This time last year I bought a bike. It had taken four years of living in the city but I was finally living my stereotyped London dream of flying around on two wheels, fluorescent jacket fluorescing and carbon emissions zeroing; king of the road. The bike was freedom. Unlike the tube, I could get exactly where I wanted to go rather than a ten walk away. Unlike the car I could tie the thing to the nearest pole and get on with it. It was blue in some parts and another shade of blue in other parts. It was perfect.
I was initially cautious, sticking to journeys through parks and laughing with unbridled joy as I left hapless pedestrians and the occasional horse in my wake. What chance did they stand? The bicycle was the vehicle of the future and I its shiny jacketed prophet. The speed, the elegance, the dinging bell. They were glorious days but this was mere child’s play and I knew it. It couldn’t be long before I left my bipedal and quadropedal playmates for the Big Boy world of the London road.
If you haven’t had the experience of being a tiny sack of squishy meat fleeing a stampeding herd of steel wildebeest who dislike you for not having to pay road tax then you haven’t cycled in London. There are few things to make you so acutely aware of your own mortality as passing through Trafalgar Square at half past 5 on a weekday. The roundabout seems to be governed by chaos and bravery, often forcing me to circle it a few times before escaping to the correct exit. It’s always while trying to change lane that you realise your helmet is essentially an upturned polystyrene cup with holes in it, which doesn’t help much either.
It’s when the sun starts to set that the real horrors kick in. No matter how many flashing LEDs I attach to myself (I’m starting to look like a human-shaped Tetris game), drivers will never behave as if they are aware of my existence, barely missing me as they overtake. Potholes, conveniently located at the side of the road where the cyclists cycle, are rendered near-invisible, leaving my backside near-unsittable. Then if you’re out really late, you have the joys of drunk cyclists to look forward to, wibbling and wobbling side to side as if the road were one big tightrope.
It’s fair to say I had an authentic experience of cycling in London but my baptism wasn’t fully complete until 6 weeks into bike ownership when I gobbled my last piece of authenticity pie; my bike was stolen. Well, sort-of stolen. I kept forgetting to lock the thing up and eventually someone took up my offer of a free bike.
I was bereft. Yes, the bike was a source of mortal peril but it had given me a certain freedom I now had lost. For the first time I had started to understand London as a city, a coherent whole. Travelling by road I had seen how one part related to the other. Now, stuck on the underground, I was confined to a sub-par existence of perfectly straight tube lines and other people’s body odour. Here there was less danger of death but it was all false and artificial, like only playing chess with your four year old brother; yes, you’ll never lose but you’ll never experience the challenge of a good game, not to mention the fact that his still developing spatial awareness means you have to move his knights for him.
Marx would say I was “alienated” from my true nature. All I know is I missed my bike and really wanted to get a new one. I got one second hand in the RAG bike auction for £30 which lasted precisely ten seconds when I realised it was meant for someone a foot shorter than me. In the end it took months of saving but I finally bought a shiny cream coloured bike with white handlebars and a white seat. It’s a bike fit for the Angel Gabriel himself and is serving me valiantly. We’ve been together now for 6 months and haven’t looked back, the steaming sweat patch on my back during morning lectures a testimony to our bond.
My year of London cycling has been both off-putting and on-turning, a mixture of horror and freedom. For all its perils, cycling really is the best way to get to know the city and feel part of it. If you really must walk, my last word is for you; ask not for whom them bell tolls, it tolls for thee. So get off my damned cycle path.