by Our Bicycle Lives
Contrary to popular belief, rain is rare: on average we only get wet on our way to work about eight times a year. Of course, if one doesn’t work, it’s a different matter, as I’ve noticed in the past few months when I’ve faced drizzle and downpours and any manner of water coming from above as soon as I stepped outside. In the ideal world of musical comedies, I would be cycling and singing along in the rain, like Gene Kelly in the 1952 Stanley Donen film, enjoying the splashes, the puddles and the displacement of water a bicycle at speed creates. In the real world of South London, however, I weigh the odds of raindrops turning into steady penetrating rain, try to decide if it’s worth putting an extra layer of stiff and not very breathable material, aka my waterproof trousers, on and calculate whether I will get wetter or drier if I cycle faster.
But why? Why am I determined to see it as an unpleasant experience when, objectively speaking, it largely isn’t? Sure, road surfaces do get somewhat slippery, pools of dirty water can obscure potholes and debris, and wearers of glasses like yours truly suffer from steamed up lenses. But tyres grip well and brakes still do their job nowadays in wet conditions and it can feel cosy and snug, if a little sweaty, to cycle through showers with good waterproofs on. Maybe it’s just the anticipation of the disaster zone that is a cyclist’s home after a wet ride: clothes dripping by the radiator, soaked shoes, puddles forming on the floor. Maybe it’s the memory of the few times when I didn’t factor the unpredictable weather in, of sitting through a film chilled to the bone, my wet jeans sticking to my skin. If only I could let go of my lust for dryness and ’embrace soddenness’, as the Guardian Bike Blog put it. One day last June, towards the end of a bike ride, I got drenched. It was warm, I was nearing home and dry land, I thought: ‘What do I care?’ and laughed. It was so liberating to overcome my inner cautious self…and it so seldom happens.
Funnily enough, I am not the only one to feel demoralised on a wet day. Occasional riders on improbable machines, flip-flop wearers and cyclists chic ride the tube and the bus instead and I miss their moderating influence on the super fast boys of the road. I resent the rain for what it does to the cycling fauna of my habitat: all of a sudden cycling necessitates preparation, it isn’t as spontaneous as an afterthought anymore (‘oh, I could just take the bike!’) and it becomes the realm of the hardcore. As a native of The Continent, I am not comfortable with this new image. Streets are duller, anonymous thoroughfares speeding vehicles in and out of town centres, and I am looking at an emptier and greyer world: faces obscured by umbrellas and hoods, bodies huddled at bus stops, children kept indoors, animals taking shelter. London’s radiance is dimmed.
Could it be that people in cars, despite being protected by a metal shell, perhaps feel the same way? Like children who become fidgety after sitting down for too long, motorists are perceptibly cranky and irritable when rain gets in the way of their rush from A to B and forces the ‘masters of the universe’ (to quote Tom Wolfe referring to Wall Street traders) to slow down. On a foul day, I’ll come across regular instances of poor driving, as if there was a need to take out the awful weather on us people on foot and on bikes who are actually feeling the rain down our sodden necks.
So, as all crawl back into their shells in frustration, the rain brings on a deeper sense of isolation, what I precisely seek to avoid when I get on a bicycle. It’s every man and woman for themselves. But when occasionally not only seasoned cyclists but also families with children, riders in club colours and a colourful crowd all brave the weather and get together, like on the London Cycling Campaign’s Big Ride last April, it becomes an enjoyable social occasion masqueraded as an act of defiance to the weather. Then, sooner or later, the last drops of rain fall, the clouds part and the sun appears: these very first minutes when the road is glistening, people are emerging from doorways and awnings and streets bursting into life again feel like a rebirth, and yes, then I do feel like singing and dancing and cycling all at once! All is right as rain again.