Melanie Phillips

3 December 2012

Why do so many cyclists think they're above the law?

Published in: Daily Mail

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One of the developments that I have cheered along in recent years has been the attempt to rein back the motor car in our cities and towns.

Although I am a driver, I have long all but given up driving in London and now travel instead mainly by bus or Tube. I have also discovered the delights of walking and enjoying the city’s stunning architecture and views — as well as literally rubbing shoulders with the rest of the human race, instead of sitting in solitary splendour within a motorised bubble.

Accordingly, I have welcomed the pedestrianisation of many streets, silently cursed the noisy, smelly cars — and also welcomed the arrival of the ‘Boris bikes’, the cycles for hire around the city that were an inspired idea.

Although I do not own a bicycle, I enjoy and approve of cycling. Like many others, I have for years observed and admired those Continental cities where half the population seems to be on a bike and where the traffic seems tamed as a result.

So getting more people on to bikes in London seemed to me to be a good idea — encouraging health-giving exercise, reducing traffic congestion and generally turning the city into a calmer, gentler and more civilised place.

How wrong can you be! For far from being calm, gentle or civilised, many cyclists have proved to be the exact opposite. While of course this by no means applies to all of them, large numbers of cyclists have brought a new level of aggression and indeed menace to our city streets.

As a pedestrian, I have encountered this on innumerable occasions. A few weeks ago, at a major intersection in Central London I started to cross the road when the green man flashed up at the lights.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw something hurtling towards me and sprang backwards just in time. A cyclist had jumped the red light and almost knocked me down as he sped across the junction.

Furious, I shouted after him that he had jumped the lights. To my astonishment, he stopped and, looking back over his shoulder, shouted abuse at me for having dared try to interrupt his progress by crossing the road.

You can understand why cyclists become enraged by motorists who they may well fear have the capacity to kill them.

But what possible justification could there be for abusing a pedestrian — and when the cyclist himself had just put her in danger by breaking the law? Surely an apology to me was in order rather than a tirade?

But it seems that, while obeying the law or the rules of the road may be obligatory for lesser mortals such as car drivers, cyclists believe that they themselves are above such irritating trifles.

As many others have also protested, cyclists regularly ride through red lights or fail to stop at pedestrian crossings — even when a car has just done so.

They ride the wrong way up one-way streets. They ride on the pavement, causing pedestrians to move sharply out of the way — sometimes into the road! — to avoid being knocked down.

In short, they behave as if they are lords of the universe. Small wonder, when they are generally treated with veneration as the harbingers of a morally elevated society.

One particular campaign by The Times champions them as such unimpeachable icons of progress that it seems to suggest the entire road network should be reconfigured for their convenience.

Two days ago, it triumphantly reported an unprecedented £913 million initiative by local councils to put cycling at the heart of public transport.

Certainly, the toll of cyclists killed on the roads is alarmingly high, and it is only right that attention should be paid to making cycling safer.

Nevertheless, at least some of the time these accidents are caused by cyclists taking astonishing chances with their own lives — riding at night without any lights, cutting up cars or buses or overtaking on the inside so drivers cannot see them.

But none of these things is ever deemed to be their fault. The blame is always laid on others.

What sticks in the craw is the monumental arrogance accompanying such irresponsibility. For legitimate remonstration with them is all too often met with obscene gestures, swearing or other abuse.

This arrogance is not confined to behaviour on the road. It is part of a particular lifestyle. For this is the era of cycling-chic.

Once upon a time, alpha males roared around on motor bikes. Now leather has been exchanged for Lycra; the streets are thronged by other-worldly creatures dubbed ‘Mamils’ — middle aged men in Lycra shorts.

The marketing wonk who coined this term discovered that ‘Mamils’ are mainly men in their 30s and 40s from the upper social classes, who read broadsheet newspapers and shop at Waitrose — and may spend thousands of pounds on buying a bike.

In other words, the cycle has become the must-have accessory of choice for our old friends, the progressive metropolitan intelligentsia.

For such folk, every single aspect of their lives is a statement — about themselves, of course, and in particular how worthy and progressive they are.

So for them, the cycle is not just a machine for getting about with two wheels, a saddle and a handlebar. No, it is a badge of unimpeachable virtue.

It effectively says of its rider: look how environmentally conscious I am, how socially responsible, how  clean-living, humble and powerless — compared to the dreadful Mr Toads behind the wheels of their powerful, filthy, anti-social cars which are all going to destroy the planet if they don’t choke us all to death first!

That’s why politicians such as David Cameron, George Osborne and Boris Johnson have used the image of themselves on their cycles to burnish their progressive credentials (slightly dampened in the case of Mr Cameron, when it was discovered he was being followed on his cycle by a car with his official papers on the back seat).

This assumption of superior virtue confers an air of effortless entitlement, which causes certain cyclists to believe they can break laws with impunity — and if they mow down any pedestrians, well it’s the pedestrians’ own fault.

It is sanctimonious self-righteousness sealed in Spandex — and the rest of us just have to get out of the damned way.

Part of cycling’s huge boost in popularity was caused by the events of the summer, when Bradley Wiggins won the Tour de France and the Olympic time trial, which engendered huge excitement over Team GB’s performance in Olympic cycling.

One effect of this was the transformation of cycling from its association with wicker baskets, bicycle clips and a leisurely way of life to competition, winning and aggressively getting an edge over the other chap.

In addition to this harsher image, it lost its claim to intrinsic virtue when one of its icons, Lance Armstrong, was stripped of his seven Tour de France victories amid allegations (still denied) of doping.

In other words, cyclists are no better or worse than the rest of us. But when their faults are pointed out, they react as if they really think they are untouchable.

One journalist wrote recently that after criticising cyclists for their behaviour, she received death threats, vile insults and obscene abuse.

It’s high time such cyclo-fascists were brought down off their towering saddles and made to observe the same laws and social conventions as the rest of us. Inspiring sportsmen they may be; demi-gods behind handlebars they are not.

About Melanie

Melanie Phillips is a British journalist and author. She is best known for her controversial column about political and social issues which currently appears in the Daily Mail. Awarded the Orwell Prize for journalism in 1996, she is the author of All Must Have Prizes, an acclaimed study of Britain's educational and moral crisis, which provoked the fury of educationists and the delight and relief of parents.

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Melanie Phillips
Daily Mail
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