This is the third case study in the ‘cycling struggles’ series. It pedals slightly different ground to the previous two – raising issues around identity; but it again shows the consequences at the individual level of ignoring cycling at the societal level; and it again demonstrates– in a striking way – the lengths people go to make cycling an ‘ordinary’ (for which, read ‘extraordinary’) part of their lives.
I’m heading off on holiday for a week, and will be off-line. Please comment, and it’d be great if you talked amongst yourselves! But that’s why I’ll not respond immediately.
3. Fabian’s cycling story
It’s really quite busy. It feels like a lot of motorists aren’t going to give you the benefit of the doubt on a night like tonight. This is the kind of road environment where I don’t really trust cars at all, and you have to be watching out all the time.
(Fieldnotes, audio-recorded whilst cycling into the city centre along an A road behind Fabian)
I know this description reflects the reality of urban commuting for many. But it’s remarkable given the cycling journey of the person I’m riding with, Fabian.
Fabian was off his bike for three and a half years – “it’s only been since March this year that I’ve actually got back on my bike and since then I’ve cycled every day”. There’s a story behind Fabian’s lengthy cycling hiatus: “I was knocked off twice by car drivers, three months apart, but the same sort of incident. One of the drivers left the scene, left me there crumpled in the road.
On both occasions a car overtook Fabian and then tried turning left in front of him.
“The first [motorist] claimed he was indicating and the police said [to Fabian] ‘you’d put yourself in a dangerous position by being at that point in the road’. But since then there’s now a cycle track and a red blob [advanced stop line] at the traffic lights to actually [encourage you to] go on the inside there.
“The second [motorist] was on a really wide road and I had, it wasn’t yellow, but a bright blue cycle jacket on, and they just passed me and turned. There’s not an awful lot you can do as you’re going downhill, if someone’s not seen you.”
Initially, this second motorist claimed “they hadn’t seen me. They didn’t believe the accident happened”.
Then “it was my fault because I was cycling on the inside of them as they were trying to turn. So again, I’d [apparently] put myself in a dangerous position out of their visibility – when clearly they had to have passed me to get into a position to turn”.
This motorist was convicted, but appealed. “But she then withdrew the appeal at the eleventh hour, as myself and three witnesses were waiting to go and give evidence.”
How did Fabian get back cycling, after these incidents?
“Whether I actually felt like I could ever get back on a bike again was a major issue.
“Whether I could actually be near bikes was also an issue.
“So part of the stuff that came back from the second accident, when they caught the driver, was therapy – getting the idea of being back on a bike, and making it happen. Because it wasn’t that I didn’t want to do it, it was just the fact that it made me feel sick to get near a bike.
“So it was quite a few sessions of just going into a bike shop and saying ‘hello’ to the guys who were in there, and saying ‘right I’m just going to stand with the bikes again’, spend fifteen, twenty minutes in a bike shop and then go again.
“And then it was like ‘right, can I just hold on to one of the bikes?’ – held on to one. Then, ‘right, can I sit on one of the bikes?’ Week –by-week building it up until it was a case of ‘right, I think I can do this’.
Fabian then borrowed a bike and went out with a group, “getting used to the fact that ‘yes, I could ride’ again. It wasn’t the fact that I physically couldn’t do it. It was the fact that I mentally had fear about being on the roads, about being near bikes.
“There were some hairy moments where we’d come off a cycle path, and I’d think ‘hold it, there are cars here, there are roads, we’ve got to negotiate a roundabout here, I am going to get off and walk’.”
You might wonder why Fabian was so committed to getting back on a bike.
He received compensation for his injuries. “I didn’t see the value in saying ‘oh well that will pay for a new car, that will pay for this, that and the other’.
Instead, Fabian wanted his compensation to do appropriate work. “I needed to make it show that there’s actually a benefit from it. It doesn’t mean that I’m going to change my lifestyle and it’s going to help me pay for that change in lifestyle; it’s going to help me get back into the lifestyle I had before, or as near as I could.
“My determination to get back on my bike was part of that. And the [therapist] said, ‘if you get back on a bike or not, at least you can be around them, you are not going to have sleepless nights, you are not going to be worried about driving near cyclists’, because I was.”
Getting knocked off twice in quick succession by cars didn’t – as might seem likely – make Fabian scared of cars. It made him scared of bikes.
“I’d have to give cyclists, when I was driving, a majorly wide berth.”
‘That’s good!’ you might think.
But Fabian’s sensitivity towards cyclists as a driver was – within an ideological and infrastructural environment governed by cars – paralysing. Our road system isn’t set up for motorists to give the level of consideration he wanted to give cyclists.
“It was a case of ‘hold it, I really can’t negotiate this’.
“I’d be driving behind a cyclist at an incredibly stupid speed until there was a place that I really could give them enough space. I was almost driving on the opposite side of the road to give them that space.
“And groups of cyclists were just terrifying.
“I was aware of where the cyclists were, how many cyclists had passed, what they were doing. I was really hypersensitive to people on bikes while I was driving.
“Part of the therapy was about not being too sensitive. Yes, you still need that awareness of where other people are on the road, but gone are the times when I count how many cyclists have passed, what they were doing, and the fact that they weren’t wearing helmets.”
“I probably am still quite sensitive, but not as bad as I was.”
It’s remarkable Fabian has returned to cycling; more so that – as we’ll see – he cycles on main roads through congested city centre streets at peak times, including after dark.
Of course, most people who have suffered what Fabian has suffered will ‘simply’ stop cycling. But Fabian’s tenacity in the face of bad experiences is (depressingly, or inspiringly?) common across the minority of long-time, ‘hardened’ ‘cyclists’. Indeed it’s via such experiences (often retold as ‘atrocity tales’) that one becomes a ‘cyclist’, although intriguingly Fabian doesn’t present a strong cycling identity; perhaps rather, by demonstrating commitment beyond what (‘ordinary’) others (in a car-centric society) might consider sensible, he inadvertently ‘earns’, or has foisted upon him (including potentially here, by me), such an identity.
Our treatment on the roads has become something we put up with, in order to keep cycling; part of the cycling background, an almost taken-for-granted part of ‘what cycling is’. Does, I wonder, the invisibility of the strategies we use to keep going play a part in the reproduction of the dominant transport order?
I ride Fabian’s evening commute with him, back home from work.
His bike’s parked in open stands close to his work place entrance; “it’s secure, just because of where it is [visible from the workplace reception]. But it’d be better if it was covered and lit because when I am putting the panniers on, or trying to unlock in the dark, it is through memory and touch rather than being able to see.”
Fabian covers his saddle with a plastic bag during the day, to keep it dry. (Or alternatively, if the saddle is already wet, he’ll put a plastic bag on to it before riding, to keep the seat of his trousers dry.) “It [the plastic bag] goes on and comes off. So tomorrow morning, if it’s been raining, I’ll put a dry plastic bag on the saddle.”
Fabian wears a helmet and a hi-viz jacket. (Although I personally tend to wear neither in the city, I always carry them with me when doing fieldwork and if someone with whom I’m riding puts them on, then I will too.) His bike has a rack and panniers. He uses clip-less pedals and cycling shoes.
We leave at 5pm to ride a couple of miles into the city’s centre, through it, and then out its other side; a journey of around four miles. It’s damp, cold, dark, and rush-hour.
Impatient traffic, main roads, lots of junctions; it’s a journey requiring constant vigilance. The conditions force me mainly to follow Fabian, rather than ride alongside him. He moves at a brisk pace, around 15 miles per hour.
We ride quickly towards the city centre. The traffic is heavy; it’s sometimes fast-moving, and some drivers come close. If you’re not used to this kind of rush-hour commuting, it’s disconcerting; if you are, it becomes second-nature, and it can even be exciting, though Fabian doesn’t find it so. When I ask him later if he enjoys this journey, he says:
“I don’t think I’ve quite got to that point yet, where I can enjoy it. I’m actually just glad to have got home on the bike safely. I wouldn’t say it’s a particularly pleasant journey, because you’re just going through a city commute.
“I’ve got to get to work for a certain time, and I just want to get home as soon as possible … There’s a purpose to that journey … and I think some of the enjoyable journeys don’t have a purpose – you’re just out there and enjoying being in the fresh air, or in the rain really.”
We’re sometimes squeezed. Some cyclists, mainly proponents of vehicular cycling, talk of adopting the ‘primary position’; they’d ‘take the lane’ on roads like these. Fabian doesn’t, and whilst I understand the concept of primary position and sometimes adopt it, nor would I here. Doing so would make me effectively a mobile, easily damaged, traffic-calming device. Riding primary requires boldness, and an unwavering conviction that you’ve a right to occupy the space; theoretically I agree we do, but practically I worry both personally, that I’ll get mown down, and more generally, that such a position poisons the hopes of cycling for all. We’re forced to move out and to take what’s left of the lane in order to pass a long line of parked cars, however; and when we do, the vehicles behind – which are anyway travelling not much faster than us – wait.
Approaching the city centre gyratory, Fabian sees traffic ahead is stalled. Rather than find his way through it, he nips up back streets to skirt it, much as a car driver might. Later, he tells me “I think I do cycle a lot like I drive, and sometimes I’ll end up cycling a route I drive, rather than thinking ‘I could actually have gone that way instead’”.
When we eventually find our way back to the gyratory, the newly marked (but not segregated) cycle lane enables us to move up the inside of stationary traffic. For Fabian, this is a clear improvement, making it less likely that his journey will be interrupted by congestion (though he notes how similar but longer-established cycle lanes he uses on his morning journey are frequently blocked by queuing vehicles – “I can’t get past them, although I do think about knocking on windows and pushing past”).
Fabian approves of good quality dedicated cycling infrastructure, seeing it as substantially enhancing his cycling journeys. But he wants it, and will only use it, on main roads enabling direct journeys; “I want a direct route, I want to get there and I want to get back safely.”
Arriving home, Fabian pushes his bike into his backyard, accessed via a passage directly from the front of the house. “I do need to get an outside light, it would make life a whole lot easier.” He locks it to a washing prop with a coil lock. “If they really wanted to nick it, they’d have to just lift it over the top.” He takes off his panniers, and enters his house by the backdoor.
Inside, he takes off his overshoes, cycling shoes, and over-trousers. He pulls wet gear from the morning’s commute out of his panniers and puts it straight into the washing machine. He keeps a dry set of clothes at work, but doesn’t shower there. “In the morning it’s all downhill; I have a shower when I get back from work, because I’m sweaty from cycling up those hills, and I’ve been a day at work.”
Fabian owns a car. So over a cup of tea, I ask why he doesn’t drive to work.
“Well traffic’s a nightmare, getting through town … it takes as long to drive to work as it does to cycle and it can take longer to get back in the car because of the way traffic is. So it [cycling] is very practical.
“And before I’d had the accidents that set me off cycling I was doing a longer commute by bike, every day. It’s just better – whether it’s healthier or quicker or whatever, just a nicer way to travel, although I do like driving. [Laughing] I get a lot of enjoyment driving – just going through the city centre isn’t necessarily the nicest of things; I just want to get home.
“Parking’s a nightmare as well. If you get in after say twenty-five past eight you are hunting for a parking space. So you’ve got to be in before 8.15 really, to get a parking space in the car park. Then you’re on the side roads or the main road, and yet there’s hardly enough.”
Despite his setbacks, for Fabian the bike continues to make sense.
When we met in November he was hoping to keep riding through winter, but “I don’t know how icy it’s going to get in the winter. Anything that I can do to stop coming off again is a bonus.”
He has invested in cycling. He is committed to it. It makes sense. Still, “… I don’t know whether the next thing that happens is going to spook me again.”