Cycling terms explained

A handy guide to all those terms the cyclist in your life uses that befuddle you. NB unlikely to make you less befuddled than you were before. May make you more irate

Cake: essential fuel for cycling. It is in no way, shape or form unhealthy. Anyone who says otherwise is not your friend.

Cycle path: a path which according to the Highway Code you can use and according to non-cycling motorists you must use, on pain of, well, something or other. Irritating them probably. Unlikely to be fit for purpose. Will probably feature broken glass and irate pedestrians who tell you it isn’t a cycle path, despite the prominent blue signs saying it is a cycle path. Ontologically they may have a point as despite the signage, it is unlikely to be a path you want to cycle on and it’s still less likely it will end somewhere you want to cycle to.

Goes a bit Sustrans: see cycle path. Not, unfortunately for the organisation, a compliment. Refers to a more than usually awful facility, often with random and inexplicable barriers. May also be overgrown, disrupted by tree roots, narrow or so rural you need an MTB. Or just a tractor.

Helmet: confers magical abilities to avoid all damage to anyone on a bike hit by a car, lorry or even freight train. Worried about fractures to things other than your head? Concerned that a truck might actually turn your internal organs to mulch? Don’t be. Wearing a helmet will protect you against all those things and more. Try wearing one when you’re drunk and negotiating stairs, as statistically it’s more dangerous than cycling to the shops

High viz: similar to helmets. Has magical properties which insure that drivers will actually look when they haven’t otherwise bothered. Must be worn at all times by cyclists so that motorists who are on their phone/ speeding/eating breakfast/ generally just a bit distracted and can’t be arsed to look think “fuck me my retinas are being seared by retroreflectives perhaps I’d better concentrate whilst operating dangerous machinery”

Keirin: not a Scooby but I’m assuming that one day the bloke on the scooter will win

MGIF: must get in front. A reference to drivers who haven’t grasped sections 162-169 of the Highway Code and believe that they have a divine right to be in front of a bike, even in situations in which clearly the bike would be faster if only they hadn’t plonked their car in the way

N+1 : The number of bikes you should own, where n= the number of bikes you currently own. Once dismissed by an acquaintance of mine on the grounds that maths is tricky. Car drivers eh.

Rain: stuff that makes you wet. This is a problem that can be solved using a towel. Contrary to what non-cyclists will have you believe does not also make you melt or make cycling impossible.

Road tax: abolished in 1937. Millions of motorists apparently still pay it, which makes them irritable and gives them a sense of entitlement

SMIDSY: Sorry mate I didn’t see you. Used by certain motorists in the belief that not seeing someone absolves them of responsibility in a collision. Actually an admission of incompetence and the need for a sight test

VED: a tax based on vehicle emissions. Millions of motorists believe cyclists should pay it despite the evidence that A. they already do if they own a car B. cycles would be zero rated and therefore in Band A (£0) C. it doesn’t cover the full cost of the roads D. they’re usually already paying income tax and council tax both of which actually do go towards funding roads


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In defence of dressage?

During the 2012 Olympics I wrote an article for the Guardian online defending dressage as a sport and Britain’s dressage team in particular. Four years later the British team came a respectable second to Germany and Dujardin retained her individual title. Dujardin’s freestyle test was an incredible performance from both horse and rider and for many people, myself included, a beautiful display of teamwork. However, questions remain over the future of dressage. Those questions are being asked both inside and outside the equestrian world.

From the outside we have the perspective of bloggers such as Patrick Redford who argued that the Olympics are for humans and are about human endeavour, not equine endeavour. It’s not difficult to counteract this. Horses have been there since the beginning, with the original Greek games including chariot races. The equestrian competitions have always been a part of the modern Olympics. It’s not as if someone woke up in 1988 and randomly decided to add horses into the mix. They may not fit with what Redford wants to see, but he’s not a one-man decision making body, as much as he might like to be.

The Olympics are diverse and we can all pick the bits we prefer. Redford could just avoid watching horses. The BBC had about a dozen channels covering the event. It’s easy just not to watch dressage, show jumping and eventing. I don’t watch any number of ball sports, not because I’m denying their sporting nature or saying they don’t belong or trying to turn others against them but just because I personally don’t find them interesting.

In terms of whether or not they’re athletic, riders do not need the prowess of say Usain Bolt or Jessica Ennis-Hill. However, riding is intensely physical. To ask my horse for shoulder-in I have to be aware of how his feet are falling, feel what his hind legs are doing, ask his shoulders to take a different track from his hind legs and co-ordinate my efforts and his. Look at the riders on the medal podium – many are older, but how many strike you as un-athletic? If I ban riding from the Olympics on fitness grounds I’m also going to have to ditch golf and shooting which require many skills, but not the kind of cardiovascular recovery rates needed for a marathon.

Horses do much of the work, yes. You need a good horse at Olympic level but you cannot just stick any rider on them and expect them to succeed – there is a considerable human element. Much of the criticism I have seen doesn’t really register the skill level involved and then just resorts to petty insults along the lines of “It looks silly” and “what have I watched, I don’t understand?” Concepts of silliness are highly subjective. I think badminton looks silly. And throwing yourself backwards over a bar doesn’t really strike me as the action of someone rational but I’m happy for it to be in the Olympics. The specialist attire required for riding is generally practical although I think the dressage riders could ditch the top hats and tails for helmets and show jumping-style jackets. As for not understanding it, it would take me quite a while to work out what the hell is going on with the keirin and I like cycling. I don’t think my lack of understanding is a reason to ban something.

From inside the equestrian community there are more serious points about the welfare of competition horses which are much more difficult to counteract. Dressage has long been dogged by controversies over rollkur, a training method in which the horse’s nose is forced behind the vertical and the head and neck carriage are brought so short that the horse has difficulty breathing. If you look at the photo below of my horse Charlie grazing, you can see that his head and neck are stretched out. The horse has evolved to put its head down and eat forage at ground level (most of the time, some of their ancestors were browsers and modern horses will still eat trees and shrubs). The horse’s windpipe and gullet are almost in a straight line in this position, allowing easy breathing and swallowing.


Contrast that with the picture here of Parzival competing. His nose is behind the vertical (a no-no in dressage that you cannot get away with unless you’re famous and compete internationally). Parzival’s windpipe is jammed into the space you can see just above the white padding on his noseband. Take a hosepipe and flex it to around 30 degrees to get an idea of just how narrow this is. It’s why quite often when you watch dressage you can hear a horse’s breathing. Done correctly, the horse’s nose should be further from its chest, the angle is less extreme and the restriction in breathing is far less marked. However, movements such as the extended walk are included partly as a way for the horse to get its breath back.

When we ride a horse we ask it to carry an increasing amount of weight on its hind legs. In the photo of Charlie grazing he’s carrying around 60% of his weight on his front legs. Even when he raises his head and neck, he’s still likely to be “on the forehand” i.e. carrying more weight on his front legs than his hind legs. It makes him difficult to control, hard to manoeuvre and a bit uncomfortable to ride. If I ask him to carry more weight on his hind legs and to lift his shoulders, head and neck, he becomes easier to control, more comfortable and, if it’s done correctly, it’s easier for him to carry my weight. This is the original point of dressage and schooling – it isn’t really an end in itself. It’s a preparation for any of the other things you might want to do with your horse. It’s easier for them to jump if they can power over using their hind legs as springs than if they’re trying to lift an already heavy forehand. It’s more fun cantering across the moor if your horse is less likely to trip and more able to right himself if he does. It’s easier to open a gate without dismounting if your horse can turn on its forehand. You can control an animal more easily on the road if it knows shoulder-in because you can ask it to bend its head to the right and see traffic out of its right eye so it shies to the left away from the traffic. That’s if it shies at all – the extra control schooling gives you may well mean you can anticipate the horse’s movement and prevent it from jumping sideways.

Somewhere along the way, humans got competitive about this. We couldn’t just enjoy riding, or even be content to be good at it as a means to an end. And the competition wasn’t “my horse is the healthiest and happiest” it was “I can jump higher/ go faster/ perform a better pirouette”. I wouldn’t have a problem with this if I thought the horses’ welfare was being maintained during the process but when I watch top-level competitions, it’s fairly obvious it isn’t. If it’s not Rollkur, it’s spur marks. Or nosebands cranked so tight that the horses’ jaws are damaged. Or Penelope Leprevost booting her horse for tripping. Or Andreas Helgstrand turning his horse’s tongue blue. Or Totilas being pushed to such an extent that he’s lame.

Of course there is the argument that at around 500kg, it’s nigh on impossible to make a horse do something it doesn’t want to do but that is to fundamentally misunderstand the nature of power. George Orwell wrote Animal Farm after watching a small boy leading a large farm horse and wondering how someone who could so easily be overcome stayed in charge. Power is a kind of trick that you play by convincing someone that doing your will is the easiest option. You can force a horse to do something it doesn’t want to do – look at the ironmongery in a dressage horse’s mouth. And don’t get me started on what show jumpers are allowed to use. A horse might find piaffe uncomfortable, so the rider ensures that not doing piaffe is even worse.

If horses really resist, if they really attempt to hospitalise us, they’re either beaten into submission, sold on repeatedly until if they’re lucky they find someone who understands them, or euthanized. And on the whole very few of them get to this stage because actually, they like us. The only reason we’ve been able to domesticate horses is because they do seem drawn to us and we’ve only bred from those who are more tractable. We don’t ride zebras (on the whole) because they’re a lot less willing, and I can’t say I really blame them. So yes, we can coerce or force horses into doing something they don’t want to do.

So where does this leave dressage? Some people take the view that we shouldn’t ride horses at all; that any time we do ride them we bully them into a state of learned helplessness. Others think we can but it should be with very minimal tack, excluding even bits. I don’t go that far but I have found over the years that it’s wise to pick your trainer carefully. I will no longer use any trainer who thinks that draw reins and tight flash nosebands are the answer to a horse resisting when the answer for me is to assess why the horse is exhibiting that level of discomfort, not to say pain. If Charlie wants to open his mouth he can do – it’s my job to find out why, not just to mask his symptoms of pain.

But at the higher levels of dressage, and all other equestrian disciplines, there is a greater perceived need to push horses into doing something they don’t necessarily want to do. Once someone is trying to make a living riding horses, they don’t really have the option to say “oh OK today is a bad day for this, spend it in the field, I’ll do something else”. Owners push riders to get results and if the riders don’t achieve these quickly enough, owners move the horse onto another rider who will push the horse. I don’t think high-level competitions necessarily have to include cruelty but we do need a major rethink and a huge effort to ensure that horses are not abused. They’ve evolved to be cooperative herd animals and these immensely powerful, graceful and generous animals should be celebrated, not tortured into submission.

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Leadsom, May and the mother of all rows

If you’d told me a month ago that two women would shortly be battling to be Prime Minister and there would not be one thing that I liked about the situation, I would have thought you’d had too much Beaujolais. Followed by a hallucinogenic chaser. I never thought I’d be half hoping that Theresa May would become PM even if it is solely on the grounds that she’s better than the alternative. And yet here I am, and there are May and Leadsom, engaged in a scramble to the top. Part of me doesn’t want to think any more at all, about any of it. And yet I’m still contemplating why this feels so bad.

And then I hear the news that Leadsom’s prime qualification for PM, her big advantage over May as far as she’s concerned, is that she’s a mother. To quote Leadsom “genuinely I feel being a mum means you have a very real stake in the future of our country. A tangible stake”. I’m 44 and don’t have children. The chances of me becoming a mother are roughly the same as the chances of me winning the lottery, particularly since I don’t buy tickets. In essence what Leadsom is saying is that this makes me less able to empathise, that it makes me less able to think about the future, because I won’t have a stake in it. Thanks, Andrea. Thanks for that.

Now there is the fact that this is hideously insensitive. There’s also the fact that being hideously insensitive makes Leadsom more likely to win a campaign for Tory leadership, not less. But what really alarms me about this is that it seems Leadsom can only invest in the future if that future involves her direct descendants. When it boils down to it, this is a selfish attitude. Personally, I fear for what is happening in Britain because of the effects it is having on society as a whole. And I do see that society as a whole. I worry that anyone who is slightly different, whether that be a difference of race; class; sexuality; age; health or gender will suffer as our political and economic systems implode. I worry that people will suffer prejudice against them and that they will experience genuine hardship through no fault of their own but by sheer luck of the draw. I fear for these people. The fact that they aren’t my direct descendants is neither here nor there. They are fellow human beings and I’d rather they didn’t suffer.

Contrast this with Leadsom, who seems to think that you will worry more about your future if you have children, as if the only way one can empathise is by projecting forwards into your own personal lineage. And in this it seems to me she is highlighting the worst of the Tory party – they will protect their own, they will care about their own, they will see nepotism as normal. They will not be able to understand how you can really genuinely care about the future of society as a whole rather than just your own part of it. It harks back to fiefdom.

Mulling this over, it’s not that I want a female PM per se. It’s that I thought that for us to be in this situation, where not one but two women had got to the top in politics, we would have a more egalitarian society. I would have thought that managing to juggle motherhood with this would be a positive. That having two women reach the top would show that women do not have to chose between career and family. But what Leadsom and May demonstrate is that actually, we have the same political class. The women that succeed are drawn from the same fairly narrow sector of society as many of their male counterparts. True, they are not the products of Eton, but their privilege nonetheless stacks up. And Leadsom’s comments about motherhood confirm this for me. We aren’t entering an age in which we are judged by merit rather than class, age, race or gender. We’re going back to a time when all that really mattered is who your parents were and how much privilege they managed to gain for their own very small part of the social spectrum.



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Because the rant is never over

Sometimes I get annoyed. I get angry. I rant. I do things that would be normal in a man. In a woman? Oh no. That’s undignified. It’s shrewish. It’s strident. It’s outspoken. It’s hysterical (and I don’t mean funny. I really do not mean funny). It’s all these things but for a woman it isn’t fucking normal. Apparently.

What do I get angry about? Oh bloody everything. All the bloody time. And then I get told I shouldn’t be angry and guess what? That really pisses me off. I get angry because it’s 2016 and apparently some employers have only just realised that you can’t force women to wear high heeled shoes. And I get angry at that advert that says women expect their feet to hurt in heels and they should wear these gel inserts in their shoes when really what I think they should be doing is buying brogues. Or trainers. Or anything that doesn’t cause them actual pain. And painful footwear shouldn’t be normalised with gel inserts. Although the good news is that the review that said they will melt and ruin your shoes did make me smile for a second or two.

I get angry when I’m trying to find a film to watch and I see a listing that describes Fifth Element as a film starring Bruce Willis and Gary Oldman as if Milla Jovivich doesn’t fucking exist except as window dressing. Which let’s face it is what Hollywood thinks women are but I don’t want my TV channel guide bloody well colluding with them and writing women out of the cast altogether. And Leeloo is key to the damn plot so include the actor who plays her as one of the stars ffs.

I get annoyed that female Disney characters get so little dialogue even when they’re main characters. And I get really, really annoyed at the way women’s voices are so appropriated that everyone thinks they talk more than they actually do. And I get annoyed that the Bechdel test exists and that even though all it asks is that a work of fiction features at least two women who talk to each other about something other than a man half of all films fail it.

And I get annoyed about CVs and publishing and research track records. Because by putting “Helen” on my CV instead of “Henry” everyone will downgrade it. Because even J.K. Rowling couldn’t publish under a female first name. Because my research funding and every other bastard thing will be curtailed and judged more harshly because I’m female.

Of course this makes me bloody furious, although being a woman I’m not allowed to be bloody furious. Which makes me incandescent.

I get annoyed when someone says Man when they mean Humans. Except apparently I’m not supposed to be angry about this because it’s just a word and I’m being Over Sensitive. The same way that I’m Over Sensitive about bikes and women’s bikes. About sport and women’s sports. About always being the add on, the outsider, the thing outside the norm. The bloody fucking other instead of the “neutral” template. I’m never the normal. Never the established thing from which others vary. I’m the bloody variant. And yes, “bloody” in that last sentence is not necessarily a swear word. Also, I find none of these things funny. If you want me to be a humourless, joyless, hairy-legged feminist I’ll embrace that with pride. Because I don’t care if you judge my looks positively. I don’t care if you judge my looks negatively. I care that you think a woman should be judged for her looks when I am so much more than that.

And you know what puts the tin lid on the whole damn thing? When someone says “I get annoyed with feminists blaming the patriarchy. Women are their own worst critics”. Really? Really? You think I hadn’t noticed that? You think I’m unaware of the extent to which we internalise the patriarchy? Of the ways in which we imbibe it and spew it back out again? Oh I know full well that women have agency and could stop wittering on about each other’s bodies and looks. But when tabloid newspapers portray them as pouting, static, supine, passive beings, when that famous sporting “newspaper” the Sun cannot include a single picture of a woman actually doing sport, do you not think that maybe, just maybe, that informs my thought patterns? That however much I want to escape from this, to see myself as active, to realise that I am more than how I look, just as every other woman is, it’s pretty fucking difficult to achieve when all the propaganda out there effectively tells me I’m just window dressing and I’d better dress properly. And get out of the window when I’m too old. And keep quiet. And not be angry. And wear 2-4 inch heels.

Except that I am angry. I am furious. And frankly, I have reason to be.

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Strictly 2015 – the year they broke the script

I’ve been watching Strictly Come Dancing since 2007 when, whilst channel hopping, I happened upon Alesha Dixon dancing with Matthew Cutler. I knew the format of the show but not knowing much about celebrity, and still less about ballroom dancing, I struggled to work out which was the pro and which the celebrity. From then on, I was hooked. Each September, as the nights draw in and I know the gloom of winter is approaching, I look forward to my weekly dose of sparkly, besequined escapism. I know it’s tosh. I know ballroom dancing is sexist. I know it should be fluff but boy do I take it seriously and so it seems do thousands of others.

Over the years, I’ve grown used to the sense that there is a story playing out that’s gently scripted. The producers pick the celebrities so we get certain characters in each show and then steer things to produce highs, lows, dramas and online spats. We get the comedy act, who we obligingly vote for until Blackpool week because we want to see Ann Widdecombe dragged around the floor like a giant yellow dishcloth, but not at the expense of someone who really can dance. There are those clearly destined to go out in the first few weeks as lacking any dancing ability, comedy value, or even vaguely memorable characteristics. There are the clear mid-tablers, who sometimes provide a sort of shock-exit when they lose out to the comedy act. Then there are the genuine shock exits (Pixie Lott, Helen George) who end up in impossible dance-offs, or the people like Scott Marsden who start brilliantly and run out steam. And there are those who snatch victory from better dancers just by doing Charlestons (yes Chris Hollins, I still haven’t forgiven you).

Through all this, Craig Revel Horwood plays the harsh but fair pantomime villain who possibly has a heart in there somewhere. Darcey provides helpful critique; Len spots fleckerls and Bruno just sort of madly gesticulates on the end of the judges’ table (they put him there so he can only hit one judge, and since it’s Len and he’s been getting increasingly curmudgeonly nobody really minds. Except Len).

The problem this year has been a growing sense that something’s gone wrong with the script. Usually you can enjoy the story whilst being vaguely aware of but not minding the steering. This year the steering has felt much more like manipulation and the story has become much darker and less enjoyable. The characters haven’t been doing what the producers want and their attempts to haul them back into line have revealed something almost rotten underneath the greasepaint.

It started gently enough, Carol – easy cannon fodder, minor character, should be voted out 2nd or 3rd – turned out to be incredibly likeable and when paired with Pasha saw off five other dancers. Jeremy, comedy turn, let’s put him on a plastic horse and dress him up like Woody from Toy Story. And make him dance a tango. To Go West. No, I’m not joking. And neither really was Jeremy, who it turned out could probably dance reasonably well, if the producers had had the grace to treat him with some dignity.

Then there was Peter, destined to be the star turn. The one who could really dance, though not trained in ballroom, a shoe-in for the final. Except that he plateaued, his technique stopped improving and whatever the judges did, the audience weren’t really convinced. So they put him in the DO, against then 4-time DO survivor Jamelia (also not in the script, you’re only meant to survive three at most). And then she really departed from the script by out-dancing him, getting voted out by the judges anyway, and causing a media outcry amongst people who didn’t like her enough to vote for her but didn’t want her booted out in a DO when she’d danced well.

But the one who really broke the script was boyband member Jay McGuinness – hairy, walks a bit like a caveman, too shy to talk properly on camera, spent the first two weeks shaking. Definitely supposed to go out early. Except he really could move. Aliona got his hair cut and changed the way he walked. In week 2 he did a lovely waltz that the judges praised to the heavens, so his nerves eased up. And in week 3 he did THAT JIVE. A jive that many people see the need to capitalise as a shorthand way to distinguish it from all other jives before (except maybe Jill’s). And from then onwards the judges were stuffed and didn’t know what to do with someone who became odds-on favourite in week 3 and then stayed there.

There on in, things got sour, so I have some suggestions as to what to do next year, in the hope that we keep SCD as the amazing show it is, but make it more escapist, and less Grimm tale.

1 Keep Tess and Claudia. I know one is bland and the other quirky. It works. Leave it.

2 Sack two of the judges. I don’t care which two. If you can’t decide, pick them out of a hat, they’ve all pissed me off at some point. Inform the remaining two that telling someone they have no personality is just bullying. It’s a light entertainment programme for fun and watching people get torn to pieces is neither fun nor entertaining.

3 You know the rule book that you threw out for the show dances? Where did you find it? Because you haven’t bothered with it much this year. Work out the rules and stick to them. FOR EVERYONE. If Gleb can’t lift Anita in the rumba, then Kevin (or a backing dancer) can’t hoick Kellie onto a table during a VW. I might not know a reverse fleckerl when I see it, but I can spot that.

4 Don’t give primetime TV slots to siblings for them to comment on finalists. If you do, make sure they don’t say the opposition was over-marked in the semis. Other people get sacked for less. And look up “conflict of interest” whilst you’re at it.

5 Replace Anton as a pro dancer. He will never find another woman to dive backwards off a stage into his arms. Give him choreography corner. I like Anton but he resembles fortified wine – enjoyable in small doses but if you keep glugging it you start to feel sick.

6 Give Brendan a partner that’s good who he likes. He’s looked pissed off for years. If that doesn’t work, give him choreography corner with Anton in 2017

7 Go back to basics. Watch Jay and Aliona’s showdance. He’s all in white. After the entrance there are no props. They just dance. And they won like that, despite continual negative comments; the subtle and not so subtle digs on the show and on ITT and the remarks about his face that would have been laughable had they not been at root cruel. The public have spoken. They want people who perform well in the Ten Dances, not a manic Lindy Hop that however skilled, was not strictly speaking ballroom.

8 And on that note, make sure that in the final, couples have to dance one Latin and one ballroom to start with, not the specialty dances. If they want to do those, they can do them in the show dance, where there are no rules.

As it was, during the finals this year I switched over to The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, because it lived up to its name whereas Strictly had become too predictable and I knew the scores before the couples danced. I want to get back to escapism and if Strictly is riddled with unfairness, nepotism and spite, I might as well walk out of the front door into the dark, wet reality of a British winter where I can find all those in spades.

And in the end, remember this. As Terry Pratchett used to argue, stories have a way of writing (and righting) themselves no matter how much you try to interfere with them. By continually sniping at Jay, the judges somehow made him both the bookies’ favourite and yet an underdog too. If there’s one thing the British love more than a favourite, it’s an underdog, so as soon as Craig said “you had no personality”, Jay was certain to win. I don’t know what the producers and judges were up to but I do know that Jay and Aliona got their happy ending in spite of it.

Mum’s the word

On It Takes Two, that font of wisdom Richard Madeley predicted that Jay just might win because of the “mum vote”. Since then I’ve heard it said that Jay won because of the granny vote, and because of the teenage girl vote. To which I have to say: so what? Why is the female vote, across all ages, perceived as less valid and less worthy? I voted for Jay because I liked watching him dance, not because I want to mother him (he has a perfectly good mother of his own) or because I fancy him or because my hormones told me to. Women can actually make rational decisions about who to vote for. So pack in the denigration of an entire sex by insinuating that our decision to vote is based on something less worthy than men’s decisions are. It’s 2015. We can vote. Deal with it.


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Strictly Come Dancing: fake it until you fail?

For those not in the know, Strictly Come Dancing is a light entertainment show in which celebrities are paired with professional dancers and taught a new dance each week. Every Saturday, one of the couples is voted off until one couple is crowned the winner. It seems like something light, sparkly, spangly and fluffy but it’s syndicated worldwide; can be used to revamp and relaunch sometimes flagging careers and is the favourite of the gutter press as some of the world’s most beautiful people occasionally start swapping partners both on and off the dance floor. In that context, the words “voted off” should raise alarm bells for it can indeed become highly controversial.

The process of voting is quite convoluted and as such perhaps not as robust as it might be. First each of the four judges award each dance a mark out of 10, to give a possible total of 40. Couples are then ranked on a scoreboard and the couple at the top are given the highest mark and so on down to the bottom couple who should in theory receive  one mark (though the BBC are not good at maths and this doesn’t always happen). Then, to give audience participation, the public vote. The couples are ranked again and again the top scoring couple get the highest mark and so on down. Judges’ marks and the public scores are then combined to give an overall scoreboard.

You could at that point just wave goodbye to the person with the lowest number of points overall. However, the problem producers encountered with this format is that the fickle public don’t always vote for good dancers and sometimes, as in the case of John Sargeant, deliberately vote for people with the dancing ability of a broom pole so left to their own devices, they might give the glitter ball to the likes of Anne Widdecombe. To prevent good dancers from getting kicked out too early the dance off was introduced in which the bottom two couples both dance again and the judges then save the couple who dance the best.

The system has always thrown some curve balls and at times the judges do have to make difficult decisions. Last year Simon Webbe was up against Pixie Lott and should in theory have been toast. Simon was a great dancer but Pixie had fairly consistently beaten him, until that week in which Simon scored 35 for an American Smooth which contained an obvious mistake whilst Pixie scored the same for a Cha Cha Cha which the judges criticised for poor technique and illegal lifts. Thus all Simon had to do was correct his obvious mistake whilst Pixie, to up her score, would have had to refine her technique and choreograph out some lifts, all in the same evening. It was not to be and Len sent Pixie home, arguing “I have to judge this on this one dance that I have seen – not what has been in the past, [or] what my expectations are in the future.  I tell you – this is hard as a judge but harder as person”.

Bear that quote in mind because it helps explain what happened last Saturday at Blackpool. Jamelia, with a score of 31 for a pretty passable quickstep ended up in the DO against Peter Andre with 29 for something that might have been a jive in another universe were jigging around and doing one of your old pop routines counts as a jive. The BBC’s problem is that it has created a small army of armchair experts who know what gapping is and who know about kicks and flicks. It already seemed that Andre was over-marked since Craig argued his dance was “at the bottom of the pack of jives” this season. Len gave Peter an 8 whereas in week 3 he scored Jay 9 for a jive the like of which none of us has really seen from one of the celebrities before – and I mean that in a good way. Unless Len is using a Richter scale or some other non-linear scoring system it’s hard to see how there was only one point between Jay’s and Peter’s dances.

Once it was announced that Jamelia and Peter were in the DO it was apparent that the judges were between a rock and a hard place. Jamelia had already survived a record four DOs and so was demonstrably not popular with the public but had danced better than Peter. Peter has some talent but that was not his dance and even with what looked like an inflated score he was worse than Jamelia. So for him to win the DO, in accordance with the rules stated by Len last series, Jamelia was going to have to drop points whereas Peter was going to have to gain them. To the majority of us watching at home it looked instead as if Jamelia upped her game and Peter remained the same. And yet Bruno, Darcey and Craig voted to keep Peter on the show.

The BBC might have thought that was that. Send the unpopular dancer who was never going to win home, keep their superstar signing who most of the time can dance. However, they found themselves in the midst of a storm without any apparent knowledge as to why. The BBC seemed to have forgotten that even Capuchin monkeys have a sense of fairness. This was never really about Jamelia, it was about the fairness and transparency of a process. People become invested in Strictly. It’s what gets us through winter in a northern climate. It’s sparkly and fun and perfect escapist television. And what we expect with escapist fun is a sense of fair play. After all, it isn’t really escapism if skulduggery is seen to be done without any redress.

In this the BBC had a perfect storm. It’s been apparent for years that the producers could manipulate the outcome if they so chose. Each year they pick a comedy act, forgetting that comedy should arise naturally. But you go along with it, and vote to keep weaker dancers in at least until Wembley/ Blackpool week, because who wouldn’t want to see Russell Grant fired out of a cannon. There have been rumours before about fixes because some dance, music and costume choices seem odd at best. If you don’t like a celebrity, it must be hard not to ask them to dance the rumba whilst wearing a sequined bin bag, to You Spin Me Right Round. If I had the power to do that, I’m not sure I’d resist either.

To add to the storm and the rumours, SCD bosses have never really been open with their audience. They won’t give out public voting figures even after a series ends and despite FOI requests. And because of this, since they introduced online voting, I’ve only voted via this free method. Added to which although it’s pretty obvious that the Sunday results show is filmed straight after the live Saturday show, the BBC go through an odd charade in which they don’t lie outright, but do refer to “last night” and “on Saturday” repeatedly during the Sunday show and refer to “Sunday” repeatedly afterwards even though most of us know the result is available on spoiler sites around 10:30pm on Saturday.

So in a situation in which you have a vague but tolerable sense of some manipulation and lack of transparency, to find out just how ugly SCD’s face might be underneath all the makeup and sequins is something of a shock. Jamelia was obviously the better dancer on the night so why then keep Peter? Was it just because he’s been better in the series? In which case how do we know what the rules are? And why force celebs to go through a DO when in the end whatever they do doesn’t matter?

To compound the situation, the BBC published a blog by the studio director who explained to us “how a large scale entertainment show like Strictly Come Dancing – The Results is made” thereby making me feel like a 1950s housewife being told not to worry my pretty head about things I don’t really understand. Len was then wheeled out on It Takes Two to argue that he’d seen improvement in Peter’s dance and that that is why Peter was saved. Even though on the night Len said he would have saved Jamelia and in fact it was the other three judges who apparently spotted this miraculous improvement.

Whilst this is not really about Jamelia, it is about Peter. Like him or loath him he is an international star with a huge PR machine behind him. Once it’s clear that the BBC don’t respect its audience, treat you like children and are not transparent, you do start to wonder what hold someone like Peter has over them and quite what terms might be in his contract. I’ve long thought that the most sincere and real part of Peter is his fake tan. I’d rather not think so ill of Strictly, too.

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What You and Yours did

On Tuesday morning Radio 4’s Today programme trailered You and Yours with a rant that was a masterclass in anti-cycling propaganda. “Should they have insurance like everyone else?” we were asked, and had we seen news coverage of a young child being dragged along after being hit by a cyclist on the pavement. Did we think cyclists ought to take a test before being allowed on the road and were we aware that “cyclist casualties have risen in recent years as the amount of cycling has increased”.

The statement about insurance is deliberately inflammatory and factually incorrect. It is intended to create a Them and Us divide (a little ironic perhaps on a programme call You and Yours. Perhaps it should be changed to You and Yours and Let’s Point at Other People). It’s saying “We are everyone and cyclists are other and different from all of us”. But not everyone has insurance. People who don’t drive or cycle aren’t necessarily insured. Children don’t have insurance. It’s not, in the UK, compulsory to have insurance when you walk out of your front door. Car drivers have to have cover but that is because they are in charge of something that on average weighs 1300kg and can legally travel at speeds in excess of 110kph. That speed and mass combined gives them much greater kinetic energy than a cyclist or pedestrian and consequently the ability to do much more damage far more frequently.

In addition, whilst it is not compulsory for cyclists to have insurance many of them do. It’s quite difficult to get home insurance or any kind of 3rd party cover that doesn’t insure you against an accident on a bike. Insure yourself against someone breaking into your house and stealing all your worldly goods and insurers are so confident you won’t do much damage that they chuck in 3rd party cycling insurance with it. Join British Cycling or the CTC and you’ll be insured. Take part in an organised cycling event and the organisers will have you insured. Contrast that with the estimated 1.2 million uninsured cars on the road in 2013 and you can see that it really is not as simple as cyclists being uninsured and “everyone else” being insured.

The incident with the cyclist hitting a toddler was horrific and should never have happened. But the use of the story here is again inflammatory. Contrast the way that story was used with the reporting of Jeffrey James who crashed his Audi outside a school injuring 9 people, 5 of them children. James had a coughing fit and hit the accelerator rather than the brake. Somehow this resulted in him flipping his Audi onto its roof. The reporting does not condemn him and crucially doesn’t ask why people are in charge of vehicles near schools if something as simple as a coughing fit can cause such carnage. You might be thinking well this was an accident whereas cycling on the pavement is deliberately doing something illegal. In which case you might want to consider the case of Matthew Trvdon in Cardiff, who deliberately used his van as a weapon (though in that case the outgroup is the mentally ill. Motorists again are not targeted as collectively responsible).

As for the test, over 80% of adult cyclists have a driving licence thus they are versed in the Highway Code as much as any other driver ever is. There is bikeability/ cycling proficiency training available but a test isn’t compulsory for the same reason insurance isn’t compulsory – you cannot do as much damage. But the mention of the test is an important rhetorical device because it leads into the question about cycling casualties. By referring to cyclists not taking a test the implication is that they are the ones not trained and therefore the ones more likely to be the root cause of a collision, in contrast with the nice trained, insured driver who was also involved. Citing accidents as if they are part and parcel of problems caused by cyclists puts the responsibility with those cyclists rather than examining what’s actually happening. Logically, if numbers of cyclists goes up, collisions involving cyclists will go up, because there are more of them. You’d get more collisions if you put more drivers on the road too. The stat cited on the You and Yours website that 19,000 cyclists were killed or injured in 2013 is fairly useless without context. Which has gone up by a greater proportion, numbers of cyclists or accidents? Could it be that there is safety in numbers and accidents increase at a slower rate? And who causes these collisions? The fact is that in the majority of collisions involving cyclists and drivers it is the driver who is at fault. Without that context what we have is just more of the same incendiary, poorly researched and unanalysed nonsense.

I’ll confess that I haven’t listened to the entire You and Yours broadcast. I like my blood pressure where it is and I listened to enough to know that no-one was likely to make an effort to counteract the damage done by the advertising for the programme. #YourandYours was trending on Twitter, much of it from incandescent people who happen to travel by bike (see what I did there? Good isn’t it. The BBC don’t have a monopoly on manipulating language to their advantage). I’ve yet to see a response from anyone involved in the programme apologising for using rabble-rousing language against vulnerable road users, but Rajeev Gupta, producer and reporter on the programme, came out with “Wonderful that #youandyours is top trending… Our phone in on cycling hit a nerve with the UK”.

Now, it’s not that hitting a nerve is wrong per se, it’s just that as a goal on its own it’s inadequate. Katie Hopkins frequently hits a nerve, generally by making attacks on vulnerable groups in society who already face prejudice. Her “cockroaches” rant directed at immigrants brought her dangerously close to 1930s European rhetoric and brings me dangerously close to invoking Godwin’s Law. In contrast, when Alan Rusbridger hit a nerve by supporting Edward Snowden he attacked one of the most established and entrenched powers the world has ever seen. It’s easy to hit a nerve when attacking a small nervous mammal and if you’re the the one doing the hitting you take a minimal risk. When going for a bear, whilst it might be sensitive to attack, the consequences for the attacker are rather greater. It’s why people don’t often have the courage to do it.

I suggest that in future, if You and Yours wants to hit a nerve, it picks a better target. How about going for drivers? No. Why not? After all, the majority of them admit to law breaking in one way or another. They’re so keen on speeding they find ways to spot speed cameras and post information about their whereabouts. They kill and maim, often with impunity. Lorry driver Joao Lopes killed twice because his vision was poor and he didn’t wear his glasses to drive, a fact the police admit they failed to investigate first time around. Put “car crashes into kitchen” into an internet search engine and you’re spoiled for choice with stories about drivers who failed to see entire houses and then drove into them. Drivers are so shit at so many things that the richest of them have specialist lawyers to get them out of these situations. Why doesn’t You and Yours examine that?

Sadly I don’t expect journalists on Radio 4 to start this kind of investigating. They are very much from the Hopkins’ school of picking on outgroups because they think those groups will not bite back. It would take a certain amount of bravery to tackle a group that holds more power and to question entrenched attitudes. They should however take care when attacking the small and nervous. As Terry Pratchett was wont to point out, sometimes a small mammal turns out to be a mongoose.


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