My Bicycle Life: part 2
by Our Bicycle Lives
By Stevie Russell
When I went to Stirling University in 1984, the bike came with me – by now I had a golden Motobecane tourer which I named Ermyntrude because it looked a bit like a cow. I then spent four years cycling around the Stirlingshire and Clackmannanshire hills to my various student pads, then moved to Edinburgh and more hills. By the end of 1990, I was back in London and to my daily cycle commute. For most of the last twenty years I have been cycling from Brixton to Bloomsbury, with Waterloo Bridge marking the boundary between work and home. Every time I cycle across that bridge, without fail, I look up and around at the London vista and smile, thinking how lucky I am to be doing that. I’ll never forget the double rainbow that arced one morning from the south bank to the north, landing perfectly on the golden statue atop the Inns of Court. You don’t see that every day. You never see it from the Underground.
One morning in the late 1990s my commute took an unexpected turn. I had stayed the night at a friend’s house in Chiswick and we had been up until the early hours drinking and talking. I had to be in Bloomsbury to open the university library I managed at 9am, so I was still a bit hazy when I set off, and sure enough I was soon hopelessly lost. I cycled around in a bit of a daze until I saw a sign that said ‘Euston’ – my destination – and followed it. I found myself on a slight incline which quickly rose up above the street. It was very busy with fast-moving vehicles and there was no pavement or even a gap between the traffic and the barrier which had appeared to my left. I was, I realised with horror, on the Westway. On a bicycle.
There are very good reasons why bicycles are banned from the Westway and I don’t recommend anyone else tries this short cut from West to North London (although I have to say, it is very fast). It was one of the most terrifying experiences of my life, pedalling faster and harder than I have ever done before or since, my heart pounding in my mouth the whole journey. Drivers beeped at me but there was nothing I could do: once you’re on that road you can’t get off or even stop or turn anywhere. The only thing was to keep going, and I almost fainted with relief when I came down safely – and soberly – at the other end. I have never been so happy to see the Marylebone Road! And the library was open on time at 9am. The students were none the wiser.
Another incident that stands out from those times was during my bad drinking-and-cycling days. I had been to a gig in Camden and, having drunk far too much, got lost trying to negotiate the one-way system going south from there. I ended up sprawled in the middle of a road somewhere behind King’s Cross. Some men came running out of what I think was a late night café and picked me and my bike out of the way of the oncoming traffic. At first they wanted to know who had given me my black eye, so they could teach him a lesson. When I convinced them I had done it myself kissing the tarmac, they called me a cab, put my bike in the boot and gave me the fare home to Brixton. I have no idea who they were, but I quite possibly owe them my life. Don’t drink and cycle, kids!
I have never worn Lycra, or any other cycling gear. I’ve just worn what I’m comfortable cycling in. I’ve also never had to use a shower facility at work, although I’m very glad they are provided now as it does encourage people to cycle. But I very rarely break a sweat because I ride at a comfortable pace: for me the whole point of cycling is that you never have to rush anywhere as you know exactly how long your journey is going to take. So I trundle along at my own unhurried pace, and still beat the bus or tube. I cycle because I am lazy.
I’ve seen many changes in London cycling in the thirty years since my ‘eureka’ moment. The number of cyclists has soared, which is wonderful. Back on that first Putney to Baker Street commute I could never have imagined how many cyclists I would now ride amongst, a force to be reckoned with. Thanks to the efforts of the London Cycling Campaign, cycling facilities are infinitely better (that is, they exist). The most noticeable increase came when the Congestion Charge was introduced: suddenly the roads were full of car drivers on two wheels, behaving in the same selfish aggressive fashion they had always done on four. Another big change has been in the public attitude to cyclists: we used to be considered slightly eccentric (OK, mad) but worthy, in a hair-shirt kind of way, and harmless. The level of hatred aimed at cyclists today is tragic.
Cycling has been central to my social life, too. At the end of the 1990s when my life was at a low point and my social life non-existent, I decided to find a new one and started with my local Lambeth LCC branch. It worked: I’ve been an active member, on and off, ever since, and made friends with some wonderful people. As for the bikes themselves: Ermyntrude was retired in 1993 and replaced with a pretty purple Dawes Streetlife that I named Florence. In April 2000 I cycled up to the Windmill pub off Brixton Hill for a gig, and came out at 1am to find Florence a crumpled wreck. A friendly policeman took pity on me and drove me and Florence home in the back of the police van. The next day I went to Brixton Cycles and bought Dylan, a Specialized Crossroads. Dylan was stolen from my garden in 2011 and the insurance company bought me a replacement. I look forward to many more years in the saddle with Buxton, my sparkling new blue Specialized Vita commuting bike.
My commute is now only three days a week, and west to Roehampton, so I miss my river-crossing routine. But it’s nice to be so near to my childhood stamping grounds. On the first fine spring day of this year I arrived at work to find a picket line outside. Not wanting to cross it, I cycled on to Richmond Park instead and spent a delightful day exploring all the places I had cycled around in my childhood. It hasn’t changed at all; and there are cyclists, old and young, everywhere.