Sad but true: Childhood bullying is a good preparation for cycling on England’s roads

As a schoolchild I was subjected to some horrendous bullying for the crime of being (drrrrumroll) ginger. Explaining this, as an adult, it’s not unusual for other adults to ask why I didn’t just dye my hair, which amazes me because even at the age of 11 I had worked out that the problem wasn’t me being ginger. The problem was other people’s attitudes to me being ginger and those attitudes would have become more entrenched, not less, if I had dyed my hair brown. By the time I was in my teens I had worked out that it was important not to change but to maintain my appearance. If people rejected me because of the colour of my hair they weren’t worth knowing. As a reason for discriminating against someone, this was less than skin deep.

There is no doubt that the bullying scarred me. I attribute much of my later depression to the treatment I received at school. However, I wouldn’t necessarily change what happened because as an adult, it gave me something else. I realised that if I had changed my hair to brown and fitted in, there would have been something else that I or someone else had been picked on for. If my hair had fitted in, something else, probably even more minor, wouldn’t have done. The end result of kowtowing to bullies is that we all end up looking and acting in very similar ways to escape the process of bullying and yet this doesn’t prevent bullying. It encourages it by giving bullies the result that they want.

Whilst as a young teenager I was almost constantly told I was ugly and undesirable, in my late teens something changed. Men began to see me as someone they really, really wanted to shag. I’m under no illusions that their emotions were anything more complex than that but suddenly I was considered something of a trophy because of the very looks which had been mocked a couple of years before. It was confusing, and to be honest meant I didn’t really respect the men who were judging my appearance. I wasn’t pleased that they were judging me positively. They had already judged me so negatively and I was bright enough to realise that the issue wasn’t a positive or negative pronouncement on my appearance. The issue was that they were judging me on my appearance at all. I realised that good looks were a fortunate chance, not an achievement. For this realisation I am grateful. (I know that appearance is often an important part of attraction. It isn’t however a reason to shout at people across the street and loudly announce your verdict on their appearance).

This knowledge of bullying has stood me in good stead when it comes to cycling on English roads. Apart from anything else, it’s given me the confidence to judge what I’m up to based on facts, not on other people’s prejudices. It’s why I so dislike the othering of cyclists – that sense that what one does, they are all responsible for because they are all other and different, and linked together by that difference. Thus when someone argues that cyclists would be more popular if only they obeyed the rules, I don’t just agree. Instead, I looked beyond the surface and analyse what else might be going on.

When new kid on the Twitter block @CyclePledge emerged s/he made what might at first glance seem a reasonable case. That is: ask a few people what they dislike about cyclists. Listen to the response “It’s because they don’t obey the Highway Code” and set out to do two things, first get cyclists to pledge to obey the Highway Code and second try to prove that they already obey it. Cycle Pledge has taken something of a battering and I’d rather not add to it, but I do feel it necessary to explain why I object.

One of the things I learned from being bullied is that if you have an image problem, it’s a distinct possibility that the problem is in the eye of the beholder, not with you. Thus it’s quite likely that if people think cyclists don’t obey traffic regulations, the problem is one of perception rather than reality. And indeed this is the case. In the majority of collisions involving bikes, the fault lies with the driver, not the cyclist. The majority of cyclists stop at red lights despite the fact that road design and generalised fear make it quite tempting not to. Added to this, anecdotally, I find that when I’m told off for doing something wrong on a bike, I’m actually obeying the law and the other person is just wrong (e.g. when you’re cycling on a cycle path and get told off for cycling on the pavement by someone who’s just unobservant). Add into this the whole “road tax” argument and you can see that dislike of cyclists is based on perceptions, not what cyclists are actually doing. People don’t like cyclists and then look for reasons to justify this.

It becomes more obvious that “not obeying the Highway Code” is just an excuse when you look at who actually breaks traffic regulations i.e. motorists. The majority of drivers break laws concerning mobile phones and driving. According to the RAC   83% of drivers admit they speed regularly, whilst 92% say they are law-abiding, a stat that says almost all you need to know about attitudes to breaking traffic regulations. Indeed the notion that motorists are law abiding extends to the argument that speed is safe and the laws are wrong. There are whole websites devoted to giving warnings of the location of speed cameras and drivers complain when cameras are hidden although the obvious way to avoid a speeding fine is just not to speed.

Thus, if law breaking were a genuine reason not to like a group of road users, motorists would be amongst the most hated group in society, but they’re not. Instead, their ways around obeying the law are generally tolerated and sometimes lauded. So if law breakers are OK, you can see that no amount of pledging to obey the Highway Code is going to make anyone like a cyclist – because that’s not the real reason for the dislike. My bullying was less to do with my hair colour, more specifically to do with the fact that I didn’t care that I looked different and so made people feel insecure. Cyclists too are disliked for being part of a minority that challenges entrenched thinking.

There is an instructive asymmetry at play here. The children who bullied me for my hair colour were being obviously and thoroughly unreasonable. Adults expressing dislike for cyclists on the grounds that they disobey rules are on the face of it being reasonable which is why it’s easy to fall for their argument. Add in the fact that out of all cyclists everywhere some of them will break the rules at some point and you give people the perfect opportunity to say “yes, that’s right, yesterday I saw a cyclist on the pavement”. But, being bullied taught me much about human behaviour, principally that people will pick on difference and then rationalise their prejudice, and that is what is happening when people say they dislike cyclists for law breaking. As noted above, if law breaking, particularly dangerous law breaking, were their real problem, it would be drivers they hated.

Thus when Cycle Pledge argues that cyclists should pledge to say they obey the Highway Code, all s/he is really doing is promising that gingers will dye their hair. It’s confirming someone’s prejudice, not tackling it. The seeming reasonableness of the request make it more dangerous, not less. It’s the same prejudice being pandered to, it’s just managed to disguise itself with the semblance of rationality. It’s failing to get at the root cause of the dislike and instead tackling the post hoc justification for it.

The better option would be to campaign for cyclists to have designated spaces. At the moment, when you examine the design of our roads, towns and cities, what you see is space for cars, with a little room for pedestrians and very little specifically for cyclists. Our environment is designed to say “cyclists are not one of us, there is no room for them”. Redesign towns so that cyclists are included and are part of the accepted norm and you should find a shift in social attitudes towards that acceptance. Cyclists will stop being other when they are included within public spaces rather than designed out of them.

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84 thoughts on “Sad but true: Childhood bullying is a good preparation for cycling on England’s roads

  1. To the person called Smile who left a comment here – it hasn’t been approved because it uses homophobic language. I have a rule that I publish almost all comments whether positive or negative. However, I reserved the right not to publish any comments containing discriminatory language.

  2. Maybe the vast majority of car drivers drive considerately but there are so many of them that you can encounter the psychopath fraternity on every journey. Even the most mild mannered feel able to shout or beep their disapproval from inside a metal box but wouldn’t do the same on the open street. Their knowledge of the Highway Code is generally limited to a hazy alignment of prejudice with something they half read years ago before a driving test.
    The rules and arrangements of the road are designed solely by and for car drivers, largely to stop them killing each other, pedestrians, cyclists, babies in prams, the unborn.
    I don’t follow the rules. I try to give everyone due respect, stop for the pedestrian at the crossing but when everyone has cleared I’m going to get well out of the way of the car driver behind me. If the road is too dangerous (not often for me), then I will get on the footpath and if it’s busy then I’ll get off and push but if not, well I’m going to ride.
    If we stick to the rules then we are painting ourselves into a corner in which the car will maintain its dominant place on the road. Many towns realised the car was no good for trade and pedestrianized. We need to keep pushing to limit car use to covering long distances and not for those frequent sub-3 mile journeys.

  3. Cycling tends to be a marginalized transportation option in car dominant North America, some European countries and increasingly in some major Asian cities now.

    True that maybe being bullied in past as a child, may harden someone who takes up cycling as part of their lifestyle. To be a long time cyclist for transportation, one does have be aware sometimes that one will not often fit a lot of social circles at home and at work.

    Cycling can be a group activity but it is very much solo in the end. The cycling competency and motivation rests on the individual. So I guess being bullied and if one has become self-confident to remain true to one’s self and values, then cycling solo actually becomes enjoyable for taking you elsewhere in life. 🙂

    As for road traffic laws and who rules: the reality is that a 1 ton car is no match for a cyclist. I would suggest this becomes freakingly clear if you cycling on snow/ice in the winter here in Canada where we get a lot longer , colder winters. My greatest concern these days are drivers texting while driving and speeding…. the cyclist is not going to win such situations.

    1. True, Jean. Soft squidgy cyclists are vulnerable. I used to think that drivers should be made to behave. Now I think that’s impossible and that separate infrastructure is the answer. That way if a driver has one of those moments of not concentrating, you’re separated from them.

  4. Reblogged this on Biblioteca and commented:
    Triste pero cierto: el acoso infantil es una buena preparación para ser ciclista

    Una de las cosas que aprendí sobre el acoso es que si tienes un problema de imagen, hay una clara posibilidad de que el problema esté en el ojo del que mira, no en ti. Por lo tanto es muy probable que si la gente piensa que los ciclistas no obedecen las normas de tráfico, el problema es de su percepción más que de la realidad.

  5. Really great write up. The perspective on bullying and the ability to relate it to cycling is quite genius. Never really seen it this way before.👍

    1. Not quite sure what you mean by that, Tawhid. If you mean that cyclists perceive themselves as obeying rules when they don’t then I would ask you to look at the stats I linked to. They were put together by Transport for London and the police. Neither body is known to be pro-cycling so they’re not likely to bias the stats towards cyclists. Those stats show that cyclists are at least as law abiding as motorists, often more so.
      A few points to consider:
      Not all cyclists obey the rules. If you are determined to see cyclists as scofflaws you will therefore be able to find evidence. You just have to look at the 5 that go through the red light rather than the 20 that don’t. Check out theories about “observation bias”
      Just because one cyclist goes through a red light, doesn’t mean I do or that I’m responsible for them. We share a mode of transport, not a hive mind
      Often when cyclists are criticised for disobeying the law, they are following the rules. E.g. riding two abreast (legal in UK); riding on the “pavement” – have you checked it isn’t a shared use path before you start shouting?; not paying road tax – no-one does it was abolished in 1937, also check out how roads are funded; cycling in the middle of the lane – it’s correct road positioning and a safety measure. But if you’re determined to see cyclists as law breakers, that’s what you will see. I’d just ask that you think about why that might be, and look beyond the surface

      1. I said exactly your words, just was too short so u might have got confused. yes roads fund and etc do owe a lot, thats where I agreed to your blog

  6. This reminds me of a specific instance. Being in a minority, a group of relatives took us to court to fight us for custody of the kids and came up with unreasonable justifications for their prejudice.

  7. I can’t say much about cycling and England, because I’m not English and don’t cycle. I have experienced bullying though, pretty awful one. Your descriptions of it are very on-point. Bullies don’t bully you because you’re unique or jealous or anything. They do it for the sake of bullying someone. It’s pure entertainment, really. It doesn’t pain a pretty picture but it’s true.

    1. Thanks, Brain. I think some of it is entertainment but once I left school I realised that many of the children who had bullied me had quite disturbed backgrounds. Often they had been bullied by their own parents and so had learned it as an acceptable form of communication. Plus, feeling powerless because of the abuse at home they tried to regain power by picking on people at school who they perceived as weak and easy to push around.
      A lot of the run of the mill bullying I think was a kind of herd instinct. By defining me as outside the group they defined themselves as inside it and thus gave themselves a bit of protection against bullying from others. Rather weak I think but perhaps understandable in 12 year olds. I find it far less acceptable when I encounter similar attitudes from adults and, let’s face it, the internet is full of that kind of bullying!

  8. As a fellow cyclist, I long for the days when we (UK) catch up with the rest of Europe and have designated paths for us. However, the average UK motorist (who I have crossed on several occasions) will likely object to said designated cycle paths. On the other hand (to balance things up) people who use wheels should remember that pavements are for pedestrians NOT for bikes.

  9. Enjoyed reading your post. I’m pretty new to cycling and the thing which amazed me the most when I started riding on the roads is just how awful that 1-to-2-foot-from-the-kerb zone is! On many roads it’s almost impossible to ride on that part of the road as it’s so pot-holed and uneven. As a result, riders have to ride in a more central position, which in turn makes drivers more frustrated and tempted to make those dangerous manoeuvres to get past. I agree that an improved cycle network and designated spaces would encourage cycling and driving to coexist, but I expect that this would be expensive for local authorities and so influence their decision. Perhaps if they were to focus on improving the quality of roads, perhaps redesign drains so that there is not a 6inch lip down to the metal grate, it would allow road users to share the space more effectively, riders can ride more predictably (without having to weave and swerve) and the road surface would be improved for drivers too. Everyone’s a winner. I’ve been saying for a while now, all those in charge of maintaining highways should be made to cycle around before saying that road quality is acceptable.

    1. Councils are pushed for funds so often NOT maintaining the edge of roads is deliberate policy. There are lots of reasons though for staying away from the kerb. Try cycling at least where the left tyre tracks are – that way drivers will have to perform a proper overtaking manoeuvre. In the absence of decent cycling facilities, you can try vehicular cycling. Honestly, it’s no fun but there are elements to it that will keep you safer on the roads.

  10. Really refreshing perspective on such a universal theme. I’m from a part of Asia where cycling is not the norm, but cars are really expensive and I opt for cycling anyway. Very relatable to me I feel! Thanks for your words

  11. Being a ginger myself.. People, especially children, will point out and pick on the fact that we look so different. I love it now, it’s amazing how much having the same happen to me as a child, has allowed me to become who I am. I believe that it is not only discrimination, but also racism, and should not be allowed in schools; the same way other people aren’t allowed to be discriminated against.

    1. I’m with Reginald Hunter on this one – the English can’t even do racism properly, they just don’t like gingers. I think it stems from the same root i.e. a human need to be part of a group and, in order to form that group, they define someone as being outside of it.
      However, where I think it differs is that to the best of my knowledge gingerism is not institutionalised. No-one’s enslaved gingers because they’re ginger and whilst I’ve had absurd remarks about my outlandishness, I haven’t come across serious scientific papers saying I’m less intelligent or speculating that I have a different evolutionary origin (except, possibly, that stuff about gingers and Neanderthals). it’s not as if I have to suffer stop and search at the hand of police, or feel the justice system treats me differently, or have had to teach a child how to behave to avoid being shot by the police.
      It’s shitty, it’s prejudiced but I don’t think it’s actually racism. In part that’s because being a redhead is a recessive gene so can turn up at almost any point in any family. Thus it’s difficult to isolate into a particular group because you never know, even if you have brown hair, you could have a ginger child.
      These days I counter offensive ginger comments with “Oh f*ck off you boring, brown-haired c**t”. Utterly unsubtle, highly offensive, gets the point across.

  12. Thank you for writing on this universal theme. I primarily walk and take public transportation in Los Angeles and often experience as a pedestrian, aggression from drivers in the form of cars driving at me as I try to safely cross the street. Most often, the driver doesn’t see me despite extra efforts on my part to call his attention to my existence. There are times that a person looks completely cognizant that he is braking at the last second and seems to not get or doesn’t care that his driving behavior is actually life-threatening to another human being. I sometimes wonder what it would take to help drivers be more empathetic on the road.

    1. Inattentional blindness – they look but they don’t see. I’ve had drivers aim at me whilst walking across a pedestrian crossing with the pedestrian lights on green and the driving ones on red. It will take a massive social shift to change this in the UK and the US

    2. Many of us who walk along the L.A. River on the “bike path” (which the city defines as “off-street shared-use path for bicycles and pedestrians” have had bikers ride aggressively straight at us, or yell at us to get off. I have had to jump to avoid accidents with riders racing toward me refusing to move.

      The teen son of an acquaintance killed a woman younger than I when he hit her as she was walking and he riding his bike at speed. I find many bike riders in L.A., on the path, and in the streets, to be obnoxious and dangerous.

  13. I agree, and with Cliff Matthews, it’s about due respect. I get frustrated when I stop at a red light, only for a cyclist to go right past me and ignore it. This happened yesterday, he then caused a car to swerve as he carried on regardless – without a helmet on either!

    1. Thanks for the comment. Jumping a red light is illegal but not wearing a helmet isn’t. Wearing a helmet is recommended in the Highway Code but it certainly isn’t mandated. As a safety measure, PPE is a last resort, not the first so I’m not quite sure why you mentioned it here.

  14. What an excellent post!
    I’ve got so sick of car drivers trying to kill me that I now think that no-one should be allowed to drive until they can demonstrate that they’ve spent x number of hours as a cyclist on both urban and rural roads.
    As it happens I do consciously try to obey the Highway Code, both as a cyclist and as a driver, but in all honesty, it’s become a form of passive-aggression on my part. You’d be amazed how it upsets some of the psychopathically aggressive drivers 🙂

  15. I agree that the more that can be done to separate transport modes which are designed to move at vastly different speeds and have different masses, the better. Same reason semis/tractor-trailers (lorries) should have their own roads–and do, in some cases.

  16. Although not a cyclist myself, I approve of cycling as a “green” means of transportation and because of its attendant health benefits. However, I believe that if the public truly hated cyclists, our legislative bodies would ban cyclists from the roads. Make those rude cyclists burn fossil fuels, increase our carbon footprint and contribute to global warming like the rest of us!

  17. I totally agree that we should be working towards having designated cycling spaces. The roads are so busy and unsafe now that I fear for the life of cyclists whenever I see them on the roads. I’d love to get out on my bike more but am far too terrified to cycle on the roads now so only cycle on a mountain bike off-road which is a real shame.

    1. I’m sorry to hear that, Dorothy.
      As a teenager, I read Lord of the Flies having been warned it was shocking and had caused controversy. To me it just described what I knew.
      I get that bullying gives some people a sense of power and belonging – I don’t condone it, but I kind of understand it. What I don’t understand at all is the need to keep pushing someone who is obviously distressed.
      Humans are herd animals though and will go along with what the majority do and what seems acceptable. So I think it’s important to stand up and say something to bullies so that we’re not in a situation where more and more people think that such behaviour is acceptable. As the old saying goes, in order for evil to happen it is only necessary that the good do nothing.

  18. Enjoyed your post. Luckily I’ve never really had any problems as a cyclist (if you exclude the rude remarks shouted by morons from their cars but I guess that could be a another whole blog post) but one problem with cycling is that it is sometimes safer to disobey the rules e.g cycle on the pavement or go while the lights are still red to avoid a car turning into you and the Cycle Pledge really does you no favours in those situations.

  19. On gosh , you shod try wales , the natives dash round the tight corners at 60 miles an hour and you best get out if the way or get pushed into a ditch …. And that’s on a horse most times, when I’m out on my racer I hug the pavements !

  20. Your insight to human nature in prejudice is interesting. I agree that some infrastructure changes would be highly beneficial to cyclists, and it is for this reason the I rejoice whenever funding is secured for new trails in our area. I am curious what infrastructure changes you propose since you have transportation in mind while most bike trails are designed with recreation and fitness in mind.

    On a separate train of thought, whenever a motorists moves to insult a cyclist, I wish they would first think of the last time a cyclists cut them off, flicked them off, or in any way endangered their life. I think their answer to that would fail to justify their position.

  21. Great post. We are going through the same issue around cycling in Perth, trying to make law about registering bikes for the road etc. Thanks for the read.

  22. I liked your post so much. I can relate my life with yours. Because I too had a same life of bullying, untill i stop paying attention on people and start laughing on myself. 👍👍

  23. I haven’t had the pleasure of cycling, be it motor or foot, in the wonderful UK but I hope to one day. I just assumed that the culture was more forgiving for cyclists. I am not a competitive cyclist and I’ve never been a ginger (only half, my beard after high school turned a very bright ruddy brown).

    Still, an interesting read and we can always turn experiences directed towards us negatively in a positive fashion. Attitude is everything – carry, and cycle, on!

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