I am not going to waste time complaining about drivers. Yes, a lot of them are terrible, but often it’s been me, on a bike, who has done the wrong thing, deliberately. As a courier I flouted rules all the time. As a commuter in London I have done things like putting my cleated boot into a taxi door when he turned out in front of me from a side street. Bastard knew what he was doing, he just didn’t care. He did after I scraped a cleat down the side of his door. And I’ve often slapped sides of cars to let them know I am there when they overtake too close. Not to mention chasing particularly stupid drivers and giving them a piece of my mind - I did that for about 25 years.
And not just drivers. There was the time I deliberately cut up a rider who had previously passed me very close at great speed while I was walking my bike through the Greenwich foot tunnel and then literally laughed at me when I expressed my displeasure at the entry to the lift. I am ashamed to say when he entered the lift I ran with my bike up the stairs, reached the top before him and then waited for him to be riding off before scaring the shit out of him by doing a pass so close it was 50/50 he would stay upright. He did manage to stay on his bike but was swearing black and blue and shouting at me to stop for a proper fight. Needless to say stopping was not on my agenda. It took about five minutes for the elation to turn into shame.
But I have stopped all that. I don’t shout, I don’t slap, I don’t chase down idiots in cars (or bikes) and I certainly don’t put my boot into the sides of cars anymore.
And not because I am a good person who has ascended to a higher plane of humanity, a bike Buddha. Nope. I am along way from that. It’s because of two incidents that happened within a few weeks of each other on a small innocuous piece of quiet back road in Walthamstow.
I had succumbed to nostalgia and bought a cheap old 80s steel racing frame for £25, a Raleigh racer with a dreadful paint job. I had turned it into an easy going single speed city bike. It was interesting going back in time; the frame, despite being a decent racing frame of the period, was not a patch on the Kinesis for speed or weight, though it did have that special steel ‘spring’ that steel purists love.
Let’s cut to the chase, to Pretoria Avenue, a narrow local road in Walthamstow that I used to get to Baxter’s nursery for the pickup. It used to be a classic ‘duck and dive’ two-way London street. There are thousands of these in London, streets too narrow for two cars to pass but still two-way, usually lined with cars on one or both sides. Old streets, designed for footfall and the occasional horse and cart. The way to approach them as a driver is to tuck into gaps between parked cars and wait for the other driver to pass - narrowly - to one side. After a few years it becomes second nature, but for the first couple of years driving in London feels insane.
Around 2010 Pretoria Avenue was made one-way. However the signage indicating the change was very poor, you can see the signs that were added at the time above - not exactly forceful.
So there were bound to be a couple of people who got it wrong and, through force of habit, turned left into the now one-way street and merrily drive up it.
Can you see where this is going?
Incident one starts with a scooter coming the wrong way down the now one-way street. To have a scooter rider hurtle at you at 30mph is unnerving to say the least. As I saw him approach I started to wave my right arm to make my presence known - I thought he was going to ride straight through me. He moved to the side just in time, a maneuverer that would have been dangerous even had the road been two-way. So I shouted at him as he passed - a few crisp Anglo Saxon expletives that colonials revert to in such circumstances.
I rode on, shaking my head. So far this had been a fairly average road incident, the kind of narrow escape that you would expect to have once or twice a year. After I exited the one-way and came to a stop to turn at the next intersection I heard the rattle of a scooter behind me. Turning, I saw it was the guy who had just missed me.
Riding in London you soon learn to read the sound of scooters. If they are being ridden like they are F1 motorbikes, with throttles being gunned, then it’s a safe bet that it’s a stolen scooter being ridden for fun by some small time crim or underage teen.
I have had this kind of person ride beside me, revving their engines and deliberately zig-zagging closer and closer to intimidate you. This is fun for them, obviously. Mostly it’s bluffing because they have as much to lose as you do if they make contact.
If they come in packs then they egg each other on and can be extremely dangerous. If they are travelling pillion then it’s worse, it’s likely they are out stealing other scooters or bikes, their main tool for the bike-jacking being fists and knives.
I used to think the best thing in those circumstances is just to keep riding steadily and don’t look them in the eyes. Keep your eyes on the end of their handlebars, because that’s what you want to shove with your body if they get too close. If one of us is coming down then I am going to make sure that is two.
As of this year with acid attacks from riders on scooters getting more common the best thing to do is brake as hard as possible to let them overshoot you, then get the hell out of there. Let them find someone else to bother. Also note that for this kind of minor crim being caught on camera is not a deterrent - they get respect for that. For being brazen. For being caught. For being inside. Great lives of London.
Anyway, this scooter rider didn’t sound dangerous. It was being ridden steadily if quickly, so I wasn’t too worried about being jumped by ‘yoof’. I pulled over to a stop and said something along the lines of ‘what the hell do you think you were doing you idiot that is a one way street.’ though with a little more colour.
At which point he reached over and punched me in the face, turned, and rode away.
A bit of an over reaction I would have thought, considering he was in the wrong.
There’s a little something that I do to amuse myself, a habit since courier days, and that is memorising number plates very quickly. It’s quite handy to be able to quote a number plate back at someone who has just wronged you as you then put them on notice that they will be accountable.
So I immediately put the guys plate details in my phone. There was one witness, an old guy lying on the pavement off his face on something. Crack, meth, what was the drug of choice in 2010? I would have said alcoholic but the teeth and gums had that caved, skeltal look. I went to talk to him and he literally burbled at me, completely incoherent. I can’t say I was completely sympathetic to his addiction and battle with systemic issues at that point, I just saw an idiot who was too fucked to give me a phone number and was no use to me whatsoever.
Shaken, but not too badly spooked, I continued to nursery, picked Baxter up then phoned the assault report in. A cop came around, took my statement and the license plate. I wasn’t hoping for a conviction or anything as there were no reliable witnesses, but at least a cop turning up his door and asking questions would be something.
Turns out the plate was fake. The police went to the registered address of the plates and there was not even a house there. Ghost plates. A stolen bike, untaxed and uninsured, completely untraceable. So much for remembering plate numbers.
One to chalk up to experience.
The second incident, just two weeks later, was very different, though it started exactly the same. Same road, same time of day, same bike.
This time a blue car, something like a Honda Accord, came blasting up the road towards me, again going the wrong way, this time way over 30mph. I started waving, though it became clear that the driver was not going to be swerving - something to do with the metallic paint and darkened windows. I pulled out of the way just in time, flicking up onto the left footpath. It was very close, outrageously close, so close I was able to reach out and slap his car on the roof. A gentle reminder there was a person out here. Flesh and blood.
I continued on my way, shaking my head, turned right onto main road after waiting an age for the pedestrian lights to change, then rode up the main road for a couple of hundred metres before ducking left onto a quieter back street.
Just as I turned I heard something whiz past, just behind me. I turned and saw the blue car. There was a guy hanging out the back window holding a heavy chain. I had turned the instant he had swung it at my back. I was a moment from having a chain lashed down on my back.
First of all - fuck! Secondly the realisation I was in the sights of the kind of guys who carried chain around with them, presumably with the express purpose of causing great injury.
I continued down the road, struggling to take in the scale of threat. This was serious. These guys weren’t mucking about, they were prepared to chase me and do some real damage.
Following that incident I have often wondered why. Why bother with an old white dude on a bike? Easy target, sure, but really why - there’s no money in it, nothing to be gained. Of course it’s simpler than that, by touching his car I had caused an offence, some kind of slight that had to be paid back to preserve respect. Because that’s what being a man is all about.
Unluckily for me the traffic was very light. Usually the blue car would have been jammed up indefinitely and I would be half a mile way before they made the next light, but not today. And unfortunately I was so shocked by what had just about happened that I couldn’t do anything but continue on my habitual route. I turned right again, onto a road parallel to the main road, though by now I was riding as fast as my single-speed could go. I had to get away, keep turning and not stop, that was my only chance of not getting caught.
I could hear the car now, turning a road up and knew that I couldn’t go that way, but as I stared to turn away from the sound my chain fell off.
You don’t have derailleurs on a single speed. No way of getting the chain back on. No way of getting away. I had momentum, but I was moving towards the sound of the car coming down a side street towards me.
Just as I saw the car nudging around the corner I saw a couple of builders walking along the street. I had just enough momentum to jump up onto the footpath and catch them up, dropping my bike in front of them just as the blue car stopped about fifteen metres away and the driver got out.
I quickly told the builders that this guy was about to beat me up. I really thought the three men in the car were going to get out, get that chain, and give me a proper going over. Something that would have ended with me in hospital. Properly damaged. The builders looked at me as if they hadn’t heard me, then said something to each other. Polish.
At least they were there. Perhaps if things got really bad they would step in. At least they would be coherent witnesses.
The driver reached me. Pathetically I said ‘It’s a one way street mate…’ as if there was a chance that some education was going to get me off the hook.
The driver punched me in the face, quite a lot harder than the scooter rider, turned, got back into his car and drove off, honour satisfied.
It was, considering the circumstances, a lucky escape, though it didn’t feel like it. The punch hurt, of course, but it was the amount of effort they had gone too to track me down and the chain that had put the fear in me. That level of threatened violence was huge and way more upsetting than the punch.
I managed to fix the chain and ride to pick up Baxter but I was in streams of tears. Shock I guess. It was, all in all, the worst five minutes I have ever had on a bike. Actually it was the worst five minutes I have had in London.
I have played the event in my mind many times over the years. I have good ‘body memory’ and can remember road incidents decades old very clearly. The main problem was slipping the chain. If I could have kept moving then I would have been in a better place.
And now I have a protocol in place for similar events which involves exploiting the natural advantages of a bike in the city. It was a set of unwritten behaviours but in writing this post I took the effort to outline it. This might seem crazy to people who don’t commute by bike, but you really do have to be this prepared if you want to ride safely over many years in a big city:
1/ Stay on your bike and keep moving if you can. Never stop to make your point. They don’t care, they want to hurt you.
2/ Assume people who do you wrong are also crazy enough to chase you - plan the rest of your route accordingly.
3/ If they start to chase you get onto the pavement and stay there, always moving. They can’t ram you then. If they want a physical confrontation they will have to stop, get out of the car and get onto the pavement with you, by which time you can be fifty metres up the road.
4/ Go the wrong way on the pavement - if they are coming up behind you then turn back and go the other direction; this forces them to turn. Then turn again - you can buy time that way and they will get bored, or caught up in traffic.
5/ Even better go the wrong way, on the pavement, around the block, round and round until they get bored or you can plan your next move.
6/ Know the area - where are the cycle routes and pedestrian only walkways? Where are the alleys with bollards? Have a plan for getting off every road that you ride along.
7/ Main roads can be good for this - the traffic tends to be slower and you have more people around for safety. It’s also easier to jump a light to get ahead, or duck away.
8/ Don’t ride home until you know they are not following you - you don’t want them to see where you live.
Since then I have, for all of the many commuting routes I have had in London, imagined and planned escape and elude routes along every metre of the rides. Where are the curbs you can bunny hop easily? Where does that little path go to? Can I make an escape down it or is it a dead end? Don’t just know the route, know everything around the route too.
It’s one thing to have car lurch at you because they didn’t see you. At an adrenal, primitive level cars are like out of control rhinos heading at you and they invoke the same reaction in cyclists as they would in real life - fear, adrenalin, anger. But it’s another whole level of fear to have someone riding that rhino, carrying a spear and intent on hurting you.
So I’m calling that prepared.
After that last assault I simply stopped all forms of confrontation on the road. The first rule of commuting is to reach the end alive. A minute here or there waiting for a situation to pass, or the seconds of delay caused by being cautious, are worth it. I continue to ride assertively but I am never abusive and I never lash out. I still have a body memory of the sound of that chain whistling behind me. You can’t control what everyone does, but you can minimise the number of incidents and their impact though choice of route, good planning and managing your own reactions.
After that last incident I got rid of that frame as soon as I could. I had ridden that bike for about 20 days. I swore no more floppy retro single speeds - I wanted a proper bike again. Something fast. Something nippy. I saw these qualities as essential safety features. Had I been on the Kinesis I most likely would have been fine. As it was I got on that the morning after the incident and felt a lot safer.