Monday, 29 November 2010

Dear Mr Angry Taxi Driver

Dear Mr Angry Taxi Driver,

Following out little contre-temps on Goodge Street this evening I just wanted to clarify a few things. I am sorry that you think that, as I am not sporting a tax disc upon my bicycle, I don't deserve to be on the road. However, I wonder if perhaps you might have more luck bringing this up directly with the government?From my limited experience, shouting at individuals with a vehemence that leads to them receiving a face full of spit doesn't tend to engender swift policy change in a democracy.

Also, I deduce from the fact that you threatened to deliberately run me over after I (politely, smilingly) asked you not to park in the cyclists' green advance stop zone, that you might be a little stressed? Death threats are not usual on my perfectly legal ride to work, but I'm sure you had your reasons. Perhaps a little light exercise might bring down your blood pressure? A weekend jolly on a bicycle perhaps? The fresh air and endorphins would do you no end of good, and potentially make the world a better place for the people who share the road with you.

I hope you have a better journey tomorrow, and no hard feelings.

Yours Sincerely,

Girl and Steed

p.s. I had some trouble calming down Trusty (the steed in question) who was especially irate at your bad language (he has a sensitive temperament) but I explained that it is a very hard life shut in a metal box thinking about the problems with immigrants. He is a free-range bicycle you see, so he didn't understand. 

Friday, 26 November 2010

Knight Rider

Today I cycled in behind a guy dressed all in black. He could have wandered out of a dystopian, post-apocalyptic disaster movie. His bike was black, his gloves were black, shoes, hat, jacket, the lot. He was even wearing black wrap-around shades. It was not just the colour scheme that made him stand out amongst his neon yellow, visibility-obsessed road fellows, but the fact that he was wearing armour. OK, not real armour, but road armour- padded, reinforced  shorts and a jacket that looked like it might have belonged to a quarterback. I've only ever seen that kit on hard core mountain bikers getting ready to do some serious down- hilling. It is designed to protect you from breaking your spine on a rock. And possibly, from the look of it, from bears and exploding trees.

This guy might have been the politest biker in the world, but he looked mean. He looked like he might intentionally sideslam the door or jump through the windscreen of anyone that cut him up. The semiotic message of his outfit was: It's war out there. 

This perturbed me. It made me want to buy a bunch of out of season daffodils and fill my basket with them. To smile at every driver and let people out in front of me. Treating the commute like an everyday battle might fulfill some kind of repressed caveman instinct, but it stresses everyone else out. Cycling is one of life's sweet pleasures and I want to do it peacefully- not as if I've wandered into a game of World of Warcraft. Probably that guy mountain bikes and only has one set of gear, but it made me all the more determined to prove to other road users that cyclists are human, well-mannered and not in such a rush to get places that they forget to be kind. Even if the guy in the white van who clipped me on Hornsey Road thinks there is a war on, I refuse to join in.

Monday, 22 November 2010

The best cycling streets in London: Part 5

I've been hesitating about adding Pentonville Road to my list of best cycling streets, mainly because it is butt-ugly. Pleasing aesthetics are really a key criteria for this list- one of main reasons for not being underground  or peering out of a steamy bus window is so you can take in London's glorious architecture and natural beauty. However, there are other criteria, for example a lack of traffic, and a long, steepish incline to freewheel down, both of which this road has in spades. All except the top third is closed to general traffic, and despite it looking like a major route, very few buses and taxis seem to run down it. Almost every time I ride it the wide, long hill is all mine, and I love every minute of it. The other day I came out of Penton Street and turned right onto it on a bright, frosty morning, peeling off from the mass of neon bikers heading straight-on into the city. The sensation of sun and wind on my face as Trusty and I picked up speed reminded me strongly of skiing. I don't think I'll get to the slopes this year, so joyfully bombing through the cold air, making the most of the speed before hitting the snarling junctions around King's Cross,will have to do for now. Just goes to show, looks aren't everything.

Thursday, 18 November 2010

A Modest Proposal: Road Users Round Table.

I had a really interesting conversation with a car-driving friend of mine yesterday. He had had a bit of a contretemps with a cyclist and was confused by it. Driving up to a roundabout, he had been aware of a cyclist on his outside, so had clocked his position, indicated and pulled out leaving, he thought, plenty of space for the bike. The cyclist didn't agree, and followed him up the road, shouting and banging on the roof. 

My friend said something really interesting- "It was frustrating, because we couldn't sit down and work out what had happened. He could only see it from his point of view, but I was fairly sure I had been careful and not really got anywhere near him. I wanted to talk to him, to ask what had upset him particularly so I could bear it in mind in the future, but I just got yelled at".

I think he's right. We two tribes rage against the behaviour of the other but never really make rational contact. It would certainly be glib to compare the friction between motorists and cyclists on London's roads as in any way comparable to the tensions of the Middle East, but we are sometimes almost as bad at listening to each other.

And I was very moved to hear about the orchestra made up of Israelis and Palestinians that is making a stand for co-existence in the midst of a seemingly intractable conflict.

So I propose an equivalent- not an actual orchestra, unless anyone knows a good conductor, or indeed a biker who is handy on the double bass and a taxi driver who plays the triangle. A simpler version which could possibly have the same unifying effect would be a 'road users council', with representatives from the cycling community, heavy goods vehicles companies, taxi firms and car drivers. Probably we should involve the poor pedestrians too, but not sure there is a body for that. If we could all get in a room and have a glass of wine and share a bowl of dry roasted peanuts I'm sure we could thrash out a way to help us all co-exist more peacefully. Probably most drivers have no idea that some of their behaviour scares the life out of (occasionally literally) us cyclists, and we are blissfully unaware of the genuinely annoying things we get up to too.

I might be a bit naive but I think it is worth a go. If you get agreement at the organisational level it could filter down, and we could hold each other to account. I'm happy to host, I'll make a big pot of chili and someone else can take notes.  Who's in?

Monday, 15 November 2010

Men in Tights

To be fair, this might be why.
The weather has got a nip in it, and the number of men wearing shorts over running tights (or leggings) goes up in inverse proportion to the drop in the temperature. This look never fails to make me smile- what is wrong with trousers to keep your calves warm? Have you never heard of cycle clips- or my varient, tucking your trousers in your socks? Or if you really like the aerodynamicity of tights, why bother putting baggy shorts over them? Could it possibly be about not wanting to have the outline of your package on display for all to see? Especially on a chilly morning?

I can't help but think that european men would not adopt this look. They would either, like the grand stallions of the ballet world, wear their clingy garments with a proud swagger, or just stick to chinos. I love the British male, nothing if not half-arsed.

Friday, 12 November 2010

Love your Legs

I have come away for a few days to visit the friend who was run over by a lorry while cycling six weeks ago (there is a post from that day here). You'll be glad to hear she's healing up nicely- and slightly miraculously. Despite both legs (with the bike between them) having gone under the wheels one of them escaped with bruises and grazes and the other is in a toe-to-ankle cast but is expected to be completely fine again in another few months.
I have broken both my legs badly (not cycling, skiing) in the past, and helping her as she hops around on crutches I am reminded just how joyous it is to have the use of all my limbs. We have had long chats about the things she is looking forward to; walking, running, dancing...and hopefully, and some point, cycling. I remember that longing for motion so well, that gut-itching frustration to be free and independent, not chained to your crutches or pushed in a wheelchair. I thought I'd never take it for granted again, but I have. I do. 
So today, in an entirely sincere way, I am loving my legs, with all their length and strength and despite their cyclist's calves. I hope you love yours too.

Thursday, 11 November 2010

Art Beneath your Wheels

If you look down as you cycle today you will most likely see some wonderful examples of accidental street art. It seems the green surfacing they use for cycle lanes is more sticky than normal tarmac, because the brightly coloured fallen leaves are imprinting themselves to it but not to the rest of the road. In many places it looks like a carefully stencilled patchwork. It is most pleasing. 

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Big Stories and Bicycles

Today I passed a guy on another non-motorised form of transport- roller skates. He was quite a sight, sporting long black dreads, a red and green beanie, huge silver headphones and clutching a can of beer in his fist. His behaviour was even more striking; he was not skating on the pavement or even in the cycle lane but weaving wildly in and out of the traffic, holding onto lorries and buses for a tow and generally causing everyone else on the road to fear for his life.

As I pedalled far more sedately a little behind him I couldn't choose between the instinct to yell at him or cheer him on. The look of intense concentration and exhilaration on his face was really attractive, especially amongst the dead eyes of the pedestrians and blank faces of the passengers in the steamy bus window. It was him against the road, and he was going to win. He reminded me of nothing more than those ancient celtic kings who would strip off and run with the deer pack, risking being trampled to win a blessing for his people. Incidentally, my friend James still does this, but he does read a bit too much Nietzsche.

This guy reminded me of our innate need for drama, our desire to feel like our lives mean something. As various theologians and narrative theorists have pointed out, we all want jeopardy, we want to be risking everything for something bigger than ourselves. Ultimately, we want purpose.

This city can be so numbing, the shuttling back and forth of the transport, the rhythm of work and play, the choosing what's for dinner. I often have the sense that the only big stories we are all a part of happen on some banker's blinking balance sheet, or in a far off war. We escalate our individual dramas to fill this gap, imbuing the minor ups and down of our love lives or our career with mystical significance, or fixate on the famous faces on the front of Heat. We may all be suspicious of the grand-naratives of the past, the stock-in-trade of religions and politics, but we can't seem to let go of the desire to make our lives mean something more than just the throbbing of our cells and synapses.

I've realised as I write this blog that things like cycling can easily become a minor meta-narrative for us. On the cycling blogs and twitter feeds, the underlying story is of a battle between good and evil, the triumph of the underdog, the small band of travellers digging deep and pushing on. I love the way we humans make everything into a story, fill even modes of transport with meaning. 

I love my bike. I love being a part of this wee story, of attempting to change a city for the better by putting it on two wheels. It is enough for now. But I'd prefer to stake my life on a bigger story than that.......

Friday, 5 November 2010

Sociable Cycling

I have a dream...that one day the roads will be almost free of motorised traffic and we will all get around by pedal power. There are lots of reasons why this is a good idea, but my current favourite is that it would enable us to cycle sociably. Last night I biked home quite late in the dark with a very precious friend of mine. The roads were empty so we were able to ride side by side, having a lovely catchup. None of that shouting into the wind or accidentally swerving as you turn your head to look at the person behind. Can you imagine if we always had the whole road at our disposal? It would be like a less well-dressed Tweed Run every day. I really, really love riding in groups, it never fails to make me feel like a member of the Famous Five, or those kids out of E.T., off on an adventure with no parents allowed. Even if I don't have tongue sandwiches, boiled eggs and ginger beer (or indeed, an alien) in my basket.  Let's hear it for sociable cycling.

Thursday, 4 November 2010

Speed vs Style

Ah, the eternal dilemma of every cyclist, especially the female ones. Or just the vain ones. The roads are full of examples of bikers who have decisively chosen one or the other and nailed their (literal) colours to the mast. The head -to- toe neon-clad Lycra Lads, for example, are prepared to brave the aesthetic wasteland of their chosen attire for the sake of those extra mphs. They even take the ridicule of walking around in clippy cloppy shoes because they know how much swifter they are than trainers. On the extreme other end of the spectrum the Pashley Princesses choose elegant, heavy bicycles and pedal sedate as the Queen, never breaking into a sweat or allowing a carefully tousled hair out of place. They will arrive when they arrive,because the party doesn't start until they get there.

Both of these positions have their merits. I just can't decide which one to choose, and I sort of hope I don't have too. At the moment i
I sit uncomfortably between the two, torn by their equal and opposite priorities.

I really do enjoy the aesthetics of things. I don't give a fig about fashion, but I deeply appreciate colours and textures and shapes. There is something so jarring, so unsensual about man-made materials in highlighter colours. Surely, surely, there are ways of making bike kit look lovelier. We cyclists are the moving installations of this city, we have become visual punctuation and it would be nice to be adding something to the glorious landscape rather than blighting it with fluorescent chartreuse and badly fitting leggings.

The trouble is that I also really enjoy speed- there are few things as quick to make you feel like a giddily joyful five year old than that sensation of flying. With my basket, mac, huge scarf and flowing skirt all causing drag, not to mention my flexy-bottomed shoes apparently wasting half my effort, I'm unlikely to get up to those kind of speeds very often without the help of a big hill. 
It is not just the sensation either- the quicker I am the more time I have in bed. This factors in a troubling number of my major life decisions- I really, really hate mornings. An extra round of the snooze alarm looks like a good reason to sacrifice style, most days.
And obviously I'd rather not get killed on the road and therefore need to be visible. I'm no Oscar Wilde, I do understand there are many more important things than beauty.

So what to do? Most mornings I look at my basket, contemplate swapping my lovely handbag for a rucksack in order to increase my aerodynamicity (is that a word?) but decide I don't want to look like a snail. Or get a clammy back.

Places like Bobbin Bicycles and the London Cycle Chic shop are probably the way forward- so I'll just have to ask for vouchers for Christmas, and keep treading my uneasy middle (cycle) path between speed and style.

Monday, 1 November 2010

The Sellers and the The Sold

I went on the tube recently. As we have discussed before, this is almost always a mistake, but the forecast was for heavy rain and I had a long way to go and a lot of wine to drink before heading home. I have managed to get my usage down to about once a week through steadily increasing bike mileage, but there are occasions when it is just convenient. Usually I go prepared with a good novel, but today was a split second decision so I had nothing to distract me on the long ride home. Except the adverts.

I feel like the city is being turned into one giant billboard. Out and about on Trusty I am not immune- road side hoardings are hard to avoid, and almost every bus I follow has some sales pitch on the back in my exact eyeline. However, other forms of transport, as I was recently reminded, are so much worse. The tube is completely plastered in them, these pernicious messages which attach themselves parasitically to our deepest wants and needs. Their incessant visual chanting offering to both pinpoint a problem and provide the solution irritates me most days, but by careful avoidance of commercial TV, radio and magazines I can usually tune them out. But underground, with no way of avoiding them I felt veritably oppressed by advertising. The worst are the mesmerising gauntlets of electronic posters down the sides of the escalators. What tipped me over the edge was that on my walk from the station an advert for Kellogg's cereal glowed eerily at me from the screen of the cash machine.
I feel like we're seconds from living in Minority Report, and tonight I want to run away to a cottage in the woods with no entertainment except big old novels.

I want my own brain back. I don't want to be bombarded with images of unrealistically attractive, rich, slim, cool people all living what claim to be better lives than mine. I want to enjoy my life, to revel in it, to love people for their wit and warmth and integrity not what they own or look like. I want to turn this culture's stupid, poisonously pervasive narrative on it's head. I'm tempted to stick up posters saying 'You look pretty alright as you are' or 'I don't care what your job title is, are you lovely?' or 'Isn't it a wonderful day for a bike ride?'

I know that there are many benefits of living in a successful, capitalist, society and one of the trade offs is being the target of constant attempts to make us buy, but today it doesn't feel like such a good deal.