Bicycle people are nice people, car people are fascists

Citizens from countries that use bicycles in disproportionate numbers tend to be the most tolerant and free-spirited

Two wheels good, four wheels bad. Ryan Barnes (6), Shankill, and trick-cyclist Paddy Waters at Active8, a free bicycle event to encourage children to get fit. Photograph: Eric Luke

Two wheels good, four wheels bad. Ryan Barnes (6), Shankill, and trick-cyclist Paddy Waters at Active8, a free bicycle event to encourage children to get fit. Photograph: Eric Luke

Sat, Apr 20, 2013, 08:20

The letters page of The Irish Times has recently been entertaining a debate about the menace that careering cyclists pose to poor wee drivers and their delicate metal carriages. One correspondent, annoyed by poor behaviour from the cycling community, has suggested that number plates be mandatory for all users of the two-wheeled engines of death (my facetious words, not hers).

Never let it be said that this column resists the temptation to foster disharmony and stir up division. As a committed cyclist, I see it as my duty to feign community with all (ahem) fellow travellers and pretend to hatred of all worshippers at the Church of Combustion.

It has not been an easy path. One thinks of all those Thatcherites who, over the past few weeks, have talked about growing up with working-class Marxist parents. The current writer was raised in a place that really does treat the car – and the motorbike, for that matter – as a sort of gleaming inanimate deity. What is it with Northern Irish people and the internal combustion engine?

When I explain that, now 49, I still can't drive, the aghast, often disbelieving response suggests I have just admitted to an inability to read or use the lavatory unaided. People begin speaking slower and more clearly in my presence. “Would he like to see the kittens,” they don’t really say to my long-suffering mother (who, it should be acknowledged, has just patiently driven me to this location).

A survey I’ve just made up confirms that one in four racing drivers is from the northern part of this island. Any lack of interest in the latest Grand Prix is viewed as evidence of unimaginable eccentricity. Not caring about rugby indicates mere perversity; not caring about cars suggests genuine perversion.

Still, we savour this sort of abuse in the cycling fraternity. The bicycle is designed for a more tolerant class of personality. In popular culture, we see Jacques Tati, charming embodiment of restraint, cycling through the delightful Jour de Fête. No other vehicle would suit that baffled, hard-working postman.

Citizens from those developed nations that – despite ample funds to buy belching monstrosities – use bicycles in disproportionate numbers tend to be the most tolerant and free-spirited of folk. Amsterdam and Copenhagen throng with bicycles and open-minded attitudes to social matters.

Bicycle people are nice people. Car people are fascist people. They all listen to thumping stadium rock and have no concern whatsoever for the environment. Nobody sums up the car culture better than Grand High Inquisitor Clarkson. The unstoppable rise of Top Gear and the concomitant deification of Lord Jeremy offer indisputable evidence of the way sitting within a metal stink-generator turns otherwise reasonable human beings into totalitarian bigots.

People who insist on living in the country probably do have genuine cause to drive motor vehicles. I've never understood the need to travel from one part of a rural landscape to another: each seems equipped with the same filthy cows, pointless trees and boring hedges. But it appears that such trips are necessary – occasionally in the company of pigs – and no bicycle will meet the particular demands.

Obviously, emergency services require the use of motor vehicles. Nobody wants to straddle the crossbar on his or her journey to the cardiac unit.

Firemen and police officers also make reasonable use of these horrible machines. We make allowances for the elderly and the infirm. We support public transport. But nobody else really needs to have a car in the city.

Take a bus to school. Walk to the pub. Get a bloody bicycle, for goodness sake. Those machines exhibit a gorgeously simple open-plan mechanism that contrasts markedly with the near-Masonic mystery that surrounds the complex business of car maintenance. After just one journey on the clattering machine, a feeling of warmth and inclusivity will flood about your newly liberated person. You don’t get this surge behind the wheel of a Maserati.

This is all nonsense, of course. Consider those tight-bummed cyclists who pay €12,000 for a bicycle that has no real brakes, no proper gears and no proper capacity for freewheel (the one without handlebars is pricier than a Tuscan Villa).

They are, if anything, more boring and anal than the average car nut. They are certainly a great deal more pompous and self-righteous. Our own gang always seem kinder and more inclusive than the yobs across the street. But they are almost always thinking the same thing about us.

It goes without saying that car drivers are no less moral or bigoted than cyclists. Still, when they honk their horn aggressively as you’re parked innocently at a red light you do wonder a bit. Two wheels good. Four wheels bad.

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