Archive for January, 2011

‘Hey – nice bike!’

January 6, 2011

I was idling down Berwick Street at lunchtime today when I heard someone mutter “nice bike”. I turned to look, and saw a well-dressed man in his thirties or forties, a type of which you’ll find thousands all over the city and the west end on a weekday lunchtime. I spontaneously smiled, and he gave me a nod, of one bike person to another.

A couple of weeks ago I had a very similar encounter on Grosvenor Street. A pleasant-looking gentleman in pinstripes came out of a building as I was locking up, remarked “nice bike”, then did an exaggerated double-take, and said “really nice bike”. The fact that the bike is a filthy, knackered, rusting old 2005 Condor Pista suggests that that his intention was more to out himself as a fellow cyclist than actually to admire it. (Or maybe he just knew nothing more about bikes than that Condor’s a good make.)

And I strongly suspect that the chap who rushed across the street to check I was OK when I was knocked off by a texting pedestrian just before Christmas was also a cyclist and wanted me to know it. Why else would he have abandoned his cup of coffee, insisted on checking the bike over for me (ineptly), and tried very hard to convince me to come back into the cafe with him to sit and recover for a while? (I was fine, and had already been picked up and dusted down by half-a-dozen passersby.)

I have encounters like this all the time, almost invariably with professional middle-class white guys in their thirties to fifties. And I suppose this is inevitable, given that a huge percentage of London cyclists are professional middle-class white guys in their thirties to fifties. (And – I’ve just this minute remembered! – the papers are currently making a fuss about a very recent TFL survey, which shows that the main users of the new hire bikes fit squarely into that demographic.) I’ve belonged to various cycling cliques and scenes over the years, and I’d say the majority of them were made up of – you’ve guessed it – professional middle-class white guys in their thirties to fifties.

Riding with these guys, sharing flapjacks and hanging out in the pub afterwards has given me some idea of the problems, pleasures and practicalities faced by straight men of a certain age. Not that their lives are all the same, I hasten to add. We might end up talking about their forthcoming marriage, or their recent divorce. Their kids, their grandkids, or their fertility problems. Their promotions, redundancies and start-ups. Their depression, their cancer, their encroaching baldness. Their mortgages, tenants, holiday homes, or plans to sell up, buy a yacht, and sail to the Carribbean. Or we might just argue amicably about politics and society, just like anyone else would.

And today I suddenly realized that, were it not for cycling, this is a group of people I’d have absolutely nothing to do with, no interest in, and very little to say to. There’s no way I’d meet them in any quantity through the rest of my social circles and activities, and since I’m never going to be after a boyfriend or husband, I’d be unlikely to go out of my way to look for them.

But instead I’ve started to see them as friends and comrades. I often make eye contact with them in offices and receptions, or even in the street, and am never surprised if they nod back, or ostentatiously check out my bike, or start up a conversation. I met a lovely chap in a lift in St James’s recently.

“Courier, are you?”

I smiled back, instantly pigeonholing him as someone who spends his Sunday mornings tearing up and down the Surrey hills with three grand’s worth of carbon between his legs.

“How did you guess?”

He made a couple of the usual conversational comments about riding in ‘this weather’ (whatever it was doing that day) and as the lift doors opened, revealed predictably that he was a cyclist himself.

“Only at the weekends though – nothing like what you do!” (Because we pay people compliments as a way of saying “I want to be your friend”.)

“Well,” I replied, determined to compliment him back, “you’ve probably got a much nicer bike than me.”

He beamed, and held the door open for me, and we went our separate ways. He looked thrilled to have spoken to a courier/girl/fellow cyclist, and I – well, I think I was thrilled just to have been spoken to like a human being.

Things you always forget about winter

January 4, 2011

The smell of ice in the air as you leave the house in the morning.

How painful cold feet are. I don’t know why I don’t remember this, but if I have cold feet in the morning, and then the weather warms up, I’ll still find myself wondering what all the fuss was about.

You can judge the air temperature, at least to some extent, by the amount of ice in your water bottle.

Snowflakes really sting when they hit you in the face.

You will spend a lot of time during the day obsessively fantasizing over the ideal winter bike. (Mine’s a fixed Surly Steamroller with big fat knobbly Nokian tyres, since you ask.)

Even if you’ve had a good day on the road, and you feel fine, you will still fall asleep an hour earlier than usual.

Your brake pads will wear out far more rapidly than usual. I replaced mine three times in December. (So much for the Salsa as a winter bike. I’ll be back on the Condor this month.)

You need to budget an extra ten minutes to get dressed in the morning, and you try to avoid going to the toilet during the day, because it takes so long to take off all your layers – and then to zip and button and tuck them all in again once you’ve finished.

That black sludge that coats every part of your bike after riding around in the snow for a couple of days.

Other couriers have all changed shape because of the amount of clothes they’re wearing, and half of them have their faces covered with buffs and balaclavas, making them a lot harder to recognize. So far I have blanked several of my closest friends, and mistaken two women for men.

The Vacuum

January 3, 2011

Happy New Year!

Wales. Christmas Eve. No bicycle.

Sorry for the silence. Sometimes life gets in the way. And I forget people actually read this.

I’m just about to go back to work, after two weeks off the bike. This is my longest break for… well over a year. Curiously, it hasn’t affected me too badly. I expected to be climbing the walls by now. Taking time off is always difficult. You know that the rest will do you good, and that sitting around all day, eating far too much and sleeping 10 hours a night is just what you need to recuperate, and to build up your reserves for the next few months, but that doesn’t stop you going crazy with guilt and cabin fever.

One of the most interesting things about taking time off is that you realize how many of your resources are ordinarily absorbed by the job. It’s not just that you spend 10 hours a day on the bike; post-work exhaustion means that your evenings – and at least half of the weekend – are spent doing little more than eating and sleeping. The weather makes a difference too – it’s been pretty ferocious over the past month, and I’ve noticed that I lose an hour every evening on snowy days. I’m so exhausted that I can’t function after about 9pm, and have to go to bed. And this exhaustion doesn’t only lead to an unclean house and a neglected social life – it also narrows your intellectual and emotional horizons. I don’t understand how some people manage to go home and study after a day on the road. I couldn’t.

So I’ve been anxiously watching myself over the holidays, wondering what would surface in my mind and body without the exhaustion there to hold it down. The fact that I didn’t get as bored and depressed as I expected – and that, despite eating just as much as I do when I’m working, and perhaps even a bit more, I don’t seem to have got much fatter – suggests that I really was in need of a break.

I did find I had a bit of an emotional backlog I hadn’t noticed building up, and took advantage of the spare time and energy to sit down and think my way through it. And to catch up on a few books and films I wouldn’t have had time for otherwise. And to spend some wonderful and well overdue time with family and friends. And to tidy my room (and finish unpacking from when I moved in last May, ahem).

But mostly I’ve just been sitting around. That’s what I’ve been doing all day today, trying to stave off another nasty sore-throaty headachey thing, because work starts again tomorrow, and there’s no way I’m taking another day off. It’s amazing just how much time you can spend doing nothing at all. I try to ignore the guilt, and to forget about all the incredible things I could be achieving if I got dressed and went outside, and wonder whether this isn’t our natural state as humans, or at least what we all aspire to, once the buffalo has been slaughtered, the firewood gathered, the spearheads sharpened and the cave hoovered. Or maybe we just need empty space once in a while – not only to give our minds and bodies a rest, but also because (as years of wrestling with Salman Rushdie and Homi Bhabha have taught me) it is from the spaces in between things that newness emerges into the world.

Not that I have any idea what my mind and body might have come up with over the past two weeks. But it’ll be lots of fun finding out.