A dilemma for cyclists

A dilemma for cyclists – potential victims – sometime aggressors

Sudbury Times
August 2005

After a gap of three years I revisited the Grand Union Canal, travelling east from Alperton and cycling for a short distance towards an appointment at Park Royal. I had first discovered this green corridor when training for a marathon. In many ways, it was idyllic, away from the dog-dirt, buses parked on pavements, piles of old litter and trashed bus shelters, away from the four-wheeled homicides jumping lights and mounting the pavements, threatening death and injury and fouling the air we all have to breathe.

For years I have cycled in and around London. A bike provided the fastest journey to school – seven miles away – twenty-five minutes by bike along the A12, or between forty minutes and an hour by bus. Several years later I travelled regularly from Fenchurch Street to Senate House in Bloomsbury: underground forty-five minutes, bike fifteen. More recently, I cycled to work from Sudbury Hill to Ealing, via the Hanger Lane interchange on the North Circular – great fun. Now I was back on the bike – fifteen minutes to the Central Middlesex Hospital.

I turned onto the tow-path and set off. Two hundred yards away a man was walking towards me with a dog by his side. As I got closer I could see that he was controlling the dog with a harness, not a lead; he was visually handicapped. As I slowed right down, preparing to stop, there was the rush of bicycle wheels behind me and another cyclist overtook me and hurtled by. I was alarmed; there had been no warning of his approach. But what then horrified me was the way he ignored the blind man just yards in front. The cyclist was a well-built fellow, riding determinedly at something like twenty miles per hour. The blind man stood stock-still. He could hear the cyclist and was clearly aware of the direction of his approach. What he did not see was the cyclist’s shoulder miss his by a matter of just a few inches, four at the most. He remained fixed to the spot and was hardly aware of my coming to a halt alongside him.

I asked whether he realised how close the first cyclist had come. He had not, so I explained what I had seen and told him a little of my experience on that tow-path as a sighted runner. Finally, I asked whether he felt safe walking along there and he told me how, only the previous week, he had been struck from behind by a cyclist.

I remember my first encounter with a cyclist when the screech of brakes shook me out of a day-dream. Down by my feet I notice the front wheel of a bike and wonder what a bike is doing there. I pull up. Oh he wants to get past; I step to one side.

“Try using a bell next time.”
To my surprise he stops; I expect abuse.
“Sorry if I made you jump,” he says.
I catch up with him. He leans over his handlebars.
“People hate me ringing a bell behind them. Think I expect them to jump out of the way.”
“You ought to give some sort of warning, even if they don’t like it. They could easily step into your path.”
“I see what you mean.”
“Perhaps fifty yards back – give them time to react. It’s bound to upset them if you ring a bell right behind them.”
“Good idea, I’ll try getting a bell then.”
“Sure, see you.”
He draws ahead and is soon gone.

Unfortunately, he was the only cyclist to respond to my challenge. Other cyclists fly by, reluctant to reduce speed or deviate from the best course. For pedestrians who are slow or infirm this must be very unpleasant. I did ask myself why these powerful cycle warriors did not go and reclaim the territory stolen by the motor vehicle. But of course they can’t.

Back, running along the tow-path, I adopted pre-emptive measures with cyclists. I kept away from the canal so that riders passed between me and the water; had there been contact, the cyclist would have got wet. When a cyclist approached I swung my elbows out wide. I saw cyclists in a new light, no longer as victims, but as aggressors, as bad as the motorists about whom we complain so readily. But then I had adopted aggressive measures in self-defence; what now could a pensioner, armed with a walking stick, do to a passing cyclist? I asked myself why a blind man, or for that matter the old, the infirm and mothers with push chairs and young children have to be frightened like this? Finally, I regret that so often we have to become aggressive in order to defend ourselves when opportunities to hear someone else’s point of view would really make a difference.

Now, I must remember, a bell for my bike

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