Jeremy Clarkson explains what it is about certain types of pedaller that infuriates drivers
MANY TOWNS and villages have an area of open space where, on a Sunday morning, for a hundred years or more, a group of lads have met to play a game of rugby. But then one day, a family decide that since the open space belongs to them just as much as it belongs to the rugby players, they will sit on the 22-metre line and have a picnic.
This is going to annoy the rugby players. And the picnickers aren’t going to have much fun either because occasionally they’re going to get trampled by a 17-stone meat machine, or hit in the face with the ball.
This is going to lead to a heated debate. The rugby players are going to ask why the family can’t picnic on the sidelines. The picnickers are going to explain that the pitch is just as much theirs. Soon, the local authority is going to step in and, being a local authority, it’s going to decide that rugby is an elitist sport and that its players must accommodate those who wish to use their pitch for other purposes.
So then you’ll get militant picnickers turning up even when it’s raining, with cameras on their heads to record what they see as a deliberate attempt to run them down. And pretty soon, you’re going to find rugby players are being prosecuted for playing rugby on what is clearly a rugby pitch.
Let me explain from the outset that I am not anti-cyclist. If somebody wants to ride around on a child’s toy, I’m really not bothered. I do it myself when the weather’s nice, and my wife is a full-on Ironman. She even has one of those bicycles made from materials at the far end of the periodic table and spends most of her life riding it across Europe to raise money for those who can’t any more.
I’m therefore neutral in the whole debate, but sometimes, I must admit, this neutrality is tested to the point where I want to set Boris Johnson on fire.
Let me explain from the outset that I am not anti-cyclist. If somebody wants to ride around on a child’s toy, I’m really not bothered.
I’m well aware most of the capital’s cyclists have a horror story about an encounter with an enraged car driver. But it happens the other way round as well.
Last week I was driving my Range Rover along Sloane Avenue in Chelsea, west London. It’s a wide road. Almost a boulevard, really. But there, right in the middle of the southbound lane, was a man in full black tights and high-visibility helmet garb pedalling at a Dickensian speed, plainly making some kind of political point.
No big deal. I was being powered by a V8. And he was being powered by some kind of vegetarian slop, so I overtook him and when the manoeuvre was complete, I pulled back onto my side of the road.
He had not had to deviate from his course or brake but he was furious. I could hear him bellowing away as he pedalled along behind me, his face twisted into a contorted mask of pure fury.
I found this amusing, so later, at a junction, I took a picture of the man in question and tweeted it, saying it was point-makers such as him that made car drivers so angry with cyclists. There had been no need to cycle in the middle of the lane. And no need to become so angry so quickly, simply because a car had overtaken him.
Naturally there were a lot of replies from car drivers saying that I should have run him down. But these were drowned out by a cacophony of abuse from people saying that I was somehow to blame, that they had reported me to the police for taking the picture and that I was basically a bastard for driving a car, on a road.
Interestingly, one of the people who joined in the chorus was Jeremy Vine from Radio 2, who said I was a muppet.
As we know, Vine’s Radio 2 show is a soapbox for the weak and the stupid to moan and groan about those who have been more successful in life. All drug companies, banks and energy providers are evil. And everyone in a car is Mr Toad.
Only recently I listened with fully sagged shoulders to callers explaining how motorists rev their engines and sound their horns if little old ladies don’t get across a pelican crossing quickly enough. And I sort of assumed that, were it not for the studio’s all-seeing webcams, Jeremy would be sitting there, rolling his eyes and making onanist gestures as his callers rabbited on about the injustices of being a failure.
It seems not, however, because later he wrote a piece in the Daily Mail saying he has a light on his cycling helmet that he uses to “dazzle” motorists he thinks might pull out in front of him, and a 115-decibel horn that is used to frighten pedestrians who have the temerity to step into his path.
Of course he also has a camera attached to his helmet and he likes to upload footage of car drivers whom he’s judged to be an inconvenience.
Others are worse. Some see the road network as a racetrack and boast online about their personal best time of getting from A to B. For them, having cars on the road is as idiotic as having cars in a velodrome. Recently, I was sitting in a queue of traffic in Holland Park Avenue, west London, when a “personal best” type clattered into the back of my car having failed to stop from whatever mad speed he’d been doing. Undaunted, he then attempted to cycle between my still stationary car and the pavement and after removing most of the paint with his handlebars, realised there wasn’t enough room.
By this stage, his attempt to beat the record was gone and he was so livid he tried to break the window of my car with his fists. I was to be beaten to a pulp simply for being in a traffic jam, in his way.
The trouble is that Transport for London has issued advice saying that cyclists may “take the lane” — ride in the centre of the road — if they feel the road is too narrow for them to be safely overtaken.
I can understand the logic of that on a country lane, or even in a narrow side street in Fulham. But sadly, some cyclists seem to think they are entitled to “take the lane” everywhere. That it’s their job to stand up for the little man in the face of the forces of oil and gas. And Vine, it seems, is their spokesman.
Sadly, some cyclists seem to think they are entitled to “take the lane” everywhere. That it’s their job to stand up for the little man in the face of the forces of oil and gas. And Vine, it seems, is their spokesman.
But taking the road network away from the very people for whom it was designed is silly. I’m forced by my job to drive like I’m a mixture of Desmond Tutu and Jesus. I simply cannot afford to appear on a PB cyclist’s web page because then I’d be in the Daily Mail again. And life’s too short.
But even I’m beginning to get exasperated with the way the nation’s 35m car drivers are constantly being elbowed into the bushes by bus lanes and cycling-friendly junctions and pedestrian spaces. It’s like being evicted from your house by squatters. And now they are talking about banning lorries from the city centre during the day.
Vine says that all he wants when he is on his bicycle is to be safe. But that is impossible (just as it is impossible for other road users to be safe).
I do, however, have a suggestion that might help, old chum. Lose the camera and the light and the 115-decibel horn. Go about your cycling business carefully and slowly. Do not “take the lane” unless it’s absolutely necessary, and behave like the horse rider: thank those who are courteous to you. Remember, the antelope does not roar about the plains of Africa hurling abuse at the lions. Because if he does, he tends to get eaten.
What car drivers such as Clarkson fail to understand is that when you cycle in a big city you are on a battlefield — and if you are to survive you have to assert your right to the road, argues Jeremy Vine
THE ARGUMENT with my editor comes back to me now as clear as a brand new fluorescent bib. “You have to think of road users like a food chain,” I told him confidently. “We have to protect the weakest. And the weakest — are pedestrians.”
My editor, a cyclist so keen that he got a puncture repair kit for his birthday, frowned. At the time I did not own anything with a pedal except the bin in our kitchen, so I was speaking from hard experience as a city walker. And to be frank, I hated cyclists.
“I mean, Phil,” I went on, my anger warming the words, “how can these bloody Lycra louts think they have a right to use a zebra crossing? Or go careering through the park, or on pavements?”
After a moment of respectful reflection, the editor responded with three words. “You try cycling.”
Events conspired to make it happen — chiefly a desire to have a fitness regime that did not involve running on a treadmill while watching gym TV through 40 pairs of perspiring buttocks. I bought a bike and, not wanting to be too dramatic, it changed my life.
In the morning, I dress like a US Navy Seal on his way to shoot Osama bin Laden, complete with a video camera to record near misses on the road and a helmet-mounted light so powerful it will temporarily dazzle any driver I direct it at — unfortunately necessary to ensure he or she doesn’t suddenly shoot out of a side street and push me into a bus.
I am now two stone lighter and familiar with every yard of the eight miles to and from Radio 2, which I travel on a cycle that flashes more than a runway at Gatwick. I take great pleasure when I arrive, breathless, at our office just off Great Portland Street in central London and see people in suits who are running out of belt to hold up their trousers. I want to quote Walter White in Breaking Bad, when asked why he has turned his life into an exercise in risk: “I . . . am . . . alive.”
But I also understand a fundamental truth: why cyclists behave as they do, and just how much other road users hate them for it.
Zebra behaviour is a good example. Once I started cycling I decided I had the right to use a zebra crossing in Hammersmith, west London, that was always unused in the early morning. I tell this story partly against myself: on one cold, dark ride I emerged from the local park and zipped along the vacant black-and-white stripes on my bike. At the end I intended to leave the crossing by turning right onto the road. Sadly I had not considered the blue van driver who clearly felt his day did not contain enough free seconds to let a bicycle pass in front of him. He pushed on. I decided not to call his bluff and squealed to a halt. Blue van man didn’t hit me, but he came close.
I soon learnt that when you cycle in London, you are on the battlefield. You may not want to be but you are. There is a battle for road space and it seems that even the most apologetic cyclist needs to claim theirs assertively or they will lose it.
I thought about it afterwards. My overactive conscience told me a cyclist probably should not use even an empty zebra crossing. A debate on that single issue could easily take up half of Newsnight. But still, if the driver was correct, and I should not have been on the zebra, did that give him the right to plough on, passing within a foot of my front wheel and pulling the expression that reminds me we have not travelled all that far since we discovered fire: bared teeth and eyes blazing with fury?
I soon learnt that when you cycle in London, you are on the battlefield. You may not want to be but you are. There is a battle for road space and it seems that even the most apologetic cyclist needs to claim theirs assertively or they will lose it. Black cabs in particular appear to delight in passing less than 9in from all bicycles, presumably with the intention of having us give up and abandon our cycles for . . . well, for what? Do they seriously want tens of thousands of pedal-pushers to head off to Cargiant and buy a Jeep?
I was talking last week to Michael, a BBC floor manager who saw I had committed the disastrous Twitter offence of disagreeing with Jeremy Clarkson (he was angry, without good reason I thought, about a man cycling in the centre of the lane. I tweeted: “He has every right — you muppet”). Michael said he cycled too. “Have you ever come off?” I asked. Yep, that is always the first question.
“Once,” he replied. “I was cycling along Kensington High Street when a shoplifter ran out of a store with some stolen goods and, in a panic, he sprinted across the road straight into my bike. My feet were clipped into my pedals with cleats, so I just fell straight over and broke a rib.”
Black cabs in particular appear to delight in passing less than 9in from all bicycles, presumably with the intention of having us give up and abandon our cycles for . . . well, for what? Do they seriously want tens of thousands of pedal-pushers to head off to Cargiant and buy a Jeep?
To me the story summed up the jaw-dropping unpredictability of life on two wheels in a big city. You do everything by the book and you get injured in a freak incident by a fleeing criminal. I had a similar one recently: freewheeling down a cycle lane in Hyde Park, I saw a father up ahead, hand-in-hand with his daughter. She was aged about six and they were jogging in the path beside my lane with their backs to me.
All fine — until he released her hand just as I got within 10ft, and she ambled across my path. I had imagined it happening, strangely, with that worst-case foresight you get from hours of near misses. Luckily I brushed past her instead of hitting her. We all stopped, took stock and breathed. Nobody hurt.
The one occasion when I came off my bike was just as instructive. Pedalling down a cycle lane on the main road to Earls Court, and with total right of way, I was hit by a car from the oncoming lane, which had turned right through a gap in traffic. By the time we collided, we were both braking hard, so no damage was done. The driver turned out to be a lovely Lithuanian fellow who politely accepted my advice about right turns — accepted it, that is, until a rotund man joined the conversation uninvited and began berating me in broken English, yelling that I had “cycled in the way of cars”.
I saw the Lithuanian’s confusion and sensed he was new to the city, so I felt I had to explain. “I’m sorry for this. Everyone hates cyclists here. You get used to it.” And then I turned to the enraged bystander and used my editor’s line on him. “Sir — you try cycling.”