Seven Things about Cycling in London

My bike is one of the best things in my life right now. I’m not exaggerating.

London is massive and living in it can be a pain: getting around is expensive, slow, and stressful, especially during the weekend, when it seems TfL decides which stations to close by playing darts (and use double the number of darts when you’ve got something important on).

But if you look at a map of central London, one thing you’ll notice is that it’s barely 4 miles by 4 miles. If you have a bike, you can traverse the entire place in half an hour. Think of the time, money and effort you’ll save. Right?

For the amount of Stuff there is in London, it really is very small.

This has been my approach recently, ever since I moved to the bright lights and scandalous rent of Zone 2. When I’m going out in central London — but I won’t be drinking profusely, staying out late, or ‘central London’ means anywhere remotely south-east — I’ve cycled there. I also cycle the 2.5 miles to and from work.

For the most part, it’s the best. Leaving work, cycling a few miles to Bloomsbury or Farringdon, and then cycling home under your own steam — no trying to find the nearest Tube station, walking through miles of Underground tunnels, or waiting for crowded buses — is the most wonderful feeling. I don’t drive, and it would be insane to do so in London, but this must be similar to what being able to drive must feel like. I love the self-reliance and the freedom.

Having said that, London cycling has its own annoyances and irritations — and I’m not just talking about when it starts to rain. I tend to contemplate and ruminate while I’m in the saddle, and I’ve been coming up with a list of all the things about cycling in London that get on my nerves. So here we go.

  1. Turning right

    When you turn right you’ve got to indicate, move into the centre of the road, and then manoeuvre. The problem comes in with moving into the centre. London drivers are loath to stop for anything at all — apart from perhaps a police car or royal procession if they’re feeling generous — and you can find yourself drifting past your turn-off entirely while you’re waiting for a break in the traffic.

    I’ve recently found a good way of getting them to pay attention to you, and that’s to shake and wiggle your hand while you’re indicating, so they really can’t miss what you’re doing. It’s only after I’d done this a few times that I realised that I was doing exactly the same movement that Indian rickshaw drivers do. No surprises there.

  2. Changing the song

    For obvious reasons, having something to listen to when you’re cycling makes the whole experience much more pleasant. I only put a headphone in one ear, of course, but it’s great to have something to divert you, as well as being able to feel like you’re in a movie when the music is pleasingly dramatic and you’re in a hurry.

    The problem comes when you need to change song.

    I really miss iPods, with their easy-to-use controls that you could click without looking. Countless times I’ve been stuck with some slow, boring number when I’m running late and I really need something bouncy. It’s only when you’re at traffic lights that you can scrabble in your pocket (or your bra, which is always fun) and try to tap through to some half-way decent track before the lights change.

  3. Remembering the route

    Obvious statement of the day: London is complicated. There’s a reason cab drivers have to learn The Knowledge. But if you’re driving, chances are you’ll have a map on the passenger’s seat that you can look at, or you’ll have a sat-nav that you can look at or which will speak to you. No such luck if you’re cycling.

    My method is usually to look very carefully at the route beforehand and memorise the sequence of road names that I’ll be going down. But this is not foolproof, because you can go the wrong way down any of these roads. So even if it’s a route of less than two miles, there is a 95% chance that I’ll have to stop and squint at my phone’s screen. And it’s very, very annoying.

  4. People going before the light

    I don’t mean for this post to be a place for me to whine about other London cyclists. But this really grinds my gears. When there’s a big crossroads and a complex traffic light system, and everyone is waiting for the green man to disappear and for us to be allowed to go, there is always some wanker who thinks that they can zoom past everyone else and go right ahead. Usually they go when it’s clear the light is about to go green, and they just get a couple of extra seconds, but sometimes they go when people are still crossing, swerving to avoid them as they pedal madly into the distance.

    A fellow cyclist shouted “What makes you so special?!” when this happened a couple of weeks ago, and that sums it up perfectly. Hold your horses, mate.

  5. One-way streets

    London is full of one-way streets. They are all over the place, they stretch for miles, and they’re a right pain in the arse. Despite my high-and-mighty attitude in point 4, I have a confession to make. Sometimes, when I’m looking up a route from A to B, that route involves a one-way street that goes in the wrong direction to what I want. But the distance is so much shorter than going round. I think you know what I’m hinting at here. I’m ashamed.

  6. Cycles-only turns

    NO RIGHT TURN HERE, you might see from fifty yards away, and you’ll curse because you were relying on that and you try to find a place to pull in so you can look at the map on your phone for the fourth time. But in London, more often than not, there’ll be a sign below it… EXCEPT CYCLES. Boom! Great news. But then you have to turn right, when no one else is allowed to do that except you. See point 1, with added anger. (This is also sometimes the case with one-way streets: there’ll be a little path for bikes to go the opposite way. I’m a big fan.)

  7. The Deliveroo curse

    This isn’t something I’ve experienced many times, but it’s worse than the other six put together. A handful of times when I’ve been cycling home I have got stuck behind a Deliveroo takeaway delivery cyclist. And the smell of the pizza, or the curry, or whatever delicious meal they have on the back of their bike has been the most distracting thing you can imagine.

    It’s such a hard life.