Friday, 29 October 2010

Sounds for my Wheels

Today I passed a young guy on what can only be described as the two wheeled equivalent of a souped up vauxhall nova. It was a sort of BMX, with neon wheels, wing mirrors (2!), a blue light under the saddle and best of all, a soundsytem strapped to the handlebars. From what I could see I think it was an adapted ipod docking station, and it looked like it was a pretty permenant feature. Goodness knows what he does when it rains. The concious hip-hop booming from it was much appreciated on my sleepy cycle ride. It struck me as a potentially brilliant idea- having headphones in is a bit dangerous so this would be would be an alternative way to carry your tunes. Us cyclists could gather like teenagers in gangs in car parks late at night and have impormptu parties. The industry would start producing sub-woofers you could hang from the cross bar. Obviously only people with good taste in music would be able to buy one as everyone else has to listen to it. And it wouldn't work at rush hour when two many genres would be competing. Short comings aside, thought, I think Trusty and I might have to invest...

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Bike Brain

It's a very specific mental space, isn't it, cycling? I can't really think of another time when I do just one thing. When I am walking or on the bus I fill the time speaking to people on the phone or reading a book, and every other physical task is accompanied by Radio 4 or music. Some people like to listen to music riding, but I am clumsy and distracted enough not to want any of my senses impaired. And so I just think. The motion is quite meditative, and my mind is completely free to freewheel where it will (apart from the part that is concentrating intensely on the movements of the traffic of course). I find that it is a different type of thinking, that half distracted kind- it is as if my brain takes the opportunity to reboot, to refile things, to work out frustrations and worries. I often make long to-do lists that I have forgotten by the time I arrive, or rehearse important things I need to say to the important people in my life- most of of which never gets said. I'm not a very neurotic person- seemingly because I work it all through with Trusty. I also find cycling to be quite a creative time, and sometimes have to pull over to write down a brainwave, breakthrough or fragment of prose.

Today though, my 'bike brain' took the form of having an obscure song stuck in my head. This often happens, prompted by visual or verbal stimuli- and today I found my self singing a half-forgotten song from school; "Autumn Days". In the middle of it is a line which I must have sung hundreds of time but never recognised the incongruity of:

"Jet planes meeting in the air to be refuelled"


Does this happen? Ever? I've never seen it. That sounds like something that only happens in space. Or Hollywood movies involving attempts on the life of the President. And why would it only happen in Autumn? Is it something to do with the air being cool? But not full of ice?

Having pondered this all the way from Finsbury Park to Barnsbury, I cracked it. I think that the person who wrote this song was so desperate for a line to rhyme with "Autumn days when the grass is jewelled" that they were content to deceive a generation of school children about the nature of the aviation industry.

And that was my breakthrough today. Useful, eh?

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Girl Racers- are there more women cycling?

This morning I was cheered by the numbers of female cyclists I spotted on the road . At one junction eight out of ten of us were lacking a Y chromosome (as far as I could tell). I feel this has been a change- when I began big-city cycling (as opposed to university town cycling, where there is no real gender division) I was often the only female about. Only a few years ago three times as many men as women were cycling in the capital.

There has been one main reason for this. When trying to persuade my female friends that cycling was the way forward their reluctance was always about safety. It is true that some research indicates women are more likely to have a fatal accident involving a van or lorry, possibly because of a lack of assertiveness. I've never really known what to make of that, or the way that it has been reported. Surely cyclists of all genders need to be really careful around larger vehicles? it upsets me that women might be put off riding because of these stories when road sense is easily taught. It is not as if female pheromones are physically attracting four wheeled metal monsters to them. These stats are not inevitable.

As well as safety, (understandable) vanity plays a part. Although there is no need to dress head to toe in neon lycra, women are distinctly less willing to do so than men, who I think have residual super-hero fantasies to play out. Yes, male hair copes with helmets better, and normal male shoes are perhaps easier to cycle in than heels. But, all these things are minor compared with the joy and convenience cycling brings.

I hope I am right about there being more women on the road, because apart from wanting my female friends to experience it, I think it would be beneficial all round. The competitive overtaking and reckless light-hopping might be somewhat tempered- it is a gender generalisation but one with some basis in fact I think. With more women customers bike and kit manufacturers might up their game and begin to prioritise style as well as practicality. The mothers mafia who can bring David Cameron to his knees are exactly the kind of noisy, bossy campaigning force we need to get our roads made more cycle friendly. And ultimately, London women drive fashion in this country- where they go the nation will follow. We may end up as a country of cyclists yet.

Friday, 22 October 2010

Riding with the Cool Kids

Very often, when I am cycling at rush hour in a big neon pack, I feel like I've finally found my gang. I wasn't in one at school you see- I was the swotty kid on the edges of lots of different groups. I am appalling at team sports. On the road however, I am a member of a freer, cooler tribe, the underground souls who hate the actual underground.  I've mockingly described some of the tribes I've spotted amongst this diverse, two-wheeled group, but it is always with affection. Weird and wonderful as many of them are, these are my people.

I can't pretend there is any particularly cohesive gang here. It is a different group every day. These rush hour packs don't know each other, we very rarely speak but we share a  purpose, and are united against our common threat. Sometimes there is competition, but it is always friendly. Often, I'll cycle with the same few people all the way home, losing sight of their distinctive jackets or helmets in the traffic but reconvening at every set of lights. We gather, having weaved determinedly to get in front of the cars and buses, staking our claim to the green Advance Stop Zone. When I happen to get in a group that respects the red light you can feel us straining as one, ready for the first flicker of green. Often, I can hear the sound of mental  engines revving and 'The Boys are Back in Town' playing over the scene. 

At other times Trusty is my noble equine companion and we are a contented twosome. At rush hour, however, his persona is  a big dirty Harley, leader of a biker gang. I reckon he loves it even more than me. 

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

The worst cycling streets in London (Part 1)

Those of you who've been reading this blog for a while will know I'm a pretty upbeat person. "Gratingly chirpy", even, if you're a somewhat misanthropic current affairs journalist. Most of the time I spend with Trusty is truly pleasant, discovering the array of wonderful routes in this great city. Many of the best cycling streets, especially if they involve a hill, leave me beaming and wanting to high five pedestrians. However, there are some days, and some streets, which instead leave me crying, shaking and wanting to punch someone. Probably the miscyclopist who designed the road.

Regent's Street is possibly the worst example. Near by Oxford Street is bad, filled with ugly shop-fronts and clogged with dozy shoppers and taxis, but it is at least single lane. Regent's Street should be much better. It is beautiful, a long, wide curve lined with stunning white terraces, a giant version of Bath's Royal Crescent. It should be an absolute pleasure, up there on the 'best cycling streets' list, but instead it is a death trap.

Every bus route in central London seems to run down Regent's Street. There are two, and sometimes three lanes of the huge red predators, weaving and swaying in a complicated dance between stops. They are my very own Red Scare. I always feel like Indiana Jones in the Temple of Doom, darting between falling axes and flamethrowers as they pull out and pull in with equanimity. There is no cycle lane in which to take even fleeting sanctuary. Part of the trouble is that there isn't really any other traffic to slow the buses down, so they actually pick up quite a lot of speed. Perhaps the drivers sense the slow crawl of Piccadilly and Trafalgar Square approaching and just want to let the throttle out while they can. I really wish they wouldn't. I really wish they'd use their mirrors. I really wish I wasn't too stubborn to get off and walk rather than risking my life. And I really wish someone would sort it out. Because the genteel shops and charming architecture are going to be no consolation for the tourists who witness one of us splattered like strawberry jam across all three of those lethal lanes.

Monday, 18 October 2010

The best cycling streets in London (Part 4)

I'm really talking about two streets here- The Mall and Horse Guards Road. To be honest, there isn't much reason for you to ride them in succession- if you are coming from Buckingham Palace and heading for Victoria there are far quicker routes. None compare, however, in grandeur. Beginning at the Palace roundabout you can easily turn your back to the building's squat, beige form and face down the Mall. I'm sure it is very impressive, but something about the architectural style has echoes of the Third Reich for me- too heavy, too...bossy. It might be some latent republicanism, but I can't help thinking that no-one needs that many rooms. 

The road that leads away from it is another matter. The proportions are perfect.  In the distance you can see the glorious swoop of Admirality Arch and a tiny glimpse of Trafalgar Square beyond, getting clearer as you pedal. The wide, wide road is lined with flag poles, often colourfully swagged to honour some visiting dignatory or national celebration. It always feels festive. Most pleasingly The Mall cuts right down the edge of elegant St James Park. In spring and summer the colours of the flowers are exuberant and in autumn the same can be said for the turning leaves. Even in winter the skeletal silhouettes of the trees in the frosty river are more bittersweet than bleak.

Once you've enjoyed zooming along the straight, usually empty street, hang a right before you get to the Arch into Horse Guard's Road. This is where the changing of the guard happens once a day. There's a curvalicious bend for you, more grand buildings, some ungainly pelicans in a pond on your right, and if you're lucky a phalanx of men in red uniforms and big furry hats. All in all, a ride that always reminds even un-patriotic me just how odd, but also brilliant, it is to be British.

Image by Trevor Harris

Thursday, 14 October 2010

Cycle Tribes: The Irregular Rider

Certain climactic conditions encourage this cycle tribe to come into the open- sunny days and tube strikes being the most obvious. For most of the year the steed of the Irregular Rider remains cooped up, ignored in garages, on balconies, shoved in cupboards and often, shockingly, locked outside in the elements. The Irregular Rider is hyper-sensitive to the inconveniences of cycling. They intend to use their bike more regularly, but if there is the slightest chance of precipitation then of course it is out of the question. The necessity of carrying more than a wallet, keys and a phone also rules out transport by two wheels (the irregular rider doesn't own a backpack or a pannier) as do late nights, early mornings or long lunch breaks. 

An Irregular Rider is easy to spot. If it is a beautiful warm day that has tempted the rider on to the road they will probably be wearing flip-flops. If unpredictable weather strikes the IR will be coatless, if the sun goes down they will have forgotton their lights.

They will be pedalling slowly on a bike that is deeply inappropriate, probably a mountain bike they have owned since a brief obsession at university, or the one they used to cycle round the streets of their home town as a teen. This once loved creature is a pitiful sight- the chain will be rusty, the tyres squidgy. 

These brief forays always remind the IR how fun cycling is, how good it feels to whizz past the traffic jams, to feel the wind on your face and the blood pumping in your limbs. They vow that their bike will no longer be underused, ignored, out of shape. They will pump up the tyres, clean up the chain and buy that backpack-do all the tiny chores that would make this choice easier on an average morning. 

Then they get home, lock up their poor, neglected wheels again and forget. 

When we pass the bikes of Irregular Riders in their snatched moments of freedom Trusty sighs sympathetically, knowing the happiness will be brief. I pat his flanks and promise him never, ever to treat him the same way. 

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

Bicycle Valet

Last night I went for dinner at a restaurant in Marylebone called Cafe Luc. A very nice PR woman had invited me, via Twitter, to go and check out this country's first Biclycle Valet service. It's a flipping brilliant idea-and one I really hope will catch on. No sooner had I pulled over in front of the chic french awning than a smartly dressed maitre de appeared and whisked Trusty off to a safe parking spot underground. There are very few actual cycle racks in that area (in fact I must request some at the brilliant Cycle Parking 4 London website) and so I would usually have spent a faffy five minutes looking around for a secure bit of metal, not to fat for my lock and not so flimsy as to be breakable. I try not to worry about Trusty being rustled (see here), but it was just lovely to know beyond all doubt that he was safe and sound while I was wined and dined**. Apparently there is space for eight bikes underground, and the manager could "cram a few more in the office if needed", so unless you are going with your local bike club there should be room. The owners of the restaurant, one of which is actually called Luc, are really keen cyclists and as fed up as the rest of us with the dismal cycle rack situation in central London, so decided to be part of the solution.

Bike Valet is pretty established in some of the more cycle-friendly cities in North America (San Francisco and Vancouver especially, both of which strike me as pretty hilly) but a fairly new concept over here.  I think we should all start mentioning it while out for dinner at other establishments. If it was a widespread service it would be one step in tempting more people onto two wheels. I cycled from the meal onto drinks with another friend, and Trusty was distinctly put out to be left chained up on the cold dark street. He does get spoiled fast.

** In case you are wondering about the food, there are lots of restaurant reviews online. I really enjoyed it, but I am not a food reviewer and as the meal was free would feel a bit compromised by bigging it up. Blogalistic ethics, y'see? Tricky.

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Cycle Tribes: Pashley Princesses

Helmet? Check! Hat hair? Never!
This particular species of cyclist is a rare sight in autumn. They are evident in our temperate climes in swarms during the balmy summer months, but at the slightest hint of inclement weather they migrate south, deep underground. This is mainly because Pashley Princesses are more about style than practicality. The bikes, for starters, are ever so attractive but also very heavy, gigantic and quite slow. Their rustic wicker baskets hold all manner of goodies, mainly designer handbags, a Sunday paper, leeks, flowers and a baguette from the local organic farmers market. They make such a pretty picture on a clear day, but are fairly useless in a downpour.
PPs also wear clothing that is far from cycle-specific. Flowy skirts that lift tantalising in the breeze and distract the taxi drivers and long wavy hair are the order of the day. Heels are no reason not to ride- and for this we salute you, PPs. These broads are never less than lady-like, using the opportunity of a red light to reapply their lipstick, not to get ahead of the traffic.
In the late spring and early, sunny autumn before the tribe retreats, a light ethnic scarf might be added. It always looks very chic, but I would caution against this. I once ventured out in an ensemble quite close the PP style, with a very, very long scarf. I was half way to my destination when my head was yanked down and headbutted my cross bar. The scarf had got caught in the cogs and cheerfully wound itself around until it nearly garroted me. It must have looked very, very funny. This is one of the reasons that, though I aspire, I will never be a proper PP. Don't have that innate...what do you call it? Grace. 

Image by Dream Dottie

Monday, 11 October 2010

The Glories of Autumn

I just need to wax lyrical about the weather. I know everyone is doing it, but isn't it glorious? I LOVE cycling on days like today. It is cool and breezy enough that you can really pelt it and just get pleasantly warm. The sun on my face warms my skin and fills me with vitamin-D soaked joy. Everyone on the road is nicer, just glad to be out in the air. I think it's just hit the high point of autumn colour too- the trees are blazing but not yet nearly bare. Autumn sun is somehow better than August rays, mellower, an apricot light that makes everything and everyone look rich and layered. I just want to hold it on my tongue like a slow dissolving toffee, or pour it into a heavy tumbler and sip it in a smoke-filled room.

Like the Great Guy said, a few days like this a year would see me right.

Saturday, 9 October 2010

Cycle Tribes: Racer Girls

Having written a little about the correlation between appearance and bicycle in the female of the species I thought I'd best expand on one of the tribes I mentioned- the Racer Girls. I include in this category females riding racers, road bikes, single speeds and most especially fixies. The Fixie Girls are in fact the purest expression of this genus, which all members aspire to be. 

Racer Girls wouldn't be seen dead on anything as clunky as a hybrid, or as 'twee' as a Pashley. Edgy is everything. They have adopted the Lycra Lads mantra of reducing air friction, but only as a side effect of a streamlined East End aesthetic. The jeans are tight, the colours are neutral or neon, the hair is short, blunt and (this season) white/grey. Long limbs and the next The xx on their iphone headphones completes the look. And that is it. Sleek, sharp, a little bit scary. No helmet, ever. I have no idea where they store all the crap I seem to need to lug about with me in a fat pannier. Do they never need to change? Surely they do some kind of creative job that requires a MacBook? Obviously they can save room on carrying an actual book by tucking a slim graphic novel in their back pocket, but everyone needs a wallet at least. The lack of baggage never ceases to amaze me.Perhaps the defining feature of a Racer Girl is that they pack light.

Agyness Deyn would be the archetypal Racer Girl, except that she rides a Pashley. I wonder if she knows she's in the wrong tribe?

This woman is clearly the effortless Queen of the Racer Girls. I, reluctantly, have developed a girl crush. 

Thursday, 7 October 2010

Cycling for the Soul

I had one of those days recently. You know, the ones that make you want to curl up under your duvet and have a good sob. And then call your mum. And then have a very large glass of red wine to try and flush out the sadness. They don't happen to me very often, and they soon pass, but this one was terribly timed with a long day at work. By the time I left it was fully dark, which didn't help. I was weary and tearful and very tempted to get on the tube and collapse all the way home.

I stood outside the office, bike park to my right, tube station to the left, and dithered. I couldn't face getting suited up, dealing with the locks, all the faff that most days I don't even notice. I turned left and set off, but heard a small internal voice calling me. It was Trusty. It said 'come, let me carry you and your bruised heart home. I will bear your heavy burdens and smooth your path'. 

OK, so it might not have actually been my bike. It might have been another voice, or none at all. But I paused, turned on my heel and went to rescue the steed from a lonely night underground. I suited up, swung my leg over and set off. 
And I confess, I had a little cry. Bikes are a good place to do it, as long as you can still see the road. No-one notices. The repetitive pedalling is very soothing, and there is no where better than a bike to get some brain space or have a little pray. I joined the neon pack at the lights, zoomed round a few good corners, powered up Great Percy Street and by the time I was halfway home my head felt clearer and my heart felt lighter. It may be as simple as endorphins and fresh air, but I believe cycling is good medicine. It doesn't fix the stuff that makes me sad, but it helps me face it better.

And if I sound like some sort of cycling evangelist, well, maybe I am.

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Union Cycle Works Party at the Deptford Project

A bespoke bike by UCW

I have been hearing a lot about the Deptford Project from my cooler, southerner friends. It is high on my list of places to explore in the near future, and has just been bumped higher by the opening of  Union Cycle Works. It's a  new  workshop which partners with people from disadvantaged backgrounds to build bespoke bikes with a story. I want one (sorry Trusty). They're a not-for-profit co-operative aiming to create a community cycling hub, and all round brilliant.

On top of this good news, they are having a launch party. Apparenty, we are all cordially invited to join them this Friday (8th of October) from 7.30pm onwards at the Union Cycle Works HQ. You'll get a chance to peruse their beautiful range of renovated frames and bikes, take advantage a free Brooks Saddle personalised stamping service (bring your own), and lots of locally sourced beverages. Bikes and beer? Yes please.

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Night Cycling

I love cycling at night. I mean real night, middle of the night edging into early morning night. I don't do it often (I must be getting old) but every time I do I remember how magical it is. I grew up in a village, and then went to university in a small city, and so wandered home from many late night social events through silent, empty streets. Sometimes I'd go clubbing and send everyone else off in a taxi, perfectly content to savour the quiet and peace of the long walk home alone. It gave my ears time to stop ringing and wound me down for sleep. Now, living in London, wandering around the dark streets of Islington in the early hours on my tod seems a little foolhardy even for me. However, riding Trusty I feel perfectly safe, secure in the knowledge we could outrun any potential attacker**. And so I savour the traffic free back streets, the sound of the wind in the trees and the rare glimpse of the city's early morning army about their work. Foxes cross my path, and cats, and the whirr of the steed's wheels against the (relative) silence creates a very meditative state.

Beats the night bus every time.
** I do realise this is not completely true and there have been several cases of people being attacked on bikes. I'm not advocating any one else trusts their personal security to a bicycle....

Image by markhilary

Monday, 4 October 2010

Cycle Tribes: Brompton Bosses (warning- may contain sterotypes)

The Brompton World Championships
Today there is a tube strike, and in amongst the throngs of part-time cyclists there will be certain very recognisable types. Today I want to introduce you to the middle-managers of the road, the Brompton Bosses.

No London cyclist starts out on a Brompton. Having a folding bike if you live anywhere in Zones 1-3 seems pointless. Why would you settle for teeny-tiny wheels when you can have full sized, speedy ones? However, the hip young things living in Hackney that begin on a hybrid, graduate to racers and have a brief affair with a single speed can't hold onto their youth forever. A Big Job, commitment and children all force the inevitable migration to London's outer reaches, the green and pleasant lands of Virginia Water, Chorleywood or...somewhere in Kent. And so the daily bike commute becomes train-based, and a Brompton is purchased. From that day forth, said rider must leave behind their past life of devotion to real size wheels and extol the benefits of a folder.

Brompton riders are typically suited- those little wheels don't allow enough speed to make sweat a problem, and Lycra for aerodynamics would be laughable. They strap a shiny briefcase to the front and adopt a curious hunched over riding style to match their furrowed brows. Clearly men (and the occasional women) used to stress and competition, the frustration of not being able to compete with their sleeker, speedier fellow road users comes off them in waves. The hierarchy of the road is an inverse model of what they are used to in Lincoln's Inn or KPMG. No respect if shown for job title, but these daily humiliations are in general taken with good grace. Age and experience have been mellowing, for some.

However, the loss of dignity that is inevitable with a folding bike is richly compensated for in convenience. No endless debates on how to avoid your bike being stolen, no wet-trousers-syndrome from a saddle left out in the rain and the freedom to take your wheels anywhere. So us grown-up size bike riders may sneer, but perhaps, as they patiently fold and unfold in a ritual as soothing as the rosary, the Brompton bosses get the last laugh.

Image by dullhunk

Friday, 1 October 2010

Riding around the Void

Ghost Bike Memorial
Yesterday a very precious friend of mine got knocked off her bicycle. She is alive, Thank God, but is in the Royal London Hospital with a badly broken leg and an awful lot of bruises.

More than the physical effects, the emotional aftermath is not going to be a breeze. This friend has been a comrade on the roads, a dedicated cyclist for about as long as I have. Whether she chooses to get back on her steed when she finishes the long process of recovery remains to be seen.

The danger that we face out on the roads is something that every cyclist is aware of, but most of us push the thought to the back of our minds. I've never looked at the stats. I cycle past the rotting flowers or ghostly bikes pinned to railings subdued, mutter a prayer for the families and then firmly forget. When people congratulate me on my 'bravery' for biking in the capital, I shrug it off, mentioning the sense of safety in numbers, the improving facilities, the sensible choices you can make to avoid danger.

Of course you can't completely avoid danger. We know this. We're like minnows swimming with whales- armoured, myopic whales. Whilst the majority of drivers are aware and polite, a significant minority are reckless and distracted. They are mindlessly piloting weighty metal weapons, and we, just fragile flesh, choose to dance with them. Bendy buses and big white vans and disastrously designed junctions and our own impatience all add to the likelihood that sometime, somewhere, we may well get hurt. The lucky ones like my friend will suffer a repairable injury; a dodgy back, a broken bone or a strain. Some (and I can't bring myself to look up how many) will be killed, leaving a big gaping wound in the lives of those who love them.

And yet.

None of this puts me off. I really don't know if it is the same kind of self-protective denial that smokers use, an innate sense of indestructibility or a willingness to play the odds. I will keep cycling, because I think it is worth the risk. I don't really know how big the risk is, but unless someone can convince me that cycling is going to make me vastly more likely to die I will keep doing it. And maybe even then. There are many things in life are worse than dying, and living in fear is one of them. Taking the tube everyday is probably, realistically, not one of them, but it might come close.

So I'll helmet-and-high-vis it up, keep my lights in full working order and avoid nipping down the left side of anything bigger than a Fiat Punto- but keep riding. Trusty and I will not be deterred. For the risks may be big, but the rewards are bigger. Today I'll be out on the road, thinking of my friend but defying the danger. There is too much fun to be had.

Image by PortocalaMecanica