Dr. Hutch: Why I won't be watching any more cyclists' helmet camera videos

Avoid the new genre of helmet-cam disaster movies, says the Doc. They may record reality but they have an unnerving power to distort your sense of risk for good

I’ve decided I’m going to stop watching YouTube videos of bad traffic-related things happening to bike riders, shot by their helmet cameras. They’re beginning to exert a hold over me that’s not helpful.

That’s not to say that I think there’s anything wrong with people posting them; on occasion, law-breaking idiots have been tracked down and some form of retribution has been visited upon them.

Besides that, there’s probably a worthwhile role in proving that cyclists are not making this stuff up. And there’s probably an educative role of some sort. For instance, I’m learning, and here’s the problem, that cycling is a very, very, dangerous thing to do.

These videos are a genre all their own, with their own rules of direction and editing. They start with a couple of minutes of normal riding — usually along a city street — which is there to show you how innocent the hero is, how he was minding his own business. Much like you.

It lulls you into the rhythms of cycling, you can hear the wind in the microphone, the breathing of the rider. He is you, you are him, just in time for… Ka-Bam! Something Happens. And it’s never an outbreak of bunnies and rainbows.

Before the advent of the helmet-cam horror show I’d hidden behind the sofa for nothing and no one. But a close pass from a lorry in that special wide-angle that a GoPro camera uses to make everything look like it’s travelling at about Mach 2? There have been occasions when I thought I was going to get post-traumatic stress disorder when the trauma was all someone else’s.

Deflating ending

The third act of the drama is always the worst. The rider catches up with the miscreant. He gesticulates and cries, “Why don’t you look where you’re going?” or maybe, “You could have killed me!” or “You ****!”

And the miscreant says, “**** off,” or “Pay road tax if you want to use the road,” or most likely nothing at all, and just drives off. From the point of view of the narrative arc it badly lacks closure. It’s as if, in a superhero film, a gormless-looking middle-aged man appears, smacks Christian Bale round the head for no reason, and wanders off again while the Dark Knight shouts after him, “Actually it’s not ‘road tax’, it’s ‘vehicle excise duty’ and it’s calculated on the basis of your vehicle’s carbon emissions!”

The critical reception for the videos, voiced via YouTube’s always-analytical comments section, is usually mixed. While most people are simply huge fans of bike riders almost getting killed, some have rather more constructive suggestions: “You’re a pussy! If someone had done that to me, he wouldn’t have been able to drive off afterwards except in an ambulance!!!”

Disaster addict

I appreciate the sentiment, but of course we can’t all have the testosterone-charged swagger of a 12-year-old boy who has just taken his Justin Bieber posters down. Personally, I’m completely at one with the “I say, really” tone that is normally all the victim can muster.

And after all that, I click on the next video YouTube offers me. I can’t help it. I want the feel of the wind in my hair, the adrenaline rush, and the tongue-tied comedown.

But I’m going to stop. It’s putting me off cycling because it just reinforces the lesson that after any given two minutes of pleasant, blameless riding, you’ll get shovelled into the verge by a truck. And in the real world sometimes that doesn’t happen at all. Sometimes.

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Michael Hutchinson is a writer, journalist and former professional cyclist. As a rider he won multiple national titles in both Britain and Ireland and competed at the World Championships and the Commonwealth Games. He was a three-time Brompton folding-bike World Champion, and once hit 73 mph riding down a hill in Wales. His Dr Hutch columns appears in every issue of Cycling Weekly magazine