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Last Updated: Tuesday, 17 July 2007, 10:00 GMT 11:00 UK
A saint in the saddle?
An estimated five million people regularly cycle in the UK

By Brendan O'Neill

There was a time when riding a bike was about getting from A to B - not any more. For some it's become a moral and environmental crusade, but are cyclists getting too big for their boots?

"A menace is spreading. Silently, invisibly, moving across the planet. A new breed of hero is needed."

That new breed of hero is the cyclist, the menace is climate change and the line is from a new cinema trailer to promote CycleHero Week - not Hollywood's latest blockbusting action movie.

People cycle to save on travel costs
Today, it seems, cycling is more than a mode of transport. It is a noble enterprise, a "good thing", an activity that's taken up by responsible people who care for the planet and for future generations.

CycleHero Week is organised by the Cyclists' Touring Club (CTC), Britain's largest and longest-established national cyclists' organisation.

As part of events organised all this week, people driving carbon-coughing cars or motorbikes will be encouraged to become cyclists instead and to "pedal for the planet".

The cinema advertisement - courtesy of a 295,000 government grant - shows cyclists weaving their way through smoggy traffic jams, past miserable-looking motorists, towards a beautiful sunset in a vast green field.


But has cycling become too politicised? Might government-funded campaigns that flatter cyclists as "heroes" give rise to "conviction cyclists" - people who ride their bikes with an air of moral superiority.

There are, of course, many good reasons to take up cycling - which is why five million Britons have done so.

Naked cyclist
Cyclists go to great lengths to get their message across
Bike-riding is better for the environment than driving a car. The average car produces three tonnes of carbon a year; a bike produces none. Cycling is also more efficient. Transport for London (TfL) estimates a four-mile trip around the capital takes on average 40 minutes by car, 30 minutes by public transport and 22 minutes by bicycle.

But motorists frequently complain cyclists ignore the rules of the road, rules put in place to keep everyone safe. One of their main gripes is that cyclists jump red lights.

But it's about more than just rule breaking - it's about attitude, say critics. The modern cyclist "ascribes to himself the most unassailable moral superiority", said one in a recent magazine debate on the issue.


They are "politico-bikers" who use their bikes "like sandwich boards rather than vehicles" says Zoe Williams, a newspaper and magazine columnist.

Joseph Clery drives a van around London for a living, delivering day-labourers and tools to building sites across the city. He describes cyclists as "my worst nightmare".

"You never know what they're going to do. They're unpredictable, especially at the lights."

There's competition for space on the UK's roads
He says cyclists have also "become more argumentative".

"I've had cyclists kicking the side of my van and shouting unrepeatable things at me. Some of them think they own the roads - roads that we motorists pay for through our road tax."

But cyclists who may have a "holier-than-thou, high-handed sense of superiority" are in a small minority, says Matt Seaton a cycling columnist for the Guardian and the author of two books about cycling. The vast majority take up bike-riding for practical rather than political ends, he says.

"People who turn to cycling are really thinking about the money they will save, the convenience of being able to get from door-to-door quite quickly.

Competition for space

"Advertising campaigns that emphasise the planet-friendly aspect of cycling might act as a feel-good push to take up cycling, but most people do it to save time and money rather than the planet."

Mr Seaton thinks the era of the "politico-biker" has passed.

"There was an eco-warrior element in cycling communities in the 1990s, in that era of Swampy-style anti-roads guerrilla campaigning. But those energies have now been diverted elsewhere."

Cyclists have been campaigning for years
The aim of the CycleHero ad is to show that "anyone who gets on a bike can be a hero tackling climate change" says Yannick Read, media officer at the CTC.

He doesn't think the campaign will create "conviction cyclists". If anything, he says, it is cyclists' experience on the road that politicises them.

"People don't start cycling for out-and-out political reasons. But some of them become politicised the more they cycle. They see the impact too many cars can have on the roads and on city life."

Mr Read says the CTC wants better lanes and facilities for Britain's five million cyclists. "Maybe lack of resources is one reason why some cyclists appear angry", he adds.


Fenno Outen has been riding a bike most of his adult life - first as a student in Oxford and now as a mental health worker in London.

He believes that those cyclists who adopt a "noble posture" are being "anti-social".

"Compared to Holland, there is no decent road infrastructure in Britain that allows cyclists and motorists to interact in a friendly way - there is always competition for space.

"And that means individual cyclists and motorists have to try and make things work. There is no room for being uppity."

Below is a selection of your comments.

Cyclists in Britain are becoming a menace. Very few obey the highway code. They frequently go straight through red lights onto busy junctions, usually listening to their iPods and therefore oblivious to the furious car drives who try desperately not to hit them as they weave all over the road. Despite there being a law demanding it, not all use lights at night, which is dangerous for every road user. The laws of the roads are there to protect everyone who uses them, and if bikes want to be allowed on roads, then their riders should obey the rules like everyone else. All bikes should be taxed, insured and MOT'd if they want to use the roads, and every rider should be forced to wear a helmet. It may not be a fashion item but they save lives. And shouldn't everyone on bikes have a cycling licence? This might make people think twice before they grab a bike and head out onto the roads without thinking.
Claire Sutton, Oxford

I don't cycle, I'm too scared to in London, but my biggest bugbear about cyclists is their attitude towards pedestrians, especially when adults ride on the pavement, which is illegal. I don't drive either, but rely on public transport and my sturdy legs.
Annie Bebington, London

To van drivers everywhere, if a cyclist can kick the side of your van it is because you are too close. You may need to check the Highway Code for details.
Ellen Cox

You make no mention of the humble pedestrian, who should surely have more rights than cyclists but who receives the lowest priority everywhere. Cyclists are now the biggest danger and inconvenience to pedestrians. Pathways in parks and beside rivers and canals are used by cyclists many of whom take no account of erratic toddlers or elderly people. A leisurely walk with a companion along my local canal is no longer possible - it is single file only, keeping elbows well in, and cyclists whiz past in both directions. And accidents involving cyclists and pedestrians are usually not reported (I've had two, neither my fault) as the cyclist just makes a speedy getaway. More power to the pedestrian is what I say!
Vicky, London

Motorists who show no respect for cyclists are my worst nightmare. Why is it necessary to overtake on narrow roads, in the face of oncoming traffic, when a 5 second delay would make it safer for all? Provision of cycle paths would alleviate the problem, nationwide
Frank James, Warton, Preston

One more cyclist means 1 less car on the roads. This actually helps motorists. More needs to be done to encourage Cyclists. In Britain it's been done in a half-hearted way. I know many places where a cycle ends were a road narrows. As a motorist and a cyclist I think some of the massive duty I pay on petrol should be used to make cycling safer!
S Richards, Birmingham England

I've been cycling for many years - on the roads, with lights, high-vis jacket and now a helmet. Yes, it is cheaper than a car, but you can get hot and sweaty, or wet, and how many employers provide adequate changing and shower facilities? Cycle lanes? Fine when they are new, but they quickly get littered with broken glass and other tyre-unfriendly rubbish and don't get cleared very often.
Dave, Shrewsbury

I started cycling to work very recently, but for no reason other than the extortionate parking charges levied by Edinburgh City Council (not as a result of their engineered traffic jams as they would like to think). I also drive a car as do many of the cyclists out there - so we are paying road tax. Anyway, since when was our road tax spent on the roads? But that's another argument! However, I am better than all who are still driving to work. I don't harm the environment. That's a fact. I suggest drivers try cycling on our roads at rush hour. Not for the faint hearted I can tell you - especially avoiding the pot holes at the side of the road and the race away from the lights!
Stoo McDoo, Edinburgh

Excuse me, lets not forget that human beings riding bikes produce more carbon dioxide from respiration than human beings sitting down behind the wheel of an electric car - whenever somebody gets round to making this available, that is.
Tom, Lisbon

The reason many cyclists get "uppity" quite a lot is that we're often squeezed out. Motorists think we should be on the path rather than the road, even an unmodified footpath which has a little blue "cycle path" sign on it, while pedestrians understandably think we should be on the road. I'm all for co-operating and sharing road space, but it's hardly done fairly when the infrastructure is so heavily biased towards motor vehicles. The times I've reacted most angrily on a bike is when I've been in fear of my life. Yes, I've banged on the side of a van before - in order to stop it squashing me into the kerb.
Stefan Kaye, Cambridge, UK

What gets me is cyclists who cycle through red lights or through pedestrian crossings oblivious (or not perhaps) to pedestrians and then tell you to "f*** off" when they get shouted at. Karma my cycling friends, karma!!!
John Matheson, London

I cycle to work everyday, but I also drive a car. For me, cycling is about freedom and not having to rely on buses, trains or traffic, OK, it's great for the environment but you can't do the weekly shop on a bike now can you? I generally find motorists very respectful towards cyclists, but this does depend on how one behaves. I ride my bike as I would drive my car, i.e. I obey all the rules of the road. It is very annoying to have stopped at a red light and see somebody wobble (or race) past you onto a busy junction, (sometimes with a mobile 'phone pressed to their ear) not only are these twits on bikes flirting with serious injury (or death) they put other people at risk and give law-abiding cyclists a very bad name. I can understand why a lot of motorists get very annoyed. Next time you see somebody on a bike shoot a red light - use your horn!
ken white, Acton, London

Due to the distance between my home and my office I cannot drive to and from work but, like many 50-somethings, my wife and I can't wait to get on our bikes at the weekend. We cycle for pleasure and fitness, not to save the planet, but I think that being both a driver and cyclist makes us more tolerant and understanding of the other and hopefully better road users.
Alistair Keeble, Clacton-on-Sea

There may be a decent road infrastructure in Holland but that does not mean that cyclists obey the rules of the road. Having lived Holland for the past 7 years I would say that Dutch cyclists have absolutely no regard for other road users; they frequently ignore red lights, casually cycle 3 or 4 abreast on busy roads, give no indication of their intention to stop, turn, pull out etc. Unfortunately these 'bad habits' which are learnt at a very early age often seem to stay with them when they become car drivers.
Penny Williams, Huizen, The Netherlands

One thing that's generally overlooked by motorists is that a large number of London's cyclists may also own a car and pay road tax. As a London cyclist since 2001 I have seen many cyclists jumping red lights, but the majority of traffic violations I see are from motorists, both in my car and on my bike. These range from lack of adequate signalling, not checking mirrors, pulling out without looking, not to mention jumping red/amber lights! Having to put up with the attitude that all cyclists are irritating politicised "anti-motorists" from certain sections of the motoring community on a daily basis certainly isn't conducive to a happy journey into work, but I honestly wouldn't change it for the world!
Greg Sochanik, London

Mr Matt Seaton, states that the "holier than thou" cyclists are a small minority. Well he should try being a pedestrian. I am fed up with having to jump out of the way of cyclists who think red traffic lights do not apply to them, especially when there is a "green man" for the pedestrians to cross.
Rosalind Hart, United Kngdom

I agree most cyclists (including me) take up commuting by bike as a cheaper and quicker method. What annoys me is motorists complaining that they are paying road tax and therefore "own" the roads? First, I would have thought that many commuter cyclists (like me) also own a car. Second, do you realise that most road tax does not goes on road creation/maintenance anyway! Time to change the record I think!
Mark, Gloucester

Of course there are bad cyclists, there are bad motorists and pedestrians too. Trouble is it's the bad ones that get remembered. I don't jump red lights but some do (On that subject how many car drivers overshoot into the cycle box? Do they know that could get them 3 points?) As a weekday cyclist and weekend lorry driver I have a fairly broad perspective of different road users. From both extremes of my viewpoints car drivers cause the most problems - but that's mainly because they make up over 80% of the traffic. As a cyclist in the last week I've had one car overtake too close and one overtake then stop suddenly for the junction. I've had no issue with the other 200 odd but guess which ones I remember?
Tony Smith, Abergavenny

I'd hate to think that we cyclists are being put in to one category - of course people ride for different reasons, they always have. You can ride to school or work, you can ride to the cinema. You can ride to a friends house. You can ride in the Alps with friends. You can race at Crystal Palace (as Matt Seaton does) and you can ride out to Kent with 40 friends on Saturday morning. If people do start cycling for some out-there cause, I wish them well and look forward to seeing them on Waterloo Bridge in the depths of winter when it's snowing and dark - we'll see the depths of their "moral superiority" then.
Lara, UK

The biggest problem I have with cyclists is that they think they have a god-given right to cycle on the pavement and pedestrians should move out of their way. Far from being heroes, they are dangerous, ignorant and downright selfish.
Dougal McKinnon, Stoke on Trent

I cycle to work every day (15 miles each way). I follow the rules of the road in order to try not to get run over and I never cycle on the pavement. I have been abused and threatened by other cyclists for STOPPING at red lights and almost run over by cyclists and cars/lorries running lights etc. I was even harassed by some bin men shouting sexual filth at me - but I think the worst offenders must be the Kamakaze pedestrians, why do you all think that being hit by a bike is any better than being hit by a car? We are often going faster than cars. There are a lot of idiots on the road who shouldn't be there at all whether it be in a car/van or on a bike!

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