Wednesday, 3 February 2010

Cycling in London: A wheely dangerous way to get around

As I stood on Putney Bridge this morning, watching the world, and numerous buses which were not my desired No. 14s, glide by I observed a sea of fluroescent bees zoom past. Bees? Should they not be in hibernation this time of year? But these were no ordinary bees. These were bees on bikes, yellow jackets on their backs, grim determination on their faces.
London is a city of cyclists. They are everywhere. On roads, on pavements, on tow-paths. Wandering in to the office all sweaty and flushed, clutching their helmets, moistly smug at their virtuous exercising before 9am. And Boris Johnson is even trying to up their numbers with his London Cycling Campaign.

Not only do London's cyclists exude an air of self-righteous health and fitness, but also a slight mania. Battling the oil-powered traffic on the city's roads is a job for a crazy person. The majority of Londoners negotiate this hazard from the safety of a double-decker bus, or even by going underground and avoiding it entirely. Nothing scares me more than the thought of being marooned in a speeding sea of taxis and vans balanced upon a wobbling metal frame. Actually I lie, nothing scares me more than the thought of appearing in public under a plastic hat with a chin strap, and skin-tight luminous lycra.
With my own eyes I have seen two road accidents on London's streets. Both had involved a bicycle coming into contact with a larger, heavier vehicle. Both required police and ambulance services to deal with the impact. One was the only time I have ever seen blood run down a concrete surface, if not in a river, at least in a moderately-sized stream.

No surprise, I do not own a bike in the city myself. My Oystercard is one of my most treasured possessions; my key to travel which is dry, safe and steady. Yet I have had my own brush with cycling-induced death. Last summer I was wandering down Kensington High Street after work to meet some Accidental schoolfriends on one of those warm, summer evenings, when the sun still shone and people sat on the pavement outside bars sipping cool cocktails in shirtsleeves.
Fifteen minutes walk from my friend's house I glanced over my shoulder to witness said friend hurtling down the High Street on her bike, clad in compulsory lycra, with streamlined backpack strapped onto her slightly breathless person. Seeing me, she braked and mounted the pavement. "Hey, cool, so do you want a lift to mine?" she enquired. I eyed her single-seater bicycle with scepticism. "Come on, I'll peddle, you sit on the saddle, and try to keep your legs away from the pedals, unless we need to stop then you'll sort of have to, er, stop us." My eyes widened, and I tightened my grip on my handbag. "Right, here, put your bag in my basket. You'll have to wear my backpack, and hang on to me."

Sweaty backpack on my back, I tried to arrange myself on the saddle, hanging on to my equally sweaty friend. She stood up on the pedals and very slowly the protesting bike lurched forward. We wobbled for a few metres and built up some momentum. Then promptly screeched to an uncomfortable halt at a set of traffic lights. "Ok, you'll have to help me get going again", my friend yelled back to me, "I'm a bit worried the cars may plough into the back of us when the lights go green." I gripped harder and tried not to think of my delicate, unhelmeted, little head being crushed under the wheels of a truck. Needless to say the motorised vehicles stuck behind us when the lights changed colour could not have looked less impressed as we bounced forwards, lurching from side to side, two pairs of legs flailing widely, screaming with hilarity and terror. In an attempt to avoid another start-up we zipped through the next set of lights on amber, narrowly missing a white van. The speed bumps at Olympia station ejected me off the seat and into the back of my friend as if the world's fattest person had just parked themself on the other end of my see-saw.

It was with a mixture of surprise at our relatively minimal bodily harm and immense relief that we fell off the bike at the chum's front door. A second friend, already arrived courtesy of her air-conditioned, stable car, regarded us with both amusement and despair. Clocking our sweaty selves she declined to hug us, rolled her eyes, and asked "Drink?". I could think of nothing I needed more (except perhaps a shower). It is a wonder anyone cycles anywhere in London without the calming influence of alcohol. And there is the real reason I don't ride a bike in London - I simply couldn't afford the heavy liquor required to keep my nerves steady enough.


  1. I am a rider myself, i love it, its so stressful to use public transports, people eating next to us, traffic jams, trains that never arrive, and when arrive are full. I love to leave home in the morning real happy cycling my bike and arrive to the office full of energy. How good is that!? when i imagine everyone just sleeping in the train! crazy.
    Fresh air. be healthy and help the earth.

    Yu should try.

  2. We have a large number of commuting cyclists here in Melbourne too.
    It really frightens me how dangerous it is on the road for them, especially when the roads are busy.
    Drivers simply never give bikes enough space (that is assuming they see them in the first place), also some cyclists are very aggressive about claiming their rights on the road. Dying with the "right of way" seems poor compensation to me.
    I am lucky in that I have yet too see a bicyclist knocked off. I have seen five motorcyclists skittled in the past ten years though. It is a frightful thing to witness and I sympathise with our experience.

  3. I've seen some scary things happen to bikers and as much as I'd love to bike to work, it takes me along some insanely busy streets! I walk :) Just as fresh.

  4. Exactly, littlelondonobservationist! Walking is definitely safer, and requires much less embarrassing clothing.

    Motorcyclists are just as bad, Al - I actually cringe from inside the bus when they cut too close on roundabouts.

    Tiago - I am impressed that you manage to cycle so relaxedly; THAT would stress me out more than public transport.


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