The novelty of riding to work on the back of a bicycle is beginning to wear a little thin. As much as I enjoy the fresh air, the adrenalin rush and the exercise (I’ve got muscles I didn’t know even existed until a few months ago), the "taking your life into your own hands" element of my day-to-day commute is getting a little too close to the bone for comfort.
But it’s not what you’re thinking. The vans, the buses, the freakin’ black cabs I can handle. The rain and the dark doesn’t really bother me. The gusty wind, as horrifying as it is when you think you’re going to FLY over the Palace of Westminster instead of trundle by it, is okay once you decide not to let it bother you.
But don’t talk to me about two-wheeled traffic or men with chips on their shoulders or bloody f**king punctures.
Let me explain…
Every day last week something bad happened to me, either on the journey in, or the journey out. It got to the point where I was beginning to feel jinxed. I’m not religious or remotely superstitious but I was wondering whether the gods were conspiring against me. This feeling of ill omen wasn’t helped by the fact that two lights over my desk refused to work on Monday morning, so that I had to sit in the dark all day. Even our facilities people were perplexed because fresh fluorescent tubes didn’t rectify the problem and the wiring looked okay. As it turned out, come Tuesday afternoon the lights decided to work… of their own accord. I know, it freaked me out too.
But here’s a day-to-day account of my frustrating, sometimes dangerous, experiences commuting by bicycle last week…
WHAT HAPPENED IN SHORT: Nearly got killed by a rogue motorbike on the way to work.
WHAT HAPPENED IN DETAIL: At Hyde Park Corner, instead of being the good, law-abiding cyclist I normally am, I decided to become a sheep, by following the "flock" of non-law-abiding cyclists, and, as a consequence, almost got myself turned into a lamb dinner in the process.
Now if you are a law-abiding cyclist you have to wait for two traffic light changes to cross Hyde Park Corner, one of the busiest road junctions in London, but if you are a naughty, sneaky cyclist it is possible to cross it in just one go. Unfortunately, this comes at a cost: if you are not quick enough you can collide with the normal flow of traffic, which is incredibly heavy at the best of times but especially so on a Monday morning.
When I tried to cross in one go on Monday morning I was cycling at the right speed to get across safely – as were a handful of other cyclists alongside me – but what we had not counted on was a rogue motorbike coming around the corner at full tilt, way ahead of the normal flow of traffic. She was headed right for us. I think I yelled "f**k" very loudly. I know that the two cyclists immediately next to me yelled it at full volume, almost piercing my eardrums.
And then, before any of us had time to think, it was a whir of cycle wheels and gears and furious pedalling as we all got out of the motorbike’s way without bumping into each other. This meant instead of crossing Hyde Park Corner we were all forced into a lane of traffic going around it.
Later, reflecting on what had happened, I began to realise how dreadfully close I had been to getting killed by a motorbike. I was the first cyclist in her line of sight and, had I not reacted when I did, I’m sure she would have barrelled into all of us at full pelt.
I realised now how stupid and idiotic it was to try and take shortcuts in such dangerous conditions. And I’ve learnt a valuable lesson about not taking risks and sticking to the road rules, regardless of what everyone else does!
WHAT HAPPENED IN SHORT: Got involved in two road rage incidents on the way home from the office.
WHAT HAPPENED IN DETAIL: As I crossed the bridge at Olympia, which has its own dedicated cycle lane, I saw a teenager on a BMX bike cut off someone who was trying to pass him. As far as I could tell, it wasn’t deliberate. It was just that Mr BMX Bandit wasn’t concentrating on the road ahead or the cyclists around him – he was too busy playing with his mobile phone while steering with one hand.
The poor fellow who had tried to overtake him on his right, then tried to undertake him on his left only to have the same thing happen again. Unfortunately, this time he lost balance and fell into the side of a waist-high concrete barrier before righting himself and pedalling off. Mr BMX Bandit gave him the finger and then leered at me as I approached from behind. I immediately decided I would back off and give Mr BMX Bandit enough room to hopefully disappear into the distance. As I backed off, a couple of female cyclists overtook me and I was almost minded to tell them to watch for the idiot ahead.
As it was, Mr BMX Bandit gave these two women a hard time, forcing one of them off the cycle lane into busy peak-hour traffic. But he seemed completely oblivious of the danger he was putting other people and himself in, and continued to waver all over the lane, pushing buttons on his phone and continually looking behind him (and at me) instead of the road ahead.
Unable to bear his antics any longer, I decided that I needed to get past him before I was witness to a serious accident. As I approached he leered at me, his hairy top lip screwed up into a delightful snarl. He then tried to cut me off – deliberately I might add. At this point, the steam was beginning to ooze out of my own nostrils, so I told him to be careful. If I remember correctly I then added, "you are going to cause a f**king accident" as I finally overtook him.
He then called me an "old b**ch" and a load of other pleasantries (surprise, surprise). I was suddenly scared that he may well chase me, knock me off my bike and punch my lights out, so I hurriedly sped down a side street, out of harms way.
At the end of my journey, relieved to have survived the encounter with Mr BMX Bandit, I got off my bike in order to cross a busy road adjacent to my apartment complex. It was just after 6pm and the traffic was very thick. I had to stand by the side of the road for a few minutes waiting for it to come to a halt at the traffic lights about 300m away.
As the traffic slowed one car approaching the end of the tailback left a gap for me to wheel my bike through. I couldn’t see the driver through the windscreen but I nodded my thanks and stepped out onto the road. Unfortunately there were two cars coming the other way so I had to stand in the middle of the road to let them pass. This took all of 10 seconds.
When they had passed I completed my walk across the road only to hear someone shout "you ungrateful b**tch". I turned to see that the driver who had let me through the traffic had wound down his window from which he was now yelling a string of obscenities at me!
I was stunned and shocked. I didn’t understand his problem. "Thanks for holding me up, girl!" he screamed, as he inched his car forward a whole five metres to join the 20 or so other vehicles still waiting for the lights to change green.
I was perplexed. "It’s a traffic jam!" I yelled back.
"If you’ve got something to say to me, come and say it to my face," he screamed, as he thrust an angry hand at his chin in a "come-and-talk-to-me-if-you-dare" type motion. He then continued his tirade while I walked off, shaking my head in disbelief. It was gridlock out there. How exactly had I held him up?
At the time I was so shaken up by his outburst I thought I was going to burst into tears. Even now, I still don’t understand his road rage. And thinking about the encounter makes me break into a cold sweat…
I did not ride the bike to work. Mainly because I’d woken up at 4am with a pain in my side, like someone was skewering my kidneys with a knitting needle. I took some painkillers before leaving the house, but felt out of sorts most of the morning. When I confessed to a colleague that I wasn’t feeling well, he joked that maybe someone was using a voodoo doll against me. "It might explain all your bad luck on the bike this week," he said.
Little did he know the bad luck hadn’t yet run out…
WHAT HAPPENED IN SHORT: Got a puncture on the way to work.
WHAT HAPPENED IN DETAIL: There’s one part of my morning cycle where I actually get off the bike and wheel it about 100m so that I can cross a busy intersection without risking life and limb. Once I cross, I climb aboard my bike again to cycle the remaining mile of my journey. This morning I got on board and thought the bike felt a little strange. I got off and duly noted a flat back tyre. Sh*t!
I wheeled my bike the rest of the way, cursing my bad luck – again. What else could possibly go wrong this week? Still, I was grateful that it had happened on the way to work and not on the way home, because at least I had some time to get it fixed.
I made an appointment with Evans Cycles, about a 10 minute stroll from the office, to get the puncture repaired by a mechanic. I was told that if I brought my bike in by 1.30pm they could have it repaired for collection by 6.30pm. Cost? £17.50, including labour and a new inner tube. I figured it was a small price to pay to ensure I got home safely.
I picked it up at around 6.45pm but the mechanic had gone home so the counter assistant was unable to tell me what caused the puncture. However, he did give me some words of advice when I mentioned this was my second puncture in under a fortnight: "Oh, you’ll find that always happens – no punctures in 8 months and then you’ll get three in a week."
Little did I realise how prophetic his words would be…
WHAT HAPPENED IN SHORT: Got a puncture on the way home.
WHAT HAPPENED IN DETAIL: My morning cycle was brilliant. I remember smiling at how good it felt to actually not have anything go wrong! I caught pretty much every green light and shaved almost ten minutes off my usual timing.
But when I returned to the bike that evening and went through the rigmarole of taking off the locks, attaching my lights, securing my bag and checking my tyres I thought I was going to burst in tears. The back tyre was flat as a tack. Again. And then I couldn’t pump it up and had to make a succession of phone calls to T to ask his advice.
After struggling to get enough air into it, I managed to go about a mile before the tyre went down again. Out came the pump for some more arm-burning action. Eventually, after much struggle in the wind and the dark, I got to Hyde Park Corner, where I rode through Wellington Arch and then propped my bike up against one of the war memorials. I tried, unsuccessfully, to pump up the tyre for the umpteenth time, feeling angry and pissed off. Not only was it dark and very windy, it was cold and I could smell rain in the air. A definite storm was brewing.
At this point I decided I would just walk the remaining four miles home. As I was in the process of putting my pump away, a cyclist stopped to ask if I needed any help.
"Is it a puncture?" he said.
"I think it’s the valve," I replied.
"Ah, let me have a look."
"Are you sure?" I asked, not wanting to inconvenience him.
"Yes, no problem," he said.
And so, for the next five minutes or so this friendly fellow inspected my bike and pumped up the tyre in about four strong arm actions compared to my 50.
"There you go," he said. "It might not last very long, but it’ll get you on your way again."
"Do you normally do this?" I asked.
"What? Rescue damsels in distress?" he laughed. "Actually, I like to help my fellow cyclists. We’re all in this together, right? Plus, you don’t want to be stuck here by the side of the road on a Friday night, do you?"
"No, I’d much rather be in the pub," I replied.
And so, after offering my profuse thanks, he got back on his bike and cycled off into the distance, while I braved the dark of Rotten Row.
For the first mile my bike felt wonderful, but with each pedal after that I could feel the air practically escaping from the back tyre, so that by the time I got to the other end of the park it was impossibly flat. Again.
I tried to cycle another 100m or so, but it was like moving through treacle. I got nowhere. And my bike wavered unsteadily and, scared that the wheel rim would buckle, I decided it’d be safer to get off and walk.
As I trudged along the footpath the wind picked up and the rain bucketed down. It was like New York all over again. Unable to see much farther than a few metres because the storm was so fierce, I found myself laughing at the absurdity of it all. Really, could you think of a more ridiculous way to spend your Friday evening than wheeling a bike with a flat tyre through the streets of London in the pissing rain?
As I walked down Kensington High Street, I watched hundreds of shoppers wrestle with umbrellas and others, unprepared for the weather, shelter under awnings waiting for the rain to ease off. I caught the eye of a little Chinese man juggling a Starbucks coffee in one hand and a brolly in the other and we both smiled "isn’t this ridiculous weather?" type smiles at one another.
Eventually, after a three mile cycle followed by a long wet walk, I got in the door at 7pm, two hours after I had originally set off on my journey. I shed my wet coat and praised the benefits of waterproof trousers.
"You’re not as pissed off as I thought you’d be," said T, as I sank into the nearest chair and sighed with relief.
Maybe not, I thought, but if one more thing goes wrong with my cycling I’m going to really friggin’ EXPLODE! Let’s hope this week’s cycling experiences are a little more positive…