The End

August 1, 2011

Well, it had to happen eventually. I couldn’t just ride around in circles in central London for the rest of my life. Last summer I started to get itchy feet. And very quickly it became apparent that I was going to have to find a bigger circuit. And since I don’t do anything by halves, I’m going for the biggest of them all. In a month’s time, I leave to cycle round the world.

So I’ve quit my jobs, I’ve moved out of my house, I’m selling my bikes and I’ve given away almost all of my stuff. And I’m looking forward to a new bike, a new routine, a new challenge, and …a new blog. Click here if you want to see it. And yes, you’ll notice that I’m no longer anonymous (although my identity was a bit of an open secret anyway, at least to anyone who already knew me and my bikes).

I don’t plan to close this blog down completely or officially though. I’ve got another couple of weeks on circuit, and if I think of anything courier-related to say after that, then I’ll go right ahead and say it. And I probably will. I seem to be able to talk infinitely about being a cycle courier. You wouldn’t think there was that much to it.

Still, you should expect the traffic to slow down a bit.

I’m not going to make any trite comments about ‘the end of the road’. As we all know, the road goes on forever.

Instead I’ll comfort myself with the wise words of Sax:

“Ah, you’ll always be a courier. It doesn’t wash off.”

I do hope he’s right.

The end of an all-too-short era

July 21, 2011

Things haven’t felt right for a while.

There’s something wrong with the back end of my bike, and it’s taken me days to put my finger on it. It feels somehow ‘floppy’. Sometimes when I’m riding along I feel almost as if I’m bouncing up and down on a full-suspension mountain bike. When I go round corners the bike no longer feels as tight and sure as it used to. I regularly think ‘oh no – puncture!’, and then realize I’m wrong, and it’s just this unspecified floppiness.

And all this movement is deadening the effort I put in. My legs have lost their spring and strength, and I feel as if I’m struggling to push a heavy old bike with flat tyres up a muddy hill, into a headwind.

And yes, before you ask, I have pumped up my tyres recently. I’ve also rebuilt my back wheel. I’ve tightened my chain, and checked the chainline’s straight. The bearings in the hub, bottom bracket and pedals all appear to be intact. I’ve examined the cranks for hairline cracks and the rim for signs of impending doom. My cleats are in good shape. The chainring bolts are all still there.

I began to wonder whether the problem was with me, and my body, and the way I’m set up on the bike. Maybe I’d somehow twisted my legs into a funny position that meant they were no longer suited to cycling (…I hypothesized glumly). I somehow felt as if I was sitting lower or further back on the saddle, so I’ve been putting it up, millimetre by millimetre, and today finally decided to begin the laborious and frustrating process of adjusting the angle. (It can take a day or two of constant fiddling, riding, fiddling, riding, fiddling, riding to get my saddle in exactly the right position, and I’ll often tolerate it at slightly at the wrong angle, rather than submit myself to this tedium and risk making it worse.)

And then I spotted it. A crack in my seat tube.

I nearly cried when I saw it. And I welled up all over again when Nhatt in Fitzrovia Bicycles told me I’d probably only get another week out of Evelyn, if I’m lucky. We haven’t been together all that long, and he was only ever meant to be a stop-gap, but I ended up falling far more in love with him than I ever was with the Condor.

So now, on top of everything else, I need to find a new bloody bike.

How ridiculous

July 14, 2011

You might have seen this in St James’s Square, SW1.

It had never occurred to me that my stationary and unattended bicycle might pose such a threat to the general public.

With this in mind, I have started to brainstorm a few other signs that I feel ought to be displayed around London, for our own safety.

Black cab drivers can cause psychological trauma to cycle couriers and will be removed without notice.

More children are hit by cars every year than are abducted by paedophiles. If you have a car, please avoid driving it in any area where children may be present.

Around 10 London cyclists are killed by HGVs every year. All HGVs seen in central London will be immobilized and impounded.

Poor air quality is the cause of more than 4,000 premature deaths in London every year. Cars and other vehicles found polluting the air will be confiscated without notice.

On Monday, Jack from Fullcity had his shoulder dislocated by a pedestrian who crossed the road without looking, and then ran away without stopping to check he was alright. If you are a pedestrian, please refrain from walking. Failure to do so may result in your arrest and prosecution.

Or am I being ridiculous?

I am, aren’t I? After all, bicycles are far more of a danger to human safety than cabbies, cars, HGVs, pollution and careless pedestrians.

A tailwind day

July 14, 2011

Sometimes a day is simply wonderful for no other reason than that you’re in a good mood and there’s nothing wrong with your bike.

And sometimes it gets even better as a result of free food.

I happened the Broadgate Farmers’ Market this afternoon and wandered around eyeing up all the incredible food on offer and wishing either that I could afford it or that someone would give me some.

I finally gave in to my growling stomach and spent £1.50 on a sausage roll (probably the cheapest thing there, although it also looked very impressive compared to the usual Greggs offerings).

And the very nice chap behind the stall recognized that my need was greater than any of the office workers milling about, and threw in a brownie for free.

And it was one of the nicest brownies I’d ever tasted.

Thank you Joe!

Where’s your key?

June 30, 2011

Selim

Tom

Luka

Robin

Mike

Homer

Dazzler

Kris

Sax

The discomfort zone

June 28, 2011

I’ve been interviewed for a documentary about female messengers recently, and I have mixed feelings about this. My main reservation about messenger documentaries is that they tend to depict messengers as dangerous, sexy and very very fast – because of course, this makes great television. What they tend to miss out is the other half of the job – the slow, boring, unsexy side of it. The stupid mistakes we all make, the tedious hours spent waiting for goods lifts and arguing with security guards, the horrible days where you haven’t had enough sleep and crawl along into a headwind, with bits of plane tree blowing into your eyes. The punctures and blisters and hangovers. Yes, some days we feel like superheroes. But there are many other days when we just feel like losers.

So I’ve been trying to emphasize to the documentary makers that there are two sides to the job. There are those wonderful days when it all comes together – but there are also the days when it all falls apart.

Today was such a day.

It’s been horribly, stickily, sweatily hot for the past couple of days, which means work is far more exhausting than usual, and I’m more prone to spots and saddlesore and bad smells. I finished yesterday dizzy and headachy and covered in sweat – and then went and played on the velodrome until 9pm. This made me even more knackered, and meant I didn’t get anywhere near enough sleep, so as I left the house this morning my skin had that sweaty itchy feeling (only exacerbated by the temperature of the air) and my legs felt weak and sluggish as I struggled through the 25-minute ride into Vauxhall.

The bike felt weak and sluggish too, and over the course of the journey I noticed that

  • the chain had somehow come loose (unexpected, as my stupid Goldtec hubs are wedged so tightly into the drop-outs that normally I can’t get the wheel to move even when I want it to)
  • the back wheel was ridiculous out of true and several of the spokes were so loose they rattled (having been tightened by several mechanics over the past few months, all of whom tell me that it needs to be rebuilt, otherwise it’ll just keep on losing its true)
  • my right-hand cleat had come loose
  • my tyres had suddenly gone all squashy

The latter was fairly easily remedied, as was the penultimate, although it did involve a few minutes of swearing over a multitool as I attempted to pick out all the little bits of rock that had wedged themselves into the screw heads. And I can’t work out why the cleat suddenly came loose, after all these months.

The chain and the wonky wheel waited until I was safely (and lengthily) ensconced on Broadwick Street. I’ve only recently learned how to true wheels, and still don’t entirely trust my own ability, particularly because I’ve been informed by those who claim to know that wheelbuilding is more of an art than a science, and involves skill, talent and sensitivity that I almost certainly don’t possess. But I think I made a reasonable job of it. It’s by no means perfectly true, but it no longer actually ripples as you spin it, and it’s a lot nicer to ride on.

To my surprise, and not inconsiderable delight, very little has gone wrong with Evelyn since I built him. Today was clearly the day he got his own back.

Later on that morning, I was legging it down Kingsway and my brake cable snapped. This has never happened to me before, and it was a little disconcerting.

And I couldn’t be bothered to go to a shop and fix it, so I just went brakeless for the rest of the day. It’s amazing the extent to which my cycling habits are dictated by laziness. People often point out that one of the advantages of riding fixed is that there are far fewer components to go wrong. Absolutely. Ideal for laissez-faire bike mechanics such as myself. The trouble is, because there are no superfluous components, when something does go wrong, it tends to be something fairly vital. You can do without a mudguard or a few of the chainrings on your road bike. You can’t do without your front wheel, or your drive side crank. But it appears you can do without a brake.

I’ve considered going brakeless in the past, but never actually done so. Actually, this is also down to laziness. When I use my brake, it’s because I can’t be bothered to exert the muscles in my legs. But I’m also a bit scared that I’m just not capable of controlling the bike without it.

To make matters worse, at this point the storm that had been brewing for the past 24 hours finally broke, and I found myself riding along Lower Thames Street, through heavy traffic, with no brake, in torrential rain. It really was one of those days.

Except the rain was actually rather nice. It cleared the air, cooled me down and washed the stickiness off my skin. And it meant that most of the pedestrians and civilian cyclists buggered off and let me have the road to myself. And to my surprise riding brakeless wasn’t nearly as scary as I thought it would be. I had half-thought I might have to admit defeat and make an unscheduled stop at a bike shop. Now I began to wonder whether I should actually just forget about brakes altogether in future. It would be another steep learning curve though. I noticed I was far less confident on the bike without brakes, and took fewer risks, and didn’t throw myself around quite so much.

I was passing Brixton Cycles on my way home, so I stopped and bought a new brake cable and fitted it then and there. Being as I’m such a lazy mechanic, completing a simple task like this gave me a massive surge of achievement and capability. And this joined the surge of achievement and capability I was already experiencing as a result of riding around brakeless all afternoon. I began to feel less like a loser, and more like a superhero. The day had turned around. By now I’d got my second wind (finally), and the strength had started to seep back into my legs. My skin felt clean and fresh and alive after the rain. With my brake reconnected I rode home swiftly and flamboyantly, fully in control of the bike and the road again, screeching in and out of the traffic just as I always have.

And I didn’t touch the brake once. It’s clearly only a placebo.

Words in the world

June 18, 2011

I’m back on the road. Thank god.

Back to legitimate binge eating.

Second breakfast, 9.30am. (Might also have been third breakfast. I lose track.)

And back to feeling like I’m part of the world again.

Working from home is a funny business. If you’re not careful, you can go the whole day without any human contact whatsoever, or at least without exercising your vocal chords. But then again, as I’ve been discussing with various people, working on the road doesn’t always give you all that much human contact either. Couriering is essentially a solitary occupation, punctuated by brief and repetitive encounters with receptionists and security guards.

“Am I in the right place with this?”
“Whereabouts is your postroom please?”
“And what’s your name?”
“How do I spell that?”
“Just sign in the box please.”
“Thank you.”
“You too.”

The difference is in your presence. You’re right there, in the middle of whatever’s going on. You’re not reading about it, or studying it, or looking out of the window at it. You’re part of it. You’re in amongst it. You may not be directly engaging with it, but if you wanted to, you could.

One day last December the magistrate’s court on Horseferry Road was surrounded by so many press photographers and satellite vans that I could barely get my bike through the crowd. I wondered what was going on, but not for longer than a couple of minutes, because as soon as I got to 89 Albert Embankment (my next pick-up), the big Sky News screens in the reception were showing exactly the same scene, and informed me that Julian Assange was being refused bail. Aha.

But of course, I don’t have my finger so much on the pulse that I don’t sometimes entirely miss something. On Tuesday a TV screen in a reception on Noel Street informed me that one of the buildings on Aldwych was on fire. I didn’t get any work going that way for the rest of the day, and had it not been for BBC news, I’d have had no idea.

Still, I’d noticed the traffic was a bit crazier than usual, and wondered whether something might be going on somewhere, and hoping it wasn’t another cyclist being hit by a lorry. A couple of years ago I was sitting in Cavendish Square when a warning came over the radio to avoid Oxford Street, because a pedestrian had been hit by a bus, and right at that moment I heard a helicopter above me, and looked up to see the air ambulance descending. Everyone else in the square noticed it the same moment, and legged it hilariously to the sidelines to watch the helicopter land right there on the grass, and the paramedics jump out and rush towards the site of the collision. And within minutes the traffic along all the neighbouring streets was gridlocked. It sometimes only takes one blockage to snarl up the whole of the West End.

I don’t just hear about these things on the news – I notice their effects on the street. They make a difference to my day, however tangentially. If I were still sitting at my desk writing about things I have no interest in, I’d hear about what was going on from the news, or from my friends, but it wouldn’t make anywhere near as much of an impression on me.

Here’s another example of how your presence in it immeasurably enriches your perception of the world.

I’m reading Edmund White’s The Farewell Symphony. I like reading books about places I’ve visited. I like it even better when I get to read them in the actual location where they were set or written. It lends a corporality to what is usually considered an entirely cerebral experience. This is why I think I’ll always read real books, even though everyone tells me to get a Kindle, and I admit that it would probably lighten my load. I like the physicality of books. I like rummaging my way through them, breaking their spines, turning down their corners and scribbling in their margins. So many of my books have coffee stains that it looks deliberate. Often they’ll take me back to particular coffee shop tables in Cambridge, Delhi and New York. I weave my life into books, leaving bookmarks like clues in a treasure hunt – I love picking up a book after several years and rediscovering old train tickets and receipts and other odds and ends from a long-past, half-forgotten chapter of my life. I like the size and weight and texture of books. I like the way I remember a certain passage just as much by whether it appears recto or verso, or near the top, middle or bottom of the page, as by where in the text it occurs.

As Paul Auster points out, reading and writing have a distinctly corporeal element, at least for some people.

Writing is physical for me. I always have the sense that the words are coming out of my body, not just my mind. I write in longhand, and the pen is scratching the words onto the page. I can even hear the words being written. … Not only do you write books physically, but you read books physically as well. There’s something about the rhythms of language that correspond to the rhythms of our own bodies. An attentive reader is finding meanings in the book that can’t be articulated, finding them in his or her body.

And the physicality goes beyond person, pen and paper. As we sit fingering the pages, the world is taking place around us. A book will mean something different to me if I read it tucked up in bed in the evening than it would if I read it somewhere out in the world. And if I read it in the particular milieu in which it was set, then my appreciation of the text will be heightened by the way in which it echoes – or contrasts or clashes with – what I see and feel around me.

Yesterday this passage from The Farewell Symphony was given a much greater resonance – and a hearty twinge of irony – by the fact that I was actually sitting on a park bench as I read it.

"I never saw the book for sale anywhere, I never saw anyone reading it on a park bench or in the subway..."

I do wish Edmund White had walked past and seen me.

Thank You

June 6, 2011

I nearly won a blogging award last week.

But in the end I was pipped to the post by the excellent Bike Shop Girl.

I’m still happy. I was delighted even to make it into the nominations, and never expected that an amateur blog like mine would stand any chance against some of the big names I was competing against.

And given that the awards were based on a public vote, I suspect I have a lot of you to thank for my near-success.

So, thank you.

Drunk and disorderly

May 27, 2011

I have just drunk a bottle of wine and several cocktails, and really shouldn’t be posting on my blog. And I definitely shouldn’t be cycling home from central London, which I just did.

(If you’re one of my parents you should probably stop reading now. Actually, it’s too late – you might as well carry on.)

I know, I know. You can spare me the lecture.

The curious – and comforting – thing is, I feel much safer cycling home drunk than I would walking, or taking the bus, or almost anything else. When I get on the bike I’m back in my element. After all, I spend so much time cycling, and so little time walking, that I’m more comfortable on two wheels than I am on two feet. I’m actually not all that good at walking, as a matter of fact. My feet and legs and hips are all out of alignment, and I have all sorts of aches and pains that mean I have to be very careful how I tread. If I put a foot down in the wrong way, I sometimes wobble, or stagger, or have a sharp stab of pain. Walking is something I have to concentrate on at the best of times, and when I’m drunk …well.

Imagine a fish out of water. Yes? Flailing and flapping and gasping and spluttering? Now drop it back into the fish tank. It’s suddenly a creature of grace and beauty again. And that’s what I’m like. As soon as I get on the bike I’m fine. I’m back in control.

This goes back to what I was saying about muscle memory and subconscious movement a few days ago. That assurance I’ve begun to feel when I stop thinking and let my body and the bike carry me through a difficult knot in the traffic – I feel the same thing when I swing my leg over the saddle and clip my feet into the pedals when I’m drunk. I don’t have to think any more. I know I’m safe. Even when I ride a bit more recklessly, and throw myself around the corners, my body seems to have developed enough innate balance to be able to swing me out of it, or just not to let me lose control in the first place.

I seem to be a better cyclist when I’m drunk. I tackle obstacles like traffic and narrow gateways and raised kerbs more adeptly. I even seem to get up hills more efficiently. And yes, I have asked myself whether this is really the case, or just the misperceptions of a drunken imagination. I think it’s true. You know how you’re much less likely to hurt yourself if you fall off drunk than if you fall off sober? This is because your body is more relaxed, less inhibited. It just goes with the flow. And I think it’s the same when I ride drunk. It’s taken a good few years, but I now know how the road works so well that this knowledge has sunk into my subconscious. My conscious mind doesn’t need to do anything any more. In fact, it’s better off just keeping out of it. It’s when I start to think and plan and worry that things go wrong.

(I wonder if I’ll agree with myself tomorrow morning.)

That Wage Slave Chick

May 22, 2011

Then:

Now:

Only three weeks to go. But who’s counting?

(I’m counting.)


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