An unfortunate incident
N.B. Please don’t let this post put you off cycling in London. Cycling in London is (most of the time) brilliant — quick, easy, free, enjoyable — and I find most drivers to be courteous and considerate. Then there are the unfortunate few…
This happened as I was on my way to teach a cycling lesson on Saturday morning.
Coming along Coldharbour Lane towards Brixton, a red traffic light shows at the junction with Atlantic Way. There is a bike box at the lights. A cyclist is waiting on the left hand side of the box, and I come alongside the traffic behind the cyclist, noticing a guy revving his engine to my right. He has stopped behind his stop line, but starts to slowly edge into the bike box even though the light is red. I take decisive action: the bike box is there for bikes, to keep cyclists safe, not for rev-happy drivers. I come into the bike box, in a central position, right in front of him. This is the way we teach people to use the bike box, to prevent dangerous overtaking.
However, on this occasion, it is a mistake. Note to self: *Do not anger an angry driver*
As the lights turn green, I go. Revvy-driver revs. I stay in the centre of the lane so I can safely overtake the cyclist on my left. Revvy-driver beeps. I stay in the centre of the lane until I have overtaken the cyclist on my left, then pull over into my normal riding position. Revvy-driver pulls alongside me and winds his window down. “What the f*ck are you doing?! I’m trying to overtake you!” he shouts. “You were in the bike box!” I reply. “You can overtake me when it’s safe to do so.” He zooms off. Then stops at the next lights ten seconds later. Then opens his car door.
“Oh, here we go,” I say to myself, pull my sunglasses off, and fix my face with my nicest smile.
The man walks back down the street towards me, leaving his car in the middle of the road.
“What the f*ck do you think you’re doing? Why are you getting in my way? Get out of my lane! Why are you in the middle of the road? You don’t know how to use the road! I’m trying to get home to my kids. You’re holding me up! Pull over! You should be riding on the left! You’re making me wait behind you! Learn the rules of the road!!”
This man is aggressive, and angry. I look around at the other road users for help, but I can’t tell if they’re on my side or his. I know what he’s saying is rubbish, but I can’t get a word in edgeways. I try to interject with “I’m not trying to get in your way… I was overtaking this other cyclist (other cyclist looks terrified, and I feel sorry for her)… You had plenty of room to overtake… The centre of the lane is the safest place for me… I’m sorry I added 10 seconds to your journey…” I don’t have time to even begin to explain that, as a cyclist, sometimes I need to ride in the middle of the lane, and the whole point of doing that is that I therefore make this car wait behind me. I’m intentionally holding him up until it is safe for me to pull over, or it is safe for him to overtake. I don’t think he would take too kindly to this.
I then point out that it’s the red light that’s now holding this man up, not me.
But I refrain from adding that I’m a cycle trainer, and that of course I know what the f*ck I’m doing. I’ve learnt that responses like this only lead to “Well you should bloody well get retrained.”
The exchange is unpleasant. He is intimidating, and won’t stop shouting about how he has to get home. His rant goes on. The traffic lights are now green, and he is late home for his daughter, but he’s still standing there, shouting at me. The traffic behind starts to get impatient.
Finally I shout at him, “YOU WERE IN MY BIKE BOX!!”
There. I said it. An eye for an eye.
“You sanctimonious piece of shit,” he hurls at me. “Learn how to use the roads.” He stomps back to his car, and I try not to hear the C-word thrown my way.
As I ride past, he takes a swipe at me, causing him to narrowly miss his exit and swerve back into his lane to catch it.
I cannot believe I’ve been yelled at by someone who drives like that.
I’m shaking as I cycle away. I run through his complaints in my head: “Why are you riding two abreast?” I tried to tell him I wasn’t riding two abreast, that I don’t even know that terrified-looking cyclist, that I was overtaking. Anyway, the Highway Code says “Never ride more than two abreast,” meaning that it is perfectly ok for me to ride two abreast if I need to. “What are you doing in the middle of the lane?” The middle of the lane is the safest place for me — I’m at the head of the traffic, I’m asserting my position as a legitimate road user, I can accelerate quicker than a car anyway, so by the time he’s caught me up I am back in my normal riding position. The Highway Code says “Advanced stop lines allow cycles to be positioned ahead of other traffic. You MUST stop behind the first white line. Allow cyclists time and space to move off when the green signal shows.” “I’m trying to overtake you!” Well, overtake me then — when it’s safe to do so. The Highway Code says “Overtake only when it is safe to do so”… oh Jeez, I sound as if I’ve swallowed a text book. Learn how to use the roads?! I know the Highway Code backwards!!
I’m not getting anywhere with this. I thought about taking down his number plate and telling the police, but he’d gone before I could get that far. I thought about phoning up my boss at the cycle training company and quitting (“How can I teach people to safely use the roads with madmen like that out there?!”) I just sob a little behind my sunglasses and continue with my journey, cycling as safely and competently as I can. Before I’ve finished my journey I see cyclists jump the lights, motorists wheel spin round corners, and a driver making a call on his mobile phone. None of these people get shouted at. Grrr.
The most saddening thing about the encounter is not that this man is so completely wrong. It’s not that he has mis-quoted the Highway Code at me, the thing that is designed to keep us all safe. It’s not that his rudeness and confrontation leave me shaking. It’s not even that, in an argument between car and bike, car is sure to win. It’s that at the end of his rant, he gets in his vehicle, winds the window up, and drives off. That’s the end of the argument, the end of the conversation, and he wins, the driver, who goes faster than me and has a bigger vehicle than me and can shut himself off from anyone he choses to at any given time. It doesn’t matter that I am right. He thinks that he is. And that’s what upsets me the most.