I am a man with few human weaknesses. I spent years as a full-time bike rider, during which I bowed to no one in the single-mindedness of my overtraining, or the psychotic eccentricity of my ‘sporting’ diet. I have not been tempted to buy any popular music recorded this century. And I once sulked for five years, never wavering until I eventually got what I wanted.
My biggest failing is ‘comments’ sections on newspaper websites. The most irresistible are those below cycling stories, preferably in a regional paper or in the Daily Mail, where the most innocuous mention of cycling produces a roaring, gushing torrent of dementedness. It’s as if your browser has been connected to the mind of a local radio DJ.
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There is a thrill to reading the anti-cyclist abuse that makes up a comments section on a cycling story. It’s like standing below a cumulonimbus of unhinged fury as it unleashes itself. I get a genuine feeling of danger from it, while knowing that at least for as long as I don’t get on a bike, I’m safe.
I kid myself that I have professional reasons to read it. As a journalist, it’s important that I know what’s going on. It means I can point at it on Twitter, so that people who I already know agree with me can agree with me, and lots of cretins who I already know want me dead can threaten me. My team and the opposition are essentially two groups of chimpanzees jumping up and down, throwing excrement at each other, and I’m not always 100 per cent proud to be part of it.
I know I should ignore them. The point you register with the website to make comments is the same as the one where you put on a lime-green mankini before heading up Alpe d’Huez to watch the Tour. There’s no reason to touch either other than attention seeking — as anyone who’s worn a mankini will testify, the tan lines are stupid and the chafing is out of this world. But I find it hard to ignore.
It’s not just the freak show, there’s a serious issue. Half the reason that some papers publish anything to do with cycling is because of the number of comments they get, and because there are lots of people like me who turn up to tut, while secretly enjoying the ride.
While it gets web hits, the whole phenomenon is reinforcing the myth of the cyclist as the demon jumper of lights and destroyer of worlds. Radio 2’s Jeremy Vine wrote a piece in the Mail last week about the perceived dangers of his regular cycle commute.
Taken on its own, such a piece by an author who is not a paid-up member of the cycling mafia might have made some neutrals stop and think. But anyone who also read the comments, without first totally disengaging their faith in people’s honesty, would be left assuming Vine was simply an agent provocateur. If you don’t think this is possible, read the comments on a topic you know nothing about. It’s hard to keep remembering it’s all lies.
The completely predictable pattern of coverage with comments available means it’s probably impossible to write a piece about cycling that, taken overall, has a positive impact on the debate. It entrenches further the already entrenched, and confuses everyone else.
Anyway, if you want to comment on this piece, write your thoughts on a post-it note, and stick it wherever makes you happy. Just don’t send it to me.
You mentioned last week an injury sustained while falling off a turbo-trainer. May I be the first to point out you should have been wearing a helmet?
You’re quite correct. It was entirely my own fault. I also ought to admit that I often fail to wear hi-vis clothing while I’m on the turbo, placing myself in severe danger of being run over by Mrs. Doc when she’s doing the vacuuming.
As the state of the carpets in our house will attest, Mrs. Doc has huge blind spots when she’s operating a vacuum cleaner, and it’s deeply irresponsible of me not to do all I can to protect myself.
The great inventions of cycling 1850s
The cloak of invisibility
The first cyclist’s cloak of invisibility was provided free with the second bicycle ever made. After everyone had whooped and hollered with delight at the incredible fairground skills of the first rider, by the time the second one appeared, the united coachmen and cart drivers of the world just said, “Sorry mate, I didn’t see you,” and helped the cyclist out of the ditch.
There are debates about how exactly a cloak of invisibility works. Some feel there is a metaphorical basis, and that it’s rooted in the antique assumption that cyclists are too poor to afford a motor vehicle and are hence worthless.
Some claim they work simply because a cyclist is not the same shape as a car. The truth of the matter is that they seem to work by magic, since it’s possible for a non-cyclist to look right at a cyclist in clear daylight, for several seconds, and never have a clue he’s there.
A cloak of invisibility works at its best when you ride in a responsible manner and obey the Highway Code. A cyclist doing this will be able to evade detection by even the most sophisticated modern devices, such as BMWs.
They even work for cyclists in large numbers. At most red traffic lights in London during the rush hour there are big groups of bike riders waiting patiently, usually with bike lights, helmets and bright yellow vests. These law-abiding groups are entirely invisible to non-cyclists.
A single rider jumping the light, on the other hand, can be seen from space.