Friday, April 24, 2009


So the sun arrives and suddenly my cycle to work is innundated with friendly cyclists. As if recently returned from their winter migration, they clutter up the traffic lights like a murder of crows. And murder it is.

Because most other cyclists, especially the unpractised, fair-weather ones who have magically appeared on the road, festooned with fresh-out-of-the-shop luminous cycle accessories, are infinitely more aggravating than cars. Cars have one basic, predicable motivation - to kill you - and you stay out of their way on that basis. But cars can more or less move only in two directions and from a stop have surprisingly slow acceleration. A bike, on the other hand, is quick away, but more to the point can veer in any number of unpredictable directions and has the added bonus of the ability to just topple on top of you at any given moment.

Surely, I hear you cry, I am going too far; surely the parade of cyclists taking back the city from the menace of 4x4 planet wreckers is a good thing; surely a healthier nation is a happier nation; surely there is a camaraderie between the pedalling classes that I, as a thoughtful, concerned person, would wish to celebrate. Well, maybe, if they take some cycle proficiency tests and get out of my bloody way.

It is not as though I am one of the lycra-clad, Italian frame, all-over Campagnola brigade. My bike is often no more zippy than an overweight elephant trailing across the savanna, another overweight elephant atop. I am not a snob, I don't think, I just want to be able to get where I am going. And cycling in the city, at least during the winter, has a certain libertarian bent, a small anarchistic, individualist marker against a world of mass transportation and crowded tube platforms. The arrival of the hoardes upon their bikes, much galvanised by the bombings of 7/7 (for which, thanks Al-Qaeda, a small part of western civilisation you didn't intend to do in, I presume), has curtailed my small rebellion, and now I am in danger of becoming yet another bike in the crowd.

Cycling is still, just, a rebellion, which is why, alongside miserable jealousy, motorists get so irritated by bikes. I am very much of the view that a man on a bike can do no wrong in a inter-traffic scenario. I dimly remember a quote from the House of Lords where one good Lord said words to the effect of: "Whilst being driven around, I constantly observe cyclists on the road who jump red lights [check], ride on the pavement [check], ride without a helmet [check] or lights [check], pay no attention to the highway code [check] and further to this malignant attitude apparently are of the belief that they'll never have to face arrest or punishment [check]." This is the rebellion. The argument about red lights is a particular favourite in the Lords, but is a total red herring. Red lights are for cars because they cannot be trusted to go anywhere of their own accord without crashing into each other and killing small children. Bikes, on the other hand, can weave in and out without recourse to flashing lights and authoritarian strictures. This is not to say that cyclists can't get it wrong, but the ideal is summed up neatly on a sign on the canal path in Hackney: Considerate Cycling Permitted. Because cyclists, unlike motorists, are not cocooned away in what they have come to believe is an extension of their front room; they are out in the elements and face the world directly, not sheltering behind windscreen wipers and the old yell out the window and speed off routine.

Some say, having realised that it is perfectly safe for cyclists to jump red lights, provided they do it safely, that they shouldn't because it annoys drivers so much. Of course it does. Drivers are like the sheep of the hills, while cyclists are like the foxes.

This is the rebellion; you motorists are taxed, your every misdemeanour is filmed and then sent to you with an £80 bill, you're getting fat, you can't help but pay absurd prices for petrol, and then some smug twat on two wheels zings past the lights and zips off down the road, flashing their arse in the air at you - yes he's flashing his arse IN YOUR FACE FATBOY!!!

Drivers are often prone to complain that cyclists are smug. And the truth is, most of them are. Even I, who has never had a driving licence and, mainly through abject laziness, has more of a carbon thumbprint than carbon footprint, even I am prone to the hint of murderous rage when I see someone parading their bike around with a ONE LESS CAR sticker or (especially) flag. So much so that I even considered designing a car bumper sticker than says "One less smug cyclist". Alas I worry that someone even more depraved than me might think to stick them on those ghost bikes, the white monuments to cyclists killed on the road; this I suppose shows the limit of my misanthropy.

So I hate most cyclists, although I make an exception for dead ones. But I really hate cyclists who don't have gears. The trend of the last few years for cyclists to dispense with gears, flashing about on admittedly aesthetically pleasing, if somewhat neutered machines, has engendered much debate amongst cyclists. The form over function debate has got not so much an airing as a long, slow hot air balloon ride; although the single-speed merchants claim utility in that dispensing with gears is cheaper and leaves less to go wrong. Of course not having a bike at all leaves nothing at all to go wrong.

The first time I ever saw a guy riding a single-speed bike I asked him: "How the hell do you get up hills?" "London hasn't got any hills," he sneered at me, proving there and then both the idiocy and the smugness on which the entire single-speed edifice rests. Of course London doesn't have any hills, unless you count all those hills which are in London. It is true that if you limit your ride to the parts of London which are relatively flat you may be get away with it, although whatever money you save in not buying any gears you'll soon pay out in exorbitant rent.

In fact there are two types of one-gear buffoons - the fixed gear and the single-speed. The fixed gear, or fixed wheel, or fixie if you really need your head smacked with a D-lock, dispenses not only with the gear but also the freewheel, which means the crank of the pedal and the turning of the backwheel are inoperably connected. The pedals will go round if the wheel is going round and vice versa, which seems a recipe for disaster but some riders, no doubt spun out on cheap Moroccan hash, claim that it allows them to be one with their bike. It also allows the cyclist to brake using force from his feet, by pressing against the turning of the crank. Thus some fixed-wheel bike riders have dispensed not only with gears but also brakes, which in Darwinian terms is what you call an evolutionary dead end.

The other style of single gear bike is the so-called single-speed, which takes all the aesthetics of the fixed gear but allows the back wheel to freewheel, thus making it precisely a marker of fashion victimhood. It is no coincidence that the epicentre of single-speed bikes in London is Hoxton, aka the London Borough of Fashion Victims; you can safely be extremely wary of any phenomenon which increases in ratio to its vicinity to Shoreditch.

One of the most glaring, literally, elements of the single-speed trend is when the riders "accessorise" their bikes, with wacky colours, matching wheel rims and other self-aggrandising minutae, all in a vain (again, literally) attempt to individualise their bikes, in alas the exact same way as a thousand other inadequates. Disparaging these wheeled art installations, as they irritate their way from Commercial Road to Kingsland High Street, could occupy me all day, but it did give me an insight into my ordinarily fractious relationship with cab drivers. For, at a guess, what I think when I see the single-speed glarecyles, is what cabbies think when they see any of us cyclists.