Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Who Hates Cyclists?

I was beginning to feel that we cyclists are confronted by a new barrage of hatred and contempt but I was wrong. There is nothing new about it.

Several high profile journalists and tweeters have recently jibed at cyclists, declaring naked open hatred for them,and a debate on biking on Friday’s Good Morning Ulster brought out a range of unthinking critics. But this isn’t new.

Run a search for #cyclehatred on Twitter and you will see so much vituperation that you will wonder if it is really safe to go out on your bike, not just because a car might accidentally hit you but because the withering contempt and smouldering rage of drivers, that you now know about, will make you feel like an unwelcome trespasser on roads. If silent malice could hurt then those of us who cycle to work, with the gall to claim a share of the public highway, would be wincing at every turn.

 It is not hard to get the impression that it is war out there between cyclists and drivers but, in fact, there is no war, just a badly balanced row between ignorant people who hate cyclists and cyclists who nearly always make their case better than those who attack them.

The defenders of cyclists on Twitter include some of the most eloquent people in the country, like Jon Snow and Alastair Campbell. Snow tweeted a comment on Friday from a BBC reporter who had described collisions as ‘par for the course’. “This is what motorists ACTUALLY BELIEVE”, said Snow, and hundreds of people retweeted that to share in his shock at drivers thinking it is now part of normal driving experience to occasionally bump a cyclist over, and no harm done. One of those who was bumped over was Alastair Campbell himself. He tweeted a picture of the Iphone that was smashed in his pocket when a driver forced him off his bike. I wouldn’t want to be one of those rash enough to sneer at those who ride the roads on their own two wheels, for they have better arguments on their side, better spokespeople (no pun) and they are growing in numbers.

 The painful price of petrol and the tax relief available to cyclists whose employers operate the Cycle to Work scheme, and a broad government policy of encouraging cycling, all combine to make it more popular. Add to that the little immeasurable something that makes it addictive, fun, and you have the drive behind a trend that can only grow. Yet, if cyclists are safe in the argument with their opponents, they are more vulnerable to angry, impatient drivers on the road.

British Cycling was quick to argue at the end of last week that cycling is safe, after two of the top cyclists in the country, Bradley Wiggins and Shane Sutton were, by a strange coincidence, injured in separate accidents. If cyclists of their experience can’t protect themselves, who can?

They want the government to make cycling safer still. The recent pattern of accidents in Northern Ireland suggest that you are safer on a bike than on a farm, though the awesome sight of white ‘ghost bikes’ on the Newtownards Road and at the Ormeau Bridge reinforce the message of the cyclist’s vulnerability and stand as a reminder that cycling advocates include people who can deliver a succinct and impressive message. The same can not be said for those who attack cyclists.

They come out with familiar nonsense about how drivers pay road tax but cyclists don’t. In fact, many cyclists own cars and do pay vehicle taxes, knowing that that money is not going to be spent on the roads anyway. They argue that cyclists don’t observe the rules of the road, and true, many don’t, as many drivers don’t. But it isn’t your choice of vehicle that makes you cavalier with the Highway Code and the law.

Many cyclists jump traffic lights and shouldn’t. But sometimes, in that green box, reserved for bikes, at the head of the queue, the weight of the pressure of impatient cars behind you, some revving for take-off , suggests to the cyclists that they are better getting out of the way.

I think the real gripe of the haters of cyclists is that we are legal and we are there. And they have much to envy in us. We move more quickly through traffic on a machine that often costs no more than the equivalent of the driver’s monthly installment on a car. Add the price of petrol and parking in a month and you are up to the cost of a very nice bike that may never make another claim on your bank balance. We have a freedom and joy in moving through cities with little restriction and the health benefits outweigh the health risks enormously.

Go on, admit it, you snarling driver, stuck in a queue; you just think it is fundamentally unjust that I should be getting down the road faster than you, after you’ve spent thousands on your car and the only fuel I need is my breakfast. It is unfair. But you are the one who has been conned out of your health, your money and your comfort, and it is for you to do something about that.

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