up onto you.
Many cycle tracks are unlit, so you might be uncomfortable using them at night if they go through unsavoury parts of town. If you do use them, you'll need good lights front and rear, not only so you can see but so that pedestrians and other cyclists can see you.
Bridleways and towpaths
Towpaths have the same advantage as old rail routes: they're designed to link towns and cities so don't take you miles out of your way. Have a look at the Canal and River Trust website to see the extent of the network, and for advice on using them.
Bridleways are intended for horse riders, as the name implies. If they're heavily used by horses, the surface can be awful for cycling – particularly after heavy rain. If it's been wet, be prepared to walk sections and make sure you have a change of clothes for work.
You will encounter dog walkers on shared-use paths. Most owners are responsible and will call their dog to heel. Sometimes the dog will be badly trained and may wander in front of you. Or it may be on a long, retractable lead that stretches all the way across the path…
If the dog is aggressive, you can either attempt to outpace it (risky – dogs are chase predators) or face it down. Shout 'sit', 'stay' or 'down'. If the dog attacks you, dissuade it however aggressively you deem fit; the law is on your side. One less confrontational option is to dismount, place your bike between you and the dog, and wait for the owner. If the dog does bite you, report the incident to the police.
Horses, meanwhile, are prey animals and are very easily startled. Announce your presence to the rider early and pass wide and slow. Do not go anywhere near the horse: you don't know its temperament or the rider's ability, and a kick from a horse can put you in hospital – or worse.
Most of time, of course, travel on off-road routes is stress free, simply because everyone can talk to each other. You meet people, not traffic.
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