Tuesday, 8 July 2014


There is nothing like it. One of the world's great cities flies by as you rove through it on the back of a bicycle. In London, most journeys can be completed more quickly on a bike than on public transport. When I lived with an old university friend in Cricklewood I used to race him home from Bloomsbury. The Jubilee Line against my silver hybrid. The bike always won. 

You could be walking, but it takes wearying hours to cover any substantial proportion of a large city on foot. I have tramped London and New York's streets for hours at a time, but it is a different enterprise; more involved, more ponderous. What is more, being on foot places you right in the middle of a tedious melee you are not always in the mood to battle through. The cyclist can be a simple observer to life on the pavement, catching snippets of conversation and gliding on. The tube is a sickly-neon assault on the senses; the bus is a trying stop-start rattle, dragging itself lazily between bus-stops and traffic lights.

Newly Installed Bank of "Boris Bikes", Waterloo early 2011

At one point I was travelling around 36 miles a day, from the north-west of London to my job a Young Offenders' Institution in the south-east, and back again; all on a bike I had bought for £140 from an old colleague. You can't keep up that sort of distance for long (after 3 months I moved, cutting my commute to 7 miles each way), but for those few months each day began and ended with a journey of almost epic proportions. While other people commuted, I ventured, carrying a half-eaten Soreen in my bike-bag to feed the aching hunger that never failed to grow as I pedalled.

I would reach Constitution Hill at around 7:00 each morning, joining a huge group of cyclists at Hyde Park Corner. Many of us burst spontaneously into thrilling races along the Mall. London's cyclists (sometimes dubbed a "community" by people more in touch with it than I ever was) can be very serious people indeed. From the Mall I skirted round the south side of Trafalgar Square, and during the winter I was sometimes on Waterloo Bridge just as the sun rose.

Sunrise, Waterloo Bridge, October, 2010

On the way back the roads were always busier. I negotiated my way between taxis and double decker buses on the Strand, weaving through changeably sized gaps and watching more daring riders (there is always someone more daring, more foolish, than you) to see if they could get their handlebars between two wing mirrors.

You see the strangest and loveliest things on a bicycle. On the day Tripoli fell to the Libyan rebels and NATO in 2011 I found myself behind a cyclist who had shrouded himself in the pan-Arabian tricolour. He was waving his fist in triumph at honking cars as we moved slowly through a summer Greenwich evening; lone celebrant linking a tranquil sun-bathed day with a North African revolution some two thousand miles away.

Revolutionary Enthusiasm: 
On August 24th 2011, the day Tripoli Fell

You might be gripped by a fleeting and beautiful moment that would have gone unseen behind the misted windows of a car; some vision that demands you pull over to the curb and take a photo. A sunset can briefly transform an ugly dual carriageway into an uncannily clear bending line of sharp orange. A row of cheaply built apartments that normally strikes you as mediocre may, this one day, loom magnificent out of the freezing winter gloaming.  

Sunset, Woolwich, 2010

Houses rise from a winter morning mist, Woolwich 2010

Not everything you see is pleasant. I was lucky enough to never have an accident in London, but I once watched in terror as a pedestrian stepped out from behind a car and in front of a cyclist on Holland Park Avenue. The cyclist was weirdly flipped up into the air, landing some feet away from her bike, dazed and weeping. The pedestrian ran off; the cyclist was in shock but happily otherwise unharmed. On another occasion a friend of mine experienced a bizarre accident; riding with cleats he slipped with his food un-clipped at a traffic light. The sharp pedal drove itself deep into his ankle and I got a text telling me he was in an ambulance. I feared the worst (every urban cyclist has thought about the possibility of getting knocked down by a car) so it was almost a relief when he cheerily sent me pictures of his mangled foot from a hospital bed.

If you are as lazy a journey planner as me, cycling in a city occasionally becomes untenable. The thick snow that covered London in December 2010 was swiftly tackled by teams of gritters on main roads, but my residential street in Cricklewood became a treacherous sheet of almost sheer ice. The cycle path that runs around the north west edge of Belmarsh prison was daily trampled into a thick mush of textured snow which thickly re-set each night into something nigh on impassable. 

South East London's gritters don't reach the cycle paths

The bike was also my ticket out of the city. I could pack it up with a tent and sleeping bag and cycle to Euston, and be up in the Lake-District by late on Friday after work, cycling to my sister and her boyfriend's place, breathing in great lungfuls of the cold clear air. It never stopped surprising me that transition from the rude urban capital to the crisp open spaces in the north. 

Trusty Steed: London-bike Northward-bound. 
At Euston for the Lakes, 2011

Moving to New York continues to satisfy my long held and mysterious urge to live in a big city, but for nearly the first two years here I went without a bike. Shipping over the old one had seemed gratuitous, and most of my regular commutes are fairly walkable. As a runner I have explored the area in a reasonable radius around my apartment, but running has a tendency to turn your attention inward, focusing on your breathing, on your plodding shifting step. I run when I need to think, but to really see the territory something else is needed. 

Finally this summer I have a bike again, in fact I have had one now for the last week and a half. It is a folding bike to boot, smart orange construction that can be packed up and tucked into the cupboard. I finished reading an Iris Murdoch novel just before the maiden voyage, and so cheerfully christened the new companion "Murdoch". I took Murdoch on a 17 mile ride out over the East River into Brooklyn and on to East New York. I lit out right across Brooklyn, my mind boggling at the endlessness of the eastward avenues leading away from Manhattan. Only later did I discover I had ridden through some of what are considered to be the city's most dangerous neighbourhoods, and acquired a deep red sunburn on my arms and neck on the way. But I didn't care; I had the city under my wheels again. 

A New Bike in a New Town: "Murdoch" by the 
Williamsburg Bridge on the Lower East Side. June 2014

All the photos in this post were taken on or near a bike using the same, increasingly decrepit, iPhone 3GS.