Last autumn, sick of soggy London commutes on trains full of spewing, spluttering City workers, I bought a bike. After taking it out to cycle the entire 3-mile journey to Brixton for lunch with a friend, and then doing a round of ‘the shops’ (what we call our local bakery and wine shop), I stored it behind the shed in the garden, and didn’t think about it for the next ten months.
The funny man, of course, saw this coming, and has not let me forget the fact that I outlaid £300 for a bicycle whose chief virtue is that it’s ‘pretty’: A steel-framed pashley in racing green, which requires herculean efforts to pedal up even the mildest of inclines. ‘Of course I’ll use it,’ I spat with disdain when he dared to question my choice.
He was not the only sceptic. Bikey friends, the kind whose buns of asbestos are immune to the sharp, elevated seats on ‘proper’ sports bikes, were patronising in their scorn for my old-wordy, cumbersome machine. But it’s steady, I justified. It has balance.
Unfortunately, I have been too frightened to actually commute on this bike.
There is a picture of my mother outside her family home in a Danish suburb in the 1970s. She is perched casually on a rickety, rusty bicycle, wearing a gold, glittery, mini-dress and strappy stilettos, her hair set into billowing, feathery perfection, about to commence her 8 mile journey to a party in the centre of town. There is no doubt that she also cycled back from her night out, after hours of dancing to Abba and drinking Peach Schnapps.
In London, we wouldn’t even think to use a bike on a night out. The aggression of the cars, and the other cyclists, make it almost impossible to do any kind of casual cycling without adopting a kind of hyper-ready battle awareness. Cyclists are bent over, drenched in sweat, bums in the air, on bikes designed for professional athletes. By the time these olympians have reached their offices in Bank, they need a shower and full change of clothes.
But this is not the cycling culture I seek to align myself with. It’s a little too intense for me. The kind of bike I own would not be out of place in Copenhagen and Amsterdam, where you can glide to work in a skirt, high heeled wedges, and (shock horror) no helmet. I picture myself whizzing past historical architecture in autumn boots, a coffee coloured trench coat and red lipstick, and arriving at work with a healthy flush and windswept hair.
Illustration by Lauren Gentry
So, last week, I decided to untangle my Beauty from the thorny vines that have begun to engulf it since the spring, and have a go at using it for the purpose it was intended: to convey me to and from work with minimal fuss.
The journey starts well. South London is pretty quiet, and you can find residential roads without much traffic to pootle along for a few miles. The sun is shining, and my floral tea dress billows gently in the warm breeze as I pass rows of Victorian semis in Balham and Clapham.
But then suddenly, the lights change at the junction at Vauxhall, and VROOM, the Tour de France commences alongside me in a blur of neon and metal.
I push my heavy pedals, feeling slow and plodding, and frankly, humiliated, trying to make it to the next light while being barked at in incredulous tones by a 50 year old banker in Volero lycra.
A traumatising 25 minutes later, I arrive at my office considerably frazzled and crinkled. My skirt is creased, my mascara is streaming, and the anticipated healthy flush turns out to be more tomatoes than roses. My heart almost breaks when I realise I will have to lug my steel-framed bike up 2 floors to the bike lockers in my building. I catch sight of myself in the mirror in the lift to the sixth floor. Hmm. Clearly some more thought will have to go into my outfits if I’m to remain firm in my ‘bicycling should not necessitate a change of clothes’ policy.
The problem with cycling in London, aside the lack of decent cycle paths, is that the advent of bikes as a form of transport, is relatively new. Its not just a means of getting from A to Z, as it is in Copenhagen, Amsterdam, or even Paris, but rather a by-product of the sport of cycling. It’s gaining popularity with those who can afford it, and who have the free time available to get into the necessary physical shape to stand a chance of surviving their commute each day.
If you want to survive out there, you will need the latest bike, the latest gear, and a pair of powerful legs from 6 AM spinning classes or weeks of cycling up hills on sporty holidays in France or Italy. You will also need a bold assertiveness in your right to be there, and to look Mr mid-life-crisis defiantly in the eye.
London is still the wild west of bicycling, and as such, the Lycra-brigade are claiming the roads in a kind of vehicular manifest destiny. But I will persist. It’s time to reclaim the roads, and assert our right to be there, us non-sporty cyclists who just want to get somewhere and back, and enjoy the journey. I am not advocating that we should not pay attention to the traffic laws, or not wear helmets, but surely there must space on the roads for the fair-weather cyclist?
I urge you all, therefore, to join me. Let’s make a point of wearing our most unpractical clothing, and of cycling to work along the quietest residential streets (and on the busier ones when we have to), on our Dutch upright bicycles with baskets and large rose-gold bells.
Lets keep our Winter boots, and put flowers in our helmets. And let’s smile maddeningly at the Lycra-types on their ten speeds.