Monday, 2 November 2009

London loves.....cycling

Some love affairs are actually love/hate affairs. So it is with London and cycling.

As a recent convert to cycling I cannot claim to speak for the longstanding cycling community. I can, however, speak for myself and the army of rubbish cyclists who cycle back and forth from work everyday in the London streets foregoing the luxury of more ordinary and dignified modes of transport. Like the Piccadilly Line. As I am totally non-expert, there will be no mention of 160 psi tyres, or tubular frames. There will simply be tales of things that occur on bikes in London.

Recently, cycling home from work I spotted a faster cyclist in front of me and conducted an impromptu experiment by catching up with him and then remaining close behind him in his ‘slipstream’. My rationale being that the aerodynamic effect would make it easier for me to cycle. Something to do with less wind resistance? I don’t know. I got a D for GCSE Physics*. Anyway, it seemed like a good idea at the time as I glided through Manor House.

In actuality it was a fairly poor idea. While I was unable to discern any noticeable easing on my cardiovascular exertion, I definitely got wetter, as the spray from his back wheel flew up into my face coating my glasses and rendering me temporarily blind. I didn’t stop to pull over and wipe my glasses. Oh no, that’s just not London cycling. Instead I made it to the next traffic light, half blind…. and then wiped my glasses. Therein lies a metaphor for the madness of the London cyclist; the oscillating emotions of green or red: possibility or halt, to see or to be blind. It’s always about the next traffic light. And nothing else matters**.

Suffice to say, I have not attempted the ‘slipstream’ trick again. But I have done and indeed observed other things that encapsulate the city’s cycling obsession.

In London, the nature of the gruelling slog of our thoroughfares, means no matter how much poise, confidence and Tour De France spirit we begin with as we leave our front doors, within 20 minutes we’re all reduced to a strange horde of sweaty, slightly confused-looking, suspicious, competitive people. Hard-breathing and lolling our heads like Paula Radcliffe. We London cyclists are not a pretty sight. Amusingly, the sweaty horde status quo is disturbed along the way into town as we, the moist ones with raised heart rates and in slight disarray, come into contact with new, fresh, un-crumpled cyclists who have clearly just left their front doors and are still half-smiling, before the anarchy besets them.

Putting sweaty unity to one side for a moment, there are also more divisive forces at work causing meltdown amongst even the most placid London cyclist. For starters there’s the hideous competitiveness. Racing bike riders are, generally-speaking, outrageously macho. (Even female racers are outrageously macho). This can be intimidating. You never quite know where they are, who they are or how they may attack. They are very much like the faceless Russian fighter pilots in Top Gun, only less egalitarian. The tell-tale signs of the racer (the alpha male or queen bee of the cycling dominion) are the calf muscles. Exposed, hairy and obscenely muscular. A warning sign equivalent to glimpsing the rapidly disappearing back view of Aryton Senna’s yellow helmet roaring past you (you, of course, being Gerhard Berger, less technically gifted and therefore provisioned with a slightly less impressive machine)***.

Other cyclists are not the only competitors out there. London’s traffic-laden roads between the hours of 7-10am take on many of the qualities of the Battle of The River Plate. Rush hour is very much ‘move out of my way, or I’m taking you down, and I’ll deal with your insurance claims and/or paralytic brain injuries problems at a later date’. Cyclists clash with anyone and everything: cars, motorcycles, pedestrians, buses, dogs, squirrels, weather, hills, darkness, drunkards, trick or treaters, road markings, speed bumps, pot holes, traffic lights and professional wrestlers. …I made the last one up. But you get the point.

I realise this blog is becoming fairly ragged and irreverent. I fear I may be set upon in the coming days by lycra louts wielding bicycle chains****. While initially I had intended to inject a modicum of intellectualism into this piece, in the form of a philosophical conundrum concerning the metaphysical position of the lonely solo cyclist vis-à-vis the empowered social cyclist as member of a community, sadly I have chosen instead to leave you with a few giggle-happy anecdotes about cycling in London. Sue me.

I recount a friend of a friend who managed, against all the odds, to cycle his bike uphill into the back of a bus. Quite a tricky feat at the best of times, the person in question managed to achieve the feat not only after many months of experience as a professional cycle courier but whilst the bus was stationary, offloading passengers at a bus stop. I often wonder whether he laughed or cried….

Finally, I re-tell the tale of a somewhat Machiavellian, enthusiastic cyclist, new to the game, who, upon exposure to the ‘us vs. them’ world of London cycling found himself battling with anything in his path. Including fowl. One summer evening, whilst cruising down a slight incline on Grays Inn Road he spotted a fat, lazy, unmoving pigeon on the road ahead. Taking it upon himself to engage in a spot of cheap sport, the cyclist headed straight for the fat pigeon, clearly expecting it to move and take flight. The pigeon did not move. The pigeon remained precisely where it was as the cyclist careered on, squishing the bird unceremoniously into the tarmac. Upon returning to the injured creature, the cyclist was able to ascertain from its unmoving remains that it had indeed not been faking indolence but was in actual fact very old, very decrepit, very fat and very lame. And now, as a direct result of his Shimano-gear driven homicide, very, very dead.

Such things are the way of life for the London cyclist. And we must take them in our lycra-clad stride.


*there were complex mitigating circumstances concerning this poor academic result which I don’t have the time to go into here but may return to at some later date. Suffice to say that the circumstances preceding the failure were nobody’s fault but my own.

** I threw this sentence in merely as a reference for Metallica fans to enjoy. I probably shouldn’t have. (I should make clear here that I am not a Metallica fan).

*** I recognise that this is the second reference to Formula One in as many blogs, for which I apologise. (I should also make clear here that I am not, particularly, a Formula One fan)

**** this is a reference to the Morrissey song ‘Such A Little Thing Makes Such A Big Difference’, the b-side to the 1989 top 10 single ‘Interesting Drug’ (I should make clear here that I am a massive Morrissey fan).


  1. Er, "mitigating circumatances"? So when in your science GCSE your response to the question "why is smoking bad for your body" was "it isn't, it's cool", was that a mitigating circumstance?

    My relationship with cycling can definitely be characterised as love/hate. I love cycling. Until I reach any kind of hill/slope/inclination. Then I hate it.

    I cycled part way to Machu Pichu once. Thankfully all of the treks to MP start off at a higher altitude than the site itself so most of the way was down hill. Sadly I fell off, sadder than that was that the bike was stationary at the time. I was trying to get out of the way of a herd of llama.

  2. Very amusing article Josh, I have been a cyclist in London for years now but utterly hate cycling, however it really comes down that its faster and you end up sweating less than boarding the rush hour tube...

  3. Anne Eden-Russell4 November 2009 at 14:27

    JFK was once quoted as saying "Nothing compares to the simple pleasure of a bike ride."

    However I fear he was referring to Marilyn Monroe rather than a BMX or whatever it is you weirdo cyclists ride..............

  4. A herd of Llama! Hilarious. Though grammatically incorrect. It's Llamas. Let's all thank the lord there are no Llamas menacing the streets of London...