BY MARK WELSH
Freedom. Though I was far too young to grasp the concept, that’s exactly what my first bike represented. Shorn, eventually, of stabilisers, those first few tentative pushes on the pedals of my tiny Raleigh opened up a whole new world. Endless possibility awaited, mine to discover as I managed those first few wobbly yards alone. The mysteries beyond the end of the road lay at last within my reach.
I’ve never been without a bicycle, an inherently sensible form of short-range transport. Nipping into town is often quicker by bike. Traffic jams cause few difficulties, there is never a struggle to park, it’s healthy and for those like me, infected with irreversible impecuniosity, it’s an incredibly cheap way of getting briskly from A to B.
With our nation’s roads (and arteries) becoming ever-more congested, riding bicycles should really make us feel quite good about ourselves. Sadly for me the opposite is true. In fact, if I’m being honest, I’m starting to feel a little bit ashamed. And the reason for this change of heart? The reason, I’m afraid, is Cyclists.
The rampant growth of cycling as a national pastime over the last decade or so is hardly news; bicycles are pretty much everywhere. This really shouldn’t be a problem. And it wouldn’t be. If not, that is, for the actions of a determined militant minority. The bellicose extremists who have ruined it for us all.
Let me give you an example.
The other day I heard a BBC radio phone-in. Unbelievably, Cyclists were calling in to defend their use of music-playing headphones whilst riding on the road. Now I’m no Chris Froome, but I’ve always found the ability to hear what’s going on around me helpful while riding bicycles. One learns to almost ‘read’ what is going on behind by tuning in to subtle nuances in traffic noise.
You’re pretty vulnerable on a bike; why not give yourself every possible chance? So I tweeted my thoughts on the matter.
I should have known better.
An angry mob descended. Displaying classic whataboutism, the majority of my interlocutors were keen to point out the failings of the motorist. Bizarrely, my ability as a car driver (not bike rider) was criticised and I was sent a picture of a badly-parked van(!). I was presented with a study from Australia proving that people in cars can’t hear as much as Cyclists wearing iPods. Or something.
One of the many dreary YouTube Cyclist “stars” checked in (I don’t recall his name, Two-wheeled Timmy – something like that. Timmy spends his days hurtling through the capital’s traffic with cameras stuck to his head, filming the mistakes of others). Yet another, a master outrage baiter, asked me whether I thought deaf people should be allowed to drive. One individual, clearly frothing at the mouth, spent a couple of days arguing with anyone who had the audacity to agree with me.
An idle glance through some of their Twitter profiles was telling. So many of them proudly fly the flag for a plethora of right-on ists-du-jour, identifying themselves as activist, atheist, environmentalist etc. All of the current shouty causes were represented.
When did this happen? When were these belligerent beetle-headed bullies – The Cyclists – appointed to speak for everyone who happens to ride a bicycle? They certainly don’t speak for me. They and their aggressive manner have set us apart. They have made the rest of the road-using public hate us.
Much damage has been done, but I’m going to try to make myself stand out, show that we’re not all the same as this hectoring, self-righteous bunch of weapons-grade chumps. It is perfectly possible for us to all share the road safely, simply by showing each other a little respect. Just like we always used to.
I’m going to be courteous to my fellow road users. I won’t career recklessly through the traffic, refusing to slow in case I jeopardise a Strava PB (aka time trialling on the public highway). I will stop at red lights. I’ll allow pedestrians time to cross without forcing my way arrogantly past. If I find myself holding up cars in a narrow country lane, I’ll pull over and let them pass. Why not? I’m not going to make someone wait just because it’s my right?
At night I’ll make sure I can be seen. And I’ll do it without strapping something akin to a Boeing 747’s landing light to my head and aiming it at oncoming vehicles.
I’m not going to dress like a road warrior. I don’t need headgear resembling something conjured from the mind of HR Giger after a particularly mushroom-heavy weekend, just for bimbling down to the Post Office. Helmets are a personal choice. I’m going to exercise mine. Likewise hi-vis gear. It really isn’t necessary to don the George Osborne get-up if all I’m doing is wheezing through the woods.
The extremists won’t like this one bit, but then extremists never do when individuals express freedom of choice, do they? And freedom, remember, was why I started cycling. It’s time for the ordinary, decent people on bicycles – by far the majority – to start to rebuild some bridges.
It’s time to be cyclists, not Cyclists.
Mark Welsh is a Country Squire Guest Writer.