The University is keen for staff to walk or cycle to work. It's a nice idea, and clearly far more sustainable for the planet than driving or public transport, but it's not for everyone (full disclosure: you will prize my hot hatch (Mini JCW GP2) out of my cold dead hands, but I'll come back to this point later) and even those who are keen can find it daunting to start. "Riding a bike" is just like, well, "riding a bike". Or so the phrase goes anyway. Whilst this is technically true, there are a lot of hidden assumptions that really need to be acknowledged for the novice cyclist.
Despite the fact that petrol runs through my veins (it's an inherited trait, my Dad was a racing driver) I do own a bike. I also live in the centre of London. I've never been a fan of the underground to be honest. Don't get me wrong, it's a fabulous network system and, unlike most public transport that takes you from "where you aren't" to "where you don't want to go", the underground very nearly takes you from roughly where you are to at least fairly close to where you want to go. (The TFL system as a whole actually does take you from where you are to where you want to go and London is pretty much the only city in the UK where that's true, although the tram systems in Nottingham and Manchester come close). But it's much slower than most people think, it's hot in the summer, cold in the winter, (pre-COVID19) almost always too crowded, too noisy, and it makes you sneeze black stuff which is, quite frankly, gross. Clearly it was THE way to get around though, and I grumbled about it all the time, but still used it. Right up until 18th February 2020. OH (works at Guys and St Thomas in Westminster) carried on using the underground and TFL buses for another couple of weeks but he too stopped travelling by public transport sometime in March 2020.
During the first COVID19 lockdown over spring 2020 traffic was noticeably less, there were far fewer people around (the absence of tourists around 'the sights' was striking), and I became aware of proper birdsong for the first time since moving to London in summer 2018 which was rather lovely. Up to that point the dominant calls had been from gulls (they nest on the rooftops around us and I got quite invested in the success of the two chicks they raised last year). Obviously London is a port city but the gulls were still a surprise to me when we moved here. I was expecting to be woken up by pigeons, not screaming gulls. Gulls also cackle first thing in the morning. Who knew? OH doesn't like them but I still feel like I'm waking up at the seaside every day 😉
Lockdown Life is probably another blog entirely. Back to the cycling. With so much closed over the last year there hasn't really been much need to go anywhere and I have a perfectly good pair of feet that have taken me (according to my Apple Watch) an astonishing 550km criss-crossing London since last spring. But sometimes feet just aren't quick enough. Despite the sluggishness of the underground it is faster than Shanks' pony. But even accounting for the lower numbers using the underground over the last year, I'm just not keen on the idea of putting myself in a potentially crowded space that I can't control. The obvious alternative is to cycle. The OH has been cycling to work since March 2020. Now might be the time to admit he's an anaesthetist and I appreciate that this might only mean something to a small percentage of readers but he does like his coffee. He does not however, own any lycra. But he switched his daily TFL-based commute to pedal power well over a year ago and the habit has stuck. He quite quickly dropped time off the journey and he can now get to Guys Hospital in about the same time that he could get to St Thomas' when he started (the cycling time between the two is about 15mins). Apparently regular exercise works. Shock, right?
For me though I'm very much the reluctant cyclist. The increase in dedicated cycle lanes that appeared in central London last summer has helped massively, and although I'm slow (my view is that cycling is a form of transport not a form of exercise, and I'd like to arrive at my destination in a presentable state), I'm happy enough that I'm not going to be squished by a passing car, van, or bus. Faster cyclists on the other hand... 😉 There are bike racks all over London so it's easy to park close to where we're going. It's helpful having access to the secure racks at the hospital but we don't leave anything valuable in/on the bikes when we leave them. OH had his hand-held pump pinched when it was attached to the frame, but the replacement (stored in his saddle bag) has so far remained safe. We've been as far as Croydon (on the traffic-free cycle path). I didn't enjoy that. The trip to London Zoo was a much better day out even though the heaven's opened and I got so wet that my phone refused to charge when we got home (panic not: I put it on the radiator for a few hours to dry out and it was fine). Theoretically the traffic-free route should have been more fun than the trip to Regent's Park but it was probably too far for someone who hadn't ridden a bike for about ten years (20km each way), the cycle path was also a footpath and quite narrow in places, and there was a section that wasn't well sign-posted so we got lost. In contrast, there was just a short section of the cross-London route that wasn't a cycle lane, everyone was travelling in the same direction, and yes, the animals were a better 'attraction' than Croydon. Sorry Croydon.
Unlike OH who was cycling to/from school from about the age of ten, whilst I learned to ride without stabilisers when I was about six or seven I didn't have a bike of my own until I was eighteen. By which point I'd been driving for a year and all my friends lived far enough away to make cycling the non-sensible option. I've just compared travel times and what takes ~10/15mins in the car would take 30/40mins on a bike. Also - having a car at seventeen kinda makes one the default designated driver. Which was fine by me - behind the steering wheel is my happy place. When not giving lifts to friends, as a lone female traveller I also felt also much safer inside a car, especially at night. This is still true. Cycling on the road is tricky at the best of times. It's nothing short of terrifying at its worst. It's also important to say that an unconfident cyclist is as terrifying from the driver's point of view as a group of super-confident lycra-clad club cyclists is annoying when they aren't in single-file on a narrow road. We all need to be a bit more tolerant of each other in shared spaces.
As I said at the start of this piece, "riding a bike" is like "riding a bike" but that covers a multitude of competencies, and I am not alone in being a bit rubbish. There's a bike-hire station on the road outside where I live, and it's used a lot. Noticeably more over the last year than the previous year so I'm extrapolating that quite a lot of people have replaced their public transport with cycling. Most people just hop on and pedal off but there's a sizeable number who are distinctly wobbly. They get rewarded for their efforts with grumpy horn beeps from drivers who want to pass but there are cars parked on both sides of the street and there isn't room when there's a zigzagging cyclist in the middle of the road. The least patient drivers also shout obscenities. I understand the frustration completely, but who wants to have abuse hurled at them? If it was me, I'd never try the bike again. And this is perhaps the biggest barrier to starting cycling if you're just not that good at it. Other people's expectations are (generally) that riding a bike is easy. The phrase "just like riding a bike" wouldn't exist if that weren't true. But the reality is that whilst it's easy(ish) to be mobile, it's very much not easy to be proficient. And don't even get me started on the surprising need for bike maintenance. Anyway. I've prattled on for quite long enough so here's my list of things that I've discovered about cycling that those who are proficient just seem to know and don't think to say. Hope it helps someone:
- You can't just "get on your bike". If it's been in a shed for years it will need a service. It will also need servicing way more regularly than your car. Bikes are fiddly and complicated if you don't know what you're doing. Fortunately most bike shops will check over your brakes/gears/chain for you. The University bike help webpage has links to a couple of shops in the centre of Oxford and there are a few places around campus and offices where you can find mobile mechanic sessions to help you out.
- Bikes can be quite heavy. I splashed out a bit for a lightweight frame so I didn't have to expend more effort than strictly necessary to power the thing. The bikes for hire aren't light.
- Clothing matters. You don't have to wear lycra but there's a reason why serious cyclists do. I've invested in a pair of leggings after catching trouser legs in the pedals and ripping my favourite pair 🙁
- Think about what you need to carry with you and where you will put it. I have a basket on the front that I can drop a bag into. I wrap the bag handle round the wire frame of the basket so it can't be snatched out by a passing ne'er do well. If you're OK with pulling a bit of weight then paniers that slip over the rear wheel are a good option.
- Do you know where you're going? I have no sense of direction and I have a phone holder on my handlebar so I can have a route mapped in front of me at all times. This also helps when it feels like I've been peddling forever as I can check how far I am from my destination and that well-deserved rest.
- Cycling faster is more stable. Manoeuvring slowly is quite hard. I'm actually not too bad once I get going but starting off is a nightmare. I have to push my bike to a place where I have a clear (wide!) space where I'm not in danger of careering into a parked car before I'm reliably heading in the direction I want to be going. If I was five I'd be happy practicing slow cycling round some cones in one of the parks, but I'm a grown up and would feel silly. So my practice is happening as/when I need to go somewhere. I'm getting better. For those of you in Oxford, you can book up to six hours of free training that will teach you all the basics.
- Cycling in the rain is splashy. Get mud guards. Contact lenses are better than glasses in the rain.
- Bike tyres go flat alarmingly quickly. Check and inflate them before every journey. Standing pumps are way less effort than hand-helds.
- Bike locks come in all sorts of shapes, sizes, and weights. It's worth having a thin wire type even if you also have one of the very sturdy metal ones. Not all bike racks have space for the larger ones to fit round the rack, your wheel, and bike frame.
- This shouldn't need saying but wear a helmet (I have a tiny head so mine's a kid's one, it's very jolly) and fit lights. The jury's out on the need for a bell. You have a voice if you need it. I never have but then as I've already said, I'm quite slow and I've not met any tortoises yet.