Some thoughts on navigating the street of London on a bicycle
This summer in London, a couple of weeks before the underground explosions propelled people to above ground transportation I finally got around to fixing a bike that had kindly been donated to me. I got the brakes changed, the tires were pumped up to around 100psi, I tightened the steering column and I was more or less ready to take on the streets of London. It was and still is a rusty old ladies bike, completely operational and quite charming.
Having feared the traffic of London for good reason, I slowly started to explore the streets. Watching from the sidelines in the beginning trying to figure out how it all worked.
At this point it’s probably a good idea to explain a couple of things. I am not new to riding a bicycle; I have done that for years and with great success. Crashed a couple of times, mostly self-inflicted and alcohol related. One thing is cycling along the sea on a dedicated cycle lane in Denmark, another is navigating the London traffic network.
Here it’s a whole other game. No bike lanes and loads of traffic. Buses up to 18 meters in length, double-deckers, white unmarked cars and vans, motorcycles, police cars and whining ambulances. It’s a bloody nightmare, a mess where the queues sometimes stretch for more than a mile. Having relied on public transportation for years it was a bit of miracle finally to realise just how easy it was to get around on a bike.
As with something like this I started out slowly. First exploring an area I knew very well, getting to know the streets, memorising the traffic patterns of roundabouts. Ever so slowly I expanded my area and I became more adventurous.
There is nothing quite like discovering something new that has always been possible. It’s a that tiny rush of adrenalin – knowing that you are always moving forward unlike your comrades stuck in their metal cars moving inches at the time.
With growing confidence I took on the streets, easily cycling from Brixton, hitting Clapham North in minutes, making a sharp left turn and cycling past Stockwell Station, where the Police only weeks later would kill the Brazilian electrician. Then onwards towards Oval and full speed ahead, overtaking busses and cars on the inside, then more of them lined up in a jam on the outside. Jumping up on the curb when there was no other way around something, and heading towards Waterloo station, swirling in and out of slow moving cars moving up in the queue before a red light, trying to balance the bike without stopping – then, amber – green. Full speed ahead and across Waterloo Bridge with the best view of London. On my left the London Eye and on my right the National Theatre which is beautifully illuminated at night – and I can see all the way down the Thames. Bloody fantastic.
Then into central London where speed drops dramatically and traffic worsens. Here it’s very easy to get lost especially down the one-way streets in Soho, and sometimes finding yourself going up the wrong way with traffic coming towards is not funny.
After the explosions the news was talking about a massive increase in cyclists – which has been very empowering. Often I find myself in small groups driving more or less the same route, all very civilised. No one talks to one another, but still there is a sense of a group dynamic, even if it’s only for a very brief moment. At night it’s even more surreal, with an ocean of blinking bike lights safely guiding you home after a long day’s work.
It is, however, not all sweet. One day I was trying to catch a train and biking rather fast down a small country where all the cars were patiently waiting for the traffic light to change. I took the chance and jumped the red light, something which I’ve done many, many times in London – where it’s not only essential but sometimes necessary. In the countryside they don’t like that kind of behaviour and seconds after doing it I was asked to pull over by a huge Volvo police car. Shit. They gave me all the crap you could possible imagine, but I kept thinking – I am the one on a bike, I am the fragile individual making my way through the traffic, one wrong move by a car and I could be thrown off my bike, unprotected. Anyway to make a long and rather sad story short they just threatened me, I was never given a ticket.
From then onwards I was a bit more careful – still am, no need to unnecessarily have an encounter with the police. Speaking of safety here are a couple of useful suggestions:
- Have really good brakes. Tune them weekly.
- Wear a helmet.
- Lights at night are good.
- Always drive to the front of queued cars waiting at a traffic stop.
- Never hesitate. Hesitation will kill you.
- Never follow another cyclist.
- Be really good at accelerating.
- Dress appropriate. Lycra is not the only way.
Today I unfortunately learned about one of the bigger downsides of biking in London. Bikes get stolen. I came back from a lecture to find my lock snapped off and my bike gone. At the same time a fine chap was doing a survey on stolen bikes right there. He’d been monitoring the area to see how many bikes were stolen. He’d seen my bike earlier and we talked about it and what could be done. Not much was the short answer, these bicycle thieves are very sophisticated and can unlock almost any lock in seconds. Predictably they all sell them at the same place a Sunday market in Bricklane. This weekend I hope to go up there to perhaps buy back my bike, or maybe team up with a bunch of friends who are good with baseball bats. Either way, I have a backup bike and I am back unto the streets of London tomorrow morning, come rain come shine.