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City Scopes IV
It’s a paradox that the bicycle – after all, a machine of metal or carbon – confers humanity upon its rider. People on bikes are generally more aware, more considerate. Bikes bring out the best in us. This is something we recognise in the camaraderie of winter training or the élan of a spring morning in the lanes, yet is more difficult to remember in town. One of the pleasures of urban cycling is connecting with the city, becoming part of the lifeblood running through its veins. But when riding in the fumes, grit and traffic, squeezing between buses and lorries, sweaty and late for work, it is easy to treat everything impersonally, and goodwill can be hard to find. City cycling is an opportunity to engage with your surroundings, and connect with people you encounter. Just because we are in the city doesn’t mean we should forget our manners.
Good etiquette is often about showing respect to others. Some cyclists say respect anything that’s bigger than you – principally those metallic, clumsy objects on four wheels that can unintentionally injure the unwary. Others tell you to respect pedestrians: smaller, slower and with a propensity to step into the road without looking – trusting their ears have told them everything they need to know about what’s happening behind them. Or, worse, oblivious: listening to music, texting or talking on the phone. Nevertheless, pedestrians are the most vulnerable group, so it is right to prioritise them on the road. Try to give them right of way and, if you do find yourself cycling towards someone, aim to pass behind them. If we all deferred to things softer than ourselves, we would have a fair hierarchy based on fragility. Yet we, in the middle, must look both ways.
It is etiquette that distinguishes confidence from aggression – although it is not surprising that our actions are sometimes interpreted as such. Surrounded by cars, in an unfriendly environment, vulnerability can manifest itself as hostility. To make ourselves visible in the space we share with cars, we must project ourselves larger than we are. Old-school messengers riding New York’s avenues, threading through the traffic up 6th or down 5th, have a habit of trailing their fingers along the sides of vans and buses, up above their heads in sight of the driver’s mirror – and even of banging on the sides, to make their presence known. For the rest of us, who do not live and work in the blind spots, this is probably OTT, but a good city cyclist is assertive, both occupying and creating space, placing him or herself out of the gutter – and further into the flow as speed increases. Signalling goes without saying, and manoeuvres should be purposeful: if you’re unsure what you’re doing, nobody else will be either.
Hand signals are courtesies that can be used for more than turning. Cars and other riders also appreciate a discreet signal to show them, say, on which side of a slowing car you’re going to pass. More and more riders, too, must now understand the roadie’s code of pointing out obstacles and holes: useful, given the state of some city roads, and the close quarters some riders think it a good idea to keep. It is bad form, and dangerous, to sit on somebody’s wheel through town, as is overtaking on the inside – habits which tend to develop together. Always leave plenty of room when passing; a rider popping up on your shoulder unannounced in the hubbub can be a shock. And although it’s less likely than on a weekend training ride that you’ll be carrying a full set of tools – not even sometimes a spare tube – nevertheless, it’s good to stop and help cyclists out if they look in trouble. Clacking along the high street in cleats with a broken bike is no fun.
It is funny that the city can make us intolerant of other cyclists, when we might feel more fraternal. However, Cat-6 racing, as competitive commuting is sometimes known, is an established tradition and brings its own set of rules. Firstly, choose your opponent carefully. Do not race a ringer. A friend, a pretty handy road racer, used to delight in breezing past guys riding expensive road bikes who took him on. He would let them overtake then, cheerfully waving, overhaul them on his clanking upright old Triumph – all rusty gas-pipe tubing and malfunctioning Sturmey-Archer gears. Train heavy, race light, or so they say. Neither is it dignified to race those clearly unprepared or obviously much slower than you. Then again, if they make the first move, forget it: they’re fair game. Above all, it is obligatory when Cat-6ing past fellow competitors to soften the brow and regulate the breath. Looking like you’re trying means failure, as does red light jumping simply to gain a few seconds.
Which brings us to the issue of the law. If you’re doing something illegal (and a bike in the city gives you the freedom to use your intelligence rather than follow pointless rules) make sure your intentions are clear. Often, hopping a kerb or shooting a red light is expedient. Only sometimes is it the considerate thing to do, so, if you aren’t correct, make sure at least that you are doing no harm.
In the end, cycling etiquette is an extension of style. Ride smoothly and with foresight, use your judgement and take responsibility. React to each situation on its merits, and try to keep your cool, however provoked by idiotic behaviour. Remember that you are faster and freer than anything else on the city streets, and rise above the stress. There are many cyclists who act irresponsibly – hurtling through junctions or riding in the dark without lights – and many non-cyclists who’d like to tar all riders with that brush. If etiquette is about expectations, then the best we can do is to confound the low and exceed the good. Talk to people as you pass, or at red lights. Look pedestrians and car drivers in the eye; always say thank you. And smile, you're a city rider.
Max Leonard is the author of Fixed: Global Fixed-Gear Bike Culture.