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Ground Level 2: On The Road Again

February 23, 2011

Streets of London, I’m back! Nearly thirty years after last shaking a fist at a taxi driver, I’m on the road again as a serious cyclist – ‘serious’ meaning regular and frequent, not just with a frown on my face.

What prompted this return to the saddle was an inadvertent crime. I’d dashed onto a train at my local station, in my hurry omitting to touch my Oyster card against one of those bleepy things and getting landed with a hefty fine by the long arm of the overground law.

Feeling unreasonably aggrieved, and devoting my 15 minute journey to sulking about the waste of desperately needed cash, I mused that there must be cheaper ways of getting to central London than shelling out £20 to a couple of heavies in National Express uniforms (or even parting with the actual fare of £2.40). Staring morosely out of the train window, I suddenly realised that there were, and that one of them was standing forlornly in my hallway, with two flat tyres and no lights.

I was already working on a rebudgeting exercise with the dual objectives of cutting my expenditure and reversing the headlong-downward trend in my income, and quickly calculated a saving of around £1,200 a year, a very handy supplement to the only other bullet point in my strategy so far, the giving up of Mars bars.

As the train trundled towards Liverpool Street, my usual destination for gym or work, I noticed that it had followed main roads almost all the way, so the next day I plotted my cycle journey by actually walking the route. It took two hours. Knock off at least half that for a pair of wheels and I’m quids (and even hours) in, and probably a bit less sweaty than after walking the walk.

A couple of days later, after three decades’ worth of essential repairs and maintenance, I’m freewhelling through Upper Clapton, my ancient brakes squealing like a flock of geese, celebrating my reunion with the brotherhood and sistership of the cycle.

So what’s changed? In many ways, not much. Thirty years of roadworks have made no appreciable difference to the surfaces I’m trying to glide over. Nor has the passage of time done much for the consideration of bus drivers or the eyesight of white van men.

On the plus side, there are far more cycle lanes, and those marked spaces just before the traffic lights are very welcome, as you join the phalanx of cyclists getting a head start on the herd of cars that lurch forward when the lights change. And there are many more of us around now than then, so I often actually feel part of a majority, both numerical and moral. Yes, someone in authority has been very considerate towards cyclists in my time off the roads.

I’ve found a tame bike shop, where the staff treat me as neither a nuisance nor an idiot. And the memories come flooding back. I recall the sheer delight of discovering how to cycle with no hands as I was wheeling down Kennington Road one bright spring afternoon in the late 1970s. The joy of finding a hidden sidestreet that shaves a few seconds off the journey. The fun of trying to time the run-up to the lights so as to avoid stopping and planting my feet on the ground.

But I’ve resolved not to romanticise, fetishise or idolise cycling, not to be one of those self-righteous types who believe the laws of the road only apply to people on four wheels, who view red as the new green, and who see the pavement as a convenient extension of the cycling lane. And I won’t be one of those shiny cyclists on skinny bikes who do a lot of standing up. I’m going to be a purely functional cyclist, using my creaking machine to get me from A to B (and Z if possible) and save me a fortune. The possibilities of observation and reflection may be fewer than on the Underground, but the scope for vitriol is almost unlimited. I’m already yelling “how many lanes do you need, then?” with worrying frequency.

From → Ground Level

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