I'm a cyclist, I don’t break the law, and I’m not a nob — so why do motorists hate me?

Ten miles southwest of Birmingham an inky green coup triumphs. The final echo of urban life truant. Here, in the heart of the Licky Hills, inspiration for J.R.R. Tolkein’s mythical Shire, there is a weight and lethargy amongst the greenery. Thick-ankled oaks cladded with moss and ivy hem in a long, rolling strip of shadowed asphalt. It is a beautiful place. A place where I’m willing to sacrifice my own pride and sense of self-confidence just to get to.

You see, I’m a cyclist. I donned the lycra a few years ago and now I’m a member of the 14% of the British population that cycles at least once a week. I love it. The escapism, the sense of adventure and tribute to a once pre-motorised world. I’m an addict, I need to feel the dopamine rush that my act lets off course through my veins, responding with exultation to the improvement of my physical and mental well-being.

For me there’s no better feeling than the sound of the steady mechanical click of my bicycle’s chain as it skips along the countryside. But for a handful of motorists there’s no greater irritant.

Lower entrance to Lickey Hills Country Park

It would be wrong of me to bind all drivers together; haphazardly accusing as if they can be clumsily squeezed under a single, narrow stereotype. Human beings are remarkably different, it is what makes us human. Not all lead-foots are jerks, not all cyclists are snobs. It seems a lucidly simple notion yet a loud minority do not don it.  

Some have already purchased their weaponry, hoping for a four-wheel vs two-wheel war. It is they who repeatedly honk car horns and slap car roofs, unneeded aggression from both armies which only accelerates an unnecessary hatred.

The innocent, like myself, feel the brunt. My cycling debut was also my first exposure to this valley of malpractice. It’s a red light. I stop, unclip, just as the tinted window of a silver Mercedes flanking me slowly declines. It unveils a small man, early aging, bad diet, and low maintenance. He doesn’t shout. He just says his comments and floors it, harshly, a little before the traffic lights’ revision. A verbal drive-by.

Everyone remembers their first time. Anything afterwards fails to match the levels of excitement and unfamiliarity. Now I fail to go consecutive rides without affront. A gesticulation, a vicious, speedy, far too proximate overtake. I don’t antagonise. I do not sit too proud on my saddle with an unwarranted air of entitlement. I do not swerve, road hog or ignore traffic signals like so many of my cousins do. I just swear quietly under my breath, not to the inciter but, instead to society. I’m a cyclist and as far as I’m aware I’m not breaking any laws, I don’t stir the pot and I’m not a nob. So why do I fall victim to such consistent and foul abuse?

Road tax was abolished in 1937 and replaced by Vehicle Excise Duty. This is a tax on cars, not roads.

The primary and most beloved argument repeatedly appearing in the internet forums I have exposed myself to in the name of journalism so you, dear reader, don’t have to: hark back to ye olde road tax debate. Not only is the notion of banning cyclists from the road as they don’t pay its specific tax an imperious concept, it also shows a high level of ignorance.

Road tax was abolished in 1937 and replaced by Vehicle Excise Duty. This is a tax on cars, not roads, and it goes straight into the general Treasury fund. It is fast tracked into the government’s money pot, who can spend it on whatever they choose. Your earnings could be used for motorway maintenance but in truth are more likely to be distributed to schools and hospitals. It’s also a tax that is steadily decreasing. Ultimately it should be classified as a pollution tax, since it’s now based on the size of engine and emissions. Ultra-low emissions vehicles are exempted.

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Reason number two is equally indefensible. The ‘cyclists don’t know the rules of the road’ line. Yes, some of us, especially cross city commuters are susceptible to the odd highway code faux pas, but to say we don’t know the rules is erroneous. 80% of cyclists in the UK hold a driving licence, four out of every five bikers theoretically know the laws. We have to. We are the vulnerable vehicle, you’d be foolhardy not to be well versed.

Additionally, the cycling is dangerous tag can also be done away with. Of around 400 pedestrians killed in collisions in the UK each year, about 2.5 involve a bicycle. Essentially, more than 99% of pedestrian collision deaths in this country involve a motorised vehicle. Simply put, a 1000kg car moving at 22mph will have 50kJ of energy; a 15kg bike with a 70kg rider at the same speed has less than one-tenth of that.

Although the general risk of injury of any severity whilst cycling is just 0.05 per 1,000 hours of activity, that still accounts for 18,477 reported injuries in 2016 alone, 102 of them being fatal. A 2013 University of Adelaide study that examined police crash records found drivers caused four in every five crashes between cars and bicycles. Those figures marry up with similar results from a Monash University study in which researchers examined camera footage of incidents. They found that drivers were responsible for the actions preceding the incident in 87% of cases.

Of course, cyclists often do not help themselves, helmetless, draped in dark, baggy clothing. Yet, this factor has often been used by motorists as a dirty tactic to deflect all responsibility, as if they had it coming. I will always recommend the use of helmets. If you’re unlucky enough to go over the top of your handlebars and land head first onto concrete, a layer of kevlar could well save your life. But you only have to compare the fatality record of Australia, a country where nobody cycles and helmets are mandatory with Denmark and the Netherlands, where everybody cycles and most don’t wear a helmet. You do not make an activity safer by discouraging people from doing an activity.

A 2013 University of Adelaide study that examined police crash records found drivers caused four in every five crashes between cars and bicycles.

Cyclists are too quick for footpaths and too slow for roads. All the abuse I have received on my bike has been along a two mile stretch from the inner city to the rural-urban fringe. I don’t just like the Licky Hills for its scenery. The people are nicer there too. A cyclists haven. And when a local does drive by in a large Range Rover, they slow and overtake with decorum and care. They’re used to it here. Before cyclists it was horse-riders, with a vehicle between their legs much easier to spook.

Maybe it’s not the cars that cause an absence of good morals. It may just be our city lifestyle. A rush, an inherent need to get from A to B. Who has the time to anxiously overtake a cyclist? Back in the countryside if a resident gets stuck behind me on a narrow bend with a viscous incline they merely curse their luck. To them it isn’t the end of the world. Just another 30 seconds onto their journey. In the end what difference will it make?

Joe will now be away for a while on a cycling tour across the Peak District. If you’ll be driving in the area, he politely asks you not to get too close and to overtake him with care.

About Joe Rindl

I study Broadcast Journalism at the University of Salford. I'm a freelance journalist who has written for the BBC and The National Student where I'm also the Sports Editor. "Has a way with words," - Laurie Sutcliffe.

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