Julie Burchill

The ceaseless self-pity of cyclists

The ceaseless self-pity of cyclists
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I know that all must have prizes in the Victimisation Olympics these days, but when I heard a bicycle-rider on Radio 5 Live this week complaining about being ‘dehumanised’ and ‘othered’, I really knew we’d reached peak woo-woo with the ceaseless self-pity of cyclists.

‘What’s the magic word?’ our mums used to ask us. Today it’s not ‘Please’ but ‘Mine!’ as various groups jostle for attention and funding. If you’re in a wheelchair I get your point — ramps all round! But it is ludicrous for those voluntarily on two wheels rather than forced to be on four to act all aggrieved. It’s pedestrians and drivers who need protection from them.

It’s the squeaky wheel that gets the oil and now the new Highway Code is accused of favouring cyclists, giving them the green light to ride in the middle of the road, to ride two abreast so they can have a nice chat about how awful those road-hogging motorists are and to ignore cycle lanes if they see fit. After feeding their delusions of adequacy, the Code reminds cyclists to be careful when approaching pedestrians, especially children, the elderly and those with disabilities.

Cyclists will continue their crazed colonisation of the streets, though. I must say the old and disabled pedestrians bit raised a wry smile, as I recalled my time working as a volunteer at a home for old blind ladies some years ago. We’d set out along the bustling main streets of our city, one on each arm, only for me to have to shove them roughly into the nearest doorway as some hulking brute drove a bike the size of a horse at us right there on the pavement. And this is Brighton, capital of the UK Green party, where cycling is a religion and cycle paths are everywhere.

Of course it’s not all cyclists. And the ones who do it are mostly male, infuriating my female cyclist friends as much as they do me. During lockdown there were many reports of men on mountain bikes riding along narrow routes such as canal paths, scattering all in their way, a monstrous legion of Mr Angries in Lycra. The former Olympic cyclist Victoria Pendleton said: ‘If I’m out about on my road bike and I overtake a man, I will hear a rapid crunching of gears as they try to “make amends for it”… usually followed with a pedal-mashing stomp past me… it doesn’t bother me, I think it’s funny. I’ve always been underestimated because of the way I look.’

These are exactly the kind of men who used to yell at my friend when she drove me around in her big red GTO way back in the sexy-greedy 1980s. Now the espresso is ethical but the mentality is the same — scratch a Woke Bro on a bike and find a cat-caller in a car. It’s a cliché that men who drive flash cars in a flash manner are compensating for something — I’d say the same of male cyclists on bikes big enough to seat a threesome.

When I was growing up, bikes were for kids to play on and working-class people to get to work on. Their image was so mild that — along with cricket grounds and warm beer — John Major evoked George Orwell’s image of ‘old maids bicycling to Holy Communion through the morning mist’ in a rather laughable and desperate attempt to persuade us that his Tories were a wholesome bunch, rather than sneaking around having extra-marital dalliances with each other. Or bikes were amusing things ridden by clowns. Well, now many of them are vehicles for clowns of a different kind: aggressive freaky athletes who believe that because they’re not polluting the planet they get brownie points which they can blow on splattering slow-coach two-leggers on the pavement. I’ve reached the stage where I don’t even wait for the menaces to pass by before yelling: ‘Ride it in the ruddy road!’

It comes down to a constant battle of who most deserves public space: the haves or the have-nots. You’d think the answer was obvious — the latter because they have less private space. But nothing can make the entitled step back. The middle-class mothers sitting around in cafés with their screaming offspring (‘That’s a lovely scream, darling — do it louder!’ one of them actually said in a coffee house I used to like) are the same ones who also take up the pavements with their big, territory-marking machines, though in their case these are double--buggies rather than mountain bikes.

There was a genuinely class-based loathing of the yobs’n’slobs (very similar to the Remainer anger against chavs/gammons when the Brexit vote went against them) who dared venture out into the parks during the let-ups in lockdown, with those lucky enough to have nice gardens in which to enjoy a glass of something French and frisky looking aghast at the tattooed bodies enjoying a beer on the beach. Similarly, aggressive young men on two wheels would have been written off as ton-up boys in the past; but because they know how to pronounce quinoa, this new lot are planet-savers, a shining example to the rest of us gas-guzzlers.

Unsafe at Any Speed: the Designed-In Dangers of the American Automobile was a smash-hit 1965 book by Ralph Nader; who’s to say that huge bikes aren’t too? You’d have to have a heart of stone not to have laughed at the death of Sex and the City’s Mr Big on one of those unbearable Peloton bikes, followed by a character’s heart attack in Showtime’s Billions; Peloton’s shares dropped 27 per cent last week after a leaked report revealed its sales were falling and production would halt. The Little Big Men who see themselves as kings of the highway are still with us — it’s just that their extensions now come on two wheels rather than four.

Middle of the road
‘I hear they’re very middle-of-the-road.’