Friday 20 January 2012

The Invisible Visible Man

I am 1m 93cm tall and weigh 110kg – a weight that, despite my substantial height, makes the National Health Service think I’m nearly part of the obesity epidemic. Although I grew up in Glasgow, I have never, unlike most Glaswegian men, been addressed in the street as “Jimmy”. When you look like me, you’re “big man”.

A London Cycle Campaign photo of my
rear proves my essential invisibility.
I am the vehicle on the left, if you can see me.
Yet, surprisingly, I have a nearly infallible method of making myself invisible. I put on a bright silver helmet, pull on a high visibility jacket, reflective wristbands and trouser straps, get on a light blue touring bicycle and head off down the road. My sudden invisibility has led me twice to be battered into the road by cars whose drivers claimed not to have seen me – and to have had countless uncomfortably close encounters with others.

The snag is that, as soon as I in any way impede a motor vehicle, I not only seem to reappear but to assume for drivers proportions still larger and more lumbering than my real self. I’m suddenly an elephant, incapable of speed, out of place on an urban street and committing the unpardonable sin of Making a Motorist Moderate his Speed.

The Brooklyn Bridge Cycle Lane:
the Invisible Visible Man would put
a clever caption here - but he's lost in a reverie
about becoming a New York cycle commuter
I nevertheless, year in, year out, get on my bike on sunny days and rainy, when it’s freezing outside and uncomfortably hot, hunch my body over my drop handlebars and every year cycle around 4,000 miles – 6,400 kilometres. I am now nervous about any life change that might make me give this activity up. When it briefly looked as if I might move to Johannesburg, I seriously investigated the prospects for getting around one of the world’s most crime-ridden, sprawling cities by bicycle. Turns out it would have presented some problems. When I think about the possibility of moving to New York, I am, in truth, mainly day-dreaming about my potential cycle commute. I walked over the Brooklyn Bridge once and want the film of my life to show me speeding daily along the cycle lane over that piece of 19th century engineering magnificence.

I am a husband and a father. I am a Christian and, more specifically, an Anglican. I make my living by writing. But being a cyclist is no longer anywhere near as far behind those other core elements of my identity as a choice about personal transport ought to be.

This blog is an effort to explain to some of the impatient motorists stuck behind me, puzzled friends and colleagues and - perhaps most of all myself - why that is. I hope along the way to provide some cheap entertainment – nearly all of it at the expense of my absurd self.


The funny thing I’ve realised is that I don’t get much simple enjoyment out of cycling. My wife is endlessly frustrated at the number of times I arrive home jumpy or angry after some confrontation with a taxi driver or close shave with a motorist. I long to explain to some of them that a road lane with a cyclist in it is actually still occupied. On one memorable occasion, a bus driver assaulted me. Long story short, he hadn’t enjoyed being reminded that the special area for bicycles at many British traffic junctions is not intended for buses. The bad news for him: there was probably no other cyclist on that road that night who not only personally knew, but had the email address of, his bus company’s chief executive.

I’m a cautious cyclist – a cautious person, in truth. I find the regular threats from such motorists a real and recurring source of worry. I wake sometimes in the early hours and go over incidents. What if I hadn’t managed to control that wobble? What if I hadn’t managed to stay just ahead of that motorist who deliberately drove too close behind me? What if I hadn’t controlled that skid? Will I one day feel my life slipping away, bathetically, as I lie on some piece of south London tarmac because of a BMW driver’s bravado? The thoughts gnaw away at my guts – and I gaze with incomprehension at my fellow cyclists who squeeze through the narrowest gaps, shoot lights or ride without lights. I’m constantly surprised at myself for tolerating far smaller risks.

Not, of course, that there aren’t moments. My parents-in-law live in Cheshire and attend church 20km away in north Wales. When I set off at 9.30 on a Sunday morning, the main road near their house is quiet and straight. I can cover the first 12km or so at an average of 32kph. My body, normally so lumbering and clumsy, feels on a good day at one with the bike. It reminds me of a claim I once heard – whose veracity I’ve never established – that the bicycle is the world’s most efficient machine. So much of the effort I put in seems to turn itself into forward motion.

My bike: speak ill of this machine and I may well weep
One warm day in 2008, I remember arriving in Ipswich from London on a train with my bike, heading for Felixstowe to undertake an interview. Told the train onward to Felixstowe had been cancelled, I had to cycle – and sped 14 miles on pleasant, quiet roads across the Suffolk countryside, feeling an entirely unanticipated lightness of heart. I experience a little surge of excitement when one company I regularly cover tells me it has an executive visiting London it would like me to meet. The meetings are always on the far side of Hyde Park from my offices and afford a chance – a legitimate chance, sanctioned by work needs – to speed along Rotten Row, a cycle and pedestrian path south of the Serpentine. Some of London’s best architecture fringes the park as I bowl along across the vast open spaces. Once a month or so, a day dawns clear, dry and bright and my morning ride to work passes in a surge of endorphins, my bike sliding smoothly around the traffic, unimpeded by motor vehicles and unharrassed by angry van drivers.

To move onto the fastest gears on my bike, I push the left-hand brake lever on my handlebars – the one that controls the rear brake - to the right. It shifts the chain onto the outermost, largest chain ring by the pedals. The noise involved – grind-grind-grind-grind-click! – could be my favourite sound in the world. It’s ugly on its own – but, as surely as one of Pavlov’s dogs salivated at the sound of the buzzer, my brain knows that sound signifies a stretch of open road or gentle downhill and the joy of a rapid acceleration. It’s ultimately a very simple, childish joy – not much more complicated, really, than the chance to say to oneself, “Whee!”

I’ve become an inveterate cyclist partly, no doubt, because I’m chasing that feeling. To return to Pavlov’s salivating dogs, it’s well established that, when an animal receives a reward for pecking at a hole, pushing a button or whatever, it will keep doing so far longer after the reward stops if the reward has been intermittent than reliable. The insight explains the persistence of gambling and other kinds of addiction. People keep pursuing elusive rewards for longer than they do predictable ones. It’s the promise of another surprise, perfect run into work that keeps one slogging through the rain, confrontations with angry van drivers and sheer hard slog.

But there’s more to it than that. I wonder, ultimately, if I’m really looking for fun in life. I think, instead, that I spend a great deal of time chasing the satisfaction of having put in an effort and accomplished something. It makes me work silly hours at my job, chasing the vindication of having beaten other newspapers to a story, seeing my name on the front page or simply having produced a nicely-crafted description of some unpromising container port or laid-up ship. It gives me a charmless earnestness I’ve been imposing on others since childhood. I recall being reprimanded by someone in my university hall of residence after I tried to start a conversation about some complex point of our moral philosophy course. It was, she remarked reasonably if a little snappily, breakfast.

The need to put in effort sits conjoined in me, I think, with a need to engage with the world. I’ve had an impulse as long as I can remember to grab the world by the lapels and try to tell it about this new thing that’s happened, this new music to listen to, the way this ship works or God.

Cycling ticks all the boxes for someone with such needs – and then some. The “I made it” feel on dismounting one’s bicycle after a difficult journey seems to be for me a more powerful reinforcer than the feeling of mere excitement after an enjoyable ride. The physical effort of shoving down with my thighs to slog myself to the end of some trip I should probably have undertaken by train soothes some deep anxiousness inside me. No-one can say I haven’t tried hard enough. When my need for such satisfaction is at its height, I constantly check the mileage recorded on my bicycle computer. I feel far happier and more content when my daily average cycling distance sits comfortably above 11 miles.

The sense of engagement with the world – the wind in my face, the smell of the petrol fumes, the snatches of conversation from passing pedestrians – only heighten the satisfaction. It’s one of the factors that appeals to many people about motoring – the car’s ability to become a moving extension of one’s own home, cut off from those around – that most puts me off owning a car. The depth of this feeling struck me recently when on a cold day I found my hands unexpectedly warm in my full-finger gloves – the rarely-used cycling gloves that cover my whole hand. I was shocked at the calm I felt on switching to my normal cycling gloves, with cut-off finger ends. I could once again feel the wind over my fingers. I was in touch with the world.

I believe in theory in doing things for good, positive reasons, inspired by rational thinking. There are rational reasons for cycling. I’m fitter than I otherwise would be, less prone to illness and pumping out fewer greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than a non-cyclist I would. But, when I wake up on a rainy morning with a headache in a foul mood, those positive reasons aren’t what count. It’s the fear of losing those deeper satisfactions – the sense of having put in the right effort, the feeling of being in touch with the world – that get me out onto the road on my bike: the invisible, high-viz man.


  1. I came here through a link you left on Bikeyface. I read every word! You describe your experiences in a nuanced and balanced way that really resonated with me. Your observations are spot on! I live in Boston but I, too, love to feel that connection with the world. I like feeling the satisfaction and pride of having moved myself over so many miles. I dress as much as possible in hi-viz clothing, but especially due to cellphone use in cars, must be constantly on the alert for the many hundreds of drivers that just aren't looking exactly at me at that moment. My husband's mantra when he's out on his motorcycle is, "Assume they're all out to get you." I've adopted it as a cyclist. It's kept me upright and safe, but I am undoubtedly also very lucky. I look forward to your future posts and happy riding to you!!!

    1. Zoe,
      Thank you very much for your kind words. Happy cycling to you too - and don't worry too much about accidents. At least in the UK, they're rarer than one might assume. Also, the health benefits substantially outweigh the risks.
      A defensive mindset is definitely a good idea, however.
      All the best,


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