Today we had planned to go for a 10km run – now I am no runner and would massively struggle with that, but I was willing to give it a shot to support my friend who is visiting and in training for a quarter iron man and regular triathlons.
Then she uttered words that were music to my ears ‘I wonder, would you fancy a bike ride today instead?’ Ahhhh, of course I would do a cycle instead. I had a bicycle which I bought over a year and a half ago and had only ridden a handful of times. I fancied pushing myself a bit and perhaps cycle a longer route in the park than I have done over the years.
When we agreed the route to go along the Thames pathway towards London, I felt a little sick inside. Nervous. Yet I wanted to be able to get back on a bicycle and feel confident on it again. Many years ago I used to race cycle 22 miles against myself in the evenings for fun! The nerves and the thrill of actually getting on a bicycle and doing a decent distance flashed before me once more. I didn’t allow that little sick feeling to stay long. I committed. Yes, let’s do this.
Setting off along the banks of the River Thames, my new(ish) racing bicycle was not as appropriate for the conditions as my previous hybrid, but all other conditions were perfect. It was a lovely morning with the sun breaking through and burning off the mist and I was with a friend who knew my past, knew my fears and was more confident in my capability than myself. We stopped for a long lunch and much needed sustenance at The Ship in Mortlake, I was surprised by just how far we had cycled – some 10 miles already, yet hadn’t yet reached anything remotely London like. So far we had been surrounded by lush greenery the entire route, it was beautiful. My city is beautiful.
Then, what felt like all of a sudden we were having a sensory overload. I was peddling out over Hammersmith Bridge and pushing towards the Hammersmith Gyratory. I have a massive dislike towards and fear of this junction when I am negotiating it in a car, let alone all exposed on a bicycle.
I had a brief moment of complete disbelief with myself, what on earth was I doing?
- Was I scared? Yes.
- In the scheme of things, had I been having fun? Yes.
- Did I want the fun to continue? Yes.
- Again, was I scared? Yes, fear doesn’t vanish!
- Did I want to stop now and let my friend and ultimately myself down? No.
- What action did I need to take? Acknowledge the fear, acknowledge my need to proceed with caution, take a breath, look right for traffic and pedal!
I peddled. Cycling in London requires your wits about you – there is lots of everything; pedestrians, delivery trucks, car doors, buses, lorries, drain hole covers and motorcyclists. Once you hit the road you realise that where us mere cyclists are destined to be, over on the nearside, the road is littered with metal drain covers, it’s also where the tarmac has bulged, or gravel, leaves and rubbish have collected. My rear wheel slide on a drain cover and it kicked out to the right. My stomach lurched, my life flashed before me and I steadied the bike, I carried on. Deep breathes, not a word to anyone but myself – I can do this.
Squeezing between a parked lorry and slow moving traffic we became braver in our agile movements around the obstacles before, either side and behind us. Each time quickly assessing the risk and desire to continue. We sat back behind smog producing vehicles, we pre-empted if car doors were about to fling open, or someone was about to run for a bus. You slow down with intention, changing down through the gears and other times you are brought to an abrupt halt by an unexpected movement of another road user – not always law abiding! The abruptness means you hadn’t brought the gears down and now you need to find extra strength and distance to get the bicycle, your legs moving again.
I’m a great believer in the saying it’s not about the destination – it’s the journey. Yet something about this cycle felt like everything was determined to prevent me from getting to my destination if I allowed it, and if that wasn’t the aim, then certainly to hinder the pleasure of my journey! Yet for me, the journey and destination were ultimately the same – it wasn’t about the sights I was seeing en-route, it was about overcoming the perceived difficulties from what was approaching a nine year long fear of cycling.
We pushed on through the entrance to Kensington Palace and enjoyed the freedom of not having metal containers with motors either side of us, the sun was shining brightly. Past The Royal Albert Hall and on down around Buckingham Palace, along The Mall to Horse Guards Parade where we took a little time to admire the Queen’s Guard. Some 18+ miles in and I was already much further than I had cycled in years, I felt pride in having got to where we were. My friend asked if I wanted to try the Cycle Superhighway – over from New Zealand, she had encountered it just a few days before and said how great it was. From having worked in London, I knew of its existence, yet I never encountered it for myself. I had a renewed sense of achievement and I wanted to experience a proper cycle across London.
We walked our bicycles past Downing Street, through all the tourists and popped out the end of Parliament Street with The Houses of Parliament, Queen Elizabeth Tower and Big Ben towering over us. We hopped back on our bicycles and set out across the road to join the Cycle Superhighway headed East.
Wow! This is where our journey experience changed. Remove the chaos, the impingement and threat of large metal containers with motors and wheels. Suddenly our route was clear, we only needed to concern ourselves with the actions of the cyclists also on the same route and for the traffic lights and road junctions and ultimately ourselves. The journey became easier, far less threatening. There are still of course a ridiculous number of drain covers and grates, pot holes and warped road surfaces, but to juggle those without fear of being mowed down by a block of metal on wheels driven by a frustrated driver, is OK! We now had our own designated and separate section of road and it felt good.
When I am a driver I get frustrated by cyclists who don’t make use of cycle routes available to them. However when I am doing my short cycles I have noticed that the cycle paths aren’t really as well thought out as they could be – there is a section around Kingston where the cycle route is awkward to get onto and if you’re travelling at the speed of traffic which is required to match the road, then to turn into the cycle lane poses a risk to the cyclists; pedestrians and possibly the vehicles behind. Even though it is annoying for the cyclist, by not taking the designated cycle path, the traffic is slowed up and further frustrations occur on the road in a land where we seemingly need to do everything and be everywhere immediately. This Cycle Superhighway was far less threatening and a great improvement to cycling with the main traffic on the roads, but there are still many opportunities for improvement. Especially if we really want to reduce our carbon emissions and increase the health of our citizens.
We made our way to the Tower of London and then turned to return home – coming back along Victoria Embankment, past Cleopatra’s Needle and back onto the roads trying to get home before rush hour began. At Clapham Junction I made noises that I could get the train home from here – I was starting to feel weary. I was told ‘yes you could’. I asked how far we had come and decided that despite the growing discomfort and fatigue I was committed to going the full distance. We negotiated the taxis, buses and cars past the entrance to the station and carried on.
We encountered the ultimate stupidity by another road user – at a cross roads we were waiting and indicating to turn right – my friend, who was now behind me (as my confidence had grown to take the lead) we turned right into the road – shouted for me to watch out. A motorcyclist had also turned into the road behind me and was now under cutting me on the small section of road between me and the gutter. He managed to just get in front of where we all had to come to a halt for stationary traffic. I asked him if he had passed his test – he said ‘what test?’ I replied your driving test! Seriously, there are some people out there who are completely reckless and do not deserve to be on our roads, posing a risk not only to themselves, but to many others.
This morning when we set out I would never have imagined that I’d have gone all that way. I certainly had some absolute NOs in my head – I would not be cycling on the A3, it had never entered my head about the Hammersmith Gyratory. Yet now we are home, some 65km / 40 miles later. We had done it all. What a feat to have achieved. Not just the surprise that without any training whatsoever, I have gone pretty much from couch to the Cycle Superhighway, but that I have truly taken my fear of cycling and tackled it head on. I now have visions of me doing shorter cycles, maybe to the museums on Exhibition Road and back home. But ultimately I feel, my near nine years of fear have been addressed in a way that I now felt more confident on my bicycle. The work that has been done to secure cycle routes has clearly aided my confidence, but really, it was having my friend by my side, well, I mean out in front of me, but you know what I mean. She knew it was risk for me and she believed in me more than me. She even joked that that the aim of today was for me to get home without injury. She even wanted to stage a photo whereby I was on the ground with my bicycle on top of me. It’s good that we can joke about it now.
My dear friend has witnessed a long journey – not just the 65km we’ve just ridden! She was by my side nearly nine years ago in Accident & Emergency in New Zealand when I flatlined – having fallen off the very bicycle she has just borrowed for the day. I landed on the handlebars and broke my stomach off my intestine. I am really pleased with our journey and the final destination that today has brought me to. Home.
I wrote the above on Wednesday 27 September 2017. I look back now and I really am pleased with myself for overcoming that fear to a degree where perhaps it won’t impact me as much as it has done in the past. The acknowledgement of my fear and the sense checks that kept popping up in my head along the way at each point I was nervous, but also the regular check ups from my friend – a simple ‘you ok?’ and my honest replies, umm, yes, ummm a little shook up there, but ok now, yes let’s continue and a regular call out of ‘I’m ok, let’s go’. Add that to the improved safety offered by the infrastructure of the Cycle Superhighway and then the beautiful sights of London, I can look back fondly and with pride. I have almost forgotten the extent of the saddle sore, but I can also look forward with hope.