Nothing grinds my gears like cyclists hogging towpath
The Lagan Towpath in early summer is a place of quiet beauty. Weeping willows trail the tips of their branches in the river. A bumblebee sails over the blossom-laden hawthorns. Ducklings dabble gently in the shallows. You're dawdling along, taking it all in, when suddenly a vision in lurid yellow Lycra hurtles past, avoiding you by the merest hair's breadth, and travelling so fast that you can feel the blast of disturbed air he leaves in his wake. By the time you've regained your bearings this heedless cyclist is nothing more than a dot in the distance.
Feeling shaken? You've got off lightly. It's not uncommon for walkers who don't move out of the way fast enough for a rider's liking to receive a volley of foul-mouthed abuse, accompanied by a frenzied dinging of his bell. How dare mere pedestrians impede this superhero's progress towards glory?
Near-misses (with or without abuse) are an everyday occurrence on the towpath. It's a miracle that nobody has been seriously hurt - yet. My friend's 70-year-old father-in-law has been injured twice in recent weeks by reckless cyclists. On the first occasion he was out for a stroll when he noticed a number of bikes whizzing by at speed and decided to warn a mother and small child who were feeding the ducks, concerned that the pair could be knocked into the water. A cyclist hit him from behind, injuring his heel, and continued on without stopping. Three weeks later, his foot recovered, he ventured out on the towpath once more. This time he was clipped from behind by a cyclist and sent sprawling to the ground, skinning his knee, elbow and knuckles. Again, the cyclist paid no attention and carried on at great speed.
There's something seriously wrong when an older person, keen to maintain his fitness with a daily walk, cannot safely use a public pathway because a minority of cyclists insist on the right to act out their Tour de France fantasies. Though I don't believe that the Tour competitors make a habit of mowing down grandfathers and leaving them lying bleeding in the ditch.
What's gone wrong here? The Lagan Towpath is a fabulous resource for the citizens of Belfast, open to all, and it should be fairly shared. That means a bit of give and take by everybody: runners, dog-walkers, strollers and bike-owners. But the particular onus is on cyclists to take care and go slow when passing walkers, because they're the ones powering a potentially dangerous vehicle. This is confirmed by the Lagan Valley Towpath code, issued by DCAL, which states that cyclists must give way to pedestrians. The code also says that walkers should move to the left when they hear the polite "two tings of a bike" behind them. Who knew? I've been walking the towpath for years and I've never seen any notices publicising these guidelines yet.
Look, this is not an attack on all cyclists. I pass plenty of riders who are courteous and respectful, slowing down and giving me and my dog a wide berth, and never issuing more than the official DCAL-approved two tings on their bell. In return I keep my dog out of their way, smile and say good morning. Everybody's happy.
The problem is the arrogant speed-freaks. These guys - and yes, they do all seem to be guys - are the zealots of a new state-approved 'cyclocracy'. Cycling has been deemed to be good and green and worthy and healthy by the authorities. Unfortunately, a few privileged, sneering blokes take this to mean that they are entitled to natural dominance over routes such as the towpath. For them it's a religion, and public pathways are their breakneck pilgrimage routes. The heretics - non-cyclists like me - are sent scattering before their righteous wheels.
The path by the Lagan may be risky for walkers, but at least it's not as bad as the woods further down the river at Barnett's Demesne. Here, new purpose-built mountain bike trails have been cut through the trees. Nothing wrong with that. Unfortunately, however, some cyclists have started using a high mud-bank where the ordinary path and the bike-trail meets as a jump-off point, which means they're flying into the air right at pedestrian head-level. If you want a shot of hardcore adrenaline on your daily stroll, this is the place to go. It makes the Lagan Towpath look tame, like a walk in the park.