At Greenbelt I gave a short talk on ‘how to be an urban cyclist’ which was filmed and will be on their website later on this year. This is more or less what I said.
Cycling generates strong opinions. Already today I’ve had one person tell me that all cyclists should have number plates and pay road tax so they can be prosecuted when they do something wrong, because they’re always doing something wrong. And I’ve heard about someone’s brother-in-law who challenged a driver who had cut in on him dangerously, and who was punched in the face and ended up with a fractured skull.
Cycling seemed so much simpler when I was a child. My first bike was a red tricycle when I was three, handed down from an older cousin. Later my bike gave me the freedom of the village because I grew up in the fearless days when children could go out to play. I cycled less as I got older; like many teenage girls, I got out of synch with my body and lost touch with what it could do. And the low point of my cycling career came when I sold my bike just before I went to university in Bath because I knew it was going to be a bit hilly…
But I rediscovered cycling through ten years of triathlons, progressing from heavy mountain bike in my first to sleek road bike by my second. Some of my happiest memories in recent years have been on my bike.
When I lost a job I loved and wanted to think about what to do next, I cycled the classic coast to coast from Whitehaven to Tynemouth as an active retreat, a journey complete with punctures and accompanied by M & S luxury fruit and nut.
I’ve cycled with the Amos roadclub from London to Paris; from Inverness to Fort William and back; and from Calais to Bruge.
I did the Dunwich Dynamo last year with some Amos riders, a 120-mile overnight ride from Hackney to Dunwich on the Suffolk Coast. And yes, I wanted to give up cycling up a hill in the dark at 3am. But a couple of hours later, the sun had come up and I had the best cup of coffee in my life served from a gazebo in someone’s front garden. It is truly an amazing sight to arrive and see the beach covered in bikes.
Two weeks ago I did the Devon coast to coast route from Plymouth to Ilfracombe. There’s a fantastic slow descent into Ilfracombe at the end down a disused railway, but we then had to cycle back up the hill to where we were staying and I had that experience of thinking there’s nothing left in your legs and you can’t climb one more hill, and finding that there is and you can.
Cycling makes me happy. It is rare for me to get on my bike and not have a smile on my face.
I love the freedom of getting somewhere completely under my own effort.
I love the challenge of keeping up with the guys in the pack and the privilege of taking my turn at the front, even if only for a few minutes.
I love the feel of cool night air on my skin as I cycle home through quiet streets after an evening out.
I love the bone-aching tiredness and profound sense of well being that comes from a day on my bike.
I’m even strangely fond of the ridiculous cycling tan that is testament to hours in the saddle.
So when I’ve worked in central London, it’s made sense to me to do the commute by bike a few times a week but like many I found it very daunting at the start.
You feel completely vulnerable when the outer skin of your vehicle is your own outer skin, when you compare the size of your bike to the size of the bus you’re sharing a lane with and when you hear that six cyclists this year have been killed on London streets.
How can I compete with all that traffic?
The trick is not to be apologetic or to be daunted by your size, but to think bigger than your bike, to occupy a space the size of a car with you at the centre so you’re not hugging the parked cars or cycling in the gutter, and you’re never ever squeezing down the inside of a lorry.
The trick is to cycle assertively, to be visible and bold, to make eye contact with bus and car drivers – particularly the bus drivers.
The trick is to ride to the front of traffic queues, to use the space reserved for you where there’s safety in numbers, to enjoy your right to be on the road.
The trick is to be alert, to be wise, to be confident.
But having found your wheels, so to speak, the temptation is to get too big for them, to sail through that red light because you can see nothing’s coming, to cycle down that pavement to save a bit of time, to ignore the ‘cyclists dismount’ sign at the Notting Hill roadworks because it’s a pain to unclip your shoes and there aren’t many people around really. The temptation is to compete with the traffic.
There are different schools of thought on this, and acres of internet forums justifying why jumping red lights is the right thing to do, and actually it’s safer, and it’s cool. I often feel like it’s only nerdy me patiently waiting for the light to change while everyone else sails through.
But in my view, every red light jumped makes one more driver pissed off and impatient; every pavement cycled on makes one more person anti-bike; every ‘no cycling’ sign ignored contributes to the mindset of that woman who tweeted with glee when she knocked a cyclist off his bike
And I had an epiphany one day while trying to get round the summer cyclists wobbling along on Boris bikes. I was getting irritated and impatient and was no longer smiling. And this was my thought – there is no ‘I’ in city cyclist.
This is not just about me cycling to work; I’m participating in the collective experience of cycling in the city. This is not the space to have a race or get frustrated with everyone else; I’m an integral part of the organic dynamic flow of people getting from A to B to C and back again. I’m not battling with traffic; I am traffic. There’s a need to surrender to this type of cycling being different.
There’s a lot of wisdom in that idea of treating others as you want to be treated. That if you want respect, you need to show respect. When I cycle I don’t want to be cut up by taxis, pulled out on by buses, overlooked by lorries, shouted out by angry drivers or narrowly missed by mopeds.
So here’s my radical idea; when I’m an urban cyclist, I’m going to do the right thing. I’m not going to jump red lights, cycle on pavements or ignore no cycling signs. I’m not going to swear at tourists on Boris bikes or intimidate pedestrians by swooping past them. I’m going to continue to be the nerd, waiting for the red lights to change even at the pedestrian crossings. I’m going to dare to believe that cycling respectfully can help to defuse the tension in the traffic by a just a smidgeon and make the city a tiny bit safer. Join me in a cycling revolution of doing the right thing in the city and saving the other more enjoyable, more liberating side of cycling – the speed, the competition, the exhilaration, the challenge – for the open roads and the off-road cycle tracks.
So how to be an urban cyclist? Like most of life it’s a weaving together of contrasting things. You need to be assertive and selfless, confident and respectful, bold and generous and always with a smile.