In 1992 when Chris Boardman won gold in Barcelona very few people in the world outside of cycling had heard of him. In the UK he was only really familiar to those of us who read the cycling press or rode the occasional time trial in the North West.
Cycling was small news in 1992. Those of us involved in the cycling press watched as the newspapers went gold medal crazy for a day or two. Then Sally Gunnell and Linford Christie took over, and the press moved on. Chris Boardman’s follow up in the mainstream media was all about the Lotus superbike and his ‘silly helmet’ and that was the end of that.
At that time I rode a bike to work in London. That evening, when Boardman won the Olympic pursuit, I was riding out to a race and as I weaved through the stationary traffic, a motorist leant out of his window and told me Boardman had won. I was delighted and so was he. This was the first time somebody acknowledged that I, as a cyclist, existed, and an exchange with a car driver took place that did not question my parentage. For once I felt included, identified and proud.
Riding in London has been an extraordinary experience, mainly in how humans behave towards one another. I have been punched (twice), kicked, spat on, been ‘egged’ and called all sorts of colourful names. And I’ve been knocked off too (who hasn’t?) car-doored (twice), run into the kerb (a particular favourite of cabbies it seems…).
When I first moved to London it was buses, skip lorries and cabs we all knew to avoid. Nowadays every moving vehicle is a potential hazard. I’m not sure there was a tipping point as such, it’s just gotten worse. Four-by-fours and the attitude that goes with them have been a notable shift and the school run is a particular problem area in London – put the two together and it’s a disaster. Cyclists long for half term and the back end of August when the roads are empty and the 4 x 4s have decamped to Tuscany, although the problem is only amplified when they return: too many journeys and too much traffic.
People take the most ludicrous risks to get their kids to school: drive too fast, don’t pay attention and then… But you know all this, you don’t need me to tell you. Cycling in London during the last summer, for a couple of weeks at any rate, was a joy though. The Wiggo effect and the all-round good feeling spread through the public and the traffic was courteous for a while. A cab even stopped to let me out in some traffic (the shock nearly brought me off) and it reminded me of that summer evening in 1992.
The statistics are still pretty frightening though. The fact that the majority of road deaths in London this year involve ‘professional’ drivers makes me wonder why we let people with no concern for others drive at all. Scaffolding lorries are particularly troublesome. It makes you wonder why we don’t have a personality test rather than a driving test. If they’d happily beat the shit out of you in a pub for not supporting the right football team, they’re hardly going to pass you with due consideration on a country lane, are they?
Cycling in fast traffic is like a race, although don’t expect anyone to be looking out for you, like pointing out potholes or warning you of parked cars. Consideration for others is something that even fellow ‘cyclists’ now ignore. I am not a particularly anarchic rider, nor am I dangerous, risky or aggressive. I know a lot of riders who can be and I see some shocking riding these days – not just jumping red lights and coasting through pedestrian crossings, but idiots doing really stupid, dangerous stuff. To the bystander, this is seen as cyclists being cyclists and we all get blamed.
We need to pull together, abide by the rules and stop shouting at one another. As Alexi Sayle once said in an interview: “When we start behaving badly, we’re just the same as them.” He’s right. It’s all about everybody having courtesy. That and slowing down a bit.
But the needs of the few far outweigh the needs of the many when it comes to sharing the roads. I’ve long thought that maybe we should pay to ride on the road, take a riding test, wear a helmet even… if I thought it would make a difference, which it won’t. In the UK the car is king, over all of us. It’s a cultural thing and deeply rooted in the psyche of the British. Statistically we’re as much at risk walking down the pavement as we are on a bike – I guarantee one driver will ride head-long at the pedestrians at Highbury Corner every night I pass through on my bike. I regularly see it; twenty or thirty unprotected pedestrians forced to scatter by one simpleton who’s late for his tea.
You see, when you get behind the wheel of a car in Britain, you are immediately in the right; you’re the boss. And that’s the bit that needs to change. An insurance assessor once said to me: “If you want to kill someone and get away with it, buy them a bike and run them over.”
Until the police, government and public realise that there is a huge disconnect here, nothing will change. If British Cycling are reading, I ask them to encourage our latest group of winners to do something for all cyclists in Britain. We need to change attitudes rather than get distracted with road ‘safety’ issues that aren’t really that important – the time is now.