The Danger in Sexism

No, this isn’t really about sexism. But sexism shines a light on what this article is really about.

Schumacher: a curious trigger

Few people will have missed the mainstream story of Formula 1′s most successful driver in history, Michael Schumacher, suffering a severe head injury whilst skiing in France. To my mind, that isn’t relevant to the stuff I normally write about. But, of course, even while Schumacher remains critical and in an induced coma, people – notably Beverley Turner – who do consider it relevant have seized the moment and already written articles calling for people to wear helmets on bikes, and for people to be mandated to do so.

A bit of background

This event, and the commentary it has triggered, is in some ways a confluence of multiple threads of my life. I’ve been an avid F1 watcher for the last 30 years; I’ve dabbled in motorsport; I’ve been skiing and snowboarding; I’ve dabbled in bicycle racing; I’ve ridden bikes off-piste on the steep, rocky slopes of the Alps and Pyrenées… and so on.

And equally I’ve driven a car to work and to the shops, ridden a bicycle to work and to the shops, and traversed snow and ice to get to work and to the shops.

All of these things are clearly related, but clearly different.

Driving is not driving, and cycling is not cycling

When I’ve driven to work along a dual carriageway in the morning with a 3-second gap to the car in front, it’s been clearly different to when I’ve driven a kart at 80mph just inches away from another kart in a fight to arrive at the next corner first. Both involve a motor vehicle, both involve me controlling it in a similar way, and both involve a dependency on the people around me not to do anything especially stupid.

Most, perhaps all, observers will be able to note the differences between those two types of driving; those differences being the reason I wear a helmet for one and not the other (granted, I’m not allowed on a racing track without a helmet, but believe me I’d have one anyway).

Equally, when I’ve ridden the short distance along a traffic-free path on my route to work, it’s been clearly different to when I’ve ridden through the night on particularly long rides or when I’ve been out trying to make my legs burn with pain. (Or indeed when I’ve piloted a bicycle bucking bronco-style down some precipitous rocky gorges in the high mountains.) Both involve a bicycle, both involve me controlling it in a similar way, and both involve a dependency on the people around me not to do anything especially stupid.

But few people see much of a difference between me riding to work or to the shops and me going out for a recreational ride (recreation, fitness, leisure, sport, call it what you will), despite the fact that I approach them in very different ways.

In may people’s eyes, for cycling, sport blurs into transport. Yet it needn’t.

Sexism and its hidden truth

Some of the criticisms I’ve seen of Turner’s article point out the vein of generalisation and sexism that runs through it: she talks of “macho twits … without a thought for the mothers and girlfriends who will pick up their pieces“, and signs off with “[Schumacher] wore a helmet. A good man does that for his family as much as for himself.

The Telegraph itself compounds that generalisation by publishing Turner’s article, and indeed every cycling-related article I’ve ever seen on their site, under an organisational hierarchy of “Men’s – Active – Recreational cycling”. Cycling is seen as recreation, and it’s the domain of the male.

But as arguably unpleasant as the generalisation is, it does highlight an important truth of cycling in Britain.

The root problem: infrastructure

The important thing to note is that this is all set in place by the current infrastructure in the UK. Almost all utility cycling must be undertaken by battling with imposing, frightening and often aggressive motor traffic. It’s a pressurised environment which is capable of supporting few users beyond committed enthusiasts and assertive, athletic riders, who do often tend to be male.

These are the people for whom sport does blur into transport. I’m one of them: mostly my cycle commute is short and goes via traffic-free roads and train stations, but on some days I choose the full 30-mile ride. I’m a reasonably fit male in my 30s and I’m an enthusiast. I love bikes, I love cycling – not just as a means of daily transport but also for the freedom, the challenge and sometimes the thrill. If you want some sort of insight then maybe read “Why I Love Cycling” by Turner’s husband, James Cracknell. Of course, I can relate to it. Ever since I started riding recreationally on the road I’ve tried to challenge myself with longer and longer distances. And there’s no shame in that, just as there’s no shame in the fact that whilst I drive remarkably sedately on the road, you’ll never see me as fired up as when I’m racing karts.

But the blurred boundary in cycling of competition, self-challenge and mere utility is harder for many to see because of the inevitable culture in Britain.

A pressured environment

To feel safe on the road I feel I need to travel at 20mph in traffic. I need to assertively claim road space prior to manoeuvres and hazards. And I need to shrug off the unnecessarily close or badly-timed passes that endanger me. In other words: I need fitness, confidence, and a tolerance of personal risk. I also (fortunately rarely, where I mostly ride) need to put up with people who shout verbal abuse simply because I’m on a bicycle. (Still, it could be worse.)

This infrastructure and this culture therefore skews things. It skews the risks that people face (such as, in James Cracknell’s case, being hit by a truck’s mirror) by imposing others’ actions and others’ vehicles on riders.

It skews the risks that people take, by ensuring that the population is artificially high in amateur athletes who are more likely to be speed-focused.

It skews the attitudes that people who ride bikes tend to have, because not only do they need to be robust to deal with the abuse, they are roughened by a constant lack of care and a certain level of malicious abuse from those around them.

And it skews the support that exists within the currently-cycling population for helmets, by again ensuring that the population is artificially high in people who are willing to accept physical endangerment of both their own making and others’, and who will therefore be more inclined both to want and to benefit from a helmet.

Change the environment

To ram home that point, I implore you to read (I say “read”; it’s mostly pictures) Mark Treasure’s final flourish of 2013, his article entitled “Not Dangerous“, and see if you can spot any “macho twits” in any of the many pictures.

You can’t, because – although The Netherlands doubtless has its fair share of macho twits – given the right infrastructure, “cyclists” turn out to be simply representative of the population as a whole.

It’s not cycling that makes “cyclists” what they are in the UK. It’s the infrastructure. It largely filters out those without the machismo, the bravado, the fitness, the thick skin and the ability to give as good as they get.

And the reason for that is that it largely removes the ability of people to ride in a calm, relaxed and perfectly safe manner.

The people in the photo above are cycling in the country with the safest cycling record in the world, where – despite only 1 in 1000 riders choosing to wear a helmetit takes 90 lifetimes to suffer a head injury.

All that’s needed is to provide an environment in which people like this are willing to cycle, and the whole tableau of skewing – the injury statistics, the attitudes, the gender split – is removed, and we see that cyclists are people and that cycling is safe.

7 thoughts on “The Danger in Sexism”

  1. It brings up the question of educating drivers, especially younger ones to go do a track day and get it out of their system, rather than treating their daily commute like a F1 race.
    The lines between transportation and leisure are blurred all over the place. Advertising is partly to blame; hot hatches, sport model MPV’s etc. The adverts practically say, you can live out your fantasies of being a racing driver and the car will look after you and your babies.
    I’m a transport cyclist and have nothing in common with a sport cyclist other than we are on two wheels.
    I think sexism IS part of the issue – public transport doesn’t feel safe (plus the uncertainty of if the bus/train/replacement bus will show at all) for women on their own late at night any more, women prefer to be in their safe little cars on their own. Personally, I used to bike around London all hours of the day or night – on a bike you are practically invisible and other than a slap on a the bum one night on the way home by a moped passenger, I’ve never had any problems. But to most women, the world is only safe from the confines of a car if you are on your own.
    Clean, well lit segregated cycle paths make mobility safe on many different levels, ask any Dutch woman and she will cycle home late on her own without a second thought. And from another angle, she will be with others because everyone cycles so 3/4 of her journey will most likely be next to a friend. When I cycle where I live in Ely I am mostly alone because I don’t have any other female friends who aren’t almost totally dependant on their cars for transport. Even if they own a bike, it’s ages since they used it, they don’t have lights and it has probably never been serviced.
    Similarly their public transport is safe to use at night, buses don’t just not show up in the Netherlands.
    We have created total car dependency by making public transport and cycling a risky business for women (or men!) on their own.

    1. “It brings up the question of educating drivers, especially younger ones to go do a track day and get it out of their system, rather than treating their daily commute like a F1 race.”

      I think this is an interesting point. On the face of it, I agree that it seems a sensible idea.

      But I have to recall my karting days. When you’ve spent the day racing at up to 80mph with your backside two inches from the ground, at points touching other karts at high speed, with no seatbelt or protection other than a helmet, no ABS, no suspension – and occasionally having contact or a spin and surviving just fine… Well, you get into a roadgoing car at 70mph on a big wide road, with a big safety cell around you and big, safe brakes and no real sensation of speed at all and – believe me – you feel absolutely, completely, perfectly safe. And I know back in those days when I returned from karting I drove too close to cars nearby.

      So, much as I’d like to, I don’t believe that idea really helps.

      That said, I don’t know how you solve the problem, other than perhaps one thing: to provide infrastructure that allows young people – and I suspect we’re mainly talking about young men – to conduct as much of their travel as possible without needing cars. Insurance policies are expensive for young drivers, and many would no doubt be happy not to “have to” pay the premiums.

      But, to be honest, it’s a problem that will never truly disappear. Young men love speed and adrenalin.

  2. Beverly Turner exhibits two related but distinct traits:
    Prejudice: To form an opinion without the evidence to support it.
    Bigotry: An unwillingness to relinquish a hard held opinion despite evidence to the contrary.

    When this is pointed out to them they invariably respond with the argument that their hard held opinion is no different to yours. Which of course depends on which side of the flat earth debate you sit on. It all depends on the evidence.

  3. James Cracknell’s injury arose because, riding after sunset on an open stretch of road, he omitted vital pieces of safety equipment relative to the hazards that exist for a solo cyclist riding on such roads. I gather he set off against the wishes of those wanting to film as well.

    We have seen similar incidents in the UK resulting in death, where cyclists on ‘open road’ sections of busy main roads have been hit from behind by drivers who have failed to move clear to overtake. Motorway maintenance crews manage the risk of this hazard by having a large truck parked between them and any potential driver who does not comply with the instructions to move into another lane, and recognising that this intervention will have an impact on the miscreant motorist the large truck has an energy absorbing cushion (although by John Adams rule for getting people to clearly recognise a hazard it should be a 6 foot long spike).

    Thus for a cycle ride slogging along busy main roads, especially where the rider(s) are focussed on making forward progress, and less likely to be checking on the hazard of vehicles approaching from the rear, there is a clear detail of risk management to have a means to be a) more visible and b) more protected. a) can be delivered by having substantially increased visibility – that is why slow moving tractors and other plant on the road have to have bright flashing orange beacons to make them stand out from faster moving vehicles and b) by way of protection you might consider having a support vehicle which has the capacity to absorb a rear-end impact travelling along behind you.

    For James Cracknell’s crash one might not sing the praises for his helmet wearing but ask why on roads where drivers can fall asleep and otherwise fail to notice vehicles they run into the rear of, his ride did not include provision of a vanguard vehicle travelling behind.

  4. A short note how perceptions are different in different coutries. In one of Germany’s biggest newspapers, after Schumacher’s and Merkel’s skiing accident (Merkel broke a a hip bone a few days ago), a skiing instructor felt the need to reassure skiers with the headline: “Skiing is not more dangerous than cycling” (http://www.zeit.de/sport/2014-01/skifahren-sicherheit-merkel-schumacher). So cyacling is the everyday safe activity that’s used as a baseline for comparison.

    In Germany, cycling is mostly seen as an everyday means of local transport, somewhere between walking and public transport or car. there is also a much clearer distinction between daily cycling and sports cycling, with somewhat different terminology. It’s common to use the verb “radeln” (literally: “to cycle”” for leisurely and slow utility cycling in all age groups, “Rad fahren” (literally “to drive a bike”, similar to “Auto fahren”=”drive a car”) as a neutral term for any type of cycling, and “Rad rennen” (“race a bike”) for sports. Although they are a bit fuzzy, I think many sports cyclists would be a bit annoyed if you call them “Radler” instead of “Radsportler” (“Bike sportsmen”). Of course, as you know, the “Radler” you see in towns are just a cross section of the population and when they have parked their bikes you don’t even notice them any more, unlike the UK where you’ll identify them immediately by their helmet, hi-vis sticking out of the bag, or other markers.

    Risk perception of course is also related to how familiar one is with the activity: People are worried about flying but not about burning down their house with a chip pan. In UK, cycling is a minority activity, and those who never cycle ot or try it for the first time overestimate the dangers.

    On the continent, however, utility cycling isn’t usually perceived as a high risk activity because everybody either does it or knows a close friend/family member who cycles, kids up to pensioners. So it just blends in with other daily routines and don’t think much about dangers. People also generally don’t lump all cyclists together, like the popular UK memes of “lycra louts” and “brigade”, because cyclists are too common.

    1. For three seasons of the year I can utilize bike transport in South-East Germany without anybody noticing that that’s how I get around, but in winter, that breaks down and I am back to the cyclist = weird dynamic to some extent.

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