Cycling is enduring a bit of a torrid time at the moment. While the collective consciousness of the professional peleton may have been pricked by a syringe of EPO, the crashes involving clean pro rider Bradley Wiggins and Sky coach Shane Sutton have thrown the spotlight on safety. Shame it has taken these high profile incidents to drag the issue onto the agenda of popular media (The Times excluded).
The fall out has been noisy. Cycling safety has clogged the switchboards of radio phone-ins this week while the pro and anti-cycling movements have broadcast their impassioned, partisan positions via social media. I joined them, although I’d like to think I’m a wee bit more moderate these days. If you want a taste, the ire of the antis can be sampled in concentrated dose via @CycleHatred, a sobering and sometimes sickening read for brothers and sisters of the bicycle.
I’m a cyclist and I drive. I chose not to own a car because a, I’m fortunate enough to not require one and b, they’re expensive. I can enjoy driving, though, especially if I’m in the remoter parts of Scotland. But if I’m going to a city or town centre, the car is a clumsy hindrance that gets stuck among other vehicles in jams and needs parking.
I ride a bike most days of my life for pleasure and practical reasons, but the coverage of the so-called war between drivers and riders has prompted me to pause before throwing a leg over one of my treasured mounts. Have I succumbed to the media’s myopia? Am I going to be safe?
This apprehension has sturdier foundations, however. I am on the cycling front line every week commuting in London. Conditions are poor on the Capital’s roads and they have deteriorated in the five years since I last pedalled its congested streets. Critical mass has only served to enrage some motorists rather than increase the acceptability of cyclists on the road.
I’ve encountered drivers’ anger first hand, usually borne out of impatience. The frustration of a few seconds delay resulting in dangerous manoeuvre and a close shave. Everyone rushing around, no time for each other…
I’ve also encountered the kind of cycling behaviour which is oft quoted by the antis: red light jumping, no hand signals, pulling out without looking. Opportune cyclists don’t do themselves any favours, but I witness these antics daily from drivers, usually the ‘professionals’ who seem to operate by their own code (a common complaint ironically leveled at cyclist by these antis).
So why subject myself to this? The bike is infinitely preferable to the Tube and bus, even in the rain, and rattling down Embankment on balmy summer evenings can actually be pleasant. But I shouldn’t have to justify my modal choice. I pay as much ‘road tax’ as the next road user. Why can’t folk share? Why am I such an affront to their motoring ‘rights’?
Fortunately, the battlefields of London are stark contrast to the lanes of Saddleworth near my home. Most of the time, drivers on these rough rural lanes treat you with respect. And then there are the other benefits… Just yesterday morning, I was out in glorious Autumn sunshine on a circuitous route to the shops and stopped to watch a kestrel on the hunt, the bird gliding past me at eye level seemingly unperturbed by my presence. Traffic rumbled up the lane behind me but I shared a memorable, private moment with this raptor while others were insulated yet isolated in their cars.
Ride a bike, and see more.