Ask not for whom the bell tolls…

On Sunday, I went for a lovely ride in the early-spring sunshine. It was gorgeous out! The route I was taking deliberately avoided busier roads, as low sun had often been used to get a driver off without charge, after having driven into a cyclist.

COVID lockdown is (supposedly) still in full swing, though the number of people congregating here and there suggested many aren’t observing the lockdown rules. I obey those rules, so I was cycling solo, with 1 pannier on the bike, containing a few bits and bobs, including a flask of coffee and some flapjacks. After all, is a bike ride without a coffee stop even a bike ride?

At some point, near a hamlet in the middle of nowhere, I was slowly suffering up a steep hill. (In case you weren’t aware of it, read my Will’s Caveat post, which explains the changing sizes of hills). Up ahead, there was an old couple out for a stroll.

As is common in rural Devon lanes, the lane was just wide enough for a single car, with hedgerows on either side. At this point, it’d be pertinent for me to explain that I believe in the hierarchy of the roads, and that those who has the ability to do greatest harm must carry most responsibility to avoid causing harm. This is why I slow down, and often even stop for pedestrians, especially if they are old, or have young children.

As I was labouring up the hill, and gaining on the old couple, who were – quite understandably – walking side by side, I called out a friendly greeting: “Good afternoon! Please may I squeeze past? Such a beautiful day, isn’t it?”

You see, I don’t have a bell on my bike. This is deliberate, as I find human interaction is far better than the ding-ding of a bell. Ask almost any cyclist, and they’ll tell you of the very mixed reactions you get when ringing a bell at people – it ranges from polite smiles, to jumping as if you lit a firecracker underneath them, to outright fury.

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Given the choice between having a bell rung at you, which people so often interpret as an “Get out of my way, you peasant!”, and a friendly greeting (which in my case often leads to me stopping and having a friendly chat with complete strangers), which would you rather have?

The old couple both turned to look behind, with the old lady giving me a lovely smile, while the old man instantly being an angry old sod, replying in a short, gruff manner “And that’s why you need a bell!”

Negative reaction begets a negative reaction, and that all too often becomes a complete death-spiral of negativity escalating. I’m working hard on trying to avoid that in my life, with varying degrees of success. Until fairly recently, I would automatically have countered with “Duck off!” (where duck was spelled with an F, instead of a D, obviously) and I’m very proud that I didn’t do so.

Instead, I simply said “And that’s why I called out”, smiled, and cycled on, leaving him to the bitter anger he seems to barely manage to contain.

This incident’s been playing on my mind, more than I expected. I like old people, and generally, I’m respectful of them.

In South Africa, where I’m from, you can address an old man as madala. Directly translated from Zulu, it means simply “old man”, but the true meaning is utterly different from how “old man” is often used in western cultures, as a derogatory term.

When you address an old man as madala, you are showing respect and reverence for their age, and though it directly translates as “old man”, a better translation would probably be “wise one”.

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Yesterday, I encountered a grumpy old man, who was bloody rude for no reason at all, and also fortunate that I retained the self-control not to meet his rudeness with more of my own. There was no need for him to behave in that manner, as I was polite, friendly and respectful, and in no way does he qualify to be called madala.

But, and this is important, he was an individual, and he’s not an example of all old men, just like an idiot cyclist (and yes, of course there are a minority of those) is not an example of all cyclists.

If ever you’re out walking, and a cyclist either politely calls out, or rings their bell, try not to respond negatively? Most likely, they’re being respectful and friendly. Don’t jump out of the way, but when safe and convenient for you to do so, please simply move to the side, allowing them to carefully pass?

Importantly, when in a group, please don’t stand on both sides of the path, as that simply reduces the available space drastically. Instead, ensure everyone stays on the same side of the path, while holding young children’s hands and controlling any animals?

It’s not a war out there. We are not enemies. It is neither reasonable, nor acceptable to despise another human being, simply because their mode of travel (at that moment in time) is different to yours. Some people are natural-born idiots, and will be obnoxious, regardless of whether they are on foot, cycling or driving, and with such people, I’d much rather encounter them when they’re on foot.

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After all, road statistics paint a sobering picture: drivers kill an average of 5 people per day on the UK’s roads. Between 2005 and 2018, on average, drivers killed 42 pedestrians per year on the pavement.

Water buffalo is a species of animal not native to the UK, and are exceedingly rare here (I believe there are only seven such animals in the entire UK, but I’m happy to be corrected). Despite being astonishingly rare, water buffalo, during 2019, killed twice as many people in the UK as cyclists did.

In any average year, you are statistically far more likely to be killed, or injured, by cows, than by any cyclist.

So how about we all smile a bit more, and start making allowances for each other, and be less angry?

2 thoughts on “Ask not for whom the bell tolls…”

  1. Hey Madala (wise, not old),

    That’s a good point. I have a very loud horn on my bike to alert drivers to my presence. When encountering pedestrians I prefer to slow down and talk. If they say I should get a bell, I let them hear my horn and they are usually grateful I didn’t blast them from behind.

    I have had pedestrians apologise for their presence and always say there’s no need to do so. This is probably due to car culture where we are expected to defer to the faster road user at all times. Hopefully this culture can be counteracted with pedestrian crossing which go green when pressed rather than when the road is empty and similar things our councils can control.

  2. Water buffalo are clearly highly dangerous (one death in 2021 and two in 2020 – I couldn’t find 2019, but I didn’t look very hard). I am going to have to remember this particular statistic, when the usual Whataboutery rears its head again!

    Also – thanks to the random blog generator 🙂


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