Hell on Wheels

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

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.

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.

If I’d ever cycled to save the environment, I might be joyous that so many Londoners are following in my low-carbon tracks. Instead, I’m resentful. My territory has been invaded. Cycling used to be contemplative, solitary, but lately I’m apt to get drafted by members of my “community” into an impromptu race to the death even on weary slogs home at 3 a.m. And now, to my horror, a “Summer of Cycling” campaign timed to coincide with the Olympic season aims to double—again!—the number of bikes on British roads by October 2012. Oh, no! No, no, no! Whereas each cyclist is encouraged to convert one friend, I actively discourage anyone considering biking in the capital: “It’s much too dangerous,” I say. “Breathing all that exhaust, too—terrible for you.” Trashing cycling with a bike bag slung over my shoulder, I get some funny looks.

Worst of all, blogs and call-in radio shows teem with irate British motorists clamoring to license cyclists. Our previous mayor, Ken Livingstone, advocated numbered plates for bikes, which could be read by the city’s ubiquitous surveillance cameras. An Evening Standard columnist recently called for cyclists to carry third-party insurance. The chairman of London’s leading mini-cab firm demanded this spring that cyclists pay a “road tax.” Thus popular momentum gathers to subject bikes to the whole grotesque legal apparatus that makes driving such a drag, and so to undermine precisely the uncomplicated independence of pedaling that first captivated me as a child. When cyclists were a rare annoyance, authorities left us alone; now that cops are handing out tickets like girlie-show fliers, it’s fiendishly difficult to slip harmlessly through a red light with no traffic in sight. Not long ago, my serene, sneaky, below-the-radar form of transport was an option on that ever-scarcer frisson of modern life: getting away with something. Now cycling’s infernal popularity threatens the last redoubt of freedom in this world.