‘Cross diary 25: I interact with some motorists

April 22, 2013 at 4:11 pm | Posted in cycling | 2 Comments
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One of the great things about a ‘cross bike is a bit of off-road optionality. Don’t like getting squeezed by buses in Mytholmroyd? Simply drop down onto the towpath instead! But nearly everyone rides on the road at some point, and motorists can be downright scary. So here’s a quick straw poll.  You’re riding along, humming a ditty, when a car overtakes you close enough to shave your legs. Do you:

(a)      Shout ‘YO, BUMFACE!’*;

(b)      Shake your fist at them in impotent fury, like a Scooby Doo villain;

(c)      Chase them down so that you can do (a) and (b) right up close;

(d)      Smile and wave happily at them.

 Happy Cyclists

My one-handed riding is still a bit shaky (I once fell off trying to fling a banana skin into a hedge), which more or less rules out (b) as an option. So I’ll admit that I tend towards (a). Like many of us, this has got me into trouble. A driver tried to run me off the road in Camden. I yelled something NSFW at him; he stopped and got out. Big bloke, menacing expression. ‘WHAT d’you call me?’ Oh, dear. Suddenly remembering some advice from (I think) Richard’s Bicycle Book, I sprinted straight at him. He jumped out of the way; I tore off and hid, sobbing and shaking, until I was sure he’d gone.

Shouting at people sometimes has other, unexpected effects. I SCREAMED obscenities at a driver in Kentish Town, only to realise with horror that he was a colleague. Him (amiably): ‘Oh, hello! Did I do something wrong?’ Me (mumbling): ‘Well, you WERE a bit close back there…’

London is a good place to practise (c), of course, because you do actually catch up with people, even if you’re not very fast. At the traffic lights in Highgate, I pulled up next to a woman who’d sideswiped me. I was STEAMING. She rolled the window down, I took an ENORMOUS breath, and she said, ‘I’m EVER so sorry!’ Me: ‘Oh! Er, well…um. OK then.’

two dogs - dalmatians - driving a red car

So none of these work too well for me. Recently, I’ve started trying (d) instead. The effects are quite interesting. Waving cheerily at motorists freaks them RIGHT out. You can see them thinking, ‘Oh, crap. Do I know her?’ (An added advantage is that you can do it in great anger; as long as you’re showing your teeth, they won’t be able to tell.)

A variant of (d) is Trying To Stay Calm. A bus driver passed me with inches to spare the other day. I growled to myself, ‘I’ll HAVE you! There’s a bus stop in a minute!’ But when I caught him, I thought, OK, let’s try this. I knocked on the window and said with a blinding smile**, ‘Do you think you could give cyclists a bit more room?’ We discussed his driving good-naturedly and he said he would try harder. ‘At least you’re not shouting at me!’. We wished each other a nice day and I rode off, slightly bewildered. Smile for the camera

So I’m trying to extend this principle into general road use. When people let me out, I thank them ostentatiously. If they manage to hold back for a few seconds until it is safe to pass me, or overtake by pulling right out into the opposite lane, I wave and grin delightedly. Once, at the bottom of a long hill with parked cars all down one side, I looked up and saw an HGV coming the other way.  Help. I prepared to leap off but the driver saw me, stopped at the top, and waited patiently while I creaked up in bottom gear. I beamed and blew him a kiss; he looked delighted and blew me one back.

Oh, this sounds preachy, doesn’t it. It’s not meant that way. I don’t live in the city any more. I don’t have to deal with multiple, terrifyingly close passes every day, like I used to. It’s not possible to keep your cool if you feel like everyone is trying to kill you. I absolutely believe that less vulnerable road users need to bear the responsibility for looking after the more vulnerable ones, and I’m not trying to shift any of this responsibility onto cyclists. But I often feel helpless as a cyclist, reliant on motorists to be decent and nice, to behave themselves, to think about what it’s like to be me. Pointing out bad behaviour positively, and trying to reward thoughtful behaviour, makes me feel like I’m doing something, however small. If a couple of motorists come away thinking of cyclists as actual people too, maybe it’s worth it.

Lego Penny Farthing

* you may substitute an epithet of your choice, here

** it really IS blinding. Friend A to Friend B, discussing me: ‘I saw @accidentobizaro outside the Co-op. I couldn’t hear what she was saying because I was so mesmerised by her teeth.’


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  1. Always been d for me. I think its the most effective!

    • Yeah! I’m naturally irritable, so (a) seems to come most easily. But it doesn’t work…

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