Thursday 1 September 2022

Freewheeling - Keeping away from cycling activists

As someone who is into cycling I have found that my love for the activity has slightly waned of late. It's not that I have gone off cycling. It's more to do with all that swirls around it. 

I have always had a fairly simple relationship with bike riding. I get on my bike, I ride. Sometimes it is for a leisure pootle, sometimes for training, or for racing. Other times it's just to get from A to B. I could be riding in London streets, on country roads, or along off-road trails. 

Normally, whichever sort of bike riding I do, I always enjoy it and find it a pleasant space away from the more humdrum activities of everyday life.

However, in recent times I have noticed that cycling has come very ...politicised. Whether it's folks going on about the safety/lack of safety on Britain's roads, sexism, racism, all other sorts of -isms, sustainability, clothing sizes for women, colours, sponsors of cycle races and teams, even bike brands. Whatever is happening in cycling it just seems to attract some sort of shouty reaction from certain quarters, all aired on Twitter - of course. It's all a bit much for me. 

I just want to ride my bike and not give it too much thought. Apparently, even that puts you at loggerheads with folks. Folks have been known to throw at me the accusatory phrase - "If you don't see a problem then you are part of the problem." I am supposedly meant to feel guilty about this.

Let me elaborate on a couple of things:

Race and cycling

Last year, I was asked by a cycling magazine to write an advertorial for a clothing brand. This would have involved interviewing two black women - one of whom has a large following on social media - and who has been vocal on racial matters in cycling. She set up a group known for women of colour who cycle. I don't particularly agree with such groups forming based purely on race. It is a view I am entitled to, though as a professional journalist my personal views do not influence the way I work. However, I was later informed by the editor of the cycling magazine that I was being removed from the job because the two black women asked not to be interviewed by me. Apparently they didn't approve of my views. 

The advertorial was going to be related to training to cycle 100km - nothing to do with a person's race, but yet I was removed from the job! So suddenly I became the subject of "cancel culture". Ironically, these are the same women who campaign saying "representation matters" and want visibility of black people in various roles, including journalism! Absolute hypocrisy. I must also add that in the 12 years I have been involved in journalism this is the only time an interviewee has asked to not be interviewed by me.

I first became involved in club cycling in 2000. At that time there were hardly any black people who took part in club cycling. There were a few; just not many. Nevertheless I found the cycling community to be very welcoming. Sure it was dominated by white males - maybe even middle-aged, middle class males. I didn't ask them their ages or their class, and even if I could have taken an educated guess, I couldn't really have cared one way or another. I was just interested in being in a friendly environment, and that's how I found the cycling milieu to be. 

Fast forward twenty years and everyone is talking about cycling being racist and that the lack of black people involved in cycling is because we were being excluded. No one ever stopped me from riding a bicycle or taking part in events. 

I am not saying that I don't believe other people who say that they had a negative experience, but I think it's important to realise that people have different experiences in the same situation. When I say that I have had a positive experience I don't see why folks should look at me negatively. It's almost as though I have committed some sort of sacrilege because I am not going out and mouthing off about breaking down barriers. 

In my time I have known many black people (including members of my own family) who are just not interested in cycling, and who even wonder why I do it! That's been my experience, and for me to believe that the lack of black people cycling was down to personal preference rather than racial bias was not an unreasonable conclusion to draw. Because of that, some see me as a pariah for not joining them in their crusade. One black guy who has made his name by hosting an exhibition about Black Cycling Champions and claiming that cycling is a racist sport even blocked me from his Twitter account!

It is interesting how some of these people campaign for inclusivity, but yet their behaviour, by its very nature, is to exclude those who don't share their opinions.  

Militant Cyclists 

I have ridden bicycles around since the 1970s. My time as a commuter cyclist in London began in 2001. Back then, there were make-shift cycle lanes - mainly a line painted along the edge of the road but you weren't separated from traffic at all. I remember the first time I cycled from my home in Crystal Palace all the way to my office at the time, which was in Marylebone, I rode ever so cautiously and was quite nervous. But in fact, it wasn't bad at all. I quite enjoyed the experience and I was happy to continue riding my bike through the London. I have commuted by bicycle ever since. 

Nowadays we have the luxury of segregated cycle superhighways and special cyclist traffic lights to get you across busy junctions. I think these are great additions and have been instrumental in encouraging more people to cycle in London. I think that London is now an even better place to cycle, and its facilities are now comparable to (if not better than) some other major cities around the world. I can confidently say this as I always make sure to ride a bicycle (either my own or a hire bike) whenever I travel abroad. So I have ridden bicycles in cities around Europe, North America, South America, and the Caribbean, in my time.

The thing is, whenever I look at Twitter I see angry messages from various people about how terrible it is to cycle around London. I just don't share that experience with others. Sadly, if you respond on this platform saying that you have had an enjoyable experience people lambast you saying you don't know what you're talking about and asking you to produce statistics.

Campaigning organisations also want to suggest that every other city in Europe has better cycling infrastructure than London. I would take them seriously if the protagonists actually regularly commuted in those countries. Many of them have never cycled abroad - or at least when they cycled abroad it was in a holiday resort within that country as opposed to a city where people get on with daily life. These are not even like for like comparisons, so folks then draw their conclusions based on photographs of cycle lanes in these cities! 

A recently constructed segregated cycle lane in central Paris, running along rue Saint Antoine from Bastille to Chatelet, and on to Rivoli and Concorde has received much praise on social media. Granted it is a very useful cycle lane. But is this segregated lane better than an equivalent one in London? And does it mean that every cycle lane in Paris is in the same style as the one on Rivoli? 

I get astounded by how people take this cycle lane and extrapolate saying the whole of Paris has cycle lanes like this, and life as a cyclist in Paris is much better than in London! Have these people never ridden the Cycle Superhighway from Elephant and Castle to Clerkenwell? Or the path from Tower Bridge through Westminster all the way to the Royal Albert Hall? What is the difference? In fact I would argue that the London segregated paths are better than those in Paris because they are completely closed to motorised traffic. Cycle lanes in Paris still allow space for delivery vans - and the van drivers make the most of that permission! You certainly have to be on your guard when riding in a bike lane.

Then of course there's the "we hate cars" brigade. Activists have even taken to deflating the tyres of SUVs under cover of darkness and leaving notes reprimanding them for owning one. Interestingly, these will be the same people protesting against the regimes of Vladimir Putin of Russia, Kim Jong-un of North Korea or Xi Jinping of China. But yet, these urban rebels feel that it's okay to disrupt the lives of people who don't embrace their beliefs and behaviours.

And let's not forget the countless cyclists who jump the red traffic lights - some with fatal consequences. Campaigners continue to lambast terrible drivers of motorised vehicles. If you dared to question cyclists who flout road traffic laws they give a response along the lines of cyclists don't kill people when they don't jump lights. Some even refuse to acknowledge that this law-breaking occurs.  

I don't understand how they can't see that this brand of self-righteousness, and thinking they are above all other road users just doesn't endear them to the general population. It's not surprising that folks make negative comments about these militants on pushbikes, and display negative behaviour towards them on the roads. Travelling around a town should be about sharing the thoroughfares, not occupying them to the exclusion of others.

And so, in the climate of what I have mentioned above, I find it quite difficult to call myself a cyclist. I get concerned that people may automatically picture me as one of those scary angry folks who jumps red lights and refuses to give way to any other road user. 

These days I prefer to consider myself as a person who likes to travel by bicycle, among other forms of transport. In addition, I like to do club cycling and cycle races, as well as other sporting activities. I think it's better to not let myself get too immersed in the chatter of activists and militants.

It's nice to see that more and more people are taking to push bikes. London has definitely become more of a cycling city, than ever before. Though I must say that I personally don't feel any push to say that everyone should ride bikes, though I wouldn't dissuade it either. And I certainly don't believe that anything in society is discouraging others from getting into bike riding if that's what they want to do.  

Above all, bike riding is always about choice. You make your choice and respect the choices of others. Sadly, I think that what I have said here sounds much too reasonable, and is likely to once again attract the ire of others.

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