Eight weeks ago I started cycling to work. I made the switch because I had just booked an elaborate West Coast holiday and every bus ride I took meant one less dirty $1 frozen margarita in Vegas. Also the idea of unnecessarily throwing money into the coffers of an organisation as mindlessly inefficient as Transport for London was starting to become nauseating. A week after my wobbly début into the gritty world of urban cycling, Spring arrived and a plethora of hibernating cyclists also took to London’s roads to escape the city’s muggy subways and grubby buses. Almost overnight, London’s commuter cyclist numbers increased tenfold. Over the last couple of months I’ve observed a number of different biker breeds, from the bumbling, be-suited ‘Boris’ bikers to the urban guerilla types tearing through heavy traffic with all the self-preservation instincts of a lemming in canyon country.
In case you ever find yourself astride a two-wheeler in the city, here are my observations…
You know when you’re huffing and puffing up a gentle gradient because your bike was manufactured in 1997, weighs about 200 pounds and only has five gears? Sometimes, usually at the point when you think your legs are going to fall off, a luminous blur zips past you, whizzing up the hill at a speed only achievable when someone with the thighs of a rhinoceros gets on a bike that weighs less than a baby. “Flash bastard!” you gasp, inadvertently using up your last bit of puff and slowly keeling over in the gutter as your quivering legs grind to a halt.
These are the serious cyclists, the ones who not only cycle to and from work but also go extravagant distances on weekends, for fun, and expend exorbitant sums on ultra-absorbent full-body Lycra jumpsuits with padded seats and go-faster stripes. They are the people who carefully consider aerodynamics in their helmet purchases and carry three different Kryptonite D-locks around with them at all times, because even the wheels of their £2,000 carbon-fibre beast cost more than a month’s rent. They are almost always really fit, which seems unfair considering their top-of-the-range bikes are designed to carry the rider as quickly as possible with minimal effort. It is ridiculous the number of times a Lycra-clad Warrior has sped past me, legs barely moving while mine pinwheel madly in an impotent frenzy to even go half as fast in top gear. Gits.
The other infuriating thing about the cycling hard core is that they have the confidence and aggression to hog lanes and jump red lights, weaving in and out of traffic in a death-defying spandex ballet. Although I’m a fairly law-abiding citizen when it comes to trundling around town on my clapped out old boneshaker, the only rule I deliberately flout is the one about stopping for zebra crossings. I know technically pedestrians have right of way, but frankly when it takes so much effort to gather speed there is no way I’m stopping for anyone – especially uphill – unless they are blind or I am definitely going to run them over. Momentum’s a bitch, but there you go. Aside from that, I do generally stop at all other lights, and give way to people, and avoid riding on pavements, which is more than what can be said for the spandex set, any one of whom could probably count the number of shits he gives on no hands. The Road Warrior is on a mission to beat his “PB” and nobody – not pregnant women, defenceless animals or little old ladies – is going to stop him. Be warned.
The Basket Biker is the one pootling around on a contraption that was shit ten years ago and after careful ‘restoration’ was sold to them for three times its original value from a self-styled ‘bicycle orphanage’ in Shoreditch. Sporting a moustache, outsize spectacles and/or some sort of hand-knitted garment of dogged but earnest craftery, the Basket Biker can also be identified by the vintage-look leather satchel slung over one shoulder or the ostentatiously twee contents of the wicker basket attached to the handlebars, like a bouquet of fresh wildflowers, or a small, horrible dog.
Although there is nothing inherently evil about the Basket Biker, their overwhelmingly try-hard attitude and laissez-faire approach to the highway code often makes them a danger to themselves and other road users. Often they trundle la-la down the centre of the road, nodding along to the entire Belle & Sebastian discography they’re playing in their heads and oblivious to the swiftly-turning traffic around them, occasionally swerving back to reality when an irate motorist pips at them for hogging the lane.
Also, there is something fundamentally insufferable about someone who bought a bicycle just so they could call it Penhaligon or Mackintosh and then Instagram the fuck out of it.
There are some girls who manage to rock a high-vis jacket and colourful brain bucket. I am not one of them.
I typically encounter these women at traffic lights when cyclists congregate together in the cycling box at the front. I sit there, eyeing them sidelong with envy. Invariably they have long, lean limbs encased in Nike Dry-Fits, and lustrous, swishy hair. I, on the other hand, look like my arse is eating my own trousers, and nothing will prevent my hair from looking like I’ve been dragged through a hedge backwards after a bike ride. As soon as the lights turn green they launch themselves out of the box like champion racehorses that have just had half a pound of ginger rammed home. I’m left to fall behind the pack, pedalling furiously to keep up like a lame wildebeest. On a bike. With shit hair.
To be fair, I don’t rack up nearly enough mileage to warrant the elaborate cycling garb and posh bike of the average Penelope. My route to work is exactly 1.8 miles, which means usually I just wear my normal clothes but with trainers (yes, I’m one of those people now. I have become a monster.) Unfortunately I also lack the bone structure to carry off a hard hat without looking like Agatha Trunchbull on a construction site, so for me the jig is pretty much up as soon as I don a helmet. Penelopes are both fit and have the kit, which means that although they look fantastic, their obvious competence means they’re not relegated to bimbo territory. Some bitches have it all.
I’ll admit that growing up I rarely wore a bicycle helmet, but back then I was only cycling around the picturesque woodland of the Buckinghamshire countryside where you weren’t so much likely to get hit by a car as mow down a squirrel, which would have scored you some brownie points with the village farmers anyway. (The agricultural lobby in our area was ruthlessly efficient in its ongoing crusade against the local wildlife; one of them came in to give a talk once while I was at primary school and brought an actual dead fox he’d shot that morning as a visual aid. To be fair this was before the days of Powerpoint, but still.)
But while shunting around a country village on your Raleigh Cyclone without a helmet is only mildly irresponsible, surely whizzing around a bustling metropolis without protective headgear is near-terminal mindlessness. London, with all its monster buses, complicated one-way systems and permanently enraged motorist population, is a potential death trap for even the most vigilant of cyclists. Call it an irrational fear if you like, but I spend my ride time permanently petrified of, as the Metro once put it, ‘being dragged under a bus and crushed like a cardboard box’. Despite this bowel-knotting prospect, though, some people apparently like to pretend their commute is a Kamikaze mission. I have seen people whizzing around wearing giant headphones, no helmets and low-vis clothing as dark as the loneliness and despondency that surely rules their sad, suicidal hearts. Well, presumably they’re suicidal. Either that or they’re just fucking beef-wits. It’s hard to tell.
To be fair, of the very large number of people who cycle around London every day only a very tiny minority find themselves being crushed beneath the wheels of a big red bus. I’ve never been responsible for anybody’s death, but I imagine running someone over is the sort of thing that really fucks you up for life. Consequently, most motorists do seem to be quite considerate of cyclists and actively try not to send anyone back to their grieving parents in a jam jar. However, there are still hundreds of left-hand drivers from Europe, bus-drivers with blind spots the size of Brazil and people who are just twats, so why take the risk? WEAR A FUCKING HELMET, JUGHEADS; hat hair really isn’t that big a deal.
Last week one of my housemates, who commutes six miles to Bermondsey and back every day on his bike, was cycling home across London Bridge and stopped at the lights behind a portly figure with a shock of fluffy blonde hair and a suit. The man was sat astride a bicycle that had its rear light secured to the frame with sticky tape. It turned out to be none other than Boris Johnson, famously bumbling mayor of London and self-styled champion of London’s short-term bike hire scheme. Says it all, really.
Now, I’ve used Boris bikes a few times, and they are a brilliant idea. If you want to get somewhere in Central London quickly, and it’s a lovely day or the Tube is a bit out of the way, they are convenient and fun. They’re not the best bikes in the world – imagine riding an elephant on wheels – but they do the job over short distances. They are, however, right at the bottom of the cyclist hierarchy, just above moped riders but below novelty unicylists.
Boris Bikers fall into two camps. There are the businessmen who tuck their trousers into their socks and laboriously crank themselves to their commuter stations, ties whipping over their shoulders in the wind. Then there are the tourists, who spend about forty-five minutes trying to work out how to check one of things out and then cycle very slowly around busy intersections, slack-jawed with awe over St Paul’s Cathedral or whatever else spectacular shit they’re looking at. DO IT ON FOOT PEOPLE, you don’t want those return flights to go to waste.
What happens when cycling enthusiasts grow up and accumulate some ankle-biters? Buy some spawn widgets for their wheels, strap the little bastards on and carry on as normal, of course! This is almost exclusively the preserve of enterprising fathers who realise that walking people with very tiny legs to school can take a very long time. I’ve seen little seats that strap on the back, daddy-daughter tandems, sprog-sized sidecars and one man who cycles his small son to school on an ordinary bicycle, standing all the way while the kid is parked on the seat. Obviously these guys are fucked when their wives push out more kids that need carting about, but even then there are ways around it. I saw a triplet tandem once with a father and twins riding it. The kids were just waving at their little mates like the Queen on crack and the old boy up front was looking pretty puffed out, bless him. Generally, I find Breeders to be pretty good cyclists. It’s amazing what the fear of losing your shiny new sprogs to an Eddie Stobart lorry will do, and they’re all kitted out to be max with helmets and proper lights and reflective everything. It’s endearing to see people getting their children into the great outdoors from an early age, especially when so many just get shepherded onto trains and buses and parked in front of a PlayStation. And the ones being shuttled around on the back of a bicycle tend to be the quietest too, which is nice.
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