Friday, 3 September 2010
"If it all gets a bit much, don't be too proud to cycle on the pavement" says Mr Trefusis, kindly, rapping me on the top of my helmet as if to test its strength, and waving me off on my inaugural bicycle ride to the office.
Well, I say inaugural, but I do have form for cycling, albeit in the dim and distant past. Eight years ago, in the middle of a tube strike, I wobbled off to work on my monstrously cool yet entirely impractical Kronan, and I only did it because I had no alternative. The Kronan was developed in the Second World War for the Swedish army, weighs as much as a tank, and was once selected by Tyler Brûle as one of the most stylish design objects of the twentieth century. A bicycle less suited to a commute from West London to Carnaby Street, I can't imagine. Quite apart from its heft, it has no gears and only a back pedal brake, a distinct disadvantage when pedalling up and down the aptly named Notting Hill. As brutal as it is beautiful, I keep expecting to find it used as a murder weapon in an episode of Wallander. Anyway, it was a one off experiment and the Kronan has long since been retired, due to the hassle of getting spare parts shipped in from Sweden, as well as its other disadvantages. Until now, cycling to work has remained nothing more than a latent aspiration.
However, the ongoing Great Trefusis Economic Crisis, and the onset of incipient middle-aged lardiness has put commuting by bicycle firmly back on the agenda. Could I save money and get fitter at the same time, ideally without finding myself squashed between the 148 bus and a John Lewis delivery van on the Bayswater Road? I'm not convinced enough to invest in a bicycle of my own – and of course, that would hardly tick the money-saving box - so I borrowed an old one from my parents instead and bought the sort of luminous waistcoat that people on building sites wear. I figured that if I was to cheat death on two wheels, it was best to make my lack of cycling proficiency really, really visible.
On paper, or indeed by car/bus/tube, the journey to work is simple – turn right out of our road, turn right again, and keep going straight until one gets to Oxford Circus. But on a bike, going along Holland Park Avenue and then down Oxford Street feels like a route mapped in one's own blood. I plugged the postcodes into TFL's planner which came back with a route so circuitous and complex that it went on to two pages – God only knows how one is supposed to memorise a route like that, but I tried to keep it in my head by earmarking the familiar. It's roughly straight on West to East – how hard could it be?
Anyway, I set off, went straight, turned left at the Rug Company, ran behind Holland Park Avenue and Notting Hill until I passed Le Cafe Anglais, and then, not quite a third of the way into the journey, I promptly forgot the route, found myself back on the main road, inches from the thundering juggernauts. I remembered Mr Trefusis's pavement advice, but the pavement was, rather inconveniently, full of pedestrians, so I crossed at the lights and went into Hyde Park – what could be nicer? Trees, no cars, squirrels, loveliness and Parks Police. "Cycling is not allowed" shrieked the Parks Policeman, "can't you see the sign?". 'No Cycling' is written in two foot high letters at intervals along the path so I was definitely caught red-faced and red-handed. All I could do was dismount and walk my bike, head held as high as I could muster, to the nearest exit. Not being able to cycle in the park, parallel with the Bayswater Road, seems to me to be the most enormous swizz – Hyde Park is huge, with much wider pavements than the street, and could easily accommodate a small cycle lane. Boris should have fixed this at the same time as planting all of his bikes all over London. I overtook two Boris Bikes after that, just to get my pride back.
Actually, the journey from then on was relatively uneventful – I took a slightly idiosyncratic route north of Oxford Street, and then down through Hanover Square so I could 'wave' cheerily, hem hem, at Vogue House before arriving at work rather earlier than usual.
Cycling is moderately terrifying, I must admit, but the greatest dangers seem to be from other cyclists – those wearing earphones to cycle seem to lack an appropriate respect for their own personal safety – and Professor of Traffic Psychology (and God, who knew there was such a thing), Dr Ian Walker's insights seem to work, cars/buses/cabs and vans give you a wider berth if you're obviously a bit rubbish, your mum's bike and long blond hair worn loose are as essential a part of your Cycling Safety kit as a helmet and lights. As I write this, I'm about to don the fluoro waistcoat and swirly-girly helmet for my newly mapped route home, past Estee Lauder's head office, over Park Lane and straight on until I get to the cup of tea Mr Trefusis promises he has waiting for me at the other end.