Capital Punishment (or cycling in London)

Matt Gray

October 13, 2018

There is a misconception (usually flung around by those who have no experience in the matter) that cycling in London is a fool’s errand, a sure-fire way to the hospital or the morgue. They believe that every driver in London is a killer, wishing to etch numerals onto their dash with every cyclist they maim, and equally that every cyclist is a menace to society with their renegade riding.

I have been cycling in London for four and a half years now, and the only time I have been injured was when I took a turning too swiftly in winter and misjudged the surface ice, bailing spectacularly. I skinned my side, dislocated the chain beyond the means of a simple roadside fix, resulting in a 30 minute walk in acute agony. To be a safe cyclist in London you have to simply have a different mindset to cycling elsewhere. It helps that my primary cycling experience has been in London; I barely cycled during my youth in the countryside. Then again, cars in the countryside have fewer obstacles to slow them down, meaning they drive roughly twice the average speed than they could ever manage in your average central London street.

To test the waters and decide if I even wanted to cycle in the city, I decided to take one of those ‘Boris Bikes’ which were then supported by Barclays, and are now supported by Santander, out for a spin. Why banks sponsor these things alludes me. I would imagine life insurance companies would be a better fit. After fiddling with the self-service machine, which promised me 30 minutes of ride for only a couple of quid (and emphasising the surcharge if you get unfortunately held up in traffic or find yourself miles away from one of their stations) I had the contraption in my grip. 

It’s a miracle I didn’t just abandon the idea of cycling then and there. No wonder people think cycling in London is so dangerous when you have this beastly bicycle beneath you pulling the strings. Within seconds I felt as though I were attempting to tame a wild horse.

For those who are lucky enough to have never been on one of these death traps, let me paint a picture: A large clunky frame that is pulled to the earth by such weight that steering is almost impossible. A chain lies protected behind a case that only adds to its already burdened heft. There are gears on these things but it takes both hands to crank the stiff mechanism so in the interest of staying alive in an already frightful endeavour I stuck to its preset, which might as well have been labelled ‘rigormortis’. They clatter over every small bump and chip in the tarmac to the extent one fears for one’s fillings. They stop at the pace of a snail traversing treacle. There were beeps, there were honks, there were fists and offensive hand gestures. And they don’t provide helmets with these things either. We don’t all have barnets like Boris.

I returned the contraption to the machine with minutes to spare vowing to myself never to board a Boris Bike again. And I haven’t since. Recently there has been a call for cyclists to register their bicycles and have registration plates tacked onto the back. Those calling for this claim that cyclists are a menace and cause death. This is false. Cyclists cause 0.01% of all road fatalities. Most of the time it is the cyclist themselves to watch out for, never the bicycle itself.

They can be a mad bunch, cyclists. Those hardcore cyclists who zip themselves to the nines in Rapha lycra thinking they are Geraint Thomas making the final push for the Tour de France as opposed to a twat simply on their way to the office. Those who skid behind you at lights, then swerve around and accelerate away, bemoaning your existence as though you are in the wrong for not knowing that red lights are government mind-control tricks. Those who flirt with your rear wheel in fourth while you saunter in second. Those who use the rule that if someone crossing between Belisha beacons is less than half way across they won’t mind if you don’t hesitate for a second before continuing on your way. After all, their cyclists in London and they simply must make record time wherever they go. 

So I guess my ultimate argument here is not to fear the cycle, but rather the cyclist, but I’d like to think that the vast majority of city cyclists are as careful as I am. They stop at red lights, allow people to cross Zebra crossings with a smile and a howdy do, are never going fast enough to even knock the wind out of a fly, and don’t have slanging matches. 

(Speaking of which, as a little side note, I once witnessed a taxi cut in front of a cyclist in Bloomsbury. It was not this sight that was of note; if the London cyclist has a prey larger than the red bus, it’s the black taxi. No, it was the reaction of the put-upon cyclist and the subsequent reaction. What began as a fervent hand gesture mutually shared soon became a hostile situation. I was following the action from ten feet behind, and observed the cyclist deftly reach one arrogantly fingerless-leather-gloved hand behind him and unzipped the side of his bag. From within he unsheathed a mighty spanner of considerable length. Such an obvious display of Freudian behaviour I had hitherto rarely seen. Then he accelerated to catch up to the cabbie, and began whomping the rear window with his whacking wrench. Glass in London is stronger than other cities, however, and the window remained intact. Both parties stopped and pulled over, but by this time I was overtaking and, alas, saw no more. I’d like to think they bonded over being natural enemies and perhaps shared a pint. At least until they glassed each other.)

There is something freeing about cycling in a city where most of the roads are at a standstill or a snail’s crawl, and people stressfully queue at bus stops at rush hour unsure of whether or not they will get a seat. I leave the house at the same time every morning to go to work and can tell you down to within thirty seconds or so exactly when i will arrive. I also get a seat, guaranteed every time. 

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