Friday, 25 January 2008

Two wheels good

I read about a survey that said cyclists were more community-minded than other groups in society. I do not know if it is true, but I can see why it might be so.

On a bike you get a sense of place that you do not have in a car. And unlike walking or running, you maintain a slightly separateness from your surroundings, and can travel longer distances.

Tonight I cycled east from the City. Through Wapping, Poplar, into Canning Town and then Beckton, before heading back around the docks to Canary Wharf, the Isle of Dogs, Greenwich, Deptford and New Cross.

Some people might describe Brockley, where I live now, as quite rough, but there are places I saw tonight that are much tougher, with large areas of deprivation.

The bike I ride around town is a single-speed track bike designed for a velodrome. In the summer I’ll be racing it again, but for the winter I have added brakes to it and have found a good gear that seems to work wherever I go.

It will just about get me up the short, steep hill that I have to climb from Deptford to Blackheath, though with some effort. But in exchange for that occasional extra work I have a fantastically light bike, stripped of cumbersome gears and weighty and unnecessary equipment.

I am certainly not the first to enjoy the freedom riding a single-speed bike allows. If you look for them, you’ll see many couriers and commuters also go without gears. So popular has riding single-speed bikes become, that it has spawned a variety of sub-cultures, offering the fashion-conscious cyclist a range of identities to decide between.

(Try a read of the fabulous NYC Bike Snob for a feel of the scene. London’s scenesters are a bit punkier, if the Hackney-types I’ve seen around are anything to go by. That said, there are some art boys into track bikes too, and they like their bikes absolutely perfect, and pink or yellow, or both.)

Deeply unfashionable it may be, but the core of my bike riding is the commute into town. And for this, both Brockley and the bike are pretty perfect. It’s a flat ride (if you skirt around Telegraph Hill) and just far enough – around five miles to St Pauls – to get a good ride in, but not too far as to tire yourself out too much before work.

In February, it will be exactly five years since I began cycling to work. Over those five years the freedom from the dreaded commute – which I did for the previous five – has allowed me to enjoy London so much more.

Not only does the bike provide a wonderful way of travelling to work, it locks me into the city that I live, as well as giving me the freedom to escape it. Not only that, but I have met many wonderful people through clubs, racing and other shared experiences.

Without the bike I wonder if I would stay in London at all.

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