When we asked young mother Claire Hamilton to try cycling to work for a month for Cycle Lifestyle issue 2 she thought we were having a laugh. No way! She had a baby to look after, and felt too tired and unfit. But she ended being the one who was laughing; feeling healthier, fitter and above all more independent, she was soon a regular cyclist and a more energetic mum.
I have been putting off cycling to work for years. I got a job on the opposite side of London, and told myself it was too far for a beginner cyclist to get to. I even went travelling in Australia and New Zealand. And, when I got back, I took a job in Northampton, so commuting by bike from London was definitely out of the question.
Then I got pregnant – so that was the end of the matter. No more discussion, guilt, or what ifs. I would never be one of those people who come into work slightly bedraggled and wet and wearing luminous clothing and trousers tucked into their socks. Not me. I was a car girl. Done deal.
Then, inexplicably, strange things started to happen – a succession of events and thoughts that propelled me towards my inevitable, groundbreaking first cycle to work. I had my baby… I got a job ten minutes away from home by car… On my first day I discovered that there was a secure bike shed at the back of the office… My friend asked if she could store her new mountain bike in my garage, and said I was welcome to use it anytime… I needed to get fit and I had no spare time to exercise, especially with a small baby to look after, so getting a burst of fitness in on my way to work suddenly seemed very appealing… And when the January and February snow finally stopped (sort of), the sun came out (sort of). I had run out of excuses.
Gareth Jenkins made it sound easy in his “Give it a Go” article in the first issue of Cycle Lifestyle, and I thought if he can do it, I jolly well can. So on a bitterly cold day in early March, I found myself getting my bike out of the garage and donning a cycle helmet I had discovered in my mum’s loft and a mud-spattered luminous vest which definitely looked past its sell-by date. I was ready to cycle to work for the very first time.
When I say ‘ready’, with hindsight I was anything but ready!
After months of storage in my shed, there was no air in the bike tyres and I didn’t know how to get the pump to work. Fortunately a kindly local builder was passing and managed to get the tyres inflated for me just as I was getting ready to wheel the bike back into the garage for another year. I then had to lower the seat, and was soon trying in vain to fix my work bag to the bike with a piece of string that was in the garage. Yep, I’m no expert.
I hadn’t factored in any extra time for all this unplanned fixing and preparation, so I was now running severely late for work. This would have been ok if I had not lectured my team the day before on the importance of punctuality. I could already see the raised eyebrows as I walked past their bank of desks.
Then it started to snow… heavily… until a blanket of snow was forming under my inappropriately clad feet.
By now it was so late that I had to just get on my bike and go for it. Cycling to work had become a battle of wills, with me pitted against the elements (and against the lump of metal I was trying to climb on top of in my skirt and heels). I pushed the bike through the snow-covered drive, lifted myself up and pushed myself off, down the steep hill which led to the park. I was off! As I was hurtling down the hill, I had a last minute thought that I should test the brakes. Fortunately they worked and I breezed through the park and onto my first proper road. So far so good.
Five minutes into my ride my hands were numb with cold (should have worn gloves), my bum hurt (should have… er…?) and I discovered my helmet was too big and kept slipping over my eyes every time I turned my head.
But believe it or not, after a few wrong turns and countless adjustments of my helmet and work bag, I arrived at the office. I was soaked through, with wobbly legs and totally bedraggled, but boy was I exhilarated! The four mile journey only took twenty minutes and I had managed to cycle up every hill without getting off the bike and pushing it – what a result! I was so proud of myself. I had managed to find back-routes to work, negotiate the rush hour traffic, and remain in one piece. I had conquered the bike and was ready for anything.
Anything, that is, except the sun setting and darkness falling by 5.30 pm when it was time to cycle home. I had forgotten to put the ruddy lights on the bike!
Following a desperate call to my other half, he bundled the baby into the car and came to pick me and the bike up. He then helped me compile a list of the things I needed to do to ensure that the cycle to work would run more smoothly. I booked the bike into a local bike shop to get it serviced, I bought some casual sensible gear to wear on my bike ride, I bought a ‘pannier’ (a special bag that clips onto a rack on the back of the bike) and a new helmet – and, oh, I nearly forgot, I got a padded bike seat fitted!
After a week of proper preparation, I was back on my bike. I only work three days a week so now have a routine where I cycle to work every Tuesday. It’s not every day, but it’s a start and much better than a few months ago.
I drop my daughter Rosa at nursery and then drive to my parents’ house where my bike is stored. I then cycle to and from work and collect Rosa at the end of the day. It’s a bit more effort than jumping into the car, but it’s far outweighed by the benefits.
The biggest change for me has been how much healthier and livelier I now feel. Before I started cycling to work, I did no exercise at all. I was desperate to lose some baby weight and I felt unfit and sluggish – a far cry from my pre-baby self. With a demanding ten-month-old and a challenging part-time job, I just didn’t have the time or energy to get fit, even though I knew deep down it would make me feel so much better.
So cycling has been perfect for me. I now know that once a week I am going to get 40 minutes of exercise on my way to and from work. I definitely feel fitter and it’s amazing how the weight is falling off again after I had hit a brick wall. I get into work feeling bright and ready for the day, invigorated and alert, and I drink far more water than I used to. I have also found things in common with other people in the office who cycle to work. You just can’t tell from looking at someone – they all look pretty normal to me!
And I love the time I spend riding to work. It is a rare moment just for me, when I feel independent and free. Like Gareth, I love cycling through a London morning and being exposed to the fresh air and the weather, and I notice far more than I used to on my journey to work.
So I would wholeheartedly recommend to anyone who lives within a reasonable distance from work to try to cycle there. If things are busy and tough with a family, don’t set yourself up to fail but set an achievable goal. For me, cycling once a week is the right goal as I can do it without too much effort – which is the order of the day with a little one and a part-time job. I am even considering buying a baby carrier for some weekend casual cycling in the park with Rosa.
My main advice would be to get organised before you start. I was so keen to get going, and had been putting off my cycle ride for so long, I just jumped on my bike. With hindsight, if I had been more prepared for my first ride it would have gone much more smoothly. Make sure your bike is working, the lights are fitted, your seat is the right height and you’re appropriately dressed (in clothes that are neither too baggy nor tight, and flat shoes). You don’t need to buy flashy kit, but it’s worth buying or borrowing some specialist gear – like a reflective garment and a pannier bag. And when you plan your route, make sure you allow ample extra time for your first run!
There you have it. I am a busy mum with precious little time for me, so if I can do it, so can you! Go on and give it a go... and let me know how you get on.