Safety-conscious cyclists deserve more than barbs from critics

THE attacks upon cyclists by grumpy old men are mounting.

Professional contrarian George Hook has been at it for so many years that few people take any notice of him anymore, but it was something of a surprise to see the usually oh-so-politically correct Fintan O’Toole descend to the level of calling cyclists “spawn of the devil”.

I know that some newspapers columnists deliberately resort to such provocation in an attempt to gain the attention of their readers, but it was amazing to see somebody of the eminence of O’Toole stoop to indulging in attempted incitement to hatred against a minority.

Over the top, calling it “incitement to hatred”? Absolutely, but not much more so than calling cyclists, of whom I am one, “spawn of the devil”, or by calling them, sarcastically as those who “like to see themselves as the great oppressed minority of the streets”. Cyclists, according to O’Toole, “have issues with self-esteem: they have far too much of it”.

When O’Toole joined me on the radio on Tuesday he protested that I was being over-the-top in asking if he would write a piece replacing the word cyclist with Catholic or homosexual. Of course I was, and deliberately so, but he can hardly protest if he thinks it was appropriate to mount his argument in such inflammatory terms.

And here’s why: too many cyclists die on our roads and streets to be flippant about the subject of their road skills or behaviour, or to be dismissive about the responsibilities of other road users, the motorists and pedestrians, towards them.

Some cyclists die because of their own lack of care but others are killed, or suffer serious injury, because of the negligent arrogance of drivers who drive carelessly, or who deliberately intimidate cyclists with their behaviour, or because pedestrians behave in exactly the manner for which O’Toole criticises cyclists.

If you start describing all cyclists in the terms that O’Toole did you run the danger of justifying the actions of any drivers or pedestrians who cause injuries to cyclists. Who cares about “spawn of the devil”, given that they are clearly regarded as some form of lesser people than others, are clearly the only ones responsible for whatever happens to them? Context is everything. O’Toole had many valid arguments to make when you stripped out the hyperbole. There are too many cyclists who ride on footpaths and who break traffic lights and who are a danger to pedestrians as a result. (Similarly there are others who are a danger to themselves by their actions on the roads).

It is a mystery to many people as to why cyclists behave this way. But, judging by what he wrote, O’Toole made little or no effort to find out why it is that so many cyclists do not use cycle lanes. He didn’t want to hear when I put some of these reasons to him on Tuesday evening: he described my points as “whataboutry” and somehow irrelevant. That “whataboutry” term is used often by those who don’t want a wider debate, but who want to limit the argument to the narrow one they are making. Incredibly, O’Toole compared my desire to widen the context of the debate to the way politicians in the Northern Ireland conflict tried to justify one killing by reference to another.

But here is some evidence that O’Toole might discover about cycling lanes should he ever take to a bike (and I presume that he doesn’t cycle because he made no reference to doing so in his article). Many of the cycling lanes in Dublin are dangerously pot-holed, worse even than the condition of the roads. To cycle on them is to run the risk of being unseated or having serious damage done to the bike. Also, too often people decide to park their cars on cycle lanes; also I have seen many people, including gardaí, using them as locations to pull in, to use mobile phones. And, here’s the rub, many people regard them as footpaths! I invite O’Toole to go up to the Phoenix Park in Dublin and its main avenue any weekend. I cycle regularly there but rarely use the cycle lanes because of the number of people who chose to walk on them.

Two wrongs don’t make a right. But it is not fair or correct to make inflammatory comments about cyclists and to suggest that the use of language to make the argument is just a bit of fun.

It was only after we had finished our radio item on Tuesday that I remembered the only notable injury I received as a cyclist, when I was at school in the North Mon in Cork 30 years ago. I was knocked off my bike as I came down Sunday’s Well Avenue by a man who walked out from behind a large van without even looking to see if any traffic was coming. I was lucky that all I suffered was a broken wrist.

The memory has returned though as I have been cycling again since last year after a 25-year gap. I brought my bike from Cork when I moved to Dublin in 1987 but soon stopped using it on the basis that Dublin was simply too dangerous for cyclists. There was too much traffic and it was too aggressive. And that was then, before the Celtic Tiger multiplied the number of cars on our roads.

Even now I am very nervous about cycling around Dublin because of the manner in which cars drive. I prefer to head to the Phoenix Park, or up the Dublin mountains, and to do so at a reasonably early hour when traffic is relatively light. I am very nervous about letting my children cycle in Dublin. I won’t let them cycle to school because there are no cycle lanes to use and won’t let them use the footpaths.

I have also become convinced of the need to wear helmets. I know that many cyclists think that helmets are unnecessary and indeed counterproductive: some motorists become even more careless about the damage they can do to cyclists when they see them in protective gear, and that they, somehow, don’t have to worry as much about the consequences if they are knocked from their bikes.

Whizzing down the hills of the Dublin and Wicklow Mountains it has become very clear to me that my helmet would provide very limited protection in the event of an accident. But recently, and embarrassingly, I tumbled off my bike when going at a low speed through the Phoenix Park and smacked my head off the footpath. Had I not been wearing a helmet I suspect I might have taken a bad blow.

I have also become far more aware of the dangers of cycling than I was as a child, teenager and young adult. It is a real sign of my advancing age that I have come to understand (and fear) the physical consequences of a fall more readily.

And yet I have come to love cycling again, finding it a physically more enjoyable form of exercise than running.

This week I signed up as an ambassador for Bike for Life, as part of National Bike Week, which starts tomorrow. (I should make it clear too that I have not asked for or received any payment for doing so). I will be taking part in the Tour de Burren in Clare tomorrow week, testing myself over the 87 km course. I intend cycling longer distances later in the summer. I intend doing my best to protect myself and to respect others when I do so, as I believe nearly all cyclists do. All cyclists ask is that they get treated with more respect by opinion-formers who should know better.

- The Last Word with Matt Cooper is broadcast on 100-102 Today FM, Monday to Friday, 4.30pm to 7pm.

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