It was as I prepared to turn into a side road near my house that I saw the young man tearing the other way on a mountain bike. His eyes were fixed ahead, his head was hunched over the handlebars and he was pedalling with an intensity that instantly struck me as strange. It was as if he was following Lance Armstrong’s famous advice to Floyd Landis on Stage 17 of the 2004 Tour de France: “Run like you stole something”.
|Gentrified Fell's Point, Baltimore:|
insulated from the ghetto.
The cycling police chase is one of many incidents I’ve encountered while cycling that I’ve filed mentally for my great writing project – a TV series telling contemporary
story as comprehensively as the epic series The Wire told ’s. I’m constantly straining as I
ride around to pick up the little tell-tale snatches of dialogue that reveal
the story of the Londoners around me. I recently added to the stash, for
example, the remarks I heard one morning between builders outside our next door
neighbours’ house. Baltimore
"That's all she said to me,” one builder said to another. “She said, if I get arrested again and do jail time, my mum won't have anything more to do with me".
|Guildford Road: neo-classical gems on one side,|
brutalist social housing on the other - and
a cultural chasm down the middle
Four years ago, someone stabbed a young Ghanaian man from the Spurgeon Estate on
Road. Paramedics struggled – ultimately
unsuccessfully – to save his life. News accounts quoted residents from the side who had looked at the scene
across the street in horror. Their near-neighbour’s short life was slipping
away from him just yards from them physically, but on the other side of a
cultural chasm. Landsdowne Gardens
Road phenomenon is the same one that brings me
face-to-face with cycle-borne police chases hard by where I live my respectable,
middle-class existence. Inner London has few
ghettoes to match Paris’s banlieues or west . Instead, we
all live, rich and poor, black and white, all but on top of each other. We largely
segregate ourselves by using different schools, going to different churches or using
different forms of transport. But on the roads we interact with each other, at
least a little bit. Cyclists – the only group travelling long distance but not
shut off by the shell of a car, a bus or a train – do more of that interacting
than most. Baltimore
|A cyclist on Colliers Wood High Street. It shares a postcode|
with the all-England lawn tennis club - but this part of SW19
features Tamil curries, not strawberries and cream.
Cycling plays a role in the lives of some of the rough estates I pass – but it can be very different from the one it plays on my street. One Sunday after stopping on our ride home from church to buy a newspaper, my wife and I watched a young man ride his mountain bike onto the pavement by some run-down social housing. A youngster was waiting on his BMX bike. A package changed hands and both pedalled off fast in different directions. We middle-class cycling activists so seldom play up how cycling can provide a healthy, green means of distributing illegal drugs.
I wonder, too, how many of the perpetual complaints about cyclists riding on the pavement are actually down to the resupply of roadside drug dealers. It’s certainly annoying to have to dodge pedalling drug couriers while browsing in Brixton town centre. But to imagine the pheonomenon says anything about the road-use standards of most cycling commuters is to confuse a social problem with a road-behaviour one. It would serve the complainers right if the resuppliers started doing the drop by car, clogging up the bus stops or mowing down pedestrians.
|Mist shrouds south London seen from the City's|
St Paul's Cathedral. But the world's leading financial
centre is only a short cycle ride from
some of Europe's worst urban deprivation.
It’s hardly incomprehensible. In a city where we know that our neighbours lead very different lives from ours, it’s tempting to jump to conclusions about the people we encounter. There is surely some human instinct when confronted with a potentially menacing driver or roadside group of teenage boys to gather as much information fast as possible. We end up fitting people into easy – and meaningless – categories.
Such stereotyping is hardly the kind of behaviour that cyclists appreciate when they’re on the receiving end. I’ve occasionally had drivers tell me when I’ve complained about their rule-breaking that, for example, they “see cyclists run red lights all the time”. Few seem to grasp that I have as little responsibility for other cyclists as the driver has for, say, other delivery van drivers, motorcyclists or white people.
It is, in other words, the perpetual struggle of life in a city to live beside groups that we may find alienating or strange and remember that each member is as much an individual and precisely as real as we ourselves are. It’s also the city’s joy. I remember my excitement on first coming during a ride that took me past Willesden Junction on a cluster of shops serving
community. How refreshing to live in a city so rich in different ways of doing
Even if it were not The Right Thing to do, moreover, the discipline of treating everyone as an individual can serve as a simple personal protection measure. That’s the lesson of an incident one recent morning as I pedalled away from the Invisible Visible Boy’s nursery school in a plush corner of Clapham. The couple in the car's front seat had looked instantly like the kind of people I like – a couple in their sixties looking outwardly kind and driving a smart but sensible Audi estate. Yet my sitting in front of him on a road over a narrow bridge clearly enraged the man. The moment I was over, on a road section far too narrow for the maneouvre, he squeezed past me, far too fast, leaving inches to spare.
I had pictured the couple as resembling my wife’s parents or the other kindly, country-dwelling grandparents to whom my friends introduce me at church. My stereotyping led me to move over, trusting them to drive safely. For a different-looking couple, I might not have. In truth I knew no more about these people than I do when I look over my shoulder to see what I assume to be a menacing-looking African-Caribbean man. The good fortune is that my trust cost me no more than a nasty scare. I could easily have ended up crushed under the car wheels of a man who, no matter what we might seem to have in common, thought his petty irritation justification enough to risk killing me.