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The city cycling commuter – all danger, no fun?

Often, when I tell people that I cycle to work, they respond with surprise. This surprise is due to different reasons, but the most common reason is – aren’t I scared?! London’s hectic streets, filled with cars, buses, trucks, motorbikes, cyclists and often pedestrians, make up a noisy, colourful, crazily busy and often angry world, with heated words exchanged between the different parties, or, more frequently, seriously dirty looks or gestures. I can’t make any excuse myself as, I, sadly have often been caught up in these situations, throwing a dirty glare to a car not giving me my right of way or muttering words of annoyance to a pedestrian who doesn’t look before crossing the road. I’m ashamed of these times and I’d love for them to happen less frequently. It’s times like these when I try to remember how fortunate I am and the many different ways in which I’m blessed, such as the fact that I actually own a bike, that I’m healthy and that I have access to bike routes. To remember why it is such a privilege to be a city cycling commuter, it helps to think about where it all started.

My bike was given to me as a gift. It’s an old bike, I like to call it ‘vintage’ or ‘retro’ and that’s probably one of the best things I like about her (yes, her). I’ve always been a fan of old, broken things. I see a certain beauty in them, they’re endearing to me. And so I fell in love with my little bike fairly quickly. I started cycling to work in autumn, which was a good thing – I had nothing better to compare it to. As far as I was concerned, cycling was a rather chilly and often wet affair. At this stage, I was also unemployed, so not yet an official cycling commuter. I did, however, commit to a bikram yoga 30-day trial, choosing to go each weekday to a late morning class and this motivated me to get out of the house during the often painful job hunting process and to get on my bike for the first time, learning how to navigate London’s busy roads not at peak traffic hours.

It was thanks to my housemate that I could first learn cycling etiquette on the often scary streets of England’s capital. She took me on my very first route just before my trial began, leading us from our flat in the south west to the yoga studio in Victoria and choosing a route that took us along the Thames and gave us access to the wonderfully wide, demarcated cycling route on the Embankment. Little did I know that a year later the Embankment would make up a huge chunk of my route to work.

Some time later, I landed a job in digital media. I’m still in this role today, however I’m no longer in the office I was when I first started. Then, it was in Bayswater and the route I chose took me over Battersea Bridge and all the way, pretty much straight the entire route, through Hyde Park and out the other side. I didn’t find this route too manic – the numbers of cyclists on the roads weren’t as many as I’d imagined there would have been. I realised later that it was just because that particular route that wasn’t as busy as others and that’s because I wasn’t yet working in the city. I loved that I could cycle through Hyde Park each day and greatly admired its beauty, especially on those days when early sun peaked through old London buildings, or on mysterious mornings when I was enveloped by fog.

When summer came around, however, I noticed certain changes. The warmer weather was wonderful – I could ride in a t-shirt! But some things got a bit trickier – there were more cyclists on the road and cycling through Hyde Park on the way home meant navigating my way through playful children, crowds of sunbathers and Boris Bike tourists. Also, since my office didn’t have shower facilities and I wore a backpack to carry a change of clothes and other necessary things, sweating became inevitable. And even though I changed into a whole new outfit once at the office, I didn’t feel particularly fresh. Soon, we changed offices and our new office was in the city, close to Blackfriars Station. If I walk outside the office, I’m greeted with a view of the Embankment. While this office change seemed exciting, we did, unfortunately, have to say goodbye to Waitrose, which conveniently lay underneath us at our former office, as well as a kitchen. On the plus side, I finally had shower facilities! And in good time too, because it pretty warm.

When we first moved office, I decided I didn’t want a route that consisted hugely of the Embankment because I thought I would get bored of seeing the same sights for a relative length of time and, bizarrely, that it might get too windy and I would be too unprotected from the wind, making the cycle harder. So my first cycling route to the city was mostly south of the Thames, cycling up through Kennington and going over Waterloo Bridge, along Fleet Street, before reaching the office, completely avoiding the Embankment. I soon discovered, however, that this particular route was infested with cyclists and that a lot of the road was in quite bad condition. Although it may be fun, at first, trying to avoid the potholes, cycling this way and that, pretending you’re the star of a video game, it gets old, and I felt sorry for my poor little bike. I hung on to that route for a while but eventually I decided it was time for a change – not only because of the condition of the route, but because, well, a change of scenery is fun!

And so today my cycling route is one shared by many other Londoners, crossing once again over Battersea Bridge (I obviously can’t get enough of this bridge), but this time all the way along the Embankment, right up until my turn-off for work. I’ve perfected this route now. I know how much time certain traffic lights will give me. For example, when I’m a certain distance away, I’ll know when to speed up or when to slow down because I’ve either got a window of opportunity to make that green light, or I know there’s no way I’ll make it! I’ve found out, at certain forks along my route, which of two roads are better, in terms of traffic, traffic lights, width/existence of cycle path and other exciting cycling-related factors. I’ve even begun to recognise certain cyclists, sometimes by their clothes or particular choice of hi-vis accessory, sometimes by their speed and sometimes purely by the fact that they’re female and fast (the cycling commute world is, after all, dominated by men).

Often, I’ll be cycling along, seeing the sights of London pass by me, whether it’s as I read the time from Big Ben’s arms in the morning, or stare at the lights of the London Eye across the river as I make my way home on chilly winter nights and it’s as if I’m breathing it in, except in those moments, the air is not the polluted kind we like to complain about, but the fresh air of freedom and joy and blessing. There are times when my energy levels are high and my legs feel as though they’re spinning out of control as I go at my fastest pace, winding carefully but professionally (that’s what I like to tell myself) around other cyclists and bumps in the road within the space of our own blue lane, reserved just for us. Finally, there are times when you share an almost tangible sense of unity with other cyclists who too desire to treat other road users in a way that is polite and cautious, making the experience one of respect and amicability.

Yes, cycling in the city can often be a scary experience and the risk of danger and heated arguments, is sometimes high, but I’d like to be a more cautious, respectful cyclist. I think this is the right way to respond to the opportunity we have and enjoy it, as a city cycling commuter.

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