I’ve decided to become a cyclist in London.
Become is the right word because this a journey and I’m not there yet.
The location is important because cycling in London is terrifying to me. This is a scarily busy city with buses, cars, lorries, motorbikes and scooters jostling for space on old, congested, narrow roads. Rush hours fuelled by rage and pollution. It’s no place for the faint of heart. But now I’m facing the fear.
Growing up with bikes
My dad is a bike enthusiast and so I was lucky to always have a bike available growing up. Dad used to procure bikes from auctions. I remember him triumphantly claiming that a bike he bought for me had cost £13. I have no idea what make it was or how old it was. It just functioned well, had a pleasant green colour and got me from A to B. An occasional companion for a few years.
My expectations around the cost of bikes were obviously a bit skewed, a fact that didn’t become apparent until later in life when one of my friends decided to buy a bike. He chose an entry level model from Halfords, for around £200. I thought that was pretty extravagant until I found out that bikes could in fact cost up to £1,000! They weren’t quite the budget option I imagined.
A leisurely meander
I never really used a bike for day to day commuting to school or later, to work. Cycling was a leisure activity. As a kid I enjoyed family trips to the Manifold Valley, a cycling trail in the Peak District near where I grew up. You could meander along, spotting landmarks like Thor’s cave up on the hill, as the scenery changed from grassy meadows to tree lined canopies. At the end there was a cafe for teacakes and a glass of coke. That’s my happy memory of cycling. Let’s edit out the one time I got a little too enthusiastic cycling through a shallow puddle and somehow fell into it.
I’m partial to hiring a bike for a little bit of exploring on holidays. It makes me feel virtuous because it’s exercise. But in a leisurely way. That beer / cake / dinner feels earned and tastes even better after some cycling.
Amsterdam is the obvious choice. There are more than 881,000 bikes there after all. Since cycling is the norm, it feels safe and like cars will actually give way. You can hire bikes anywhere. On a particularly hot Easter weekend earlier this year, I joined many tourists wobbling around the canals for a couple of hours.
I’ve also biked round Martha’s Vineyard, an extremely cute island south of Cape Cod in the US. It doesn’t have many cars and has a lot of bike trails. I remember the wind from the sea whipping through my hair as I sped down unfamiliar lanes with white picket fences. Cycling was a beautiful way to see the scenery.
When in Montpellier brushing up on my French for a week, I found out there was a city bike scheme where you could easily hire a bike. I cycled out to the seaside with one of the girls from my language school, even though the weather wasn’t quite warm enough for beach time that day. We had a lovely lunch and cycled back to the city. It was challenging (slightly uphill on the way back) but I felt so triumphant afterwards.
The reputation of London cycling
Getting back to the city I live in, London has had a city bike scheme for years. Why haven’t I taken advantage of it, you ask? Well, I have witnessed colleagues commuting into offices I worked in for years too. They were variously lycra covered, sweaty, complaining about the state of work showers, having their bikes stolen (one poor person had their brand new bike stolen seconds after buying it), or being knocked off their bikes and injured. Regular cyclists are known to ride with cameras to capture incidents involving motorists. That doesn’t sound relaxing to me. At weekends I’d see the biking tourists narrowly avoiding buses in Covent Garden and think no, that’s not for me. I prefer walking. On pavements.
Finally though, I needed to go somewhere poorly served by public transport and I was persuaded to try the Santander bikes. Apart from the 32 pages of terms and conditions that you agree to but won’t read when you hire the bike (presumably all the risks associated with cycling in London), the experience is very well-designed. The bikes are located all over the place and cost £2 for 30 minutes. They are sturdy, have a way of storing your bag on the front and a built-in light for after dark. You simply use them as much as you want. then dock them again.
My first ride was a mix of exhilaration (the parks and by the river) and terror (the roads). You get to take in the city at a faster pace and feel the joy of your legs working to propel you to your destination. But the traffic is scary. Sometimes there are cycle lanes and you feel that a couple of inches are yours, but often cars and buses get very close. In particular, I disliked trying to turn at junctions. Bikes are supposed to go in front of cars, but that feels very precarious with the cars revving behind you. My legs turned to jelly and my feet missed the pedals as I tried to cycle fast ahead of the taxis trying to make it before the lights changed. It freaked me out so much that I started to dismount and cross via the pedestrian crossings, getting back on the bike after. With perseverance, I made my way to the destination. I arrived shaking and proud, determined to keep trying.
Sundays are a good cycling day as the traffic is usually lighter, especially in the morning. I’m experimenting with routes, finding how I can avoid junctions and get more of the blissful riverside or quiet back alleys where it might just be me and the bike for a few minutes. Feeling a connection to the city I call home but is still an unpredictable stranger at times.