People ask me all the time, “don’t 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….
You’ll 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.
You’ll 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…
You’ll 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.
You’ll realise that conversations on bikes don’t 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.
You’ll 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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As seen on The Guardian, BBC and The Independent.