Defend Truth


The cycling mafia strikes again

Ivo Vegter is a columnist and the author of Extreme Environment, a book on environmental exaggeration and how it harms emerging economies. He writes on this and many other matters, from the perspective of individual liberty and free markets.

Every time they take over a city, the residents complain. And every time, cyclists respond with bluster, swearing or worse. Here's why races that require road closures should be banned.

Cyclists seem to think it’s okay to shut down major cities for their own entertainment. When the victims of their arrogance – who outnumber them by at least 100 to one – complain, they respond with foul-mouthed self-righteousness.

One fellow was moved to discuss my own opposition on a public board. First, he said he did not know me. In his very next message, he appeared to have been enlightened and described me in quite pornographic terms. Ironic, isn’t it, from someone who says he agrees that cyclists are their own worst enemies?

Recently, this chap informed me that I had “called for the murder of innocent cyclists”.

That such a view is very unlikely for anyone, let alone a published columnist, did not penetrate the red mist. His fluorescent comrades told him that I once wrote an article which ended with: “The next cyclist I see dies.”

Thing is, I never wrote any such article.

Here’s the truth: I once wrote an email to a small mailing list of which I had been a long-standing member. In it, I expressed frustration with not being able to get to where I had to be, and asked who these cyclists think they are to take over my city and close the streets. I’d thought to skive off instead, but one drinking buddy had to take a two-hour detour to get to my side of the road, and another couldn’t get out of his house at all.

True to the tradition of that particular list, which enjoys eloquence and looks down on whining, I used hyperbole as a rhetorical device, to turn what might have been just another complaint into a humorous, over-the-top rant. I was not writing for publication, but hamming it up for the amusement of an intimate audience which had known me for years.

One of their number thought it would be funny to forward this email to a few cycling forums. It would indeed have been funny, if only to expose the cyclists’ utter lack of humour. However, he didn’t have the presence of mind to omit my contact details and home address.

All hell broke loose. I received death threats, of the personal, ring-ring-gonna-come-to-your-house-and-kill-you kind. Since they knew where my house was and what I looked like, this was unnerving. The fury of this bunch was all too clear. All it would take is one aggressive idiot sufficiently pumped up on steroids to make it happen.

Someone forwarded the email to the police, which sensibly concluded the obvious: I did not pose a genuine threat to anyone. Au contraire, in fact. The investigating officer thought it was pretty funny, but then, he hadn’t been fielding my phone calls. Clearly, there was a great deal of irrational anger here, accidentally uncovered by someone who just thought he was being funny.

I soon learnt that cyclists – the organised, spandex-uniformed variety – are very unhappy that some of them become victims of road accidents. They come second in such encounters because they’re not protected by a ton of steel, but cyclists believe motorists are out to get them. You might think everyday traffic accidents and once-off road closures are different subjects, but to cyclists, every subject is about motorists who kill cyclists. This was the persecution complex that my exaggerated note of frustration stirred up.

That I come from the country with the most bicycles per capita in the world made no difference. That I spent my entire childhood riding to school and delivering newspapers by bicycle didn’t matter. That I owned a bicycle and quite enjoyed riding it was not relevant. My long-held opinion, that there is inadequate provision on South African roads for cyclists, might have mattered if any of them had bothered to ask, but they didn’t.

I am a callous motorist intent on murdering innocent cyclists. The vitriol and anger still rages, years later. Every time one says something critical of cyclists, you get venom spat back.

I once dared to express the opinion that strong lights bobbing around on cyclists’ helmets are dangerous. Lights should instead be mounted to the bicycle itself where they don’t blind oncoming traffic. Response? I hate cyclists, and I want to kill them.

Out on an afternoon walk, I stepped off the pavement and held my dogs on a short leash to let some cyclists pass. As they swept past (three abreast, naturally), they loudly taunted the dogs. One hung a leg out as if to kick at them. The dogs were frantic, and I was tempted to loose them on the day-glow vermin, to show them just how funny they were being. Response? I hate cyclists, and want to kill them. (There, my cyclist friends, have a new quote, actually published, in a real article, to take out of context.)

Meeting cyclists in person, in the hope they’ll be more polite, is not advisable. When they don’t take over the television to inflict the Giro d’Testosterone on everyone else, they drink only water and complain that the place doesn’t sell sachets of cycling drugs. A former friend thought it was okay to arrive at lunch in genital-shaped lycra stinking of sweat, guffawed about my encounter with his thuggish mates, and said I had it coming.

Compare their behaviour to that of motorcyclists. Bikers politely hang back until you can move over to give them some space. Then they wave their thanks on the way past. Despite their macho image, bikers create a sense of camaraderie among fellow road users, a feeling that we’re all in this together. They know they’ll come off second-best if it gets to squabbling over a piece of tar. By contrast, the cyclist’s instinctive response to this annoying problem of sharing roads is to be rude and aggressive.

None of which has anything to do with the point that sparked all this hostility, which is whether cyclists have the right to close public roads for their personal use.

Especially in major cities, my view is they do not. This goes for cycling, box-cart racing, marathons, skateboarding, corporate walk-a-thons, parkour, charity dog walks or, indeed, motor-racing. We all pay for the roads, and we can all share them. If you want to arrange an event, pick somewhere sufficiently convenient that you don’t annoy everyone. If you think you have a good reason to hijack major arterial routes, at least ask residents for permission and offer to compensate them for their losses.

It is telling that the organisers of the annual race in Johannesburg, when I spoke to them at the time, said they had no intention of doing an independent survey to gauge the opinion of residents about road closures. They had, however, sent some cyclists around to ask (read: inform) businesses along the route.

That’s like sending the mafia around to ask if you’d care for a little protection. Do you think your fire insurance would let you refuse if a bunch of pumped-up goons in tights asked you to give up a day’s revenue?

Organisers know full well that residents of a major commercial city would oppose the request to shut it down for a day. They know that without residents’ consent, they’re in the wrong.

If the request were reasonable, such as when it avoids major routes, or it’s out in the country, or it’s in a town that depends on the tourism revenue, residents would probably go along with it. They might even appreciate the effort you put in to obtain their consent. But these big-city races are not a reasonable imposition on residents.

The guy who called me such colourful names behind my back did not feel this should be an obstacle to his telling me why I am wrong. He made a number of points.

Cycling races bring in revenue, mostly through tourism, he said. This may be true, but you’re robbing Peter to pay Paul. If I take over your commercial property by force, I’ll also be better off than before. Also, I won’t be paying your bond, so I’ll be able to offer lower prices. It’s a win-win situation: I win, and customers win. Only you lose, so stop whining.

Is my invasion of your property reasonable, in this light? Of course not. Even if you claim your event is on balance good for a city’s economy, you have not established your right to curtail people’s freedom to use their own roads. Besides, if your claim is true, you could offer compensation for inconvenience and financial losses to prove your case. Do that, and you’ll get consent, no problem.

It’s only “a very few” who “can’t drive to the pub”, he wrote. Wrong. A great number of people use the roads on Sundays, especially in big cities. Many do so for work. Supermarkets, hospitals, media companies, libraries, emergency services, restaurants, customer service departments, cinemas, maintenance crews, museums, builders; the list of companies that operate on Sundays is long. Some, like vehicle repair shops or DIY hardware centres, trade especially well on Sundays. Thousands of workers, many of whom really can’t afford it, lose a day’s wages to the selfish demands of rich cyclists.

Besides this, hundreds of thousands would like to attend church services, or visit their families for a traditional Sunday lunch, or watch some sport other than cycling with their friends. For every cyclist in the race, 100 people are being prevented from using the public roads they paid for.

There are alternative routes, he claimed. Actually, not in all cases. Try to get from Conduit Street, Johannesburg North (where I once lived) to Albury Road, Dunkeld West (where I had to be on that fateful Sunday). Not even the miles of gravel track that serves as a detour out of Johannesburg North can get you there. Many alternative routes – such as those that circumvent the entire 11.5km length of Jan Smuts Avenue from Braamfontein to Randburg – are very long and heavily congested. I don’t care about the carbon emissions, but I do care about wasting people’s time and money without their consent.

Race organisers donated R2 million to charity, he asserted. Well, so what if they did? The mafia is famous for funding schools and soup kitchens. Charitable giving allows the Catholic Church to cloak itself in layers of hypocritical sanctimony.

To be fair, as with cyclists, one might hazard to defend the Catholics. As with cyclists, there are undoubtedly decent people among them. But as with cyclists, the group as a whole has a very serious image problem because of the intolerance and anti-social behaviour of some among their number. The Church has to convince the public that this is just a minority that doesn’t speak for the rest, as with cyclists, and that they’re dealing with the problem. Until then, they’ll remain the butt of jokes for those of us who prefer our standards of behaviour to be civilised – as with cyclists.

Whether you’re a priest, a cyclist, or a mafia goon, you have no right to impose on the liberties of others, or cause them undue inconvenience or costs, without their consent.

If cyclists want to close a city, they should have the common decency to ask. But who am I kidding, expecting common decency from cyclists? DM


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