A 5-year-old wearing a bright red jacket cycles steadily along a wet London street in the half-light of a gray November day. His dad rides right behind him. A car approaches but doesn’t stop to let the child pass. “Are you not going to stop? What are you doing?” the father yells. Instead, the car passes the child at very close range — and then speeds off.
Known in the British cycling community as a “punishment pass,” this type of threat is an occupational hazard for anyone pedaling on two wheels in the U.K.
A video of this particular punishment pass ignited a fiery controversy online in early November. Some people were enraged the child had been threatened. But many others were just as angry at the 5-year-old and his father.
The video garnered millions of views and soon became the top story on the Daily Mail website — one of the most-visited news sites in the world. It unleashed a wave of hatred, with thousands blaming the boy’s father for “horrific parenting” and risking his son’s life by letting him out on the road.
“I faced insane levels of abuse,” the boy’s father Ashley Zhang-Borges, 36, told me. “Some of it was very direct threats of violence: ‘I’d run you over if I saw you’ or ‘hope they get you next time,’” he said. Others said they hoped his son would be killed.
Former Home Secretary Sajid Javid even weighed in on Twitter, also casting blame on the father. Although he later deleted the tweet, it was a signpost to how Britain’s cyclists are facing an onslaught of criticism amid the debate over who owns the roads in the U.K.
On one side, cyclists say they don’t feel safe on the roads, and there is not enough space for them when there should be. On the other, motorists see cyclists as a nuisance, people who hold up their travel time and don’t obey Britain’s Highway Code.
But the anti-cycling narrative is also frequently rooted in disdain for environmental policy. Cycling advocates are campaigning for safer streets for bikes amid a broader global movement to rethink the way cities are run as the world heats up. It’s causing fury among those who believe that the road should be for cars.
“A frenzy of high-minded moral purpose — allied to a lockdown culture of big government deciding how we should live our lives — has been the perfect excuse for town and city councils to impose a range of drastic ‘cycle-friendly’ measures with appalling consequences,” wrote politician-turned-broadcaster Nigel Farage in a 2020 Daily Mail op-ed during the lockdown. “Cyclists are the new kings of the highway, accountable to no one. Of course, the rest of us are told to shut up because cycling is the green alternative, better for the environment and healthy living.”
Right-wing media voices frequently paint cyclists as fanatical environmentalists. In another Daily Mail op-ed, Brendan O’Neill declared: “I’d rather take my chances with the carbon emissions from cars than with the moral emissions that emanate from these puffed-up, two-wheeled eco-warriors.”
On a 2017 BBC talk show debate about cycle lanes in Northern Ireland, Irish broadcaster George Hook even accused cyclists of being Nazis, saying they “used to wear brown shirts and sing the Hurst Wessel song.”
The anti-cycling lobby in the U.K. also has some powerful backers. Two Facebook groups called “Unblock the Embankment” and “Londoners for Transport” were formed to advocate for the rerouting of London’s flagship cycle lanes running along the river Thames. Although often presented as a grassroots movement, the groups were really overseen by Crosby Textor, a lobbying firm owned by Australian political strategist Lynton Crosby. Alongside efforts to tear up London’s cycling lanes, the group has orchestrated a number of social media disinformation campaigns, doing everything from influencing Zimbabwe election debates to burnishing the reputation of Saudi Arabian crown prince Mohammed bin Salman.
It is easy to imagine how these narratives trickle down and contribute to rising levels of online vitriol towards cyclists. People who post about cycling on social media say they regularly receive death threats. Anne Ramsey, a 55-year-old cyclist from Northern Ireland who posts under the handle “Cyclegranny,” told me she’d recently gotten a string of knife emojis in a private message. She used to post on Facebook about life on two wheels but was so inundated with abuse she had to leave the platform. “The level of aggression was extreme,” she said.
But cyclists too have popular online allies. Just outside leafy Regent’s Park, a notorious corner for collisions in London, drivers stuck in traffic are known to lurch out into the oncoming lane to overtake the line of cars. Cyclists coming out of the park can easily be hit — so one man has taken the matter into his own hands. Mike van Erp, 50, hides behind a hedge with his camera, waiting to pounce.
“Here we go,” he tells his YouTube audience of millions as he sees a car pull out of the traffic. Reciting the license plate number to his viewers, like a vigilante traffic cop, van Erp stands in front of the car trying to pass and tells them, “Go back!” Van Erp nicknamed the junction Gandalf’s Corner after the YouTuber was compared to the Lord of the Rings character shouting “you shall not pass.”
The videos are artistic in their own way — they somehow form a vignette of London in 2022. Doctors on their way to clinics, frustrated by the traffic, pull out illegally and immediately enter into a shouting match with van Erp. Drivers on the other side of the road yell words of encouragement or derision, and cyclists and motorbike riders whizzing past chime in.
“I do think there’s some kind of U.K. position that cyclists are like eco-warriors. Yeah, actually, I’m a terrible environmentalist,” van Erp laughed.
“I still don’t really understand why people enjoy watching it,” van Erp told me. But enjoy it they do. Van Erp’s YouTube channel has racked up almost 50 million views, and his supporters are fiercely protective. When I reached out publicly to van Erp to ask him for an interview about “Britain’s cycling wars,” his followers immediately fell on me, assuming I was preparing to write another anti-cycling hit piece. “You are part of the car cancer,” one follower wrote (full disclosure: I cycle in London myself, but am also learning to drive), and my phone pinged with notifications for days. It was a litmus test for how fraught the debate has become.
It is minor in comparison to the abuse van Erp receives from the other side. “I can’t wait for you to get your head kicked in you little t***,” read one recent message. “Ten years and you still haven’t been curb stomped, I’m astonished. What a loser you are. I’m telling you now one day you’re gonna get hurt.”
According to a 2021 study by Oxford researchers, on average, those who swapped their car for a bike for just one journey a day could decrease their carbon emissions by 67%.
“People don’t want to make any sacrifices, but no one’s going to think about those sacrifices when we have a global catastrophe that’s been caused by heating up the planet,” said Frances Cherry, 38. Cherry campaigns for “play streets” and set one up on her local road. Once every month, the road is closed to cars, and kids can play freely on the street, riding their bikes around. It harkens back to 1950s London, when passing cars in residential neighborhoods were a rarity.
When the pandemic hit, it offered a glimpse of what the world’s cities could look like without cars. Metropolises that previously were hostile to cyclists, where only the most foolhardy would take to the road on two wheels, suddenly became cycling havens.
During the lockdown in London, Cherry took her children on long bike rides through the suddenly quiet city, riding for miles across the capital as a way to get fresh air and exercise and pass the time. With her 5-year-old son, she cycled from Haggerston, in London’s East End, to St. James Park, a distance of almost five miles. “It felt almost unlimited. Like if it was safe he could go all that way. So I started questioning why people need a huge heavy machine to get any distance.” But soon enough, the cars returned.