Farewell then, to the UK's 'golden age' of cycling.

Can you still remember it? Those golden ten weeks of eternal sunshine? The empty roads, with a handful of cars driven by careful, courteous drivers? The families riding together? 

So what happened?

I'll start by retelling of one of Billy Connolly's most famous skits. He tells the story of a poor young Celtic fan who accidentally ends up in the Rangers end at an Old Firm derby. A series of unfortunate, bullying, scatalogical events follow (for which he gets his own devious revenge), culminating with the lad being interviewed for the TV news while trudging home. Upon being asked about hooliganism, he responds:

"In my opinion, football hooliganism will never end. Not as long as they are sh***ing in our shoes and we are p***ing in their Bovril!"

What, you may rightly ask, has this got to do with cycling?

So here's another tale. On two weekends I rode the same route back from the New Forest, a pleasant and scenic 50km on quiet roads that are very popular with cyclists. Two weeks ago I rode alone, this past weekend I was accompanied by my 13-year-old son.

The ride two weeks ago was one of the most perfect days I have ever had on the bike. The weather helped, but mainly it was the quiet roads, and polite drivers. It truly did feel like the 'golden age' was upon us. 

The contrast with yesterday couldn't be more noticeable. Lots more drivers, yes, but it was the attitude of the drivers that had changed. Two incidents stand out. 

The first, my son and I were riding single file. The road was narrow, but the cars coming the opposite way to us would move a foot or two to the left and everyone passed through just fine. One younger driver though drove straight, no deviation, just close enough to unnerve us, all while making the universal sign for w**ker at us.

The second, we were riding two abreast on a wide, empty road. A car gave us the classic 'punishment pass', deliberately driving too close, cutting quickly across us, while their passenger gave us the finger through the window as they drove off. We had not held the driver up or inconvenienced them even for a second.

To remind you: I was with a child.

Now, its easy to tell ourselves that where there are drivers there are bad drivers, and where there are cyclists there are bad cyclists too. But my sense is that something more fundamentally has changed in the past few days.

Two weeks ago, we were still 'all in it together'. We were limiting our travel, and those on the roads were conscious of this; cycling was seen as a permitted and encouraged form of exercise; everyone wanted to limit any stress on the NHS. In short, we all looked out for each other.

Since then: Cummings, the validation of selfishness and the easing of lockdown. No one is in it together any more. It's everyone for themselves, validated from the very top. 

Is that it then? Are we forever to be Celtic fans and Rangers fans, doomed to conflict, eternal opposites? Are cyclists to be perpetually vulnerable, passing through hostile space populated by drivers who cannot bring themselves to be delayed by a few seconds, or to allow a few extra centimetres of space?

In my last post I pointed out the structural changes that need to take place to keep cyclists on the road. Many councils have taken steps to create protected, but temporary, infrastructure (and many have not, our local council being one). But this does not go far enough. We don't just need structural protection from drivers, we need protection from the drivers' attitude.

There are a few theories about how to do this.

The optimistic approach is to assume that if enough people ride their bikes the number of riders on the road will reach 'critical mass' (also the name of a series of impromptu, global mass bike rides). This presumes that if there are enough people who ride that drivers will be forced to change their attitude, because either a) most people will be bike riders, and therefore the prevailing culture will change or b) the number of riders on the road will be so high that the very act of driving will need to be different and more considered. This is all well and good, but rather like the 'herd immunity' theory for CV19 the numbers needed for critical mass to occur are vastly high, and it's just not going to happen any time soon, and not without a lot of casualties along the way. 

The second theory is education. Ask the average driver what annoys them about cyclists and the same old tropes come out (and which are then repeated in the media)... 'cycling two abreast'... 'don't pay road tax'... 'cause traffic jams'... 'shouldn't be on main roads', and so on, all manifestly, provably false.

Can drivers be better educated to understand the rights and vulnerabilities of other road users? Sadly, all the evidence suggests not. Drivers are well aware of the rules of the road, but choose to frequently break them; the inherent selfishness and lack of vulnerability of car travel insulates the driver not just from their responsibilities but from any feeling of connection with the outside world and other road users.

The third way is enforcement. Increasingly police forces are taking incidents against cyclists more seriously, with certain forces leading the way more than others (take a bow the West Midlands RPU with their ground-breaking close pass policing, and the Surrey RPU). But numbers are thin on the ground and resources stretched, and the chance of any act of aggression towards a cyclist being seen, acted upon and prosecuted are vanishingly small. 

Given this stacked system against the rider, it's small wonder than many are fleeing the roads altogether. Gravel bikes aren't just selling well because they look cool. Riders are increasingly looking to get off road and away from the conflict. But some cyclists are finding new ways to fight back, with on bike cameras on the rise (and, encouragingly, police showing some move towards acting upon the evidence they receive from them). Your choice: fight or flight.

And so here we are, the rather depressing state of play in post-lockdown 2020. Drivers again feeling empowered to use their potentially lethal force to dominate the vulnerable. Parents like me feeling that they have an ideological choice to make about whether to expose their kids to danger and hostility on the road, or whether to quit the battlefield altogether. Celtic versus Rangers, two wheels versus four. The Old Firm.

And for all us the memory of a few halcyon weeks where it seemed there really was a better, more efficient, more caring way for us all. A memory we must cling to, because it showed us change is possible, it just takes a cause everyone can believe in.

A reason to pull together, not pull apart. That really is critical mass.






June 08, 2020 — Neil Wyatt