The loan cyclist of SE7

Here’s a sentence I never thought I’d type. I’ve got the cycling bug.

Seriously. It all started a couple of months back, when I gave a Boris bike a spin and pronounced it good. I did the Skyride, and a couple of weeks ago managed to pedal from the South Bank to Lancaster Gate, before seeing the traffic on the Bayswater Road and thinking: “Nope.”

Then I had an e-mail from a regular reader of this blog. Sven Ellis had a spare cycle in his garage. Did I fancy borrowing it for a while to see how I did? A little thought, and a big answer – YES.

Here it is – my borrowed bike. A few rubber bands for cycle clips and a quick practice outside Sven’s house, and away I went. Finding myself huffing and puffing after climbing the (very) short hill to my house, I wondered… was this going to work?

I’ve had it for a couple of weeks now, and I’m getting hooked. Strangely, it’s helped transform one of the most mundane things in my life – a traipse to the shops – into a handy bit of exercise, a side effect I wasn’t expecting. I’m now only having to pause once when I climb the hill heading towards Blackheath – although Greenwich Park’s hill remains a bit daunting.

As for the reason I was thinking of getting a bike – for longer jaunts around the area – I’m enjoying those too. Last week, during summer’s last knockings, I took the bike on the train to Slade Green and rode it home on the riverside path – a pleasure apart from a difficult gravelly stretch through Crayford Marshes. Right on my doorstep, the cycle path from the Millennium Dome to the Thames Barrier provides two and a quarter miles to revel in, whether you’re pumping away trying to get up some speed or just pootling along taking in the riverside views. I was inspired to visit Lee’s beautiful Manor House Gardens thanks to having the bike – which resulted in me taking the wonderful Waterlink Way from Ladywell Fields down to Beckenham Place Park.

I’m still not sure about cycling much beyond SE London for anything other than fun – I’ve a railway station around the corner, main roads petrify me and I happen to like catching the train. But that said, I had a jaunt into east London on Sunday and that was a reminder of the possibilities when you’re freed from the London Connections map. A jaunt up to Hackney’s a possibility for the future, a ride to Tower Bridge a certainty; in the meantime I was content to go up through the Isle of Dogs, follow the cycle superhighway beyond Canning Town, and dive down through the Royal Docks back to the Woolwich Ferry.

Despite my big girl’s blouse aversion to main roads and heavy traffic, I’ve enjoyed plotting new routes to different places – I’m becoming better acquainted with the Blackheath Cator Estate, for example. Cyclestreets.net – and its new iPhone app – has been invaluable. Cyclemeter‘s been great for tracking the routes I actually take. But a trek to Northumberland Heath, Erith, to order a fridge wasn’t much fun – it stopped, it started, and it ran into a never ending school run too many times.

Ah, yes, the drivers. Most of them have been alright – white van men, school run mums and minicabs tending to be the exceptions. Oh, and the double-parkers on Old Dover Road, Blackheath. Not good.

But most of all, it’s been a learning experience. I’ve had my eyes opened to debates which have been going on for years but have been completely off my radar. To wear a helmet or not to wear a helmet? I’m not even going to go there. (I’m not, at the moment.) And do those little foot-wide cycle lanes on main roads help or hinder? They don’t make me more confident on Charlton Road, that’s for sure.

Other thoughts that have sprung to mind…

– whoever thought it was a good idea to place cobbles in two places on the Thames Path along the Greenwich Peninsula?

– how much of an opportunity are we missing by having that gap in the Thames Path between Charlton and Woolwich – even without that river frontage, just two mean little poles at the entrance to an industrial estate are blocking what could be a really handy direct route from Thamesmead and beyond.

– An obstacle course blocks easy access to North Greenwich station from the river path.

– How much thinking about cycling seems stuck in the days when planners used to try to prevent kids on bikes (that’s when they rode them, of course) from getting about. The Sun-in-the-Sands tunnels are part of the London cycle network – but their sister subway at Siebert Road has a great big “no cycling” sign on. If you want kids to cycle to Blackheath Bluecoat school, how about removing the “no cycling” signs from the wide path close to its rear gate?

– Unpredictable signage – particularly north of the river, but even locally signs aren’t consistent. On Rochester Way, a sign pointing to “Charlton and East Greenwich” on cycle route two suddenly switches to “Greenwich and Greenwich Peninsula” on route 64 at the Sun-in-the-Sands, for example. And as for some of the “cyclists dismount” signs, particularly at the Thames Barrier – what a waste of cash. North of the river, Cycle Superhighway 3 just appears out of nowhere, winding around the top of the Blackwall Tunnel entrance.

What happens next? I’ve put myself down for cycle training so I can work out quite what the heck I’m doing on the bike – you’ll read more about that when it happens. Sooner or later I’ll have to give Sven his bike back, although a friend has offered me one of his old bikes (not sure it it’ll suit me, though). But there’s no looking back. Cycling’s part of my life now. And I’ve Boris Johnson to thank. Damn.

13 comments

  1. As far as the main road thing goes: the fitter and thus faster you get, the less scary they become, since the speed difference between you and passing traffic reduces. Even if you avoid them, it’s better to feel confident to use them where you have to.

    To save starting the usual helmet flame war here – http://www.cyclehelmets.org/1139.html is pretty much my position.

  2. Ruddy marvellous! Glad you are enjoying it! As for wearing a helmet I suggest it would definitely be a good idea for you as a learner. I always wear mine on my daily commute and when my route involves lots of trafficked roads, but I take it off when I’m on traffic-free routes. That being said I am not the sort of cyclist who hurtles round corners or tries to race other road users, I do my best to be alert and anticipate problems, I make myself visible at night, use my bell to warn people of my approach, keep my bike in good working order (especially the brakes) and basically follow all the good-sense advice that you should get in your training.

  3. Great to hear it, Darryl. It can turn into quite a bug and bit by bit the confidence increases as your awareness of traffic rises. Keep an eye out for people on mobile phones because they won’t be keeping an eye out for you, whether they’re driving or walking. And hills will always hurt, it’s just that your capacity to tolerate screaming muscles goes up. (Meanwhile, the gentlest way up to the heath is via Hyde Vale – it’s longer but there’s less of an incline.) Helmets, I never wore one until I was 50 and I do believe I was quicker and brighter back then….

    Right, who’s up for a SE London Bloggers’ Bike Hike?

  4. Nice one Darryl. I’ve not getting involved in the helmet discussion either.

    Your experience sounds similar to mine, except from a different starting point: I was in Whitechapel when I first started commuting to work. To begin with I was terrified of the main roads, and plotted a cunning route that allowed me to avoid all of them.

    Now I’m a lot more confident, though hopefully not complacent. You have to get used to the idea that you’re a road user who has as much right to be there as Mr White Van Man and all.

  5. Indeed, well done …

    Do the training, get up some speed and some confidence on the main roads so you’re happy using them if you need to, and make up your own mind about helmets.

    I’d think about joining the LCC (advice, campaigning, discounts, 3rd party insurance), and have a look at http://www.lfgss.com for the sorts of folk who live and breathe bikes (sometimes bikes not cycling).

    And as for a bloggers’ bike hike, yeah, if it’s open to readers too …

  6. Same story with me – I had a go on a Boris bike, and remembered how much I love cycling. Without such a lovely friend as yours I had to buy a bike, but it’s one of the best investments I’ve made. I live very close to the Waterlink Way, so I’ve been zooming up and down that – Deptford/Greenwich in one direction, South Norwood country park (which is a bit of a let-down, to be honest) in the other. It’s addictive, isn’t it?

  7. I’ve cycled from SE London (Brockley, now Lee) to the City for seven years now. I’ll pop down some thoughts soon and hopefully post it on a blog, and send across the link. On helmets, the evidence plays both ways, so please ignore the guilt-trippers and make your own choice.

    The big advice I would give is to try to secure a ‘skinny wheel’ bike asap. One major flaw of the hire bike scheme is to give Londoners the miserable experience of trying to move around the heaviest and slowest bikes ever known to man. Skinny tyred bikes (28mm or so, though I ride 23mm) have pretty much the same grip, and pump them up to 100psi and the ride is easy and fun.

  8. I’ve recently become a cyclist again – after about 25 years – and do the daily commute to and from Lewisham and Old Street.

    I’ve found it takes about the same time as getting the train and then walking from Cannon Street, and the health benefits are obvious.

    The only thing I’ve not enjoyed has been the soaking I get every time it rains.

  9. I’m sure I saw you and your bike turn into Sherington Rd this evening at about 1730! The magic is still there then..

  10. ”I live very close to the Waterlink Way, so I’ve been zooming up and down that – Deptford/Greenwich in one direction, South Norwood country park (which is a bit of a let-down, to be honest) in the other. It’s addictive, isn’t it?”

    I was on that route early this afternoon. Down by Sydenham I saw a kingfisher emerging out of the River Pool, a trail of water coming from its tail, and as it flew into the sunshine I got that brilliant blue plumage flashing in all its glory. That doesn’t happen on public transport! Just a brief glimpse like that can make your day.

  11. Similar story with me. I had a go on the Boris Bikes and thought I’d give it more of a go and start commuting in on bike.

    Luckily most of my route is on quiet “side” streets, which has really helper me build up my confidence as well as my fitness. So when I do need to hit a main road, I feel pretty well equipped to deal with it.

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