Chris Hoy, cycling and the borg…

…or, Please stop blaming me for what that other person did

Hoy tweet

I suspect that Hoy’s had enough feedback from this tweet by now. In one sentence he managed to sum up all that’s wrong with “othering” and the pervasive attitude in British society that cycling is different and odd.

So why do I think Hoy is wrong? To illustrate this, I’ll discuss two things: first the way in which drivers are treated when they act criminally and second the accusations levelled at cyclists and the way in which they are held collectively responsible for the behaviour of others, behaviour over which they have no control.

In discussing driver behaviour I’ve looked at my local papers for the last couple of days. So pervasive is adverse driver behaviour that there’s no real need to look any further. Leanne Burnell has just been released from jail after killing a cyclist. She is not allowed anywhere near where the cyclist used to live. Burnell and her boyfriend were racing in a 30mph zone when they killed Amy Hofmeister. But is anyone saying that these two give drivers a bad name through their actions? After all they have basically murdered someone. Are they a small minority that give other drivers a bad rep by being irresponsible? If they are, it doesn’t feature anywhere in the reporting.

This drunk driver isn’t being held up as an example of why people dislike drivers. And then there’s teaching assistant Emma Walker, who decided to travel at twice the speed limit and drive on the wrong side of the road whilst her passengers begged her to stop. Walker got away with it but her three friends variously suffered brain damage, a dislocated hip meaning a shortened leg, a broken neck and a ruptured spleen. So is Walker giving drivers a bad reputation, and if not, why not? To answer this, let’s examine what it is cyclists are blamed for.


So this cyclist is blamed for their own death despite the fact that the actual stats on red light jumping tell a different story. As for outrunning cars, well yes cyclists will filter if cars are going slower, which they generally are in rush hour traffic. The Twit in question had no idea about the details of the accident or who had caused it, they just blamed the cyclist on the grounds that “they” ALL go through red lights.

Moving on:

Road tax

Now there are multiple problems with this. Road tax was abolished in 1937; VED is a tax on pollutants and bikes would be zero-rated; in the UK roads are public highways we all have a right to use; payment of something doesn’t confer a right to violence because you’re a bit irritated, and so on. But what you can see in that tweet is that cyclists are hated on erroneous grounds. Road tax is a side issue, it’s an excuse to justify a hatred that stems from something else. Nothing I do on a bike, whether stopping at a red light or not, is going to change this person’s prejudices because they aren’t based on facts.

And again:

hungover driver

It isn’t for this person to decide whether or not others have a need to be on the road. Driving with a hangover is at best inadvisable. And if your blood-alcohol content is still over the limit, it’s illegal. Again, cyclists doing nothing wrong, driver possibly breaking the law.
And the last one for today:


Again, cycling side by side isn’t actually illegal. Drivers accuse cyclists of doing something wrong even when cyclists are acting within the law. Thus whatever cyclists do, whether they act legally or illegally, this invective will be directed at them. Whereas no matter what drivers do, whether it’s actually killing someone, maiming their friends, or just threatening random violence against strangers, the individual is deemed to be responsible, not the group. So what is going on here?

Essentially driving is seen as a normal activity that almost every adult does. It’s the default option. There’s always an assumption that you’ve travelled by car or that you will travel by car. For evidence just look at invitations you get to events and the instructions for how to get there. Thus the behaviour, because it’s “normal” is disassociated from the person doing it. A person driving badly is an individual doing something normal but doing it wrongly.

In contrast, cycling is something other and different. People will ask you why you cycle, but they will rarely ask you why you drive. Thus if you cycle, you’re not disassociated from the activity, it is assumed to be part of your identity. And as such you’re then identified with everyone else who cycles, because this random abnormal behaviour identifies you and marks you out with “them”. Thus you can be blamed for what someone else does, as if you’re all part of some borg hive mind. And along with the blame comes the punishment – it’s OK to run one cyclist over because once someone saw another cyclist somewhere else doing something wrong.

Cyclists are not disliked for their law breaking. Most of the time they’re not breaking the law and much of the time those accusing them of so doing don’t really know what the law states. Cyclists are disliked for transgressing social boundaries, for not doing what’s “normal”, for questioning a consumerist culture and a lifestyle that relies completely on the motorcar.

Thus in arguing that the actions of a few cyclists taint those of the many, Hoy feeds into a prejudice rather than questioning it. He is validating the assumption that cyclists are other, different, blameworthy. Hoy thinks cyclists should earn respect on the road. Did Emma Walker earn respect for drivers? Did Emma Way, when she knocked down a cyclist and boasted about it? Once you realise that cyclists are a bullied minority, the notion that they should earn respect takes on a rather nastier tone. It’s like telling a bullied school child that the problem lies with them, that if only they would change their behaviour the bullies would go away rather than realising that the problem lies with the stupidity of the bullies. Cyclists shouldn’t have to earn respect any more than any other road group. The shift in attitude needs to come from the idiots who blame all cyclists for the behaviour of one cyclist. We need deeper cultural shifts so that the vulnerable are respected, not mocked and threatened. Shame on you Hoy, for adding to a bullying culture.

36 thoughts on “Chris Hoy, cycling and the borg…

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  1. Great post – and so true. I’ve written about exactly this topic a couple of times as well. There are so many things I see drivers doing – like talking on mobile phones while driving, speeding up as the lights change to amber, blocking the advance stop box and more besides – that no one seems to comment on because it’s normal, accepted behaviour. But cyclists, on the other hand…we’re definitely not normal.

    The problem is, of course, that the statistics show that most collisions between adult cyclist and motorists are solely the fault of the motorist. Even if I follow all the rules of the road, that will not stop a driver from, say, turning across my path without looking or indicating. There is only so much we cyclists can do to look after ourselves – we need drivers to accept their role in keeping us safe on the roads.

    1. It’s a good point. By saying it’s cyclists’ behaviour that gets them into trouble, we’re just absolving car drivers of their part of the blame.
      Just because someone sees a cyclist jump a red light doesn’t mean all cyclists do it or that you can act aggressively around one cyclist just because another one has annoyed you.

  2. nice summary of the arguments. I had a similar conversation at work yesterday about the ‘a car collided with a cyclist’ headline one often sees and the absolution of blame that confers on the car driver. Colleagues who did not cycle could just not see what the problem was and then reverted to stereotypes (pavements, RLjing etc).

    It would be nice if articles like this got outside the cycling ‘community’.into local and national newspapers rather than the usual “tweet-bait” one sees.

    1. Thanks Robbie. Sometimes I pitch to the Guardian’s CiF but even for that it’s quite difficult to get accepted. They took something on dressage, but haven’t accepted anything on cycling! And CiF is clickbait anyway.

  3. Dear Helen,

    Could you do a piece on the role of the ‘Milgram Effect’ in the Motorist/Cyclist Relationship, if you think it’s relevant? I’ve not seen it studied or written about in any hard hitting context (or indeed, in any context), but I feel it is a significant factor in people’s keenness to tweet about killing the vulnerable. There are too many similarities to ignore.

    I’ll try and make my case within the confines of a reply box. Anyway; the main elements that define the Milgram Experiment are 1) a significant power imbalance between the two people involved 2) a one-sided anonymity whereby the powerful person can observe the vulnerable, not not vice-verse 3) a separation of each person into dislocated environments, and 4) an authority figure that justifies an otherwise clearly immoral action.

    In the ME, the one-sided anonymity is apparent (provided by a one-way mirror or footage from another room). In a typical environment in which a motorist and cyclist are involved, the motorist would be overtaking the cyclist, giving them full view of the vulnerable party. As both sets of eyes are generally trained in the same direction, the cyclist does not see the motorist behind them, and even if they turned their head, the glare on the windscreen can obscure the motorist’s features.

    The significant power imbalance is apparent in both; the ability to administer electric shocks, and the ability to crush the vulnerable party with a roughly tonne of metal.

    As for the different environments, this is clear in the ME – the people are simply placed in separate rooms. As for the Mot/Cyc Scenario, the motorist is effectively removed from the wind, noise and weather of the outside world and isolated to their bubble by their car. They could also have the radio on, amplifying the difference. Furthermore, the different potential speeds of the two vehicles may mean the motorist’s mind is ‘further up the road’ than the cyclist’s, meaning that even if the two are physically close, they wouldn’t feel as if they’re ‘sharing the same space’ as they’re unlikely to be in that position for very long. Indeed, this may be why many motorists are so impatient to overtake and get to ‘where they feel they belong’.

    Finally, there is the issue of authority, which is clearly represented in the ME by the experimenter; ‘the guy in the white coat’. In the M/C Scenario, it is less obvious to pinpoint, for bicycles and motorcars DO essentially have the same given rights on the road. It is the way in which these rights are undermined and ignored (as mentioned in your article) that is interesting and significant. I’ll basically be paraphrasing what you’ve said from this point on, but the same points apply. Firstly, ‘riding a bike’ is a socially abnormal compared to ‘driving a car’, it ‘transgresses social boundaries’, it may make people feel uncomfortable about their own choices, and is essentially disobeys the ‘authority of the masses’. As you’ve also mentioned, there are also (false) claims to the illegitimacy of people to ride their bikes on the road. There are the claims that ‘cyclists don’t pay road tax’, despite the fact it doesn’t exist, despite the tax from VED going no more on the roads than the tax on apples, bananas and cigarettes, and despite VED being based on emissions in the first place. And then the ‘red light jumping’ claims that paint all people who ride a bicycle as incapable of sticking to the law, despite – as the linked article shows – this being far from representative of ‘all cyclists’. So really, this element of the Milgram Effect doesn’t come from a true authority figure, just as there was no true authority figure in the original Milgram Experiment. However, the extent to which claims of ‘not paying road tax’ have spread goes to show how simple it is to construct a fictitious authority-based justification if enough people share the same feelings. This is the last piece of the puzzle in lining the Milgram Experiment and a typical motorist/cyclist encounter up, and although cyclist’s illegitimacy is not naturally present in the rules of the road, it has none-the-less been made up and inserted there by a large number of ignorant people. It is furthering this step that Hoy’s comments come across as dangerous, for the claims like ‘you have to earn respect’ enforce the idea that the average motorist has the right to administer deluded ideas of ‘authority’ and ‘normality’ as they see fit.

    I’m sorry if this was a bit long, but as I’ve said, I’ve not seen it mentioned anywhere else. The Milgram Experiment is one of the most widely recognised psychological studies ever performed, and I think the similarities might be able to throw some light on the relationships between motorist and cyclist that play out on our roads every they. They might also go a way to explaining and understanding how ordinary people can not only imagine murdering the people they live, eat and work with when they see them riding bicycles, but be so brazen as to tweet their malicious fantasies to the wider world.

    Thank you for your article, I was glad to see those points summed up so solidly.

    Kind Regards,


    1. Thanks Max. I think you’ve pretty much written the article yourself though, in a good way!
      It is interesting and I often consider the Milgram experiment in various situations, for what it says about human nature. I’m not aware of any specific work that’s been done on the psychology of motorists around cyclists, although I’m sure there must be some somewhere. I’ll have a think about it.

      1. The Milgram Experiment turns out to have included some very dubious methodology that undermines its claims to have shown anything at all.

        There was a rash of politically animate pseudo-scientific ‘sociology’ in this period- in retrospect Milgram’s thesis and methods bear some resemblance to the Game Theory nonsense peddled by the Rank corporation and a notable paranoid schizophreniac called John Nash.

      2. Interesting that this thread has deviated slightly into a debate about Milgram.

        The irony is I was going to post that the behaviour of drivers towards cyclists on the road reminds me of that other experiment famous in pop-psychology, the Stanford mock-prison experiment.

        That wasn’t a terribly scientific study either, I guess its fair to say, but nevertheless, is it not really just about the dynamic that was at work there? A lot of human beings are latent bullies and if they are given power over others (by being allowed to wield and actively use deadly weapons on a habitual basis) that part of their nature will come out with a vengeance.

        The hatred is just a pretext for abusing power – its the desire to abuse power that is primary, not the hatred, so looking for rational reasons for the latter is a waste of time. Power corrupts, absolute power is even more fun, as the saying almost goes.

    1. Thank you for the link, David. I’m glad to have listened all the way through it, as my understanding of the experiment has never been particularly deep (although not entirely superficial). The accounts in the radio clip appear to muddy the water significantly, and seem to discredit the ‘effect’ being nearly as far-reaching as Milgram stated in his conclusions. The researcher interviewed does appear to probe and question the Experiment, rather than deny the existence (if that word can be used on such a vague concept) of the effect entirely. It hasn’t lead me to believe with certainty that there is absolutely nothing to be gleaned from the study, just that it’s a lot harder to tell exactly what (although it’s hard to deny that the ‘shocking percentages’ should be downsized somewhat).

      However, I still can’t help feeling that certain ‘themes’ that are at least associated with the Experiment can and do play a role in the relationship between car drivers and bicycle riders, and can go some way to explaining the animosity and resentment that can bubble up. Just as the results of the ME don’t seem to be as stark as originally stated, I don’t think the view that cyclists (or anyone else in an environment outside one’s car) are ‘worthless vermin’ is something that is held by the majority of people once they climb into an automobile; but when life and death are involved, even if only 1% of ‘motorists’ held (and acted upon) a bitter resentment towards ‘cyclists’, it would be significant. Any claim about ‘all motorists’ would be as ridiculous about those of ‘all cyclists’.

      However, it IS clear that a worrying number of people find it difficult to identify ‘cyclists’ as other human beings, doing the same thing they are: simply moving themselves around. The tweets in the article are examples of this attitude.

      I feel too much of the effort expended on discussing ‘roads, bikes and cars’ is based on hazy moral pretexts, often targeted at meaningless subgroups (i.e. cyclists) on non-existant grounds (i.e. road tax); when real, life-changing, preventable incidents are being ignored simply because the context that their performed within has been so heavily ‘normalised’.

      Really, I don’t think enough thought is being put into trying to understand WHY so many people feel comfortable not only possessing fantasies of murdering others (whose only difference is in transport style), but also feel it’s acceptable enough an idea to casually share it with the rest of the world.

      Of course, few people would say they serious intended to carry the actions in their tweets out, just as people pass off ‘rape-jokes’ as trivial and inconsequential, but both represent a dangerous set of underlying principles that seem to have become so common they’re essentially normalised. While the Milgram Experiment may not be as clear cut as it was claimed to be, I believe there are still a good number of dangerous attitudes that go unquestioned and unstudied for existing within the sphere of ‘normality’. I believe the treatment and venom directed towards vulnerable road users is one of them, and I don’t believe it’s getting enough attention.

      Again, thank you for your comment — it’s certainly opened by eyes. But I still believe there’s more to be understood in that general direction. People devalue each other far to easily. I think it’s worth understanding why.

      1. I haven’t read Gina Perry’s book-length analysis of the data Milgram suppressed, but it seems to me from the radio interview that given her findings, Perry is a lot more generous to Milgram than academic courtesy requires. The point that Milgram ran dozens of these experiments and only published about the one that seemed to fit the story he wanted to tell is pretty devastating: it means the chosen findings can be simply the product of random sample variation. Furthermore, that he adopted no consistent methodology for his ‘authority’ also confirms that this was a results-first-method-afterwards sort of ‘inquiry’.

        So, if there is anything deep about human nature to discuss here, I baulk at calling it the ‘Milgram effect’. To do so would be, as I see it, to reward scientific fraud. Sociology and anthropology often feature experiments that aren’t, but this is a particularly clear case of pretending to a scientific rigor that vanishes on inspection.

        Which is not to say that there is nothing cussed about humans to discuss in this area, but just to say that Milgram’s work cannot be a useful part of a conversation about it.

        It’s important to read Primo Levi. And thinkers with a good claim to have picked out dark factors in human motivation, in a suitably speculative way, include Simone Weil. Weil in particular is to be recommended around affliction, power, status.

        One story about cyclists that seems to make them most vulnerable to various forms of attack is ‘work harder and buy a car’, IE, that cycling can only be the product of low-status employment. And people deemed to be of low-status attract aggression from those who seek a way of demonstrating high-status. Clarkson. It’s called bullying. The same story attaches to identification of cyclists as an ‘out group’.

        Another fundamental point is that whatever their inferred social status, cyclists are physically vulnerable. And as Simone Weil picked out, also Iris Murdoch, Elias Canetti, others, there is an impulse to harm the vulnerable just in order to enjoy invulnerability. Delight-in-power. Humans are like that, you might say – but the important rider which goes to the dangerous fraud in Milgram’s work is: some human beings have developed those evil tastes more than others. Moreover, that important taste is lies outside Milgram’s more limited concern with attitudes to authority- and Milgram confuses the issue by pretending that if Humans merely thought and acted for themselves they would cease to be evil.

        A background conceptual drag on the conversation is this idiot word ‘psychopath’, which medicalises a perfectly ordinary kind of human evil. Moderns might be tempted to say (out loud, or to themselves in moments of stress) that when certain people get behind the wheel they become ‘psychopaths’. Well, no. But the dominant Humean picture that human motivations and sympathies are all naturally of the right sort is just false.

    2. As a mathematician, I sometimes characterize mathematics as a kind of cult whose followers believe that they can prove things using pieces of paper. However, your characterization of John Nash as “a notable paranoid schizophrenic” is unfair. John Nash has a mental illness. This has nothing to do with the validity or invalidity of game theory, either the mathematical formalism or whatever political or sociological ideas it inspires. You are picking on the mentally ill in order to invalidate their professional work — in a comment on an article about othering of minorities.

      1. I think that picking on the mentally ill in order to invalidate their professional work would certainly be shameful. That I have done this rests, I think, on the charge that paranoia has ‘nothing to do with the validity or invalidity of game theory’.

        I do not agree that paranoia has nothing to do with the validity or invalidity of game theory. Indeed I would take it that the sanity or otherwise of trust for other human beings, and the assumed vision of all humans as essentially pursuing the maximisation of interests, are the central matters at issue in that research.

        Furthermore, it is not I who introduced a possible link between John Nash’s own mental illness and the paranoid visions which gripped social and political thinking around this research. John Nash himself does that, explicitly and in terms, in an interview with Adam Curtis for a BBC documentary, which I recommend you seek out at the internet archive or on Youtube.

  4. It’s fascinating how certain notorious ‘experiments’ enter the mythology of academia/politics and remain there long after the disciplines that launched them have debunked methodology and or findings wholesale. Adam Curtis has a lot to say about this sort of cultural history. EG the anthropologists ‘studying’ violence and genetic relatedness, etc.

  5. You make good sound points. I’m an urban designer and CTC Councillor.

    One of the points I continue to make is that, like in N Europe, we should make cycling legitimate by the design of the provisions. If the road says that cycling is legitimate then other road users will recognise the provision. Of course the provision too has to be ‘legitimating’!

    Keep up the good work.


    1. Thanks, Graham. The repeated comments of “get on the path” when it’s a footpath not a bike path, plus complaints that cyclists go on the pavement, make it clear there isn’t room for cycling. I agree that better provision is part of legitimising cycling. As it is, the appalling provision in the UK makes it clear that people on bikes are considered the lowest of the low.

  6. Change every word in this article from “Cycling,” to “Motorcycling,” and the same discrimination from Motorists applies. Basically, anything which is not considered a “Vehicular Norm” falls under the scrutiny, and hatred, of the the motoring public, worldwide.

    The behavior Ms. Blackman described as “Normal Activity,” is the philosophical concept of Localization. Motorists understand other motorists due to their common frame of reference. They are Localized to each other by their shared activity. Anyone else is an outsider, thus via the axiom of human nature to fear and criticize that which is not understood, cyclists (and motorcyclists) are to be marginalized, feared, and to some motorists, even destroyed.

    Ain’t human nature, peachy.

  7. Very interesting post. I think much comes down to framing, i.e a simple mental desire to put things in boxes to speed a decision making process, particularly in a busy or stressful environment. Lumping ‘Cyclists’ together is one thing, but also you see it in other comments such as ‘Audi drivers’, or ‘tipper truck drivers’. But this prejudice can be broken- just as an example, I rode yesterday with my 7 yr old daughter; without exception, cars, vans etc passed ultra considerately and slowly. We were not ‘cyclists’ and were simply ‘dad with daughter’.

    I always make a point of thanking drivers as they begin to pass if they have been stuck behind me; by engaging with them in this way, I cease to be a ‘cyclist’ and become a ‘bloke riding along’. If I’m at the front at a red light, I’ll let the cars past before setting off. No punishment pass, and hopefully drivers who have had their stereotypes challenged, and then behaviour changes.

    My point- as cyclists, we can do our bit through not reinforcing drivers’ prejudices by not living up to the stereotypes, and those that do make it worse for all of us. To that end, Chris Hoy is right.

    1. PRSboy my problem with Hoy is that by arguing that all cyclists are collectively responsible for the action of bad cyclists, he is reinforcing prejudices not questioning them. In addition, poor cyclists are often labelled as such by people who do not understand why cyclists act in the way that they do.

      If you look for example at this article it criticises cyclists for acting in a way that is completely legal (and it is also a caricature). The writer expects to be able to drive everywhere in the manner that he likes and then becomes peeved when he has to slow down for two cyclists who are in primary position to force drivers into a correct overtake rather than encouraging them to squeeze past too fast and too close. Thus cyclists are labelled as “bad” by drivers who basically don’t understand traffic flow and aren’t getting their own way. This has little to do with cyclist behaviour and much to do with driver behaviour and expectations.

      Thus if we want to change drivers’ perceptions of cyclists, we cannot just consider cyclist behaviour but must also consider why drivers think in the way that they do. Generally this is because they go into a situation with a whole set of prejudices and misinformation. If someone doesn’t like cyclists, they will see bad behaviour in what is actually a very reasonable situation. I see this in the attitude to me on shared cycle paths when I ring my bell just so that people know I’m there. “Alright, alright, keep your hair on, I don’t have to move out of your way”. Erm, no, and I don’t expect you to, I’m just ringing my bell so you don’t shout “bloody hell, haven’t you got a bell, I didn’t know you were there”.

      On a bike you’re often damned if you do and damned if you don’t, not because of your own behaviour, but because of the prejudice that informs people’s perceptions of that behaviour.

    2. PRSboy, you completely missed the point. The negative stereotype that cyclists fulfill is that we engage in a non-normative behavior. If we do not live up to that stereotype, then we are not bicyclists. As the article very thoroughly pointed out, when someone says they are mad at cyclists for reckless or illegal behavior, they are simply being dishonest.

    1. Hadn’t seen that thread, Wolf. Interesting that he still missed the point about collective responsibility. He hasn’t engaged with me at all though because of the times my tweet was retweeted, I’ll have come up in his mentions over a hundred times.
      Maybe he’s a bit fed up with me. Maybe he changed his notifications a long time ago!

  8. Great post, and a fresh viewpoint.

    I’ll admit I have found myself muttering the same thing as Chris Hoy on occasion, but when you break it down as eloquently as you have Helen, I’m quite disappointed in myself for feeding into that blame culture.

    1. Thanks! I suspect most of us have at some point, it’s such a prevalent idea. It’s only when you really start examining it that you think ‘hang on, what is going on here?’

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