Hell on Wheels

Outside Olympic Park, the most cutthroat, reckless, competitive race of 2012 is already underway.
Zohar Lazar

You’ve taken a break from the 2012 Olympics to wend along the Embankment on one of London’s “Boris Bikes,” a public rental fleet nicknamed for Boris Johnson, the boisterous, flop-haired Conservative mayor who introduced them. Be forewarned: the moment you straddle the chunky frame and broad saddle—the bicycle equivalent of a dray horse—you’re no longer a spectator. You’ve joined the Games.

Members of London’s cycling “community” despise one another, almost as much as they disdain visitors on Boris Bikes, whom they delight in leaving behind in a muddy splatter. They resent that civic energies were squandered on a fleet for tourists, while so many of the sporadic “bike lanes” along London’s narrow, parked-up roads stop cold mid-block. Whenever a resource is scarce—in this case, space—Darwinism prevails, and only the fittest survive.

When the Tube shut down in 2005 following the terrorist attacks of 7/7, many Londoners discovered that bikes were faster and cheaper than their public transport, the most expensive in the world. The bicycle has also become the ultimate fashion accessory, projecting a haughty eco-sanctimony that a handbag simply cannot provide. Supposedly, the number of cyclists in the city has more than doubled since I moved here in 1999, but by my unscientific estimate, our cycling population has burgeoned by more like a factor of 10.

With the Olympics, the capital’s derailleur delirium is bound to intensify. Road closures will set London traffic in concrete, inspiring yet more couch crumpets to get wise to the efficiencies of two wheels. Wide-screen images of Saluki-slim cyclists whipping around the new velodrome in East London will strobe in every pub; loads of potbellied punters will fancy that they, too, can prance pigeon-toed in clip-in bike shoes, just like Britain’s four-gold-medal-winning poster boy, Sir Chris Hoy. Meanwhile, the streets will coagulate with sluggish, wide-eyed tourists on Boris Bikes.

I discovered the bicycle in 1965. Having biked for primary transportation ever since, I just want to get where I’m going, preferably with my head attached. Cycling was once my little secret. While the clueless lavished fortunes on train tickets, car repairs, and taxis, I saved a bundle. I got my exercise, while the proles, after a prolonged, miserable journey home, had to face another trip, to a stuffy, jam-packed gym.

My secret is out.

I’ve biked dozens of American states and all over western Europe, and nowhere else have I encountered a cycling culture so cutthroat, vicious, reckless, hostile, and violently competitive as London’s. New York City’s cyclists are, by comparison, genteel, pinkie-pointing tea-sippers pottering around Manhattan with parasols, demurring, “No, after you, dear.” London cyclists accumulate in packs of 25, revving edgily at stoplights, toes twitching on pedals like sprinters’ feet on the blocks at the starting line. Rule No. 1 on the road here is that submitting to another slender tire ahead of you is an indignity comparable to allowing oneself to be peed on in public. Bafflingly, this outrage seems to be universal: purple-faced octogenarians on clanking three-speeds, schoolkids with handlebars plastered in Thomas the Tank Engine decals, and gray-suited salarymen on fold-up Bromptons—all will risk mid-intersection coronaries to overtake any other bicyclist with the temerity to be in front. To stir this frenzied sense of insult, you needn’t be slow. You need simply be there.

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Lionel Shriver is an American writer living in London. Her novels include We Need to Talk About Kevin and The New Republic.

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