Friday, 11 March 2011
On yer bike!
My earliest London memory was, 'wow..they really do drive on the left hand side here.' I also remember being impressed that some streets had designated cycle paths. For the longest time I would stand by the road side and look towards my left for approaching traffic when it should have been my right, and vice versa. It's a relief (not to mention a lifesaver) that most streets had the sign 'look left', 'look right' or 'look both ways' inscribed into the asphalt. Clearly I wasn't the only one who got confused about which direction to look in for oncoming vehicles.
I thought it was curious that the cycle paths showed a governmental commitment to creating less congestion on the buses and underground, by making other avenues available for commuting, yet provision had not been made for the average person who did not own a bike. That changed last year when Mayor Boris Johnson spearheaded the launch of the Barclays cycle hire scheme.
Enter a new phase of cycling in the capital, following successful examples from other European cities such as Amsterdam and Paris. The hire scheme has proved a winner, notching up three million journeys since July last year. Up until three months ago, one had to have pre-registered in order to use a hire cycle. These days hiring one is as simple as walking to a docking station.
Two weeks ago one more cyclist joined the two wheel mode of transport: me. Initially I took to the relatively quiet back streets of Nottinghill, re-acquainting myself with riding a bike. And then, emboldened by the calming presence of my riding partner Julie, we hit the busy main streets, weaving our way through rush hour traffic.
I was pissing bricks the whole time. No kidding. My furiously pounding heart drowned out every other sound. In spite of the fear, I couldn't help the giddy realisation that we'd cycled from Nottinghill to Paddington, cruised through Queensway and made it to Marylebone Road.
You know that thing Lot's wife did when the family was escaping from Sodom and Gomorrah? Yeah...I did that at Marylebone, and endured a freaky moment where I thought a double decker bus behind me was a hairsbreadth from hitting me - in fact, so freaked out was I that in my panic, I swerved the bike blindly to my left and slammed into the side of the pavement. I heard the driver hit the brakes hard behind me. Moments later when the bus driver opened his doors and hurled insults at my stupid manoeuvre even I could not fight back. It had been dangerous of me to suddenly panic and ram into the pavement.
I would have abandoned the whole cycling experience...but Julie, who had been ahead of me, and therefore not seen anything, had cycled on, completely oblivious...what was I to do? I got back on my bike.
The forty odd minutes of cycling was a revealing experience: why pedestrians sometimes dismiss cyclists as heartless bastards who do not stop when the traffic light is red, and it is their turn to cross the road; why cyclist themselves are often the unfortunate victims of accidents because they are caught on a driver's blind side if they turn their vehicles to the left. In both respects, a peripheral vigilance is pertinent..or a pleasant cycle ride could quickly turn fatal.
Despite the slightly shaky start to cycling in the capital, I feel optimistic about the future of bicycles in London. The number of cyclists on the road has seen a significant rise since the hire scheme went live. The mayor has promised a cycling revolution in London, and while I think we are still far from the example of Amsterdam, I'm certain that with each passing day, cycling becomes a healthier, cheaper, and ultimately more fun way to move around the city, especially now as we emerge from hibernation, after being cooped in against the wintry weather. Spring has sprung.
Come London 2012, the must-watch events for me are cycling, swimming and the spectacle that is the lightening bolt, Usain. Look out for me - I'll be hovering around the Velodrome!