How I accidentally ended up in the Olympic Torch Relay

With just a day to go until London 2012 begins, is it any wonder the capital has gone a bit Olympic mad today?

And somehow I accidentally got caught up in it all on my commute home this evening.

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I should have known that when I hit Parliament Square and saw the entire road gridlocked with cars, buses, bikes and pedestrians that something unusual was going on.

Turns out I was about 10 minutes behind the Olympic Torch relay heading towards Hyde Park via Birdcage Walk and Buckingham Palace.

When I stopped at traffic lights I spoke to a policeman who said: "I've never seen anything like this."

"Either have I," I replied. "What's going on?"

"It's called organised chaos," he laughed.

Personally, I couldn't think of a better description, because when I turned down Great George Street either side of the road was lined with flag-waving crowds which extended the entire length of Birdcage Walk, which is about half-a-mile.

The entire width of the road was taken up with cyclists — there were literally hundreds of us in all sizes, shapes and descriptions — like one giant very slow-moving pelaton.

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We cycled behind a line of police officers on foot and an ambulance which were effectively separating us from the torch bearers much further down the road. There was lots of stop-starting and standing around waiting for the police to let us move another 100 yards or so.

Any other time and I would have been pissed off. This was going to take me three times as long to get home. But there was a jovial atmosphere and it was hard not to see the funny side with the crowds cheering and clapping us along.

"We're just trying to get home," quipped one cyclist to the crowd. "We're not part of the procession!"

Someone from the crowd asked if Bradley Wiggins was in there somewhere. "It's like watching the Tour de France pelaton," he joked. "Except you guys aren't going anywhere!"

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Eventually, when we got closer to Buckingham Palace the police forced us all into one lane so that a convoy of official vehicles could be ushered through. Unfortunately the fun element stopped then, because the police wouldn't let us make a right hand turn — which meant I couldn't follow my normal route home.

I ended up having to wing it — I followed Buckingham Palace Road all the way to Chelsea Embankment and then made my way back home via the busy but fast-moving (and dare I say it, dangerous) A320.

I got in the door almost two hours after I had set off — it would normally take 40 minutes maximum — but I'm not complaining: it gave me material for a blog post, if nothing else!

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Total distance: 13.43miles (21.6km) | Ride time: 1hr 23min and 20sec | Average speed: 9.6mph | Top speed: 19.9mph

First ride of June

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The weather has been so wet and miserable in recent weeks that I haven't even thought about cycling much less braved the great British outdoors. Plus, I've been extraordinarily busy — office-based freelance shifts during the day, home-based editing or social events in the evening — that I'm not sure I could have fitted in any cycling anyway. If that sounds like an excuse… well… you're probably right.

Anyway, I had a free day today and after sorting out some admin (issuing invoices and chasing others), I decided I'd go for a trundle to Richmond Park before it rained.

The weather conditions were very mixed. I wore longs and a t-shirt with my cycling jacket on top, so not exactly summer attire.

The sun would come out for a while, then disappear behind a bank of heavy grey cloud, only to re-emerge about 10 minutes later. It kept doing this for about two-thirds of my journey, before it just went dark and grey.

As soon as I hit Richmond Park, it was like entering a giant humidifier. The overly-long grass is holding so much water from a fortnight of ceaseless rain that you could practically see the steam rising off the fields as they baked in the sun. But once I got going around my usual route, it felt quite coolish in the shade of the trees.

Some things to note:

  • Lots of birdlife around today, including the heron pictured above
  • Lots of skittish bambi-like deer near Cycle Route 4
  • Saw a cute little puppy while I was having a rest by a pond — he bounded up to me, sniffed my bike wheels and let me have a little pat. His owner kept calling him in a rather high-pitched voice. The dog's name was Ozzie.
  • Nearly got squished by a London bus, driven by an impatient arrogant driver, as I cycled back over Hammersmith Bridge. Cycling over that bridge is dangerous at the best of times, so I try to take the lane, rather than get pushed off the road onto the pillars (which is what happened to a cyclist recently), and cycle very fast (I can do 18mph when I put my all in to it). And yet this bus driver thought he could overtake me by giving me about two inches of space. It's times like these I wish I had a video camera on my helmet to record registration numbers etc.

After so much time out of the saddle, I admit that cycling felt a bit too much like hard work today — but I enjoyed getting out and about. I think my bike computer struggled with the return to work as well, because part-way through my cycle it decided to stop recording my speed or distance. The figures below are guestimates of what I think I did.

Total distance: 15.55miles (25.10km) | Ride time: 1hr 28min and 59sec | Average speed: 9.6mph | Top speed: 21.5mph

Why you should always make sure the pockets in your cycle shorts are zipped up

Today's cycle turned into a bit of a panic-stricken adventure.

The first five miles was lovely and sedate. The sun was shining. I was wearing shorts and a t-shirt. Everything was right with the world.

Then I arrived at Richmond Park and stopped to take a photograph on my camera phone. But where was my phone? Surely I'd put it in my left-hand pocket? Or did I leave it at home? No, I remember it was in my pocket because I had to put my house keys in my other pocket. A panicked tap down of every pocket on my person then ensued.

No phone.

My first thought was to simply turn around, retrace my route and scan the road for the phone that had obviously fallen out of my pocket along the way.

But then I figured if it had fallen out it had probably been run over by a car or had bounced into the undergrowth, so rushing back wasn't going to solve anything. I ended up doing a quick scoot around the park (about three miles) before cycling back home following my exact route (instead of doing my usual loop). I thought I had discovered it along the tow path, opposite Chiswick Pier, but when I turned over the black object it turned out to be an ID card holder.

When I got home I decided to call my mobile number using the landline on the off chance that someone might pick up. It rang out. I imagined the phone was probably lying in the bushy undergrowth by the side of the river, where no one would ever hear it. But then the landline rang and it turned out to be a chap called Sam who had found my phone on the cycle path along Priory Lane.

I didn't know it at the time, but he phoned a very old number in my contacts marked "work" in an effort to locate me. He also phoned one of my friends and left a voice message for her to say he'd found a phone and was looking for the owner.

Anyway, to cut a long story short, I arranged to meet him in Barnes. He gave me my phone, I gave him £20 as a token of my appreciation.

He was just a kid really, probably not more than 17 years old, but was very well spoken with impeccable manners. When you hear so much bad stuff about the world and the horrid people in it who do horrid things to other people, it was lovely to meet a good-hearted person who knew the right thing to do and went out of his way to return a phone he'd just happened to find while he was out cycling.

Thank you, Sam, you made my day — and restored my faith in the human race.

Next time I'll remember to keep my pockets zipped up!

Total distance: 18.09miles (29.10km) | Ride time: 1hr 46min and 20sec | Average speed: 10.2mph | Top speed: 20.3mph

A month of cycling: 100 miles, a broken computer, a service and a chest cold

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I'm not sure where August has gone. The month has whizzed by — and I'm ashamed to admit that my cycling mojo has been slightly on the wane. On average, I have only been cycling twice a week and last week I did not cycle at all. But that's largely due to a hectic social calendar (I don't cycle in when I'm going out after work), rotten weather (look at those clouds in the photograph above) and a horrible chest cold that is still lingering almost 10 days after I caught it.

In fact, I think I came down with the cold after cycling in the world's greatest downpour on Thursday August 18. It didn't help that I had a sore throat when I got on the bike, but by the time I'd struggled home six-and-a-half miles in the wettest conditions I've seen in quite some time I was slightly feverish. A hot shower, a change of clothes and a mug of tea made me feel a little better, but by bed time I wasn't in a good way.

Other events that happened this month:

★ My bike computer broke — well, the mechanism that reads the wheel's movement and "beams" it wirelessly to the computer on my handlebars stopped working. I think I knocked it taking my bike lock off one evening. I then rode home without any figures being registered. And then, when I was taking the bike out of the lift, the mechanism fell off — luckily I heard it hit the ground so was able to rescue it. I had to get my Other Half to reinstall it for me. Thanks, T.

★ I got my bike serviced. I took it to the London Bicycle Repair Shop in Southwark, which I've used before: it's cheaper than Evans and the service is definitely more personalised and quick. No need to book your bike in about six months in advance, you simply turn up before 10am and they'll have it ready for you by 6pm. It cost me £82 all up: £58 for labour, £15 for a new chain, £3 for a new gear cable and £6 for new brake blocks. That's about the equivalent of a one-month ticket on the tube, so I better claw back the cost by cycling as much as I can in September!

Total distance: 99.56miles (160.2km) | Ride time: 8hr, 59min and 16sec | Average speed: 10.9mph | Top speed: 20.4mph

Can anyone spot what’s wrong here?

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I snapped this picture on my camera phone last Tuesday week (June 14) on Bank Lane, near the International Tennis Federation in Roehampton. I mention the ITF, because I believe it was hosting an event or function, because all the local streets were filled with vehicles parked on any inch of tarmac they could find. Sadly, this idiot (above) thought it was quite okay to park across the exit to a busy cycle lane. There was little or no room to wheel the bike around it either.

Fortunately, it was the only downside to a terrific ride in brilliant sunshine. I began in Hammersmith, cycled along the Thames Path all the way to Kingston-upon-Thames, then headed inland, via quiet suburban streets, to Richmond Park. I then did a half-route of the park, before heading back to Hammersmith via Barnes and Castelnau Road.

Total distance: 23.49miles (37.79km) | Ride time: 2hr, 18min and 21sec | Average speed: 10.1mph | Top speed: 19.9mph

A little bit of road rage

Some days you wonder why you bothered getting on the bike.

Today I just didn't seem to have any energy. I was tired and lethargic for at least 50 per cent of the ride, almost as if I didn't have any power in my legs.

And then, to top things off, I had my first dose of road rage since almost getting run off the road by a van circa 2005.

I was only a mile from home when it happened. A woman in a little hatchback was double-parked near a park. I sat behind her for a few seconds, just to gauge the situation, but it was clear she was having an animated conversation with the passenger sitting alongside her, so I pulled out to overtake her.

You guessed it. She decided to pull out at the same time. Without indicating. Without checking her mirrors. And nearly hitting me in the process.

I managed to catch up with her at the next set of traffic lights. As you can imagine I was a bit angry, so I hammered on her passenger window and told her that she needed to look out for bikes.

To be honest, I wasn't feeling particularly rational and didn't want to get into a conversation about it. I just sat in front of her bonnet until the traffic lights turned green. I hoped that seeing me sitting there might stick in her memory for a bit, so that next time she's on the road she'll remember to keep her eye out for cyclists. But I won't hold my breath.

Total distance: 17.07miles (27.3km) | Ride time: 1hr 37min and 27sec | Average speed: 10.5mph | Top speed: 21.5mph

One downside of cycling along the Thames

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What no one ever tells you when you cycle the Thames Path is this: at high tide the path is likely to be flooded!

I took this shot, shortly after 2.30pm, near The Ship pub in Mortlake. The path normally looks like this:

Never mind, I was able to inch my way through it, and get out the other side relatively unscathed. The woman pushing her child in a buggy behind me wasn't so lucky!

Fortunately, this was pretty much the only downside of today's cycle. Initially I had intended to simply pop down to Kew, as you do, to visit a book shop, but once I found the shop I was looking for I wasn't much in the mood to visit it. (It didn't help that there were roadworks out the front and a little man with a 'Stop' sign standing there giving me a dirty look.)

I kept cycling instead, exploring some of the quieter back streets, and before I knew it I was racing down the very busy Kew Road in a dedicated cycle line (8am to 6pm weekdays) and heading into Richmond.

A quick check of my London A-Z and I figured I should just keep going onto Twickenham Road (in another dedicated — and completely separate — lane, no time limit involved) until I got to the river. Then it was just a matter of heading back to Hammersmith via the tow path.

Genius! Except the 8 mile cycle I had originally planned had now magically morphed into an 18 mile extravaganza!

No complaints though. Lovely weather for cycling in: very still and only cold if you stop!

Total distance: 18.7 miles (30.3km) | Ride time: 1hr, 55min and 24sec | Average speed: 9.7mph | Top speed: 19.9mph

Day 2 of the tube strike…

… and it was worse than yesterday — in more ways than one.

The roads were definitely busier this morning, despite the fact I left the house 20 minutes earlier than yesterday. The number of bikes at Hyde Park Corner was staggering and it was pretty congested through Trafalgar Square and onwards through The Strand.

This evening I was hoping to miss the worst of the traffic by leaving the office promptly at 5pm. Unfortunately, my journey ended up taking more than two hours! Why? Because half-way across Westminster Bridge the chain on my bike snapped in half! F**k!

I didn't hear it break, but knew something was wrong when the pedals suddenly felt funny. I looked down and the chain was gone! I checked the road behind me and there it was about 200m away lying on the bitumen like a skinny dead snake.

I got off the bike, humped it onto the footpath, and a passing pedestrian, seeing my obviously pissed off face, cheekily said, "Not a great day for cycling, hey?"

"Umm, no," I replied. "Especially when your chain breaks."

He looked at me blankly.

"That's it lying on the road," I said, pointing at my wrecked chain.

"Ooooh no," he replied, sounding genuinely shocked. Not that he stopped and helped, but swanned off on his merry way and left me to it.

Lots of options ran through my head: walk the bike the remaining 5.5 miles home; take the bike back to the office, lock it up and then battle it out with everyone to catch a bus home; or visit Evans on The Cut at Waterloo and hope they'd be able to put a new one on for me.

I opted for the latter.

It was a fairly long walk to The Cut, especially given it was now 5.30pm and the footpaths were heaving with pedestrians all headed for Waterloo Rail Station. Once I'd battled my way past them, I was met with a similar crowd of cyclists queued up inside Evans waiting for service.

When it eventually came to serving me, the best they could do was sell me a chain; I'd have to put it on myself. No amount of cajoling could convince them to put it on for me — too busy. Could they keep it overnight and do it tomorrow? No. Saturday? No. Apparently, they're so busy that the soonest anyone could even look at it would be Saturday week.

He muttered something about not having the right tools, about how they only had three mechanics when they should have five, how they were cancelling people's pre-booked service slots because they were so short-staffed… blah, blah, blah.

So in the end I paid for the chain and walked 300m around the corner to the little independent bike repair shop in the hope they might be able to help me out. They were just about to close when I knocked on the door, chain in one hand, bike in the other.

The mechanic took one look at me, saw the chain and immediately guessed what had happened. "Don't tell me they sold you that and left you to it," he said, shaking his head.

"Umm, yes, and with all the bloody money I've spent with them over the years, I'm not too impressed with their customer service," I replied.

"Come in here and I'll put it on for you," he said.

Two minutes later and it was done. He refused any offer of payment. "I'm sure you'll be back to buy something off us in future," he said cheekily.

Then, before I set off, he checked the chain was working fine only to discover it made a bit of a horrid clanking noise. Turns out my gears are a bit fecked. He thinks they're not aligned properly and I may need a new chain cog. In other words, the bike needs a bit of work. Admittedly, I told him the gears had been giving me a bit of grief these past couple of days and hadn't really felt right; they kept snagging and my pedals would stop turning momentarily.

He offered to fix it for me there and then, but I already felt bad that he'd kept the shop open for me and told him I didn't want to hold him up any longer. I could see him weighing up the options in his mind and in the end he simply suggested I return tomorrow. 

He fiddled around with the gears until he found one that seemed OK and told me to take things easy on the road. I tell you what, have you ever cycled six miles in a low gear? God, it was hard work. My legs are going to kill me tomorrow; it felt like I was cycling through wet cement.

There were a few wobbly moments when the tension in the chain felt wrong, and I was terrified it would break again. But I got home in one piece, albeit covered in thick black grease: it was all over my hands, all over my bike bag and smeared all over my face!

Tomorrow, I'll trundle back into work slowly and drop my bike off at the repair shop. I think I might take the man a gift, too, I was soooooooo thankful for his assistance tonight. Independent bike stores rock!

So here's my shout-out to the London Bicycle Repair Shop, Shop 2-3 Benson House, Hatfields, London SE1 8DQ — I think I'll be giving them a lot of business from now on.

Lorries and cyclists: a deadly mix?

Interesting news story in today's Evening Standard that claims Lorry drivers 'need educating about cyclists'. That's probably very true. But it works both ways.

Cyclists also need educating about blind spots. The number of cyclists I see "filtering" through traffic, on the inside of lorries (and buses), and then sitting where it is quite clear the driver cannot see them gives me the heebie jeebies. I'm actually surprised more cyclists don't get killed.

Sure, some lorry drivers may be ignorant and may drive dangerously, but the same applies to cyclists. No one deserves to die, but let's not paint ourselves as the blameless ones in all of this.

Spectacular crash-tacular!

I guess it had to happen sooner or later. I’ve been commuting by bike for almost two years and I’ve never had an accident… until today.

Yep. You guessed it. I survived a rather spectacular “crash” this morning and fell off my bike while taking off from the traffic lights at Parliament Square. There were no other vehicles or bikes involved. It was simply my own stupid fault. I was going at speed, crossing lanes, when my foot slipped on the pedal. The bike then went into a “wobble” and before I knew it I came crashing down onto the bitumen with the bike falling on top of me.

As I lay there on the ground the only thought rushing through my head was “please don’t let me get run over”. Fortunately, because it happened while taking off from the lights, the two lanes of traffic behind me were travelling in a low gear and there was no real danger of me being caught under the wheels of any cars or taxis. Just as well really, because I didn’t just fall across one lane but did a spectacular diagonal fall across two lanes. Trust me to make a show of myself. Why do things by halves, right?

Anyway, once I managed to haul myself up and drag my bike to the side of the road, the traffic didn’t waste any time to whizz on by. The only person who stopped to see if I was okay was a kind pedestrian who witnessed the whole scene. She described it as “spectacular”. I am very grateful for her concern. She dusted me off, told me my helmet was “askew” and checked I was okay to continue on my way. I was.

Slightly shocked, a little bit bruised and a lot embarrassed I walked my bike through the square and then got back on to continue the remaining two miles of my journey. Unfortunately, I hadn’t noticed that my seat had managed to turn itself  through 90 degrees and my front mudguard was rubbing against my tyre. I sorted them out and continued onto work, counting my blessings that I was relatively unscathed.

It wasn’t until I was in the office that I was able to check my war wounds properly. I took the brunt of the fall on my right side, so I had a bruise running from my elbow to wrist, my knee was bloodied and already swelling up, and my ankle had been gouged by my pedals. There was also a long scratch on my left calf. Surprisingly, my right hand, which took the weight of the fall, appeared unscathed, which says a lot for wearing gloves. I’m sure if I had been cycling with bare hands — which I see so many other commuters do — I would have really damaged myself. I am also grateful that today I chose not to wear the sterling silver bangle that usually adorns my right wrist. If I had have fallen on that, my wrist would now be broken. Of that, I am sure.

I managed to clean myself up in the washroom when one of the cleaners came in and began fussing over me. “Go and get that seen to by First Aid,” she instructed. “You don’t want to get no infection in that wound.”

So I took her advice and visited our Occupational Health centre and got prompt, friendly attention from the nurse, who is a Kiwi and always makes me laugh. “Someone left me a postcard of koalas on my desk this morning,” she said, rolling her eyes. “You think they’d know by now I’m from New Zealand and not Australia!”

Then she added: “And what is it with the cricket? Did you guys win
something recently?
Everyone keeps congratulating me and I have no idea what they’re talking about!”

In  between the jokes, she swabbed me with iodine, bandaged my knee to prevent it swelling, told me to take Nurofen every couple of hours, and then got me to fill in an accident report (to cover me for insurance purposes).

For the rest of the day, I limped my way around the office, dreading the thought of having to cycle home. But they say that when you fall off a horse you should get right back on, so I guess the same theory applies to bicycles. So as much as I didn’t want to get back on that bike, I did, cycling home in the wind and rain with a stiff knee, a throbbing ankle — every bump in the road was incredibly painful — and the ever-present fear that my feet might slip on the pedals again.

I think I’ll be catching the tube tomorrow…

… and throwing away those friggin’ shoes.