Category Archives: Cycling

Zonked

I don’t quite know what was going on with my head this morning. I think I woke up too early, and then started to go back to sleep just as 6:15 came around and the part of my brain that both always knows what time it is and cares about whether I should get up or not* rudely jerked me awake. Although, and I don’t know about you lot, but when I’ve had to get up in these circumstances, ‘awake’ is too strong a word. ‘Upright’ probably puts it better. Should any clever scientists manage to look inside my brain, they’d probably see nothing but a blue screen and the instruction ‘press ctrl-alt-delete to continue’. One shower later, I had booted up into the mental equivalent of ‘safe mode’ and was able to manage one simple thought at a time (sock. on foot. Other sock. on other foot.). Dazedly, having dressed and gathered my stuff, I set off on my bike.

So here’s the thing. Normally even the short ride to Vauxhall is something I need to be fully alert for. Pedestrians, cars, other cyclists, plumber’s vans, pigeons – every single one of them is apparently out to get the lone cyclist and can be relied upon to do anything at any time. Generally, despite maintaining a heightened state of zen alertness, I still manage to be surprised and occasionally endangered every single trip. Yet this morning, when the only coherent thought I could manage to muster was ‘I wonder what it is I’ve forgotten?’**, for the first time ever, every other road user INCLUDING the plumber’s vans, gave me plenty of space, even overtaking at a respectful distance. Perhaps it’s true that the cars really do leave more room for wobbly looking cyclists. If you really want to be safe on your bike, never mind wearing a helmet, don’t even bother to wear your brain…

*No, I have no idea, and I’m not sure I want it either. I’d happily swap it for a sense of direction, or maybe the ability to think about what I’m going to say before I open my mouth. Any offers?

**My bike lock, as it happens.

Advertisements

Magical Mystery Tour…

…or why I should never be allowed out alone.

It should have been an easy bike ride.  Vauxhall to Tower Bridge, then back to home. Most of the route I’d done before, all nice and flat and not too many major right-turn-across-seventeen-lanes-of-snarling-traffic type junctions to negotiate. And, indeed, the ride out was lovely. I found my way with ease. The Cut is now a lovely smooth surface to cycle on, instead of resembling a system of WWI trenches as it has for the last 18 months. There was the odd useful bike lane, for a few hundred yards of the way. The sun even almost came out, on one occasion (it quickly went back in). And then I decided to turn round and head for home.

I’ve noticed this before, cycling in London. Somehow, the journey back is always three times as long as the journey out. And that’s nothing to do with being tired. London’s one-way system borders on the perverse, and is designed to funnel traffic into the big roads and big junctions, rather than let you thread through back streets away from the really scary bits. Throw in the fact that none of its streets seem to meet any other of its streets at a right angle, and a cyclist (me) with no sense of direction whatsoever, and you’ve got a recipe for disaster. The first hint of trouble came when I realised that the shortish hill I was busy powering up, trying to keep pace with the traffic, was in fact the final approach to London Bridge. It’s always a bad sign when you find yourself almost accidentally crossing the Thames. Having got out of that one, carried my bike down some steps, woven my way through the outskirts of Borough market, and more or less oriented myself correctly with the river on my right, I set off again. I found some streets I recognised and cycled with more confidence, planning what I would have for lunch. I got myself onto Union St, which I knew from the journey out took me back to the Cut. And from there, I was home free.

Except. Except. Union St is a one way street. It was a one-way street the way I wanted to go on the way out, and now here it was a one-way street the way I wanted to go on the way back. Hmmm. And not only that, instead of turning into the Cut, here I was suddenly turning right into Borough High St. Again. I still can’t work how it happened. I had somehow turned myself around 180 degrees and I was, in fact, going around in circles.

My contention is that somebody must have moved the streets around while I wasn’t looking. I have long considered that South London’s layout follows the rules of no known earthly geometry, and that fourth or possibly fifth dimensions are brought into play, particularly when using the underpass system at the Elephant. I now, I think, have experimental proof of this theory.

The other half is considering getting me fitted with a tracking device as a precaution. But meanwhile, if you do see a cyclist passing the same spot in the same direction two, three or even four times in a row, you may want to flag her down, ask her where she’s going, and give her some directions. Because there’s every likelihood that it will be me…

Take the autobus

Oh boy, I do hate a headwind. I didn’t even try to get on my bike on Monday and walked instead, a decision which left me with soaking wet feet for the rest of the day. Mmm, pleasant. So, as today was a commuting day, I was back on the bike. I rounded the first corner and I found myself at a standstill cycling into a particularly nasty slicing headwind that was (caution, TMI alert) hard enough to blow the snot from my nose*

What I need right now, I thought (apart from a handkerchief), is to be in a peloton. Or rather, not a peloton as that’s too fast and scary altogether, but something more like the autobus that the sprinters form at the back of the Tour de France to get them over the mountains and to the finish without being disqualified. And it struck me that a cycling ‘bus’ might just be the answer for some commutes. When I did the London Freewheel last year, the best bit wasn’t the ride through central London on the closed roads – it was simply too crowded at times to be fun – but the ride in from the mustering points to the event itself. Riding in a group of fellow cyclists, not going too fast, keeping together and following a well chosen route, just felt like a really pleasant and safe way to get through the streets of London, even on some major roads. And if you were taking it in turns to be in front, then everyone would have to do less work, and consequently would get into work less sweaty and dishevelled.

And here’s the beauty of it – you could do it tomorrow. You don’t need to campaign for bike lanes, or law changes, or wait for the entire country to wake up to the joys of cycling. You just need five or six (or even three or four) fellow cyclists who are going your way at roughly the same time of day. And there are enough cyclists now, at least in London, that that doesn’t seem like an impossible ask, especially with the assistance of t’interweb. I see dozens just streaming down the Kennington Road every morning, but heads down, ignoring each other, all in a world of their own and strung out along the road instead of in a nice, wind-efficient bunch.

So who’s with me? Who would prefer to ride in a group than plug away on their own? And who doesn’t ride now but might if it was safer, or more fun, or if there was a bit of a social element to the journey to work? Or are we cyclists all such curmudgeonly bastards that we’d rather go our own speed than take the autobus?

Detailed explanations of why this would not work in the comments box please…

*This is not a figure of speech, it really did

Disloyalty

This weekend saw the other half and I trekking up to town to a fancy bike shop to try out some very fancy bikes. I’ve been spending far too much time drooling over the pictures here (the bikes, not the girls, just in case you get the wrong idea) and fancied getting some of that Copenhagen chic for myself.

The bikes were lovely, in a gliding elegantly around town way, although a combination of a high riding position and wide, wide handlebars made for a rather skittish ride when you’re used to, well, my own bike. And brakes that actually stop the bike rather than squealing at it take a little getting used to. It’s hard to know whether I liked them because they are simply brand new bikes (with gears that work and everything), because they’re gorgeous looking, or because they’re actually a decent and practical bike as well as a bit of a fashion statement. Part of me knows that it’s not a bike I am hoping to buy here, but the whole continental bike-riding lifestyle where everybody cycles along clean open bike lanes and I will instantly look effortlessly well put together and stylish, at least when viewed from the back. So I’m going to try out some more ordinary bikes as well before taking the plunge.

But oh what a difference when I got on my own bike again this morning. What a foot-dragging, leaden ride to the station we had. It could just be the contrast with the shiny new bikes I’ve been trying out at the weekend. Or it could be because it has guessed…

What do you ride?

Faster Than a Speeding Milk-Float

…I am, embarassingly, not. Or not on my bike anyway as I discovered when one of them overtook me on the way to the station this morning. In my defence, I would like to point out that the milk-float was almost empty at the time, and that it had had a long, long, straight piece of road to accelerate in, and that had I known that the strange whining noise coming up behind me was a milk-float, I would have pedalled harder*. Just to avoid the humiliation, you understand.

But I’m not at least the slowest thing on two wheels. The private day school near where I work has obviously been having a bit of a ‘cycle to school’ campaign because there was a herd of tiny wobbly blazered cyclists heading towards its gates this morning. Which is all good stuff, especially among the Chelsea tractored classes. But, wobbly as they are, they were all wobbling along on the pavement. Oh dear. That’s hardly a good example to set the lower orders, is it? I may be a slow cyclist but I am a fast walker so I ended up having to walk in the road to get round them all. I wouldn’t want the little darlings back in their four-by-fours, obviously, but perhaps a little bit more practice on the ‘cycling in a straight line’ and ‘leaving a bit of room for people to pass’ part of the cycling proficiency badge may be in order. And then they can go out into traffic and be humiliated by Ernie by themselves.

*In retrospect the sound of clanking empty milk bottles should have tipped me off, but who even knew there still were milkfloats any more?

Lycra Louts

Now regular readers will know that I am a staunch defender of cyclists, but today I found the boot (shoe? cleat?) was on the other foot. The other half and I were crossing a zebra, on the second half of the crossing, with plenty of time for the approaching white van and cyclist to see us and react. White Van Man did what good drivers do – he started to slow as soon as he saw us, so we knew he had seen us and was prepared to stop and we had the confidence to start to cross before he’d come to a full halt. This meant that by the time he reached the crossing we were out of his way and he could drive off barely delayed at all. And the cyclist? The cyclist approached the crossing at full tilt shouting something that sounded like ‘Bleuaurghfarghgurghaaaarghgra’ but which was probably meant to mean ‘get out of my way you puny pedestrians! How dare you impede my mighty progress?’ We in turn responded with something which was intended to come out as ‘Excuse me, old chap, but we’re exercising our right of way on a Zebra crossing, as laid down in the Highway code and it would be a courtesy if you would come to a complete halt,’ but at that hour of the morning came out as ‘Arsehole!’

If the number of bikes in the underpass at Vauxhall are anything to go by, cycling rates in London have doubled or even tripled in the last year. We’re no longer a beleaguered minority and we should stop behaving as one. Now the finer points of cycling road etiquette may be open to interpretation and debate, but after today’s adventure I can offer you one good rule of thumb which should serve in almost all situations: if you’re behaving like more of a dick than White Van Man, it’s time to amend your behaviour.

(N)early Doors

I should point out before posting this that I have never yet been knocked off my bike. But in my head, I’ve died a thousand nasty deaths.

Today it was the old cyclist’s friend the driver’s side car door. Ironically enough, I was coming back from Battersea having decided to get back in the saddle, as it were, and take advantage of a brief gap in the rain. I had already endured buffetting head winds, and a bike that feels as though someone has attached ten pound weights to its back wheel. I’d passed a nasty and sobering-looking accident and negotiated four roundabouts safely and was on, as I thought, the home stretch and posibly – fatal mistake – beginning to relax.

In a sense, it was my fault. I’d seen the car pull up behind the van. I’d pulled out far enough to pass the car, but not, crucially, its door. I was signalling right and trying to get further over. It’s always a pain trying to pull out on a bike – I’d already had one lorry blast past me and I was looking over my right shoulder to see if the car behind me was going to do the same or let me into the gap. At that moment I sensed, rather than saw the parked car’s door open and I found myself powering through the tiny gap that remained – something I’d never have managed in cold blood but it’s amazing what adrenaline and the invokation of minor deities can do*.

But then again, why should it be my fault? I know that the proper cyclists say that the price of survival on the roads is eternal vigilance, that anyone will do anything at any time without any warning. But it wasn’t me that flung a car door open into the stream of traffic without looking for the (brightly coloured) cyclist first. Why is it that I have to maintain some sort of ninja-level awareness of everything that’s going on above, below, in front and around me while car drivers can be singing along to the radio and dreaming about what they’ll have for tea – and that’s if they’re not actually on their mobiles, quarrelling with their kids, or putting on their makeup in the rear view mirror?

I saw five or six little kids in high-vis vests being taught to cycle on the roads around our house yesterday. Some sort of council scheme, I think. This is fantastic. Get the kids out on their bikes, get them fit, get them and their parents out of their cars, save the planet, cut pollution and obesity in one fell swoop. But what happens when all these wobbly little kids have got their proficiency badges and want to actually cycle out there for real? If we really have to be the ninja cyclists, constantly alert, just to survive, they aren’t going to last five minutes.

We aren’t going to get more cyclists until the roads out there are safer. The roads aren’t going to get much safer until there are plenty more bikes. What is the answer? I don’t know, I truly don’t. Move to Copenhagen? I’m sorely tempted.

* who is the patron saint of cyclists, by the way? I think I owe him or her a candle or seven.