During my first week of living in London back in 2011, I heard about three unrelated cycling accidents, one of which ended fatally. It was then that I made my first of three major decisions regarding cycling, which I thought would surely never be reversed: I will never cycle in London.
Over the next few years, I journeyed through my London life and my stance on getting from a-to-b slowly shifted over time. Getting the tube to work everyday had started as a real novelty, but quickly wore thin as I constantly arrived at work with my make-up melted down my face and my clothes stuck to me, needing another morning shower. In case you’re wondering, my route involved the Central Line. Add to that a plethora of late trains, shockingly-rude fellow commuters and one particular tube strike which caused the bus I was on to be so packed, I thought I’d surely suffocate in what would be the most pathetic and unglamorous death in the world. “Girl squished into an early grave on the 55”. Please.
Those few years were unfortunately peppered with news of cycling deaths, accidents, horror stories and – something which I found especially unnerving – ghost bikes. This tradition which pays homage to lost cyclists via eerily painted white bicycles may act as a reminder to drivers to share their lanes and be more aware of vulnerable road users but for me, they only worked at further putting me off ever getting on a bike in this city. Despite now hating London transport, I was still just as petrified about cycling as I always had been.
Then, lying on a blanket in Shoreditch Park one warm Summer evening in 2014 I made my second decision regarding cycling in London. My cycle-loving boyfriend had suddenly propped himself up on his elbows and suggested we bike home together. Cue ten minutes of narrow-minded outrage and dramatic refusal from me. There was no way. Not in a million years. Was he trying to kill me. I’d walk home, he could bike. That was it, we were over. I never wanted to speak to him ever- …actually. I considered his gentle persuasion and listened to his argument; it was a balmy London evening, the roads would be quieter, he could guide me and help me feel safe. It would be …fun?
I was surprised at how at-ease I felt on that first bike ride. I’m a car driver – though I don’t drive in London – but having this prior knowledge of how to use the roads and follow the highway code meant I already had a foot-in. Biking was a lot like driving, I realised. Then, there were the buses which passed us on a regular basis and reminded me how much better-off I was in that saddle. They were full of bored, hot Londoners who’d paid cold cash to be packed into a sweat box which travelled at 20 miles per hour in between constantly stopping to let more people join the party. The worst party ever. The best thing about that bike ride, however, was what I saw, heard and felt. Everything of London. I felt as if I’d experienced more of the city in that short twenty minute journey on two wheels than I ever had in my three years of living here. To use the biggest cliche going, I felt really liberated.
Over the next few months, I biked more. Just little journeys, here and there. We avoided main roads as much as possible. Backstreet Boris biking became my best friend. Then, there was the first time I tackled my ultimate nemesis in London – something I said I’d never dare do. I cycled round Old Street roundabout. Not without hiccups, naturally. I actually went into the wrong lane at one point and blamed Tom, of course, because ‘it was definitely his fault, he was the one in control of my bike’. Somehow, he kept his cool and his patience and pointed out that actually, I’d done it, finally, and that with a bit of practise, I could dominate all the roundabouts of London if I wanted to.
I did want to. Over time, the little lanes of London became the main roads and I’d quickly fallen in love with being part of London’s traffic. It was one weekend in particular which proved this; our busy schedule involved us flitting from place to place across the course of two days to do various reviews for the website. Saturday: Shoreditch to Columbia Road to Hackney to Haggerston. Sunday: Haggerston to Soho to Dalston to Hackney. Pursuing these journeys by tube or bus would have cost us time, money and probably a large portion of our sanity. On two wheels, it was practically free and definitely freeing. I hopped on and off those generic Boris Bikes all day and buzzed around London, seeing the streets and hearing the world go by. I felt more connected-to and at home in London than I ever had. Cycling had given me this deep-rooted attachment to my city and I never wanted that to cease. I was officially addicted and so I made my third decision regarding cycling in London; I wanted to buy my own bike.
Talking to anyone about my one-eighty regarding London cycling was really interesting. In all cases, I got one of two possible reactions. Never a third or a fourth; it was always one or the other. They were as follows. My “I’m getting a bike!” announcement either evoked encouragement from various people along the lines of “You’ll love it! You’ll never look back! It’s so much fun! You’ll get to know London! You’ll be super-fit in no time! Good decision!” or, there was the extreme opposite reaction from various people (mainly women, if I’m honest), which went something along the lines of “Are you stupid? There’s no way you’d EVER get me on a bike. You’re brave. It’s too dangerous. If you get a bike, I’m disowning you as having ever been my daughter.” These reactions taught me a few things. Firstly, that I clearly get my dramatic tendencies from my Mother. Secondly, that cycling in London has gained this reputation amongst non bike users as being a sure-fire way to die. I quickly realised that there is a huge majority of Londoners who are too scared to cycle and I had once been one of them.
So, I decided to approach the whole thing as a bit of a project, to see if I could get other people who were adamant that they’d never cycle, to consider cycling too. I put a little plan together. Step one involved getting a bike. Sure. However, I wanted to know what other steps I could take to become the best cyclist I possibly could, to adapt myself to my surroundings and protect myself from danger, like a cycling chameleon, if you will. In order to really test this theory, I decided to stop using public transport altogether. That way, I’d be forced to use my bike regardless of weather conditions, regardless of how tired or hungover I was, regardless of how far I had to go or regardless of any other factor. This was the only way I could really test whether anyone can really go from being totally petrified of cycling, to only ever getting around London on two wheels.
And so it began.