I was a Cyclist

I rode a bike before that.  It was just a convenient way to make the short journeys I needed to make.  Initially to the university in Bristol, where helmets didn’t really seem to be the style.  Then around the sidestreets and sidewalks to the lab when I worked in Cincinnati.  Hybrid bikes with cargo shorts or socks pulled up over trousers.  I bypassed the bearpit, became a great fan of the NCN paths, and discovered ride-by photography.

Then I moved to London, took the bus and tube to the office for a week, before settling back into riding the bike.  I looked at the OS map and the TfL recommended routes, and spent over an hour winding through Dulwich Village and Loughborough Junction, with a short burst of main roads at Westminster Bridge followed by a maze of one-way streets through Soho and Fitzrovia.  That wasn’t going to work.

So I moved over to the Brixton, Kennington, and Charing Cross Roads.  I confidently took the lane, developed the brute-strength method of accelerating like a car when the lights turned, and bought a helmet to help should I get crushed by a bus.  I discovered that cycling was something that required at least a change of t-shirt at the other end, and when the company was bought, contributed with those calling for our shiny new offices to have showers.  I became the competitive commuter, and learned to love the Elephant & Castle: it’s fun riding fast.  When the hybrid bike got nicked, I replaced it with a £600 road bike.  That’s the London way.

I had become a Cyclist.

I drew the line at lycra, obviously.  And I never quite got around to working out clips and cleats.  But I became suspicious of Sustrans and their slow, winding quiet routes, contemptuous of any and all dedicated cycling infrastructure, and felt sorry for the few friends who were stuck on their slow old hybrids, uprights, and bromptons, ignorant of the wonderful fast fun right way to cycle in London.  We would often need to get from the office in Clerkenwell to the events in Mayfair or Kensington during the evening rush.  It’s a simple and obvious journey: straight down Theobold’s Road, Shaftesbury Avenue, and Picadilly Circus.  Man those girls on their hybrids and old dudes on their bromptons need to toughen up, I’d think to myself, as I waited again for them to catch up, or tried to explain the concept of merging into the taxi-saturated right-hand lane for a turn at Picadilly Circus.

After that one time, we took their route.  Something about being all dressed up for a night out, and not wanting to get sweaty.  And the fact that only the craziest moron would think to cycle around Picadilly Circus.  Quiet(er) roads and segregated paths around Bloomsbury and Marylebone, then down through Hyde Park.  I pointed out the dangerously badly designed “facility” on Tavistock Place, and discovered how terrifying it is to cycle slowly through London sidestreets, where one feels pressured by the traffic to pull in close to the parked cars so that they can overtake with two inches gap in order to pull up at the next queue for the lights.  For some reason my friends didn’t like the idea of “taking the lane” when the options having done so were to arrive in a sweaty dress or get a constant honking from behind while riding at leisure.

I hated that style of riding, slow and vulnerable, where quick and confident feels safe and fun.  But my friends and I now make our separate ways to evening events.  I am the weird one, preferring the Old Kent Road to the Greenwich Tunnel, Picadilly Circus over Hyde Park.  My friends ride bikes, but no amount of training manuals will ever make them Cyclists: they’re just not interested in that sort of thing.

Of the 3% of journeys that are made by bicycle in inner London (and much of the rest of the UK), already less than half are made by Cyclists in my style.  And the number of Cyclists like me is never going to grow significantly: 99% of the population will never be comfortable riding around roundabouts and dual carriageways amongst double-decker buses and skip lorries.  The rest of the bicycle journeys are made by non-Cyclists who just happen to ride a bike — or in alternative terms, by “utility cyclists” rather than “lifestyle cyclists”: people getting from A to B by the most convenient and sensible means available for their particular needs and circumstances.  But for every one that has already been persuaded by the convenience, savings, and health benefits, there are twenty or thirty who are just the other side of the threshold: keen to access those benefits, but always foiled by their (correct) perception that riding a bike to get somewhere in modern Britain is frequently deeply unpleasant and unsafe.  They will stay that side of the threshold as long as they’re told that the pleasant and safe way to cycle is the quick-and-confident middle-of-the-lane vehicular style.

The interests of cycling campaign organisations — the LCC and CTC — are the interests of their Cyclist members: the heads-down-into-the-wind team lycra wearing formation racing bike riders, who just want to get out on the open road.  And that’s fine.  They’re under no obligation to represent the larger population of non-member utility bike riders and even larger population of would-be utility bike riders.  Except that our politicians and planners treat them as if they do represent everybody on a bike (and even potential bike riders), the majority of whom have very different wants and needs to the Cyclists who are actually represented by these organisations.

I happen to have made half of the transformation into a Cyclist, out of necessity as somebody who only ever meant to ride a bicycle to get to where I needed to go in London.  But this is not a Cycling blog.  We don’t care about carbon frames and expensive accessories.  The blog could be written by somebody who doesn’t use a bicycle at all.  Because what we care about and campaign about at At War With The Motorist is not Cycling, but better transport and planning policy: we want to re-humanise our cities and villages, to make them nice places to live again.  We write about bicycle infrastructure quite a bit because we know that replacing the over-use of motor vehicles with the mass use of bicycles for short journeys is one of the most effective ways to achieve that goal.  And we know that mass bike use will never be achieved by telling the average person to man up and ride in the middle of the road like the guy in spandex with the £200 helmet.  You can call that cycle douchbaggery if you like.  But I think I know which attitude to riding a bike makes you the biggest douchbag.  And I sense that I have the people with me on this one.

I recommend that douchbagize follow the excellent works of ibikelondon and the lo fidelity bicycle club.  Readers might also be interested in the chapter “Cycling without spandex” in Lyn Sloman’s Car Sick.


7 thoughts on “I was a Cyclist”

  1. Brilliant piece.

    Someone mentioned recently (I forget where) that we need a “Potential Cyclists Club” to represent the interests of those people that would like to cycle, but at present don’t, largely because the on-road environment is subjectively hostile.

    They are certainly not represented by the CTC or LCC.

  2. Joe – I don’t think you are quite correct when you say “The interests of …the LCC and CTC … are the interests of their Cyclist members”. Both organisations are registered charities, enjoying tax privileges such as tax relief on members’ contributions, recovery of VAT etc. As such I don’t think they can advocate purely in the interests of members (ie donors) but must act in a wider public interest, although of course they are entitled to make reasonable assumptions about what that means.

    Perhaps, because the earache they no doubt get comes from Mr (rarely Mrs) Audax or the vehicular brigade in London, they actually think that those members are representative of potential bikeriders. If we all made our feelings clear, perhaps they would take the message on board? I am already a member of both (for the magazines and the third party insurance – I don’t think I get anything else out of my membership) but the modest cost and those benefits might justify non-members to join up as a form of Militant Tendency entryism (happy days!) and bring more influence to bear?

    I am also trying my own personal experiment. I work for a major City accounting firm and I am lobbying my firm’s corporate responsibility csar to see what position they might take. I am convinced that the coalition, like “New” Labour before it, listens more attentively to business than to people. Business will support something that is seen to be good for business (qv Crossrail) so take the existing employee health/wellbeing messages, plus the Green Agenda everyone signs up to now, and add the concept of faster, easier access to clients and markets which a less congested city offers (whether you cycle, or take a taxi on less congested roads), and perhaps one might get somewhere?

  3. The claim about LCC being for “heads-down-into-the-wind team lycra wearing formation racing bike riders” is totally and utterly incorrect. LCC has managed or been associated with several projects promoting cycling amongst women, people form various ethnic backgrounds, older people, younger people, not to mention projects in schools as well as leisurely rides for all – specifically not club riding, which cycling clubs already cater for. LCC’s active members continually hold outreach events at school fetes, resident street parties, summer events and all the rest of it to reach out to all members of society. Membership is open to all, and local activities are also generally open to all whether they are members or not. The LCC is not an ‘organisation’, it is you and me, or you if you want it to be.

  4. Yes, I’m sure I was being unfair to just lump the LCC in with the CTC and the rest of Britain’s very sport-cycling influenced old guard. I do accept that LCC is much less sport-oriented and much more practical and everyday utility-oriented than most of them.

    But the point is that, even though anybody can join the LCC, most bike users don’t because they don’t see themselves as “Cyclists”. It would be great if they did join and have their say, but they don’t. Very few bike riders join cycling campaign groups; very few drivers join the ABD; and very few public transport users join the likes of the APTU. Most people don’t define themselves as cyclist, driver, or public transport user (but they often do perceive the the members of those organisations as being so defined), so they don’t think to join them. Hence all such organisations are populated by the vocal hardcore, the most motivated and experienced. I suspect that this will only become more-so for the LCC as more and more people in London are people-who-just-happen-to-go-places-on-a-bike.

    As I say in the piece, I don’t mean for this to be a criticism of the LCC — it’s just a basic observation on how membership organisations, from political parties to chess clubs, work.

  5. Not much lycra in the CTC either. not a member but its target audience is very similar to LCC but on a national level. only group that is purely lycra led is British Cycling.

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