Our Bicycle Lives

I cycle, therefore I think

Category: People

Lorries

Commercial lorries, concrete mixer trucks, skip lorries, tipper trucks, 60-foot articulated beasts . . . the freight industry has a lot to answer for. Although I must benefit from them in some way that doesn’t come to mind right now, I avoid the heavyweights of the road like the plague. If I met Mike Tyson on my way to the shops, I might do the same. Alarm bells start ringing, and I can feel danger close at hand, palpable. One chilling statistic confirms that they’re not just ordinary motor vehicles: lorries account for 5% of the traffic in London but are responsible for half of cyclists’ deaths. So they put my life at risk. And they get their own post.

Of course, we never think of that when we set off in the morning, clad in cycling gear and astride a beauty of a flying – sorry, cycling – machine. We don’t feel fragile and vulnerable. And in any case, we can’t let that vision get at us and mar our enjoyment of the ride. But from time to time we’ll cross paths with a Heavy Goods Vehicle. The first warning sign is the noise, the rumble coming from far off. Trying to identify whether it is an innocuous red bus or a full-on giant lorry. The latter. My heart sinks. The roar swells, drowning other traffic sounds. Then the vehicle overtakes me. If the driver is somewhat considerate, he will leave a comfortable margin and pass me wide. But he may not. In any case, the displacement of air and side wind are impressive. The lorry finally fades into the distance, unless I catch up with it at the traffic lights and we resume our cat-and-mouse game.

Now, imagine a lorry driver in a rush. For example, a driver who is paid by the load, the way some haulage companies operate. Or a driver on his mobile phone, or overworked and tired. What chance do I stand, down below, on my bike, to get noticed? Then I only need to stand in the lorry’s blind spot (yes, such massive vehicles have blind spots!) and I become completely invisible. Utterly frightening. Which is why on my mental map of roads – graded from pleasant to awful depending on road surface, width, traffic and timing of traffic lights – the short stretch of Kennington Lane that I use regularly is classified ‘awful’: most of the traffic consists of speeding white vans, container lorries and cement trucks heading for the East End and the City.

I know the safety messages, the London Cycling Campaign’s advice, Transport for London’s Stay Safe Stay Back campaign. I also know things are changing for the better, with campaigners succeeding in asking for more mirrors and sensors on lorries and cycle-awareness training for drivers. And still . . . Another safety video shows fruit getting squashed and a milk bottle smashed to pieces. The relationship between lorries and the frail bicycle reminds me of Andrei Tarkovsky’s short film, The Steamroller and the Violin: no need to ask who won (it seems we need winners in this world). Like the violin, we’re the beautiful and delicate machine that may one day find itself in the path of a lorry/steamroller. The damage would be irreversible. It’s a question of size: picture a vehicle of up to 18.55m in length next to a bike. If a lorry rolls over a bike, it may not even feel it. We’re not built on the same scale, and we don’t belong in the same space. How could we coexist happily?

Deep down, I resent lorries. For one thing, they’re responsible for dragging fear into my perfect cycling world and they give me the part of potential victim. Plus, they stand for the many motorists and decision-makers who don’t want to see me on the road and don’t even see me when I’m actually there. A lorry is this senseless monstrous machine for which I do not exist. It does not care. Perhaps its driver does, but, up in the cab, he looks straight ahead and I never manage to make eye contact. I’ve jumped at the chance to swap places and experience the view from the cab before but I find it impossible to put myself in the driver’s shoes: I cannot comprehend what it’s like to have the power to kill. Lorries, and by extension lorry drivers, are alien to me because they symbolise a world of big corporations, consumerism, tough business deals and faceless technology, where speed is money and more money is the ultimate goal, a dehumanised world where each one of us is too far away to reach out to others. The polar opposite of the world I want to believe in.

Police

Happily, I have had little contact with the police, both on and off the bike. I remember being stopped some years ago by two officers on the beat in Leicester Square, who asked me to get off my bike and walk. Which I did. Who was I to argue with two stern blokes who have the law for them? That pretty much sums up my feelings towards the force, as they are aptly named: they are the embodiment of the Law, and being a law-abiding or even a law-fearing citizen, the less I see them the better. I know of friends or colleagues who have been fined or given a good talking to for cycling through red lights, or arrested for taking part in Critical Mass but nothing of the sort has ever happened to me.

I imagine that our personal attitudes towards the police stem from our behaviour as road users and cyclists: do we feel that we have rights or that we have duties over this shared space? I sometimes wish I could echo a friend who once said to me: ‘I enjoy skipping lights, I reckon it’s one of my rights as a cyclist.’ If I believe I have a right to be on the road, I am generally – unfortunately! – firmly on the duties side and have never managed to rid myself of the need to be accountable for my actions. More’s the pity! So I live in fear, or guilt when I occasionally break the law: pavement cycling, amber gambling, moon gazing . . .

Even a (mostly) considerate cyclist like myself views the police with diffidence. I’ve never thought of them as being ‘on my side’, so to speak. On the road, we’re the small fry, an easy target if we have the misfortune to put a wheel wrong. It’s Catch Us If You Can, and as in the 1965 John Boorman film (nothing to do with bicycles, only some 1960’s harmless fun), they easily can, much more so than a speeding motorbike for example. I once chuckled when I saw a police car catching up with someone cycling without lights, the same cyclist who had overtaken me dangerously only seconds before, but I am yet to see motorists who put me at risk being chased by the police.

This seems to me a classic case of the majority protecting its own rights and privileges. Years of being part of a minority – diversely known as a menace to smooth traffic flow, red-light-jumping louts, or an eccentric and bizarrely attired lot – and of getting used to being the underdog, have perhaps trained me to think in these terms. If we were policed by meditation aficionados or vegan mums, I would probably think otherwise, and it would feel different too. I am obviously being unfair: such a large organisation as the police force must necessarily be diverse, but on the other hand, exercising some kind of power over ordinary citizens does appeal to certain people and is probably not the dream job of freethinkers. The police? Mr Average in a car. No reason why they would think differently from the man in the street, and one shouldn’t expect them to set the standards either.

While I do feel some kinship with the bicycle police, who like me have to contend with headwinds and potholes and HGVs, the only positive contact I’ve ever had with the police was when they very helpfully security-tagged my bike. All of a sudden, I was given advice and support instead of negative vibes (cue being fined for not cycling in the bike lane, which is not mandatory and this is why). Other bloggers write about prejudices and reactionary policing. The many incident reports I’ve come across online (bicycle thefts, collisions, assaults) certainly build the image of an unconcerned and unsympathetic police force, even if, as someone put it, ‘evidence is not the plural of anecdote’. Tom Richards hits the nail on the head when he writes that ‘The Met’s attitude towards Critical Mass represents in microcosm the profound disinterest in engaging with cycling that permeates all of our public institutions.’ So sadly true. Let’s only hope that, as the status of the bicycle is rising and cycling is becoming a more mainstream activity, with rush hour cyclists outnumbering cars on some of London’s busiest commuter routes, we will gain more clout with traditionally conservative authority figures.

Pedestrians

How wonderfully adaptable and multi-talented the human species is! Biology and daily life will tell you, though, that we are not programmed for multitasking and suffer serious lapses of attention when we try it. So it is surprising that 21st century cities have successfully bred a species who seems to have escaped natural selection: the absent-minded pedestrian. Most distinctive behavioural traits: rushes, phones, dreams and occupies the space without being (all) there. On the whole, distracted drivers put others at risk. But distracted pedestrians, at the bottom of the food chain and at the top of the casualty list, will be so at their own cost. Contrary to the general perception, it is more dangerous to walk than to cycle in London.

I am well acquainted with this species: in fact, I am part of it! When I stepped in front of a bus last spring, my first thought was: ‘Thank goodness I did this stupid thing as a pedestrian and I wasn’t on my bike!’ It’s a funny thing being a pedestrian – and even more so a distracted pedestrian: it creeps up on me unawares. I need only step off my bicycle and push it along a one-way street to become one. As I’ve written elsewhere, away from London I am a pedestrian. I walk everywhere. So I feel a certain kinship between us. We share the same vulnerability, and the same dreams: reclaiming the streets to create a liveable London. The pedestrians’ charity Living Streets is working towards ‘safe, attractive and enjoyable streets’. Cyclists would love that too! I see us as natural allies and while I can’t identify with the need to drive, I can easily put myself in pedestrians’ shoes. Literally. According to the 2011 census figures, 42% of households in London (and 58% in an inner-city borough like Lambeth) do not own a car. Pedestrians are everyone: my friends, my work colleagues, my neighbours. So we wouldn’t want to antagonise them, would we?

Walk Your Bike

Pedestrian or Cyclist?

All the same, pedestrians don’t half irritate us! There is no love lost between us, only too many near-misses. I am wary of their erratic behaviour and live in fear of a nasty crash that will leave both of us worse off (NB: beware of daughters of ex-Russian spies!*). Our road layouts clearly breed conflicts: pedestrians and cyclists share the margins, the sides of the road, be it the gutter or the pavement, the same bit of grubby, badly maintained tarmac. So it’s no surprise that we come into frequent, conflicting contact and that we encroach on each others’ precious space. Parks and commons are another bone of contention, pedestrians feeling threatened by cyclists’ speed, cyclists feeling cheated of these quiet green spaces.

We’re very good at sticking to our respective side of the fence. ‘I was almost run over by a cyclist once’ is a complaint I’ve heard over and over. I sympathise: it is frightening. Of course, most cyclists know what they’re doing and won’t collide with you, but you don’t know that. A few years ago, a pedestrian punched me, presumably because I had scared him. I was indignant: the traffic lights were green and I was not putting him in any danger. But that was beside the point: like one of the readers of this blog who recently commented on Slow Cycling, I heard a little voice inside me. And it said: ‘You are faster. You have a duty of care towards the more vulnerable, no matter what they do, so be careful.’ In the same way that a car driver has a duty of care towards me, no matter what I do. This, I believe, is little understood and is why some road interactions fail miserably.

For me, a pedestrian is the person I was a few years ago: a potential cyclist. And how better to encourage them than by being extra courteous? This is how you do it: do something that many cyclists and motorists consider optional, for example, stop at a zebra crossing. They hesitate, they can’t quite believe it, then their eyes light up and they grin at you. ‘Good work! Thanks!’ someone once shouted. It was my turn to look inordinately pleased, and I have never forgotten this stranger’s kindness when I expected ruthlessness. To quote Lao Tzu in the Tao Te Ching: ‘If you want to take something, you must first allow it to be given.’

*See Topaz (Alfred Hitchcock, 1969)

Monkeys

By Dr Arbuckle

This week Dr Arbuckle went to meet the rank and file of the London cycling community, some of the cyclists who are plodding their way through the city streets and battling rush hour traffic, poorly designed junctions and punctures on their way to work, home and life. Encouraged by the cycling boom in the capital, friends and pioneer monkeys Gaby Simio and Tom B. Monkey took up cycling two years ago and here they share their experiences of simian life on two wheels. When Dr Arbuckle arrived at their home in South London, they were busy making lunch so he sat for a while in their cosy living room and took time to peruse their bookshelf. Spot the monomania*!

Tom: The way it happened was that a couple of years ago, I read several articles about the new cycling era in Britain and the explosion of bike sales. Of course I’d noticed how bikes were everywhere and how many people had started cycling. Gaby and I had talked about getting bikes, but we thought: ‘Not for us, we like our home comforts and besides, it’s not safe.’ But the articles made it sound so … so ordinary. I thought, why not? We can’t spend all our lives as passengers. Why not be in the driving seat for a change? And that’s what we did.

Gaby: We decided to give it a try. It took us a while to get our act together though because we knew people would laugh at us. And the bike shops looked a bit scary, lots of blokes who were using words like ‘top tube’ and ‘bottom bracket’ and ‘cassette’ and I didn’t even know what gears were for. Still don’t, actually.

Tom: Our local bike shop was great. They were very understanding and really tailored the bikes to our needs. As you can imagine, the size was a bit of a problem [Editor’s note: both Tom and Gaby are just under 15 inches tall] but they managed to source some frames in a toy shop and off we went. The rest is history.

Gaby: Well, not exactly. The bikes are perfect, they even have their own banana cage for when we go on long rides so no more squashed bananas for us! But we’ve faced so much prejudice that it’s a bit disheartening.

Tom: It’s not been easy [sigh]. It feels like we’ll never hear the end of it. People have said that monkeys shouldn’t cycle, that it’s not been done before. So? Sure, cycling is best suited to creatures with short arms, long strong legs and no tails, like humans. Our physique can make it difficult at times. When my tail gets caught in the spokes, it hurts. But it’s not about suitability but about will and ability.

Gaby: Some of the comments are ludicrous. People have told me that monkeys shouldn’t be allowed on the road. ‘Go back to the zoo!’ someone shouted the other day. I’m not an alien, I’m an animal so treat me with respect. I read somewhere that ‘a monkey needs a bicycle like a fish needs a man’. That’s nonsense.

Tom: So, no, I wouldn’t say it’s been plain sailing. I’ve lost count of how many people have told me it’s dangerous. Do they think climbing is safer? Or crossing the road for that matter. And we’re too small, the roads are too narrow, there’s too much traffic in London. It’s sad really, but we don’t let it get us down.

Gaby: You’ve got to do what makes you tick, no? We cycle and we love it and they can’t take that away from us. And don’t try to stop us because we bite. You think we can’t do it? Sometimes, I feel like Jeanne Moreau at the end of Jules et Jim ** : ‘Jules, watch us!’

Tom: Except that she’s just about to commit suicide. And we’re not. We’re doing something perfectly normal. We’re not die-hards, we’re not weirdos. We may be ahead of our species, but still, at the end of the day, we’re pretty average monkeys.

Gaby: We don’t mean any harm and it’s nobody else’s business but our own. We’re just two little furry creatures on wheels enjoying themselves. So well done us, if I say so myself. And, in the words of Comandante Monkey, ‘¡Hasta la banana!’.

*for Spanish speakers: pun intended
**Francois Truffaut, 1962

My Bicycle Life: part 2

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.

Ermyntrude

Ermyntrude

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.

My Bicycle Life: part 1

By Stevie Russell

I’ve ridden a bike for as long as I can remember. As I turned fifty last year, that’s near enough fifty years.

I have only vague memories of my first ever velo, a red and blue tricycle. This was probably handed down to me when my brothers got their first bikes. Murray had a Triumph Sunshine, Andrew had a Raleigh Rodeo. In time the boys grew into bigger bikes, and the Rodeo came to me. I named him Roddy. My mum taught me to ride that bike by taking me out to the green at the end of our road and holding on to the back of the saddle while I gradually found my balance. When I felt confident enough, I told her she could let go. ‘I already did that a few minutes ago,’ she said. I could ride a bike. I never looked back (except when pulling out, of course).

I spent a very happy childhood cycling all over Barnes Common and Richmond Park with my best friend Briony. Sometimes we would take a picnic or our swimming togs and spend the whole day out at Chiswick Lido or Richmond Baths. By the time I started secondary school I had another bike, a small-wheeled red Raleigh Shopper bought, like all our bikes, from Strattons in Wandsworth, which is still a family business today. In my horse-mad teenage head this bike was a strawberry roan pony called Firefly with whom I had many imaginary adventures. Firefly took me to school and Girl Guides and when I was fifteen, to my first job: a paper round.

Ponies and bikes gave way to rock’n’roll and pubs, and by the time I left home at eighteen, Firefly was already rusting neglected in the garden shed. I didn’t think about bikes again until two years later, when I changed my job and my flat. My new rent in Putney was slightly higher than before, and my new charity sector job in Baker Street slightly lower paid, so I had to find a way to economise. Tube fares had trebled thanks to the House of Lords having abolished Ken Livingstone’s GLC’s Fares Fair scheme. I remembered my old bike rusting away in my parents’ shed and decided to try cycling to work. The bike was in a bit of a state but my dad helped me get it roadworthy again, and the following Monday I tried the route I had worked out with the help of a booklet called On Your Bike. On Your Bike was produced by something called the London Cycling Campaign; I think I had picked up a copy in the bike shop. It had street maps showing the best cycle routes and tips for cycle maintenance and safe cycling. My route took me over Putney Bridge, through Bishop’s Park by the river in Fulham, across Hyde Park, and through the back streets to the RSPB shop in Baker Street where I worked. By the time I arrived at work that day, fully awake and alert with all my senses tingling from the exhilaration of the ride, I knew I wouldn’t be taking the tube again even if the fares were free. That was my ‘eureka’ moment.

The freedom! The feel of the wind in my hair, and seeing the city all around me as I rode: the river, the parks, trees, birdsong. Being able to stop wherever and whenever I felt like it. The independence! Knowing exactly how long my journey would take, door to door, and never having to wait around for anything or anyone else: pure self-reliance. I knew how to fix a puncture and carried the bare minimum of tools. And it was free. I was hooked, and my parents (who had spent their honeymoon in 1952 cycling around France) bought me a new bike for my twenty-first birthday.

Cycling Honeymoon, 1952

Re-discovering cycling at the age of twenty changed my life in many ways. I lived for music, going to see bands playing in pubs (I still do), but I had had two bad experiences of being attacked as I walked home alone, which had made me afraid to go out if I couldn’t be certain of my transport home. Now that was sorted, there was no stopping me. I cycled all over London to gigs. At a Juice on the Loose gig in Putney, I met two friendly long-haired guys who were also on bikes, Tim and Steve, and a few days later I met Tim again, as my daily commute took me past the end of his road in Fulham. I kept bumping into Tim and Steve that summer, usually at the live music in Ravenscourt Park in Hammersmith, and we’d cycle down to the river for a few more pints. Tim and I became an item for a couple of years; we cycled everywhere together and even had a cycling holiday. (Well to be honest it wasn’t a proper cycling holiday: we just took our bikes on the train to Hampshire and cycled to the camping site. But we did ride around a bit). I am still friends with both Tim and Steve, but they don’t ride bikes any more. I do.

Another vivid memory from this time (the early 80s) is the Round London Bike Ride. I was handed a flyer about it on my way to work one morning and it sounded like fun: a call for all London’s cyclists to gather together and take over the roads in a mass show of solidarity, and to campaign for better awareness and facilities for cyclists in the capital. A proto Critical Mass, it was an annual event organised by the London Cycling Campaign. I went along, had a fantastic time, and joined the LCC. I’ve been a member ever since. The LCC was a much smaller organisation then; the magazine was a folded A4 sheet called the Daily Cyclist which came out every other month. It was quite radical and very funny. I miss the humour of those days. I joined my local Wandsworth group and took part in many events, from the Bicycle Jumble Sale (very successful) to rides in the country.

I ought to mention my little eccentricity. From the age of fifteen to about forty, I never wore shoes in the summer. As soon as the weather started to get warm in about April, I couldn’t stand to have anything on my feet and went barefoot until the cold weather came in late September. And, yes, this included cycling. It’s hard to describe but I just felt much more comfortable, and somehow more ‘in touch’ with the bike, if I could feel the pedals with my bare toes. People often commented or remonstrated with me about safety but to me it was just natural, and I never came to any grief because of it (although I did have many minor injuries and black eyes due to heavy drinking and cycling – I don’t do that any more). The barefooting stopped when I did have a serious accident (not cycling or barefoot-related) and sustained a broken right ankle and cracked left heel. I had to walk on the injured heel while the ankle healed so I got used to wearing sandals in the summer and never went back to bare feet. But for a long time I was the infamous barefoot cyclist of Brixton!

Barefoot Cycling

To be continued: read more about Stevie’s bicycle life in two weeks’ time.

Other Cyclists

When I think of the way I interact with other cyclists on the road, my mind draws a blank: I simply don’t. I may be part of the great cyclists’ fraternity but when I am actually getting from A to B on a bike, I am alone. It is not that I don’t notice other cyclists but that I don’t communicate with them: I don’t talk to them, I don’t gesture at them, I don’t make eye contact. I even think I have more contacts with other cyclists when I am walking about town: I don’t have any qualms then about grinning at them, perhaps because I am keen to be identified not as a pedestrian but as a cyclist who happens to be walking (although the cycling jacket and messenger bag are tell-tale signs too!). I wonder why?

I generally cycle against the flow. I commute across suburbs, from West to East, rather than from the outskirts to the centre of London, then I go into town in the early evening for a film or two when most cyclists are pedalling homeward and I come home late when they are already tucked up in bed. Eschewing the crowds, I miss out on the companionable feeling of being part of a group, a team whose mission is to get to work on time. My friend Narcis, who commutes daily from Brixton to Old Street, frequently brings back stories of cyclists pulling up next to him at junctions and striking up a conversation. He also tells me how, if he leaves for work later than usual, he will meet a different set of cyclists. This warm feeling of community is unknown to me.

Truth be told, I am often wary of other cyclists. I rely on sounds to gauge the movements and intentions of other road users. Bikes, however, are largely silent so I find the unpredictable behaviour of other people on bikes, who on occasion will swerve wildly to one side, undertake me or suddenly stop somewhere along the road, particularly hazardous. I have to admit that there is also a certain smugness in me, which comes from the cycle training lessons I attended some time ago and which says: ‘Look at me, look how well I am signalling, look how I always stop at red traffic lights, admire my perfect position on the road and my model cycling behaviour, this is how you should cycle.’ Smugness doesn’t breed friendliness. Plus, multi-tasking is not my forte so I need to concentrate on the road ahead. None of that encourages interaction.

Me and them, we ignore each other. What I see of other cyclists is their backs as, one after the other, they overtake me while I am making slow progress towards my destination. Apart from a quick glance when we share the green box of the Advanced Stop Line – or ASL as it is known to cycle campaigners – they remain faceless. It strikes me that my solitary contraflow journeys on a bicycle unsurprisingly replicate my solitary journeys through life. The bicycle as a metaphor of one’s existence as a lifelong misfit?

Group rides, it goes without saying, don’t appeal. I find riding in a pack somehow stressful and no more enjoyable than riding as a herd. One has to concentrate even more carefully to avoid crashing into the cyclist in front, so conversation is out of the question. On my one and only charity ride, I was expecting friendly emulation and support for the weaker riders like myself: instead it seemed to jolt into life our competitive streaks and everyone cycled as fast as they could to the finish line, leaving behind the poor woman on a mountain bike (she pulled a muscle) and the cyclist on a Brompton who turned up well after we had polished off the barbecue food. But I like the sweet pleasure of cycling in company of one or two friends on quiet back streets, maybe on a Sunday evening when the impending end of the weekend is dawning on us along with the inevitability of ‘back to work Monday’. Two or three abreast, chatting, taking our time, we savour our last hours of freedom* and I am, at last, on the same wavelength as other cyclists.

* ‘Freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose’ sings Kris Kristofferson in Fat City (John Huston, 1972)