White van vs cyclist

I’ve been waiting to tell the story of how a raging white van driver ran into me from behind and destroyed my bicycle. Now that everything is sorted out, I can.

On Tuesday last week, I was cycling to work as usual. I’d skipped cycling in favour of the bus on Monday after my epic overnight ride to Dunwich, but I was feeling perky and energetic on Tuesday, so I decided to get back on the bike. It’s by far the fastest way to work, after all. Yes, I get sweaty, but we have showers at work, and you get sweaty on the Underground, too! I’d rather sweat out in the open air, on the surface of the planet where human beings live.

This is—was—my bike, a Dahon Mu Uno. It’s a light, fast little single-speed folding bike with a fun coaster brake and 20” wheels. I’d upgraded mine with different pedals, handlebar, tyres, and saddle, and put about 20 km a day on it four or five days a week for over a year:

Customised Dahon Mu Uno

My normal route takes me west along Shaftesbury avenue. There’s a central lane with its own set of lights to turn right up Great Windmill Street. From there, I go straight on up Lexington Street and left into Beak Street. Here’s a map.

As I waited to turn right off Shaftesbury Avenue, it was clear that the driver of the van behind me was not particularly calm. He beeped impatiently even before the route to turn right was clear of oncoming traffic. He raced behind me up to the corner of Lexington Street and Beak Street, where I spotted him too close behind as I turned left.

Now, Beak Street itself is one way, and, whilst it’s easily wide enough for two vehicles to pass, there are always delivery vans parked up the right hand side, leaving only a car’s width for moving traffic. Like most of Soho, it’s also quite extravagantly rutted and potholed.

As I travelled along Beak Street, only a few hundred metres from work, I swung out to the right to circumnavigate a 20 cm-deep depression in the tarmac. As I returned to the centre of the lane, the white van was perilously close, apparently trying to undertake me (although there wasn’t space). He beeped. He then drove into the back of me.

Driving like a maniac is not illegal as such, but undertaking is, and driving into the back of vehicles in front is definitely frowned upon. And, in any case, Beak Street is not a main thoroughfare: it’s one of the winding streets of Soho, full of pedestrians and shops. Not the place to be racing, especially when I was cycling at over 20 km/h in any case.

Somehow, I jumped clear. I think I’d been aware of the danger, and prepared for the worst. As soon as the bumper touched my back wheel, I leapt off, landing on my feet safely in front, whilst my bike crunched under the front wheel of the van. If I hadn’t been riding a folding bike with a low crossbar, and if I hadn’t been riding flat platform pedals, things could have been worse. As it was, I was physically unscathed.

The driver stopped, and shouted:

—You braked! You were riding in the middle of the road!

Was it my fault? In the sense that I was a cyclist and I existed, yes. In any balanced evaluation, no.

Despite his aggression, I was calm. Surprisingly so. I simply slung off my bag, got out my notebook and pencil, and started writing down the details. A couple of pedestrians who had been on the pavement next to me stopped to bear witness. Someone emerged from the shop opposite and called across:

—We’ve got the whole thing on CCTV!

At that moment, two police officers turned up. They’d just started their beat and had been walking up Beak Street when they heard the commotion.

With the police present, everything was sorted out rather quickly. One of them interviewed me; the other interviewed the driver. My police officer was friendly and we had a jovial conversation. I suspect that the driver didn’t enjoy his chat quite so much, as he was quite contrite by the end of it. The police went into the shop to review the recording, and pronounced their opinion that the driver was at fault.

I went away with the details of the police, the eyewitnesses, and the driver—and of his employer.

Crushed Dahon Mu Uno

Crushed Dahon Mu Uno

Crushed Dahon Mu Uno

Oh, and a trashed bicycle. The rear wheel was destroyed. The pedals and chainset were bent, as was the rear part of the frame. You can’t just bend that back. For one thing, it would be difficult to get it to line up. For another, aluminium doesn’t thrive on repeated bending. As for the front half of the bike, well, it looked OK, but I couldn’t tell what stresses and distortions it had been subjected to under the van. In other words, it wasn’t something that I could safely ride any more, even if it were financially viable to replace the visibly damaged components.

Back at work, I phoned up the driver’s employer (also the owner of the vehicle), and explained the situation. I expressed my opinion that it might be most straightforward for all concerned if we avoided an inconvenient legal or insurance procedure, and I suggested that they simply repay me the cost of the bicycle plus the customisations I’d made to it.

They agreed. They sent me a cheque, which I’ve already cashed. They took away the broken bicycle today.

Now, you might argue that I should have attempted to soak them for more money. Perhaps that might have worked. But it would have been dishonest. I wasn’t hurt, although I did feel a bit shaky for a couple of days. All I really wanted was my bicycle back.

I decided to make some good out of the situation by replacing my bike with something better, so I have a superlight single-speed Brompton on order. It’s made to order, but should be ready in a month or so.

The absurdity of the fact that I can ride 186 km to Dunwich in the middle of the night without incident, and then get hit riding 10 km to work at 10 am a few days later, has not escaped me.

Meanwhile, my general distaste for Soho grows ever stronger. Frankly, it’s a shithole. But it always was a shithole. Some time in the last 15 years or so it became trendy: a trendy shithole, full of overpriced bad pubs and mediocre restaurants. In many ways, it’s still the same cramped, dirty, hostile, rat-infested quarter it ever was. The labyrinthine one-way systems make Soho a pain to get in and out of—and that’s even before you consider the throngs of tourists that infest the surrounding streets. No, I shall be very glad when we move out of Soho and I never have to go there again. Just one more month or so.


  1. Oliver

    Wrote at 2010-08-07 00:39 UTC using Firefox 3.6.8 on Windows Vista:

    And people wonder why I refuse to learn to drive. Tonight, as I was walking back home from helping out at Youth Club, I saw a woman drive by swigging from a bottle, doubtless it contained alcohol.

    It’s amazing, if someone passes a driving test, that means they should be trusted to drive carefully and safely.

    I’m glad you’re ok and at least you got a better bike out of it, although not in a way you’d prefer.
  2. Strawp

    Wrote at 2010-08-08 14:50 UTC using Chrome 5.0.375.99 on Linux:

    I just heard back from a PC handling an almost identical couple of events from a few weeks back. In my case, fortunately they were a couple of near misses.

    Same stupid woman both times, exact same near miss. Unfortunately for her it was clearly her work car park that she emerged from before the incidents, so I cycled in, snapped the car on my phone and sent a full report by email to the local police. Had a voicemail on Friday that they’ve now given her a bollocking.

    If anything it’s nice to have official affirmation that you’re in the right, regardless of how many times someone almost kills you.
  3. Xiangdian

    Wrote at 2010-08-22 08:25 UTC using Firefox 3.6.8 on Windows 7:

    Good to know you’re safe, Paul! Luckily you managed to avoided a worse accident. I’m wondering if there was certain sensor installed on the van (and other vehicles) so it would automatically keep a safety distance from other object on the way. It’s like shoal of fish in sea, they never crush to each other in crowd. Nice weekend.
  4. Mothballs

    Wrote at 2010-08-22 14:26 UTC using Firefox 3.6.8 on Windows 7:

    I’ve no wish to go all ‘two-sheds’ on you, but my gf really enjoyed driving until this year, when she’s had three cars written-off by idiots in as many months.

    On April 26th she’d done 220 miles of a 230-mile trip, when an elderly idiot came out of a junction and rammed her across the main road and into a stone wall. The remaining 10 miles was spent travelling on a spinal board.

    On June 17th she stopped at a roundabout to give way to a motor cycle, but the elderly idiot behind her didn’t. Cue spinal board.

    On July 12th, at another roundabout, it was a nurse who ploughed into her this time. The nurse was very contrite, then asked if she could borrow my gf’s mobile because she was late for work.

    What’s even more remarkable, is that the day after the ‘middle’ accident, a 20-year-old idiot came hurtling around a blind bend, on the wrong side of the road, and wrote off my daughter’s car. Airbag and seatbelt prevented more serious injuries.

    Although I sharpened my driving skills through being knocked off my bike several times, it seems many other road users learned to drive either on a Playstation or at a fairground. Perhaps it’s now time we replaced driving tests with an IQ test.
  5. Jon

    Wrote at 2010-09-06 09:49 UTC using Internet Explorer 7.0 on Windows XP:

    Glad you’re ok, Paul. I was going to add I enjoy reading your site – I suppose the outcome of this story was better than the means, so technically (and thankfully) still an enjoyable story.
  6. T

    Wrote at 2010-10-18 01:12 UTC using Firefox 3.6.10 on Windows XP:

    Putting the settlement through the official channels gets you a place on the official statistics and makes the driver pay a higher insurance premium, all good things. That said, the time I was reversed over (!) I just wanted away from there as fast as I could get myself (incredibly, I was undamaged) so I can understand anyone wanting to conclude the paperwork as quick as possible, especially if they’re paying all you’d get anyway.

    But the main thing I’m eager to hear is this – how does the Brompton compare? A post on that topic please!
  7. David

    Wrote at 2011-03-09 21:59 UTC using Chrome 9.0.597.107 on Windows XP:

    Glad nothing happened to you physically. I’ve been considering an MU Uno for sometime now. Sad to see a great bike destroyed like that.

    I am also beginning to commute via bicycle and fear just this type of thing. All I know is that I will always give way or at least try, to nut jobs like the one on your tail.

    Thanks for the post.