Near my flat there is a shared pavement and cycle path up quite a steep slope. Pedestrians have the alternative option of a flight of steps whilst cyclists must choose between the path or a busy traffic-filled roundabout.
Last night, we rounded the corner at the bottom of the slope to see several people trudging up, spread across the path with no space between them. I was in front, going at a snail’s pace since my bike is heavy and the basket was laden with carrier bags. I crawled up behind them, dinged my bell and said “excuse me”. The one woman in the group moved slightly aside and curtly remarked “Well you’re not supposed to be here anyway”. I replied, as cheerfully as I could, “Actually this is a cycle path”. She gave a hostile snort, so I asked “Would you like me to show you the sign?”
Now I guess I was expecting to either be ignored, hear a cold “no, I would not” or perhaps, on the off-chance, a grudging acceptance or even an apology. What I had not anticipated was her male companion responding “Shut up, f*****g b***h”. I was so astonished that I did what any nice middle-class girl does in these situations: became even nicer and more middle-class, and gasped “Excuse me?”. He replied “You f*****g b***h, I’ll push you off your f*****g bike”. His companions did nothing. I managed to squeak “I beg your pardon?” over my shoulder by which point Peter was passing the group and uttering a placating (and equally middle-class) “There’s no need for that”.
Now I understand that there are cyclists who whizz down pavements with no consideration for the pedestrians that do, in fact, have right of way. I appreciate that if you’ve been clipped by a handlebar or pushed into the road by a selfish lout on two wheels then that’s enough to engender a burning, generalised hatred. But I’m not one of those speed-freaks; I ride a lumbering beast which I can barely get up hills and only then in first gear. This wasn’t an encounter which justified such a vitriolic reaction.
I’m a fast walker and frequently ask dawdlers to move aside as I stride down the pavement. Nobody has ever objected to such an encounter, and there’s no genuine reason why being on a bicycle, especially one as slow-moving as mine, should merit a different reaction. As far as I could tell, this wasn’t a pedestrian claiming his rights so much as male entitlement being meted out onto an innocent woman. He bristled at my self-assurance and felt the need to wade right in, putting me in my place and letting me know that he was boss. It wasn’t immediately obvious that my boyfriend was cycling close behind, so as far as he was concerned I was just a single woman, an easy target for his impotent fury and irrelevant rage. The moment Peter weaved through their group, he didn’t say another word, which infuriated me still further because it was evident that his bitterness was caused less by my mode of transportation than my gender. He was scared and chastened by Peter, but aggravated and incensed by me. We were both on bikes. We both needed them to move aside. American suffragette Susan B. Anthony stated that the bicycle “has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world”. Perhaps this independent, self-sufficient woman with the audacity to ask a man to move aside for her convenience was more than Angry Man could bear?
Most tellingly, we cycled past another group of three older men shortly after that encounter, all of whom quickly moved aside and replied “a pleasure” when we offered thanks. Nonetheless, I remained shaken up by the incongruous encounter, not least because it had escalated so fast. Although we were close to home and behind locked doors within minutes, I was nervous to leave the ever-recognisable Grazel outside, an easy target for pissed-off passers-by.
But what to do in future? Am I obliged to remain at the back of the queue, lest someone is infuriated by my female, cycling presence? Is it my responsibility to avoid even the politest of interactions, so as to reduce the possibility of abuse? Does my bicycle – that symbol of emancipation – offer not only freedom but a greater target for sexist pigs? Short of taking a longer, riskier route or circumventing situations in which I’m forced to ask a man to make allowances for my presence (no matter how justified it may be), what can I do to avoid such altercations in the future? And more to the point: why should I have to worry about this at all?