INDEX 2

THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS
Ever see Phantasm? That old horror movie about -- well, I'm not sure what, exactly, but it featured a cast of evil otherdimensional dwarves hungry for souls of the dead, aided by a nasty Tall Man who drove a hearse and practiced a wicked curve ball. If it doesn't ring any bells, maybe you were busy watching Breaking Away, out the same year.

Phantasm was a piece of film bloody enough to satisfy the inner fiend in any but the most deranged audience, but for me the truly scary bit came just before the closing credits, when some poor kid who has managed to dodge brain-seeking missiles and ghouls from both ends of the height chart for the last hour or so gazes into a mirror, sees more than the bad 70s haircut he bargained for, and gets pulled in by his lumbering pursuer. Neat trick, even if Lewis Carroll got there first.

It took a few years for the looking glass to regain my trust after that; a devastating setback for someone just learning how to preen. These days I no longer expect to get my soul stolen (unintentionally bartered, perhaps), and tend to find big business more frightening than diminutive demons. But mirrors can still be dangerous.

Most cyclists probably have little trouble eyeballing their reflection. Their conscience is clear. After all, two wheels good, four wheels bad, right?

Then why do so many of us cycle as if we hadn't left those two wheels behind? In other words, like motorists.

Some turn into Jeremy Paxman, that other frightening Tall Man: "Come on, come on..."

Impatient drivers can't stand to slow down for other drivers, let alone cyclists, and God alone help anyone indecisive or unlucky enough to make a mistake in their field of vision. Cycling Jeremy Paxmans have a similar zero tolerance policy towards pedestrians, and indeed those they regard as lesser beings: purely recreational cyclists. It appears to work on the same principal as the food chain.

Cars, diabolically for the most part, are equipped with horns, which in a properly run world would thoughtfully provoke the driver with a sharp but prudent electrical shock, both as a disincentive to misuse and as a cheap form of entertainment. I've been honked at (chastised?) for failing to use a cycle lane; for yielding to someone on a zebra crossing; for having the temerity to make a right-hand turn; for just being there.

A bicycle bell is admittedly a lower calibre weapon, though when it's nearly rung loose of its moorings by a cyclist intent on clearing a path through a dread sea of people, rather than employed as a warning to strays, it's hard to credit the difference. Granted, pedestrians can be breathtakingly cavalier (my polite way of saying Totally Blind), but when did brakes become verboten? Why must everyone be forced to scatter, undignified, like a frightened herd of antelope?

Neither breed has much respect for inconvenient laws. While I'm not really your law and order candidate, it intrigues me that the road often cultivates anarchy. It must strike at the heart of our shared desire for unlimited freedom of movement, because almost any curb on momentum is an affront, a challenge, and if successfully out-manoeuvred, a victory.

In their defence, cyclists can call expert witness and journalist Steve Worland, who in this space has described the 'latent violence' of the Highway Code towards cyclists. So, when in a jungle...

Motorists don't really need a defender. Like any 800lb gorilla.

Of course, a lot of cyclists ape motorists simply because a lot of them ARE motorists, and ride as aggressively as they drive. Others are just naturally inconsiderate, and don't require a full metal jacket to project and inflict their unlovely personality.

I have a car, too, which I try to use responsibly, meaning as little as possible. I drive for the same reason I ride my bike: There's something about being perched on wheels, whether two or four, that makes me feel self-sufficient and open to possibilities. Given the realities of car ownership and usership, this wonderful sense of independence happens to be less of an illusion on a bicycle.

As I'm fully versed in the evils of internal combustion and the reality of congestion and general auto-centric ugliness, these two parts of me don't coexist entirely comfortably, but I'm enough of a realist to accept that this is my world, enough of a pragmatist to hold on to my driving licence, and enough of an optimist to hope that, to paraphrase Tesco, every little bit of pedalling helps.

Besides, if I had to choose between car and bike, I know which one would win. The guy in the mirror is wearing a cycling helmet.

Cycling Plus, October 2000