Paul Darlington is a consultant solicitor for Cycle-SOS – a firm of specialist cycling lawyers who have recovered millions of pounds for cyclists over the past 30 years.
How did Cycle-SOS first come about?
The Cycle-SOS brand first came about in July 2009 when my Cycle-Aid team (branded as The Cyclists National Helpline – CNH) moved to Smith Jones. Prior to this, we had practised as Cycle-Aid since 1988/9. It was then that the core concept of Cycle-Aid as a resource for cyclists arose, when my business partner and I sought to occupy a niche sector in the realm of personal injury law.
Are you a cyclist yourself? If so, how long have you been cycling for?
I have been a committed cyclist since 1966, aged 9. Rarely off a bike throughout my teens, I became one of the founders of my school cycling club. All of my bikes were self-restored/built until 1992, when I got a brand new Ribble.
While my school friends received new off-the-peg bikes, such as Sun, Philips and Claud Butler (all names which had been acquired by TI Raleigh), my father and cycling mentor was dismissive of their crudity – mostly because they were made from steel and were really commuter bikes with a five-speed derailleur and (steel) drop handlebars. However, I didn’t have the funds to buy the sort of Reynolds 531 frameset with Campagnolo kit. So for a while, I just focused on my running…
What was your first bike?
My father had an old bike in the attic – a real lightweight treasure – but firstly, it was dilapidated and secondly, it was a 24” frame… Fortunately, I was tall for my age.
This marvel was a Paris track bike. They were the state of the art in the 1950s, built from very thin butted tubes and brazed or welded together without the lugs, which were used almost universally up to the 1980s.
After much work, the bike was reassembled with alloy bars, brakes, chain set, hubs and wheels with double-butted spokes. Parts were much harder to obtain then; trading was done through small ads in such cycling press that existed at the time and Exchange and Mart.
After about a year of acquiring the parts (as funds allowed!) I finally had a bike. And not just any bike but a super lightweight of which I was enormously proud (and my pals on their steel clunkers, extremely jealous). That was my main bike until the Ribble arrived at the time of the Barcelona Olympics – and I’ve still got it!
This was the foundation of my bike knowledge which has stood me in good stead both as a cyclist and during the ideation and running of CNH. As a newly qualified solicitor looking for direction, it really wasn’t terribly difficult to combine the two.
How often do you ride?
Riding now is a combination of training on the local circuit with my daughter, who has aspirations as a triathlete. She has been able to easily beat me in the pool since she was about the age of 10 and now on the running track, but I can still have her on the bike. So I ride on the weekends and sometimes get in a time trial during the week.
What is your favourite or dream bike?
I’d always wanted a Holdsworth. In the bikeless period prior to the custom-built Paris track bike, I’d spend hours staring into the windows of Smalley’s in Lancaster and Ribble in Preston (when that shop was with its original ownership). The bright orange of the Holdsworth always appealed. Now? I have a Raleigh ‘special products’ titanium frame hung with Campagnolo head and group-set. It isn’t state of the art carbon, but has all the features which I’d built into the Paris. Old habits etc.
What is your first memorable experience of riding a bike?
The Boxing Day when I learned to ride the Christmas present! Otherwise, some spectacular crashes entirely as a result of my own foolishness. I really have no idea how I’m still alive in light of what I now know about reaction time, distance and the frailty of the human form…
Who is your cycling hero or greatest influence?
The latter is probably my father, who adamantly refused to accept compromise in “adding lightness.” The Paris stood complete save for the chainring for weeks as we sought the correct item: which was difficult in 1971 without the invention of eBay. I also learned the concept: “Anything done in a rush is probably a mess.” Patience and thoroughness are as much virtue in preparing a client’s case for trial as they are in building a wheel or the repetitive preparation for painting a frame and detailing it before assembly. I came to more serious cycling in my teens, coinciding with Eddy Merckx being at the height of his success, retiring in 1978. Chris Boardman pulled it all together in Spain on the Lotus aero bike which really marked the renaissance of British cycling and is now a formidable campaigner on cycling issues today.
What has been your career/company highlight?
Whenever I can use some cycling DNA to win a cyclist’s case. We have had blanket denials of liability wholly reversed in Court on the basis of something which our side has understood but the insurer hasn’t. A one-day 150-mile coast to coast in around 10-11 hours cycling a few years back stands out too.
What has been your greatest challenge as a company?
Given that any man and his dog can call themselves a ‘specialist’, maintaining the gap between those who just talk and those who can has been the greatest challenge. Always remember that the only experts are probably dead ones as learning never stops.
What has been the biggest case you’ve worked on?
Value isn’t the best yardstick. If liability and causation are clear cut, the money side is just an assembly operation. There have been hard fought cases where the value is comparatively modest, but the principle huge. A payout of £50k may be a life changer in certain circumstances if the mortgage is in arrears and the bills mounting. I currently have a case arising from a velodrome crash. In my opinion, the manner in which some of the parties have conducted themselves is shameful, but details will have to wait until it’s concluded.
Has your vision for Cycle-SOS changed since you first started?
Yes: I’m still as motivated to win cases as ever, maybe more so in the current insurance climate. Although that’s the bread and butter, having spent around 30 years picking up the pieces after an accident, I’d much prefer that the accident hadn’t happened in the first place. As the old adage goes, “prevention is better than the cure,” so I am now hugely concerned about safety and training as a means of avoiding collisions and crashes.
As a consultant solicitor, have your views on cycling in the UK changed over time?
During the inter-war and post-war years, the working man went to work on his bike because he would live within a few miles of the factory and because he couldn’t motor due to cost, availability and somewhere to keep the car. Then there’s the chicken and egg of increased residential mobility, greater commuting distance and the arrival of the Morris Minor and Ford Cortina that pretty much changed everything. There’s vastly more leisure cycling now, although even that seems to be car based as the bikes are taken to the desired venue.
If you could make 3 immediate legal changes for cyclists in the UK, what would they be and why?
The three immediate legal changes I would make are:
- Outcomes based sentencing for motorists and vocational licence holders who inflict life changing injuries; including penalties of double points for vocational drivers, immediate disqualification and re-test.
- Reform the Highways Act to force highway authorities to actually use their inspection routines as a basis for fixing the roads and not primarily as a means of defeating claims arising from highway defects.
- Get the highway inspectors out of their vans and on to bikes, so they can better understand the plight of the common cyclist on pothole infested roads.
What are your thoughts/predictions for cycling in the future?
Pedelecs will proliferate as commuting tools and to a lesser extent in the leisure sector because of the physical exertion factor. I cannot see that happening in cycle sport because cyclists are athletes. If you want to race a powered bike, go motorcycling. Sadly, I can see the trend to increase cycling going into reverse because of safety fears and the frankly tyrannical reforms to civil justice which leave cyclists – as vulnerable road users – with no redress unless they’ve hurt themselves sufficiently badly enough to have an injury claim worth over £5000. It doesn’t matter if the financial loss is £9999; if the injury element does not hit that £5000 threshold, then these claimants are on their own and at the mercy of the insurance industry.