I used to think that people who cycled in London were crazy. Safety, pollution, rain, theft… I really could not understand why would anyone willingly venture onto London’s road network and join the traffic.
But that was before I got a job in Central London and started enduring commuting on the rush hour tube everyday… I found underground travel super stressful and was drained of energy even before properly starting my working day. At the same time, every morning I would bump into one of my colleagues and their bike as they arrived at the office. Energised, sometimes soaking wet but still smiling; they would quickly get changed and start their day. I started asking questions about their journey, route, bikes, safety and clothes… Suddenly, the idea of swapping travelling like a stressed sardine for a bike ride didn’t seem so crazy anymore.
I worked out the logistics: 6 mile journey, a mixture of back streets, bike parking at work, and for the price of my monthly travel card I purchased my first London bike.
Cycling into work cut my overall journey time, I had more energy and felt a sense of achievement every morning when I rocked up at work. Soon enough I noticed I started losing weight and got fitter too. But it wasn’t all smooth riding from the get go. I got lost many times. I couldn’t do roundabouts and right hand turns. I got scared if a car overtook me too closely. I learnt what helmet hair looks like. Getting a puncture was the end of the world.
Still though, every day cycling to work, I felt more confident, more in control of my journey and more curious of the relationship with my bike. Eventually, I even got onto a free bike maintenance course run by the council – I never thought that learning to fix a puncture could be so liberating!
5 years later, I’m still cycling to work. I’m lucky that I now live and work in Merton, which means that my journey to work is shorter (3 miles) and I get to enjoy Morden Hall park every day.
I’m so glad I got over this “cycling in London is crazy” myth and discovered my free travel and gym pass instead. Cycling infrastructure in London still needs a lot of work to make the city safer for cyclists and more bike friendly but there’s enough help and guidance available to give it a go now.
Here are a few tips I’ve learnt during my cycling to work:
Free cycle training – Every London borough offers free individual or group lessons for people who want to learn the basics or to improve their cycling skills (here’s Merton). Doing this in my first few months of cycling in London changed my cycling experience so much.
Free bike maintenance – Bikes have to be looked after to work and be safe. This means regular checks and maintenance. This can be daunting and expensive if you don’t know much about them. Many councils and some workplaces offer so called Dr Bikes, where you can bring your bike in for a free bike check up and minor repairs. Meeting “Dr Bike” is also an opportunity to learn about your bike, pick up basic maintenance. How to find one? I follow @MPSMerton, @MetCycleCops and @Merton_Council on Twitter as they will advertise their events. There’s always lots happening around Bike Week in June.
Free bike marking – The above events are often attended by local police who can mark your bike and put it on National BikeRegister. This can help reduce risk of theft by warning thieves that you use BikeRegister and if the bike is stolen, increase chances of finding it.
Helmet, lycra & high vis – I was quite adamant that I did not want to wear lycra and high vis and it’s not necessary but as it turns out, it makes the journey more comfortable. Depending on the length of the journey, time of the year and weather, I cycle either in normal trousers or go for leggings. My high vis jacket comes out around Autumn so that I can be more visible in the dark. Helmet is a personal choice. I wear mine for commuting on the streets but if know my whole route is off road or on cycle paths, I’ll leave it at home.
Route planning – Google maps seems like the most obvious choice but it doesn’t always give you the quiet route option, instead shows the fastest route which sometimes means busy roads. At the beginning, I actually found these free TfL cycling maps super handy for discovering local cycling networks and planning my route to work with them. I don’t use them now but when I’m looking for a new quiet route cycle.travel is my go to website.
Air quality – Whilst cyclists are exposed to less pollution than drivers, it’s always a good idea to try to avoid busy and heavy traffic roads.This often means a longer journey taking a back street but definitively healthier and less stressful. This map from the London Air Quality Network is handy for checking out the most polluted roads in London and the ones to avoid.