Rupert Myers is a barrister, writer and Deputy Chairman of the Bermondsey & Old Southwark Conservative Association.
The yellow jacket isn’t a sign of moral superiority
On a day when many thousands of workers in London have had their journeys into the office disrupted and delayed by TFL strikes, a smart way to beat the traffic and the line closures is to cycle. The benefits of cycling are obvious, not just when the underground isn’t available – but for too many on the right, cycling is a demonised activity, the pursuit of smug, lycra-clad metropolitans.
Recently, under the headline “I could punch some cyclists, too!” the Daily Mail journalist Sarah Vine commented on the video which has gone viral in which the passenger of an Audi gets out and punches a cyclist in the face. She wrote: “the cyclist had it coming. Only a lunatic would chase after a high-performance sports car and hurl insults through the window for what was, let’s face it, a very minor offence.” The Audi was in a cycle lane.
Incidents such as this one expose our prejudices and the myths that we peddle when it comes to cyclists. How does your quinoa-eating, mustachioed, Owen Jones-appreciating Guardianista get to his job as an ethical mime artist? Of course, he cycles. Cycling is trotted off in a shorthand list which often includes wind farms and gay marriage as the fixation of our out-of-touch politicians.
As a cyclist and a Conservative this baffles me. Our most prominent Conservatives – Boris Johnson and David Cameron – are cyclists. The bike was the great symbol of industry and self-reliance invoked by Lord Tebbit when he said: “I grew up in the ’30s with an unemployed father. He didn’t riot. He got on his bike and looked for work, and he kept looking till he found it.” Few objects are as democratic. Few modes of travel require the grit, perseverance, and stamina of cycling. Despite fantastic British Olympic success, cycling gets a bad press from some right-wingers.
We sorely need the health benefits of cycling in a country with 130 per cent higher levels of obesity and 62 per cent higher levels of death from heart disease than the Netherlands, where they have 99 per cent bike ownership, compared with just over 40 per cent in the UK. I realise that just by pointing this out, I risk being wrongly labeled as the kind of preachy, nannying health wonk who wants to deprive you of the right to smoke a pipe in your child’s bedroom whilst gorging on deep-fried Mars Bars and swigging Buckfast.
Cyclists don’t all help their cause. Between the rare but unforgettable self-righteousness, and the inexplicable desire to wear lycra, it’s easy to mock people on two wheels. Until you’ve been hit by a car whilst cycling, you may not realise how horrifying the experience is. When I was hit last year I swore at the driver for several minutes, and went home shaking with fear. It was the middle of the day, I was wearing a high-vis jacket, and a car drove from a minor road across my path. The driver apologised, but the man in the car behind him started shouting at me for no better reason than I was on a bike. I was just another member of a homogenous group who – in his eyes – had it coming.
It’s not as if cycling is the sole preserve of a wealthy metropolitan liberal elite. It is an accessible form of transport. Whereas a brand new car is beyond most households, a bike can be bought, repaired, and upgraded on a modest income. It is cheaper to cycle than to join a gym. It is quicker to cycle over short distances than public transport or even driving. Despite this, after every prominent story about the death of a cyclist comes the predictable backlash from motorists who think that cyclists somehow escape much-deserved criticism. Cycling is not intrinsically a means of protest against motorists or an environmental statement, it’s just quicker and more efficient than walking.
That shiny yellow jacket you can see is for visibility, it doesn’t denote a sense of moral superiority. Sure, we sometimes jump lights. Drivers speed and use mobile phones. Nobody’s perfect. Of course cyclists undertake and weave through traffic: that’s the point of being on a bike. We wouldn’t have to weave around you if you stayed the hell out of our cycle lanes. You’re the one driving the big, fast car, so cut those of us out there in the rain some slack. Cyclists don’t all take instagrams of their favourite wind farms. Climate sceptics cycle too. I eat red meat, I drink too much, I smoke on occasion, I love driving, I vote Conservative, and I ride a bike. Most of us are normal people, and we don’t appreciate the lazy stereotypes. Today particularly, with TFL on strike and many hard-pressed commuters forced onto the streets, we should celebrate cyclists.