What a horrible week it’s been for those of us who cycle to work. Not just for the lousy weather of course – if only it were just that. I love the challenge of heading out into horizontal rain and a vicious headwind – one arrives at the office red faced, drenched but with a real sense of achievement before the day’s even started. I’m buried in a huge project at work right now, to the extent that even the normally insistent buzz of social media is dulled to a faint hum in the background. The ride to and from work allows you the chance to decompress from that – to just focus on the road ahead and the battle with the elements to get home.
The news this week has broken that. It’s sadly not that unusual to hear of the death of a cyclist – in the close and friendly social media circle around cycling a story usually breaks every couple of months or so which sobers us all, reminds us of the campaigns we all subscribe to and makes us think twice about being quite so reckless on the cycle home. I hope you don’t think I’m being cold though when I say that I can normally put it out of my mind fairly easily. I think it’s necessary if you’re going to go out into traffic without hugging the kerb and flinching at each passing car to grow a kind of mental armour. Of course one is careful and “owns ones space” as much as possible, but a lot of that has to do with not feeling vulnerable – which is tricky if you’re thinking too hard about the last cycling death. This week has been different though (for me and my fellow commuters at work anyway).
Each of the deaths in London has slipped, stiletto like under our mental armour. I’ve found myself feeling a bit, well, vulnerable. And that’s how it happens – I’m convinced of it. There I was last night stuck in a queue for the lights and instead of boldly riding up the outside of the queue as usual, I hugged the kerb and tried to struggle to the front. The guy who hit me didn’t have a chance of seeing me – despite my being lit up like a Christmas tree – he was crossing the flow of traffic having been “let through” a gap to access a side road. I don’t blame him, he was no more to blame than me.
Why am I always so bloody NICE to somebody who’s just nearly killed me? I’m lying here a day later and the whiplash pain is just starting to flare up – my neck and shoulders are on fire, it hurts to yawn and my stomach muscles hurt like buggery when I laugh, I can’t grip things properly with my hands and I think back to yesterday – I remember tensing my neck muscles with all my might just before my helmet hit the Tarmac, thinking that, actually this might be really serious this time. I remember gingerly getting up a few minutes later and seeing him walking over – I didn’t see where he’d parked – I never do under these circumstances, my consciousness seems to shrink down to a roughly circular zone of about a couple of metres around myself. He was a nice bloke – genuinely concerned and obviously shaken himself. He wanted to know if there was anything he could do to help, did I need an ambulance? Was I Ok? At the same time a few witnesses wandered over with bits of debris – my lights, the peak off my helmet – they all wanted to help but what was I doing? I checked my bloody phone to see if I’d smashed the screen, I looked in my bag to see if my iPad was damaged, took a couple of minutes to superficially check the bike was ok….Beyond realising that I didn’t have any broken bones I gave no thought whatsoever to myself. I shook the guy’s hand, told him it was OK, I even asked him if his car was damaged before allowing him to go.
What am I trying to say? I don’t know – in a case like this where it’s hard to ascribe blame – neither of us was doing anything wrong – I think it’s still important to exchange details and that’s what I’ll take away from it. I’ve obviously got to buy a new helmet, possibly a new front wheel – should that come out of his insurance? I honestly don’t know where I stand on that one. I’m fairly beaten up – far more than I thought I would be yesterday and far more than I was when I made a perfectly legitimate whiplash claim against a motorist who ran into the back of my car 15 years ago – but because I was on a bike the compulsion to exchange details just doesn’t seem to be there on the part of the motorist. For myself, although this was a fairly low speed incident (neither of us were doing more than 15mph), the shock of going over the bonnet was such that I just wasn’t thinking straight – so some kind of campaign to make sure we as cyclists think about getting the details of the motorists who hit us is important I think. I wasn’t using my helmet cam as it had broken – I’ve ordered another – if only so that if something similar happens again I KNOW for certain what actually happened – if you’ve exchanged details then sending the motorist a copy might help him see things from your point of view.
Most importantly I take away that I’m lucky to be alive. My heart is with the families, friends and loved ones of the cyclists killed in London and all over the country this week. Let’s not forget that it’s not about cyclist VS motorist, it’s about the fact that our infrastructure is too motor-vehicle-focused and cycle-hostile. A car, truck or bus does not have to be going fast to kill a cyclist, it just needs to be on the same piece of road at the same time. Also, don’t let the news make you scared. Ride safely, ride confidently. If I hadn’t been scuttling along in the gutter this accident wouldn’t have happened.