Have I painted an unnecessarily bleak picture in this series of sociological insights into the current state of British cycling? Have I made things sound worse than they are? Because we know, don’t we, that many people – me and perhaps you included – happily cycle in British cities. Why haven’t I looked at them?
For this final qualitative description and analysis of how people currently do or don’t ride across urban Britain, I focus on people who make cycling work. These people cycle regularly and routinely. They show utility cycling is possible.
But do they show that utility cycling is probable? And does their cycling make mass cycling more or less likely?
I want to make crystal clear that I’m not interested in further stigmatising the already demonised urban cyclist; quite the contrary. But as a sociologist who is concerned with how to produce a mass cycling culture, I am committed to exploring the potential unintended consequences of the tiny minority of people who currently make cycling work for them.
9. A committed cycling story
This post merges the cycling stories of three committed cyclists.
These cyclists are of a type, and I admit I’m brushing aside some of the diversity amongst ‘everyday cyclists’ here.
By concentrating on three assertive male cyclists I’m suppressing the experiences of others, such as older, often female, cyclists who if you look carefully enough you’ll see riding in many British towns and cities. Jo is a good example. She is in her seventies, and says:
“Very, very regularly I use the bike. I would say I use it just about every day really.
“I cycle to save a bit of time. I don’t do any cycling for pleasure, because I’ve only got an old Raleigh sit-up-and-beg bike, with the basket, with three-speeds – and they are a bit dodgy (I’ve never had a new bike, I can tell you that. I got it second-hand). I’ve discovered – keep your fingers’ crossed – that it doesn’t get pinched; if I take it into town it’s not attractive to anybody is it? All my life, not that particular one, but all my life I’ve had a bike.
“So I really use it to get to places more quickly, to make me less tired, and to save getting the car out, because [her husband] isn’t involved in quite a few of the things I do [and she doesn’t herself drive]. So that’s why I use the bike. I don’t use it for going out on bike rides.”
“Because I’m 72 now, you see, I’m getting a little, not nervous, but as the traffic gets worse on the roads to the city I tend to try and keep obviously to the little cycle ways and the alleys and keep out of the way of the busy roads.”
Jo tries to take direct routes and if they get too busy, and especially where there are lots of parked cars, she moves onto the pavement
“because it just isn’t fair on the buses and the other cars that are trying to move, to be honest … I’ve found it safer from everybody’s point of view, if there aren’t any pedestrians, because there just isn’t room for everybody. I’m not a nervous person but I do try to be sensible.”
Like many people who cycle, Jo is happiest when her routes are clear and straightforward. When they become ‘messier’, and particularly when they become full of motorised transport (whether mobile or immobile) any sense of entitlement to limited space is diminished, and she feels she should give way.
So Jo is an example of an everyday cyclist, but unlike most everyday cyclists, she doesn’t have a strong cycling identity. She might move around by bike, but she’s not a cyclist. In this post I’ll be (implicitly) suggesting that she’s not become a cyclist because when it gets difficult to ride she stops riding; she’ll dismount and/or take to the pavement.
The moment at which someone keeps riding when/where most others would not dare, that’s the moment of becoming a cyclist.
I’m uncomfortable suppressing Jo’s voice, and the voices of those like her; they are already too silent and marginal. But I do so for a reason. I want to foreground assertive male cyclists because they have the strongest influence on cycling discourses; it’s their identities I want to examine and to some extent problematize. I’m silencing women like Jo, as well as other ‘cyclists of difference’ (non-white and non-middle class), but it’s the more general silence of these voices within (supposedly) pro-cycling discourses which produces a style of cycling promotion I’d call ‘male’ (and white, middle-class), which keeps British cycling gendered ‘male’ (and white, middle-class), and which makes – I’m afraid – women like Jo ‘a dying breed’.
I would argue that Jo is just the kind of cyclist we should be committed to producing but who instead we are losing. The cyclists we are currently producing are closer to me and those who I’ve decided mainly to focus on here. This is no way to get Britain cycling.
Three committed cyclists
Fred is in his sixties, and retired. He lives a couple of miles from his city’s centre. He rides a Dawes Galaxy. In recent years he’s done some long-distance touring, but he also rides around town. He says:
“It’s my normal mode of transport. If I want to go somewhere, my first thought is I go on a bike. Shopping, going to see friends, whatever … I ride mainly for convenience because I can go anywhere I want, when I want … I can’t imagine a time when I won’t cycle.”
Rhys is in his early fifties. He’s a teacher. He rides regularly to the shops, to his allotment and to work.
“I always go to work on my bike, whatever the weather.”
Peter is in his mid-thirties. He’s always cycled and is a keen mountain biker. He rides to work, and deliberately uses his commute as a way of staying fit.
Fred has one bike. Rhys has two. Peter has three which are ready to ride and others in various states of assembly.
The style of committed cycling
For Fred, Rhys and Peter city cycling is relatively straightforward. They ride competently and confidently.
I accompany Fred on a shopping trip. We ride from his home towards the city centre. It’s cold and raining hard. Fred takes direct routes, and rides assertively. Here we’re negotiating a big roundabout near the city centre. Please as you read think about how likely it is that most people could be persuaded to do the kind of riding I’m depicting:
“We’re on the outside of the line of standing traffic, going down, riding towards oncoming traffic. Fred’s slowed down to do this. We were probably riding at 14 mph but we’re down to 10/11 mph. He’s being vigilant, watching out for movements, being careful of cars coming towards us. A car’s turning out of a side road. Fred’s seen it and has waited for it, to let it come through. We’re getting close to the roundabout now. Fred’s still on the outside edge; he might decide to move in – let’s see. Coming to the roundabout, there’s a tanker on the left, we’re just going past it and into the right-hand turn lane. Out onto the traffic island now, staying on the right-hand edge of the lane so that we can get back onto the outside of the vehicles as we head into the city. Overtaking buses, trucks, a long line of cars. The traffic’s speeding up now. Fred’s obviously very confident doing this. We’re riding in amongst the traffic, it’s now picked up to probably 20 mph and we’re just riding with it coming down to the lights, and now cutting back through to the inside, and onto the newly laid red tarmac as we get to the lights, going on the inside and up to the advanced stop line.”
“for a lot of the journey today it’s felt like we’re the fastest, most fluid moving vehicles on the road.”
Rhys describes the stretch of his commute along a busy main road:
“It’s a bit of a battle except that most times the traffic’s not moving very fast and so I’m going a lot faster than the traffic. So I’m going on the outside of the traffic and riding up the middle of the road basically, passing all the traffic for a lot of the way.”
Such riding is normal for committed cyclists, something which is done day in, day out. There are risks (such as the car pulling out in front of Fred, above), but through experience cyclists learn to negotiate them. And there are (admittedly grim) pleasures too: the satisfaction of gliding past a standing line of motorised traffic; sometimes weaving in and out to maintain momentum.
Although they tend to have greater awareness of alternative routes, these cyclists are more likely than occasional cyclists to take direct routes along main roads. They are less frightened of doing so.
“Main roads are a necessity if I’m late for work. I’ll take a nicer route if I’ve got plenty of time, because it’s five minutes longer, because it’s a mile and a bit more; if I’ve got time I’ll do it but if I haven’t I’ll go straight up the main road because it’s quick – that’s why main roads are main roads.”
Rhys could take one of two routes between home and work: one involves a dedicated cycling route alongside a main road, with controlled crossings to get across the major intersections; the other is through the city centre on road. He chooses the latter; as we examine the map together he says of the former:
“I don’t actually like this route. It’s not a pleasant route. It’s very exposed, and it’s got these irritating bits at the roundabouts where, for a cyclist, it just seems to disrupt your flow.”
So Rhys avoids this ‘stop/start’ route on his commute. But he’ll use it as a quick way of getting out of town for a long ride on his road bike; but then he’s moving fast and will ride and negotiate the roundabouts on the road (“especially when I’m on my road bike I don’t want to be stopping and starting, I want to keep moving”).
Cycling’s right to the road
All three cyclists insist on their right to the road. Rhys says:
“My view is that even if there is a cycle track I’ve got every right to be on the road on my bike, just as much as a car or anybody else really.”
“I always claim my space in the road. I see some cyclists who stick to the kerb, right until the last minute and then put their arm out and go. And I’m thinking, ‘oh no! Why?’; I’m thinking ‘30 yards before, check behind you and go for it; if you’re changing lanes, go for it’.”
They particularly avoid off-road infrastructure if it will slow them down (as in Rhys’ commute) and/or is likely to bring them into conflict with pedestrians. I follow Peter along a stretch of dual carriageway busy with cars travelling fast. When I mention he could have ridden on the adjacent pavement, which has been converted to shared-use, he says:
“Yes I know, but at that time of day there are too many pedestrians, and even though I know I can ride through there and also through town – you can ride through there now too – I still think they’ve got right of way.”
Becoming a ‘cyclist’ – step one
For these men, riding on the road is normal, but it is not always easy. Fred, Peter and Rhys have learned how to cope on the roads but the difficulties of road cycling haven’t disappeared; those difficulties are embedded within the prevailing road environment and will inevitably sometimes be confronted, and not always effectively negotiated.
In negotiating these difficulties by bike people develop identities as ‘cyclists’. This is a two-step process. The first step in developing a cyclist identity is in merely tolerating and learning to negotiate what to most people are intolerable cycling conditions.
Rhys says “I’m a confident cyclist so I’ll do battle with the traffic.”
About half of Rhys’ journey to work is along a busy main road on which it’s easy to get squeezed, so effective cycling depends on asserting yourself and riding in what is usually called ‘primary position’ – taking up the same sort of space as would a car, and making it impossible for motorists to get past. (When as a cyclist you consider it safe for following cars to pass, you move out of primary and into secondary position, to let them through. It’s a key riding technique (indispensable for fast and fluid city cycling in the UK, I would argue) which all three men use.)
Peter describes his journey to work:
“I admit I’m quite quick. I can accelerate to 20, 25 mph and in the mornings when it’s bumper-to-bumper I can keep up with the flow of traffic.
“There’s a lot of turnings, and the amount of times cars come round, you’re coming up to a junction on your left, and they just ‘verumphhh’ – swing it – instead of waiting two seconds for me to go … It’s bloody annoying. I do shout at people.”
Talking about mixing with motorised traffic, Rhys says:
“Obviously you’ve got to be pretty careful, you’ve got to be pretty sharp and pretty aware. I’m almost expecting somebody to do something stupid. I don’t ride and expect everybody to do what they should do. I always ride expecting they are going to get in my way or I am going to get in their way … It’s not the best thing. It’s not what you’d want to do.”
An element of difficulty and danger is normalised amongst these regular road cyclists. It’s a fact of life which they’ve learned to accept and cope with. Rhys again:
“I’ve had the odd time when I’ve been cut up by buses, things like that. You get the occasional time when people come in too close when they are going past you, even when they don’t have to be so close, but I think that’s just a general thing about people not having an appreciation of cyclists and about how much room you should give cyclists when you are going past. “
So in this first part of the process of building a cyclist identity, the kinds of experience which stop most people cycling are simply taken-for-granted and tolerated as the cyclist’s lot. And these bad experiences are typically put into the context of overall good experiences.
All three men also own cars and drive, but they don’t identify themselves as motorists in the same ways they do as cyclists because driving is easy and normal, merely something they do. They identify more strongly with cycling because they have to struggle to cycle, and struggles build identities.
Becoming a ‘cyclist’ – step two
The second step in developing a cyclist identity is in continuing to cycle despite experiencing dangerous incidents. In fact, often part of the process of building a cyclist identity is to convert these incidents into resources; I don’t want to overstate this – it’s a bit too ‘sensational’ – but for the resilient urban cyclist they become almost ‘rites of passage’ and ‘badges of honour’.
So conflicts, near-misses and getting knocked off are experiences which become part of ‘a cycling career’, stories in the building of a cycling biography. Obviously this is not inevitable; whilst some people tend to reinforce their cyclist identities via such experiences, others simply stop cycling, becoming ‘ex-cyclists’. The effects of these bad experiences underlie why cycling is so subject to ‘churn’ (people taking it up but soon stopping) and why the tiny minority who persist are so resilient.
Rhys tells me:
“I do have an occasional shout at some people. Like there was one occasion a few weeks ago, I was at the roundabout and I wanted to go round, so I was in the middle of the road, and some van driver came up behind me and told me I was getting in his way, from him wanting to go straight on. So we had a kind of little discussion about whose road it was and who had the right to be on the road.”
Such incidents could easily put someone off cycling, but Rhys is used to it.
Peter had many cycling stories, partly because he’s done so much riding, and partly because we worked with him more intensively than we did with either Fred or Rhys. You may find that Peter’s stories (below) sound a bit extreme; I think this is at least partly due to where we are ‘forced’ or ‘choose’ to ride. I don’t ride regularly in Peter’s city but I know it’s a much less forgiving cycling environment than my own city of Lancaster. And of course we must be careful here not to ‘blame the victim’.
During one conversation Peter and I shared experiences of riding the ‘End-to-End’, probably the most significant British long-distance ride in terms of ‘earning your spurs’. Peter was forced to abandon his ride after a few days with a suspected heart attack, which turned out to be a series of panic attacks. He describes his experiences the day before his abandonment:
“I nearly got hit three times.
“One was on a long ascent, a long crawl. There were these long artics [big trucks] coming down the hill, and I could hear this thing bombing behind me and there was a Range Rover towing a caravan, and he was trying to get in front of me before the lorries came. And he cut in and I virtually had to force myself off the road.
“Then about twenty miles down the road, an artic this time. It was on a nice, perfect, straight bit of road – flat – with a good two foot past the white line so I was in, like, a cycle lane. And this lorry come past and I thought ‘that was a bit close!’. And also I could hear a second one coming. That time I had to jump off the road. Because what was happening, there was a car behind the two lorries overtaking them, and the bloke in the second lorry was paying more attention to him than to me and he was kind of steering to the left as he was going past me. And that got within like 8 inches of me, that arctic did. And he was fully loaded, he was carrying logs.
“And about 20 miles later, this car actually clipped my bar end. Just, it was like a millimetre, you just felt that [banging his hand on his bar end].”
For experienced cyclists such negative cycling experiences are brief moments which puncture much longer durations of cycling pleasure, but that doesn’t make them inconsequential. They are hugely consequential; they stop most people cycling, and they ensure the minority who continue cycling develop powerful identities. By sharing them, we align ourselves with others who have had similar experiences.
Have you ever enjoyed – almost thrived on – swapping cycling experiences (the good as well as the bad), almost as though you’re feeding on/off them? In doing so we are forging powerful and durable identities and sub-cultures of cycling. I’ll be honest, these sub-cultures are a big part of the reason I love cycling – I know I can go anywhere in the world, find and meet fellow cyclists, and build rapport and solidarity and friendship with them almost immediately. Peter is doing this kind of work here; we’re standing in his garage, surrounded by his bikes, talking about the thing we share in common – love for cycling. It’s brilliant! I love fellow cyclists because our recognition and appreciation (in a word, identification) of each other is so strong. But if we’re serious about getting more people cycling we’d be really foolish to be blind to the potential consequences of such powerful in-group formation.
In another cycling story, Peter says:
“I have been hit a few times. I’ve actually gone over the bonnet of a car before … It was partly my fault. Well, it was 50/50. It was at night. My lights weren’t effective enough. The battery was dying. He said he didn’t see me. He pulled out and I had my head down. I looked up and it was too late. I had no time to hit the brakes.
“Luckily I hit the front of the wing and cleared the bonnet, Superman over the bonnet! If I’d hit the door I think I would have been dead because I hit him at about 30 mph; and destroyed my bike in the process.
“I’ve been hit on about four or five occasions. That was the worst one. Sometimes a car’s just pulled out, never saw me and last minute hit the brakes, and just nudged me sort of thing, and I’ve had a bit of a wobble. ”
The obvious question to ask anyone who continues cycling despite such incidents is ‘why?’ Here’s my conversation with Peter:
“Why do you keep riding when things like that happen to you?”
“You’ve got to get back on haven’t you?”
“If you don’t get back on you never will!”
“Why do you want to get back on?”
“Because I enjoy it.”
“What do you enjoy about it?”
“Well you saw me coming downhill. I love downhills.”
Of course I accept Peter’s explanation; it’s what came into his head when pushed, and he clearly finds riding fast downhill tremendously thrilling. But as a sociologist I must add identity as an explanatory factor: Peter keeps cycling because he’s become a cyclist; and he’s not just built that identity, he’s earned it.
Attachment to a cyclist identity
A cyclist identity is earned by riding in places where others fear to pedal. Cyclists who survive the difficulties and dangers of urban British cycling have earned their cyclist identity by insisting on, then defending, and finally surviving their right to the road. Understandably then, they’re not going to give this right up lightly.
But in insisting on their right to the road, do these cyclists make cycling a more difficult route for others to follow? Do they ensure their own identities remain exclusive? Do they perpetuate the status quo of a tiny minority of people cycling through prejudicial cycling conditions in an anti-cycling environment? Do they impede the creation of the kinds of conditions which are required for other people, people much less prepared to go through the journey which they have taken, to cycle?
Unfortunately I think the answer to all these questions is ‘yes’. And I think the sooner we face up to that – individually as people who care about cycling and collectively as ‘cyclists’ voice’ – the sooner we’ll develop and insist on the kinds of strategies which can genuinely get many more people cycling, much more safely, much more often.
The key point is that strong cycling identities – which can then find expression in and through some (by no means all) cycling advocacy – result from conditions which keep cycling marginal. The strong identity of ‘cyclist’ and cycling as a marginalised and difficult practice are co-produced from the same stuff.
Unless we as cyclists are reflexive about this, the danger is that our advocacy will merely reproduce the situation (the institutional conditions as well as the actual environment for cycling) which keeps cycling so marginal. Unless we’re reflexive, as cycling advocates we’ll reproduce rather than challenge the status quo.
As regular cyclists cycling seems easy. We’re puzzled as to why more people don’t do it; it’s such a convenient, straightforward, cheap and healthy way of moving around. It might sound patronising to insist that many people won’t do something which we ourselves do, but better that than down-playing the difficulties of cycling and insisting it’s easier than people think. What we fail to realise is that by succeeding in cycling we have become different, and that such difference makes a difference.
Today cycling is ordinary to the few and extraordinary to the many. It is not mainstream. Getting Britain cycling requires making it ordinary to the many (which might well be at the cost of making it extraordinary to those of us who currently ride).