by Our Bicycle Lives
When I think of the way I interact with other cyclists on the road, my mind draws a blank: I simply don’t. I may be part of the great cyclists’ fraternity but when I am actually getting from A to B on a bike, I am alone. It is not that I don’t notice other cyclists but that I don’t communicate with them: I don’t talk to them, I don’t gesture at them, I don’t make eye contact. I even think I have more contacts with other cyclists when I am walking about town: I don’t have any qualms then about grinning at them, perhaps because I am keen to be identified not as a pedestrian but as a cyclist who happens to be walking (although the cycling jacket and messenger bag are tell-tale signs too!). I wonder why?
I generally cycle against the flow. I commute across suburbs, from West to East, rather than from the outskirts to the centre of London, then I go into town in the early evening for a film or two when most cyclists are pedalling homeward and I come home late when they are already tucked up in bed. Eschewing the crowds, I miss out on the companionable feeling of being part of a group, a team whose mission is to get to work on time. My friend Narcis, who commutes daily from Brixton to Old Street, frequently brings back stories of cyclists pulling up next to him at junctions and striking up a conversation. He also tells me how, if he leaves for work later than usual, he will meet a different set of cyclists. This warm feeling of community is unknown to me.
Truth be told, I am often wary of other cyclists. I rely on sounds to gauge the movements and intentions of other road users. Bikes, however, are largely silent so I find the unpredictable behaviour of other people on bikes, who on occasion will swerve wildly to one side, undertake me or suddenly stop somewhere along the road, particularly hazardous. I have to admit that there is also a certain smugness in me, which comes from the cycle training lessons I attended some time ago and which says: ‘Look at me, look how well I am signalling, look how I always stop at red traffic lights, admire my perfect position on the road and my model cycling behaviour, this is how you should cycle.’ Smugness doesn’t breed friendliness. Plus, multi-tasking is not my forte so I need to concentrate on the road ahead. None of that encourages interaction.
Me and them, we ignore each other. What I see of other cyclists is their backs as, one after the other, they overtake me while I am making slow progress towards my destination. Apart from a quick glance when we share the green box of the Advanced Stop Line – or ASL as it is known to cycle campaigners – they remain faceless. It strikes me that my solitary contraflow journeys on a bicycle unsurprisingly replicate my solitary journeys through life. The bicycle as a metaphor of one’s existence as a lifelong misfit?
Group rides, it goes without saying, don’t appeal. I find riding in a pack somehow stressful and no more enjoyable than riding as a herd. One has to concentrate even more carefully to avoid crashing into the cyclist in front, so conversation is out of the question. On my one and only charity ride, I was expecting friendly emulation and support for the weaker riders like myself: instead it seemed to jolt into life our competitive streaks and everyone cycled as fast as they could to the finish line, leaving behind the poor woman on a mountain bike (she pulled a muscle) and the cyclist on a Brompton who turned up well after we had polished off the barbecue food. But I like the sweet pleasure of cycling in company of one or two friends on quiet back streets, maybe on a Sunday evening when the impending end of the weekend is dawning on us along with the inevitability of ‘back to work Monday’. Two or three abreast, chatting, taking our time, we savour our last hours of freedom* and I am, at last, on the same wavelength as other cyclists.
* ‘Freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose’ sings Kris Kristofferson in Fat City (John Huston, 1972)