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.
Mind you, most wheezing challengers are converts, and converts are zealots. These are not merely people who bicycle; they are Cyclists—an identity so all-encompassing that to pass them is to desecrate their deepest sense of self. (The most incendiary scenario: when a male cyclist is passed by a girl, who might as well have brandished a scalpel and threatened curbside castration.) So forget fraternal nods or offers to lend pumps for punctures.
Consumed by internecine rivalry, Londoners on two wheels forget all about the real enemy: the kind getting about on four. Bikes thread perilously through traffic jams, filling crevices between cars like grout between tiles. Intent only on passing some impertinent adversary, cyclists veer without warning into neighboring lanes. Dozens of bikes obstruct cars that have the right-of-way while streaking across the hectic roundabout at Hyde Park Corner. They cruise alongside three-ton lorries, right in the truckers’ blind spots, and when the lorries turn left, grinding them into biomass, everyone is supposed to feel sorry for them. The Times has used the city’s 16 cycling fatalities last year to galvanize a safety campaign, but the real wonder is that bodies aren’t piling up in gutters by the thousands.