The Loneliness of the Short-Distance Cyclist
‘Cyclists. Do not pass on this side.’
‘Or I’ll kill you.’
While the new warning sign that is springing up on the back of trucks doesn’t actually spell it out, the threat is nonetheless clearly there in the subtext.
Cycling in London can be a perilous undertaking. Making my unsteady way through the building site that is the Nine Elms and Battersea Power Station development, alongside a continuous stream of heavy goods vehicles – none of whom presumably have the slightest inkling they are sharing their road space with something as insignificant as a bicycle – feels about as safe as life as a gay activist in the Crimea.
I’ve been knocked off my bike three times. Once by a very slow-moving limousine on Parliament Square, so slow that it hardly counted. Probably a Tory grandee just going about his everyday business of unknowingly, uncaringly and regularly running over the proletariat. Once by a van at Clapham Junction, where I incurred some bruising and scratching. A ponce on a racing bike, red rag to a bull for white van man. And most dramatically by a woman in Chicago who opened her parked car door just in time for me to slam into and end up sprawled across the road. She had no way of knowing I was a Limey, but I have to believe that at some level she must have known.
‘You cycle to work?’ I love this question. It fills me with expectation. I imagine that I am about to be cast as a modern-day urban superhero. A giant amongst commuters. A manly man.
‘In London?’ Yes, London, where I leave cyclists half my age trailing in my urban dust, where I race with milk floats, where I dance over potholes, and yet where I stop at red lights because despite my testosterone-fuelled manliness I am also a well-adjusted and socially responsible citizen of the world.
‘You’re so brave,’ they swoon, ‘there is no way I could do that.’ Sadly their eyes betray the truth. They don’t think I’m brave; they think I’m crazy. They see me as unhinged. It doesn’t take long before they excuse themselves.
No-one likes cyclists. Not unless they are Bradley Wiggins or resemble a Smurf. Regular cyclists are not popular. Motorists hate cyclists because they get in the way. Truck drivers hate cyclists because they fear being blamed for running them over. Pedestrians hate cyclists because they get hit by them. Couch potatoes hate cyclists because they make them feel guilty about exercise. Dogs hate cyclists because they can never run quite fast enough to bite that great big provocative wheel. Other cyclists hate cyclists, because, as everyone knows, cyclists are wankers. Air travellers hate cyclists because they own the moral high ground on climate change, and everyone hates someone who owns the moral high ground.
As a cyclist who flies a lot, I’m a wanker with unacceptably large carbon footprint.
Last week, while doing my bit to finish off the ozone layer, I found myself in an uncomfortable position. I had downloaded ‘Blue is the Warmest Colour’ on my iPad. This is a fine film. An everyday explicit lesbian love story. Very explicit. Not long into the movie, I had to stop watching when I found myself in the midst of an intense, intimate, and it has to be said truly mind-blowing scene. Although I had the relative privacy of a flatbed seat, the risk of the air hostess glimpsing what was on my iPad was too great. I imagined my 26-year-old work colleague being forcibly taken away from me for her own safety. We were, at the time, in the airspace of the United Arab Emirates where they execute adulterers. Not being entirely sure where they stand on hardcore teenage lesbian porn, I threw my iPad out the window. Or at least I would have done had I not been in a sealed cabin at thirty thousand feet.
A wanker with an unacceptably large carbon footprint who secretly watches hardcore adolescent lesbian porn, it would be fair to say that I may have some self-esteem problems. This could be why I cycle. I’m no psychiatrist, but it makes sense that a cyclist, particularly a London cyclist, is driven by an unconscious death-wish.
It can be the only possible explanation of why certain cyclists have decided that red lights don’t apply to them. Without doubt, they are the twenty-first-century equivalent of a lemming throwing itself off a cliff. I may be stupid, but I’m not that stupid. It might, though, explain why I find myself treating those warning signs on the back of trucks less as a warning not to pass, but a challenge to try and do so.