Amsterdam is a beautiful, perfect cycling city. I escaped to it last week for a couple of days of work, savouring the sensation of emerging from Centraal station into the busy bike-filled streets. Complimenting everyone I met on the wonderful atmosphere for cycling, I mentioned the stark contrast between it and London. Cycling in London is, as a wise person once wrote, a contact sport. The friendly, clever international bunch of people that I was with shuddered visibly at the prospect of it. London, they concluded, was the worst place they could think of to cycle.
For a few days on returning from Holland I wallowed in the unpleasant contrast, stuck in a dream of cobbles, canals and those Dutch bike locks that render the bike immobile, but not immovable. Despite Boris Bikes and emerging proper bike lanes rather than lines of blue paint, this city presents a formidable challenge to anyone with the temerity to want to ride around it.Yet London is my city, and I cycle in it most days, and have done since I was able to. Something is missing from this picture.
The other day I was happy to find a copy of Jon Day’s Cyclegeography. It has been a serendipitous find. An account of his time as a bicycle courier, it is is a sort of Waterlog for London cycling. He describes with vivid energy the flow and challenge of the British capital from a bike. The tiny openings just a handlebar wide, lunatic weaving through traffic. The sudden space and vantages of the city’s bridges. It also lifts the lid a little on the life of a courier, which sounds as mental as I’d always imagined it to be. At one point I though that might be my dream job, were I a millionaire and had no need to worry about actually making any money. It is a terribly hard way to earn a living.
One of the reasons I’ve enjoyed the book so much is what he describes is so similar to most of my lifetime’s bike riding. Yes, I’ve done some wonderful rides in southern Africa, the Outer Hebrides, Belgium and all over England, but most of the time it;s the daily grind into central London. I first started cycling properly to ride to school each day, a hateful ride along the pavement next to the North Circluar Road. One day aged 15 my wheel drifted into the guard fence and I found myself on the floor covered in cuts and very confused. With traffic rushing past there was little to do but get back on a wobble to school where I showed off scabs all day. When I started at Lonely Planet I rode over Muswell Hill and Highgate to Kentish Town, those rides bringing my first dust-ups with Highgate West Hill, still the great Alp of the imagination of the north London rider along with it’s haunted neighbour, Swain’s Lane. Invariably I ride in rush hour, with everyone else, with vans and trucks for company, trying to ignore how vulnerable I am in comparison to them.
It was these formative experiences that helped me to retain my sanity during endless rides to and from Gunnersbury earlier this year. Finchley – Golders Green – Cricklewood – Willesden – Harlesden – Acton. Through the rush hour. A candidate for the worst ride in the world if ever there was one, six times a week for three months. Hugging the gutter and dodging the potholes for 14 miles of traffic-choked suburban drear. I stopped doing the Gunnersbury run soon enough to retain some residual curiosity about the areas I passed through, not least the former Greyhound land of Queen’s Park, enough that Iain Sinclair’s London Overground gripped me as he trudged from one station on the ‘ginger line’ to another, passing from Willesden to Cricklewood with the same grey-faced horror/wonder that I had every day.
But I’m no courier. Jon Day’s tales of alleycat races across the city and a strange community of single-speed outsiders were glamorous and exciting, but never my world. Nor is the weekend club rider’s. Cycling in London is a solo pursuit. There’s no room for a partner or a conversation. Every other cyclist is out for the same patch of space that I am, so head down nudgey-nudgey beats the camaraderie of rural rides. It’s also one that introduces you pretty quickly to the reality of the city. I’ve owned (by a quick tally) nine bikes in my life. Three are under lock and key right now. The other six were all stolen in London. All locked up at the time. There are thieves and bad people, and they’ll have your stuff. Switch your wits on.
With traffic, lights, potholes and omnipresent danger, weekly miles are hard-won. My friend who lives in Wiltshire once expressed envy at the ease at which a commuter knocks out such a distance while making no impact on home life. He then hopped on this bike and rode off to the Cotswolds, or Salisbury Plain, or some other idyllic country spot. But I don’t want what he has either. I am hooked on the hard-to-explain delights of riding round home.