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.