Neil Hallows found hidden world of cycling wars
A near miss in the London bomb attacks last year turned a commuter off the Tube and onto a bike. It was a 12-month initiation into a confrontational world of urban cycling.
On 7 July 2005, I was only a few yards from the number 30 bus in Tavistock Square when the bomb was detonated.
It would have been many times worse to be trapped underground, but every time I used the Tube after the attacks I had a tight feeling in my chest and found my eyes darting towards every backpack.
It is easier now, but only recently I let three trains go before feeling safe to board.
For seven years, the Tube had been how I travelled to work in Tavistock Square. For me, the Tube was London. There were fine places in the capital, but nothing so wonderful as that Wonka-esque network of trains that joined them up.
Most Tube travellers went back to the network straight after the attacks. Some were stoic and defiant, as the papers reported, some worked out the odds of being a victim were still small. Most, I suspect, travelled by Tube because there was no other way to get to work.
Thanks to Boris Johnson, I realised I had an alternative. On the day of the bombs we were milling around the streets when I saw the MP quietly pushing his bike through the crowds. If Boris could cycle into work every day and look no more crumpled than he usually did, so could I.
Mapping the future
At home was an old mountain bike, and I made a route by sticking together four pages of the A to Z. It appeared to be about eight miles each way and none of the streets included the word "hill". Easy compared to the Cotswolds where I had once lived.
Neil Hallows became a London cyclist after the July bomb attacks
The main difference between cycling in rural Gloucestershire and London soon struck me, or at least it would have done had I not swerved in time. You might sum up the problem as Other People. On my first day I was in a narrow street near King's Cross, following a 4x4, when suddenly the passenger door flew open and a women jumped out. I avoided her only by hitting a parked car.
At first, her lips formed into the word "sorry", but seeing my thundery expression, she changed her mind. By-passing the usual process of apology, rejection, then blazing row, she cut straight to stage three. She started to swear at me, at length and with some style, pointing out that I should have known she was about to jump from a moving car.
If a "Glasgow kiss" is actually a head-butt, then abuse in lieu of contrition perhaps ought to be called the "London apology".
To the joy of car doors swinging open, add the already tenuous cycle lanes filled with parked cars, bendy buses, school runs, late signals, no signals and the thwack of a poorly-applied England flag as a car overtakes.
Bike bad guys
OK motorists, now it's your turn. Let's hear it for the cyclists who jump lights, veer between road and pavement, overtake as you are trying to turn, make late signals, make no signals, and thwack your paintwork with their handlebars.
Speed bumps are the enemy
We don't always get on, do we? There is such a weary ritual of abuse between some cyclists and motorists that they no longer even bother to shout, just silently mouth a few words.
It does not have to be like this. In my part of east London, cyclists and drivers often give way to each other, much more so than in the centre. They may be better mannered, or the presence of really quite big people with tattoos might discourage the usual posturing.
And there are many more dangerous places to cycle than London. It's worse in those calm, sensible towns where it is assumed you will always follow the rules. In London the morning commute is slow enough to let you make mistakes and gloomy enough to expect them.
Anyway, I would rather face a car than a speed bump. Cars swerve dangerously to avoid bumps and they are my main source of punctures, because of the broken glass that gathers around them.
That is the last thing I will say on behalf of other cyclists, as I cannot claim to represent those faceless and unacknowledged opponents in the Great Race.
A race, yes, but an unusual one in that most cyclists are not even aware it is taking place. This is ideal, for I am absurdly but secretly competitive and have an almost pathological need to be first away at the lights.
Boris Johnson provided the rumpled example of cycle commuting
The small number of cyclists who are in the know duel with great nonchalance and no acknowledgement of their opponent. The trick is to cycle at maximum speed until the point of overtaking, and then sit back in the saddle as you pass, looking straight ahead as if the mere breeze is carrying you forward.
I even have a scoring system which gives double marks for passing anyone wearing Lycra. Overtaking a bike courier would theoretically score five, but I have never done it.
Unlike those Knights Without Brakes, I have to wear a suit for work, and this can be awkward. If only I had David Cameron's Lexus following respectfully behind.
Having to bring in clothes means shirts tend to get worn a little longer than they should, and I often forget my shoes, although the resulting combination of pin-stripe suit and geeky trainers is quite fashionable thanks to Dr Who.
And the views cycling in London are so vivid that it is like seeing in colour for the first time. You notice the seasons, which are not obvious in a city. I have picked blackberries on the way home in late summer and felt my hands cracking like plaster from January through to March.
Most of all, there is nothing as satisfying as those moments where you step out on a dark night, the wind blowing, the rain beating down, with a long journey ahead - and decide to catch the Tube instead.
Add your comments on this story, using the form below.
I couldn't agree more. I have every sympathy with motorists driven to distraction by light jumping cyclists (I saw this done by a mother with her baby in a rear seat last week). On the other hand cars stopping or turning without indicating, flying doors and bike lanes that stop and start without any reason make the most civilized way of getting about in London strssful and dangerous. Lorry drivers tend to be the most aware and polite, bendy buses are mobile accident sites.
Stephen Dooley, London
Nice piece, most of which rings true with me as an east London cyclist. To the author, and all other nervous London cyclists I'd recommend the book Cyclecraft. It's an absolute bible on how to cycle assertively and safely. Applied to London it enables me to cycle more calmly, with fewer outbursts and fewer incidents. That said, I also always have my mobile handy so I can ring my own voicemail to take down number plates, driver descriptions etc. for any professional vehicle that I see driving dangerously - busses, taxis, white vans etc.
Simon M, Walthamstow, London
Thanks for a well-balanced article. A cycle commute really isn't that dangerous if you act with a bit of common sense. Yes there are some cyclists who jump lights (You didn't mention how many points you score for reeling in and overtaking light-jumpers). And equally there are some dangerously arrogant drivers on London's roads. Neither represents a majority. Car drivers should remember that in an accident, whoever's is at fault, the cyclist will always come off worse. Consequently the bad cyclists suffer from their bad cycling and all cyclists suffer from bad drivers. But most of us are not "drivers" or "cyclists", we're just people trying to get to work.
Marwood DaSilva, Camberwell
I cycle in to work daily, just over 4 miles in under 20 minutes. Quicker than the car and much quicker than the bus. I believe a series of public information films showing the trials and tribulations faced by cyclists may help stem the animosity that exists between motorists and cyclists.
Cllr Norman Pickthall, Middlesbrough
The first rule of The Great Race is that you never mention The Great Race.
I cycle from Watford to Kennington, I wear the lycra, then shower and change at work. The answer is travel 1 day by public transport and carry clothes for the next four days.
Mike Nugent, Watford
I wonder how many cyclists have been killed in the last year since 7/7/05. I bet it is more than those killed by terrorist bombs, but a drip-drip deathrate is not as newsworthy as when many get killed at once.
Martin Kelsen, London
What utter rubbish Martin Kelsen speaks - true, the drip-drip deaths of 9 people a day caused by road traffic doesn't get as much coverage as it deserves.
But of those, only around 20 each year are cyclists in London - a figure which has risen slightly (by 2 or 3) over the last year.
Adrian Williamson, Farnham
A plea from a hard done by pedestrian - we exist too you know. I have been run down twice in the last four years - not by motor vehicles but by cyclists. The last time I was knocked down by a cyclist going the wrong way down Tottenham Court Road. His answer? To shout at me very agressively as I was lying on the road - "why don't you ****ing look both ways? Yeah thats right I always look both ways on a one way street!
John, London, UK
After a year or more of procrastinating, I finally got on the bike a few weeks ago. Now the 8 mile journey to the office takes about 15 minutes less than it took me by train and underground and I don't have to stand next to someone's armpit in a sweltering hot tube at any point.
I've managed to cycle fairly trouble-free so far, the only near miss came when I jumped some lights, so less of that these days. For the most part cycling is pretty safe and I've found the cycle lanes very useful. It also makes me feel really good that I'm being healthy, saving money and doing my bit for the environment. Hooray for cycling basically.
Jon, London, UK
I have been cycling since 7/7. I bought a fold-up bike the day after as I travel in from the sticks by train. I think I am taking my life in my hands each day but avoiding the sweaty, crowded, creaking tube is hard to resist. I would love to see more cycle lanes like those through Bloomsbury. I can understand the police doing spot checks to catch cyclists who dangerously jump red lights, but I would also like to see them penalising vehicle users who park in cycle lanes and endanger cyclists. I would like a more cycle-friendly city to ride through. There seem to be enough cyclists out there to make it a vote-winning thing to do.
Maybe it's different in London, but here in Leicester the biggest danger to cyclists isn't cars, lorries or buses. It's the astounding number of pedestrians who step off the pavement right in front of a fast-moving bike, apparently believing that if they can't hear an internal combustion engine, the road is clear so there is no need to look.
Mike Simpson, Leicester, UK
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