The Spoke December 23, 2010

Dodging the 'Boris Bikers'

Dear readers, when I was 11 years old I, like many others at that age, took my cycling proficiency test at school. You’ll be delighted to learn that I passed. Conversely though, some of my classmates did not and I recall pontificating after I had collected my certificate in assembly the next week that the box of chocolates given as a consolation to those who had failed was actually a far superior reward to my piece of paper.

Ladies and gentlemen, nearly twenty years on, those cycling proficiency failures are back. And they are riding Boris bikes.

Don’t get me wrong, London’s bike hire scheme is certifiably a good thing. However, it has unleashed onto our roads a flock of hopeless cyclists who are almost certain to have a significant negative impact on my mental and physical health before too long. As far as I can work out, Boris bike users fall into two broad categories - those who operate their velocipede as if it were a highly unstable item of radioactive waste, and those who cycle as if they are trying to escape this unstable nuclear threat.

I have recently traded Brighton for London and my 5 mile slog across the centre of our capital city makes quite a change from my previous commute, a serene saunter along 9 miles of the south coast where the main hazard was a particularly abrasive sea breeze. Here hazards loom before me, constantly emerging from every conceivable angle like a very real version of the platform shoot ‘em ups I used to have for my Commodore 64. It isn’t just our Boris bikers you have to watch out for; the ordinary threats that accompany any venture out on the bike are multiplied ten-fold. Buses and taxis have achieved astronomical levels of contempt and rancour and pedestrians seem to regard stepping out in front of cyclists as a necessary evil of any excursion across the road, potholes seem deeper and less conveniently placed. I had travelled no less than a mile on my first attempt at the commute when a driver for a popular courier company decided to acquaint me with his wing mirror. Given I sent approximately no packages per annum, they probably won’t feel the resultant loss of my business, but you have to take a stand where you can.

This is war. And for war you need to be properly equipped. With this in mind, I have traded my road bike for an altogether less cool and more robust hybrid commuter bike, or whatever the kids are calling them these days. Well, I say traded. The road bike was stolen and after I had paid the excess on my ill-considered insurance policy, the remaining 30 pence didn’t stretch to my desired choice. Still, the Thames will freeze before I hop aboard a Boris bike. My theory is if you are using a Boris bike to cycle to work, you must hate cycling. These unwieldy behemoths appear to have all the manoeuvrability of an aircraft carrier. Of course, if you are riding one, that doesn’t stop you weaving your way through traffic as though you’ve left a thousand ovens on or shoehorning your way to the front of the queue at the traffic lights.

Ah yes, the traffic lights. I think I need to up my assertiveness here. Of a morning, I often find myself as one of at least half a dozen cyclists waiting at any given set of traffic lights. I tend to take my natural place in the queue, which probably has more to do with a fear of falling flat on my face as I try to make a fast getaway than any misplaced sense of chivalry. Most other people evidently do not share this fear. Regardless of what they are riding - Boris bike, adult tricycle, penny farthing - they career to the front of the waiting masses as if a divine right is being exercised. Inevitably then, they set off at a pace slower than the arthritic pensioner walking alongside, and everyone is gradually forced to overtake before the process is repeated at the next set of lights 200 yards further down the road. Of course, the other option people seem to like is to ignore the traffic lights altogether, which is a fine option if you have good life insurance.

I feel like I’m complaining. In truth, I’m finding these adventures quite exhilarating. Taking my place in the middle of a throng of speeding cyclists banking down past Monument Station and up over London Bridge on my journey home is a true delight and, as a observer, watching the mass of bikes cruise through Wellington Arch towards Constitution Hill in the morning rush hour is cycling’s march of the penguins. Or something.

Assuming I don’t end up at Her Majesty’s Leisure for strangling someone with their Boris bike, I will report further on these adventures in the New Year. For now, though, on behalf of myself and bikebritain, Merry Christmas and Best Wishes for 2011.


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