A life on two wheels

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So I started cycling.

Having lived in this city for over a decade, cycling is not something that has ever taken my fancy. For most of those 10 years I’ve lived in zones 2 and 3 – i.e. a few miles out from the centre. The last 1.5 years I’ve lived in zone 1, which effectively is the centre. It makes the prospect of getting around by bike much more viable.

Of course – the biggest influence on my decision to at least try out two wheels has been the ‘Boris Bike’ scheme. In the unlikely event that you don’t know what that is – it’s Transport for London’s bike-hire scheme. There are 6,000 bikes and 400 docking stations in central London. The cost, especially for journeys under 30 minutes – is minimal. Journeys under 30 minutes are actually free, though you need to pay an access fee (either £1 a day, £5 for 7 days or £45 for a year’s access). I’m currently paying £5 for the 7 day pass which auto-renews. I have a key fob which means I don’t have to faff about at the terminal – I just plug-it in to the individual bike dock and the bike is then released.

As commuting to work by bike is taking 17-20 minutes – this method is, among other things, a very cost effective way of doing the journey, especially when you consider that a zone 1 & 2 travelcard is over £1,000 a year.

Prior to cycling I had been taking the bus to work. I like the bus, certainly more so than the tube. But my usual bus route has diversions around Victoria meaning that the duration of my commute to work has noticeably increased over recent months. And in the evenings, the traffic coming out of the West End is really bad (much worse than the mornings). I’d reached the point where I was extremely bored of sitting on the top deck of the bus, either stationary or moving at 1 mph, listening to the relentless chatter of tourists (this bus is particularly heavily used by tourists). I’d finally had enough.

So I decided at last to try two wheels. The reason I’d never done this before is because I considered it Very Dangerous. I mean, this city is completely – and I mean completely – overcrowded and over congested. Whenever I go to another European city and then come back to London– it’s the same feeling all over again – a city struggling massively with capacity issues. And I do believe that to be the case (the upside is that London has a very real ‘buzz’ – the downside is that it can be completely overwhelming and immensely frustrating to live/travel within).

So yes – the roads are busy, I can’t deny that. But the good news is that these days there are significant numbers of cyclists on the road, with figures having doubled (or something like that) over the past 10 or so years. Things like the Boris Bike scheme obviously help. So there is an element of strength in numbers.

I would love to say that my commute is ‘easy’ but it isn’t especially. It goes along very busy roads and intersections – the busiest of which are Parliament Square (major multi-lane roundabout in front of the Houses of Parliament) and Trafalgar Square. But they’re doable. And I honestly believe that if I can navigate them OK – then anybody can.

The London cycling establishment is not the most homogenous group (compared with, say, cyclists in Amsterdam or Berlin). There are the hardcore lycra-clad head-down cyclists who are coming in from further afield. Then there are the trendier cyclists (who tend to ride those ‘sit up and beg’ (upright) bikes – which I like). Then there are people like myself, more casual and newer cyclists coming in on a Boris Bike. I do now wear a cycling helmet (I didn’t initially which is ill-advised) and I also now wear a lurid high-viz jacket (which you’d be crazy not to do when commuting during winter in the evenings).

I’m enjoying it. Yes, I get to work hotter than I might like. I’ve yet to work out exactly what layers to wear (we have a shower at work so if necessary I can use that). Yes, my legs have ached quite a lot initially. But I’m getting a buzz from doing it. I love that sense of getting yourself from A to B under your own steam and without waiting at bus stops, waiting for tubes, having to deal with other passengers or engineering or tube breakdowns. There is also a surprisingly large feel-good factor to knowing that you are: a) burning 2000 calories a week; and b) helping save the planet. That may sound virtuous – but both are true. I already feel fitter and I’ve only been doing it a few weeks! I’ve already noticed a loosening in the trousers I wear most often and that’s not from diet (I’m not on one!) or any other exercise (I’m not doing any other exercise!). It’s good.

The natural evolution as I get more serious is to buy my own bike. But therein lies a degree of complexity. I live high up in an old, stucco-fronted traditional London townhouse. There is no lift and there is no bike storage. There is ‘the street’ – but leaving bikes on the street anywhere in London is always going to be regarded as something of a fool’s game.

So I have a few options. Option one is to buy a folding bike. I’ve done a lot of research into these now. They’re not totally ideal but they’re considered very nippy and it would be easy enough to carry upstairs, either folded or unfolded (storage at work is no problem as we have secure bike storage).

Option two is to buy a cheap, second hand bike and leave it chained to the railings on the street. But I’m less keen on this. My landlady isn’t going to want me to chain a bike to the front of this big house (she lives in the lower-ground floor flat) and there aren’t other bike parking areas on the street that are close by. So this option has limited viability.

Option three is to continue using Boris Bikes. However – though extremely economical (effectively £45 a year!) they are far from ideal. They’re fine for leisurely rides from A to B in central London, but they’re really not cut out for commuting. For a start, the way the gearing works – they’re 22% slower than similarly sized bikes. And in terms of handling they are very heavy / clunky – which makes them safer, of course, but unwieldy to ride – especially when moving off at junctions. Finally – the way the bike docks work – there isn’t always a bike available at your local dock! I leave early in the morning so this isn’t a problem on the way to work. BUT – if I get home late from work – I’ve had the experience before of my local dock being full. This means cycling (further away) to find space at another dock. Far from ideal after a long day at work.

So watch this space. I hope to be reporting on a bike acquisition in the near future.

7 thoughts on “A life on two wheels

Add yours

  1. Fascinating post. So glad you have got a helmet on now! They have a similar scheme here in Denver but you never (hardly ever) see bikes on traffic roads. The buses here all have bike racks on the FRONT of the bus to place your bike on too.
    In the colder months though our ‘rentable bikes’ are all taken away…soon I guess. Do the Boris Bikes stay out year round? And does he himself ride one?
    Here even in apartments people carry their bikes upstairs – you see lots parked on peoples’ balconies.
    Hubby – when I first met him, had a mountain bike even though he had zero space. We had to store it IN THE BATHTUB and then move it into living room whenever you needed a bath (and wash the bath out first). It is a joke we STILL talk about – far from ideal and I don’t think he ever used the bloody thing more than a handful of times!

  2. My husband Stephen cycles to work, six miles each way (and coming back is very hilly!) When he first started, five years or so ago, he could only manage it a couple of times a week – now he does it every day and cycled almost every day through that terrible winter. He’s a lot fitter and slimmer too – – though he was always a slim build anyway. He far prefers it to driving. I hope you’ll have a similar positive cycling experience! I used to cycle quite a bit when we lived in Cardiff but not now – Leeds is too hilly for me, I’m sticking to swimming, where the water’s flat!

  3. Birdy – yeh, Boris Bikes stay all year round. I believe Boris does cycle but I think it’s a normal bike rather than a slow/clunky rented one. Even here lots of people keep them in their apartments and on balconies, etc. Something I too will need to do. Just need to figure out how big a bike I can manoeuvre up and down! LOL at bathtub storage place though does seem sensible!!

    Daphne – it’s good for the soul, as is swimming! I already feel much better for doing it and it’s only been a few weeks. And yes, it’s starting to get easier. It is much better than driving, and in a city like this (when you live comparatively close) – it should be a no-brainer, and hopefully for more people. If only we had the cycle infrastructure that Holland has!

  4. I’d love to cycle more here but have to be careful with the old ticker. I used to cycle a lot but as my 2nd heart attack came during a ride, it kinda put me off it ! It’s the extra strain on the heart from even gentle hills and these can be deceptive as in a car, a gentle slope isn’t even noticed. On a bike……heart attack.
    However in Florida, there ARE no hills so I do ride there……around the park mostly but once into town which freaked out the locals who rarely see cyclists and tend to treat them as moving targets….especially the PS2 generation !

  5. SB – Yes, does lead to rapid increase in heart rate I guess (especially when commuting!). Glad to hear you ride in FL. Is great gentle exercise too (when not over-exerting).

    Mancais – I don’t see it so much as exercise – more as my fastest route to work.

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