Archive for August, 2010

The Idiots’ School Of Messengering

August 28, 2010

They say you learn something new every day. Well, I don’t. I learn something old every day. Something I’ve already learned, often more than once, but forgotten, and now have to learn all over again.

Here are a few of this week’s valuable lessons, all of which are things I really should know by now.

‘Wearing as little as possible’ is not an acceptable summer waterproofing solution. Mind you, wearing the useless Montane jacket, that lets in all the rain and then keeps it in, so that you get a waterfall out of each sleeve whenever you straighten your arms isn’t all that great either. And it’s still way too warm for the Swrve Milwaukee, so you’ll end up fighting rain with sweat. Just face it. You’re going to be drenched whatever you wear. But if you wear as little as possible, you’ll end up riding home late at night, with your teeth chattering, barely able to keep the bike straight because you’re shivering so much. So don’t do it in future. Please. Thank you.

Your Abus lock always gets sticky on rainy days. So carry that mini can of WD40 you own for the express purpose of unsticking it. I mean, really. You even checked the forecast. You should have known this would happen.

A new pair of Assos shorts will breed wardrobe dissatisfaction. By making you realize how old and threadbare and uncomfortable all your other shorts are. Even the two-year-old Assos ones. Was it really worth it?

Don’t put off changing your tyres for ‘one more day’, especially if you’ve actually bought the new tyres already and they’re sitting in the corner of your room. Even if you get in really late, shivering and teeth-chattering because you’ve been wearing as little as possible and riding around in the rain all day. Because the next day it’ll be raining again, and all the little shards of glass in the road will be floating pointy-side-up. And if both tyres are so old that they’re literally full of big gaping holes, then yes, of course you’re going to get punctures. (Interestingly, both tyres wore out at exactly the same time, even though the front one was a Bontrager and the back one an Armadillo. I can’t remember if I put them on at the same time though.) And if you’re stupid enough only to have one spare tube between two holey tyres, then it’s entirely your own fault that, when a big piece of glass rips a hole in your Armadillo at 5.10, when it’s pouring with rain and you have four jobs on board, you rip the valve head off when pumping it up, and have to waste another half an hour running to the nearest Evans to buy new tubes – and a new tyre too, even though you have one at home, because the old one is so knackered that there’s no chance it’ll get you that far. Idiot.

Get a proper spanner. You’re ruining your track nuts.

You need to slow down when turning from Euston Road onto Fitzroy Street. Haven’t you skinned enough elbows there? You really should know better by now.

Shut up about summer being ‘just as hard as winter’. It really isn’t. You never remember, until it happens, just how physically draining it is riding around all day in the cold and the wet, rather than just riding around all day. Bad weather is so exhausting that you start to fall asleep an hour earlier than usual in the evenings. And, while you can get away with cheap and cheerful kit in summer, winter is where everything starts to go wrong, every day. So get ahead now. Stock up on batteries and spare tubes. Replace your chain and your brake pads. Get your winter bike back on the road.

Stop procrastinating.


You’ll thank yourself, come December.

Get on with it.


You don’t own the road you know!

August 22, 2010

Erm, actually…

Another boring post about food

August 18, 2010

One of the best things about courierering is that it makes you appreciate the simplest necessities of life – food, sleep, shelter – as if they were its greatest luxuries. When you get in from a hard day on the road, a plate of cheap pasta with own-brand pesto is as satisfying as fresh tagliatelle, smothered in freshly picked basil, and served under a Tuscan sunset. After 40 hilly miles in the rain, the mediocre lasagne that Messenger of Doom and I ate in a teashop in Builth Wells tasted so good that I almost cried, and couldn’t stop going on about it for hours. I’ve paid a lot more for food that gave me a lot less pleasure.

And there’s also a certain satisfaction in making the most of what is, after all, one of the most fundamental human impulses. Never have I been such a sensualist. But rather than getting my kicks from champagne, cocaine, air travel, or anything else Sinatra had to sing about, I’m getting off on something I’m supposed to do anyway. It feels gloriously neat and efficient. Why seek out pleasure and purpose from life, when it’s already there, in your clamorous stomach?

So that’s why I think other people will probably find it boring when I go on and on about food. Because they have much more sophisticated ways of seeking fulfilment – like shopping, and transcendental meditation, and recreational drugs, and driving BMWs. I don’t need any of that. I just need this.

It looks like omelette and salad, doesn’t it? Well it’s not. It’s happiness on a plate.

And here’s the first perk of autumn. Remember those blackberries in my front garden?

I picked some.

And I turned them into crumble.

And I went to bed happy.

Autumn’s here

August 16, 2010

No, really it is.

There are blackberries in my front garden, and look at the difference a week has made to the colour of this tree (in Mount Street Gardens, if you want to go and see for yourself).

And lots of the trees are losing their leaves already.

It feels as though the summer was so hot that it’s burnt itself out early – the trees have had to endure so much heat that they don’t have the energy left to hang onto their leaves any more.

And in the past few weeks, I’ve noticed the summer slowly starting to roll downhill into autumn. A couple of months ago it was still light when I went to bed at 10pm, and there was that crazy, slightly manic sense of never seeing proper darkness. I found I slightly missed it. But in just four months it’ll be dark most of the time, and I’ll never see my house in daylight.

Today I rode west after work, and could barely see into the sun, and remembered my first October on circuit, and how dazzling the light was as I rode along Fleet Street towards the Strand at 5pm – because the sun was dropping down to the horizon, just about to set.

I don’t know why I feel so wistful about all this though. After all, there are still a few weeks left of summer, and plenty of brisk, frosty autumn days to enjoy before it gets really cold. And winter is fun too, in a masochistic, grim endurance, look-how-hard-we-all-are kind of way. Perhaps it’s because the anticipation is the worst part, and I know now that I’m standing at the top of a long slope that I’m going to have to roll down, all the way to December 21st.

But for now, blackberry crumbles, lots more pretty leaves, and maybe we’ll squeeze in one or two more night rides, before it gets too cold. Anyone up for breakfast in Brighton in the next few weeks?

And yes. Winter number three. Here we go.

Boycott Knog

August 13, 2010

For many reasons, but mainly this:

The packaging says “A lab test revealed that if you give these kinky self-adhesive patches to girls they’ll fix their bike puncture quick smart and ride away with a bike as sexy on the inside as the outside, and that if you give them to boys they’ll stick them on their nipples.”

And it has a naked woman on it, and looks a bit like a condom.

I am just fed up of all the sexism in cycling, and Knog should bloody well know better. When I bought some of their gloves, a couple of years ago, they came with a picture of two girls snogging, for no reason other than decoration and titillation. And where the hell is it written than woman’s purpose is to be decorative and titillating?

Sure, if you read it the right way, the text on the packaging could imply that girls are practical, and capable of fixing their own punctures (and that boys are silly and infantile – but I’ll leave someone else to get worked up about that). But why all this ‘sexiness’? Why call them Porno Patches? Why the nudity?

I find, day after day, postroom guy after postroom guy, that it’s very difficult for men to be friendly to women (and friendliness involves giving an indication that you like someone – hence why blokes call each other ‘mate’, i.e. “I want to be your friend”) without paying them some sort of compliment, which almost inevitably means a reference to their attractiveness or desirability. It’s why people call me love-babe-darling-sweetie-honey all the time –  implying that they like me, and therefore wish I was their love-babe-darling-sweetie-honey. It winds me up no end, but I do realize they have the best of intentions. I just wish there was a way for them to be friendly without using terms of endearment I’d prefer only to hear in the privacy of my personal relationships.

And in the cycling world it gets even worse. If you want to express approval of something a girl does, you call it sexy. If it’s not obviously or particularly sexy to start with, redefine sexy.

You ride a Pashley in a summer dress? Well sexy.

You ride a brakeless fixie in baggy jeans? Umm… OK, that’s well sexy too.

You can’t fix a puncture? That’s OK, I’ll be all manly and do it for you. Helplessness is so sexy.

You fix your own punctures and built your own bike? Phwoar, capability is also sexy.

You ride faster than me? <gulp> Wow. Check out those glistening thighs.

You’re a courier? That’s hot!

You smell a bit ripe at the end of the day? Erm, that’s OK, I like my women au naturel.

…and so on, and so forth, and so exasperating.

And it works the other way round too. If I do something to annoy a driver, there’s a good chance he’ll lean out of his window and tell me how fat or ugly I am. Because, if the only way to compliment a woman is to refer to her physical desirability, then the only way to insult her is to imply that you wouldn’t bone her if she was the last chick on earth. Well thank god for that.

And don’t think I’m just blaming men for this. I’m blaming everyone, women included. Look at all those initiatives and companies and labels that have sprung up in the past few years, designed to get women out on bikes. I can’t think of a single one that, at some point, hasn’t assured women that, yes, they will still be pretty and glamorous and desirable whilst cycling, and look, here’s a skirt guard, and a pink helmet, and floral lycra to help you on your way. I have a lot of time for some of these companies, but nonetheless, I and several other female cyclists I know are continually fed up with the suggestion that all we want is to cruise around town at 5mph, looking adorable on a Pashley – or that any speed and skill we might achieve on our road bikes will always take second place to how good our hair looks, and whether our shorts are unflattering.

And people like Victoria Pendleton aren’t helping, with all her fuss about how you can be the fastest woman in the world, and yet not have lost your femininity, and still be seen in dresses and make-up, and still pose half-naked for FHM – implying that merely winning an Olympic gold isn’t enough; you’re not really successful unless you show that you’re a proper woman (by batting your eyelids and flashing your cleavage).

Can’t we just leave gender out of cycling altogether? I have so much more in common with the lycra louts than I do with the Pashley posse (apart from the small matter of a Y chromosome, which no one can see anyway when you’re wearing baggy shorts). I don’t care about looking pretty on the bike – in fact, I’d rather not, if it means people would leave me alone. And I’m much more concerned with how my kit performs than whether it makes my arse look smaller.

Or, if you simply must compliment someone in passing (and is there really any need? – compliments from friends I like; compliments from strangers I find unnerving), then try to say something they’ll actually find flattering. You only need to look at me (ripped shorts, baggy jumpers, hairy legs) to tell that I’m not the least bit interested in projecting my feminine charms. The only compliment I’ve ever really appreciated from a man was when a chap pulled up alongside me on Piccadilly and remarked “nice calves!” I was rather pleased. He didn’t sound lecherous at all, and I’ve put a lot of work into my calves (as oppose to my hairstyle, say), so it was nice to have them appreciated.

In fact (and I know I share this tendency with lots of other cyclists, male and female, straight and queer), I like a nice pair of calves myself. I’ve often followed someone for several minutes, totally mesmerised by the musculature of their lower legs. It makes no difference whether they’re male or female – because I’m not ogling them as an object of desire, I’m just admiring (and perhaps also slightly envying) their prowess as a cyclist, and the awesome effect this has had on their body. So when the chap commented on my calves, I like to think that he was complimenting me as a cyclist, rather than as a woman-on-a-bike.

So yes. This is why I think Knog have it wrong. They’re not saying that women are weaker cyclists or crap mechanics. They’re implying that the opposite is true, but that this strength and competence makes women sexy. Well, it doesn’t. It just makes them quick on two wheels and handy with a spanner. Sex – and gender, and that whole can of worms – doesn’t need to come into it at all.

And also – those really cool wraparound lights they do?

I really wanted to like them – they’re so well designed – but mine stopped working after just a couple of months of London winter. And the stitching came undone on my love/hate gloves. And since then I’ve been spending my money elsewhere.

And so should you.

Look Mum, there’s a new CycleLab in the Fullcity

August 12, 2010

There’s a new bikeshop café in town.

Well, actually there are several, but I’ve been diligently ignoring them, out of loyalty to Fullcity – where you should go, by the way, and have a coffee, and buy a bike, and eat some of my cake if I ever work out a way of transporting it in one piece from East Dulwich. So, let’s see…

Heading east from Fullcity, we have:

Café Rapha on Clerkenwell Road. Except it looks like that’s closed now. Ah well. All the more custom for Fullcity.

Look Mum No Hands on Old Street. I’ve only been here briefly, to see how it compared to Fullcity, and quickly left when I discovered that their coffee costs something like £2.50, and realized that they probably weren’t going to give it to me for free. But I reluctantly admit that it looks like a really nice place to hang out. They have cakes and things, and beer, and outdoor space, and lovely friendly mechanics and baristas, and a projector. Perhaps when I’m a management conslutant.

CycleLab on Pitfield Street. This is my new discovery. It’s just round the corner from the Foundry, and seems to be on one of the main transport arteries into the city – at least where bicycles are concerned. I spent half an hour sitting outside the other morning with Charlie Roadkill (pictured above, pretending he didn’t know I was taking a photo), and must have seen hundreds of cyclists merrily whizzing down the cycle lane from Dalston. And I thought of that H. G. Wells quote everyone keeps pulling out:

“When I see an adult on a bicycle, I do not despair for the human race.”

Somehow it’s true. I get an irrational surge of joy when I see so many people riding bikes just to get to work, or to the shops or the pub. Maybe the world’s getting the point after all. This even happens in the mornings, when there are regularly 30 or more cyclists waiting at certain junctions. I’m only slightly less overwhelmed when I have to fight my way through them.

But I was meant to be singing the praises of CycleLab.

They do coffee and juice, making them the ideal hangover hangout, and they’ve got a friendly system whereby they don’t actually give couriers free coffee, but instead ask you to donate whatever you think it’s worth (or whatever you have in your pocket). So the day before payday, or the day after you’ve had to replace your entire drivetrain, they probably won’t mind if you just give them 10p and a bit of fluff. And they sent me to pick up some parts from CycleSurgery in Spitalfields the other day, and paid me in juice. And if you life in north-east London, like the majority of couriers seem to, it’s a very handy spot to spend the first two hours of the day waiting for your first job, and ideally placed to check out the talent, laugh at the nodders, and wave cheerily at your courier friends who are already on their fifth docket.

(Oh, and if you head even further east, there’s Lock 7 on Broadway Market, but I haven’t been there, and I don’t know anyone else who has. I’m sure it’s lovely though.

Are there any more?)


August 12, 2010

I haven’t been around much lately. Sorry.

As I’ve probably mentioned, there’s not much of a living to be made out of couriering these days, so I have another job to make up the surplus. That keeps me busy for ten hours every Sunday. And if any freelance work comes in on top of that – well, things being as uncertain as they are, I’m very reluctant to say no. So for the past week or so I’ve been doing a full day on the road, coming in, working on the computer till bedtime, and then getting up and doing it all over again. It sometimes adds up to a 75-hour week, which is ridiculous.

But I’m not really complaining. There are lots of other people who do the same thing – and some of them have even more commitments than me, like families and so forth, or jobs that actually involve some skill and talent. And we’re all a heck of a lot better off than the poor sods trying to live on couriering alone. A friend told me the other week, with some pride, that he’d managed to get his entire weekly shop for £6.47. (I think it consisted mostly of pasta, own-brand Weetabix and very cheap bread.) At least I can pay my rent on time, and have a coffee every day without feeling guilty, like I used to when I didn’t have the back-up job.

But I have mixed feelings about all this work I’m doing. In a way it’s quite exhilarating – I like living to extremes, working hard and being busy, and it’s very satisfying to get to the end of the day and know that you’ve made every hour count. And yes, not having to worry about going bankrupt is a huge bonus. But there’s also the nagging sense that I’m missing out on the fun bits of life – and that I’ve somehow failed in being a courier if I don’t live it 24/7, and have to have a second job to support my first one. It’s bollocks, I know – I still do 50 hours a week on the road, and there’s no such thing as a ‘real’ courier anyway. And one of the dubious advantages of work being slow is that I get a lot of my downtime in between jobs – I’m reading more, exploring hidden corners of London I never spotted when I was racing past them with four jobs on board, and even rediscovering the cafe-hopping I used to enjoy as a student.

But I do sometimes wonder, as I race home from a quiet day of snoozing in parks, to sit up all night stressing into a laptop, whether I’m getting it wrong. What would be my other options? Well, I could bite the bullet and try and talk myself into a management conslutancy [accidental typo; deliberately uncorrected] job – and join the ranks of my uni friends who are perpetually complaining about 12 hours of meetings a day, and backstabbing each other over cocktails, and looking forward to their two weeks’ holiday per year, which they’ll spend comatose in a £500-per-night villa, because they’re too knackered to wake up and appreciate it. Or I could quit all the jobs except the cycling, and just get used to living on nothing again. it can be done, and it’s curiously restful – you never have to worry about what to spend your money on, because you don’t have any. Decision-making becomes gloriously simple. But it’s tough. And there are always unplanned expenses, like dentistry and council tax. And you can never tell when something’s going to go wrong with your bike. (Aga’s frame suddenly snapped last week – I’m not sure if she has a new one yet. And I know people who can’t even afford to replace their tyres.)

There’s a big new freelance contract on the cards, and I had a chat with the fleet manager this week, about the possibility of couriering four days a week instead of five. I emphasized that I was much more interested in keeping this job than in getting the other one, which surprised him, and he asked what the new job was.

“Editing”, I replied.

“Oh – so is that what you do?” he asked.

“No, this is what I do. I’m a courier!”

There’s a widespread assumption that couriering is the kind of thing people only do to fill in the gaps between their real lives, jobs and ambitions. And it’s completely wrong. No one would do this just as a stop-gap. You’ll get better money and more job security working in Tesco. And there’s far too little recognition for the fact that some people take couriering very seriously indeed. I, for one, set myself high standards, and care about it more than any other job I’ve done. As I explained to the fleet manager, if there was more money in this, I’d do it for the rest of my life. And perhaps I will anyway. But when you’re having to work an extra 20 hours per week, just so that you can continue in the day job you love, you sometimes have to ask yourself whether it’s really worth it. The answer’s yes, but only so far.


August 3, 2010

Arsen would like me to point out that the broken Salsa rim in this photo in all likelihood had a manufacturing fault (an invisible flaw in the aluminium), and that I therefore can’t claim to have broken it myself.

Luckily I get to save face.

I was riding along Queen Victoria Street (back on the Condor) this morning, when there was a sudden loud BANG!! and the steering went all funny. My front rim had blown out.

And I’m rather pleased with myself. There’s a certain satisfaction in wearing a component right down till it breaks – at least you couldn’t have got another two weeks out of it. And I bought the wheel second-hand two years ago, and have been couriering on it ever since, so it’s done pretty well, all things considered. And this means I have a full house – I’ve now broken or worn out just about every part of this bike except the frame. It’s a bit like Trigger’s broom.

Free Food Alert!

August 1, 2010

The mulberries are ripe in Fountain Court, Temple, EC4.

I thought you might like to know.

What do cycle couriers do on holiday?

August 1, 2010

I don’t know, but here’s what I did.

I sat.

In cafes.

On hills.

And under cats (which is curiously therapeutic).

And then I met up with Messenger of Doom.

There was a lot of this.

And quite a bit of this.

And a certain amount of this.

Some cycling was also involved.

And I finally broke the Salsa. (About bloody time – it’s been four months. I was worried I’d lost my touch.)

And I rounded off the fortnight nicely by doing the Dunwich Dynamo with my brother, and about 1,000 of my closest friends.

And it was as glorious as ever.

The coach journey back to London, however, was NOT.