NOTES FROM UNDER THE TABLE: A Bicycle Rides Higher than a Car
Bicycle mural, photo: Eva Ekeblad, flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 license

A Bicycle Rides Higher than a Car

BY James Hopkin

Of course, the bike-paths are a good idea. It’s just a shame that only cyclists take any notice of them

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In Arthur Conan Doyle’s story, The Adventure of a Solitary Cyclist, Sherlock Holmes figures out that his client is a cyclist because she has a glowing complexion and pedal marks on her shoes. So how would a detective in contemporary Poland deduce that you’re fond of biking? Perhaps by a road-ash tint to your skin, and pedal marks on your face?

Oh for the cyclist’s contra-flow! A weird confluence of priorities, possibilities, and potentially fatal decisions. They’re springing up all over Kraków, these bike paths, some of them red (suggesting not a VIP carpet but the road to A&E) while most settle for a painted (worryingly rider-less) white bicycle and an arrow pointing to your next head-to-head with an on-coming driver. It’s like medieval jousting: you on your trusted steed, your opponent in a chariot. Who will hold their nerve?

Of course, the bike-paths are a good idea. It’s just a shame that only cyclists take any notice of them. People walk in the lane. You ring your bell, they look at you. You ring again, they keep looking. You ring one last time, but still they don’t move. “It’s a bike lane!” you shout. They look stupefied as if wanting to plead, “But I’m not on a bike!”

Junctions are perilous, too. A car waits to pull out, the driver sees you. You see him. He looks at you again, you know what he’s thinking. Meanwhile, you’re still trying to avoid the potholes and ride out the waves of concrete. Then he pulls out. When you’re less than a metre away. You squeeze on your brakes, you pedal backwards (the cycling equivalent of lock-jaw), you sing an unholy octave.

Last weekend, a taxi-driver reversed the wrong way down a one-way street as I was approaching the correct way. He kept going. He didn’t see me. I leapt off the saddle and hoisted my beloved Gazelle onto the pavement, but not before his car has clipped my wheel. He jumped out, swearing, waving his arms and shouting as if it was my fault. (Yes, it’s funny how anti-bike people wave their arms about a lot, in direct contrast to the calm and steady arm posture of a cyclist.)

As the laudable campaigners, Miasto dla Rowerów, state: “We do not block traffic, we are traffic.” They have Critical Mass cycling groups around Kraków every last Friday of the month. Their website keeps you informed of the latest legal situation regarding cycling priorities in the city, and the streets with new bike paths, and they also do a nice line in biking photographs. You don’t have to be a fanatic, just nurture a will to survive on two wheels.

But oh for the cycle paths of Berlin! You have priority over cars there! When drivers turn right they have to wait and check in their mirror to see if a cyclist is coming. How proud you look as you cycle past them, deliberately slow-pedalling (the biking equivalent of dressage), a prince/ss on a thoroughbred. Yet there’s danger along these well-kept lanes of Berlin, too… other cyclists! Once, when pedalling slowly, admiring the street, I was shaken by a guy who came speeding past, shouting, angrily: “Stop looking at the buildings!” Yes, you can be admonished at all times for not going quickly enough. You must appear to be concentrating only on the act of pedalling and navigating or you will be considered worthy of abuse. And woe betide you if you daydream, static, at a green light. You will be berated until your ears turn blue.

In London, the situation is far more dangerous. Too many vehicles, too many people make for a statistical inevitability of collisions. I lost a friend on the streets of that city, knocked off her bike by a bus and killed. Nothing can  protect you against the stupidity and impatience of drivers behind the wheel.

But don’t give in. Cycling is the only eco- and elegant way of getting around a city. Drivers are envious of our manoeuvrability, our breezy freedom, our grace. Especially in summer. Yes, we have dignity on our side. After all, a bicycle rides higher than a car.