Status anxiety

The only way to survive as a cyclist is to behave like you're suicidal

In London traffic, it's always Death Race 2000. I aim to compete

3 May 2014

9:00 AM

3 May 2014

9:00 AM

I wonder how many cyclists are killed in London during tube strikes? I had a 10 a.m. meeting in the West End on Tuesday that I couldn’t cancel so made the seven-and-a-half-mile journey by bike. It was hairy, to put it mildly.

You’d think it would be safer cycling in London when the tube’s not running because the traffic is almost stationary. But it isn’t, thanks to the above average number of cyclists. I found myself constantly having to overtake people, most of whom were too cautious to weave in and out of the traffic like me. The danger came when they’d gingerly poke their noses out in between cars, completely oblivious to the maniac bearing down on them at breakneck speed. I almost killed at least half a dozen people.

I’ve been cycling in London for over 25 years and, counter-intuitively, am less law abiding today than I was as a young man. When I started out I used to scrupulously observe all the rules, stopping at roundabouts and zebra crossings and never once running a red light. The problem was, because I was a responsible road user I expected everyone else to be one too. A typical bicycle journey would involve me getting more and more worked up as motorists, pedestrians and other cyclists blithely ignored the laws I was obeying. I was knocked off, on average, once a month. Eventually, after I spent a night in Chelsea and Westminster having my face stitched back together, the penny dropped. I’d be better off if I just assumed that every other road user was a complete nutter. And the best way to guarantee I carried on thinking like that and didn’t slip back into complacency was to become a complete nutter myself.

I’m now the sort of cyclist who gives other cyclists a bad name. The ‘STOP’ signs being held up lollipop ladies might just as well say ‘GO FASTER’ as far as I’m concerned. If a crocodile of schoolchildren are making their way across the road, I’ll zigzag through them without so much as a dab on the brakes. Pedestrians shake their fists, motorists toot their horns and taxi drivers lean out of their windows to abuse me but I don’t care. Being a 24-carat, kamikaze mentalist is the only way to stay safe.

My stress levels are much lower since I’ve started behaving in this way. Because I no longer expect other road users to follow the rules, I don’t get angry when they ignore them. In the bad old days, if a driver I was overtaking on the inside suddenly turned left, with no warning whatsoever, I would become apoplectic with rage. I might even give chase, pull up beside them at a traffic light, lean in the window and say, ‘See that plastic thing there? That’s an indicator. That’s I-N-D-I-C-A-T-O-R. You move it up when you want to turn left and down when you want to turn right because, weirdly, not every other road user is TELEPATHIC.’

Now, I just smile serenely and nod my head. Of course they didn’t bother to indicate. Why would they? They have no more regard for my safety than I do for theirs. It’s every man for himself in this Hobbesian state of nature and my best hope of surviving is if I continue to be nasty, brutish and short.

The other advantage of being a suicide cyclist is that you can never afford to relax. Twenty-five years ago, I would coast along on my step-through ladies’ bike with my head in the clouds. Occasionally, I would even enjoy myself — which is absolutely fatal.

Today, as I hurtle along on my Brompton, legs spinning like Catherine wheels, I’m 100 per cent focused on staying alive. I feel like a fighter pilot — one tiny lapse in concentration and it’s certain death. It’s less like a leisurely cycle ride and more like a video game. I sometimes fantasise about having a machine-gun mounted on my handlebars and mowing down everything in my path.

Needless to say, I don’t bother with a helmet. That might lull me into a false sense of security. Whenever I pass one of those safety-conscious cyclists in a hi-viz jacket, festooned with flashing lights, I pity them. Do they honestly think that they’re less likely to be knocked off if other road users can see them? Don’t they realise it’s kill-or-be-killed out here? In the Death Race 2000 that is London traffic, a reflective strip isn’t going to save your life.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Toby Young is associate editor of The Spectator.

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Show comments
  • Shinsei1967

    If you were being knocked off your bike once a month you were clearly doing something very, very wrong.

    I’ve also been cycling in London for 25 years and couldn’t disagree more with you that you need to cycle like a maniac. It’s perfectly possible to cycle legally, avoid getting knocked off, not annoy fellow road users (which you clear do) and still get across London at an average of 10 miles an hour (and that’s on a continental-style heavy town bike).

  • BoredwithLib/Lab/Con

    Was it you, Toby, dressed in Lycra, who nearly knocked me (a pedestrian) down in Pall Mall at 1.20 pm today while you weaving in and out of traffic at high speed?

  • sadmaninagame

    The roads are dangerous. You know they’re dangerous. You still cycle on them. Why?

    I’m genuinely interested, why? There’s the same thing here on the A10, with people pillocking up and down on bicycles as lorries hurtle past at 50-60mph. It’s very dangerous, not because the drivers want to kill you but because people are Human and make mistakes or misjudgements and by being there on a bicycle you’re putting yourself into the death race.

    So again… why?!!!

    It’s almost as if the cycling lobby want as many people to get out there and die as possible so it becomes easier for them to make their point about dangerous roads.

    • Terry Field

      Sel-hatred. That is the main reason the British continue to stay in Britain.

  • HY

    “Today, as I hurtle along on my Brompton, legs spinning like Catherine wheels, I’m 100 per cent focused on staying alive.”

    Ironic in that those “taking the Brompton” are usually hell bent on achieving the exact opposite…

  • Jackthesmilingblack

    We have plenty of death-wish cyclists in this neck of the woods. No lights, dark clothing fly out from the right and across the bypass between the trucks. But suburban Tokyo is far worse; young mum comes wobbling out of an invisible side alley without looking, kid front and back… Texting teenager, headphones blotting out all other sounds swings right in front of your off-roader. Has my hair gone completely grey?
    Jack, Japan Alps

  • Gwangi

    Cyclists are a real problem – they are often arrogant, selfish, abusive, dangerous to pedestrians (who have right of way according to the Highway code), and many are sad fantasists pretending to be Wiggins of Hoy. The attitude seems to be F U to everyone else as these deadly weapons on wheels hurtle through red lights, go the wrong way up one way streets, and generally make the life of pedestrians unpleasant. Maybe this is why many find it funny when cyclists fall off.

    People on foot have been knocked down by cyclists and there will be more deaths for sure. Time for a registration scheme, I think. And prosecutions of cyclists who go thru red lights and up one ways streets, and who do not give way to pedestrians.

    Still, I would never cycle in London – a bicycle is no match for a 7 tonne lorry.
    God invented bicycles for children and Sunday afternoons in the park, NOT for slaloming and swerving through 6 lane heavy traffic in city centres. I blame the French (though actually the precursor of the geared bicycle was a British invention)…

    Now, just wait and see the abuse I get from those who worship the great bicycle gods for stating the obvious.

  • The PrangWizard of England

    You are a dangerous fool if you are serious.

  • PeskyParent

    Sad to see that your ‘no helmet’ policy has also been taken up by the teachers and students of the West London Free School.