For quite a while now I’ve been intrigued by the floods of neon, lycra-wearing cyclists whizzing by on their way to work, cycling through parks I only know exist because I’ve looked longingly at them through the window of a crowded, stuffy rush-hour train. The freedom of leaving when you want and not having to rely on unreliable trains. The draw of simplicity and the outdoors.
I was terrified of facing London’s streets: buses bulldozing by, navigating the more than overwhelming clockwise roundabouts, and the suffocating fumes filling dense streets. I’ve been living in the UK on and off for six years and still feel uncomfortable on the left hand side of the road.
Nevertheless, I felt a kind of magnetic pull towards the independence of owning a bicycle. Becoming the boss of your own movements. No train can tell you when it’s time to leave. You get to decide.
Last week, my curiosity finally won me over. Within a couple of days, I had bought a second-hand bike (named Winston), ordered a helmet and a lock, left the house one morning and just went for it.
Looking back, perhaps I should have planned my adventure a bit better — it took me over an hour and a half to get to work. I had looked at the route beforehand and decided it was too difficult to remember every turn. For lack of better alternative, I stopped at almost every corner to pull out my phone to see where to go next. Not ideal, but it meant that the next day I knew exactly where I needed to go.
It’s surprising and slightly embarrassing how over-ground, “street-view” London can seem so foreign on a route you take by train every day. It’s like a vague outline of a map that still needs coloring in. Like awakening a part of your mind you didn’t know existed. All it took was an appetite for something new to conquer this unknown territory.
And conquer I did!
Not only did I satisfy my craving for independence, but I mastered the most important cyclist survival techniques. I learned where to place myself in traffic (basically overtake all cars and position yourself at the front), how to look cool while idling (let go of the handlebars and lean back casually), and I got asked out on a date (offer pending). Not bad for the first cycle commute.
Cycling to work is like being part of a really cool club. It’s like we’re all in on a secret, and everyone else is missing out. The feeling of Schadenfreude as you manoeuvre to the front of the traffic and creep through a red light* with shameless indifference creates a smug sense of entitlement, and a freedom beyond the normal traffic laws.
*at your own risk
It sounds almost unbearably hipster, but cycling is like sharing a lifestyle rather than a hobby. I feel like I have constant back up. Like I have a big brother watching out for me (in the family sense, not the creepy violation of privacy sense) in case something should happen.
The other day, while trying to navigate a bike without a kickstand and simultaneously searching for the lock buried within my bag, I decided to rest Winston on the pavement. A lady walking her dog stopped to ask if she should run home and grab her bike kit — it looked as though I was having bike trouble. It’s comforting to know that even out of hours, the community steps up to help a fellow cyclist out.
This morning, as I was turning into a busy road, I felt for a split second like I had joined the Tour de France. There were so many professional-looking cyclists all geared up to take on the streets of London. I quickly checked to make sure they weren’t wearing race numbers and then joined the peloton. Who knew that so many people cycled to work in the morning?
And the cycling infrastructure is there! You’re guided by bicycle icons on almost every street. Any fears I had of cycling the streets of London disappeared as soon as I set out. The dangers faded into background noise and were overtaken by childlike fearlessness and the thrill of picking up speed on an empty bike path as the world rushes past you.
Monday morning felt like a weekend. The sun was shining, birds were chirping, families were cycling together — what a great start to the week.