Archive for October, 2010

Things I have broken this week

October 29, 2010

(No records; no hearts.)

My saddle. Well, that’s a new one.

A sweat. It’s not yet cold enough for the merino jersey under the winter jacket. I found this out the damp way.

Another pair of Swrve jeans. Alas.

My cake addiction. Courier Appreciation Day was just too much. I’m eating nothing but boiled eggs and carrots now.


Let them eat cake

October 27, 2010

Courier Appreciation Day was a massive hit.

Turns out all couriers really want is free coffee and lots of cake.

And autumn sunshine.

And ladies with sketchbooks to record it all.

Happy Courier Appreciation Day!

Helper dockets and gender parity

October 24, 2010

Do you know what a helper docket is? If you’re not a courier, you probably won’t.

Most courier companies employ vans and cars, as well as pushbikes and motorbikes, and sometimes a van driver will be given a job he can’t load on his own. It might be 20 chairs up three flights of stairs, or just one very heavy box. So the controller will send a pushbike courier over to help, and often to ride in the van to the delivery address, and help with the unloading there. It’s good pay, and a bit of a change of scene. And I get on well with most of the van drivers, so wouldn’t mine spending half an hour relaxing and gossiping in their cab.

But girls don’t get given helper dockets. This isn’t official policy – it’s just the inevitable conclusion I reached, having been on the road for two years and not been given a single one. And I’m not alone.

M. (an exenger I know) was once sent to help a van driver unload some boxes. The driver was ridiculously gentlemanly and attentive – “let me get that for you … no no, allow me” – and afterwards complained to the company about the controller sending a girl. M. was more than capable of carrying the boxes he wouldn’t let her touch, but she never got any more helper dockets after that.

And when I mentioned this to K. (another exenger, who spent nearly ten years on the road, and was renowned for her toughness), she told me about the time she was passing through the control room, overheard them discussing a helper docket just down the road from her house the following morning, and offered her services.

There was a long, awkward silence.

The two controllers exchanged glances.

Finally one of them spoke up.

“Erm, well, K., I’m not being sexist, but…”

More awkward silence.

“Ummm, you don’t want to be carting great heavy boxes around, do you?”

K. indicated that she’d really quite like to.

“…well, the thing is… I really want you out there on circuit. It’s going to be crazy busy tomorrow…”

It was the second week of a very quiet August, so this was distinctly unlikely.

“…and besides, ummm, I’ve already put you down for an EC2 pre-book tomorrow morning…”

Rather illogical, since K. lives in SW6 and the helper docket was in Hammersmith. So was another pushbike going to be sent all the way out from Hackney (where everyone else lives), while she crossed town in the opposite direction to pick up the EC2 job?

“…and …and, you know, you’re one of my best riders – I want you out there on the road…”

This was just getting ridiculous. He clearly didn’t want to give her the docket, and K. had an urgent appointment with a pint of ale, so decided to leave it at that.

To put things into perspective, K. isn’t one of those 5-foot 7-stone female couriers you see around – she’s taller than lots of the guys, and definitely stronger-looking. Have you seen how weedy some of the male couriers are?

I’ve had a chip on my shoulder about this for ages. I can’t stand the thought that my controller might think I was incapable of any part of the job. And I really quite like lugging heavy boxes around. (Something to prove? Moi?)

So the other day I went in and tackled him directly.

To his credit, he didn’t try and pull the whole “I’m not being sexist, but…” act. He admitted that there’s no company policy that says you can’t make girls do heavy lifting, but – well, he wouldn’t want his daughter doing that sort of thing. And when I flexed my muscles at him, and insisted that I’d really rather like the odd helper docket occasionally, he saw my point completely, and gave me the very next helper docket that hit his screen, about two hours later.

Sometimes you only have to ask!

London Cycle Courier Appreciation Day 2010

October 20, 2010

Wednesday, 27th October – that’s next week!

Have a look at the LCEF website for more details.

If you’re a courier, make sure you find plenty of excuses to ride up Shaftesbury Avenue on Wednesday – I will be making lots of this.

(Suggestions (and requests) gladly considered.)

And if you’re a real person – well, why should you care about Courier Appreciation Day? Isn’t it a bit vain of couriers to organize an appreciation day for themselves? And aren’t couriers just a gang of irresponsible hooligans who run over old ladies and make Gresham Street look untidy?

Good question.

Well, for a start, couriers are very useful if you’ve misplaced your lighter or need directions to anywhere in Zone 1. (And they’d make twice as much money if they were actually paid for these valuable public services.)

And you – yes, you, with the rolled up jeans and the aerospoke! – you owe us for your image. Big time.

But also…

Well, it’s bloody hard work being a courier – and it’s about to get a hell of a lot harder. Just look at the weather forecast. We can’t take the bus when it’s raining. And we have to do this ten hours a day, five days a week, week in, week out, right through the winter, even if it snows. Even when we don’t finish work till 7 at night – and don’t get in till 9, because we got a puncture on the way home (in the rain) and our hands were so cold that we hamfistedly ripped the valve head off trying to fix it and had to walk, and then still have to get up the next morning and be on the road by 8. And yes, sometimes we do feel like crying and going home. But most of the time we just keep going.

And we get very little recognition for this. Whenever I tell a civilian what I do for a living they’re very quick to tell me the story of how some courier nearly ran them over as they were crossing the road. No one ever seems to remember the time a courier saved their bacon by getting that urgent document all the way across town just in the nick of in time. And this goes for the courier companies too. They pay us a pittance, they charge us nearly £1,000 a year for equipment hire and insurance, and they nag us to do ‘just one more run’ when we’re cold and tired and should have finished an hour ago – but they almost never compliment us on a job well done, or offer any public expression of pride in these superhumans who pedal pushbikes around at top speed for 50 hours a week to make them their money.

Contrary to what you might think, most couriers take a great deal of pride in their work, set themselves high standards and (despite the odd bit of whinging) really care about getting the package delivered on time. I know I’ve invested more of myself into this than into any other job I’ve ever had (and I’ve had some ‘good’ ones), and there are several couriers who’ve devoted their entire adult life to this game.

And we’re the future. We’re green, we’re low-emission, we reduce congestion, and if we do hit you (well, you should have checked the lights before you crossed, idiot) we’re going to cause a lot less damage than a speeding motorbike or an inattentive van driver. Think about it.

So come on – let’s have a pat on the back. Just this once. A bit of positive reinforcement never did anyone any harm.

Oh, and if you really want to help, we will happily accept donations of

  • cake
  • any other sort of food
  • tea and coffee
  • beer
  • inner tubes and tyres
  • lights and/or batteries
  • warm socks and gloves

…and any other old kit you’ve got lying around. Go on – treat yourself to a new waterproof, and let some poor shivering courier have your old one. Winter’s just round the corner, and it’s going to hurt like hell.

The details of my bike are quite inconsequential

October 18, 2010

You know those days when it all catches up with you?

I haven’t really paid much attention to my bike (or kit, or body) for a while, and today was the day it all came to a head. And isn’t it amazing how a couple of minor niggles can permeate your whole riding experience?

Minor Niggle 1: worn-out cleats. This has happened far too quickly – I only replaced them a couple of months ago. Perhaps I should stop walking around in the Sidis at weekends (I wouldn’t say they’re my most comfortable shoes, but they’re certainly my least uncomfortable) and get some proper walking boots. But anyway. Not being able to clip in easily really affects how you push off. I can’t just launch myself onto the bike and then clip the right foot in as I go – because it might well slide right off the pedal, and mean that I topple over, or just bruise my ankle bone (again). So I have to stand and clip in before I start, and even this sometimes takes several attempts. And I can’t stand up on the pedals whilst pushing off from a junction – because I have to have my weight on the saddle, in case clipping the left foot in doesn’t go to plan and I end up missing the pedal and thwacking down onto the top tube – and looking foolish, which is the worst bit. And I’m nervous about going too fast, in case one of my feet suddenly flies out of the pedal and it all goes wrong. And subconsciously trying to keep my weight off the pedals has given me saddlesore and much stiffer arms than usual.

Minor Niggle 2: worn-out front brake pads. This happens from time to time, and usually lasts a week or two, while I repeatedly remind myself that it really will only take five minutes and a fiver to sort, and do a lot more leg-braking than usual. And this is so much harder when your cleats are worn out, and your feet are liable to come unstuck from the pedals if you pull too hard. Oh dear.

Minor Niggle 3: squashy tyres. Erm, yes. I know. I could just pump them up, couldn’t I? Well I did. Eventually. And had one of those ‘oh my god, I don’t hate cycling after all!’ moments.

Minor Niggle 4: back wheel on its way out. It’s been bothering me for a while. It’s slightly out of true (seems to have developed a corner) and needs re-dishing. I couldn’t get hold of an 18-tooth sprocket when I changed my chain, so the chainline ended up slightly crooked. And it’s been on the bike since I had it, which is well over two years now, so god knows how many thousands of miles it’s done.

And perhaps if the back wheel wasn’t already making various funny noises, I’d have noticed more quickly that the back brake (which hasn’t worked for months, and which I really should just take off) had suddenly started rubbing against the rim. But I didn’t. At least not until I’d done an EC3-SW1 run on it, and finally decided to investigate the latest funny noise.

So is it any wonder that, late this afternoon, all the way out on the Harrow Road, in that tunnelly bit where it goes under Westway, something funny happened to my back wheel, and when I got off to investigate (thinking ‘oh bugger, bugger, puncture, bugger’) there was a loud PING as the rim cracked, and then a massive echoing BOOOOOM! as the inner tube exploded.

So that was it for the day.

I picked up the bike and walked to my W2 drop, Andy sent a motorbike to pick up the EC2 I had on board, and I called Lawrence to see if he had any back wheels lying around, and ask whether he’d be willing to stay open while I trekked five miles across town to reach him. Luckily he did, and he was.

And over an hour later (do I really walk that slowly? maybe it was further than five miles), I stumbled onto Leather Lane, just as the post-work hordes were opening their beers, and Lawrence strode up, hugged me and took the bike off my aching shoulder in one smooth motion, summoned Jack with a new back wheel, sent Liam to make me a coffee, and left me nothing to do but watch as the instrument of torture that had worn a groove in my shoulder for the past hour was turned back into a magic carpet. What did we ever do without Fullcity?

And then someone bought me chips. It was a pretty good day, all in all.

But I really must stop doing this.

Arming myself for winter

October 14, 2010

I’m finally facing facts. Tuesday was probably the last day of short sleeves this year.


Take a good look at this forearm. You won’t see it again till March or April.

But at least it’ll get a chance to recover from all the scars it’s got from sliding along the sides of buses (much easier just to lean on them when you’re going through a particularly tight spot), and to even out the atrocious cyclist’s tan lines.

The second most annoying loading bay in London

October 10, 2010

55 Basinghall Street.

You lock your bike up, sign in with the security guard (“thanks sweetie!”), and take the goods lift two floors down to the postroom. So far, so normal.

But the postroom is deserted, and a sign advises you to “call 07*** ******, and someone will be along shortly”.

So you get your mobile out – no signal. Bah.

So you wait. Ten minutes pass.

You take the lift back to the loading bay. This is complicated by the eccentric numeration of the building’s floors.


No ground floor. The first time I came here it took me three tries to get back to street level.

You explain to the security guard that the postroom is deserted. He refuses to sign for the package, and tells you to go back down to the basement and wait in the postroom. You explain that this this package contains urgent documents (well, you never know – it might), and that you have other things to do, and can’t afford to stand around indefinitely waiting for a postroom guy who might or might not show up.

He refuses to sign for the package and tells you to go back down to the basement and wait in the postroom.

The argument repeats itself.

Eventually he gets bored and calls his superior, who isn’t authorized to sign for the package either, but finally gives in and sends you up to the main reception on the seventh floor, with an “on your own head be it” sucking of his teeth.

And a perfectly nice receptionist signs for the package with no quibbles at all, and you wonder why you couldn’t just have gone straight there in the first place.

In fact, in future I think I will.

How to find freedom in chains

October 7, 2010

I spent the weekend up in Leeds, and this fine fellow was persuaded to put a new chain on my bike.

And that, coupled with a bit of extra sleep, has made all the difference to my cycling. It’s always fun riding your bike, but when you’ve got rid of the clank-crunch-grind resistance of a worn-out chain, and replaced it with something nice and taut and slippery, and when you’re well rested, and your body’s not aching all over, and all your aches and pains have died down – oh my god, it really is like flying!

I think I’ve finally put my finger on why I love this job so much. Quite simply: cycling gets you high.

It’s better than sex, better than drugs, better even than cake. I’ve been riding around at top speed all week, and experiencing the kind of rapture, ecstasy, and all-over physical joy that people spend years and fortunes trying to inject into themselves. I look forward to Monday morning every week – and spend most of that day riding around with a huge goofy smile on my face. Seriously.

And how many people do you know who say that? Added to this is the smugness of having got it right – and having managed to find my perfect, ideal, fulfilling career aged only 28. Goodness – of all the plans and ambitions I’ve had, who’d have thought I’d end up a cycle courier? The only cloud on the horizon is that it can’t possibly last. I can’t do this for the rest of my life (unless I die young, which I’ve no intention of doing), and it’s going to be a very hard act to follow.

…and yes yes, I know I’ve been overdoing it on the pointless happy posts recently. But worry not. People have started to mutter ominously about another hard winter being just round the corner – so stay tuned for tales of misery and regret, and lots of bitching about cold toes.