A cyclist’s rant

Martin Thomas
Feb 6 · 5 min read
The Champs-Élysées at night, with fast-moving traffic going both ways.
The Champs-Élysées at night, with fast-moving traffic going both ways.
The Champs-Élysées on a Saturday night — not for the faint-hearted cyclist. Or is it?

Rants are always pointless but my latest one took pointlessness to a whole new level. First, it was on Twitter, where howling into the void while no one listens is pretty much all anyone does. Second, it was about cycling, surely the most polarising topic in the UK (with the possible exception of Brexit).

So what triggered my rant? It was a halfwit’s response to advice from a traffic cop about the best way to pass cyclists in a car. The halfwit harrumphed: ‘On most roads if you give the cyclist five feet you will hit a car coming the other way due to now being in the opposite lane.’

This struck me as being a comment of such towering stupidity that it rendered me momentarily breathless. All the more so because of something that had happened a few days earlier involving a lorry on the A259 Sussex coast road near Friston Forest — an experience that could so easily have rendered me permanently breathless.

The lorry driver had nowhere near enough room to pass me but tried anyway. When he realised he’d misjudged his timing he had to cut in front of me at 50–60mph, missing me by just a couple of feet, to avoid ploughing into the oncoming traffic. It was a genuinely terrifying experience.

Terrifying, but sadly not unusual. Dreadful driving is so commonplace that I truly believe there are more bad drivers than good on British roads.

The four deadly driving sins

When motorists come across a cyclist — or, worse still, a group of them — most display at least one of the four deadly driving sins: ignorance, incompetence, arrogance and aggression. If you’re really in luck they’ll dazzle you with all four.

You think I’m exaggerating but I see it every time I ride my bike. Once I witnessed a beefy rugby player type skid to an emergency stop in the middle of the road and jump out of his Audi, watched by his startled young son from the passenger seat, to square up to a group of club cyclists who’d had the temerity to complain after he pulled out right in front of them, nearly causing a mass pile-up. Ignorance, arrogance, aggression.

A young mum with a baby seat next to her in a cute, mint-coloured Fiat 500 hurled abuse, leant on her horn and drove at my back wheel because I delayed her progress by a few seconds on a roundabout by changing lane. A full house of deadly sins.

When I was riding on beautiful, near-deserted Cornish roads last summer, between Land’s End and St Ives, the driver of a car heading unobstructed in the opposite direction caught my eye and then unleashed a frenzy of spit-flecked fury and rude gestures. Bizarre aggression caused by… I don’t know what.

I’ve been spat at, sworn at, driven at, and threatened with violence by drivers for filtering through slow-moving traffic, not using a cycle lane, or moving to the middle of a lane to stop them passing on blind corners — acts they presumably believe are against the rules, even though none of them is.

For such a wholesome activity, cycling causes extraordinary friction on and off the road. It’s the only subject that’s nearly sparked an argument between me and my lovely mother-in-law in the 25 years we’ve known each other (don’t ask; she was wrong).

There are bad cyclists, no doubt about it. God knows I’m not perfect — I’ve jumped the occasional red light, ridden on the occasional pavement, acted like the bike courier I was 30-plus years ago every now and then. And when I feel threatened, I don’t always keep a lid on my anger in the way I know I should.

But bad cycling is irritating; bad driving is often fatal. More than 1,700 people die on British roads every year (including around 100 cyclists). Virtually none of these deaths is caused by bicycles. And when they are, you can believe the world hears about it.

This hatred of cyclists seems to be particularly virulent in the UK. I’ve cycled in France and Italy — not countries you’d necessarily associate with sober, careful driving, if you’ll forgive the national stereotyping. But in both countries, almost all motorists treat cyclists with respect, even friendliness.

I once cycled across Paris late on a Saturday night. By the time my buddy and I reached the Champs-Élysées it was around midnight and the traffic was both incredibly heavy and rather…exuberant, let’s say. Little souped-up Renaults and Peugeots buzzed from lane to lane, dodging between fast-moving limos and coaches. Motorbikes, taxis, vans and even lorries fought noisily for every spare centimetre of road space.

Our hearts were in our mouths as we cycled into this intimidating, multi-lane melee but we needn’t have worried. There might as well have been a forcefield around us. Despite the chaos, every driver saw us and gave us the room and time we needed, waiting at a safe distance if we crossed lanes and never passing too close. I felt incredibly safe.

Try doing that on Park Lane at the same time on a summer’s Saturday night. On second thoughts, please don’t.

The congestion question

Why do we get so furious behind the wheel? For such a supposedly sanguine race, it does seem a little out of character.

I think the core of the problem is traffic congestion. There’s something about being held up by traffic that really gets under the skin of the British motorist. And as the blood starts to boil and the grip tightens on that exquisitely stitched but temporarily redundant leather steering wheel, it’s tempting to find a convenient target for our frustration rather than dwell on the real reason we’re not moving.

The UK has the most congested roads in Europe and it’s getting worse every year — partly because the number of cars on the road keeps climbing. In 2018 there were five million more cars in the UK than there were at the turn of the millennium. Five million!

So far, the only answer politicians have come up with is to build more roads, which is patently ridiculous as long-term strategies go.

The only practical solution I can see is a revolution in public transport. And I do mean a revolution. I regularly travel from Brighton to Sheffield with the family to visit my in-laws for the weekend. It takes roughly the same time, however you make the journey. But driving costs a tankful of fuel (£75) and 500 miles of car depreciation. If we travel by train, the off-peak cost for all four of us would be just under £500. Let’s just say we’ve never gone by train.

As a nation, we must shake off our ridiculous infatuation with the motorcar and see the bigger picture. Public transport must become appealing, reliable and cheap, for the sake of the planet, obviously, but also for our own sanity.

Until that happy day dawns, I’ll be willing on the most rapid possible deployment of autonomous vehicles. You wouldn’t catch a computer deciding I only needed a foot of passing space. Give me self-driven over Brit-driven any day of the week.

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