Velo City

Because I totally look like this on my bike.

I’m as sick as any of you, my loyal crew, of writing and hearing about depression and anxiety. So today, in the spirit of Looking On The Bright Side, I’m going to talk about something that cheers me up: cycling!

I acquired a second-hand bicycle a couple of months ago, when I still planned to move to the Studio That Never Was, thinking that the relatively short distance into central London would be cheaply and quickly covered on a bike. Despite not moving out yet, I still use the bike; cheating by taking it on the train, then cycling round the city in lieu of taking the Tube. The bike is a chunky, Dutch-style affair, with a ladies’ step-through frame, upright handlebars and a basket perching on the front. The previous owner had given it a somewhat half-arsed covering with a can of purple spray paint, one pedal left bright yellow and other bits of original paintwork poking through – I’ve gone over those with the nearest colour-match I can find, resulting in huge patches of glossy Calpol pink here and there. So it’s a bit shabby round the edges, but I think that this works in my favour when it comes to both authenticity and security. The former, because it differentiates me from the fixed-gear-riding Hoxton hipsters who take their bikes out once a month and cry whenever they have to overtake a bus; and the latter, because I deliberately lock my bike next to the fanciest Pashley or Brompton I can find, on the basis that any 2-bit thief is going to try and nick the expensive-looking bike first.
I am now a total convert to cycling. The feeling of freedom that you get from speeding down the road in a breeze is incredible; as is the smugness of whizzing precariously through the lanes of stationary traffic. Last night, as I cycled back to the train station after an evening out, I sped over a near-empty Waterloo Bridge with a smile on my face as I passed drinkers and party-goers, the illuminations of the South Bank and Westminster lighting my route. To me, a person who hasn’t cycled for 12 years previously (thank you, teenage accident), the lightness and speed of cycling still retains a novelty value. I like that I can feel the sunshine on my face, and I like that I know exactly when I will arrive at any given destination, rather than sitting at a red signal on the Tube while an overweight accountant in a cheap suit sweats on me. Apologies to all sweaty, overweight accountants in cheap suits everywhere. When I, a modern emancipated woman, can feel a sense of freedom from something as simple as riding a bike, I really understand the revolutionary impact that cycling had on early feminism. Imagine, ladies, living in a time when your movements had to be accounted for and observed by chaperones, fathers and husbands. In which your life was circumscribed by your town or village, and in which journeys by train were not to be taken alone. Now imagine the difference made by the bicycle (we’re talking c. 1890-1920 here) – you could suddenly travel much further, and much more safely, without accompaniment. If you were very brave, you could even don a ‘cycling suit’, which included – horror! – trousers for women.

Nice. Apparently not available in Topshop though.

Conclusion: cycling is awesome. I’m clearly not the only one who has noticed, either. The insouciant charm of cycling gives it a kind of panache and chic that’s hard to replicate à pied. I’m definitely not talking about cycling as a sport, here – in fact, it’s extremely amusing to watch the lycra-clad Serious Cyclists (most of whom, it has to be said, are men), huffing and puffing to overtake sedate pedallers such as myself because they can’t bear to waste the speed-enhancing properties of their aerodynamic helmets on silly things like actually waiting at red lights. I’m quite happy to pootle around at a reasonable speed, keeping my eyes on the traffic of course, and enjoy the exercise (which probably explains why it cheers me up – endorphins and all that).

I certainly wouldn’t count myself among the cycling evangelists. I don’t belong to the ranks of the Serious Cyclists (it’s not a good look), and I don’t entertain grand delusions of saving the environment by riding my bike. However, something I have in common with the hardcore cyclists is a sense of frustration at how damn difficult it seems to be to cycle in London. I’m not afraid of the traffic, and I do my best to cycle sensibly and safely, but sometimes it seems that urban planners have actually gone out of their way to make using a bicycle one of the most awkward ways to get around the city. Lack of cycle paths, free-rein for HGVs (which account for a large proportion of cyclist deaths), dearth of cycle parking in some places, etc. etc. For example, take a look at this:

I made this myself!

What’s this? (I hear you cry). Is it a Dadaist artwork? Or have I been sniffing Pritt Stick again? Fear not, loyal crew. This frankly amazing and professional-looking map illustrates one of the most egregiously ridiculous examples of urban planning cock-up that I have ever seen. I noticed it last night, and such was my wrath that I immediately went and made a diagram on MS Paint. Look at it: the green patch represents the world’s shortest cycle lane (probably), which allows cyclists exiting the one-way street to cross into the farthest lane of traffic (heading left in the diagram, and eastwards in real life). It’s not that which raised my ire. It’s the location of the cycle racks, represented by the 4 black lines to the right of the cycle lane. These are on the central reservation of Euston Road, one of the busiest in London. Because of the placement of various fences, the only way to get onto that part of the reservation is either to swerve across three lanes of traffic, stop your bike and climb off while standing in the road; or – even worse – if you’re cycling from left-to right (east-to-west), you have to go up a side street and then down another side street, cross the oncoming traffic and get into the tiny cycle lane, where you can dismount and step up onto the kerb (assuming there are no other cyclists behind you on the lane). OK, yes, this is a rant, and a boring one to boot. It just makes me wonder, who plans these things? Contrary to popular wisdom, I don’t blame Boris – after all, he’s not the one sitting down and actually laying out London’s streets on a map, and a lot of this kind of thing is in the hands of borough councils rather than City Hall. Anyway, things like this are a pain in the arse. Still – they won’t stop me cycling!

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Filed under Cycling, Feminism

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