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Status anxiety

The only way to survive as a cyclist is to behave like you're suicidal

In London traffic, it's always Death Race 2000. I aim to compete

3 May 2014

9:00 AM

3 May 2014

9:00 AM

I wonder how many cyclists are killed in London during tube strikes? I had a 10 a.m. meeting in the West End on Tuesday that I couldn’t cancel so made the seven-and-a-half-mile journey by bike. It was hairy, to put it mildly.

You’d think it would be safer cycling in London when the tube’s not running because the traffic is almost stationary. But it isn’t, thanks to the above average number of cyclists. I found myself constantly having to overtake people, most of whom were too cautious to weave in and out of the traffic like me. The danger came when they’d gingerly poke their noses out in between cars, completely oblivious to the maniac bearing down on them at breakneck speed. I almost killed at least half a dozen people.

I’ve been cycling in London for over 25 years and, counter-intuitively, am less law abiding today than I was as a young man. When I started out I used to scrupulously observe all the rules, stopping at roundabouts and zebra crossings and never once running a red light. The problem was, because I was a responsible road user I expected everyone else to be one too. A typical bicycle journey would involve me getting more and more worked up as motorists, pedestrians and other cyclists blithely ignored the laws I was obeying. I was knocked off, on average, once a month. Eventually, after I spent a night in Chelsea and Westminster having my face stitched back together, the penny dropped. I’d be better off if I just assumed that every other road user was a complete nutter. And the best way to guarantee I carried on thinking like that and didn’t slip back into complacency was to become a complete nutter myself.

I’m now the sort of cyclist who gives other cyclists a bad name. The ‘STOP’ signs being held up lollipop ladies might just as well say ‘GO FASTER’ as far as I’m concerned. If a crocodile of schoolchildren are making their way across the road, I’ll zigzag through them without so much as a dab on the brakes. Pedestrians shake their fists, motorists toot their horns and taxi drivers lean out of their windows to abuse me but I don’t care. Being a 24-carat, kamikaze mentalist is the only way to stay safe.

My stress levels are much lower since I’ve started behaving in this way. Because I no longer expect other road users to follow the rules, I don’t get angry when they ignore them. In the bad old days, if a driver I was overtaking on the inside suddenly turned left, with no warning whatsoever, I would become apoplectic with rage. I might even give chase, pull up beside them at a traffic light, lean in the window and say, ‘See that plastic thing there? That’s an indicator. That’s I-N-D-I-C-A-T-O-R. You move it up when you want to turn left and down when you want to turn right because, weirdly, not every other road user is TELEPATHIC.’

Now, I just smile serenely and nod my head. Of course they didn’t bother to indicate. Why would they? They have no more regard for my safety than I do for theirs. It’s every man for himself in this Hobbesian state of nature and my best hope of surviving is if I continue to be nasty, brutish and short.

The other advantage of being a suicide cyclist is that you can never afford to relax. Twenty-five years ago, I would coast along on my step-through ladies’ bike with my head in the clouds. Occasionally, I would even enjoy myself — which is absolutely fatal.

Today, as I hurtle along on my Brompton, legs spinning like Catherine wheels, I’m 100 per cent focused on staying alive. I feel like a fighter pilot — one tiny lapse in concentration and it’s certain death. It’s less like a leisurely cycle ride and more like a video game. I sometimes fantasise about having a machine-gun mounted on my handlebars and mowing down everything in my path.

Needless to say, I don’t bother with a helmet. That might lull me into a false sense of security. Whenever I pass one of those safety-conscious cyclists in a hi-viz jacket, festooned with flashing lights, I pity them. Do they honestly think that they’re less likely to be knocked off if other road users can see them? Don’t they realise it’s kill-or-be-killed out here? In the Death Race 2000 that is London traffic, a reflective strip isn’t going to save your life.

Toby Young is associate editor of The Spectator.

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