Monsters on bikes

I recently wrote for CityLab about the conflict between cyclists and pedestrians in Amsterdam. I found fascinating that this city’s cycling culture is so often held up as an ideal for other cities to emulate — and yet pedestrians are so often forgotten in the equation.

Our picture of an aggressive cyclist is also often that of a middle-aged man in lycra, but in Amsterdam it can also be teenagers in jeans, young women in heels, businesspeople in suits. Amsterdammers are highly individualistic and extremely direct, which is fuel to the flames when added to the implicit power that comes with cycling. It’s a blessing that few foreign visitors understand Dutch’s idiosyncratic insults — ‘I hope you get cancer/typhoid/syphilus’, because they would probably keel over in the bike lane.

As a cyclist, the city feels like a dream; it’s one of the reasons I am loathe to ever leave, because almost no other city can match up to it. But when you’re on foot, it’s decidedly less fun. You’re often crammed onto a narrow pavement and forced to navigate various obstacles — clapboard cafe signs, planters, parked bikes, benches — and you have to be aware that bikes have right of way, even on zebra crossings. I can’t even imagine what it’s like if you’re blind, or have a walker, or have any other disability — never mind if you’re pushing a pram or a wheelchair.

So, as much as I’m an avid cyclist, I took some pleasure in puncturing this idyllic image of Amsterdam as a mobility paradise. You can read the piece here: Can Amsterdam’s cyclists and pedestrians learn to get along?

As a bonus, here’s a piece I wrote about self-righteous cycling a decade ago, in the throes of Tokyo’s rainy season.

We know cycling is an ego game. Sure, the puffing runners in the park are fairly indignant and self-important. Skaters might terrorize the streets but their bong-addled hearts aren’t really in it. Pram pushers and wheelchairs clog up the pavement, but they hold no malice. But those who whip through red lights, careening from car lanes to sidewalk, flipping their middle fingers at motorists and pedestrians alike, are the real beasts of the street. I should know. I’m one of them.

There’s an intense high to be found in self-righteousness. If you haven’t tried it, you really should. A certain number of sportsmen and women are driven not by masochistic urges, but rather a narcissistic desire for recognition. That certain number are all cyclists.

There are three ways to impress people if you ride a bike. The first two are obvious; speed and distance. The third? Weather. There’s nothing more gratifying than the mixture of horror and respect that crosses peoples’ faces as you stream by, slick and filthy as a seal in an oil spill. I sometimes see fellow cyclists stopping needlessly to simply peel their helmet off, shake their sopping hair like a proud Labrador, bathe a little in the public attention, and then move on.

I have noticed that Tokyoites’ predilection for covering themselves up more than Europeans extends to their sportswear as well. While I tend to roll with the assumption that semi-nudity is preferable in the rain (skin is, after all, wipe-clean), everyone else I see seems to be wearing tights, shorts, three layers on top and tape bound around wrists and ankles. I can quite see the point of this in, say, February, but when the city is steaming up like a Psycho showerbooth, I think it’s time to show a little flesh, don’t you?

Incidentally, the word for Tokyo’s rainy season is tsuyu. The kanji literally mean “plum rain,” probably because the plums ripen just around now. The good news is that monsoon season is also time to buy yourself a few gallons of pure alcohol, sugar and plums and get that umeshu going!

One response to “Monsters on bikes”

  1. In the bicycle hostile area I live in Western N.Y. I have found bicycles to be aggressive on any macadam paved sidewalk in parks. So I give them the right of way because it’s so dangerous outside of that one little path, and I can walk on the grass easier than they can ride on the grass with their street tyres. So my way of dealing with this is always to look for the grass, it is the place the bicycles are not riding around generally.

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