On whether cycling is worth it at all

Folks, tonight I feel closer to quitting the whole cycling lark than I’ve ever been. This week, still only four days old, I’ve had so many depressing, worrying, dangerous incidents that it’s sapped what little joy I’ve managed to muster since a sustained slump over the summer and I’m genuinely wondering whether it’s worth all the aggro. So no links or pictures this time, just some raw insights.

On Tuesday someone tried to run me off the road in a massive 4×4, then stopped to have an argument when I wouldn’t yield (that in a moment of rare composure I refused to get drawn into). On the way home, a van driver did me a nice close pass and then did that throat-slitting gesture at me just in case I was in any doubt as to what a massive wanker he is. Yesterday I witnessed a Twitter spat between the cycling Twitterati and a driver who was boasting about almost “bonnetting” two riders on Bury New Road in Prestwich, part of my cycling commute.

This morning, less than a minute after having to brake sharply for a left-hooker, I thought I had a perfect view of a texting driver, only to be told by the police the image wasn’t clear enough due to his tinted windows. During the course of the afternoon it was announced that a 22-year-old bike rider who was struck by a vehicle being driven by a suspected drug driver had died, triggering all the emotions that surround such senseless, unnecessary death. Then, on the way home, I caught a woman in yet another 4×4 texting at the wheel. I gestured for her to put the phone down and you know what her reaction was? She locked the fucking doors. She felt unsafe being asked not to endanger other road users. The driver behind, too, had his phone glowing away in his lap and drove on with his head down. And so it goes on. Every time you get on a bike you are put at risk by driver complacency, ignorance and downright aggression.

I feel so terribly drained by it all. Today I’d had a long day at work, the news of the dead rider, the prospect of arranging yet another ghost bike and really just wanted to get on my bike and trundle home. Yet, the mental preparation for a cycle commute is quite extraordinary. A friend once likened it to going into battle, and he’s not wrong: you have to be constantly on your guard, spidey-sense fully engaged, alert not only to driver mistakes, but also deliberate aggression. And it doesn’t half get you down.

I can’t think of another form of transport where a daily concern is whether you’ll be killed before you get to your destination because someone thinks checking Facebook is more interesting than watching the road. Where, as someone riding a bicycle, you are scapegoated and targeted because as a society we don’t want to talk about the manifold dangers of fossil-fuel powered motor vehicles. Where you’re not seen as a person, but as an obstacle between the driver behind you and their rightful place in the congestion ahead. You get the picture.

As I’ve traditionally seen things, city cycling is currently the least shit way of getting around town. Driving is just abjectly miserable. The Metrolink is overcrowded and overpriced. Buses are crowded and get stuck in traffic. Cycling exposes you to the thuggery that overcomes people when they get behind the wheel of a vehicle. There are literally no good ways of getting about the place, and the question I guess, is whether you pay the price in time, cash or anguish and potential personal injury or worse.

One thing I really struggle with is that we have all the right arguments – cycling is cheap, healthy, clean, should be fun etc. but someone somewhere is so threatened by that they’ve declared an ideological war that actually puts people’s lives at risk. And we fight that war daily by putting our rear ends back on the bicycle saddle, getting back out on the road and showing we won’t be cowed. But is it worth the aggro, the anxiety, the cortisol? Right now I’m really not so sure. How are you all doing?


41 Responses

  1. Stick with it. Don’t give in. Our only protection is higher numbers. Then the tide will turn. Throughout history there has been the senseless treatment of people, be it their skin colour, their income, their sexuality, their transport choices. Yes every day is a struggle, a battle. Yet to give up is to not live at all. Sometimes we must fight for our rights.

  2. We all have days like this, when the mere act of being on a pushbike on the public highway seems to enrage motorists and draw, at best, ridicule, and at worst ….. well, the worst is too horrible to dwell on. But we keep going, to stand up for ourselves as a minority group in the ascendence. Our time is coming.

  3. Matt Day says:

    Wow Nick that is one crap week. I feel similarly about lack of driver care, though only generally experience close passes in rural Somerset. However one of those could have killed a friend here last year.
    The use of phones at the wheel is a cultural and behavioural thing that will only change when plenty of drivers who’ve caused accidents for vulnerable road users get prosecuted and lose their licence and are not just fined and given points. But I wonder how many are even getting fined as the Police are nowhere to be seen on this?
    Perhaps we’re so far down the road of selfish, aggressive driving that separation is better, at least on most main roads? I don’t know.
    Hope you have a better week to come.

    • Separation is totally the answer. But politicians are terrified of people in cars. So deeply anchored is the need to drive in our collective mentality.

      • D. says:

        “So deeply anchored is the need to drive in our collective mentality.” – Bit of a feedback loop, isn’t it? For at least forty years, owning and driving a car have been the sign of achievement, and – conversely – using public transport or riding a bike was somehow seen as a sign of failure (mythical quote attributed to Thatcher, I think). Successive governments threw money at developers to put all sorts of shops out at the edge of town, accessible only (or mainly) by motor vehicle, facilitating the death of small shops on t’ High Street, but then wonder why people feel they *must* drive…

  4. Malène says:

    Keep riding ! As Human Cyclist has written, our safey will increase when more people use their bikes.
    This is hard, because so many car drivers consider us as the enemy, as if the roads could not be shared.
    We also need the authorities on our side, as reckless drivers, drivers using their phones while driving, should not get away with it.

  5. grahamecooper says:

    Yes, been there. Fortunately, since I retired, I no longer have to cycle far in the “rush hour”, but when I do (e.g. taking my granddaughter to school or back) I find that the big flag changes the experience entirely. I can actually be to the left of the road and still control the lane. If someone complains, I just point out that it sticks out only half the distance they should be leaving when they overtake me anyway. If you don’t do a lot of filtering between traffic lanes, then it’s worth a try.

  6. Jon says:

    Hi Nick definitely hang in there there, I also cycle to Salford most days and have for many years. Its not nice on the roads texting and close overtaking is scary but then I also see some bad cycling too non handed through traffic without helmets etc there are improvements needed from both sides if you will though I don’t think we should be seen as sides. One simple ride to Bury only three miles nearly had me thinking of giving it up also, which was a complete contrast to my mood as I threw my leg over the bike but its not the bikes fault, that bit we love, its “bad” people who are influencing our mood. I make sure I am as visible as possible, do as much right as I can and for the last 5 years I commute into Manchester by cycle-cross bike off road, its wonderful only squirrels to get in my way then, keep the faith brother.

    • Thanks Jon. I hear this a lot: “there’s also bad cycling” which I struggle to understand. I’m a competent rider, trained ride leader, also hold a driving licence and am painfully aware of the rules of the road and best practice for cycling, but when I complain about the standard of driving I’m told it’s probably my fault. I don’t get it.

  7. Jaim says:

    Aye, cycling is certainly dangerous especially those buses that lean into ‘painted cycle lanes’ (like this morning for instance…) This is partly why I’m getting into electric skateboards, much safer on footpaths! Don’t let them win though.

  8. BikeRideMike says:

    My commute sounds just like this. Every. Single. Time. As you say, it’s draining. Perhaps more so than the exertion of the cycling itself. You’re meant to get into work feeling refreshed, full of promised endorphins and exuberance, but it’s always lost by the time I arrive. People on phones, staring at their crotch, people beeping when you filter. It’s just odd. I recently had a guy pull past me within inches of taking me off, pulled over, got out and tried to play British Bulldogs with me across the road, all because I was taking primary position before a blind bend. It’s utterly bonkers. The problem isn’t limited to the road though; it’s symptomatic of society in general, with everyone believing that they are the centre of the universe.

  9. awjreynolds says:

    Reblogged this on Cycle Bath and commented:
    Hard though it is, we simply need to keep demanding space for cycling…

  10. patchyD says:

    Dunno anything about your commute, but I try and minimise the time/distance spent on busy roads to an absolute minimum. I’ll take a detour that adds a mile or two if it means I’ll have a more reduced-stress ride. If it’s possible for you to do that I recommend it. I’d rather cycle 5 relaxing miles than 2 stressful ones.

    By keeping going you are, by the very act, adding to the critical mass that will advance cycling as a clean and safe form of transport.

  11. triplemaya says:

    For what it is worth I have found that the more ‘conventional’ I look the less problems I have. Riding a hybrid with an upright position, wearing a classy yellow coat, and possibly with the built in lights on Volvo style, I get treated a lot more like a motorist. I think the trick is to look as if you might well be an expensive lawyer, or a wealthy eccentric with a very expensive lawyer, or possibly even an eccentric magistrate! hth. Ride On!

  12. brighty says:

    Depressingly on the money. Can’t think of much I love more than cycling but I wouldn’t commute. The stats are just against me managing a whole year safely.

    • I’ve only ever been knocked off once, but the near-misses do take their toll. Subjective safety is a huge thing in getting more people to cycle. Not getting hit isn’t enough: not feeling like you’re going to get hit also matters. How do you commute instead and what would it take you to start doing so by bike?

  13. D. says:

    I’m sorry you’ve had such a sh!tty time lately. I sometimes wonder if I’m in the minority: I commute down south, and I travel on a shared-use path alongside a main road until I get to my city, and then on city centre roads, and yet I rarely experience serious abuse or threats… Maybe I just haven’t noticed and its happening all the time 😉 I never ever feel like cycling, even rush-hour cycling, is threatening or dangerous. Stick with it!

    • Which city is that? It sounds great!

      • D. says:

        Bristol (I think we were “Cycling City 2008” or something 😉 ). I’ve been cycling regularly (commuter) since 2011, and I’ve only been doored once and *never* been knocked off by a moving vehicle or felt like my life was at risk. I’m not saying that our roads don’t have some complete @rses driving around on them, and we could really do with more proper infrastructure, but I just never feel like I’m taking my life in my hands every time I ride out or anything like that. I’d just assumed that was standard, but am beginning to realise I’ve maybe just had a charmed life (so far…).

        • I’m not sure what the unit of measure is, but I’ve heard a lot of people say Manchester drivers are exceptionally aggressive. Most people here relate to the article. I wonder what the differences are between our two cities in that respect. Do many more use public transport or active travel there, for instance? I know the council is very keen on alternative modes of transport. Perhaps that’s one factor.

  14. Alan says:

    Most of us have to travel somehow so…
    People on bikes are just as at risk of being hit by a distracted, drunk, stoned or ignorant vehicle operator as a pedestrian. You’re even more at risk in another car.
    If you drive instead you’re only adding to the misery, yours and everyone elses, by increasing congestion and pollution.
    The thuggish vehicle operators are in the minority, and, as much as they make throat slitting gestures or threaten violence on Twitter, they are just bullies and the vast majority don’t have the cohones to actually harm you. They’d risk their precious paint work, they would be held up even more on their journey and there’s even a slight risk of prosecution.
    As a cyclist you do develop spidey-sense, you do see the idiots on their phones, the tell tale signs of left hookers, SMIDSYs and the MGIFs. And although you cannot forsee and avoid all risks I do actually get a perverse pleasure from having that awareness and ability to avoid most risk situations.
    But more than all that, when you’re not avoiding chaos and destruction or not being sworn at, you get to experience the unadulterated pleasure and freedom of travelling by bicycle!

  15. What worries me the most: Could I show the restraint this cyclist showed after being mugged by the crazy taxi driver? (http://home.bt.com/video/fine-for-edinburgh-taxi-driver-filmed-attacking-cyclist-in-street-91364053270539). The taxi driver was fined £360, and got 9 points!!! How in god’s name do they do this?

  16. Lucy says:

    I live north of bury. If i am heading to Manchester I weave through quieter housing estates and paths and then down Bury Old…is there an alternative route for you? Bury New is the worst!

    • The 4×4 was on a quiet road I use to stay off Bury New for as long as possible. The van was on a tiny stretch of road that links traffic-free sections of Route 6. I’m already doing all I can to avoid the busy bits! I personally can’t stand Bury Old, especially the four-lane section at the bottom. This all just proves how bitty and disconnected the provision for bikes is. This is why we need to keep the pressure on and make sure Beelines is a success!

  17. That’s all shitty stuff.
    A couple of years ago I said (mostly muttered into a pint) that if we are to get the sort of infrastructure we seek things will get much worse before they get better. People on bikes have become more common, more vocal and more of a perceived threat. This means we are winning. It just doesn’t feel like it.

    • I agree with that absolutely. The fact that we’re talking about cycling nowadays is a good thing, and what needs to change now is the tone. The issue of course is that actually using your body day in, day out to make that point is very tiring. I think I’ve crossed the line from battle-hardened to shell-shocked and just need a little time to recharge without being a daily target of aggression and/or idiocy. I’ve been commuting by other means (expect a post on that very subject soon!) and I get in unagitated, calm and with no need to contact the police. There’s a lot to be said for that!

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