Peter Robins

Wheels within wheels

London cyclists hate each other, too

Text settings

I have seen only one actual fight in a London cycle lane. It was at St George’s Circus, south of Blackfriars Bridge, on an afternoon late last summer. Two young women were attacking each other over a prone Boris bike, with a third attempting to pull them apart. It seems likely that one had ridden the bike into the other, but I did not interrupt them to check.

One learns quickly not to intervene in bike rage incidents. During my first year as a London cyclist, when I was less good at staying quiet, I was spat at, hit with an egg and, just the once, punched in the face by a man who had run uphill in front of me. Keep your head down and pedal, that’s the best thing.

London, you see, is a city officially in the throes of a bicycle revolution. Successive mayors have told us so, and so have traffic surveys: bike use on main roads here has doubled in the past ten years. Bikes still account for only one in 50 London journeys, but if you look in the right place you can now see cycle-lane traffic jams. (I recommend Bloomsbury on the day of a Tube strike.) And this revolution is accompanied, if not by a Great Terror, then certainly by a Severe Irritation.

Cyclists’ behaviour — shooting red lights, riding on pavements — now ranks among the favourite topics of complaint at police ‘community forums’ in central London. Cyclists, in turn, have come to expect regular displays of hostility. Last year, one prominent bike blog offered several reports of cycle couriers being attacked by a skateboarder in a gorilla mask. If it was a spoof — it would have been a nicely deadpan one, complete with tame witnesses — it fitted the bad temper of the times.

Bicycle-riders are ideally positioned to anger everyone else on the road. That much is not new. From the pavement, we look fast, unpredictable and dangerous, and frighteningly underregulated. From behind a steering wheel, we look slow, unpredictable and fragile, and infuriatingly undertaxed. (I cannot imagine how we look from a skateboard, through the eye-holes of a gorilla mask.)

In response, we cyclists remain prone to react towards pedestrians with contempt, and towards motorists with impotent rage, graduating in the case of lorry drivers to a snarling terror. But we are now large enough in number that, rather than thinking of ourselves as one oppressed mass, we can maintain our own hierarchy of resentments.

The sizing up, though motorists may not believe it, most often occurs while cyclists are waiting at a red light. According to the blogger Eben Weiss, who studies this sort of thing, bicycle queues in New York form in reverse, with each new rider pushing to the front. In London, this is true only of couriers, hipsters and the most muscular commuters.

Couriers, whose aggression and competence makes them the top predator in this food chain, ease to the front and are gone. Then there are the fixed-gear hipsters. Couriers like fixed-gear bikes, where the chain directly turns the rear wheel, because they are light and responsive and have fewer mechanisms to go wrong. Hipsters like them because couriers like them — courier fashion is a sort of protective coloration for hipsters, although that trend seems to be passing — and because they have fewer mechanisms to spoil their elegant lines. At the lights, hipsters tend to wobble to the front (fixed-gear bikes can be tricky to control) and are more likely to run a red that shouldn’t be run. The times I’ve had to apologise to a pedestrian nearly knocked down in front of me, there was usually a hipster vanishing into the distance.

The muscular commuters cause different complications because they stop in a macho high gear, meaning that they are left behind by the rest of the pack — suited men on Bromptons; less muscular commuters; women on heavy decorative Pashleys — before huffily getting back in front 50 yards later. More cussed members of the pack (perhaps including me) may then attempt to overhaul them. This jostling scares nervous new cyclists such as Polly Toynbee, who told an Any Questions audience about her fear of being overtaken by men in ‘aggressive Lycra’.

But then, according to the theorists of the cycling revolution, all these tensions should dissolve in the glorious dawn. Bike lobbyists talk about ‘safety in numbers’: more cyclists mean a lower cycle accident rate, as motorists learn to look out for them. Cycle casualties have indeed remained about level in London as cyclist numbers have increased. Eventually, once most motorists are also cyclists, and cyclists cease to feel ourselves a group apart, we might even come to like one another.