One morning a long time ago, when the Spectator offices were still in Bloomsbury, I hopped my bike up onto the kerb outside the new Pret a Manger on Theobalds Road, locked it to a post and went in. A man followed me, his face vacuum-packed with fury. He shouted: ‘No bikes on the PAVEMENT’, then he spat in my face. Not a soul moved. Only a few looked up from their contemplation of the sandwich calorie count. They thought, I suppose, I deserved it.
And since that day, I’ve defended my fellow bikers against any number of anti-cycle fanatics. We’re not innocent, I thought, but we’re undeserving of this terrible rage. We’re scapegoats.
Well, I’ve been wrong. For 15 years I’ve been wrong. After two months of using Mayor Boris Johnson’s newly completed east-west cycle superhighway I’ve realised that our detractors have a definite point. Cyclists are unusually unpleasant. We’re as vile as we’re made out to be — perhaps worse. In all this time of thinking us maligned, drifting through the back streets on my way to work, I’d simply never met my own people en masse before.
Commuting on the superhighway is a miserable experience. We wait to join the main drag in unhappy little huddles, never meeting each other’s eyes, just staring at the unnatural calves of the man in front. There’s a uniform here: mesh T-shirts; Lycra shorts with little circular pads on the bum; helmet, shades, headphones that curl around the neck then vanish up into the head like ear-eating snakes. Some people have two water bottles to demonstrate their superior fitness and hydration. Every rucksack is made by Osprey.
Once on the Embankment section, where it’s possible to pick up speed, cyclists really show their hand. Between the eastbound and the westbound lanes there’s just enough room for a single bike to overtake. It’s a little like it was back in the day when A-roads had a shared overtaking lane. Cars approaching each other would flash their headlights and decide who used it first. Cyclists don’t collaborate. They play chicken. The average speed must be 15 mph; any clash means a 30 mph mangle of bike and body parts, but still no overtaker ever wavers or falls back. Their bug-eyes lock and they accelerate towards each other. It’s terrifying. And as they power past, I fancy I can hear them thinking: ‘I’m a cycle god, half-man, half-machine.’ Though I expect they’re listening to Coldplay.
Now you might say that cyclists on this stretch, the Lancaster Gate to Canary Wharf route, don’t represent all of us; that these are just banker boys super-saturated with testosterone. But the sad fact is that what’s especially true of the superhighway crew is also true to a lesser extent of cyclists city-wide. I just don’t know of another road-using group with less fellow feeling.
Car drivers are in competition but they let each other into queues and share exasperation. Bus drivers on the same route give each other friendly waves, and cyclists a lordly nod as you wriggle past. Even that glassy and pointed stare in the other direction that taxi drivers use to indicate that they haven’t seen you and in no way plan to let you pass is a form of acknowledgement. There’s no eye contact between cyclists. No pleasantries passed at the lights though you’re standing a foot apart. Just try saying ‘nice weather’ or even ‘nice bike’. You’ll get back the sort of haunted flickering look you see on the faces of people in post-Soviet states.
And we’re hypocrites. We suffer horribly from what social scientists call moral licence, meaning that if you think you’re especially virtuous you give yourself licence to behave badly. The classic example is that people in low-emission cars are less likely to stop at crossings, but the same is true of many cyclists, certainly me. As a pedestrian, I make sure I give a grateful wave to every car or bike that stops for me at a zebra crossing. Of course you’re meant to stop, but nevertheless that wave is the bedrock of civilisation, I think to myself, an acknowledgement that we all get by on good faith. Yet as a cyclist I give myself licence to glide across hot on a poor pedestrian’s heels. It seems such a shame to lose momentum.
I love cycling. It makes London a joy. I’ll cycle till I’m too decrepit or too squashed to continue, but the more I look about, the more I realise we’re some of the least helpful citizens on the road. By Blackfriars Bridge last week I saw a boy toppled off his Boris bike scattering his stuff all around him, helmet, folders, pens. His fellow bikers simply flowed around him in an indifferent stream.
A day later, in north-east London, where the Osprey backpacks give way to Eastpak, drop-handle racers to fixies, I found myself going the wrong way down a one-way bike lane. There was quite enough room for the oncoming cyclist, and as he approached and I realised my mistake, I pulled up onto the pavement and apologised: ‘Sorry, sorry, I’m in the wrong lane, I didn’t realise.’ Beard, frayed shorts and fat DJ-style headphones. This was not a banker biker. He looked me dead in the eye and said: ‘Wanker.’
Cyclists insult other people as a matter of course. If a car doesn’t see us, if a tourist steps into the road, they are a wanker or a dickhead. We feel free to be rude, not because no one hears us, which they do, but because we never have to suffer the consequences. Car-drivers who lose their rags meet their angry enemies again at traffic lights. Cyclists just sail on, too nimble to catch, high opinion of ourselves intact.