Clean, green and mean: cycling the city

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Cycling in the country and cycling in the city are two quite different pastimes. In the country, one might leisurely peruse quaint little lanes aboard a Dutch style bicycle with a bell and a basket on the front. In the city, one might narrowly escape with one’s life after a heated incident involving a black cab driver and some very strong expletives.

But brawls aside, there are many benefits to cycling in the city. Once the piece of kit has been purchased, the commute becomes entirely free: my £100 eBay find cost half a month’s tube use – so I earned back its value in two weeks (hooray more money for wine!) It’s also the speediest way to travel (traffic jams in London are not for the faint-hearted, nor those in a rush) instantly freeing up more time for the finer things in life. But most presciently where this column is concerned – a good set of (two) wheels is far cleaner and greener than alternative methods of transport.   

I’ve always been too afraid to take to the frame – watching in awe as braver souls darted fearlessly in and out of traffic, raced around roundabouts and carelessly flung themselves upon pavements. But all cycling's green credentials, as well as the potential for an extra 30 minutes in bed, make a compelling case – so, after careful consideration and a yearning to spend more time outside, I decided it might be time to give it a go.

The practical thing would have been a slick racing number with grippy bits on the handle bars and a razor thin seat. But being a country girl, it was the Dutch model with a wicker basket I was after – you know, so I can carry home my fresh flowers and locally sourced produce with great ease. Perhaps, in hindsight, I should have opted for something slightly more streamline: a clunky, frame isn’t the most practical option where darting in and out of traffic is concerned (not that I do much darting). Still, I’ve cycled to and from work 17 times now and, bafflingly, am still alive.  

While riding your bike in London does occasionally require you to dodge the odd black cab, I've come to realise how liberating it is to speed past stand-still traffic and not be reliant on buses or trains. Still, there have been some steep learning curves (and hills) - below are a few pearls of wisdom from my short time on two wheels. 

1. Know your route

In the country, you can usually get away with pondering your route whilst en route, without the inconvenience of having an uber driver swearing out the window at you for the slightest indecision. In order to avoid these unsavoury incidents, it helps to know, at least vaguely, the direction in which you’re going before you set off. Trust me when I say google maps is your new best friend. 

2. Test the water

Setting off during rush hour on a Monday morning might not be the best way to ease yourself in if you’ve never cycled before (trust me, I learned the hard way). Try cycling around a park on a Sunday before the big event.

3. Trust no one

Road rage is real, people. Always assume a car is going to pull out in front of you, the bus is going to turn right without indicating, somebody is going to open the door of that parked car. 

4. There’s a reason cyclists wear lycra…

Billowing skirts might look great in the movies but in reality something more practical is required – and that thing, I’m afraid to say, is lycra.

5. Lock your bike

London is village-like in many ways, but sadly, not when it comes to being able to leave your bicycle unattended and it still being there when you return. Invest in a good lock. Oh and also don't leave your lights on your bike while you pop to the supermarket in Elephant & Castle. You'll be buying new lights every week if you do. 

6. DO as person in lycra does

If you’re unsure about whether it’s safe to go or which lane you should be in – follow the person clad in lycra cycling shorts and matching jersey. They’ll know. 

7. Old bikes are cheap for a reason

Ok, I know five minutes ago I was boasting about the fact cycling is so very cheap – and that my second-hand bike was such a bargain – but since writing the above, I've had two punctures, faulty break cables and a new chain. Now I have no money for food.  

8. Other cyclists aren't your friends 

I know you thought that when you started cycling, you sort of joined this unofficial club – the cycling club – and that you'd all support each other and back one another up should some member ever find themselves in an altercation with a bus driver – but, as a general rule, this is not true. Sometimes it is though – but mostly, it's not. 

9. It's SUCH A GREAT WAY TO SEE THE CITY!

OMG guys – seriously – if you're looking for a free day out (pay day really should come more often) – get on your bike and see the city by wheel. You'll see it from a whole new perspective – freewheeling down the Mall or peddling across Westminster bridge. Just watch out for the tourists brandishing selfie sticks. They NEVER look before crossing. Now I understand why London drivers get such bad road rage. 

Sarah Barratt