City cycling survival guide

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Time Out's expert survival guide to cycling in the city - we all know saddling up will help save the environment and get us fit, but the capital's streets can be a battlefield for the London cyclist

  • Rent a ride


    If you want to test out the London cycling experience before you invest in a bike, there are a couple of great hire companies. Go Pedal! (www.gopedal.co.uk / 07850 796320) delivers bikes where and when you want them, and then collects when you’re all finished. Mainly servicing hotels, the company provides bikes of three-geared French design, with fat tyres to cope with London’s pothole-ridden, broken-glass-strewn roads. They come with a helmet, lock, advice on where to cycle plus lights, high-visibility waistcoat and cycle clips if you want. Prices start at £32 per day, with hefty discounts the more bikes you hire.

    Or if you love Copenhagen’s street-based network of yellow rental bikes, OY Bike (0845 226 5751/www.oybike.com) does the same in London. Use your mobile to organise it. Get the PIN to unlock the bike via text, and they deduct the fee – ranging from free for up to 30mins to £8 per day – from your initial £10 credit. Then off you go. Locations are mostly west and south-west (where OY started), but it has branched out into north-west London and will have all of the city covered by next summer. You can drop the bike back at any OY Bike stand, not just the one you collected it from.

    Get online

    There are plenty of London-specific cycling websites offering everything from rated local shops to route-planning your commute to work. The most well-known is the London Cycling Campaign (www.lcc.org.uk), an independent group with serious lobby power which offers 19 free cycle guides with all the back street routes, 13 downloadable guides including ‘Cycle Maintenance’ and ‘Buying a Bike’, and a regularly updated list of repair workshops, free rides and other events that people can participate in. Other sites include: www.bike-events.com which details upcoming sponsored, group and children’s bike rides around the country; www.sustrans.org.uk the UK's leading sustainable transport charity which has a wealth of information on cycling; www.ctc.org.uk, a national cyclists organisation listing events and rides, plus other bike-related information; www.londoncyclenetwork.org.uk a very useful site detailing everything you need to know about London’s cycling network; and of course, Transport for London’s official site, www.tfl.gov.uk/cycling.

    Go bespoke


    Bikes designed for women used to mean no crossbars and the inclusion of a basket, but in the last decade there’s been a revolution in female bike design. Besides the obvious stuff such as wider saddles (for wider pelvic bones) and smaller frame sizes (for smaller statures), there are now entire ranges of bikes designed from scratch with the smaller-built female rider in mind. Our favourite is the excellent Trek WSD range, which includes fast road bikes with slightly smaller-than-standard wheels for improved fit and handling; the fabulous attention to detail includes smaller brake levers, shorter cranks and frames that are redesigned, not merely smaller. Other companies who go the extra mile for women include Giant, Specialized and Cannondale. A bike that’s correctly sized can mean the difference between comfort and a pain in the butt.

    Expert tip ‘I would leave my full-size bike in the garage, along with all the Lycra and fly-eye glasses. I never ride anything in London other than a folder, and a Brompton ML3 for preference. A folder can be taken home by train, bus, tube or taxi if necessary, and it lives under your desk.’ David Henshaw, editor of A to B magazine (www.atob.org.uk).

    Buy the essentials


    A decent waterproof jacket is a must – the best you can afford. Go for one which will pack down small, nothing too bulky or padded, or you’ll get too hot, even in the middle of winter. Gor-tex is the best breathable jacket material to go for, but it’s also the most expensive. Gloves (fingerless mitts in summer and full-fingered thermal/ waterproof in winter) stop your hands slipping in the rain and prevent your palms turning into rhino hide. Buy a pair with padding in the palms – this will absorb some of the shock from bumpy roads and the resulting impact on your wrists. They will also protect your hands in a fall. A rear mudguard will protect you from road spray, which contains oil and dirt and will ruin your clothing rapidly. If you need to carry things, a cheap set of panniers (bags that go over the rear wheels) will save you from a sweaty back in the office. Bear in mind that some panniers have been stolen by moped-riding thieves, so find some way of securing the panniers before setting out. Finally, a pair of decent flashing LED lamps are absolutely essential, especially when autumn arrives. Cateye is a reliable brand but for sheer brightness on both ends. If you’re after a super-bright headlamp, then few can touch Light & Motion’s justifiably pricey Vega.

    Expert tip ‘Face masks don’t protect from the greatest pollutant threat to a cyclist’s health: sub-microscopic soot particles, known as PM10s, produced by diesel combustion. Unfortunately, few masks are effective and PM10s are too minute to be caught by filters.’
    Matt Seaton, author of ‘On Your Bike: The Complete Guide to Cycling’ (Black Dog Publishing).

    Keep an eye out for cars…


    Drivers of just-parked cars rarely look for cyclists before opening their doors. Try and ride a metre wide of parked cars, just in case. Cars turning left at traffic lights only seem to signal about 75 per cent of the time, and it’s very easy to get stuck inside them as they’re about to turn. Never assume the driver at a junction has seen you. Look for the whites of their eyes!

    And motorbikes… Cars stuck in stationary traffic tend to let other vehicles through into side roads. Slow right down as you approach a gap in traffic and always assume a speeding motorbike is about to cross your path.

    And lorries… Drivers of trucks don’t always see cyclists. Never ride up the inside of an articulated lorry or bus, especially when approaching a junction. You might get squashed should it decide to turn left.

    Brake dance
    Always ride with a couple of fingers over the brakes. You might not have the extra couple of seconds it will take to get your hands in place. Also, avoid painted road markings when riding in the wet, and occasionally apply your brakes to purge water from the rims.

    Put your hands in the air


    It’s a dying art, but do try signalling with your arms. Car drivers appreciate knowing when you’re going to swerve into another lane, as do other cyclists right behind you. And never assume that pedestrians are going to look before they step out – they’re expecting to hear traffic, and cycles are silent. Add to the mix their hangovers, earphones and mobiles…

    Expert tip ‘The thing that always surprises me in London is the pedestrians stepping into the road. They really don’t seem so suicidal elsewhere. Otherwise, I find London quite safe. Taxi drivers are a pain, but they’re professionals, and they really don’t want blood all over their wing mirrors if they can possibly avoid it. Bus drivers can annoy, but they are much much worse in northern and Scottish cities!’ David Henshaw

    Don’t pedal myths


    People (particularly more reckless cyclists) will spout all sorts of nonsense about what you’re allowed to do on a bike. We checked a few of the more common myths against the Road Traffic Act (1988).

    Myth 1: Cyclists don’t have to stop at stop signs, only slow down According to the RTA, section 36: ‘You MUST obey all traffic signs and traffic light signals.’

    Myth 2: Bus lanes are also for cyclists Actually, you can only use them if the signs include a cycle symbol.

    Myth 3: Cyclists should ride between the traffic and the pavement, even when there’s no cycle lane Undertaking is illegal by any vehicle. But it is a grey area: cycle lanes encourage cyclists to do it. If a car is in its lane, it doesn’t have to indicate if it starts drifting towards the kerb. Some would argue cars cannot be relied on to indicate when pulling or turning left, even when the cycle lane is clearly marked.

    Myth 4: Weaving in and out of traffic is okay for cyclists as they’re very mobile Not according to section 3 of the RTA. You can be booked for careless and reckless riding.

    Myth 5: You can take your bike on the tube. Well, sort of. Only on the surface and subsurface bits (when the tube runs just under the road), and then only outside of peak hours, so don't try between 7.30am-9.30am and 4pm-7pm Monday to Fridays. There’s secure cycle parking at Finsbury Park for 50p a day, a scheme TFL are looking to expand. Fans of Bromptons will be nodding smugly at this next bit: folding bikes are allowed on all parts of the tube at all times. There’s a downloadable PDF of the cycle/tube map at TfL (this link will open an Adobe PDF document).

    Lock it up


    Avoid locking your bike to shortish street signs – they’re easily unscrewable, so thieves can just lift your bike over the top. A five-quid saddle lock is a lot quicker to use than removing your saddle every time you leave your bike. Also, double your security. A heavy-duty D-lock (the good ones include insurance if someone gets through it) to lock frame and wheel, and a cable lock to chain front wheel and frame to a rack or strong railing. Kryptonite makes some of the toughest on the market, its New York model being a case in point. Quick-release wheels? Lock them both. Register your bike with the police (www.bikeregister.com) and you’re more likely to get it back.

    Expert tip ‘Try to leave as little slack as possible between the lock, your bike and the object it is locked to. Anything that makes it harder for a thief to get to work with tools is worth doing. Avoid, for example, a situation where your padlock could be pulled down to the pavement – this stops a thief using the pavement as an anvil for his hammer.’ Matt Seaton

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