For nearly 9 years I’ve lived in London and for nearly 9 years people tried to persuade me to get a bike. ‘It’s so much quicker/easier/more enjoyable’ they would crow, ‘and you get so fit’. Every time I found an excuse: too poor; too busy; too far. Too scared was the truth. I hadn’t ridden a bike since I borrowed my neighbour’s to take the cycling proficiency test in the safety of my school playground. Prior to that I had lovingly ridden my own bike only ever as far as the end of our road, as my mum was too scared to let me go any further. When that bike broke, it wasn’t replaced and my mum’s fears became my own.
20 years later I became a mum myself and cycling ceased to be something I could avoid. Trying to maintain my position at work but still get to the childminder on time, I could no longer afford the luxury of 45 minutes reading on a bus stuck in traffic and a 20 minute wander home from the bus stop.
I approached the issue using the ‘joining the gym’ technique – spend the money up front and the you’ll feel so guilty up have to do it. £500 later I was fully kitted up with a bike, helmet, hi-vis, lights and panniers (if you don’t know what they are, you understand how I felt when the women in the shop asked if I wanted some).
I imagine my first ride into work looked like something out of an old cartoon: teeth gritted, fists clenched tightly round the handles, and eyes like saucers – too scared to blink in case it was during that nano-second that a car decided to inexplicably swerve across the road and head straight for me, and my careless indulgence in a natural and necessary biological reflex resulted in me being stuck to the ground like some kind of gruesome, grown up Flat Stanley.
Day by day, the journey got easier and I spent less of my time sitting behind buses, too scared to overtake even though they were completely stationary. My husband did point out that if this was my technique, I might as well just get on the bus. I figured he just didn’t understand the perils of my particular cycling route. Still, I eventually overcame my fears and almost came to enjoy cycling. It is so much quicker than public transport and I am so much thinner than I ever expected to be post-baby. Plus, there’s something about getting a real blast of fresh air in your face after a long day at work that’s incredibly therapeutic.
In many ways, I’ve come to love cycling. Except…I think it’s sending me slightly mad.
Ever since getting on a bike, I feel like my journey to and from work is plagued by voices. Voices which I know, logically, exist only in my head. They’re the bullying, violating, intimidating voices of peer pressure. The voices you think leave you for good when you finally breakaway from those horrible, judgement-plagued teenage years. As a school kid you have that subtle commentary running behind every decision you make – ‘Is my skirt too short? Or is it too long? I don’t want to be labelled a slag, but too long a skirt makes you so uncool you’re a social outcast’. Then, decision made, you walk through the school gates with an internal commentary made up of the imagined opinions of your peers, judging every aspect of your appearance.
Such is my route to work. Stopping at a red light, I imagine other, ‘cooler’, more reckless cyclists judging me for sticking to the rules. When a sportier cyclist overtakes me, I imagine they’re laughing at me for being so slow – it’s like doing PE all over again. Then, when I overtake someone much slower than me, I panic that I’ve made them feel bad about themselves. But if I waited behind them I’d be late, and another quicker cyclist might come and overtake both of us and make me look a right idiot! Occasionally, I imagine a motorist praising me to their passengers: ‘Well, at least she’s a sensible cyclist with a hi-vis and decent lights, not like some of these idiots!’ But for every one of those, I imagine many more who are annoyed at my overly-cautious cycling, meaning they’re stuck behind me for 20 seconds longer than they would be if I was a faster and more confident cyclist.
Honestly, it’s a wonder I’m able to function by the time I get to work.
At least, I comfort myself, these voices are only my imagination: in reality, no one is judging and no one even cares. Until last week, when one of them took on a real human form!
I was cycling down a busy high street and a car waiting in a queue for the traffic lights had pulled too close to the kerb and I couldn’t get past. I surveyed my options:
1. Wait. It was a strange place for a cyclist to stop but the lights would change in less than 30 seconds and then I’d be on my way again.
2. Swerve and cycle down the middle of the road. It was fairly quiet, but it’s an area full of motorbikes which appear out of nowhere and steam down the centre of the road. Plus, if the lights changed sooner than I expected, I’d be stuck on the wrong side of the cars in a massively busy road.
3. Get up on the fairly empty pavement, zoom ahead of the cars and rejoin the road further up.
Decision made: I’d wait. I’m far too sensible to do anything remotely risky and, as the parent of a small child who’s still getting the hang of walking in a straight line, I HATE cyclists on the pavement.
Just then, the voices piped up, but louder and clearer before: “Just get up on the pavement” said a man’s voice. I looked around and realised it wasn’t my imagination, it was another cyclist, pulling his bike up the kerb and then zooming off ahead of me with a smug grin.
The lights turned green and, confused and slightly embarrassed, I set off. Trundling along in the traffic, suddenly a gap opened up and I was able to glide effortlessly past all the cars, lorries, buses…and past the smug cyclist who was stuck behind a load of chattering school kids and struggling to get back on the road.
I wonder if he has a similar cycling internal commentary. I hope he does, and I hope somehow my voice crept in. It would have sounded something like this…
HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA! You lose!