Why cycling through gangs of teenagers is bad for your (mental) health

Here’s a good example of anti-social behaviour: my own.

Some time ago I was cycling along one of my regular routes near my home in North London. This route takes me through a great park, with football pitches, children’s playground, water play area, and outdoor gym. The park also includes a dedicated (and demarcated) cycle path as a main thoroughfare for cyclists heading to and from the north of the capital. As I was cycling along I saw ahead a gang of about 6 or 8 teenage boys standing around on the cycle path. They weren’t doing much, just standing there, chatting to each other. Right, I thought to myself, I’m not going to be forced off-course by these lot, and I hunkered down and swiftly shot through the middle of the group, in what was barely sufficient space and causing at least two of them to exclaim at my unexpected presence. A victory, I decided, even as I stopped at the traffic lights a mere 10 metres on, heart pounding, determined not to look over my shoulder, I had struck some sort of vague and poorly defined victory for common folk. But fear and/or aggression makes us do stupid things.

Imagine you’re me (go on, indulge me). You’re cycling home one evening through the park, you see this gang (group?) of boys standing in your path. You stand your ground, are not intimidated, and show them that cycling spaces are for cycling in. Holding your nerve you cut through the heart of their gathering and reclaim the space in a swift, daring and assertive manner. Reclaiming public space for everyday folk. Protecting the innocent, defending the weak. Heroic stuff, no doubt. Now imagine that those boys are a group of elderly female pensioners. All of a sudden, not quite so dashing.

The point is this: there are constantly people standing in the cycle lanes when they shouldn’t be. It happens to me every single time I cycle anywhere in London, I promise. 99% of the time those people who are either standing or walking in the cycle lane don’t notice me and – if left to their own devices – wouldn’t even know I’m there until they find themselves staring up at the sky, wondering what happened to their legs. So I have three choices. Number one: get their attention (thank you Government legislation that requires all new bikes to be fitted with a bell, though it’s a bit naff so I still use my voice mostly). Number two: divert around them. That’s generally not a good idea (or even possible) for a variety of reasons when on an arterial road (being bricked into the cycle lane is one reason, the articulated lorry closing in behind me is another). Final choice? I can stop. I do have breaks, they do work. Most of the time a combination of those three (a quick tinkle, whilst slowing down and a little swerve) is enough to keep me on my bike and pedestrians on their feet. And when I’m in parks specifically (and there’s normally room to manoeuvre and I’m cycling slower anyway because there are so many people around), a quick diversion around the obstructing individuals is no problem. They usually say thanks, or sorry. I reply that it’s no problem. And normally it isn’t a problem. If I’m in the park and see a group of pretty much anyone standing, or an individual walking in the cycle path, I will happily go out of my way to avoid them and carry on my way. The only exception to that are those who (and they’re usually men, funny that) are standing in the cycle path, see me from a distance, watch me cycle towards them and refuse to move. I begin to feel like I’m in some Arthurian jousting bout, and life’s just too short for that. These are public places for sharing, and I’m very happy to not pretend the park is some speed-dome. I quite like sharing, and it’s nice to be nice, after all.

So the question is, given that I am chivalry-on-wheels when it comes to anyone else, why did I make a point of being so aggressive towards those youngsters. North London is like any other urban jungle, and we have our variety of teen animal: from feral youth to church-goer. These boys weren’t doing anything. They weren’t being menacing or intimidating. They were just sanding there, in our park (mine and theirs), chatting. What I did was ultimately disrespectful. Not in the “what did you say about my mother?” bravado sense, but in the “society of mutual respect and peaceful cohabitation” everyday sense. We can go on until the cows come home about young people showing respect (or not) to the rest of society, but here I’m guilty of giving them less respect than I would have given anyone else in that position. I’m guilty of giving them less respect than they deserve. If i really wasn’t bothered by their presence, then why did I go out of my way to treat them worse then I’d treat anyone else in a similar position?

Ultimately it’s a minute slice of life that I’ve placed under the microscope here. I have no fears that any of them went to sleep that night and had nightmares that they were mowed down by irate cyclists. But it’s the little moments that matter, because they define who we are, everyday. And that day, I don’t think I particularly liked who I had defined.

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