“Loved it. The ride went by in a heartbeat. Nice and sunny, nice route. Arse didn’t hurt. Hands didn’t hurt”
So said a text message we received from Gareth Jenkins on 15th September 2009, the first day he commuted to work by bicycle. Gareth had been a stalwart train commuter for 10 years and something of a cycle-sceptic. We had persuaded him to ride to work for a month – 12 miles from Woodford to Soho – and to write about how he got on. Here’s his record of his first few rides, plus a fantastic 'retrospective' that'll warm the hearts of cyclists and non-cyclists alike.
I got up earlier than normal and was relieved to see that it was quite sunny. I had already packed my work clothes, towel, shower stuff and waterproof jacket in a plastic bag ready to put into my pannier bag. No, I didn’t know what a “pannier” was either. It’s the bag thing that clips on a rack above the back wheel. I was calling it a “pannetta” for a while before someone took pity on me and put me right.
The night before’s panic about what to wear and pack seemed like a distant memory as I strode down the steps to get my brand new bike in my shiny white tracksuit top and shiny blue shorts. I felt like an Alpha male, like I’d cast off the shackles of everyday man and was getting out there and adventuring my way to work. I was very conscious, however, that I had no specialist gear or accessories which, aside from maybe being naive, made me assume that other cyclists would laugh at me because of my rubbish novice cycling clothes.
I also didn’t have any real knowledge of exactly where I was going. I had done a ‘dry run’ on a Sunday morning about a week before. That time I had been led by my friend Ben (Cycle Lifestyle’s editor) who showed me the way around the empty, picturesque streets of unseen London on a borrowed bike. We had made it in 1 hour 20 minutes at a reasonably leisurely pace and so I was confident… well, reasonably confident.
This time I had a new bike, no friend, peak hour traffic to contend with and a double-sided page of his directions (which consisted of honestly 77 different “Turn Rights”, or “Carry on Downs”) flapping around in my hand as I rode. With this in mind I had left myself 2 and a quarter hours to get to Soho, which allowed for non-fatal crashes and getting lost. I also wanted to have 10-15 minutes to grab a shower and change when I got to work. 6:45 am should be fine.
The first kilometre was downhill and the wind rushed through my tracksuit and shorts like I had decided to wear paper to the North Pole. I wanted to go home. I thought I was going to be absolutely freezing but, as I pedalled more, I heated up and the temperature wasn’t a problem. I realised that what to wear each day was going to be trickier than I had previously thought.
After 500 yards it also became clear that I should have taken the bike for a little bit of a longer test run beforehand. The seat was a little too high and needed to be adjusted, but with no allen keys I couldn’t change it... school boy error.
Around about Balls Pond Road I received my first cyclist badge of honour… a proud moment… a cabbie swore at me! I believe he may have had to wait an extra 4 seconds before I passed. I wish he could have stuck around as I want to write a letter of apology to his home address for any inconvenience caused.
This must have put me off my groove as just after that I got lost. I couldn’t find the road I needed and recognised nothing around me. One thing I have learned already is to stop when you’re lost - don’t roll around trying to focus on a shaky bit of paper in the road.
Back on track eventually, I raced toward the friendly canal, which gives you a little bit of utopia on your way in. People smile and wave as the water meanders past you. Fellow commuters beckon you on “No, YOU go first, after you!”. Brightly painted long boats wink at you knowingly. “You’ve beaten the rat race”, they whisper.
As you pull away from the towpath, London resumes its normal persona. White trucks fart fumes at you and people request you to f**k off out of their way.
I was a little bit aware that time was ticking on so there was a touch of worry setting in. I knew I couldn’t afford another wrong turn. Fortunately it didn’t happen and after putting my foot down a bit I pulled up at the front of my building, five minutes late, sweaty, out of breath with something that once was a hairstyle on my head.
But I felt extremely awake and switched on and I had enjoyed it immensely. I had pre-warned my boss too so I didn’t get in trouble, although I did get a few requests from the girls in the office to put my legs away as soon as possible.
The afternoon came along really quickly and I felt good – less tired than I thought I would. I was actually looking forward to riding home again. It was something different from the same old train I had always taken, standing by the exact door you need at the platform to optimise seat potential.
I remembered the route back a little better and save for one little wrong turn I made it back ok in 1 hour 45 minutes - shaving a good 15 minutes off my way in!
I’ve had a three day rest between rides so my legs feel good. Tracksuit bottoms this time, and a little bit colder today, but the downhill freeze run isn’t so bad.
About half an hour into the ride I realise why I have seen loads of people with their right trouser leg rolled up. I thought maybe the masons had made their way into the commuter cycling arena, but now I’m guessing it’s so you don’t get oil from the gear chain on you.
The route is all coming back to me and I barely look at my directions this time. My legs are a little stiff though and I have a very specific area in a very specific place that feels a bit bruised from the saddle. I guess I will be buying the shorts with the inbuilt pantyliner cushiony thing soon. I’m also getting numb hands today which my friend tells me is when your arms are locked and putting pressure on the nerves in your hands and wrist.
Still, today’s morning run was 1 hour 15 minutes, a personal best. Disappointingly, not one person was clapping at the front of my building to appreciate this.
Had enough time to use the showers at work and grab some breakfast, so this was my first run where it all went to plan. Feels good and I’m looking forward to the ride home again!
Got an email today, an “amusing” group forward which I was supposed to pass on to at least 10 people otherwise my garden would be hit by a plague of locusts. One of the “funny cos it’s true” lines was:
“As a driver I hate pedestrians and as a pedestrian I hate drivers, but no matter what the mode of transportation, I always hate cyclists.”
I didn’t forward it on to any people because, contrary to the title, it wasn’t funny (or true - I’m pretty sure hot air balloonists don’t share this hatred of cyclists). And I live in a flat so I don’t have a garden anyway.
It’s 4:40pm and it’s getting dark outside and drizzling. My childish enthusiasm has waned a little and a warm tube looks good right now. Even so, I’m pretty sure I will enjoy it when I’m actually on the bike again.
I was right and as soon as I was off I felt great again and I whizzed home in 1 hour 20 minutes. Tonight I had to go to a meeting about a mile and half away from home. I wanted to go by bike, but my legs were really aching so I wimped out and drove.
I had a conversation with my dad later which constituted me (a 30 year old man) trying to impress him about how far I was riding (yah, its like totally 24 miles a day Pops). Luckily he was mildly impressed, enough so to point out my beer belly was still firmly in position despite my efforts. He then asked me a question that I was very tempted to lie about “So do you wear a helmet?” I am not wearing a helmet. I had a chat with my cycling oracle friend who said that some studies have argued that drivers take a wider birth from cyclists who don’t wear helmets. The sheer fact that I thought about lying would suggest I’m not convinced.
I’m going to look into prices, just because if it was someone close to me I would want them to wear a helmet (I don’t care if they look stupid do I?).
Morning is hugging me. My duvet is exactly the right temperature and my eyelids are doing their best to ignore things. I know that if I can just delay it for another few minutes it will be too late and I will HAVE to get a tube. I try to reason with my body and it takes a huge effort to get up and hurriedly get ready.
As soon as I get on the bike I realise how stiff I am from yesterday’s ride and my legs don’t have a lot of juice in them. I get overtaken by an elderly lady with a basket who sniggers at me as she passes.
My route takes me through some reservoirs and into Hackney via my arch-nemesis “Spring Hill”. As the name suggests it’s a massive hill and I don’t think that I will ever be able to cycle the whole way up it. Half-way up is the best I’ve ever done, and getting off and walking your bike up out of breath is the epitome of failure. A different granny whips past me sticking two fingers up at me and cycles to the top in one go while I feel like I’m going to be sick.
Despite feeling more tired today, I get to work in 1:15 again and feel great at having ridden. I mentally calculate *48 Miles in two days* and pat my gut as if to start the hopeful long goodbye. I might have a cheeky weigh up tomorrow morning.
I’ve had one day’s rest between journeys because my legs were very stiff yesterday. The tube ride seemed like it was going to be a treat and I was looking forward to reading the free paper. I came to realise quickly though that I was missing the buzz of riding in.
On the tube you really want to zone out – you adapt to make yourself sleepwalk so you blink and you’re there. When you ride, you’re more in the moment, in the elements rather than watching them on TV like in the tube. I also found walking in through the sea of walkers much more stressful than being out in the open on the bike. I guess it may be the years of doing the same thing versus doing something a bit new.
The day off has done wonders and I feel like I have loads of energy again. I decide to roll my trouser leg up and I feel like a veteran cyclist crossed with Shabba Ranks.
I get ¾ of the way up Spring Hill!! I am Iron Man! I am Rocky! I am Hercules! I am… feeling a bit faint so I walk the rest, and a schoolboy eyes me suspiciously as I slowly hyperventilate past him.
My ride takes me past a few Jewish bakers making Challah Bread and it smells so good I want to bunk off work just to eat bread all day. I want to buy two tonnes, put it all in a skip and swim in its doughy goodness.
I get to work really easily, 45 mins early so loads of time for breakfast and a shower. Luckily a lot of the guys and girls who commute only have 15-20 minute rides and don’t need the showers.
My hands are still a bit numb so I decide to go out at lunch and look at some gloves in the discount sports shops down Oxford Street. I walk into the shop and past a family who are in the tracksuit section buying their going-out clothes when I see a whole wall of cycling stuff. I have a field day and come out with a reflective vest-jacket thingy, some ridiculous skin tight cycling trouser whatnot, a helmet with “No Fear” on the side and some gloves with padding – all for the princely sum of £38.
I ride home looking considerably less cool than I did on the way in, but I feel safer. I daydream a little as I ride and ponder that the “No Fear” sticker seems to contradict the fact it’s on a protective safety helmet. I decide that when I get home I’m going to alter the sticker to say “Some Fear of Injury. But Not of Trying New Things”.
Well, now I consider myself a fully-fledged cyclist. (I guess, much to the relief of Ben the Editor)
A couple of months on and I cycle every day to work. I’ve bought a posh bike and cycling gear using the cycle scheme my work signed up for. Did you know I save around £150 a month!? I thought that the tube would be a once in a while treat for me, but the truth is I now find it way more stressful than cycling.
And I now bore roughly 5.4 people a day with cycling stories. But I don't care because my legs are made of iron and are looking, quite frankly, pretty sexy.
Once you start doing it you can't quite understand why everyone doesn't do it – which I guess is why Ben created this magazine.
I started this expecting nothing and it all sounded a bit unrealistic. I thought I'd try it and feel like I'd done something a bit different and that I'd ticked a box just to say I had done it.
What I actually did was find out a few things in the process:
- Waltham Forest speed bumps are much better than Hackney ones. (Big up Waltham Forest Council).
- I was less fit than I thought. I seriously needed to do something about it and change how I do things. Fitness routines always seemed to be a choice between gym or TV and sofa. Now, there are no longer any choices like that for my weak-willed brain. I get fitter by merely turning up to work - easy.
- Saving money is cool but it’s just a by-product of why I like cycling. The sense of achievement I have by saying "yeah, I cycle to work – it's about 120 miles a week you know" is immense.
- I love feeling alive. Once you are wrapped up in the right clothing you get to be in the world. What the hell am I going on about? Well, I'll try to explain. The weather and the elements are always one of the main arguments for not cycling, but a couple of weeks ago I was heading home and it was dark and windy and absolutely hammering it down – I'm talking swirly, sideways rain that slaps you in the face. I was hunched, grimacing and tense as I peddled against the elements, when all of a sudden I realised that the grimacing and tension was just a learned reaction. Normally, when you've got your regular clothes on and you start to get soaked and cold, you turn your collar up and run to shelter and it generally ruins your day. But I was prepared. I had waterproofs and warm gear on. The world suddenly slowed down and I relaxed like I was Neo and I had just discovered what the Matrix truly was. London was absolutely beautiful in the rain. The water was bouncing off the shiny inky black asphalt and the rivers looked like dark wine, reflecting neon. The lights of the hi-rises glowed with an aura around them that the rain had created. Was that feeling better than having someone’s armpit in your face, and being sleepy and sweating buckets in a humid underground train? Yes it was. I was soaking but it was life-affirming. I had trained myself during my normal tube commute to ignore everything; ignore the weather, ignore the people and above all ignore those two wasted hours a day travelling to another day’s work. Yeah, I now get wet sometimes (not as much as you'd think though) but my senses are stimulated. The only trade-off seems to be that I have unlearned how to sleep standing up while holding onto a rail, or to read a free paper with one hand while ensuring that one of the pages isn't scraping against the face of someone sitting down.
- Have I mentioned how sexy my legs are?
Next year I’m going to do something special. I'm going to cycle somewhere ridiculously far away for a ridiculous reason – just to say I did it.
All I can say is try cycling. Prepare your route, prepare how you're gonna do it (if Ben hadn't helped me I would never have bothered to do it) but spend a bit of time looking into it. Then try it. You will soon discover if it is a rubbish idea and that you don't really want to continue....or whether you have just found a really obvious and simple way to change your life.