I struggled with when to post this image. After all, the Gigantische Fiets Parade (Gibantic Bicycle Parade) was a celebration of cycling and, for the week following the event, I have promoted pro-cycling images. Over 2,000 cyclists out to celebrate and encourage cycling. An event held on a national holiday, well controlled by organisers – and yet the impatience of some drivers to cyclists brought about both verbal abuse and physical attack. The organisers had it almost completely under control. The parade would take up to 15 minutes to clear some intersections, but that is the reality of parades. There are areas of easy movement and areas of congestions, especially where a multi-laned section has to fold into a single lane.
At some intersections, there would be some impatience. Car horns would sound aggressively – and the riders had a simple solution. They would call out, cheer, shout, ring their bike bells and mute the horn with the sound of cheers and support. It is a clear sign that the aggression would be met with humour. And it usually was accepted as such.
But there were exceptions. Repeatedly on the ride, there were drivers who felt the parade was an interference to their lives. That the bikes had blocked the roads, taken something from them – if only the few minutes they would have to wait for the parade to pass. Cyclists soon learned how this was to be handled, the strategy of the organisers. No confrontation. Two or three cyclists would simply stop their bikes in front of the car and prevent them from advancing, unless they intended on driving over the cyclists.
Most drivers eventually surrendered to the event and waited. And then, the exceptions. Drivers woh edged their cars into the cycling flow, thinking they would simply force their way across, slowly, expecting cyclists to cede the way. Others claiming medical emergencies, or dire needs. To be clear, there was at least one emergency and organisers cleared the way for the vehicle to pass.
I saw one driver, when the parade had only two kilometres to the end, who had no patience for the event. He had pressed his car into the flow of cyclists, intent on simply forcing his way through the mass. Two cyclists stopped in front of him, blocked his passage. A group more gathered on the sides, as it was more than obvious the driver was immensely irritated, intent on forcing his way. A few moments passed, the driver, increasingly agitated, started revving his engine then slipped the clutch slightly and the car moved suddenly forward and hit one of the two cyclists in front. It was nothing too serious, neither bike not rider were harmed, but the aggression was clear.
Just a few centimetres more and there would have been some damage involved. Riders started shouting, crying out that it was unacceptable. A series of calls and boos and shouts – and the driver came out of the car, grabbed a second bike and tried to throw it across the road. There was a quick, short, violent exchange between the driver and the cyclist. It was cut short because, as soon as the event moved to an unquestionable physical attack, two police officers, dressed in civilian clothing, stepped forward and forcefully escorted the driver away from the scene.
They had been close all the time, but had remained silent, watching the situation. Police had been almost invisible throughout the ride. There were a couple of uniformed officers at the start, but I had the impression there were no police on the parade. That we were a self-regulating procession. The intervention has refuted that. I think these events are carefully provided to organisers to regulate. Velorution, the principal organisers, had captains on the road, regulating the intersections. There were no police in uniform, riding motorcycles, nor bicycles. It left the impression of the cyclists alone on the road.
The police were clearly there, watching and being aware of the situation. And they were giving liberty to infractions by both the cyclists and the drivers, opting for a few tempers to flare and then disappear, rather than increase tensions with an aggressive presence. At worst, some people would go home somewhat irritated at the cyclists. Most people, most drivers, most pedestrians, were sitting back enjoying the unending mass of wheels, often filming everything on their phones, enjoying the spectacle. Of course, the lack of visible police presence left the impression the cyclists were doing this without permission, without authority. And some, a small minority, felt they did not have to respect the parade.
Oddly, I think it is a directly related to them being cyclists. I have been in parades, demonstrations, marches, that advocate for workplace frustrations, climate change, international politics – and no matter the length of the march, drivers accept the event and sit back to watch the banners parade by. But there remains a chunk of the car driving population that has no tolerance for cyclists. They aggress us every day at traffic lights, on bike lanes, on city roads … That we now control the road for 15 minutes, something as contemptable as a bike, is seen as impossible. And the true colours come out.
Cyclists see this every single day. Drivers who squeeze us along the road, pressing us closer tho the parked cars, drivers who take the cyclists quadrant at traffic lights, leaving us to either stand on the pedestrian crossing, or lie in the thick of cars further back. Or the drivers who think if they accelerate and get their front wheel ahead of the bike, they can then turn right and forces into emergency steps to avoid a collision – an always the attitude they did nothing wrong.
The aggression remains one of the key reasons why these events have to continue. That laws must be passed to protect cyclists. That a proper bike infrastructure has to be advocated and implemented. There are far too few places in the world where cyclists are actually equal to motors. Organisations like GRACQ, Fietserbond, Pro Velo, Velorution, Critical Mass and all important advocates in this process. It is simply unfortunate that something like this parade has to be marred by physical attack. But it demonstrates that safety for cyclists remains a distant target.