“Why did that car just throw coffee at us?” asked Matthew as we headed out of Bridgewater. I wiped coffee off my face and jersey as we crunched over the now empty styrene coffee cup lobbed from the window of a Ford Fiesta boom-box whose occupants stuck fingers up at us out the window as they sped off down the road.
How do you explain that to a six year old? If I’d had the energy to sprint and catch the finger sticking youths, I think I’d have found a new use for my penknife, slicing tyres and scratching go faster stripes. But it wouldn’t have set a very good example so I tried to make light of it. “Maybe they thought we were thirsty?” But no-one really got the joke.
I pedalled on fuming to myself. Not just at stupid yobs who think it’s a laugh to chuck coffee at cyclists but at all the cars, lorries, campervans and caravans that have cut us up, stare-eyed us, beeped at us or joked ‘Can’t you go any faster?’ or ‘John O Groats, you’ve got a long way to go then’ as they passed us on the hills. I mean it’s not like we’re looking for trouble and for the most part we’ve had none but the longer I ride for the more Anti-Carist I become.
Struggling up to Priddy in the Mendip hills a car crawled slowly past, the driver slowing down while passengers gawped stalk eyed at us, fat noses smeared against prison windows. There comes a point with a loaded tandem and trailer at which the reverse pull of gravity defies all attempts at riding uphill. As I reached that critical point and got off to push up the impossible gradient, the car pulled into a layby just ahead. ‘Great,’ I thought, ‘perhaps they’ll help.’ But no, they preferred to watch as we sweated and struggled up the hill. Almost without fail, pedestrians who have passed us in this kind of predicament have offered helped. On our way into Bristol, four drug-eyed teenagers even put their spliffs out to lend a hand, but motorists? No; they seem prefer to watch the show from the safety of their tin coccoon.
Traffic is not only choking me up but it’s choking this country. South of Bristol, we stopped briefly in the pretty village of Chew Magna, mysteriously (and incorrectly) associated in my mind with being Britain’s first Carbon Neutral community. The volume of cars speeding down single track lanes to get quickly to the village traffic jam soon put me right. Parked cars, vans and traffic queues made it hard to negotiate our way through the village. It’s sad to see once quiet rural environments strangled like this.
As a cyclist, it’s hard not to feel like a second class citizen. For sure we’re given cycle routes and facilities but they never match those given over to the car. In the Tesco car park in Taunton we struggled to find a place to park our tandems to do the weekly shop. Give them their due there was a signposted cycle path, and the place was accessible from a cycle track but there were only spaces for twenty ‘ordinary’ cycles while the car park must have had spaces for five hundred plus cars. Once we’d managed to park our bikes, they were obviously something of an inconvenience to those trying to get their trolleys back to their cars.
We’ve given over too much of our country to the car. Just look at the swathes of roads, eating into the countryside with each improvement and widening scheme, the acres and acres of car parks in towns, cities and shopping centres and all so we can be free to travel whereever we want whenever we want. Does no-one see the price of this freedom? We followed the cycle path on the M5 road bridge across the River Avon, cycling just yards from the deafening noise of thousands and thousands of vehicles going nowhere on important business, while we tried to pick our way along a cycle route littered with shards of broken indicators, glass, straps and debris from traffic accidents. That’s the price we pay for our freedom.
The people that do stop and talk to us ask almost us everyday, “Are you enjoying yourselves?” Well despite all this, we certainly are. Why would we bother if we didn’t? The freedom of the bike is an intoxicating thing. And I’ll enjoy it even more now I’ve got all that off my chest.