Cyclist: Drivers are out to kill me!
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London - The driver of the silver Volkswagen never saw me. That’s what I would like to believe.
Certainly, she seemed unaware as she executed her manoeuvre: a gentle overtake on the right, then a sudden violent yank on the steering wheel which sent her car slewing left across the path of my bicycle. I caught a glimpse of the driver, a brown-haired woman laughing heartily with her passenger.
I want to say I was shocked by such unthinking driving. But after a year cycling on the roads of London - something I began only because I was sick of paying £80 (R1400) a month to a gym I never visited - I was not remotely surprised.
I did not even raise an eyebrow as I squeezed hard on both brakes and felt my back wheel skid. Having avoided an impact with the unpredictable VW by only a couple of feet, I came to a stop.
I put my left foot on the kerb, adjusted my gloves, took a deep breath and saw the mist leave my mouth in the cold air.
Yep: I was definitely still alive.
The offending car pulled off happily down a side street.
The near-miss is a daily occurrence when you ride a bike in any city in Britain. But for me there was one outstanding feature of this incident as I made my way towards Hammersmith: I had captured it on film.
A friend who was aware I’d started cycling to work gave me a helmet camera and some advice.
“Try it,” he said, “because you’ll want to review your journeys when you get home.”
It didn’t sound like an appetising way to spend free evenings, but I now have a collection of movie thrillers to rival anything by Hitchcock.
And, thanks to social media, I have been able to share them.
My feelings about Twitter are mixed - nobody will say on their deathbed they wished they had spent more time on it - but it does give you a simple way of comparing experiences.
When I posted about the incident with the VW, I was deluged by supportive comments from other cyclists as well as clips of narrow squeaks ten times more terrifying.
“Welcome to our world,” the riders all said.
Despite such narrow run-ins, I’m OK. Today, yes. Far, far fitter than when I belonged to that gym (and 12kg lighter). But tomorrow? I don’t know if I will be OK tomorrow.
Every morning when I leave the house, my wife says farewell in the manner of Japanese women who waved off pilot husbands during the Second World War.
If nothing else, cycling in a major British city reminds you to make a will and tell your mum you love her.
But why is it so dangerous?
Car drivers have no reason to hate cyclists. If we all gave up our two wheels and bought 4x4s, the whole country would be stuck in a jam from Kingston to Kilmarnock.
Cycling is clean, efficient and very cheap. My last car service cost more than £900 (R15 800); when I had my bicycle looked over, the fellow apologetically charged me £72 (R1265).
But when I said that I wanted to believe the silver VW driver never saw me, it is because the alternative is too ghastly to contemplate. She did see me and was quite happy to run me off the road. And that is why she was laughing.
Some drivers do seem to resent, even hate, cyclists and this makes cycling more dangerous than any pothole or badly designed T-junction.
It is great that Mayor Boris Johnson and his ‘cycle czar’ Andrew Gilligan - both keen cyclists - are asking for ways to make cyclists safer in London after six died in a fortnight last November, but I fear they will miss the point.
The biggest danger is not road layout but road users.
The hostility of some drivers is mind-boggling. Take the day I got caught on Marble Arch by a car that had roared through a light just as it turned red.
The man ripped through the air centimetres inches from me and caused serious panic, so I thought I would gently let him know that he would soon hurt somebody.
I caught up with his car at the next traffic light. I try to be polite at all times, calling other road users ‘sir’ and ‘madam’ so they know I am not one of those expletive-spewing Lycra louts. It is always possible they might be a Radio 2 listener, after all.
So I knocked gently on the man’s passenger-side window and said: “Sir, just to let you know, you nearly killed me back there.”
The driver, an unshaven Mediterranean-looking man in a pale suit, leant over and bared his teeth, hissing in broken English: ‘I. WANT. TO. KILL. YOU.’
Now that did take me aback.
In the morning, I dress like a US Navy Seal on his way to shoot Bin Laden. I am kitted out like a soldier and sometimes behave like one because London’s roads are a battlefield and my life is at stake.
The £165 (R2900) light on my helmet is so powerful it will temporarily dazzle any driver I direct it at - unfortunately necessary to ensure he doesn’t suddenly shoot out of a side street and push me into a bus.
The camera sits beside it. My bike is fitted with a total of three other lights, and there are two more flashing reds on the back of my cycle helmet to make sure an eighteen-wheeler truck doesn’t simply ride straight over me.
I wear a fluorescent tunic which says POLITE in an official-looking font on the back in the faint hope that it might cause the aggressive motorist behind to let up on the revving for just a second.
Waterproof trousers and a new padlock were my most exciting Christmas presents.
Oh, and I have now had an airhorn fitted to my handlebars, so loud it can probably be heard in Costa Rica. I used it this week when a pedestrian wearing super-sized green headphones left the pavement on impulse and walked across my path with his back to me. The 115 decibels almost knocked him off his feet, but at least we both survived the encounter.
Pedestrians can be as much a danger as a speeding car. If you are a driver, the chances are that you are reading this with a succession of four-letter words coming to mind. You’ve probably had heart-stopping encounters with reckless cyclists. But can I plead for your understanding?
I never cross red lights. I don’t ride on the pavement - unless a particular stretch of road looks very unsafe.
A few days ago, speed-hungry Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson posted a tweet which read: “It’s middle of the road point-makers like this who make car drivers so angry about cyclists.”
It showed a picture of a cyclist innocently occupying the middle of the lane just short of a zebra crossing. My understanding is that the Highway Code, the department of transport and the Institute of Advanced Motorists all recommend that cyclists ‘take the lane’ when it is too narrow for a car to overtake safely.
so, in a state of fury and probably without thinking for long enough, I replied to Clarkson: “He has every right - you muppet.”
That triggered the online equivalent of a brawl in a Wild West saloon, where anybody within earshot (in Twitter terms, the thousands of people who follow us both) felt free to throw chairs and tables around.
“Run him down like the dog in Lycra he is!”
I was told by several people that I “should not be on the road because you do not pay road tax” (never mind that I do, on my car).
Another tweeter said Clarkson “should have knocked the cyclist over because that spot is near a hospital”.
A few weighed in against Clarkson, but it was clear to me that he had won the argument in the eyes of the audience. Sure, on Twitter such a spat is entertaining. But take that hostility on to the road - put that angry mind in charge of a metal hulk on four wheels or even 18 - and it becomes a threat to the life of any cyclists.
Which is why London is simply terrifying for anybody on on a bicycle.
I know our crowded capital will become a far better place if many thousands of people do what I did and take up cycling to work, but most of my friends are simply too scared - and with reason.
I am now one near-miss away from selling my bike and getting back in the car, which would at least make Jeremy Clarkson happy.
The sad fact is that I feel like I have become involved in a war which puts my life at risk every time I strap on my helmet. And all I wanted was a narrower waistband and to save £80 on the gym. - Daily Mail