I have recently returned from a trip to the Balearic Island of Majorca, in Spain, where I was cycling with a group of friends. Majorca has developed a reputation as something of a haven for cycling over the past decade or so and, in my experience, this is entirely justified.
The Mediterranean island has an abundance of features which lend themselves to high levels of cycling. The island has several hilly regions offering fantastic views of a stunning landscape, but the towns themselves are quite flat, which means both casual and enthusiastic cyclists have suitable terrain to enjoy. Furthermore, the Majorcan climate is warm and dry, which means that, unlike the UK, there is little water and frost damage to the road surfaces. This, combined with a proactive approach to road repairs, means that all but the most rural of roads are smooth and pothole free. Spend a day rolling on these roads and it quickly becomes apparent why Team Sky spend their winters training on this island.
Many places might simply be content with this. Certainly, these features put most places in the UK to shame on their own. But, what makes Majorca truly special is the islanders' attitude to other road users. When cycling around towns like Alcudia and Polenca, I noticed that there were barely any traffic lights. Some might consider this is to be an oversight, but instead, the Majorcan authorities prefer to install pedestrian crossings without lights at regular intervals. Motorists and cyclists are expected to give way to pedestrians at these crossings. This ethos of responsibility is so ingrained that a motorist will stop at a crossing even if a pedestrian looks like they are thinking about crossing the road. Road users on this island, it seems, maintain a healthy respect for each other.
This respect extends outside towns and busy areas. In my week there I cycled over 500km and covered large portions of the island. Most main roads have dedicated lanes for cycling, big enough at least for cyclists to comfortably ride 2 abreast. On the roads that don’t have a segregated lane, I was never made to feel threatened by motorists. It’s common practice for motorists to move all the way over into the other lane before overtaking a cyclist, meaning cyclists aren’t intimidated or endangered by the close proximity of fast moving vehicles. On narrower roads, vehicles will often give a polite toot of the horn if they encounter a group of cyclists and, on corners with limited views, they will do the same.
Here in Scotland, I regularly experience vehicles overtaking without leaving sufficient room and often over the speed limit. If you cycle on roads in the UK, you will probably be very familiar with the feeling of precariousness as an HGV or bus hurtles by you, leaving just a small gap about half a meter wide. It’s an unpleasant feeling and, for a lot of people, it’s enough to keep them off their bikes. I don’t blame them either. It’s unfair that the public in this country cannot cycle on the road without experiencing threatening manoeuvres or intimidation. Majorca’s stricter approach to driver liability has really had an impact of the attitude of road users in terms of the respect and caution exercised when interacting with cyclists and pedestrians.
The island of Majorca has made a concentrated effort over the last 5 years to be more welcoming to anyone wishing to use 2 wheels to get around. In turn, the island has benefited economically from a huge influx of tourists. Overall, cyclists only make up a fairly small percentage of overall tourists on the island, but importantly, they visit in Spring or Autumn, or the ‘off-season’, providing a vital boost to local businesses at a time of year that would otherwise be very quiet. Having professional cycling teams training there has been another boost to the island’s appeal. In addition, the Director of Majorca's tourism development says they actually spend 15% more than your average tourist. Having worked up a mighty hunger on some of the climbs on the island, I can completely understand this!
Alas, Scotland will probably never be as dry or sunny as Majorca, but there’s no reason at all why we can’t foster a similar shift in attitude and culture here in Scotland. We certainly have the landscape to encourage people to see our country on two wheels. I hope we can at least start to make the necessary changes to how we all use the road that will in turn encourage a safer and more respectful environment for everyone.