When people find out I cycle in London, I get a lot of comments, primarily to the tune of, “that would be so scary. I could never do that.”
I’m sorry to burst your bubble – but you’re wrong. I believe in you. You could do it, if you wanted to, with a few pieces of advice and a gentle nudge in the right direction.
Here is that nudge, and some advice, because I only thing I like more than cycling around London is giving people advice they didn’t ask for.
Cycling in London is the best for a few reasons: it’s free, it lets you put the map of the city together, it lets you incorporate exercise naturally into your day, and, oh yeah, it’s free. In case I didn’t mention it.
Before getting into the mushy reasons – like the feeling of cycling across Waterloo Bridge at night and seeing the city sprawl away from you in every direction and thinking that this might be the greatest secret in London – let’s talk cold, hard cash.
A return journey to and from work would cost me £4.80 per day. I do this five days a week, forty-seven weeks a year (given my time off). That’s £1,128 per year. This is how much money I save doing something I would do anyway, though it does sweeten the deal and get me on my bike when it’s pouring rain or freezing cold.
Obviously, the further you live from your job, the further and more strenuous the cycle – but the bigger the savings.
This extends to flexibility too. If I change my plans after work, it remains free to take a detour on my way home, to meet a friend for a drink or pop to my mum’s office to catch up. Instead of taking extra tube journeys or paying for the bus I can hop around the city on a whim, without needing to think about the cost. It is painful how much a super short journey can cost you and those small costs add up fast.
But aside from the significant savings, my favourite reason to cycle around London is that I can actually see London. Between working full-time and various other commitments, it can be hard to get to the city’s most hyped sights, let alone spend time wandering around the city aimlessly, looking at the buildings and finding hidden side streets.
The tube is awesome, and necessary in a city this large, but lots of it – especially close to the centre – is underground. So you get very good at popping up at various points around the city with no idea how point A and point B link together. It makes your mental map of London fragmented, made up of isolated spots that bear no relation to each other. Look, I’m geographically challenged at the best of times. Even though I know it’s wrong and deeply illogical, I always think west is left of me because it’s at the left-most position on the compass. You know the signs on the motorway that just read ‘the North’ as you head up the UK? That’s my brain. If I spend most of my time travelling across London underground, I’ve got no chance of having a clue where anything is.
Enter my bike. Everything I know about London in a geographical sense is thanks to my bike and the hours I’ve spent cycling around the city.
I also hate the gym. I really hate the gym. There’s something so wrong about people exercising inside, in a sweaty room, cycling, running and walking without going anywhere. Don’t get me wrong, gyms serve a clear purpose in massive metropolises, where outside space is limited and people are crammed into tall buildings with limited time. But cheap gyms in London are too full to workout in and are not even that cheap anyway, and the expensive ones are obscene. A gym near my house charges over £100 per month for a gym that is entirely underground. Spare me.
Cycling around means that I spend 30-60 minutes every day moving my body, getting my heart rate up, all as part of my regular routine. My cycles to and from work are some of my favourite pockets of the day. If I ever have to miss out, I’m genuinely sad about it.
These are all the great reasons to cycle around the city. I can’t tell you how good it feels to put the puzzle of London together, start the day with a blast on the bike and not spend a penny in the process. If I compare that to the few times I have to take the tube at rush hour, where I have paid £2.40 for the pleasure of having my face smushed into someone’s armpit, there is no comparison as to which is the more pleasant way to get around.
But it can be scary, I’ll give you that. I’m lucky to be a confident cyclist after years of cycling around Oxford and Cambridge, both notoriously cycle-friendly cities. This meant that by the time I arrived in London, helmet in hand, I felt confident taking to the streets, though I appreciate how a less confident or newer cyclist would be nervous. London, like many other cities, is full of cars weaving around the streets, especially the cabs and Ubers who dart in front of cyclists with no real thought for how fast we might be travelling. Pedestrians are as much of a problem as the cars; the one time I’ve had a bike accident in London was due to a pedestrian who crossed the road without looking while on their phone. The other cyclists aren’t much better. Newsflash, people I share the cycle lanes with: that Team Sky cycling kit you wildly overpaid for doesn’t make you a professional, and you need to slow the fuck down before you hurt someone.
Yeah, other people are the problem. People who don’t look before crossing the street, veering left in their car or joining the flow of bike traffic are going to be your issues. But by being careful, cycling at a reasonable speed and not running red lights, you reduce your risks significantly. Seriously, just cycle at your own pace.
Wear a bike helmet, always. Your brain is too valuable to put it in the hands of the other people on London’s roads. Buy bike lights and keep them charged. You can wear fluorescent gear if that makes you feel safer, and it might help to practise cycling around in a quieter area or a less busy time before you brave rush hour. It’s definitely worth buying a good quality D-lock to protect your bike, and if you can, put the lock through the frame, front wheel and bike rack or fence.
If you’re cycling pretty slowly, looking around, respecting the rest of the traffic and stopping when you need to, it’s very, very unlikely anything will go wrong. I refuse to spread fear. Yes, there are risks, as with everything. But if you are thoughtful and safe, there’s no reason not to cycle in London. Your bike is (almost certainly) not going to get stolen if you lock it up properly. You are (almost certainly) not going to get knocked off your bike by a car or another rogue cyclist. It’s going to be okay. More than that, when the sun is shining and you’re not queueing for the tube and you’ve finally realised where Tottenham Court Road is, it’s going to be great.