Archive for March, 2010

Notes on a Tuesday

March 30, 2010

Here’s a few odd things that happened today.

I went to Fullcity. (Did I mention? Lawrence’s shop now has a name. Has had for some time, in fact.) In order to save the planet, they’ve started recycling cups for their regulars.

I found a map of our route for this weekend, in the toilet of a hedge fund in Mayfair.

I remembered one of the few disadvantages of the warmer weather – bare calves get really grubby on a wet day.

I continued to monitor the progress of the magnolia trees. I reckon they’ll be in their full glory over the weekend, when I’m out of town. Bah.

And I spent quite a bit of time fretting about the ride this weekend. I’m sure it’ll all be fine, but at the moment I feel the way you do about 30 seconds into a big hill, where you’re already out of breath, and thinking ‘how am I going to make it to the top of this, when I’m exhausted already?’ But you always do, and then everything’s wonderful.


The point of the road bike

March 29, 2010

Look at this tree!

Magnolia season is just a few days away.

This time last year, I’d been a courier for six months, survived my first winter, and was expecting to reap my rewards as spring rolled towards summer. Instead, I began to regret my job for the first time. Why? Because suddenly all my friends were getting back on their bikes, going for long rides around London in the evenings, and out into the country at the weekend – and I didn’t have the energy to join them!

It’s part of the perpetual love/hate/love/hate dynamic of the job. Yes, you get to cycle all day, and sometimes you can hardly believe your luck. But you only ever get to see a few square miles of central London, between 8am and 6pm. Even riding home late at night becomes a bit of a novelty.

And that’s one of the reasons I bought the Salsa – to give myself an incentive to do different kinds of cycling, and to break myself out of the narrow circle of inner-city fixed-gear sprinting. My background is in touring, and I deliberately chose the Casseroll as a fast yet sturdy bike, that’ll cope with quick dashes up to Cambridge or down to Brighton, but also with the occasional weekend away with a tent, or even something a bit longer…

And it’s working! I’ve had the bike two weekends so far, and both of them have been spent riding out to distant corners of London I’d forgotten existed. The other day Greg and Dean and I went to do some hill training in north London.

Admittedly I have more photos of us sitting in cafes than I do of us climbing hills, but that’s always going to be the case really – I’d need to be a better cyclist than I am to ride one-handed up Highgate West.

Here’s a shot of one of the hills we tackled. (I wonder why they always look less steep in photos?)

If you look carefully, you can see the London skyline in the distance. (I’d even forgotten you get views from hills!) And my new-found enthusiasm (and the Salsa) took me down to south London in the afternoon (where there are more hills), so I saw it from the other side too!

I actually really like going uphill – I think it has something to do with being a control freak (compare this to the fact that I’m a very slow descender). And also, I’ve climbed enough hills in my time to remember that, no matter how much you dread it beforehand, and no matter how much you suffer on the way up, you’ll feel amazing once you get to the top.

Bring on Cornwall!

The next adventure

March 25, 2010

In exactly a week, these four reprobates will be riding from Lands End to Leather Lane (that’s in London), to raise money for the LCEF.

Cripes. How far’s that?

300 miles.

HOW far?

Well, give or take. Depends how much we get lost.

And you’ll take about a week, right?

Three days, actually.

Remind me why you’re doing this?

To raise money for the London Courier Emergency Fund.

What’s that when it’s at home?

Well, cycle couriers work as self-employed subcontractors. If they have to take time off, whether it’s for a holiday, a hangover, or a hurty knee, they don’t get paid. And if a courier gets hit by a bus and breaks her leg – well, you can imagine. Several months in plaster, watching the bills stack up, and not making any money to pay them. The LCEF is a community-run fund, that provides help and financial support to couriers who have suffered an injury whilst at work.

That really sucks. Can’t the couriers form a union, and campaign for better working conditions?

It’s been tried in the past. The short answer is no.

How terrible. What can I do to help?

That’s very kind of you. The best thing is to donate money to the LCEF, via the PayPal link on their webpage. (I’d set up an online donations page, but the LCEF isn’t a registered charity. You are welcome to boast publicly about your donation though, to guilt-trip encourage others.)

I’m on it. Anything else?

Well, the intrepid foursome will be accepting donations of cake, socks, inner tubes and other important items, and if you live between Lands End and London, you could come out and cheer us on. And if you’re in London, we’ll be finishing at Fullcity Cycles (72 Leather Lane, EC1N 7TR – no website yet), and you’d be welcome to come along with beer, pizza, champagne, cake, that sort of thing. I mean, what else is there to do on a Sunday afternoon between bank holidays?

Tell me more!

We’ll be updating our Facebook statuses several times a day, and I’m hoping to work out a way of posting to this blog from my (not-very-flashy) phone (suggestions welcome). A Twitter feed is also a possibility, though that might be overdoing it – we will have to do some cycling at some point, after all. There will also be hundreds of photos taken along the way, and a video diary, to be published soon after the event.

Tune in to see how we cope with riding gears, and not being able to stop every 10 minutes to drink lattes and flirt with receptionists.

Any more questions?

Hormones, and other disasters

March 24, 2010

Sometimes it’s hard to be a woman. Two or three days of every month in particular. And you’re not supposed to talk about it, so no one ever finds out that I’m riding 60 miles a day, charming all the usual receptionists, and maintaining my position as the golden girl of the fleet, despite being in physical pain sometimes so intense that it makes me whimper out loud, and fighting off vicious hormones that reduce my spatial awareness, impair my judgment, and leave me completely physically exhausted.

It’s not fair!

This becomes my internal refrain for those two or three days – just as it was on my very first day as a courier, which unfortunately happened at exactly the wrong time of the month. The thing is, everyone expects that girls won’t last long, and if a girl does quit after a couple of weeks (as a high proportion of couriers do), people are inclined to think it’s because she’s a girl, rather than just because she wasn’t up to the job. Or maybe that’s just my paranoia. Whether or not this is the case, I’ve always felt like I have a lot more to prove, and so I’ve put a huge amount of effort into being – if not necessarily the fastest, then definitely the most efficient, reliable, capable courier in the fleet. Sometimes I succeed. Sometimes, like today, I fail in spectacular fashion.

I’ve been feeling awful for a couple of days. Not only have I been in pain; I’ve had no energy – or, worse, a sort of negative energy, that would pull me into the ground if I gave it the chance. It’s as though I’m surrounded with a thick grey fog – so thick that I can’t even see my hands or feet properly. I keep bumping into things, misjudging gaps, tripping over kerbs. The world feels like it’s at more of a distance than usual. When I pedal, I feel like I’m dragging the bike across a muddy field, into a headwind. When I walk, I can barely lift my feet, and my eyes continually fall to the pavement, as though all their muscles have worn out. Whenever I was on standby today, I found I couldn’t muster the energy to read – or even to think. I just stared into space. Ordinarily I’m excited to be given a job – today it was a nuisance to be called away, although I could barely muster the energy to be annoyed. And keeping my concentration on the road, where I was going, and what I was delivering, was a constant sturggle.

At around 2pm I was given two pick-ups in the west end, heading out to EC1. As I picked up the second one, I noticed I hadn’t POB-ed the first, so hurriedly updated it, and hoped no one would notice – I really wasn’t in a state to be told off for running late on a job. I crawled over to Fetter Lane for the first drop, and found myself staring into an empty bag. The feeling of losing a package is almost as bad as that horrible jolt you get when you come out of a building and realize your bike isn’t where you left it (thankfully, every time I’ve done the latter, I’ve quickly remembered that actually I left it someone else), except it lasts a lot longer. I’ve only had it once before – and that after I read this article, and vowed I would never ever let such a thing happen to me.

There was a terrible sinking, shrinking feeling in my chest as I stopped, put the bag down, and began to hunt methodically through all its different compartments, knowing as I did so that I’d only ever have put the envelopes in the main bit, and if they weren’t there, they weren’t anywhere. I eventually found one of them tucked in next to my A-Z; the other just wasn’t there. And then, suddenly, heartstoppingly, I realized that I’d never picked the package up in the first place. I’d just ridden straight past. This does occasionally happen when you’re tired, or not paying attention, but I’ve always noticed within a minute or so, sheepishly retraced my steps, and only lost a minute or two. There was no way I could do this now. The pick-up was on Dean Street; I was at Holborn Circus – I could never sneak back without the controllers noticing. What was worse – I’d POB-ed the job, so they were under the impression that I’d picked it up and all was well, and completely unaware that any minute now they might be about to get a phonecall from an angry client, demanding to know why the courier wasn’t there yet.

I had no choice but to tell them. My head was buzzing with panic, and my chest was so tight that my voice sounded rough and hollow even to me. Not only did I have to tell them that I’d forgotten to pick up the package – I also had to explain how I’d ended up POB-ing it. And there was no good explanation. I don’t know what I was thinking. In fact, I almost certainly wasn’t thinking – I was probably just plodding along, suffocating under this horrible grey fog of pain and exhaustion and blankness.

The controller I spoke to was clearly pissed off, but to his credit, didn’t take too much of it out on me. Which is probably just as well, because as soon as I’d dropped the remaining package, and legged it over to Lawrence’s, I broke into tears of embarrassment and frustration. I have no doubt that my delicate hormonal state was mostly to blame for the day’s doldrums and disasters, and my main emotion was a sort of impotent anger. Why do I have to put up with this, when none of the men do? Why, when I try so hard and so constantly to be good at my job, am I let down so regularly by my own body? (It used to be a rule of mine that I would never take time off because of female-specific ailments. The pain’s got so bad in recent months that I’ve had to.) Why, if something must go wrong with me, can it not be something like a sore knee, that’s easily explained to and understood by the controllers? Why do I have to suffer in silence, when the job is twice as hard for two or three days every month?

And what made me most furious was that, as I came out with all this, in between my sobs, I was fulfilling all the well-trodden stereotypes of the hysterical woman, completely controlled by her hormones, and unable to contain her emotions. Luckily, the blokes in the shop were sympathetic types, and at least gave the impression of not writing me off as a lunatic. And, when I asked whether there’s any comparable millstone for men that I don’t know about, Lawrence pointed out that men are a lot less able to express their emotions, which helps to avoid outbursts like mine, but does lead to all sorts of other strange behaviour, like football, war, and driving black cabs.

He may have a point, though it didn’t make much of an impression on me then. Luckily, all the work suddenly tailed off at about that point, so I spent the next hour or so slumped listlessly at the back of the shop, trying in vain to focus on the world, and willing time to pass quickly so that I could go home. I wasn’t interested in getting any more jobs, and when I did, the fear that another career-ending mistake was just round the corner meant I was constantly checking myself:

“Have I definitely got the package in my bag?”

“Where am I going next?”

“Am I about to ride into a bus?”

I’m home now, and it’s almost over for another month. And, as I always do, I find myself wondering if things would be any different if the world were built around women’s needs rather than men’s. Really would they? And how?

The new ride

March 23, 2010

I finally got round to taking some photos!

Isn’t it lovely?

No name as yet…

Things Fall Apart

March 22, 2010

The SIDIs cannot hold.

Last week I spent a lot of money on my new bike. In fact, it was the most money I’ve ever spent in one go. It was so much that the till in Brixton Cycles couldn’t cope with that many digits, and they had to give me two separate receipts. I gazed at them with a mixture of awe and dismay, and the uncomfortable realization that each amount was more than I would ever have considered spending on a bike four years ago. By a long chalk. And now I’ve spent twice that.

It’s alarming how quickly your standards (and limits) creep upwards. When I got into cycling it struck me as reasonable to spend £100 on a nice hybrid from Halfords, for a 5-mile commute and the odd 20-mile pootle at weekends. Four years later, I spend more than that on my shorts, and cover more miles than that every day. And most of the time that strikes me as perfectly normal.

When I got my first pair, about 18 months ago, SIDIs were the height of extravagance. Could I really justify spending three figures on shoes? (I’m not that sort of girl. I think the most I’d ever spent before was £60, on a pair of Doc Martens that have lasted me six years.) Until then I’d been wearing scruffy old Shimanos – usually other people’s cast-offs, or the cheapest I could find. SIDIs were a step up, in both style and substance.

And then they wore out. And I bought some more. And in the last week or so, I’ve had to admit that they’ve worn out too.

The sole is coming off one of them.

I’ve broken one of the fastenings (which means I have to sit down and fiddle with the spring for ten minutes whenever I want to take them off).

The treads are worn down to nothing.

(Though, incredibly, the amazing Time Atac cleats are still clipping in and staying in, despite having been worn down to almost nothing. This gives me a very rare warm glow – the warm glow of finding a piece of kit that really is worth its salt. I tried out Crank Bros (eggbeaters) before these ones, and the cleats lasted exactly three weeks. The pedals lasted four weeks. The ensuing dispute with Crank Bros lasted about three months.)

So I sought the advice of Carl at Condor. Like Chris from Swrve, he treats my alacrity at wearing out kit as a both an interesting scientific experiment and a personal challenge. He confirmed my fears, that it’s not worth buying a cheaper brand, because I’ll wear through them in four months instead of eight. And, as a solution to my wearing-out-the-soles problem, he got me to upgrade from SIDI Dominators (as seen on every courier, polo player and hipster in town) to SIDI Dragons, which have removable treads (like football boots), and cost quite a bit more. Oh god. In the same week I spent, erm… lots and lots on a bike, I’ve spent a three-figure sum on shoes. And none of those figures was a one.

I can only take comfort from the fact that the old Dominators really wouldn’t have lasted more than a couple of days. If I’d replaced them a couple of months ago, while there was still wear in them, I wouldn’t have ended up spending all this money at once, but I’d have spent more in the long run. I’ll probably get through another 40 or so pairs of these in my life. But if I wear them till they actually fall apart, I might squeeze it down to 35…

Why do couriers smell so bad?

March 22, 2010


You get dressed. If it’s cold outside, you’ll need to be wearing most of your clothes on top of each other. Few couriers are organized or wealthy enough to have enough clothes that there will always be an entirely clean outfit in the wardrobe. In fact, few couriers have wardrobes.

So, you sort through the pile on the floor. No clean shorts? Well yes, there are some, but you didn’t get round to washing them till late last night, and they’re still damp. Yesterday’s aren’t too obviously putrid. They’ll do.

Baselayer? Well, you’ve been wearing the same one for three days in a row… oh OK, five. But it’s made of merino, and that’s smell-proof, right? Besides, you’ll be covered in sweat anyway, within 10 minutes of getting on the bike, so what difference does it make?

Baselayer number two: same rationale.

Outer layer: well, you’re wearing so many baselayers it’s barely going to touch your body, so might as well wear the nicer, newer, nattier one, and ignore the threadbare second-best one, even though the latter is technically cleaner, and has been sitting untouched in your drawer for two weeks.

Trusty Swrve Hoodie: holds it all in. But smells quite bad itself. It’s the combination of stale sweat seeping out from the inside, and rain water seeping in from the outside, and never being allowed to dry properly overnight.

Socks: well, it’s going to rain, so obviously you’ll be needing the Sealskinz, even though you haven’t had a chance to wash them for… never mind. And the nice long woolly ones to go over them. Yes you wore them yesterday too, but they’re the only ones that keep your calves properly warm – and anyway, the smelly bit’ll be hidden in your shoes. Yes.

You leave the house. It’s raining. And you know how kit smells after a day in the rain? If you don’t, try not to find out. You race into town (sweating furiously), and then spend an hour drinking coffee and waiting for jobs. The sweat cools down and dries off. You get a job. Hurrah! The coffee makes you ride about 4mph faster than you usually would. You get hot. The sweat from an hour ago is brought back to life by the second wave of sweat.

The process repeats itself, perhaps about 30 times. 30 waves of sweat. If it’s rainy, or windy, or especially hot, all your exposed skin will get covered with road grime, condensed traffic fumes, or that itching powder pollen that the plane trees start vomiting in May.

You do your laundry. After a fashion. Being a bit of an eco-warrior, and an owner of overpriced Assos kit that doesn’t like being boiled, you’ll be using Ecover and washing at 30°c. And being totally knackered, and perhaps the worse for a couple of beers, you’ll probably fall asleep before the washing machine’s finished. And will then forget all about it till you get home the following evening, by which time the clothes will smell nice and musty. I’ve been told this smell becomes a permanent feature if you make this mistake often enough.

You lose your sense of perspective. I used to be almost obsessive about personal hygiene. As a teenager, I showered morning and evening, cleaned my teeth at least five times between breakfast and bed, and washed my hair every single day or I would die. Now I measure myself by slightly more lenient standards. I smell better than tramps. And than some of the other couriers. (I’m pretty sure.)

You become self-righteous. This smell? It’s the scent of an honest living! It’s a sign that my body’s functioning at the peak of its physical fitness and ability! It’s a sign that I eschew your Hugo Boss, your Calvin Klein, your Body Shop, your Molton Brown. (Well, actually I do sometimes smell of Molton Brown – it’s the handsoap of choice in the posh toilets I sneak into.)

You have other things to worry about. Like paying the rent. And the state of your knees. And finding your next meal. And whether your bike’s going to fly apart while you’re riding along at 20mph.

And getting enough sleep – which I’m definitely not doing at the moment! Good night.

Here’s a sneak preview…

March 18, 2010

…of my new bike! (I spent more time riding it than I did taking pictures.)

More – much more – to come.

(And yes, that is a derailleur you see before you.)

Birthday post

March 17, 2010

Yesterday was my birthday, and a lovely sunny day for it. I was told by my mother, when I was very young, that the 16th of March is one of the first days of spring, and therefore almost always warm and sunny, so I always feel a bit peeved and indignant if it turns out to be rainy.

One of the nice chaps I met on the bridge last week had kindly invited me to tag along with him during the day, so I headed down to Tribeca to wait for him. An unscheduled rear cassette issue meant he was about 20 minutes late, so I drank a coffee, sunbathed, and was asked for directions by no less than five passers-by, who had clearly mistaken me for a local bike messenger and assumed I knew my way round, which I didn’t. Ha.

(Ahhh, the familiar sight of bike, bag and coffee. I’m looking forward to going back to work on Friday…)

Drew finally arrived, and took me up to his office, which happened to have one of the best views I’ve seen yet.

We picked up a package, and headed uptown, along Hudson. After a few blocks, it made sense to both of us to stop for a bagel.

I’ve got into the habit of whipping out my camera whenever anyone puts food in front of me, and Drew seemed to think this was a good idea too. It reminded him of an evening when a photographer friend of his desperately needed two models at the last minute, and he and his girlfriend were drafted into a shoot for a restaurant, where they simply had to eat and drink for several hours, and be photographed doing so. Needless to say, I was awed to be in the presence of a bona fide food model, so insisted on taking this shot, which I’ll use for boasting purposes when he’s modelling caviar for Armani, and I can claim I knew him way-back-when.

We eventually got round to delivering the package. Postrooms seem to be the same the world over – and the elevator guy will always let you in without a murmur if you look like a bike messenger. Terrorism schmerrorism.

I took some grainy action shots.

They didn’t come out terribly well.

We got worms.

I followed him down to the river.

Then waved goodbye and headed north, along the Greenway, towards Washington Heights, right at the tip of Manhattan.

It was a long way.

At one point the road disappeared.

And the path crumbled away into the river.

But it resumed again after a couple of minutes.

I got all the way to the top of the island, turned round, and headed back down Broadway, which goes right from the top of Manhattan to the bottom. It’s a bit hillier up north, which means there are excellent views of Broadway sweeping down into the canyons of Midtown.

As I was passing Columbia, the bike started wobbling, and I heard that telltale FFFSSSSSSSSSSSSHHHHHHHHHhhhhhhhhh……… sound, followed by a rather alarming ting – ting – ting – ting. I was a bit worried I’d broken a spoke, or something more serious, but it turned out to be just a rather impressive Birthday Puncture.

It was easily fixed, thankfully.

But I’m glad I stopped in Toga Bikes, because my Condor got to make friends with a rather dishy brakeless number.

There was, regrettably, no birthday cake – but I made up for that this morning, with an apple cobbler cupcake from Crumbs.

And now I’m just killing time, waiting for the bus that will take me to the plane, that will take me to Heathrow, where the tube will take me back home, and then down to Brixton – where I’ll pick up my new bike, and embark on the next adventure!

Over the last few days…

March 17, 2010

…I have been having lots of fun, and therefore not blogging (or photographing) as assiduously as usual.

There was a lot of rain over the weekend, which made me very glad I’m on holiday, and didn’t have to go out on my bike. That said, I did, and quickly realized why jeans are a bad idea. When they get wet, they get stiff, and chafe you. I’ll be going straight back to the lycra when I get home.

I spent lots of time reading in cafes.

And browsing in bookshops.

Needless to say, there was a lot of cake.

(Rather nice carrot cupcake, from an unpromising diner I happened to stumble into during a rainstorm.)

(Magnolia again. I didn’t mean to go back, but it was the only place open.)

(Butter Lane again. Because they were my favourites.)

And I’m starting to get to the stage where I’m a bit sick of cupcakes, and looking forward to getting home and eating bread, and carrots, and other things that won’t make me bounce off the walls. Which is a bit sad, but probably just as well really.