That’s it. Not the loneliness of the long-distance, the good, bad or ugly cyclist. Just the cyclist.
I’m not in a club so I don’t cycle with others, except for Himself. Even that’s a largely solitary exercise, as I have to work really hard to keep up with him so that I can yell “I DON’T WANT TO GO THAT WAY TODAY!” before he makes a turn. I’m not complaining; I’m quite happy cycling by myself.
So why the loneliness?
Because there aren’t that many other cyclists on the road. Despite the wonderful successes in cycle sport in all its variety over the summer, there aren’t that many of us. One day last week I went around one of my regular short loops, seventeen miles, and I didn’t see a single other cyclist. Not one. Granted, I’m in a rural area, and most of the distance was on single track roads, and it was a Friday teatime, but I passed through one busy, pretty honeypot village and spent a couple of miles on a country A-road, carrying people home from work in the nearest big town ten miles away. Not a single other person was making a journey by bicycle.
In the few weeks in summer when the temperature rose, after the Tour de France and during the Olympic and Paralympic Games, there seemed to be more people out on bicycles. Cyclists seemed to nod to each other a bit more, with – though I may have been imagining this – an air of encouragement. ‘Go, fellow rider!’ seemed to be the message. It even seemed to infect some pedestrians. Once, just after the end of the Tour, I pedalled into the village for an icecream and passed a trio of young lads fishing. They applauded. Seriously, they clapped hands and everything. I gave them a cautious wave, expecting howls of derisive laughter, but none came. It seemed to be genuine (though I am no expert on reading the actions and faces of adolescent males). Same on the way back; more applause. It was really cheering (though they might still be doubled over with mirth at the memory). But now the country has gone back to work, the Tour of Britain just a little blip in post-cycle-carnival depression, and almost the only people I see on the road these days are serious road cyclists out training, heads down and going like the clappers. Good for them, but where are the commuters?
Since I got home from a two-month stint in France earlier in the year, I’ve only used my car when I’ve really needed to. I miss, badly, being one of lots of people just going about their business on a bike. In the Netherlands, a quarter of all journeys are made by bicycle, which knocks France into a cocked hat (whatever that is). It must be cycling heaven, because France was just wonderful. I was always in the company of people cycling, just using their bikes to get around, the way it should be. Old men with baguettes and carrots protruding from panniers, cool and happening students, kids, mothers, couples, racing snakes: all human life on every sort and shape of bicycle. Now, quite often I’m the only one wending my way to and from the village by bike. This makes me really sad.
It’s brilliant that there’s more interest in cycle sport as a result of the fantastic summer. It’ll be even more brilliant when people start looking at their bikes and thinking, ‘Hmm, wonder if I can ride to the shops on that for a change?’ The only way to get more people on the road is to keep going on the road. And that brings me to the biggest problem.
We have a dense population. There are more cars and lorries on the roads and the chances are that – unlike in France – the driver of the car or lorry impatiently revving behind a cyclist is not a cyclist. The driver may not have any understanding of the impact his bow wave has on a cyclist. The driver may not care. The driver may consider the cyclist an obstacle. The driver probably wonders why the cyclist is on the road at all. The driver might choose to overtake the cyclist at speed because the driver can’t be bothered to wait. The driver might indicate, by word and gesture, that the cyclist should be on the left of the white line at the road’s edge, in the rough tarmac and the pot-holes.
I really, really, want to keep on cycling and I don’t want to keep all my journeys to the ‘quiet’ roads. There are plenty of roads that are fine to cycle on IF cyclists are treated as fellow road users, and accorded the same respect that drivers are.
I’ve been experimenting with demanding this respect. Sometimes I’ll move out into the road if I suspect that the car approaching me will try to overtake me somewhere unsafe. Similarly, if there is a stream of traffic oncoming traffic, I’ll often move out to make it more difficult to overtake me, moving in again when there’s a space in oncoming traffic so that I can be overtaken using plenty of space. If cars wait, I always wave thanks when they do overtake. They don’t always wait patiently though. Some hoot – something I never experienced in France, ever, even when I made mistakes on roundabouts a couple of times – but even, worryingly, some cars overtake me anyway, barely moving out and passing with the slimmest of margins. I’ve been really frightened, in a way I simply wasn’t, in nine weeks of continuous cycle touring in France.
I don’t want to give up. I don’t want to be forced onto quieter roads through fear, because then there will be fewer visible cyclists, which means that drivers won’t learn to share the road and it will be another nail in the coffin of the dream of a cycling culture. Of course, I don’t want to be splatted across someone’s bonnet in the cause of the cycling culture dream either. But I don’t want to be lonely on the road forever, so for now I’ll just pedal on.
By Marie Madigan