Ruth Brandon: Can anything stop the new breed of boy-racer cyclists?

They view traffic signs as a challenge rather than an instruction
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Indy Lifestyle Online

I've been thinking about cyclists a lot recently. I try not to, but then there they are again, whizzing along the pavement or just failing to cause an accident as they swoop the wrong way up a one-way street. Drivers always hated them; now pedestrians hate them, too. What's happened to them?

I've been thinking about cyclists a lot recently. I try not to, but then there they are again, whizzing along the pavement or just failing to cause an accident as they swoop the wrong way up a one-way street. Drivers always hated them; now pedestrians hate them, too. What's happened to them?

Cyclists used to be sedate and benevolent. In Britain they were steeds for penniless students, cloth-capped trade unionists or unfashion-conscious dons. In Holland and Denmark even royalty used them, spreading a benign social-democratic glow as they pedalled virtuously and non-pollutingly along.

Then, round about 10 or so years ago, two things happened. Bikes shed their dowdy, respectable image, becoming flashy, fast and tremendously expensive. And the world fell prey to new fears. Everyone knew cars were dangerous and dirty: now, as global warming replaced pollution at the top of the mass-killer agenda, it seemed they were deadly in other ways. Cyclists, on their smart, shiny new machines, suddenly became trendy, and virtuous to boot.

The result, in London at least, is a race of two-wheeled hyenas. Convinced that they alone are saving the world, cyclists ignore every rule of the road.

The average cyclist used to be a middle-aged matron: now it's a young man filled with boy-racer testosterone, and since he's unlikely to kill anyone, he views traffic signs as a challenge rather than an instruction. No entry? For the birds. One way street? A ludicrous idea! Red light? Coward!

These new cyclists even ignore "No Cycling" signs. Years ago, I was knocked down by a bike outside the Oxo Tower. So, it seems, were others: now there are bollards and a notice saying "No Cycles". Do they dismount? Do they hell.

For Londoners, before Ken Livingstone became Mayor, you could almost sympathise. There was so much traffic there was no room for even the slimmest cyclist. I was once walking down Gower Street when a motorcycle mounted the pavement. By comparison, pedal-cyclists seemed very small beer.

But we have a new age. If traffic is blocked in London now, it is probably due to new cycle lanes, built to accommodate the post-congestion-charge influx of two-wheel social benefactors. These are not much used by cyclists. They shun the hateful things, boringly safe as they are. Cyclists prefer a bit of edge.

The other day I noticed one ignore the cycle lane in a square in favour of a quick weave through the taxi-cabs prior to a foray the wrong way up the main road. I've even seen them ride along the pavement with a cycle lane beside them.

Pavements are for pedestrians. There are exceptions. Pavements contain wheelchairs, buggies and prams; they even, grudgingly, accommodate in-lines, skateboards and those little shiny scooters.

It's a slippery slope, and cyclists take full advantage. If in-lines (you can hear them think), why not bikes? I, too, can be an honorary pedestrian (as, for some vegetarians, fish become honorary vegetables).

Recently, I met one. I was at the kerb, waiting to cross the road; he drew up on the pavement beside me. "Lovely day," he observed. "You're not allowed on the pavement," I boorishly replied. He looked as though I'd done something unforgivable. Can't a chap pass the time of day without some old cow jumping down his throat? But others had heard: unwillingly, he pedalled off -- needless to say, jumping a red light.

I felt like those denizens of old New York who, when the first cyclists appeared, scattered tin-tacks in their path. Right is on our side, but it won't prevail.

Ruth Brandon is the author of 'Automobile - How The Car Changed The World', published by Macmillan

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