Sunday, 2 March 2014

Why I Cycle For Transport, Part II -- or, The HOW of City Transport Cycling

This is the second in what I expect to be a three-part series on Transport Cycling. The first one is here and explains why I turned to cycling as my main mode of transportation while living in south London in the summer of 2009. Today's post aims to explain how I made a success of doing everything by bicycle -- whether it was getting to work, doing the grocery shopping, moving bulky items like furniture or meeting up with friends in other parts of London.


I must admit, when I finally bought my new bicycle, after months and months of researching and planning, I had a moment of shock. So now I've got the bike -- now what?

For a few days, it sat in my front room where I could admire it. There's something about a Brompton that's just so.... friendly. (A bit like daisies.)

I practiced folding it and unfolding it. The process intrigued me: sheer genius it seemed to me, though also somewhat mystifying. And yet oh, so satisying when I got it right.

Taken outdoors, it looked more ready for action than I was. For one thing, I had no idea how high to raise the seat! 

Brompton M3L with C Bag

Obviously the next thing I needed to do was ride it. Now, here's where I took a gigantic leap from one kind of cycling universe to an alternative, almost alien, one.

I learnt to ride a bicycle as a child ("of course I did!"). But that was all off-road. To be honest, most of my time with bikes was spent freewheeling down a grassy hill on my parents' rural property and then pushing the bike back to the top of the hill again, all for the fleeting pleasure of "flying" downhill with the wind in my hair. Wheeee! But dissect that, and basically:  I could balance. I could pedal (for short periods). I could steer (somewhat). And I could stop. Anything more sophisticated wasn't needed and never occurred to me to wonder about, much less learn. 

Fast forward to July 2009 and I am standing outside my front door with a brand new bicycle. There is no grassy hillside in sight. My flat was in a parade (row) of shops, with an admittedly fairly wide pavement (sidewalk) between the front of my building and the parked cars lining my street. But there were usually lots of people about. And I did not want to get on my bike for the first time and wobble off -- and, much worse, fall down -- in front of all my neighbours' shop windows. The street was busy, with a 30mph speed limit (big speed humps having absolutely no 'enforcing' effect), so wobbling off onto the street was completely out of the question. 

So on the Sunday afternoon following my bicycle purchase, I walked it down the street about a quarter-mile to the doctors' surgery (medical centre). Here, tucked around at the back of the building out of sight of the street, was a small car park. And here it was that I took my first pedalling 'steps' as an adult. 

I felt very relieved (you have no idea!) to find that I still "knew how to ride a bike". After all, you never forget, do you! Or so they say. At least, my body instinctively knew how to balance and I quickly got to grips with the controls. So after a few minutes of slowly circling the parking lot, I got off and set up a very rudimentary obstacle course with a few small stones and pieces of broken glass (!) that I found. I cycled in figure-eights and tighter circles than before, getting a feel for the handling of the bike. Yes, small wheels do mean a "squirrel-ly" feel as compared to "normal"-wheeled bikes! 

Obviously though, there was no chance of setting blithely off into traffic, not even for the straight line route to the train station (down a single road for 0.8 mile with no turns to make but with one mini-roundabout). 

Not until I got some proper training. 


One of the things I'd picked up on during my months of researching and reading was that most borough councils in London offer (or allow access, in the more accurate passive sense of 'offering') one-to-one lessons with a qualified cycling instructor. One of the main training providers was (and still is) Cycle Training UK

The attraction that CTUK had for me, over other training providers, was that they offered training anywhere in London and were willing to come to me, wherever might be convenient for me to get to for my lesson. Further, they knew all the various council-subsidised schemes and so could advise me that it would cost me less to access the training based on where I lived. (It is also possible to go through the council where you work or, if you're enrolled on full-time course, study.)

I booked my two-hour lesson over the phone with an instructor named Vicky. This chat included an informal interview about my cycling experience and what I wanted out of the lesson, along with a basic medical questionnaire. The one memorable exchange from that phone call was when I mentioned that I'd read Cyclecraft (the "Bible" of vehicular cycling). Vicky was astonished! She said she'd never, ever had a student come to her having already read this.

Vicky and I met for my lesson in a small park in Norbury. This was about two miles from my home, along busy main roads including the A23 aka the Brighton Road. I drove to this lesson, with the folded Brompton in the boot. Vicky of course arrived by bike from, if I recall rightly, the Battersea area some 8 miles away. (She was going to a lesson in Wimbledon after mine. Her daily mileage must have been 30-40 most days.)

The first part of the session focused on my CONTROL of my bicycle. We did a series of exercises in a fenced-in area of the park (what in the USA would usually be a tennis or basketball court). Could I ride a straight line within wobbling? Could I steer around obstacles? Could I take one hand off the handlebar to indicate? Could I look over one shoulder? And not just a peripheral glance either -- could I turn far enough and long enough to focus on things Vicky was doing across the court behind me -- such as holding up "how many" fingers of one hand = and then describe her actions?

Once I'd passed Vicky's assessment of my control skills, the next topic was JUDGEMENT, or traffic sense. Time to go out on the public roads. For this session, we stayed on residential streets. We stopped at a number of intersections, got off our bikes and stood on the street corner discussing: Which direction yields to the other? How might a motorist from that direction approach this junction? What if I'm behind him -- what should I expect and how should I alter what I'm doing? What if I'm in the street he wishes to turn into? What if he's not indicating? It's all about knowledge of, not just the rules of the road, but the unspoken signals given off by other road users. Knowledge of local traffic patterns and flow is helpful, but even in an unfamiliar area, you can pick up on a lot of cues. And we discussed road position. It's all about ensuring you can see and that others see you. A small adjustment in where you ride can significantly improve your own sightlines and bring you into the sightlines of others at the earliest possible point.

We cycled around the neighbourhood close to the park, with Vicky cycling behind me to observe. Then we went to the 'edge' of the neighbourhood where a fast-moving main road runs. We did cycle a short distance on that, but mainly we stood and observed traffic and talked about how to handle junctions where you are on a minor road wanting to turn left onto a busier road, and then -- more advanced -- if you want to turn right. There are also considerations to be taken when you're on a major road wanting to turn off into a quieter street, but this is a lot less complicated -- especially if you're turning left!


Armed with my new knowledge and skills, I felt confident enough to try commuting to work. Of course, fitness was still an issue. But this is why I bought a folding bike in the first place. So I cycled 0.8 mile to the station, folded the Brompton and boarded the train to City Thameslink, where I got off, unfolded the Brompton and cycled the short distance to work (on the busy Holborn Viaduct to Holborn Circus and down New Fetter Lane). Repeat in reverse in the evening. Over the subsequent weeks, I played around with different routes. In August, I started a secondment with a client with offices off Oxford Street, which gave me even more scope for experimenting with buses, trains and the Underground with ever-longer stints on the Brompton. At the weekends, my mileage on group rides (see below) further improved my fitness.

Three months after purchasing the Brompton, I made my first complete one-way cycle commute (10 miles) into work. It was so momentous, I can even remember the exact date: Monday, 7 September 2009.


What else did I need?

What's in my bag?

First of all -- a BAG to carry stuff in

I bought a C bag at the same time as the Brompton (shown on the bike outside my front door in photo above). I didn't get on with the big flap over the front, which always required one hand to hold it up/open, leaving me struggling to get stuff in and out of the bag with the other hand. So I went back to the shop and exchanged it for what was then called the Touring Pannier (forerunner to today's T Bag). The Tourist bag worked great: big open-mouthed top, lots of mesh pockets all around the outside. I wasn't too sure how the rolltop closures (with lobster clips) would work for me and was pleasantly surprised how quickly and neatly they worked.

Cycling shorts, mitts, jacket

I started off with whatever I could get cheap from Ebay. For commuting and short distances, cheap shorts, and by cheap I mean less than £10, were fine. (It wasn't until I got the 'long distance bug' that the need for quality chamois pads in quality shorts arose.) I scored a couple pair of barely-used Specialized shorts and several pairs of baggies to wear over them, and a couple 'technical' i.e. polyester t-shirts and that was enough.

I learned from the Pollards Hill gang (see below) that Aldi and Lidl have regular sales on cycling clothing and accessories, so I was able to pick up reasonably priced mitts and a windcheater-type jacket with reflective strips as well.


I started out believing -- or, to be more honest, assuming -- that a helmet was required and necessary for anyone riding a bicycle, so I set off on a search for one. I have never been athletic or 'sporty' so I was keen to avoid any kind of clothing or equipment that might suggest that I considered myself to be so!

I looked around for 'non-sporty' helmets and was fortunate to discover just weeks after it launched. I ordered an attractive cranberry-coloured equestrian-esque Bern helmet from their website:

CycleChic owner Caz modelling the Bern Lenox helmet.

Unfortunately, it was the wrong size. I wasn't sure how to go about ensuring I didn't get it wrong again, so phoned Cyclechic up on the phone. And that was the beginning of a lovely friendship that lasts to this day. Lavinia and Caz, the co-founders, invited me round to their rented office space in Shoreditch, where they arranged to have a selection of helmets brought in from their storage warehouse. I not only got a helmet that fit correctly but got to have a hands-on look at other items that I'd otherwise have only seen on their website:  I especially remember the beautiful tweed cape that they had co-designed and commissioned with new designer Amy Fleuriot. (Sadly, that cape is no longer available.)

Other than the bag, a few cycling-friendly pieces of clothing, a helmet and a hi-viz vest, I didn't need to buy much. And I didn't spend much money getting started. Over time, I learned what to look for in everyday items in terms of features that would work for cycling -- but, equally important, work just as well off-the-bike. Those early explorations sowed the seed for what later would become a very specific obsession with messenger bags!


I don't remember now whether I went looking for a local cycling group after thinking I might need or like it, or whether I was aware of various groups first and thought joining one would be the natural thing to do once I'd got comfortable with the basics. In any case, I was very fortunate indeed that there happened to be one very near me that specialised in getting new/inexperienced riders out on their bikes in an easy-paced and encouraging atmosphere. This was the Pollards Hill Cyclists. With their weekend morning rides starting from my local library half a mile from my home, I had no excuse!

What a friendly, non-sporty bunch!

While the rides are touted as 'social', my purpose also was to practice. I needed to get fitter if I was to make a success of getting around anywhere and anytime by bicycle. I also needed practice riding on the roads, and I didn't really know appropriate places to ride that would give me a relatively safe environment to progressively improve. PHC's rides opened my eyes to quieter routes across south London, connecting cycle paths to parks to quieter streets much more quickly and directly than I could have thought possible. Learning routes encouraged me to think about the errands I could run by bicycle instead of by bus and taught me ways to plan routes to places I may not have been to before.

in Battersea Park on one of my first PHC rides

Most importantly, though, I got to put into practice what I'd learned from Vicky about road positioning, signalling, communicating with other road users, judging speed and distances and indeed what my own capabilities and limitations were. How far away is that car and how fast is it approaching? How much time do I need to cross this junction? I learned by watching what the ride leaders did and then trying it myself knowing they had succeeded. I watched everyone and learned to make distinctions between good practice and bad -- both in what individual cyclists do but also in terms of road infrastructure and when and how to use it. Or not.

PHC's social rides were, in fact, group cycling lessons for me. I learned a lot that I could put into practice to be safer and smarter in my commuting. I also rode further distances and discovered that I enjoy 'travelling' by bike for the sake of it. It's interesting and fun. It was the beginning of an interest in leisure cycling that I would develop later, in particular long social rides of all sorts and eventually night riding.

Bluebell woods -- on one of my first 'longer' rides with PHC.
Jim (Wheels for Wellbeing) and Mark (PHC group co-ordinator, in yellow)
were key people in encouraging me to ride more and try new things.

Through the Pollards Hill group and from online reading I continued to do, I became aware of Southwark Cyclists, one of the local borough groups of London Cycling Campaign. They sounded like an enthusiastic group of people doing a wider range of rides than PHC (i.e. not just beginner level) and I was interested in extending the length of my rides and improving my speed.

My first contact at Southwark Cyclists was Barry Mason, an amazing cycling advocate in London (who has since sadly died). On Christmas Day 2009, I went on Barry's annual "2512" ride -- a kind of pub crawl around London especially catering to those who for various reasons weren't partaking in a traditional at-home Christmas (i.e. non observers, foreigners who hadn't gone 'home' to visit family). It was a lovely ride, ending with a leisurely lunch in a Lebanese restaurant on Edgeware Road.

I soon made other friends which led to more and more purely social rides, including an outing on fixed-gear and single-speed bicycles, all supplied by the lovely chaps who had just opened a shop called Foffa Bikes. (Foffa really exploded in London the first few years then seemed to lose its way with experiments in bicycles other than what had been their unique selling point. I understand they've just closed their 'bricks and mortar' shop and are now trading only online in a limited way.)

L-R: Gwen, Colin, me, Tyson, Ray on Alex's birthday outing -
which was a photo shoot for the newly launched Foffa Bikes!

And then there were the more unusual themed rides, such as the Tweed Run --

And, at the other end of the sartorial spectrum, the World Naked Bike Ride!

Meanwhile, however, daily life revolved around getting where I needed to go by bicycle. The tips I picked up from my new cycling friends provided invaluable. One important lesson I learned early on related to:


Barry's mantra was "Two Good Locks". (He was so famous for saying this that the "dress code instructions" to his funeral service said "No Black. No Lycra. Two Good Locks.")  He was passionate about getting this message across, so he was a natural to be asked to do a video about how not to do it!

On one edition of Barry's Wednesday-night Afterworker Rides (an hour-long pootle round London after work), we stopped at a pub and found that not everyone had two locks on them. In fact, I had none, having up til that time always taken my Brompton inside with me everywhere I went. Barry insisted that the Brompton be locked up with his bike against a railing. Fortunately, his two good locks were just spacious enough to go around the tubing of both. One of the other riders though had just one lock with him, a cable lock, which is just about the easiest for thieves to get through. Sure enough, Bill's bike was stolen within 15 minutes of our entry into the pub. We only found out so quickly because an acquaintance on foot joined us 15 minutes after our arrival, telling us that he had noticed a smashed light on the ground near Barry's bike. We all went out to look:  my expensive B&M light was lying broken on the ground and Bill's bike was gone.

Valuable urban lessons: Lock your bike correctly! Always use two Sold Secure rated locks of different types (insurance companies often insist on this anyway, or your policy may be deemed invalid if you do make claim for theft); lock your frame and both wheels to secure object. And always remove all accessories such as lights, computer, bag, water bottles.


Right, so yes, commuting to work by bicycle was both possible and increasingly enjoyable. No longer was I at the mercy of buses that didn't turn up, of trains packed so full that I felt exploited and victimised by a transport system that was gleefully fleecing me of 10% of my income. Instead, I felt increasingly alive and... able! I arrived at work every day feeling like I was already a winner, before the working day had even started. That's a fantastic frame of mind to be in, when you hit your desk each morning!

Work isn't everything though. Of course I had other areas of my life, besides work, that required some kind of transport solution. Could a bicycle serve those needs as well?

How do I... groceries?

Okay, you can't do everything with a bicycle. But with a little re-arranging, you certainly don't need a car, or a bus, or a train... or indeed anything that requires you to fork out more money on top of your blessedly minimal bicycle costs.

In this modern age, online shopping is a god-send. I usually did one big monthly shop at Sainsburys. Now, instead of scheduling a whole Saturday morning doing this shopping by car -- with the frustrations and delays attendent to traffic jams, parking hassles, wonky trolley wheels, crowded supermarket aisles, long slow check-out queues -- I could do it on any evening of my choice from the comfort of my home office, and have it all delivered a day or two later during the time-slot of my choice. This worked beautifully for my "staples" -- my usual items, usual brands -- especially for household supplies, toiletries and tinned/canned foods where physical inspection wasn't necessary and for heavy/bulky items like cat food and litter.

Image: the Fact-Finder Blog via Google Images

I found it easy and much more enjoyable to top-up my monthly Sainsburys deliveries with ad hoc outings on my bicycle to local shops to pick up small amounts of more perishable items such as milk, bread, meats, fruit and vegetables -- with the opportunity to mix things up a bit by seeing what was available at a good price on any given day. I also learned to plan meals in advance a little more -- and to utilise my freezer to take advantage of special offers, whether these were purchased fresh in person or included in a Sainsburys order.

Thus, my "Saturday morning" shop ceased to be a chore and instead became a pleasure -- a pootle on my bicycle to local shops, chatting with shop staff who were actually shop owners not supermarket minions, and enjoying the scenery and the changes of season throughout my neighbourhood.

Coming home with a basket full of shopping

Online shopping is also a much less stressful and more efficient to purchase large bulky items that would be a pain to transport home yourself by car in any case.

...go places further than I can cycle?

Outside of commuting hours, trains are actually pleasant. So if I needed to go further afield, I was quite happy to 'let the train take the strain'.

catching the tram to Croydon

Off to Surrey to spend the day with a friend

Residential school in Milton Keynes, September 2009
The Touring Pannier easily carried change of clothes
and toiletries... plus several large (and full) lever arch files.
Useful pockets for maps, tickets, water,
sunglasses, wallet, keys and various sundries.
Attending a work conference in Cambridge, April 2011.
The Carradice City M Folder was now my preferred front bag.
Fewer outside pockets than the Touring Pannier
but more robust and certainly smarter
looking -- also reassuringly waterproof.

Sometimes -- but only very occasionally -- use of a car was convenient and appealing. In a minute, I'll mention selling my own car just three short months after buying the Brompton. I was suddenly free of an amazing list of expenses: petrol, maintenance, repairs, insurance, MOT tests, Vehicle Excise tax. And, more important on a daily basis, the stress of parking and risk of vandalism. Instead, I replaced those costs with a single annual payment to Zipcar (approx. £50 at the time) which gave me access to a fleet of their new, well-maintained, insured, taxed, etc. Volkswagen Golf sedans. I didn't even have to pay for petrol: a Zipcar account card was available to use with each hire period.

Using a Zipcar was a breeze. Even when the car located closest to my home wasn't available exactly when I wanted it, I found it easy to hop on the Brompton and cycle to a car that was available, pop the Brompton in the boot, make my journey with the car, return it to its designated parking spot and hop back on the Brompton and cycle home. Job done.

In my first year without my own car, I used a Zipcar twice: one lived in Mayfair in central London, the other in south Wimbledon. Both trips involved transporting a number of bulky items from work to home. Doing this by bicycle or bus would have been exhausting and awkward and would have required several round trip journeys. With each Zipcar hire, it was easy to get to the car, use it and return it and then get myself home.

The second year, I did not use a Zipcar at all, so at that point happily cancelled my membership altogether.

...transport big/bulky stuff?

It is surprising how much you can do yourself with a trailer hitched to your bicycle! With a little experimenting and practice, I realised that I didn't really need Zipcar as a back-up Plan B. Between arranging home delivery and transporting it on a trailer, it turns out there are indeed very few instances where a car is truly needed.

My first trip to the local Reuse and Recycling Centre.
This was only a small test run -- with a dead television and a few
other electrical items -- but it worked. 

...transport the bike itself?

After a few years, I found that I had managed to collect a few more bikes -- more about this in a minute!

The situation sometimes arose that I rode a bicycle to work then had something else to do in the evening for which I used another mode of transport, meaning I had a bicycle 'stranded' at the office next morning. Sometimes I'd get public transport into work and then cycle home. Other times, I didn't want to miss out on my morning cycle ride.... but still needed a way to get the 'stranded' bike home.

My boyfriend pointed out to me that this need not be a problem if one of the 'surplus' bikes is a Brompton:

We call this the 'misplaced rolling stock' problem!
Easily solved if the other bike has a rack and you're in the habit
of carrying a bungee cord or two. 

Selling the car

As you may have worked out by now, I very quickly realised that I did not in fact need to own a car anymore. I had suspected this before, during that long winter researching solutions to all my various problems (finances, health, waste, frustration) as set out in Part I of this series.

And thus, less than four months after first buying a bicycle, I sold Pandora, my beloved but neglected Citroen Dyane6 convertible. It was quite a wrench but she went to a good home in Yorkshire. It was the right decision.

Bicycle (R)evolution = Velorution!

My new cycling life was good! But you know how it is: nothing stays the same. Gradually my commuting become less multi-modal, more there and back entirely on the Brompton. I didn't find this entirely ideal. I've certainly met people since who ride their Bromptons "silly distances" (London to John O'Groats, anyone?) but doubt I would find that comfortable.

The idea of getting a second bike, this one a full-size-wheel one, began to take shape. Yes, I'd believed that I had no room for such a bike in my small upstairs flat, but priorities had shifted to the point where I knew I could 'make' room!

It's a slippery slope to N+1!

Then one day from the top of a double decker bus passing through Brixton, I spied a woman on a bike with an unusual frame. And thus I discovered mixtes and was smitten with their clean architectural lines. A few weeks later, Lorelei came into my life. Setting a pattern for all my bikes that have followed, she had a fairly significant make-over before taking over commuting duties from the Brompton.

Equipped with: Rack + wire basket to carry
handbag & jacket as needed + East German Army panniers off Ebay!
Full mudguards. Robust Continental Gatorskin tyres. 

Later -- partly as a result of taking on more challenging leisure rides -- I went shopping for a modern road-bike-not-racing-bike. A cyclocross bike looked like it might fit the bill. Enter Bridget, the Surly Cross Check. This became my main commuter, initially equipped with clip-on mudguards and able to take a large Carradice saddle bag.

Later (following a bike fitting), narrow handlebars, shorter stem and shorter crankarms were swapped out for comfort, the double crankset converted to a triple, and virtually indestructible Marathon Plus tyres were installed!

Bridget is perhaps a Jack of all trades and true master of none, but she's a tank! She can take just about anything and keep on going. I can't ask more of a daily workhorse bike than that!

And now? 

Using bicycles for most transport needs in a city turned out to be easy and fun -- in fact much easier than I expected and a lot more fun than I ever could have imagined. Within a short period of time, I had a transport system and way of life that was totally customised to me.

But then a whole new revolution kicked off. At the age of 43 and after 12 years of independence, I fell in love... and moved away from London... to a small village on top of a hill in rural Bedfordshire.

Can people 'survive' in the countryside without cars? Were these changes I'd made now all for nothing and I'd have to buy a car? Or could my cycling lifestyle continue somehow? If so, how? 

Coming Up:
Why I Cycle For Transport, Part III -- the Joys and Challenges of RURAL Transport Cycling

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