Taking your life in your hands – a cyclist’s tale
Honestly, you take your life in your hands every time you hit the open road on a bike in England. Every second driver seems to be out for blood; cyclists’ blood!
In my forty-odd years as a cyclist I’ve been sworn at ad nausea, knocked down three times and hospitalised once, (sideswiped, whiplash). All by drivers who think they are more deserving of that specific piece of tarmac than me and my bike. Only one of those drivers ever ended up paying for their actions.........
My mate ‘Stocky’ and I were near the end of one of our manic training rides. It was, as I recall, a wonderful early spring afternoon. You know one of those surprisingly warm March days that foretell the promise of a long, hot summer to come? The trees were in early bud and the days were lengthening, a truly beautiful day to be out training. The road we were on meandered through quite villages and leafy lanes and we finally had the wind at our backs after fighting against it for much of the way out. We were making great time and had just rolled through the picturesque village of Preston Deanery, on the B562. The quiet road was empty and we rode two abreast, chatting.
Yeah, yeah! I can hear all you drivers out there shouting - “Bloody cyclists, side-by-side on narrow roads holding up the traffic - you get what you deserve.” Well, in our defence we were in a 30mph zone, and my trip computer registered 29.7 mph. So who would we be holding up?
We were about four miles from Northampton, closing in on Wootton Village. The fields and hedgerows were giving way to houses and industrial estates and the road arced downhill in a gentle anti-clockwise curve. We had to slow down a little to negotiate a mini-roundabout when the sound of a car horn blared at us angrily from behind.
A quick glance back showed us a silver Mercedes Benz SLK, soft top down, careening towards us at about Mach 0.5; half the speed of sound. Without reducing speed, or releasing his hand from the horn, the driver, an absolute Hoon, swung out sharply and overtook us. Once alongside, the car slowed down a tad and the Hoon shouted something unrepeatable at us. His blond trophy passenger squealed with delight, and shot us the ‘V’ sign with arms waving in the air. At that same instant, and I still can’t believe he did this; the Hoon jerked his steering wheel sharply to the left and sending the SLK veering violently towards me! The look of malevolent glee on the Hoon’s face as he did so will live with me until Alzheimer’s finally takes its toll on my memory.
“Fuck, look out!” I screamed.
I reacted instinctively and twitched my handlebars to avoid the car and found myself shoulder to shoulder with Stocky. I really thought we were going down in a tangle of bicycle metal and flesh, but he’s not called Stocky for nothing. He’s big and strong. In fact he was big enough to lean back against me and keep us both upright; but only just.
The Doppler Effect dipped the pitch of the SLK’s horn as it rapidly shrank into the distance; we could still here Blondie screeching with glee. I swear to all that is Holy, the SLK could only have missed me by skin of a four-day old Crème Brule. Without Stocky’s strength and quick reactions we would have both been toast. To say that we were a trifle upset would be like saying the World’s Bankers need a slap; livid only just covers it!
We screamed at them but could only watch as the SLK disappeared around the curve. I was shaken, and judging by Stocky’s ashen face, he was too. Then, a split-second later it dawned on me.
“Wooton roundabout!” I shouted, “Come on!” I immediately dropped into a bigger gear and stamped hard on my pedals. Stocky instantly understood my meaning and smiled. “Yeah, let’s have the bastard.” He too dropped gear and we put the hammer down.
I have to say at this stage, neither of us really expected to chase down the car. We were fast, but bicycles chasing cars? However, this turned out to be one of those rarest of times when everything tumbled into place and meshed together perfectly.
The fatigue of a long ride was forgotten as anger pumped adrenalin through our arteries. The road stretched downhill. The tailwind helped too; we flew.
Taking short turns in front, our speed rose; 35, 38, 41mph. Not quite Tour de France levels, but not bad. We pedalled insanely hard; the madness of the chase fuelled our efforts. My heart was thumping in my chest, and I was whooping in air by the lungful to cope with my muscles’ demand for oxygen. I was just reaching the end of my reserves, that period beyond maximum tolerance when the vision starts to fade (pilots call it ‘grey-out’), when we finally saw it.
There it was, three-quarters of a mile away, Wootton roundabout, with its peak-time traffic lights glowing red as we had hoped. And yes! There was that bloody silver SLK, jammed in traffic, ten cars between it and the safety of the junction. Other vehicles, spewed from offices at the end of the working day, lined up behind it, blocking it in. Now, if only the lights would stay red for a few moments more.
Quads burning, sucking in the air like a Dyson, I managed to gasp, “We’ve got the bastard!” Then the traffic lights changed to green. No, we were so damn close!
“Damn it!” I cursed, my pedalling cadence faltered for a second but the powerful Stocky took the lead once more and our speed rose. The Hoon was not getting away! The distance between us and the trapped SLK was closing rapidly but it was agonising slow for Stocky and me.
The traffic queue edged forwards. One, two, three cars moved through the junction and were gone. Typically the Hoon was tail-gaiting the car in front, urging it on with aggressively flashing headlights. Then the traffic lights turned to red again. The notorious peak-time lights that prioritised the traffic spilling into Northampton from M1, the A45, and the A508, to the detriment of the local roads, were finally working in our favour. ‘Praise Be’ for the rush hour!
My heart was pounding. The near accident and the thrill of the chase had boiled my blood but now that I was so close to my prey I had no Idea what I was going to do.
When we were still a couple of hundred yards away the Hoon finally spotted us in his rear view mirror. I swear to God he did that double-take thing you sometimes see in old black and white movies and visibly shrank into his seat. Blondie in the passenger seat no longer waved her arms or squealed in delight, but hid her face in her left hand and searched desperately for a cloak of invisibility; she failed.
I had been dreaming of this sort of opportunity ever since my first run-in with a aggressive driver.
Luckily for us, but not for the Hoon, the SLK was an older model. It didn’t have a motorised soft-top or he’d have been able to raise it and escape at least some of the hostility we transmitted. I’ve already said how the fates had aligned in our favour that day and this was yet another example.
I finally eased up to the driver’s side, unclipped my left shoe from the pedal and planted it firmly on the road. Stocky did exactly the same on the passenger’s side. We towered over the two in the low-slung SLK; intimidating them by just standing there. After a few seconds during which my breathing began to return to normal, I lifted my sunglasses and looked down at the man. I tried for my best Eastwood Dirty Harry glare. It must have worked because the Hoon appeared to shrink further into the leather upholstery.
Now, I’ve already mentioned that Stocky is a big man. What I haven’t said though is that I’m actually bigger. I stand six feet three inches tall and I’m quite well-built. Not quite Arnie, but definitely not scrawny. We must have looked absolutely terrifying to the Hoon and Blondie. His lower lip quivered slightly and I thought he was actually going to wet himself.
Nobody said a word.
My legs were shaking and weak from the effort of the chase and the after effects of the adrenaline rush, but I don’t think it made me look any less menacing. In fact I reckon the Hoon must have thought I was shaking with rage; I was definitely red-faced from the chase.
I don’t quite know how he did it but the Hoon turned both pale and purple at the same time, a sort of pale puce. He had both hands on the steering wheel now, and was staring dead ahead, trying to make it look like he hadn’t seen us. A little vein stood out on his sweating forehead and his hands trembled slightly. He looked much older than he had when he nearly side-swiped me just a few moments earlier.
It is strange the effect fear has on a person isn’t it? Stocky and I had turned into raging cycling madmen but the Hoon had disintegrated into quivering mush. I almost took pity on him; almost.
The lights ahead turned to green once more.
This time, five cars managed to escape the junction as Stocky and I walked our bikes alongside the slow moving SLK. I never took my eyes off the Hoon and I’m sure he could feel them like lasers boring into his neck. He over-revved the engine of the SLK, desperate for an escape and almost rammed the car in front again, not in aggression this time, but in fear.
The Hoon was still two cars from safety when the lights finally reverted to Red again. I smiled at him menacingly, still trying for Dirty Harry.
I slowly placed my left hand on the jam of the driver’s door and leaned in close, invading the Hoon’s personal space, his safety zone. I swear I heard him whimper as I leaned in close and whispered in his ear, “Won’t be bullying any more cyclists for a while will you?”
I swung my free right fist towards him and the Hoon closed his eyes and flinched in anticipation of the expected blow. Instead, I reached in to the cab and removed the keys from the ignition. I then threw them into a nearby hedge!
I never laid a finger on him.
By the way, just in case the Hoon had a spare set of keys in his glove box, Stocky and I rode home rapidly on the cycle paths provided for our safety. We laughed hysterically all the way!
I now live in France, an altogether different place to ride a bicycle. The drivers are considerate. The country roads are quiet and pothole free, and the only time I have driver-trouble is during the holiday season when the Brits are here.