Watching out for the English
This weekend was not one of my proudest moments.
Out cycling early on Sunday morning with my club – the name of which shall remain unmentioned for fear of not bringing my clubmates into disrepute – I unleashed a hysterical tirade on a late-middle-aged man in an early-middle-aged Mitsubishi. He had just gifted us our third or fourth close pass of the day. Having overtaken gratuitously fast and needlessly close, he slowed down to walking pace to pass two horses coming the opposite way. Despite his haste, he was clearly not in a rush. Pulling alongside the driver’s side window, I pointed out as much; perhaps a little more pointedly. Words were exchanged, but there was little illumination to be had and I certainly can’t claim proportionality on my part, as this was the culmination of another morning of intimidation on the mean streets of Kent. I am truly sorry to the rest of our group, for whom this weekly ritual is a chance to unwind away from family, work and the stress of life; I let them down. But I stand by the wish I communicated to the driver; simply that he would swiftly die of a heart attack induced by his own diesel fumes.
I’ve been riding bikes around London for just over two decades now and it’s become very clear that we are entering a new phase on the road, one where Britain’s Poundland MAGA tribute act is bringing their phony culture war to the road. A survey of drivers back in 2019 saw 4 in 10 claim they believed drivers were getting more aggressive around cyclists. That’s a survey of drivers. The Guardian online ran a (for them) relatively thoughtful piece on a similar topic last August, where they posited the ‘othering’ through helmets and special clothing allows drivers to see riders as less than human. I certainly know when I ride my town bike, much more slowly and often carrying large loads on my panniers – including once a 15 foot ladder – I have never been yelled at. Perhaps the most interesting part was their interview with Chris Boardman who as Manchester cycling commissioner had ditched cycle-specific clothing and his helmet to shift the ‘lycra-lout’ perception. But I don’t ride my cruiser on peri-urban and rural roads. And I am not planning 100km in jeans and a t-shirt any time soon. The chafing…
In my experience and that of many others I have spoken to, the issue isn’t in cities where cooperation is a fact of urban life, it’s the outer suburbs and rural areas where we head on the weekend in pursuit of leisure. And whilst I agree with the 40% of drivers who believe the roads have got more aggressive, I also believe the majority of drivers have become much more understanding and much more aware of cyclists as road users and as people. But it is also very clear there is a hard core out there, an aggressive, intimidating vocal minority whose conduct on the road has moved from negligent to actively vindictive. And a large part of this is driven by divisions – whether real or imagined – between Cosmopolitan and Traditional views, City and Rural lives, and Class.
It’s important at this point to place cycling in context. For many, any awareness of cycling outdoors, whether as a sport or hobby( as opposed to transportation for the poor and/or weird) started with London 2012. The ‘Wiggofication’ of the bicycle brought a much broader awareness of cycling, and particularly bike-racing, to the popular consciousness and began a boom in participation that continues to today. This particular incarnation of Britain’s relationship with the bike, coming off the back of Tour de France and Olympic TT success, tied cycling closely to the drop handlebar road scene and felt like a very 2010s British premiumisation of a quotidian European staple, like the Hackney sourdough bakery five pound baguette. And the commentary around it was the same. Cycling was the new golf, expensive bikes were portaged around Surrey as status symbols on the back of Porsches. And Rapha. So. Much. Rapha. And with it was spawned a new observable cultural phenomenon. The Middle Aged Man in lycra. And if you close your eyes and imagine him, if you are honest with yourself, he’s white, he’s middle to upper middle class, and he works in the financial services.
I once worked with an academic who’d published a significant paper on sport and the privilege of ‘paying for pain’, and there is something in that here. The long distance leisure cyclist is choosing a discomfort that they do not have to participate in. The Mamil is choosing to step out of their cossetted everyday and tap into something physical, visceral, real. If your life is genuinely hard, physical, uncomfortable (or you at least perceive it that way), why would you choose to spend your precious free time doing that. Whereas once the car driver looked down on the poor cyclists, now they feel mocked; the group clad in aero gear, whizzing through the lanes of Kent on bikes that all cost more than a second hand car, their small peloton a deposit on an unlovely cottage in the Weald, has crossed the M25 only to thumb their nose at nativist have-nots.
The irony of this runs deep. Because the current perception of British cycling culture is driven by a cultural transplant from the continent, it does not tap into our own rich heritage. Beryl Bainbrisdge and the UK touring scene. The early hobbyists who built the UK’s first metalled roads. The UKs long history of hill climbs and club Time Trials. I’ve not even mentioned Obree and washing machines. And if I am honest, that strand has always existed, but it was kept alive by the clubs of the Peaks and the Lakes, by the Wheelers and the Clarions and the Chaser of Scotland and the North. In their own uniquely British way, they echo the continental pre-history that the Wiggified cycling of the Mamil has been born untethered from.
Professional cycling traces its earliest days to the factory floors of Belgium, Northern France and Northern Italy, it is tied up with the European industrial working class both here and on the continent. The bike opened up opportunities in both work and life – transporting workers to factories and offices and opening up romantic radii and in doing so expanding local gene pools. In Britain, the simplicity of the Iron Horse was seen in contrast with the equestrian pursuits of the upper classes. Which is what I cringe anytime someone calls their bike collection their ‘stable’.
In the 1920s venues like Herne Hill Velodrome were drawing crowds in the tens of thousands to watch top racers, driven by a wide base of mass participation. You can see this lineage in the team sponsors across continental Europe still, particularly Belgium where Quickstep (flooring) Deceuninck (double glazing) Soudal (adhesives) Wanty (construction) all play major roles in teams. Mapei still makes the adhesives, including the one currently holding my bathroom together – I asked the builder speciality.
But in the UK, these narratives have been lost, severed – at least in much of the South – by the decline of cycling’s popularity in the second half of the 20th Century. Instead, these angry drivers in the home counties see lycra-clad urban ‘haves’ using their arterial roads as backdrops for leisure. They see us playing while they try and work.
It doesn’t help that cycling is certainly more middle class than it was, and that the traditional clubs that provided a broad church for many different people to participate are being fractured into smaller friendship groups and rides. Though there have probably never been more road cyclists, there are fewer good ‘clubmen’ as a proportion. I don’t know what the answer is – bikes are expensive and too many will snigger at the earnest joiner on the induction ride who has come to give it a try on their Triban, but the battle over bucolic country lanes is starting to reflect a divide that cuts through Britain.