If you ask me to identify myself, you can be pretty sure that at some point I will call myself a cyclist. Ever since my mum and dad gave me my first bike, a Raleigh Chopper, which I rode into the ground, the lure of two wheels has proven irresistible to me. I love bikes. I love seeing other people ride bikes. Bikes are good. And yet, despite this pre-disposition to liking all things bike, why is it that I increasingly find myself being irritated, angered even, by the behaviour of other cyclists? Is it simply the case that as I grow older (not wiser, I hasten to add), am I simply succumbing to a human trait of liking things just the way they are, thank you very much, rejecting change in favour of a Victor Meldrew-esque existence? Do we simply get grumpier as we grow up? Let me give you a couple of examples of the things that have been annoying me of late. If I come across as a bit ranty, it’s probably because I am but bear with me, there is a point to what I am about to say and it’s not simple anti biking rhetoric.
Red light jumpers – whenever I see someone on a bike doing this, I can feel a sense of easily justifiable anger welling up inside me. I regard them as selfish and inconsiderate, putting their own needs and wants over and above those of everyone else around them. It infuriates me to see someone blithely ride their bike through a sea of pedestrians with no apparent regard for the safety and wellbeing of others.
I just can’t get my head around the fashion for riding BMXs brakeless.
BMX grommets who ride without brakes in traffic – From a Darwinian perspective, this has to rank up there with swimming with polar bears or sticking your wet fingers into a broken plug socket. Sooner or later, something bad is going to happen. While I look on with awe (and probably a little jealousy too if I am honest) at what the young dudes can do, I just can’t get my head around the fashion for riding BMXs brakeless. Ghetto style it may be but put yourself in anything other than a concrete bowl and it’s probably only a matter of when and not if you are going to do yourself or someone else a serious mischief.
Brakeless fixie riders – Not dissimilar to their BMX brethren, there is a definite subset of riders, notably cycle couriers, who ride around in busy traffic with nothing but a fixed wheel separating them from oblivion. Back in the day, riding fixed was all about winter riding and developing your souplesse but now it appears to be as much about making a statement as to how hard-core a rider you are than minimising maintenance costs and developing a smooth pedalling technique. I always thought track bikes were made for the track. Having tried to stop a fixie at speed in the wet on a downhill, it was a singularly unpleasant experience and not one I have been keen to repeat since. Even with thighs like Chris Hoy, I reckon I would have struggled to come to any kind of controlled stop if a car door was opened in front of me or a pedestrian stepped out from behind a car.
Riders riding in the dark without lights – Arrrrrrrrgh! I feel the need to just hit my head (although probably better theirs) on my keyboard. I’m a cyclist that drives which makes me super aware that there are a fair number of cyclists who don’t seem to grasp that no lights and dark roads do not a healthy cocktail make!
So, four examples of things that annoy me. Just for balance and so you don’t think I am about to jump ship for the Daily Mail any time soon, I can find just as many examples with drivers and pedestrians. But what does this all mean? Why am I pre-disposed to think like this? Why is it that anti-cycling tirades appear to find a voice and an audience in society whether in the press, on social media or on radio phone-ins?
I may have an explanation.
I was talking with a good friend this morning. He is what I would consider to be a good driver. Every time I have been in the car with him, he has clearly been acutely aware of everyone around about him; he drives within the speed limit and happily lets other road users out. Despite driving a very powerful car, an Audi RS4, he is sensible, careful and considerate. I wish more drivers were like him. However, when I told him about this column and asked him what annoyed him with cyclists, he surprised me when he said that he is more considerate of cyclists whom he judges to be considerate and good cyclists. How does he make this judgement? Based entirely on how they look. Wearing a helmet, not breaking the rules of the road, having lights on their bike – all contribute to his perception of who are good cyclists that deserve respect. I was somewhat taken aback by this but then realised that even as a cyclist, I too make those kind of judgements. But why?
The reason that our road network generally works is that there are a series of rules and conventions that for the most part, users adhere to
As a society, by working together in co-operation, individually we benefit from the collective good. By all adhering to societal norms, laws and generally accepted practices, anyone who does not adhere by those rules is seen as a trouble maker. Roads are the perfect microcosm for this. Think about it. The reason that our road network generally works is that there are a series of rules and conventions that for the most part, users adhere to. If we all chose to disregard the rules, chaos would ensue. What if everyone just chose to run a red light? What if we all rode on the pavement? What if nobody obeyed the speed limit and travelled at a speed that they thought was ok for them? What if we all took a drink before driving? Of course, I am taking this to a logical albeit unlikely conclusion but every time we witness someone breaking the rules, it stirs a deep seated emotion within us. The rule breaker is upsetting the applecart. They are getting a benefit that the rest aren’t getting to enjoy because the rest of us abide by the rules. It’s Infuriating. Now I suppose we could all start practising mindfulness and letting such infractions wash over us but deep down, we know that isn’t likely to happen. Drivers get seriously pissed off because cyclists break the rules and upset what has become the natural order of things where the motor vehicle has primacy on the road. Never mind that the real risk and danger on the roads is posed by vehicles. For whatever reason, society seems to think this is an acceptable price to pay for the freedom offered by the motor car – which is another story that I will return to in a future column.
So where does all of this lead us? I have just one request to make of you. Next time you are stuck at the interminable traffic lights of unchanging despair and are tempted to jump the red, take a moment to reflect on just why cyclists get tarred with the brush of the rule breaking menace.