I don’t remember the first time I ever rode a bicycle, sadly, but I do remember the first time I ever rode a bicycle in London. My trusty teenage steed had been heartbreakingly stolen from outside a pub in Brighton, where I was at university, but fortunately my mum’s contents insurance had come through with a replacement.
My destination was Angel, to meet a girl. The exact date escapes me but it must have been around this time of year because it was the middle of term, and she was struggling with a seasonal cold. In what remains, probably, the most romantic gesture I have ever made I carried with me a sachet of Lemsip, intending to present her with a steaming, medicinal mug of it when she arrived.
But this isn’t about her - although maybe it is a bit - so back to biking.
In the age of GPS we take that little flashing dot for granted, but this was a simpler time so stowed in my back pocket, alongside the Lemsip, was an A to Z. Until that day I had only ever needed a few of its pages, covering five or six square miles at most, always pretty central, around tourist traps and taverns. Yet barely a few pedal revolutions into my journey I recall revelling in how much more of the map I was marking, as the unfathomably expansive urban landscape shrank to nothing beneath my wheels.
My mind’s eye can still make out the facades of stations as I zipped by: in the leafy west Warwick Avenue, Maida Vale and St John’s Wood, all disappearing into my dust no sooner than they were stumbled upon. A miniature Leslie Green architectural tour was next as I sailed by the oxblood red facades of Chalk Farm, parks Belsize and Tufnell, then Archway before turning south along Holloway Road. I surely took the wrong exit off Highbury Corner at least once before finishing with a triumphant dash down Upper Street.
Although it didn’t work out with the girl, boy did me and cycling make a good couple. In less than an hour I had seen more of London than in twenty years and, no longer confined by bus routes, tube maps and timetables, my sense of this city was completely transformed. I could go where I wanted, when I wanted, for nothing.
In the decade since I have built up my own mental map of London, filling in gaps one trip at a time. As such, although I don’t think I know this city better than anyone else but I do know it better than I otherwise would. I have crossed the river a thousand joyful times over every bridge from Putney to the Tower. I have broken a wrist, a leg, suffered cuts and scrapes, and survived more near misses than I can count. I have texted my mum approximately 376 times to reassure her that I’ve made it home in one piece.
The point, of this unforgivably London-centric ramble, is that with construction seemingly everywhere forcing road users big and small into an ever narrower space - plus y’know Winter - many a by-bike commuter seems to be of the view that this is as hard as it’s ever been. Even the most “half full” of you might feel like London is, at best, going through an “always darkest before the dawn” period. Tough it out, you tell yourself, keep calm and... some old bollocks.
And to a certain extent I agree: It's not always easy, at times it’s downright grim. But it's always, ALWAYS, better than the alternative. Battling through the cold and rain is always better than facing the soot, sweat and invisible horrors carried by other people on the tube. The odd hop on the pavement or swerve for safety is always better than staring down from the top deck of the bus at an endless traffic jam, knowing the best you can do is email into work to say you'll be late. Getting into furious swearing matches with cab drivers who don’t feel obliged to acknowledge that yes, you do in fact have a right to physical mass, is better than being forcing your way onto a train that was designed for a tenth of the people on it.
Every time I feel like giving up on this city I think back to the first day I rode a bike here. As a child I had only ever seen them as playthings, but that was the day I awoke to their potential to liberate and empower, to allow a country boy like me not just to live here, but to truly feel alive.