As a man of the stretchy cloth, you hear a lot of discussion about road rage:
‘CAR DRIVER GOES JIHAD ON SQUIRREL’
‘MOTORIST GAROTTES COMMUTER WITH BIKE LOCK’
‘VAN DRIVER BEATS CYCLIST TO DEATH WITH HIS OWN BROMPTON’
That class of thing.
But you don’t hear much about cyclist road rage. Few and far between, it seems, are the headlines which describe cyclists going postal at motorists, screaming at buses and jumping off their bikes, incandescent with purple-faced rage to lay into some poor pedestrian whose only crime was to be walking down the street as they cycled by.
But it does happen. I’ve seen four or five incidences where cyclists have gone completely off the rails in front of me. Over Christmas, I saw a London cyclist screaming like a maniac at the disappearing rear-end of a delivery van, his face a contorted mask of vinegar madness. Another time, two weeks ago in fact, I was in the back of a taxi in Bristol, chatting with two friends when a cyclist pulled up alongside the drivers’ window to inform him that he considered the gentleman to be a specific, mentally-challenged section of the female anatomy.
But for sheer hilarity; for pure off-the-chain, batshit crazy cyclist road rage, I need to tell you a story about my Grandmothers’ funeral.
Please note that not one word of what I am about to tell you is in any way made up or exaggerated.
My Grandmother passed away three years ago. On our way from the funeral service to the burial, I was sitting beside my mother in the back of the funeral car, surrounded by her brothers and sisters (this was her mother who had passed) and we were making our way along the Howth Road in Clontarf, Dublin, not far from the Fairview junction. Obviously I was distracted, so I didn’t see exactly what happened, but when the car stopped in traffic a man appeared alongside us on a bike, eager to have words with the driver of our vehicle. It was obvious from the instant he pulled up that he was beside himself with anger. Upon rolling down the window, our driver was met with a volley of insults.
‘Are you fucking RETARDED? came a deafening shriek, spittle firing in all directions.
‘Hang on…’ our driver started.
‘You nearly fuckin’ KILT ME. You stupid lookin’ FUCKIN…’
And so on, for about a full minute or maybe more, at which point I rolled down the window.
‘Mate. Mate. MATE’ I called at him. He eventually snapped his head around and fixed me with a look that could curdle milk. I honestly thought he was going to have a coronary: he had the big, bulgy, throbbing forehead vein and everything.
‘Please calm down…’ I started.
‘Did you SEE what that WANKER did?’ he roared.
I took a breath and looked at him. ‘Please, I am asking you, respectfully, to please move on…’. He opened his mouth to scream again but I managed to interrupt him. ‘This is a funeral car,’ I said with a raised hand. ‘A funeral, car’.
I paused, leaving the words hanging in the air, doing my best to fix him with what I hoped was a Roy Keane death-stare.
And then, in an instant, the penny dropped. He pivoted his head left and right, looking up and down the exaggerated length of the vehicle. Slowly his mouth opened into a gaping ‘O’, the realisation creeping into his wild, blood-shot eyes. Prior to that instant, he genuinely hadn’t seen it. Or he had seen it and hadn’t, on some level, registered what he was actually doing.
As the faces of the group of terrified septuagenarians sitting behind me came into focus for him, there was the final moment of acknowledgement: he straightened up, snapped his mouth shut, adjusted himself in the saddle, spun his pedal back and then launched himself away. He was last seen tearing across the junction, high-vis jacket flapping in the wind, spinning furiously into the distance.
Road rage for a car driver is, perhaps, easy to understand. Take a confined space, add time pressure, horns, low blood sugar, a few episodes of Top Gear, some red lights and slap all that in the middle of a traffic jam and eventually, you could argue, the fight or flight response will do the rest. But a cyclist? Shouldn’t we be all flowing hair and John Barry music? Shouldn’t we be free-wheeling up the middle of the road, cheerfully chapeauing to all and sundry and generally sickening everyone we pass with our self-satisfaction?
True enough, some people are just angry bastards. The kind of people who will, well, shout at a funeral car.
But I’ve had incidents with people on bikes losing their mind with me – roaring and shouting threats, telling me to ‘fuck off out if it you fucking fuck’ as they cycle by me, because they thought I was too close, or in danger of thinking about getting too close.
And here’s the thing: I’m sure they were otherwise reasonable people. People who call their mother frequently, occasionally give to charities and who step over spiders but who for some reason, on this particular day, have turned into Rush Limbaugh’s raging ball-ache and are threatening to send me to hell with a bicycle pump stuck up my fundament.
But… there’s a part of this I get.
Cycling is weird.
Yes, it combines physical exercise, pain management and a healthy dose of lycra fetishism, but it also induces an oddly meditative state. The repetitive, cyclical turning of the pedals. The rhythm of the chain on cassette, the thrum of the wheels on the tarmac, the metronome of your knees pumping up and down within your peripheral vision – you’re there, but you’re not there. Your vision is scanning for dangers and threats, yes, but another part of you is working on other things: anxieties, slights, irritations, grievances. Maybe even grief.
It’s an altered state of consciousness. Runners call it ‘runner’s eye’. Surfers might call it ‘flow state’. Your subconscious mind is spinning, churning away, rolling over an issue, replaying and rehearsing, resolving and accepting. The turn of the pedal is the turn of the mind.
But it may be anger you are processing; boiling, seething anger. And, sometimes you can use that: you can catch yourself fuming over something, notice the thought – ‘spot it’ as my father used to say. And you can grab it, push it into your legs and accelerate away in anger, tasting the metal tang of the adrenaline in your mouth. Which is good – for maybe 20 seconds. But it doesn’t last. It’s not real fuel for the ride, not a real antidote to the lactic acid or the howling tendonitis in your knee.
I like to think, perhaps, that these ragey riders are not just hair-trigger lunatics looking for a fight, but instead they may be average, normal people, deep in pain, mental as well as physical, suddenly torn from their trance, lifted from their anxiety resolution loop, back into reality by the screech of a tyre, the blast of a horn or, maybe, the sudden appearance of a funeral car.
At least I hope that’s what it is. Because I’ve been that angry cyclist too; the fist-waving, profanity-spewing idiot, howling in indignation at someone who opened a car door in my path.
A fright can set you off. I’m on a bike, you think. You’re in an armoured vehicle.
You pedal away, the heart still jack-hammering in your chest, hating your vulnerability.
But you calm down. The thoughts stop racing. The heart rate lowers. And then you remember – yep, try to see the opportunity in this. Try to see the good in what happened. That’s right. Accept it.
It was an opportunity to practice evasive manoeuvres, you say. A reason to be grateful for quick reflexes. Yes, good. That’s better. Accept it.
And hey, you finally say to yourself, at least it wasn’t a funeral car I was screaming at.
Image: Is it about a bicycle #1? Taken in Stoke Newington Churchyard, London. (c) Damien DeBarra, 2016.
Words: (c) Damien DeBarra, 2016.