Leeds’ Kirkstall Road is often at a standstill, and as the eve of Halloween descended, the normality in the life of a commuter appeared to be in session. Exiting the city was underway, only this time at a less pedestrian pace than usual. Steam masked growing frustration on the faces of those unable to flaunt their horsepower privileges; solitary, envious of those on foot making gains before them. The artery to the city was clogged, with few clear signs to the cause. The monotonous first chapter in the 40 hour week drew on.
Being a cyclist has its benefits. Like a fish too small for the net, rush hour traffic poses little to no threat, serving as a test for manoeuvrability, awareness and faith in fellow road users who command more mass and a killer blow. Gridlock traffic is a different story. Here, the bigger road users are aware they’re trapped, vulnerable almost, and so the panic sets in. They wriggle, desperate for an opening, all the while hoping an avenue may appear from thin air or a small gap – a small gap soon to be occupied by an oncoming cyclist? This is where it gets tricky being the small fish.
A few moments of anxiety came and went as the journey home that day reached its midway point. Slipping through the interconnected lanes of traffic – all facing varying degrees on a compass – the first stretches of Kirkstall Road’s texture were finally felt under wheel. The bus lane was in sight.
Like a den with no lion, the bus lanes of Leeds have always offered an unsettling sense of safety. When free to roam without their aboriginal species, the lanes are a gulf stream to cyclists; a privatised stretch of road that, when in use by those on self-propelled two wheels, do much to further mystify the windows of static cars.
50 yards or so separated myself from the relative relief of gridlock and the bus lane on Kirkstall Road. Under-taking is always a dangerous game, and with increased levels of frustration in fellow road users, the honourable cyclist within fell on his sword as I mounted the pavement and cheated my across the next 50 yards.
Alas! Order restored, and only at the cost of an added 15 minutes to my usual journey home it would seem. No signs were yet directing to the cause of the standstill for road bound traffic, but something felt peculiar.
Like most observant commuters, the intricacy of the journey to and from work can be recited down the finest detail. Therefore, when something upsets this clockwork like pattern of events, it is instantly distinguishable. On this such occasion, the irregularity was stemming from the others making use of the bus lane privileges. Rather than fellow cyclists or damned buses, I found myself followed by an irritable buzz which loomed ever nearer to my back wheel with each rotation of the pedals. Then came the first sighting.
The buzz abruptly announced itself as a swarm of excitable mopeds – a scrambler bike making up the rear of a formation which I was involuntarily a part of. In among the company of motorcycles, my usual smirk worn only for a driver unfortunate enough to witness my progression down Kirkstall Road was replaced with one of bemusement. Still with no a clear sign as to where the mopeds were heading, the myriad of blue lights ahead provided the first clue.
Little under 12 months ago, the petrol station below the rail arches on Kirkstall Road found itself awash with The River Aire. Beyond the flashing blue lights which wavered traffic away from the foray ahead, the stretch or road now found itself awash with free spirited scrambler bikes, mopeds, quads, dune buggies and spectators mounted on each side of the road. A soundscape of gargles and screeches grew ever more intrusive to the ears nearing my street placed at the epicentre of the action. Fury Road was running through Leeds on this Monday evening commute home. It was Halloween after all, so I was happy to indulge in disbelief for the time being.
Refuge in the close knit terraces seemed like the best place for now, regardless of what social phenomenon was occurring little over 20 feet away. Nonetheless, battening down the hatches couldn’t keep the hoarse sounds of bikes from intruding; fuelling an ever growing speculation to the cause of the occurrence. A desire to just take one last look burned fiercely, and then that would be that.
Surely, this is just a bunch of kids making use of the looser grip of the law, bizarrely granted on this day each year, right? Surely this will blow over in a few minutes? Despite the reassurances to remain inside, my body found itself unlocking the door and answering to the beckon call of mystery – a sensation so rarely coupled with Monday evening, the odds had to be in my favour.
Moving towards the collected mass of people, it was difficult to decipher the clientele lining the pavements each side of the fearless mavericks, who, aboard their two wheels of empowerment, were taking the law into their own hands, whilst shaking their fist at its flashing blue embodiment bookended at a 400 meter or so stretch. Who was here to see the spectacle, and who was simply caught up in awe of such decadence and depravity that they physically could not turn away? Siding with the latter, I became one with the masses, looking on ambiguously in amazement.
The renegade red arrows paraded back and forth along Leeds’ very own Circus Maximus. Bikes and quads intricately cutting between one another’s path, doing so on the fewest number of wheels required. While the general talent on show soothed the law breaking element of the actions, the crowd engrossed in their active peripherals was equally as interesting. Intertwined with the characters opting to remain anonymous, hidden behind Guy Fawkes masks of symbolic anti-power; accompanied children gazed on as more and more devilish displays were captured by the eyes and mobile phone. It was now quite obvious that the congregation was not merely an act of opportunistic spontaneity. More signs pointed to the signature of social media design.
On-lookers five rows deep, mesmerised children brought to catch a glimpse of the action, cars straddling the pavement to reserve the best views; the thick cloud hanging overhead grew denser as cyberspace was quick to be offered a front row seat. Traipsing up to door after door on this particular Halloween was no match for the treat of tricks being dished out on Kirkstall Road. Word spread, and the crowds descended.
The flashing blue lights kept their distance, but this only spared on the charges. Motorcycles carrying two sets of courage, goaded by the passive police presence, went in search of the red line limit, desperate to expose every last millimetre they were granted before any intervention from the law. As the show continued, cars and buses, faced with a pack of nimble and hungry sounding bikes, skulked off into the side streets with their tails between the legs. Wanting to rub my eyes in disbelief from another angle, I followed up the side road before re-joining the scene beyond the bulk of the crowds. Here’s where the initial feeling of intrigue met a resounding uncomfortableness, bordering on fear.
When standing amongst the community out to wonder at the spectacle, there was an unerring wave of achievement emitting from the aligned bodies, revelling in what they couldn’t believe they were getting away with. This was echoed in the showmanship of the riders, saluting their audience in attempts to savour every moment on the biggest stage they are likely to have experienced. As the party atmosphere thinned, the characters lining the street appeared less jubilant, and the folly of what was taking place began to set in. A singular figure with a menacing cyanine looked on, hoping his stance of authority would be recognised and respected by those leading the divisive anarchy on two wheels. With erupting fireworks frequently adding to the backing track, I opted to move along from the mutt in fear of falling victim to volatility.
A lone spectator, I now featured at the furthest end of the runway strip. Only a pair of luminous bollards, acting as a marker for the riders to end their run and fly back down the other side of road, separated myself between the static police presence. Engrossed, studying the unfolding action; any moment one of the bikes, mopeds or quads could lose control, veer off and label myself as a tragedy of an event that was supposed to demonstrate people and community power – regardless of its anarchic aims.
The sounds of sputtering engines mixed with airborne gun-powder, painting an ever more rowdy picture along the stretch of Kirkstall Road as the night wore on. Free to run amok in whatever way was saw fit, the chaotic noises lost their initial intrigue. An exotic Monday evening monotony set in.
Overhead, above the dense cloud of snapchat stories and Facebook Live, the rotary chug of a police helicopter wavered in and out. Back amongst the adoring fans, heads swivelled like Meer cats in search of an animal possessing airborne threat. For the most, the arrival of the helicopter was met with a wry smile; “we’ve done it” parts of the crowd exclaimed, in forcing the law play its most telling move on the chess board yet. Job done it would seem, mission accomplished, now for the circus to pack its bags and move along. Not quite.
Just like the flashing blue lights that tentatively surveyed Kirkstall Road, the police helicopter did little to deter the guile and showmanship of the riders. The buzz of further mopeds sensing the occasion descended, swarming every available space along the road and side streets. Although initially declined, the safety of the tightly knit terraces stuck out their hands and offered a second chance of refuge – which I now duly accepted.
Back between four walls, it was time to endure the qualities of a Monday evening. With the sounds of such a rare happening wrapping its hands at my door, it wasn’t long before I was drawn back outside – the excuse of needing to by milk setting the process in motion.
Heading away from the epicentre to where normality was marginally in session, aftershocks of bikes would wiz by as a reminder of who was now in charge of the local territory. An obsolete road crossing was manoeuvred, then a car armed to the teeth with eggs, and finally into the shop. Skimmed milk was the sole purchase – expiry date 11th November.
I retraced steps and was now back between my four familiar walls. The 11th hour of the evening hit and Kirkstall Road fell silent. The 1st of November came, normality resumed and entering the city had begun.
Photo: US National Archives