MY TAKE: Cycling in London

The good, the bad and a little bit of the ugly

23 October, 2020

It’s been over half a year since I last stepped foot on a TFL bus and seven months since I felt the gush of the musty Underground air - the kiss of London we know all too well. For a few months, all I did was walk, that is, until I was introduced to the incredible technology of THE BICYCLE.

GIF credit: Alex Polo Girl on Bike

Now, my relationship with cycling had gone from being an avid road cycling enthusiast in my last few years at school to an “I hate cyclists once I’m behind the wheel” driver. I stopped cycling back in 2014 because it didn’t feel safe and reminded me of all the hours of pain spent on training rides.

Coming over here, I did not anticipate hopping back on the cycling bandwagon - maybe at most, to rent a bike to cycle alongside the scenic Lake Garda bike route in Northern Italy as part of my travel-every-weekend-with-Europe-on-your-doorstep expectation. My perception of commuting on a bike was basically built on Richard Hammond’s experience of cycling in Top Gear’s Car vs. Bicycle vs. Boat vs. Public Transport Cross-London race from back in 2007 which was that it was hectic, frustrating and definitely not something for the faint-hearted.

But somehow I’ve been reeled back into the world of lycra.

Two wheels and a creaky frame can get you pretty far in London. Places that seemed out of range to consider walking to, turned out to be only a 20 minute cruise on a bike. I’ve now made it through seven weeks of supply teaching work in schools across the city and have taken the bike every day without fail.

So after three months back in the saddle, here’s my take on the good, the bad and a little bit of the ugly of cycling in London:

👍 The upsides:

Staying off public transport
Ideal in a pandemic.
Also, free. Hello £30 savings a week.

Time efficiency
Like I said, you can get around the city pretty quickly on a bike. More often than not, you can get to places faster than in a car and match the journey time of public transport. For getting to a destination, cycling easily trumps walking; you really can get so much further with very little effort.

Seeing London
Being stuck in either eternal darkness or the confinements of lockdown had absolutely sapped the magic of London from my memory. The twinkle in the eye returned on one clear morning as Simon and I were gliding along the wide streets past Bank, spotting St Paul’s and the Shard before easing onto the Thames cycleway with the sights of the London Eye, Houses of Parliament and Big Ben under permanent construction (we’ve long dropped our expectations of ever seeing what lies beneath the scaffolding). We were cast into a state of wonderment; jeez we actually live here amongst the icons. We need to get out more.

...and Secret London
Taking various routes through the city has meant that I’ve discovered little places and pockets that I hadn’t seen before. Different architecture, different groups of people, different vibes, you name it. It’s amazing how breaking up the monotony of a repetitive A to B commute on public transport can open up your perspective on what’s out there.

Building a mental map
Connecting the dots, plugging the gaps, building a Sherlock Holmes mind palace - however you’d want to phrase it, this has been a brilliant perk to cycling. I’ve discovered back roads and preferred routes through town and can now memorise routes to new destinations after a quick glance at Google Maps.

Even if I’m too lazy to do any other exercise during the week, I can’t beat myself up if I’ve spent 40-50 minutes twice a day cycling to work. London is mostly flat but the further North or West I’ve gone for work, the more hills I’ve run into.

One of the big things I miss about driving is being able to crank up the radio and sing like nobody’s listening. Can’t quite do that on public transport without becoming the local weirdo. Can do it while riding.

There is also something extremely freeing about being able to coast or speed down a street on a bike, feeling the wind against the face and being able to change tack at any point along the way. Cruising home from Kew Gardens through Chelsea one Sunday afternoon with the streets to ourselves was the freest feeling I’ve felt in a long time.

Speaking of changing tack, cycling here isn’t all sunshine and angels.

👎 The downsides:

Suffocating on bus fumes
While commuting to work on main roads, I’ve found myself sandwiched between four buses - one in front, two behind and one passing. There’s no escape; I’m but a piece of bacon ready to be smoked.

Not fun.

Traffic lights
I don’t think I can sum this up any better than these are the great dividers and great equilisers. Being a patient, law-abiding citizen of the Motherland, 99% of the time, I'll stop at the traffic lights, even if metaphorical tumble weeds have been blowing past for the last minute. Meanwhile, lycra-clad cyclists and casual riders alike, seem to have zero qualms with racing or sauntering through red light intersections. I think it takes a critical mass of six riders running a red light at an empty intersection to make me even consider following suit. Who knows what will happen to me over time though? I have a feeling that this brazenness is dangerously infectious...

Falling victim to the elements
On the days when I can barely blink the rain out of my eyes or I arrive home slopping water everywhere, I question why I'm doing this to myself. Why oh why did I choose this over this bus which literally takes the same route as me? (Believe me, I noticed).

Not to mention, arriving to work dripping in water covered in specks of muck with a red face and then immediately being introduced to the Headteacher is not my ideal picture of how to make a professional first impression.

With near misses and the predictably unpredictable behaviour of drivers and pedestrians, it was inevitable that something was going to go wrong at some point.

Thursday 24th September.

It's funny how just that morning Simon had warned me to be extra careful because “the rain makes people do stupid things”. Nek minute, it was no longer pedal to the metal but slumming it on the street.

Five seconds earlier, I'd been heading down the road towards an intersection thinking that the biggest hazards were the oncoming cars waiting to turn right. Nope. The actual culprit snuck up on me. I heard a toot from behind but had no way of telling what it meant. Did it mean speed up? Apparently, it meant “I’m about to accelerate and turn left in front of you even though you’re a few metres from the intersection going straight.” With wet roads, I couldn’t come to a stop in time so I had to suddenly turn left to avoid slamming into the side of the car and this is when I ended up on the road, sliding across the intersection.

The driver didn’t even stop - evidently getting to their destination couldn’t wait another minute. Thankfully, a couple of lovely ladies rushed over to check that I was alright. They reassured me that I’d done nothing wrong before proceeding to saying that the driver was a d*** for doing that.

A little shaken, but relieved that I was basically unscathed, I picked myself up and continued on my commute to work. I was glad I could shake off the jitters in this first and (optimistically speaking) last accident with nothing more than a cut and some road grit.

Dodgy driving, car doors, trucks and foul weather pose constant risks to cyclists so it's best to err on the side of caution whenever you get out on the road.

🤙 Takeaways

I’m still a fan of the bike.

Despite this one accident, I have to say that cycling here in London feels considerably safer than back home in NZ. Drivers in the city are used to sharing the roads with cyclists and are generally very aware, patient and considerate. Particularly out East and along the Thames, there are some great streets for cycling with dedicated cycling lanes and lights that give you a head start on vehicles.

Cycling has got me motivated to get out and has reignited my excitement about living in London. Getting stuck in downpours sucks, but then again, when else would I find the true inspiration to belt out ‘Ironic’ or if it’s a dreadfully depressing day, a bit of Les Miserable ‘On my own’?

I've somehow got it stuck in my head that since I've made it half a year, I need to make it a full year of no tubes or buses. With cold, rainy days becoming increasingly common, I know the end of this streak is getting near but I’m going to keep it going as long as I can.

I want to ride my... 🚴‍♀️