Saturday, 4 July 2009

A Vicious Cycle

Let me get one thing out of the way here, first: I like cyclists, I approve of cyclists, I am a cyclist (though not as often as I'd like to be, and -- given the choice -- I'd rather be a pedestrian). As it happens, a very old friend runs a very good bicycle shop. Although I've never disassembled a derailleur gear, I like to think I know my way around the admirably simple but effective mechanics of the typical bike. If you get a puncture, a loose chain, squeaky brakes -- I'm your man. Yes, yes, you say, but what's the "but" going to be?

Well, the "but" is that I'm increasingly aware of aggressive cyclists. As well as a cyclist, I am a car driver (I don't much like car drivers, don't much approve of cars, but I do drive one more often than I'd like, though -- given the choice -- I'd rather be at home on the sofa). However, when wearing my car driver's hat (a legal requirement in the UK since joining the EC) I am starting to encounter cyclist behaviour which is both irritating and dangerous.

Let's start with the car chasers. Like farm dogs on a country lane, some cyclists like to slipstream at great speed behind cars, close up and dangerous. It's as if they have stopped seeing cars as several tons of independently-moving, erratically-driven metal, and are simply seeing an opportunity to explore their own grace, speed and anticipation. I have twice seen car chasers embracing the rear windscreen of a car which has braked suddenly, their bike clattering away into the traffic.

Then there are the zealots, self-righteously and deliberately cruising for a bruising, slapping cars on the roof, giving drivers the finger, pulling in front of and across cars in moving traffic. I imagine it's the next step up for the car-chaser with a grudge. I used to think the section in Richard's Bicycle Book where he recommends picking up any small, heel-snapping dog by its hind legs and dashing its brains out on the road (no, really) as a little over the top, psychotic even. But the zealots clearly demonstrate the sort of coat-trailing, smouldering anger that is begging to explode into frenzied violence. It's a long way from the District Nurse on her sit-up-and-beg with a basket.

God knows, car drivers behave badly towards cyclists. The commonest hazard, in my experience, is the car door opened directly in your path, though being deliberately ground into a roadside wall or a kerb by a large truck is pretty common, too. Overweight truckers do show an obvious collective malice towards the generally trimmer tribe of cyclists, but fat-arsed motor-cyclists have the exact same list of grievances, and experienced at several times the speed. No, pace the zealots, the problems cyclists have in traffic do not generally have a moral dimension -- for example, that drivers don't care enough about cyclists, or that a disregard for cyclists' welfare is a correlative of the planet-poisoning pollution caused by traffic. Roof-slapping and angry looks are simply not an effective corrective. The problem -- and this is something cyclists who don't drive won't realise until they do drive -- is that cyclists are invisible in heavy traffic, in the same way that your own nose is invisible, so long as you are focussed more than a few feet ahead and concentrating on the moves of other, larger, more numerous, more dangerous objects in your field of vision.

The cyclists you can't fail to see, though, are the posse kids. We live in a long straight road that is dangerously narrowed by parked cars and has a deceptive bend towards one end, just where our house is. As it's a handy rat-run to the hospital or the sports-ground, cars tend to enter at the far end, and pick up speed until they are skimming past the parked cars like a bullet down a barrel. Then, inevitably, another car appears round the deceptive bend, and there is much screeching of brakes, and sometimes alarming crunching noises. Three parked cars have been written off outside our house in this way, two of which belonged to us. So, not a safe road for kids to play in or near. But posses of early teens like to make their way to the sports-ground on their bikes in a straggling group spread across the road, all wise-cracks, no-hands and wheelies. Fuming drivers are forced to slow down to a crawl and follow them, or stop and let the pack flow around them like insolent cattle. Not a bad thing, generally, were it not for the litter shower of crisp packets and drink bottles the posse broadcasts down the street. But it is a matter of time before one of these cycle parties meets an only very slightly older youth speeding recklessly the other way.

The scariest, though, are the parkour kids. This seems to be a new development, in the UK at least. A new chicken challenge seems to have evolved, which involves cutting across and through traffic as if it wasn't there. You're driving towards some lights, and suddenly some kid on a bike flashes across your bow, inches away, and weaves at speed through both streams of traffic. The first time it happened to me I very nearly crashed the car, the instinct to swerve is so strong. And it's not just kids -- young men, possibly previously car chasers or zealots, have started doing it, too. I know that bike couriers in big cities like London have always been a lawless hazard, but this seems to be something new, less driven by a purpose. That is, treating road traffic as if it were just part of a broader urban landscape, across which the cyclist has the right to roam at will, free of the petty rules that bind the car user.

Or perhaps like a computer game, in which the penalty for skidding at speed beneath the wheels of a truck is merely to reset to the start of the game again, game over, perhaps something like the (brilliant) German film Run, Lola, Run. But I really, really don't want to be in charge of the ton of metal that is instrumental in determining Game Over for one of these reckless traceur cyclists.

1 comment:

1090 dumbbell said...

cyclist, a kid, and a car driver, in one lane, is the common cause of accidents. That's why there is a so called pedestrian lane, vehicles lane, and with other countries, scooter/bicycle lane, to reduce the cause of accidents. Though, sometimes, accident really happens whether you are the most careful driver in the world.