I have a few confessions to make.
One, I’m a huge cheapskate.
I do my best to hide this, but it’s true. Being generous to friends doesn’t bother me, but spending funds on myself feels sort of wasteful. I mean, *I* don’t mind walking instead of taking a cab, or eating lousy food, I’m mad. When I (briefly) had a salary I got over this, but when I got to London and realized I was about to mortally damage my savings account in one fell swoop of a tuition fee cheque, my Scrooge-like tendencies revived. I think I lost weight in the first month because I enthusiastically bought so many packets of economy rice, beans and canned fish at the supermarket, and I didn’t have a lot of weight to spare in the first place.
And when you think about it, such tendencies mean I get to buy more economy rice and beans, or not feel so guilty when I get on the wrong bus again. So imagine my horror at having to pay for daily Tube, bus or rail rides. Bear in mind, too, I’d just been in Asia where public transport is extremely cheap.
Two, I have some kind of compulsion about exercise.
If I’ve spent most of the day sitting with butt on chair in a library, reading / writing / staring vacantly at typed words until I lose all expression in my face, I feel immensely frustrated if I don’t get to burn some energy by some form of exercise. I think it’s my body wanting to feel ‘productive’, especially in those worrying late afternoon times when you’re shouting at yourself-
‘You’ve spent hours sitting at a desk and what have you learnt? What do you remember of everything you’ve read today? Go on, remember! Recite some of it! You’ve learnt NOTHING! AGAIN!”
After a bit of running round the park, you still can’t remember much of your reading, but that’s okay because now oxygen deprivation has robbed your brain of rational thought and the amount of gasping for air you’re doing feels like hard enough work, and the burning in your legs says you’ve achieved something. Cramp, maybe. It’s time to go home. Sweet home.
Three, I’m often unconventional / reckless / daft.
I’ve tried to navigate my way round foreign towns using Lonely Planet maps. I’ve walked alone for 2 hours in the dark to view a volcano’s crater rim, using an Ipod to light the way. I changed courses twice at Oxford. Occasionally, I like to call myself ‘practical’, but this is really not synonymous with ‘sensible’.
For these reasons, I decided to bring my bicycle to London. My Rusty Steed had borne me faithfully around Oxford for two years, then spent another two cosily mouldering away in my dad’s garage. Now it was coming to London, land of close and eternally busy streets, huge, *huge* red buses, agitated white vans, irate taxis, and other anthropomorphosized cars.
“I was thinking of taking my bike,” I ventured to a London friend in September.
A snort came from the phone, followed by skeptical laughter.
“So I’m also hoping to get a room as close to the College as I can, under 90 pounds a week,” I added.
More laughter. A blush rose to my London newbie cheeks.
In all honesty? It isn’t that bad. In fact, I love having my bike in London. The best things are that you get a little daily exercise, and you save a little money every day, a handful each week, and a nice portion each month. Still, I wouldn’t cycle if I didn’t enjoy it in the first place- though I wouldn’t have enjoyed it if I had never made myself try it. There are quite a good amount of cycle trails on the roads, and you can get free cycle maps (from, uh, somewhere, I got mine at a Fresher’s Fair stall) which mark out the roads recommended by other cyclists. The London transport website- www.tfl.gov.uk- can plan routes and gives an estimate of bike journey times, although this tends to be extremely optimistic.
The only close calls I’ve had so far have occurred at main road intersections, where unless you get in front of the queue of cars before the traffic light changes, you may find a car / lorry intent on splatting you into the kerb as it takes a left hand turn with you alongside it. To put it more simply, watch out for cars turning into you when you’re crossing an intersection, if you’re alongside them, assume that they will *not* let you go first unless you’re fully in front of them. Battersea Bridge is particularly bad for this.
Second on the list are quiet lanes, actually. The more quiet residential streets tend to have lines of parked cars down either side, and they can be the places in the evening where Mr Office Worker decides to blow off some steam by putting his foot down on his way home. Since there isn’t much room or time to get out of the way, I’ve reassured myself by wearing bike lights, and mapping out a scenario where to avoid being hit, I stand up on my bike and leap off onto the roof of a nearby car. I think I got the idea from Mission Impossible 2. It goes without saying that some things are best left undone.
Finally, watch out for buses. I actually think buses treat cyclists quite carefully- I’ve never been honked at or overtly threatened by one. However, I’ve often been pedaling along a main road, notice a bus stop or lay-by up ahead, and sure enough, there’s a huge bus ghosting up close behind me, wanting to stop. This is frightening if you need to change lanes or pull out into the road to avoid parked cars or obstructions, and the bus tries to overtake you. Always check over your shoulder before pulling out into the road.
The first month of cycling was the hardest. I was living in Wandsworth, and it took me about half an hour of quick cycling to get home. In the morning, this is okay. In the evening, it was a chore, especially if I was wearing anything other than trainers, or hadn’t eaten much, or came to that bit in the route where I had to cycle uphill or get off my bike to walk across a park. After a month, though, I got used to it and it wasn’t so bad.
Other useful tips:
Fixing punctures is easy, getting the outer tire and inner tube off the bike wheel is not. I found that you can use a pen to get your outer tire and deflated inner tube off the rim. Pull a bit of the tire over the rim, then stick the end of a biro or the like under the tire and pull it around the wheel. Once you’ve got over half the tire over the rim, the whole thing comes off easily.
Put a bit of oil into the lock of a U-lock to stop it getting stiff and rusty. Apparently, prevention of this isn’t part of their design.
Bike lights run batteries down within a couple of months, less if they have a tendency to switch on when getting mashed in your bag (and they do). Buy rechargeable batteries.
Actually, the cost of most bike accessories seems ridiculously high and may ruin the saintly feelings of a true cheapskate when equated against equivalent public transport costs. For example, a *good* set of lights cost me 30 pounds, and in the past I’ve already run through at least two sets of crap lights that tend to stop working, or fall off your bike once you’ve lost the receipt. For such reasons, you’re better off buying locks, lights, helmets, etc off eBay.
Plastic bags over the seat avoid the ‘wet trousers’ problem where you both feel unpleasantly soggy and look suspiciously soggy in the seat of your trousers / skirt.
Reflective jackets, helmets, strips… frankly, the more foolishly noticeable you look, the safer you are. Nobody gets on a bike to pull, anyway.