A crowded peleton is not the best place to spit

Even the most-refined ‘bicyclists’ do it after a while. Go on the rivet for more than five minutes or so and you will also want to expectorate from the saddle. All vestiges of decorum very quickly get dropped in these circumstances.

Spitting in public isn’t pretty but flinging the phlegm is fairly standard practice amongst professional athletes and sports-people of all kinds -  why not then, the humble bike commuter too?

There is no official etiquette for rasping your guts up whilst in the saddle but I have found that it helps yourself, and others, to follow a few simple ground rules.

The key maxim is, ‘look before you spit’. I always glance over my shoulder before launching an oral ‘projectile’. I have been sitting in someone’s wheel more than once, only to find myself dodging their unwanted sputum as it flies backwards towards me. Maybe that’s payback for being a wheelsucker!

I try to spit to the side rather than behind, just in case I am being followed and failed to check. If I’m desperate to unburden myself of the intolerable saliva buildup in my mouth and I see that I also have two-wheeled company behind, I will lean forward in the saddle and spit out as far ahead of me as possible. Of course given that I am moving in the same direction as the spittle, the laws of physics dictate that I will possibly catch up with the jettisoned matter and pass through the airborne cloud of bodily fluids. Thus I have managed to spit on myself more than once.

I remember my time as an English teacher in northern Sudan. There was nothing quite like getting a large green and red water melon from the market. My fellow teachers and I would amuse ourselves with spitting competitions, trying to see who could project the melon seeds the furthest from their mouths.

Some buses in the capital Khartoum had no spitting signs posted inside them. It wasn’t such a ridiculous notion. Many Sudanese people use ‘sa’ut’, a tobacco-based mixture which is rolled into a ball and placed in the mouth, lodged between lower gum and lip; or for the true officiandos, just left lying under the tongue. It’s the preferred method for getting a nicotine hit. The habit also involves copious spitting as the ‘saffa’ of ‘sa’ut’ generates lots of saliva. In my experience Sudanese friends and colleagues would fastidiously check the spaces around them – ensuring they were clear – before firing a ‘sa’ut’ and saliva missile onto the ground. Often they would fashion a makeshift spittoon out of an old milk powder tin half-filled with desert sand.

Most winter cycling gloves have a soft area of material on the rear of  the upper thumb. Officially, this may be for wiping sweat off your brow during your ride. But on cold winter’s mornings I use it for the less innocuous purpose of wiping my nose.

Similar to spitting is the more dramatic technique of forcing unwanted snot (for want of a better word) out of your nose. This is fraught with potential pitfalls. I employ the same check behind to see if I’m riding alone. Surely the only thing possibly worse than being showered in a strange cyclist’s spit, is to find yourself smeared in what has just come out of their nasal passages.

I clamp the clearer of my two nostrils shut with a finger and trumpet air through the other one as powerfully as I can. It’s probably an unhealthy thing to do in itself (similar to the perilous practice of holding your nose to block a powerful sneeze) but it usually works.

You need to be very aware of the prevalent climatic and environmental conditions whilst doing this. Be sure you know which way the wind is blowing before you go for broke. Blowing your nose into the open air when the wind is in your face will not end well.

Also, you must not employ the nose-blowing equivalent of the ‘Dutch reach’ which is the technique of opening your car door when inside the vehicle, with the arm furthest away from it. The theory is that this forces you to swivel in your seat, lean round and look behind as you go for the door handle. You will therefore see any approaching cyclist and avoid sending them sprawling as you open the door into their path.

But with nose evacuation, it’s always a good idea to point the right nostril towards the right hand side of your bike and vice versa with the left. Trying to clear your right nostril by aiming across your body to the left hand side of the road is asking for trouble. It goes without saying that the left hand should never be the one which holds closed the right nostril and vice versa. I have had enough unpleasantly-spattered bib-short legs to testify that this criss-cross method should be avoided at all times.

If you do mistakenly spit into the path of an oncoming roadie, it’s always good practice to apologise profusely as they motor past you. At worst, they will unload a string of expletives of the kind usually directed at inconsiderate drivers. Or they will merely subject you to a malevolent stare, worthy of Paddington Bear. Most of the time they will nod forgivingly as they drop you. Most cyclists I suspect have at some time, been perpetrators of this collapse in correct protocol, as well as being its victims.

A final word on the things other road users can throw in your path. Spitting is one thing but I have had several close calls with lighted cigarettes. Many drivers dangle a fag-clutching hand out of their window as they idle at a red light or crawl along in heavy traffic. Very few, in my experience, check behind them, or look in their mirrors, before doing so. Cycling through congested London means you often pedal in extremely close proximity to cars, buses and lorries as you filter through to the front of a line at red lights.

It’s worth looking ahead to clock which cars have open windows, as this is where a hand might suddenly shoot out brandishing a smouldering cigarette like a primitive weapon. Many people – including 20-a-day motorists – don’t regard cigarette butts as litter. So watch out too for flying fag ends as you ride up through the cars. Uncivilised behavior it may be, but even the most refined drivers do it from time to time.


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