I belong to a website that enables touring cyclists to stay free at each other’s homes. (It’s called Warmshowers – warmshowers.org – so its combi boiler is obviously newer than mine.)
Last Friday evening a guy asked to stay on Monday night. Fine, I replied, here’s the address, what sort of breakfast would you like? (Some guest reviews can be picky: ‘Our stay was ruined. The host’s milk was organic skimmed as requested but not Fairtrade. I felt ill for the rest of the day…’)
I heard no more, but stayed in Monday night, just in case. He never turned up, but emailed two days later breezily apologising with, evidently, a mass-mailout. (It began ‘Hi Tim!’. Er, I’m Rob.) Clearly, having set up a range of free options, he went elsewhere and didn’t bother to inform me.
Bad manners often niggle disproportionately to the misdeed. We know from everyday cycling. You pull over to let an oncoming car pass and the driver blanks you. Cue sarcastic “You’re welcome!”, a head-shake, and mutter of “Honestly, some people!”
Or those miserable club riders who ignore your greetings as you pass on a glorious Dales back road. I’m not expecting a hug, just a returned “morning”, or smile, or raised forefinger. But no, they’re too important. You think cycling’s for enjoyment?
Or those pedestrians occupying the shared-use path, oblivious in their headphones, who think your polite tinging is part of the music. No point shouting obscenities and swearing – they might be listening to rap, and think that’s part of the mix too.
Or those businesses advertising on rusty, flat-tyred bicycle-billboards, locked up to valuable city centre parking space. Restaurant chain Wagamama’s recently copped a social media storm for exactly this in London. Mind you, having seen the terrible bikes used by some of its delivery cyclists, a swap might benefit both sides.
Or this, grimly familiar from helmet cam vigilantes on YouTube: car passes cyclist too close; cyclist instinctively reacts, perhaps with gesture or shout; car stops, driver gets out and threatens violence. It all brings out the worst of humanity, especially in the ensuing comments.
The factor behind it seems to be personal accountability. Hide behind something (the internet, a corporate shield) or inside something (streaming music, a car, a peloton) and it’s easy to forget others’ feelings. I like to think that being on a bike – open to the world and vice versa – fosters the reciprocal decency we call good manners, the lubricant that makes social interaction work smoothly, in much the same way as my folding-bike gears don’t.
The other week I was doing the salmon thing on a (two-way, of course) London Cycle Superhighway, cycling upstream against the inbound rush-hour commuter tide. Now, perhaps they were simply focused on getting to work before someone made them redundant, but there were no scowls or swears, just the odd grin and exchanged pleasantry. And I’ve never had arguments overtaking joggers on shared paths, thanks to being able to engage verbally and visually in a non-threatening way. Or perhaps the fact that I cycle so slowly it’s usually them overtaking.
We live in an evermore de-personalised world: automation, online friends, global corporates. Even self-driving cars are just around the corner. (Probably stuck in fact, waiting to turn at the lights but confused by a track-standing cyclist.) Programming them with the rules of the road is one thing, but how does even the smartest neural network learn good manners, when some freeloader tourists haven’t got it yet?
Being cyclists keeps us in touch with our humanity. Let’s not lose this. We’re torch-bearers of good manners. So next time you’re on a Yorkshire back road and some amiable plodders wave and say good morning, it’d be nice to acknowledge them.
Even if you just raise a friendly forefinger. According to my estimates, this action uses just 0.0015 calories (based on the 17 micromoles of adenosine triphosphate needed to move one gram of limb per second, biochemistry fans). If you use Warmshowers to come and stay, I’ll happily replenish that and more with bed and breakfast. Just, please, confirm if you’re actually turning up.
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