When I was younger, about 14 or 15, I got interested in Dungeons & Dragons. A friend of mine was into it in a big way, collecting and hand-painting tiny metal figures that feature as part of the game and it hooked me in. I’ve always had a good imagination and a creative mind so I guess it appealed to me on some deeper level, even though I was thoroughly mystified as to the game itself.
I was intrigued enough to go along to a meeting once of the D&G club in my school. They met at lunchtimes in the library to play the game. I watched from the sidelines as the geekiest geeks and nerdiest nerds of the school crouched around a table with dice and painted figurines to act out the mythical journey through the imaginary world the Dungeon Master had created. I crept away, and never returned.
I didn’t leave because of the geeks and the nerds. I WAS a geek, and a nerd. Not an uber clever one. Not like the really bright computer geek or maths genius nerd. I was the slightly ugly, slightly tubby, very goofy nerd who had learned how to avoid being bullied by keeping my head down and by not attracting attention to myself. Joining the D&G group, I surmised, would be like wearing a bullying target on my back: “kick me, I’m weird”.
In short, I left because I was a coward. I didn’t want to be part of an ‘Out Group’, to be ridiculed and despised in equal measure simply for taking part in a hobby that I think I would have enjoyed.
Strangely ironic, then, that 30 years later I find myself part of an Out Group. And not just any Out Group. A group that would have made D&G seem positively ‘cool’ by comparison.
I am a cyclist.
It feels odd to type that. I’m not sure why we get that label. I think it’s part of the badge you get when you join this Out Group. I drive more than I cycle in terms of total milage but I wouldn’t describe myself as a “motorist”. I spend more time in the chair at my desk in the office than on the seat of my bike but I wouldn’t label myself as a “worker”.
I cycle for all sorts of reasons, mainly to keep fit but also simply as a means of getting from A to B, the ‘A’ being my house and the ‘B’ being my place of work.
When I started cycling again in earnest, something I hadn’t done since my teenage years, I wasn’t aware I was now part of the one of the most hated Out Groups there is. Cycling in my youth was easy, commonplace…everybody did it. There were no helmets and high viz. You just got on your bike and, well, cycled.
Getting on a bike in my Forties was a different experience. More expensive bike, helmet and high viz. But even then I didn’t think I was doing anything unusual. I just wanted to cycle, like I did when I was a kid but this time with a little more purpose. But now I was no longer on the back streets and alleys that I used to tear up with my Chopper wheels, now I was on the mean streets of my home town, in rush hour, in amongst every shape and size of vehicle known to man.
As I started to video record my rides and tweet about them, it was only then that I realised the gravity of what I had done. I had become “a cyclist”. I had joined the club. I was advertising my membership with an luminous yellow vest and a polystyrene hat. I was rolling the dice and playing the game, only now I was up against some pretty mean competition.
I can’t begin to describe to a ‘non-cyclist’ how deep the hatred runs for those whose chosen method of transport consists of two wheels, from those running on four (or more). You can look for yourself on Twitter and in videos on YouTube. Motorists everywhere hate cyclists. They have little respect for cyclists. On occasion (more often than you would think) they seem to go out of their way to cause physical harm to cyclists.
A young man was recently knocked off his bike and crushed by an HGV in London. Miraculously he survived (another man in a similar accident a day or so later didn’t). He was interviewed on a BBC radio station. Someone on Twitter asked the presenter who did the interview to tell the “menace cyclist” to stay off the roads in future. This person’s view was he had brought it on himself: tough.
I have seen other comments from those who say they would like to run cyclists over. I have even seen a few who seem to claim they have done just that. And found it funny.
I could write an entire blog – an essay even – on the mythical “road tax” that motorists claim cyclists don’t pay. You don’t deserve respect because you don’t pay for the roads, is the general tone. If you get hurt, tough. You shouldn’t be on the roads in the first place.
Even setting aside its non-existence for a moment, the sheer madness of attributing the level of tax someone pays to the degree of safety they should be afforded on the roads is quite astonishing. The irony that some of their fellow motorists don’t pay any Vehicle Excise Duty (as ‘road tax’ has been called since it was replaced by VED in the late 1930s) is simply lost on them.
I don’t know how, why or when this happened. We used to be a nation of cyclists. Even well into the Fifties and early Sixties we cycled more as a nation than the Dutch do today. Somewhere along the line the bicycle changed from a cheap, convenient, utilitarian mode of transport into a symbol of hatred. I have seen cyclists described as “militants”, “terrorists” and even “kamikaze”. This last one amused me the most, as if cyclists – already hideously aware of the fine line between life and death they tread by cycling in amongst the traffic on our roads – would go out of their way to kill themselves and others while cycling to the office, bearing down on some innocent pedestrian like a Japanese fighter pilot honing in on an American destroyer. Having collided with a pedestrian who stepped out into the road in front of me without looking, I have to say I’m not in a hurry to repeat the process, deliberately or otherwise.
Of course there are idiot cyclists, just as there are idiot motorists, who ride irresponsibly and show scant regard or respect for other road users. But given the huge numbers of people who are killed or seriously injured by motorists on the UK’s roads each year (which run into thousands) compared to the number caused by cyclists (fatalities average about 3 per year in the UK) it’s clear who the bigger menace is. Every death on our roads is a tragedy and an avoidable one. But the degree to which cyclists seem to be singled out for criticism and blame is wholly inappropriate, especially given the huge disparity in terms of accident outcomes: if a driver makes a mistake on the roads, they have seat belts, air bags, side impact bars and crumple zones to protect them and compensate for their error. Cyclists have a polystyrene hat.
Even in death, though, the cyclist is not immune from criticism and blame. I have read some thoroughly shocking and depressing extracts from recent court cases involving the death of cyclists. Deaths that have occurred in broad daylight, with good visibility, where the cyclist has been struck from behind by a car or van or HGV. What’s extraordinary is the way in which the actions and motives of the cyclist are examined in far greater detail than those of the driver. Why was the cyclist on that road at that time? Could they have cycled a different route, a safer route perhaps? Were they wearing high viz, a helmet? Did they have any lights on their bike?
Time and again motorists walk free from court despite having taken the life of another human being, the conclusion being that it couldn’t be helped, it was an unavoidable accident. In essence, the cyclist was in the wrong place at the wrong time. The wrong place being ‘the road’ and the wrong time being ‘the time the motorist wanted to use the road’.
It’s hard being a member of an Out Group. At school, I might have got teased and maybe a little worse. On the roads it’s a different story. A different game altogether. And the dice are not loaded in my favour.