When people think of a cyclist, I don’t think I’m what they picture.
First off, I’m a woman. My bike is baby pink and I have a helmet to match. Secondly, I’m chubby. I still remember a past boyfriend bursting into hysterics, and when I asked him what was so funny, he said “oh I’m just imaginging you moving quickly!” But most of all, I don’t think I fit the common picture of a cyclist because I have absolutely no idea what I’m doing.
Unlike most of the other urban bike riders I speak to, I haven’t been doing this all of my life. My childhood bike-riding ambitions were quashed when a broken brake sent me flying down a hill, until a collision with a friends’ back brought me to a sudden, painful stop. I didn’t touch a bike again for another ten years, at which point I found myself in the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh being offered a cycle tour of the city. Having faith in the old adage “it’s just like riding a bike”, I confidently climbed aboard and set off, only to immediately collide with a parked van a metre to my right. After failing to keep my balance after another few attempts, I accepted defeat and retreated to the poolside to nurse a cocktail and my injured pride.
It wasn’t until 2018 that I properly learnt how to ride a bike. For years I’d watched in envy as my boyfriend effortlessly climbed aboard his bike and zipped off to work in the morning, while I crammed myself into overstuffed tube carriages that made me wish for death. I wanted that kind of freedom too. So I signed myself up for a free TFL basic cycle skills training session — and on a warm July afternoon I met up with a volunteer cycle instructor in an abandoned school playground and, following a series of wobbles, learnt how to keep my bike upright and moving.
I tested my newfound cycling skills whenever I found myself in a bike-friendly city (read: Europe). I’d wheel around Toulouse, Antwerp and Utrecht feeling unjustifiably proud of myself — my camera roll filled with blurry photos and videos of me cycling down a cobbled street or canal-side, beaming. But when I got back to London, I was met with the reality check that cycling in my home city was an entirely different story. The traffic was too fast, too aggressive and too plenty for me to ever feel comfortable getting on my bike.
And then COVID happened.
All of a sudden, my home borough of Lambeth announced a series of Low Traffic Neighbourhoods right in my backyard. With the strategic placement of planters on just a few roads, there was suddenly no reason for anyone other than local traffic to drive through the area. The day I got the letter from the council announcing the scheme, I went and bought a bike.
That was just a few months ago, and slowly but surely I’m starting to get the hang of cycling in London. I’ve done a few big rides I’m proud of — out to Hyde Park through Central London, and even a 10 mile journey to Kingston-on-Thames and back to see my niece and nephew. There are lots of things I’m not proud of — like the fact I still can’t signal. Everytime I take my hand off the handlebars, I lose confidence and veer awkwardly. Because of that, I still can’t really take cycle journeys on my own. But I will get there, slowly, I’m sure. But I will.
This is what Diary of a New Cyclist will be all about. Navigating the seeminly impenetrable London streets as a newcomer who lacks confidence, skills and ability. But who, nevertheless, is giving it a go. I hope it inspires others to give it a go too.