Thursday 14 December 2017

I've begun to think that cyclists are a death wish on wheels

Case study: Fiona Ness, Dublin

Back in the saddle: Fiona still cycles despite suffering three accidents. Photo: Tony Gavin
Back in the saddle: Fiona still cycles despite suffering three accidents. Photo: Tony Gavin

I have a theory about city cyclists. It's that we have a God complex. We look down on the pedestrians - for being just that, pedestrian - and despise the car drivers for their lack of imagination. We know they hate us, too, because we get everywhere quicker than they do. No matter. We bite our thumbs at the haters as we flit on winged pedals through the throngs.

We cyclists hold the mobile moral high-ground (cycling is green, and heart-healthy after all) so we feel validated when we hop the kerb, break a red light, head to the top of the traffic queue. And all this we do while safe in the knowledge that we are beyond the law - both man-made and divine - untouchable and immortal.

Except we're not. More recently I've begun to think that cyclists are a death wish on wheels.

I've been cycling in Dublin for 17 years, and in that time I've had three accidents - none of which have been my 'fault', unless the plain act of getting up on a bike makes it my 'fault'. They have been caused by a car not stopping at a 'Stop' sign; a car reversing out of a parking space; a passenger opening their car door into traffic. Once I was hospitalised, and 10 years on I have a knee replacement pending.

I count myself lucky. It was the start of the recession. I had just had a baby and was suffering from anxiety. Before becoming pregnant I had been an adventure sports fanatic and my body had been a machine; now I was a feeding machine. The hospital counsellor recommended I go for a cycle. I felt elation being back on my bike.

Ten minutes down the road I saw the car. It spun down a side road to a Stop sign, where it joined the main road down which I was cycling in a cycle lane. I remember thinking, "that car isn't going to stop". I made a split second decision to speed up. The car missed my body but smashed into the rear of my bike. It threw me on to the road in the face of oncoming traffic. Had I been any slower, my body would have taken the full impact of the car.

"I have to go home," I said to bystanders who were calling an ambulance. My baby was three months old and she'd be needing fed in half an hour. She'd never taken a bottle. But the blood flow from my head put paid to my notions and I was in an ambulance heading to Beaumont hospital in north Dublin, unable to remember my husband's telephone number. The driver of the car brought my bike home. He paid for the ambulance and the damage to the bike. I left it at that.

Cyclists may be two-wheeled outlaws, but ultimately, we're no match for a car. As a cyclist who is also a driver, I feel I understand what checks must be done to ensure my safety in traffic, and also how to pre-empt what a car driver might do. Schemes such as bike-to-work and city bikes have thrown a huge volume of cyclists on to the roads. The new laws for cyclists are welcome, and I observe them. Cycling is a healthy, free mode of transport. It allows me to arrive into work refreshed and invigorated every morning. It is the quickest route home to my children in the evening. It is my only chance of exercise in the day. It keeps me sane. I think I am a conscientious cyclist. But Dublin isn't set up for cyclists. Car drivers are not set up for cyclists. Many cyclists are not set up for cyclists. Maybe we should all just leave it at that.

No amount of moral high ground is going to make my cycling any safer on Irish roads. My father says a mother of three small children should not be taking her life into her hands every day, as I do, by getting on a bike. I brush it off. But every time my husband, also a cyclist, is five minutes late from work, I fear the worst.


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