Legs that won’t quit

I bike berlin sticker

My rear mudguard is one of the few things that has escaped unscathed.


Last week on Wednesday, I was hit by a bus. Thankfully not to the extent that I was pulverised; the coachdriver was turned right without checking to see if anyone was going across the side-road, so he was going fairly slowly, but I still ended up fully underneath the belly of his massive motor with my arms and legs painfully tangled among the sprockets of my bike. Some wonderful people taking signatures for the Rote Nasen immediately pulled me and my bike out from under the bus and gave me a red nose to cheer me up once the police had been and gone and the driver had skulked off guiltily into the distance.

The following Thursday, after I had celebrated a full week with no bicycle-related accidents, my victory was cut short when a speeding Hell’s Angel rocketed past me at a changing light and scalped my elbow with his handlebar-mirror. He turned and swore loudly at me as he drove away, and in general it was a pretty high-octane end to a boring schoolday, although I hadn’t been doing anything wrong at all.

Then, on the Friday morning, my thigh put a pretty impressive dent into some twonk’s car bonnet when he lurched gaily out of his driveway at such a speed that he wouldn’t have been able to see Godzilla coming at him, let alone a trundling cyclist. This was actual agony, not to mention the gall of the driver, who leapt out of his car and starting spluttering ‘Why did you-?! Why didn’t you-?! You should have-?!’ before realising that he didn’t really have anything to blame me for. I haven’t even my mum about this one yet because I don’t want her to worry – sorry mum! – but at any rate, I really hope that it’s one of those things where lightning doesn’t usually strike twice but if it strikes three or more times in a fortnight then lightning will leave you alone entirely for the rest of your life. Fingers crossed!

My legs are black and blue, and my mind is rattled. But the thing that troubles me most is how people have reacted when I have told them about these things that have happened (in an improbably short timespan) to me:

‘Oh god, girl, you really have to be so careful!’

‘Seriously dude, get a helmet. Always wear a helmet!’

‘Please try to look out for yourself, ok?’

I don’t want to criticise or undermine the thoughtful and kind things people have said – it’s lovely that people have my safety in mind – but it’s always the same: the cyclist is the one who has to protect themselves more, look out more, be more careful. It is a social reflex. The first reaction is never ‘They’ve got to do something to make drivers look where they’re going.’ When cyclists are in motor-related accidents, and always when they are tragically killed by cars or lorries or buses, the microscope comes down first of all on whether or not they were wearing a helmet, never on what the driver was playing at. And if the cyclist wasn’t wearing a helmet: bingo!! Another fantastic scaremongering article in the papers. It’s the cyclist’s fault for not being careful; for putting themselves at risk on the roads. It is victim shaming, and it’s outrageous. It’s the same fallacy as blaming female victims of sexual assault for wearing a miniskirt, and we shouldn’t accept it any longer.

The facts, should you be curious, are not what you would expect. Cycling is the safest form of travel in Berlin, regardless of helmet-wearage, with far fewer casualties proportionally than either driving or just being a pedestrian – bear that in mind next time you are walking down the pavement without a helmet and full body armour. In fact, the protective factor of helmets hasn’t been proven in any kind of definitive study at all; one scientist was hit twice while trying to research the behaviour of car drivers around helmeted cyclists. And cycling at night is even safer, with only 20% of cycle/vehicle accidents happening after dark. One of the main causes of cyclist deaths in traffic is exactly what happened to me with the bus: large vehicle turns right abruptly without looking to see if others are crossing that road. Just read through the stats on the ADFC homepage; they are fascinating and wholly edifying.

So why are we all in this mindset where you should just accept that car drivers are going to act like total toss-pots on the road, and that the only solution is for cyclists to dress like ice hockey players while frantically looking all around them all the time in a paranoid frenzy? Why is it always time to strap on a helmet but never time to widen the cycle lanes? Is it because cars are awesome and help you get all the chicks? Is it because secretly everyone thinks cyclists are smug? Or is it because pro-cycling policy, much like environmental protection policy or policy which supports farmers over supermarkets, has far too many angry, heavy fists pounding down on it from above to ever be taken seriously?

After the third accident on Friday I rode the rest of the way to school feeling scared, shaky, anxious. I did feel like I was doing something wrong, and like it might be a good idea to give up cycling altogether; but I loved cycling, and I loved my bike, and I felt like I was being given the choice between giving all that up or inevitably one day dying under the wheels of a cement truck. I feel like all cyclists are, implicitly, being asked to make that choice. That is why Critical Mass is so wonderful and important.

Critical Mass is a monthly event. I would call it a protest but it’s more like a party, made even better by the fact that cyclists are in general such awesome people; when I arrived, a bunch of them had already heard of my accident with the bus and welcomed me with concern and delight. On Critical Mass night, thousands of cyclists gather and cycle together through the city, all along the same route. That’s it. In most countries, you are allowed to take up a whole lane of traffic if you are more than a certain number of cyclists in a group, so everyone (mostly) sticks to one lane, and it’s entirely legal. The police come along just to make sure that everything stays safe and fight-free. Not just in Berlin; it’s an international movement, which takes place in dozens of cities across the world. But I would wager that Berlin is one of the coolest to partake in; I don’t have any Instagrammy photos to show you as it was way too dark, but imagine the sight of a huge swarm of glittering bike lights all flowing up the runway at Tempelhof Airport; a photo wouldn’t have done it justice. Everybody laughs, chats, plays music, wears silly wigs or dresses up their steed; this time there was a guy playing accordion on the back of a tandem, a dude dressed as Super Mario, and another dude with a full gazebo built on top of his bike as a roof. No, I’m not really sure why.

The idea isn’t to piss off drivers, although certainly that is a (not unpleasant) side effect, and it is really super-funny when car drivers get out of their cars and start shaking their fists like they’re being pranked by Dennis the Menace. The idea is simply to just show the council (and the government) how many cyclists there are out there, and how many of those are engaged and enthusiastic, love their city and their cycles, and want to be given their own space to travel. And that is literally all we are asking for: small changes in traffic management and driving regulations to make cycling an easy and sustainable choice, not a choice which requires genuine bravery and serious safety equipment. So I’m going to go every month I can. I hope that sometime soon it won’t be the only night of the month when I can ride without fear of being puréed on a right turn.



Rose T