The five things I’ve learnt as an everyday cyclist in London

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People ask me all the time, “dont you find cycling in London terrifying?” Apparently, it’s only the most insane amongst us who are actively choosing to take on two wheels in the UK’s capital. That’s not without its reasons. In the last four years, almost 23,000 incidents involving bicycles were recorded in London.

Still, scary stats aside, I love being a London cyclist. Nothing quite compares to the unparalleled freedom you feel when you ride, wind whipping your face as you skirt through traffic, or the joy that comes from fully exploring London’s nooks and crannies outside the confines of a narrow and limiting tube map. Now, I feel like I actually know my city.

I’m what you might describe as an ‘amateur’ or ‘everyday’ commuter. Cycling is primarily my means of getting from A to B. I don’t race, I don’t cycle competitively, and I’m ashamed to say that I’m still not entirely sure how to fix a puncture. Granted, I’m no pro. However, I have learned a thing or two in the three years since I’ve been braving London’s tarmac so I thought I’d share with you a few of my tidbits….

Youll make judgements about other (amateur) cyclists

Whether it’s the fact they’re wearing gaping trousers that flap in the wind (such an ill-informed choice they almost deserve to get caught in the spokes), riding minus lights, helmet and/or high-vis in the dead of night, or trying to undertake a bus in its blind spot, you’ll find yourself ever more judgemental of other cyclists’ poor choices on the road.

I’ve been known to share grimaces with other cyclists as we mutually acknowledge the faux-pas of a rider who’s an even great amateur than ourselves. Sure, we might not own the lycra bodysuit, but we understand the basic rules of the road. And we are superior for it. And alive to tell the tale.

Youll make judgements about other (pro) cyclists 

Mainly, trying to convince yourself that their expensive frames and spindly wheels are a total waste of money because you’re jealous of the effortless way they glide up the Archway road whilst you’re left puffing behind pathetically in their tailwind.

Sucks to have a cheap bike sometimes. Also sucks to be unfit. Thus…

Youll learn to accept the limitations of your hybrid (and fitness levels)

Okay, so I don’t outwardly ‘race’ or ‘cycle competitively’ – but everyone’s indulged in a bit of secret “roadie racing” with their fellow commuters (right?).

Sometimes, a surge of adrenaline hits me mid-commute and I’ll find myself steaming ahead in a bid to overtake the two grand Giant ahead of me (unbeknownst to both bike and rider). The problem is, once overtaken, you’ve got to maintain that momentum and speed. Y’know, to avoid looking like a moron. After about two minutes my legs are inevitably burning and my lungs are on fire. I’ll start to lag. A few seconds later the £2k Giant will cruise past me. Casually.

When you’re only averagely fit, a hybrid will never surpass a sportive. Accept your amateur status and the unspoken position that you’ve been assigned to on London’s roads. We don’t want (or need) anarchy, people.

Youll realise that conversations on bikes dont work

Have you ever had someone try to engage in conversation with you when you’re mid-cycle? Epic fail.

On my commute to work one day, a fellow rider decided to tail me and shout into the wind/my ear his observations on the great use of head torches (I was wearing one as a makeshift front light) and our similarity to winter animals during hibernation for no good reason other than he fancied a chin wag. The resulting factor is that, in my politeness to appear engaged, I paid minimal attention to the road, arrived late to work, and probably only caught about one eighth of everything he was trying to tell me. The rest was lost in the wind.

Here’s my tip: don’t try and converse. Ever. Unless it’s to tell someone they’ve forgotten to turn their lights on. And even then, they probably won’t hear you.

Youll experience real London and bond with other riders in the process

Forget the sardine-can of the tube. If you want to get to grips with London, get on a bike. If your sense of direction is somewhat shambolic (much like my own) then cycling really does imprint a fantastic map of the city onto your brain. Plus, it can shave off a sizeable chunk of journey time versus the tube – something anyone forced to deal with the South-West District line can relate to. 

And of course, there’s the unspoken bond you’ll share with other fellow cyclists. We get it. No matter how simple (or snazzy) your bike, we’re all doing it together. Braving the cold, navigating the storm, surviving London’s hectic roads first thing in the morning. There’s respect in that.

So, whilst I may not be informed on the latest lightweight accessories to own, I’m proud to be an (amateur) London cyclist, and to be part of this wonderful and mad community of people who comprise our fair city.

Just don’t try and talk to me when I’m riding, okay?

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22 Responses to The five things I’ve learnt as an everyday cyclist in London

  1. hannahc 18/04/2015 at 5:21 pm #

    Very true about getting to see the real London! It’s wonderful to have a real sense of place of where you are in the city – you feel very grounded. My partner, who only gets tubes and buses, only has a very vague sense of London beyond the tube map. He could find his way to Hyde Park, but not know how it relates to the river or Notting Hill, Shepherd’s Bush, Oxford Street, Mayfair, Kensington, Bloomsbury, etc.

  2. Alison 18/04/2015 at 6:18 pm #

    Laughed all the way through this. Very true.

  3. anas.z 18/04/2015 at 6:28 pm #

    I totally agree with the unspoken bond with other cyclists. What makes it stronger is, when other road users do something that potentially harms a cyclist. It’s like us versus the rest of the world

  4. Martin Turner 18/04/2015 at 9:32 pm #

    Of the top ten things non-cyclists say about cycling, at least eight are completely incomprehensible to those of us who actually ride. Thanks for sharing.

  5. Vincent 19/04/2015 at 10:13 pm #

    I wonder what Dutch and Dane cyclists think of this.

  6. Phil 20/04/2015 at 9:08 am #

    Murphy’s Law now dictates that, having stated you aren’t sure how to fix a puncture, they will now arrive. Your only possible course of action is to either learn how or fit Schwalbe Marathon Plus tyres. My personal worst was fourteen in my front tyre in one afternoon, whilst out in the semi-desert in Cyprus. Bad thorns, miles from anywhere, no option but to fix and carry on; I quickly became proficient, and made it back in one piece.

  7. Spencer 20/04/2015 at 9:35 pm #

    “I’m still not entirely sure how to fix a puncture” – but you’re a woman there’ll be a willing man along any minute!

    Ok condescension aside I have fixed several people’s bikes in my time, both women’s and men’s. When you are doing the mileage some cyclists do it helps to have a few tools and be able to fix the more common faults.

    Two things I wished fellow cyclists did do though only overtake when safe to do so, had a few near misses from those who didn’t. Plus try and look behind you if you are likely to swerve or pull out, again a few near misses, though my spidey sense is getting better for such shenanigans…

  8. Chris 21/04/2015 at 9:36 am #

    A really good piece – it’s worth saying that there are a lot of men who (secretly of course) cycle the same way.*

    *Not me, naturally, I’m talking about OTHER men out there…

  9. Alan 21/04/2015 at 10:10 am #

    Love it. very true!

  10. Nick Donnelly 21/04/2015 at 10:21 am #

    So true with the other bad amateur cyclists.

    Not looking behind when turning, cycling way too close to parked car doors, not being assertive enough, going too fast in dangerous situations.

    I just want to sit them down and let them know the risks they’re taking.

    The two things that made me like this were a jaw breaking cycling accident I had at 18 (30 mph into the side of a car – liquid diet for 3 months – ouch) – and my driving theory hazard perception test (you can do this online).

    (I would recommend the latter only)

    Always be anticipating all the bad things that could happen in front – and avoid undertaking (the bus example you mention is the classic no no).

    • David Cohen 23/04/2015 at 7:11 am #

      Totally concur with your comments re not looking behind and cycling too close to parked cars – I see this a lot. The other thing I notice a lot is swerving in and out of parked cars – if you do this you go out of the line-of-sight of a motorist _and_ they don’t know when you are going to swerev back in again.

      If you do only one new thing you are not doing right now, then look over your shoulder – frequently and always for traffic coming up behind you – you are communicating with the motorist and they know you have seen them.

  11. Roger 21/04/2015 at 3:59 pm #

    Don’t sweat riding a hybrid while all about you are on racing bikes!

    My long-serving, trusty, hybrid is now languishing in the garden, since I up-shifted to a quasi-MTB. Why? Because it’s a damn sight more comfortable, and more stable, than a conventionally-framed bike …

    AND the front shockers have stayed “locked” since I started riding it about 6 weeks ago (there are no potholes in West London, even the Thames towpath is in pretty good condition!)

    And the downside? Lower gear ratios mean I can’t “race” it, even if I wanted to … which I don’t, because half the joy of cycling is simply the sense of tranquillity it brings. Innit?

  12. Gary 21/04/2015 at 6:11 pm #

    Interesting perspective but take it from someone who has been doing this for 12 years, lycra and a £2k loan maketh not a pro. We are all equal on the commute, so don’t do yourself down. And don’t forget a titanium Brompton is not that much short of your supposed pro! But I doubt those in lycra would appreciate that irony. I love my amateur Titanium Brompton.

    Key is to enjoy the ride, be courteous to all users of the road and stay alert and safe. I wouldn’t go back to the tube if you paid me…

    • Kim 27/04/2015 at 5:36 pm #

      Couldn’t agree more! I was overtaken by a brompton halfway up Ditchling Beacon in Sussex last Summer. I was on a road bike. Safe to say I shall not smirk at a brompton again! 🙂

  13. Owen 21/04/2015 at 7:18 pm #

    Beautifully written! I do miss commuting in London but now having moved to the Isle of Man I must admit I do appreciate the courtesy that drivers have for cyclists here – slowing down and waiting for a safe place to overtake – amazing really. I’m out with the veterans tomorrow 70 and 80 year olds for a scone and a cup of tea!.

  14. Jonny 21/04/2015 at 8:06 pm #

    Liked the article. One small thing: if you have a Brompton you get into loads of conversation with other cyclists, IMHO.

  15. David Cohen 23/04/2015 at 7:13 am #

    Very good post, more of this please.

    I think you are right about conversations. My son, who usually rides behind me, sometimes are a few metres, is always trying to talk to me, but I always say I just can’t hear him! Even if you are alongside someone, it’s tricky, and you may well get comments from other road users for taking up space, even though it’s perfectly legal to ride 2-abreast (although you should consider the road environment as well, e.g. narrow roads).

  16. MJ Ray 23/04/2015 at 3:10 pm #

    This is overdue from 1 April, is it? Almost nothing in it resembles my riding in London. Conversations don’t work only because of a mix of town noise and narrow cycleways. Out of town, it’s easier to talk.

  17. Gpunto 23/04/2015 at 6:23 pm #

    Commuters can only have conversations in small instalments.
    A few words/sentences when stationary at traffic lights, then foot down until the next set of traffic lights where, when stationary, you can exchange a few more words/sentences.
    By the end of the commute if you are very lucky you even get to know the name of the fellow riders’ dog. 🙂

  18. mark 14/05/2015 at 5:27 am #

    Allow me to adjust your helmet for you.

  19. QED 03/07/2015 at 12:59 pm #

    Nice article but I disagree about conversations. I have had fascinating conversations with cycling mates on loops of Regents Park and forays into the coutryside. You need to be riding side by side so be courteous to other road users. That said I have learned a lot about cycling from knowledgeable cyclist mates and even solved the world’s problems during conversations on long rides into Essex.

  20. Ovan Peng 25/07/2015 at 9:08 am #

    Very true,I must say.

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