Deborah Moggach on the pleasures of London cycling
Novelist Deborah Moggach on the pleasures and problems of cycling in the capital and why she wouldn‘t travel any other way
I’ve biked in London all my life. My children bike; everyone I know, with any sense, bikes. How else does one get around the place? Nothing beats weaving through the rush-hour traffic or whizzing past the eternal gridlock that is the Strand. Cycling is the only way to free ourselves from the misery of the tube, the wall-to-wall buses that line Oxford Street, the hopelessness of even thinking about driving. It’s the only way you can get where you want to go, on time, fast.
We all know the advantages of cycling: it’s free; it’s non-polluting; it’s a wonderful way to keep fit – isn’t it weird that people take the tube to work and then spend their lunch hours sweating on an exercise bike? What is less recognised, however, is its efficiency. You know exactly when you’ll arrive at your destination. It takes me 25 minutes from my front door to the West End. Any other form of transport entails allowing for delays – endless waits, traffic jams. What a waste of life!
Not only that, I can do errands en route. Drop off a parcel, do a bit of shopping here and there, pick up some tickets, stop for a coffee with somebody. And I can do these things on impulse. Once you start cycling, the city opens up for you. No longer are you fighting it, hot and frustrated; no longer are you at the mercy of bus drivers, roadworks, decisions made by others and over which you have no control. Believe me, once you’ve tasted this freedom you’re hooked.
More and more of us are taking up cycling. Some people find the notion of confronting London’s aggressive car drivers scary, especially in places like Hyde Park Corner, but if you’re spooked you can always get off and walk. And as long as you treat all drivers as idiots who are just about to fling open the door of their parked car or cut you up with their horrible 4x4 or squash you with their ghastly bendy bus, you’ll be okay. You can cycle through London on the side streets, which are less polluted – and much more interesting anyway. Besides, the more of us who take up cycling the safer it is. We become part of the street life, as in Holland, and the traffic has to accommodate us. We also make the streets safer. For a lone woman, walking home late at night, a passing cyclist is a reassuring presence – much more than a passing car. We connect with the street life around us; we give the city a human scale.
That is, if we behave. Don’t we hate those cyclists – the ones who barge along pavements and across red lights, who have that infuriating air of fuck-the-rest-of-you aggressive self-righteousness, as if they have a divine dispensation to get to wherever they’re going faster than anyone else? Why should they? What’s so special about their journey? Other cyclists loathe them too. In fact we’re terrified of them because these lycra louts are even more dangerous than cement lorries. And they give cyclists a rotten name. But you and me – we’re not like that, are we?
Of course there are disadvantages, like arriving at one’s destination sodden with sweat and with hideous helmet hair. Sexy clothes and biking don’t go together, so one has to creep into an alleyway to change, hopping about on one foot and looking a bit of a twit. London is such a vast city that distances can be daunting. And, of course, cycling’s not much fun in torrential rain. Drivers can be aggressive, though I myself have met with a good deal of politeness. Perhaps it’s because I look so harmless, tootling along with my basket full of shopping.
That said, how friendly is London to its cyclists? It’s a mixed picture. A lot of cycle lanes have been introduced, and a massive amount of money has been pledged by our Mayor in his bid to encourage cycling and lower our carbon emissions. But there is still a scandalous lack of facilities. Ever noticed how few bike racks adorn our streets? How insane is that, when cycling is supposed to be encouraged? So we have to lock our bikes to a parking meter, if we’re lucky enough to find one, or to a lamppost. The bike then falls over and not only gets damaged but trips up pedestrians. Worse still, many railings have a sign saying ‘Bikes will be removed’ – railings of offices whose bosses arrive each day in chauffeur-driven cars, railings even of local government buildings and, best of all, a heart hospital! Isn’t that lunatic?
Still, if you love London there’s no better way to see it, to be intimate with it. On a bike, it’s you who owns the city, instead of the city owning you.
Deborah Moggach’s latest novel, ‘In the Dark’, is out now in Vintage paperback.
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