Tuesday, 5 April 2011

Riding into the Sunset

Due to a change in circumstances, Trusty and I will no longer be blogging about our London cyling adventures (though to be sure we will still be having them). I have loved writing and sharing with you fellow enthusiasts of bicycles and beauty, and I ring my cheery bell to say goodbye.

Saturday, 19 March 2011

The Rites of Spring

It is warming up again- it may be another false alarm, or maybe, just maybe, spring has arrived. Predictably, several phenomena can once more be spotted on our city's streets:

1) People who have overestimated the temperature and gone out without their coats, shivering at traffic lights and rubbing their blue, goose pimpled legs.
2) Van drivers singing along to 80s pop with their windows down.
3) Women cycling in utterly inappropriate shoes. Today's sighting were red leather cutaway kitten heel ankle boots with a leopard print trim. Absurd, but kind of wonderful.

Monday, 14 March 2011

Cars vs Bikes

A few things in the last few days have made me very thankful not to own a car. One was a story on MoneyBox on BBC Radio 4 over the weekend which exposed the culture of referral fees and kickbacks between garages, tow-trucks, insurance companies and claims lawyers. Once you've had an accident your details become like gold dust, and huge amounts of money changes hands. Apparently that is why car insurance gets increasingly extortionate even as accident rates go down. This makes me angry on so many different levels, the key one being- you might have died. You have experienced a major trauma. And then every time you pick up the phone it is a weasly cold-calling lawyer type pouring poison in your ear and encouraging you to sue someone. Eugh.

And on a lighter note this photo, from Howies, is the other one. 

Thursday, 10 March 2011

Cycling in Croatia

Just back from a wonderful five day trip to sunny (but chilly) Croatia. We spent a few days in Dubrovnik which is beautiful and well worth a visit, and then hopped on a ferry in search of a bit more wilderness and, crucially, some bikes. Reluctantly, having given more than 3 seconds thought to the practicalities I'd left Trusty locked in his bleak London garage-he's not a folder after all- so I was soon feeling the craving to be on two wheels. There are apparently good trails on the mainland, and some islands which can be reached on a day trip from the city, but we wanted to go further afield and so boarded the Nona Anna once-a-day catamaran for the island of Mljet. Despite the fact that Time Magazine apparently ranks it as one of the ten most beautiful islands in the world, Mljet is not a major tourist hub in high season, and in March it was utterly deserted. The handful of locals were visibly shocked to see us, but sprang into hospitable action once they were made to believe that yes, we had come to stay, and yes, we would like to cycle please. The bike hire places (and everything else in fact) was closed, but the owner of the apartment we'd managed to find happily lent us her two mountain bikes. 

I've not got a lot of experience in the world of MBX- I was always put off by a)fat tires=less speed and b)the likelihood of coming off going over a root and concussing myself on a boulder. I'm pretty clumsy. But Mljet is hilly and well, beggars can't be choosers, so we saddled up....and it was amazing. Pine forests, coastal paths and incredible, green-blue inland lakes. We rode for hours, picnicking on shore lines and whooping down the hills. We had the whole place to ourselves- the only encounter with another human being was with a head-scarved, raisin faced old women who thought we were disturbing her goats. Or at least, that is what we inferred from the tirade of angry Croatian. In the evenings a guy called Djuro opened up his restaurant specially, cooked us whatever fish he had caught that day and plied us with local grappa until we could barely walk. Wonderful medicine for sore thighs.

If you're looking for a DIY cycling trip somewhere near(ish) cheap(ish) and extraordinarily beautiful, Croatia is your place. Say hi to Djuro (at the Stella Marin) from Trusty and I.

Monday, 28 February 2011

We're out of the Office...

Or out of the city at least. Trusty and I are off for some well earned holiday cyling in Croatia. Normal service will resume on our return.

Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Cycle Tribes: BMX Boys

Not all BMX-ers are 17, clearly
Yesterday I cycled all the way down the (very potholed) Walworth  Road in a tag-team race with a 17 year old on a BMX. It was possibly the highlight of my day. You will have seen this tribe, but only rarely in our great capital- his typical habitat is suburban backroads, car parks, skate parks and woodland. He has not evolved to effectively deal with the longer distances of London roads, or indeed, buses and taxis. The BMX boy will most likely have collar length hair, a hoodie, baggy trousers (or conversely and horrifyingly, jeggings) and a black cap pulled down low- and crucially, no lights. . He will sit way back, low down on his tiny little saddle pedalling leisurely with his knees occasionally hitting his chin. Most at home when standing up on the pedals, he can get some speed up pulling away from traffic lights, but his thick tyres and small wheels hinder any real pace.

These facts of physics were not immediately obvious to the young lad I was cycling beside last night. Waiting at a red light, he looked sideways at me, taking in my pretty pannier, basket, skirt and bell. All these clearly equalled some kind of gauntlet being laid down. When the lights changed he raced away, standing but bent double to stay in contact with the handlebars, the top of his boxers wafting in the breeze. Trusty doesn't exactly go 0-60 in seconds (especially with a pannier full of books) so it took me a minute or so to catch him up, but when I did I quickly needed to overtake. I may be ten years older, but I do have full sized wheels, and the capacity to fully extend my legs. I'm not naturally competitive, but neither do I have the patience to stay behind someone slower than me.

BMX boy was not happy. At the next lights the same thing happened, he shot into the distance but I quickly caught up and overtook. This happened six or seven times, until it had become a bit of a game. By the time our ways parted at Camberwell Green we felt like old friends. As I turned I looked back over my shoulder,  he doffed his cap at me in an archaically chivalrous gesture, exposing greasy hair and a cheeky smile. So I saluted. A moment of cyclist solidarity across the tribes. It made me smile.

Monday, 14 February 2011

Occasions To Avoid Cycling Part 1: Valentine's Date

Almost always, cycling is the best choice of transport. Very occasionally though, it is most definitely not.

I have discovered that when you are meeting someone for a Valentines' breakfast, and you are specially wearing, instead of the usual cycling gear, a pretty (wool) dress, tights, scarf, socks, boots, a very unbreathable and highly unreflective coat and slightly more make up than usual, cycling might still, possibly be the right choice. If you cycle slowly. This will, however, be  complicated if 1) you are late, or 2) it is a beautiful sunny day which makes you want to go as fast as humanly possible. If these two circumstances combine you are absolutely guaranteed to arrive on said date with a bright red face, sweating profusely, and take half an hour sitting in a well heated restaurant to cool down. You may in fact need to mop your face with your napkin.

Not. Sexy.

Sorry Trusty, thou art forever by my side, but next romantic rendezvous with the other man in my life, you're staying at home.

Thursday, 10 February 2011

Losing my Religion

A dear friend gave me a very beautiful book for my birthday recently. It is by the guys at BikeSnob NYC, who are always worth a read, and it is chunky, funny and kind of wonderful. One of the best things about it is the plethora of great quotes, like "Cycle tracks will abound in Utopia" (H.G.Wells).

However, it is also provocative. I've realised over the last six months or so of writing this blog that one theme emerges time and time again- that cycling is life-enhancing. Not in the way that useful things (i.e. iphones) are life-enhancing, or in the way that pleasurable things (i.e. art) are, but somehow, in being both, cycling becomes more than the sum of its parts. It almost feels, dare I say it, spiritual. this perturbs me. Because, much as I love him and have happily anthropomorphised Trusty to a potentially unhealthy extent, I know, really, that he is a machine. He is a collection of metal tubes with rubber accessories who gets me from A to B.

BikeSnob knows this too, but does not seem to think this is a hindrance to cycling having significant metaphysical powers. He (she? they?) rewrite the famous christian poem 'Footprints' so it is not God's footprints on the beach, but bike tracks. And then there is this quote:

"As human beings we're trapped. We're trapped by our physical limitations, and our responsibilities...and the looming inevitability of death. Because of this we all seek respite from the pain of existence [through entertainment, sport, hobbies]. It is a rare movie or story or picture or song that can actually pass the time and be enjoyable and fulfill a spiritual need and teach you about life.Cyclists escape the pain and drudgery of being alive by doing something we love to do, but we can also integrate that thing into out everyday lives... Cyclists aren't just hobbyists or lifestyle athletes; in many ways we're a different type of being. We're people with wheels" (p48-50).

That's a pretty big claim isn't it? A different type of being? Really? As I was reading it, I was nodding along, because this is persuasive stuff, and a lot of it I recognise.I honestly believe most people's lives would be made better if they owned, and rode, a bicycle. I think our society would be that bit healthier, happier, cleaner, richer and quieter. 

What I don't think is that cycling can do anything, anything at all about the "looming inevitability of death", or "fulfill a spiritual need". I have fallen into this language at points, and I want to take it back. Because I sincerely believe that all spirituality is about relationship. Foundationally, relationship with God, a loving, self-giving, creator. Not just because I think this is true (which I, controversially,do-feel free to converse with me in the comments) but because this relationships aligns all our others. It puts us in our correct place and helps us see others as just as flawed and fragile as ourselves. It teaches, beseeches us, to love people, to commit ourselves to them, not solely because they can meet needs in us but because we belong in relationship. We are entirely co-dependent creatures.

You may not (probably don't) believe in God, but I hope you believe in people. I hope you believe that everything good in life, everything hard, important, valuable and true involves people. And Trusty, though I love him, is not people. He maybe helps me love people better because the endorphins I get out of riding him might make me nicer to be around, but he is not my people. If I am going to have any religion (and I am profoundly uncomfortable with a word that has such connotations of rules and pointless ritual)then it is about God and about people, not about bicycles.

And I just had to get that off my chest.

Thursday, 3 February 2011

Cycling off the stress

Neurons in the brain. Benedict Cambell, Wellcome Images
Yesterday was a hectic, nay, manic, day at work. The kind of day where you arrive early, don't have lunch and leave two hours late, barely stopping to take a breath in between. I came out feeling incredibly wired, and jumped on Trusty to get to a social engagement I was now VERY late for. Bombing along the back streets, getting my weave on through the buses and taxis I felt the shoulder-hunching stress levels slowly metabolise into something else; exhilaration. The energy from my stressful day made that bike ride the most fun one I've had in ages. 

Yesterday was rare- I don't really get very stressed. And even when I do (as yesterday), there is a part of me that sort of enjoys the rush of it, the sense of a challenge to be completed. I am also generally a pretty upbeat person (yes, yes, ok, very upbeat). Until yesterday I had assumed that these were just basic, blessed facts of my personailty, well balanced by a whole heap of flaws in other areas. However, feeling clearly the cleansing effects of cycling on my stress levels last night made me wonder- maybe I'm not naturally unstressed. Maybe I am about as susceptible to stress as anyone else but I excercise regualarly, doing something that I love. Not pounding the treadmill but out with the wind on my face. 

Obviously, I am a bit slow on the uptake because research showed long ago that regular aerobic exercise reduces anxiety and improves mood:

“It looks more and more like the positive stress of exercise prepares cells and structures and pathways within the brain so that they’re more equipped to handle stress in other forms,” says Michael Hopkins, a graduate student affiliated with the Neurobiology of Learning and Memory Laboratory at Dartmouth, who has been studying how exercise differently affects thinking and emotion. “It’s pretty amazing, really, that you can get this translation from the realm of purely physical stresses to the realm of psychological stressors.”

Now we all know I'm no science head, but I think this is pretty amazing. Through cycling (or running, or dancing, or even, if it's your personal poison, going to the gym) we can wire ourselves for emotional stability. So next time you find me annoyingly pollyanna-esque, just remember; I can't help it. It's Trusty's fault. 

Monday, 31 January 2011

Winter Wonderland

Yesterday I pedalled  down to Columbia Road Flower Market to meet some friends for lunch. The place was fringed with bicycles, fixies, racers and dutch cargo bikes alike. The nippy, east-end flash of the skinny steeds is certainly attractive, but far less practical for an outing like that. Trusty's basket was loaded with roses for the sunny cycle back through Canonbury, and pretty much everyone who passed broke into a smile at the sight.

Elsewhere in the city, it is notable how the first surge of New Year's Resolution cyclists has tailed away rapidly as the cold has returned. The streets are as quiet now as they were in the December snow-and party sparked lull. This makes me sad, because those cattle trucks beneath our feet are keeping people from the joys of winter. Granted, the days when it is both cold AND wet can be fairly unpleasant, but days like today, when the sun is out and sky is blue are absolutely glorious to cycle in. Yes, you need two sets of gloves, a really good neck warmer, an ear band and two pairs of socks, but it is totally worth it. If I could recreate the pink cheeked glow I'm left with after a sunny winter ride I'd be a cosmetics millionaire.

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

The best cycling streets in London (Part 6)

Now, I realise that after a day as glorious as today, every street seems like the best cycling street. With the wind at your back, the sun on your face and the very faint first scent of spring the city is a wonderland on two wheels. And The Aldwych is not at first glance an obvious choice- three or four lanes of traffic at most points, weaving buses and dopey tourists on their way to see Dirty Dancing The Musical. However, ever since seeing Happy-Go-Lucky with the amazing Sally Hawkins, in which the lead character Poppy comes zooming round the semi-circle of Aldwych in the first scene I'd had a soft spot for it. (Incidentally, if you've ever had a beloved bicycle stolen you will also appreciate that film). Obviously, the traffic is cleared for her but not for us quotidian cyclists, but if you're feeling brave and willing to get your weave on you'll love it. In the summer it is one of the greenest roads in central London, lined with majestic trees. On bright winter days like today the bare branches reveal some of the grandest architecture we've got to offer- the towering columns of Bush House, sturdy St Clement's Dane and the imposing back entrance of Somerset House. On one end of the island there is the Indian embassy, always decorated by a queue of people wanting visas dressed in glorious technicolour. I may be biased because I know that just the other side of Somerset House the Thames, the soul of the city, surges past, changing colour and freshening the air at the bottom of Kingsway. Perhaps if I battle with the buses on a grey and rainy day I will change it to the 'worst cycling' streets list, but I don't think so. See what you think.

Image by Ben30

Friday, 14 January 2011

Blues and Greys

January is a funny time isn't is? Let's be honest, the climactic conditions are hardly conducive to an upbeat mood, and this year it seems to have been particularly unpleasant. For many people the New Year is a time for a little light life-evaluation,  and the battleship grey skies don't provide a particularly helpful backdrop. We make resolutions mainly on the basis of what we feel we have failed at the preceding year. What a great place to start. We go over our lives with a fine tooth comb, looking for flaws. Where are we at in our career, our love life, our appearance? Are we the people we'd hoped to be, this time last year? Are we, on all levels, a success?

Perhaps January seems especially  glum to me this year because I'm more aware of the underpinning anxiety about the future. Fewer people will have jobs by this time next year. Most of us will be a bit poorer. And a lot of us (me included) don't know where it is we want to be and therefore have no idea how to aim for it.

This is a bike blog, and therefore I'm supposed to bring all this therapeutic musing back onto topic. And actually, it is easy to do, because when I'm out and about on Trusty I can't help but feel free and childlike. It's very hard to have a furrowed brow freewheeling down a hill. It sounds overly practical, but when the wind blows through my hair it also lightens my thoughts and lifts my heaviness. It takes me back to basics. Cycling reminds me that I am healthy enough to move at speed, I live in a beautiful city full of precious friends, that anything could happen just around that corner.That hope is intrinsic to mankind. My christian faith and time on my bike help me to cling on to the belief that my life, our lives, mean more than external status, more than where we are on some giant table of success and failure. Even when the January rain threatens to wash it away. I'll just pedal faster and hope to dodge the drops.

Oh, and if all that philosophising fails I'm just going to have to get Trusty one of these.

Image by SusanG2

Thursday, 6 January 2011

Water and Light.

I've written before about my perverse love of cycling in the rain. I'll admit, the last few days of drizzly grottiness have tested this a little, but not broken my commitment to my conclusion. I do however prefer rainy cycling after the sun has gone down than under the heavy steel-grey skies of day. At night the addition of a large quantity of water to the urban landscape changes it for the better. I never get over how beautiful all the lights look on slick streets.Taxis leave twin scarlet wakes on the black canvas. It is naturally occuring abstract art, glossy streaks of white, red and yellow, with the occasional pool of aquamarine green-for-go. It is such an underwater green anyway, isn't it, that most friendly traffic light? Slightly greener than a swimming pool, green like the sea in a hidden caribbean bay.

Yesterday the view was made even more interesting because I had forgotton to put my  contact lenses in. The droplets splatterd across my glasses refracted the lights even further, making my own private kaleidoscope. Not great for safety, I'll admit, but oh so pretty.

Image by Stefan1024