The first time
Sunday June 4th
The commuting journey begins tomorrow. Most of the logistics are complete in terms of suits, locks and various undergarments being distributed across multiple locations in the South East. The three stage journey -the train being the filling in a two bike sandwich -offers a disjointed solution to the purity of a simple commute. Yet compared to losing my riding summer to the green eyed monster, it’s still an exciting prospect.
My route plan has furrowed many brows in its conception. Frantic scanning of the A-to-Z augmented by the knowledge dispatched by grizzled veterans, steeped in the byways of the grimy city, has created a mazy traverse from east to west with a bit of south thrown in for good measure.
The bike is ready, the route is planned, the logistics are in place.Â I set my alarm with an easy ride to the station in mind. I’m a little more excited that is probably reasonable but feel well prepared. What could possibly go wrong?
Monday 5th June
Pleasant dreams of an effortless commute through the little used highways and byways of our great capital are shattered by a vigorous wife based prod. “uh, ow, whatsgoinon?”I manage before the full horror of the digital clock swims into focus. The alarm didn’t, er, alarm due to god knows what leaving a timeline to train which jettisons breakfast, faffing and leisurely planning.
I faff anyway. Many trips between house and barn ratchet up my stress levels, as yet more items are squeezed into the already overstuffed camelbak. My final hasty wave turns out to be a little too hasty with the cool wind reminding me of a helmetless head. Finally I get cracking with 23 minutes to ride the 5.7 miles to the station. At least today I’m taking the ‘London end’ bike on the train so only the traditional cursing at the electronic ticket machine separates me from catching the train.
The London-end bike is a steel Trek of indeterminate 90s origin. It’s been built by a friend for Â£75 but rides like something costing at least five times as much. I’m hoping his efforts don’t attract the thieves but I didn’t have the heart to rat-ify it with hammerite. I hammer on anyway pumping away like a bad porn star desperate not to fail this first of many tests.
20 minutes later, I clasp my ticket triumphantly in a sweaty paw and hoist the bike onto the train. It’s going to be past 10 o’clock before we get to London tho with Chiltern Railways’ â€˜bike friendly policies’ banning anything two wheely for most of the day. But you can transport Ironing Boards of the same size at any time. Perfect sense, non?
I nervously thumb through the already much thumbed street bible that is the compact A-to-Z, memorising waypoints. I am determined to navigate directly to the office without having to whip the map out. Train arrives, I’m last off with the bike and first into the bogs -all that excitement has left me bursting for a wee -but finally we’re off.
In the next 10 minutes, I learn some of the hard lessons for London commuting:
1/ Big yellow roads on the A to Z are not the place for wannabe commuters.
2/ Bus lanes are for buses. The cycling sign is a lie.
3/ Everyone is trying to kill you. They can smell your fear.
4/ Taxi drivers see cyclists as ˜sport’ in the same way big game hunters shot lions
5/ Planning a cycling route on a car atlas is a bloody stupid idea
6/ Where did all those traffic lights come from? And the one way streets?
Far from the complete absence of map whipping out I’d confidently expected, hardly a street corner passed without me attempting to plot a route less likely to leave me seriously maimed. One could argue that Hyde Park Corner really doesn’t meet that criteria but a sniggering taxi driver pitched me into it’s gravitational pull and I was helpless as 100s of cars converged on my cringing person. I could hear the coroners bored voice: “death by taxi squashing”as time and again these mobile reapers squeezed me to the curb at ramming speed. I’d barely escape their clutches only for a bus, coach or bloody tank to attempt to administer the coup’d’grace.
Survival instincts belatedly kicked in and ancient motorcycle skills were dusted off and thrown into the van. I wobbled into Green park mentally ruined but physically unscathed and almost knelt to kiss the cycle path sign. The remainder of the journey -although not without navigational challenge -passed incident free except for a stinging rebuke from one of a thousand policeman protecting Queenie for “pavement riding”. Like I was going back on the road again for a while.
The Strand was busy, noisy and clearly capable of manslaughter but by dint of gritted teeth, I finally arrived at the office underground car park unmolested. Camelbak off, wallet out, security pass? Left at home. Bollocks, 20 minutes frigging about followed by a full run through the main office in my cycling gear. Sweaty, irritated and tired, the wolf whistles and sophisticated wit which marked my passage (to whit: “I’ve seen better legs on an oil rig”) did nothing to improve my humour. A shower and change of clothes did.
It’s midday and the 15 minute journey from the station has taken nearly an hour. I was so lost I even asked for directions from a taxi driver -it really was that bad.
Drastic action called for. Phoned a mate who rides in London every day on his comedy folder and we arranged a rendezvous in Mayfair. Following him through the back streets was a revelation both in terms of the total absence of traffic and the manner in which he attacked the route. Never hesitate, always be 100% committed, stop thinking like a car driver, if there is a gap as wide as a door, that’s your gap, go get it. Buses are slower than bikes and with a bit of effort you can be first away from every set of lights.
Over a beer, he outlined a survival strategy “never show weakness, always be looking around, watch out for road rage, don’t ever give anyone the benefit of the doubt, but most most most important of all don’t get trapped on the inside. Chant it like a mantra “get away from the curb”. Look carefully and you will see the remains of crushed cyclists. However odd it feels, get in the middle of the road and make it yours.
After a couple more beers, we had a practical session that was literally eye opening. You head should never be still in London, feeding multiple views into the neural net to queue for brain capacity with route planning, speed, gears, and the little accountant process “don’t get trapped on the inside”. It’s a rush at full speed -like an arcade game but with real consequences when it goes wrong. And -Mark my riding friend says -it will.
Still, I locked the bike at the station and went home drunk and happier.