For a long time I’d had a “to do” note in my mind: to write a blog piece about how, these last couple of years, I’ve felt so incredibly lucky to be able to have the confidence, fitness, experience, ability and (some might say) foolhardiness to cycle all over this ridiculous city we call London.
It was going to be called ‘Cycling – my keys to the city’, and it was going to chart how cycling has become my default transport of choice, to the extent that other methods rarely get a look-in these days:
- Cycle to work in the pouring rain, or take the bus, get stuck in traffic and arrive 20 minutes late? No contest, just make sure you have good enough waterproofs and take it easy. A choice made even easier now that I’ve made the revelatory discovery, 8 years too late, that I can cycle down the old Peckham Canal greenway, then across Burgess Park, making about 70% of my daily commute off the main road.
- Cycle to a gig in Hackney after work, then take the bike on the Overground train home, or struggle across town on the underground and Overground at the tail end of rush hour? No contest.
- Cycle 40 minutes across town to my theatre group on a Monday in Docklands, including the always exciting crossing of Tower Bridge, then take the Greenwich Foot Tunnel home (flouting the NO CYCLING bylaw, since it’s so quiet at that time) and be back in 20 minutes. Or spend most of the evening figuring out how the DLR works and navigating that awful interchange at London Bridge. No contest.
- Cycle to my workday volunteer sessions in Sydenham Hill Wood in less than 20 minutes (and get a heap of exercise in the process), or take 2 buses which would take 45 minutes.
- Cycle all the way to Walthamstow to meet Bas Jan in a pub to buy their record, and have an urban adventure in the process, cycling across Walthamstow Marshes and getting soaked, but feeling incredibly alive. Or be boring and take the train.
In short, this humble little machine unlocks the city. It lets me go anywhere, quickly and almost for free. As well as exercising the body, riding also exercises the mind (both in terms of navigation and staying alert to danger). And, in those moments of cycling through parks or on quietways, it also affords thinking time: the day ahead, the day just gone, where I’m going in life (literally and figuratively).
So, when your keys are stolen away from you, it’s kinda hard. On Monday 10 December, at approximately 5.30pm, my trusty Dorothy Dawes was stolen from outside my office. I was sat at a desk about 20 metres away, with windows overlooking the bike rack!
Upset about the day’s events – my friend and 14 others had been found guilty in court of breaking into an airport and causing ‘risk to life’ after they stopped a deportation charter flight taking off at Stansted Airport – I went off bouldering at lunchtime and then, not thinking properly, I failed to lock the bike up properly when I got back (locking just the front wheel to the metal bike rack – doh!)
Annoyingly, there’s a “secure” bike cage in the basement at work, although I’d got out of the habit of using it after it was broken into earlier in the year, with several bikes stolen. I’m also lazy, and it takes more time and effort to take bikes down into the basement – no good if you want to pop out at lunchtime, as I often do. It was also uninsured.
The whole theft was captured on CCTV, and I’ve been able to take grainy stills from it, as well as hand over the footage to the police. The chances of them doing anything with it seem slim, even though I’m pretty sure a ‘sting’ operation could catch the person within a couple of hours. They almost certainly check the racks every day for carelessly-locked bikes, like mine was.
It’s also bizarre that despite us all having digital phones that can take pictures in millions of megapixels, all CCTV footage ever recorded has always been and always will be grainy, low-res and impossible to identify someone from. Them’s the rules.
Getting the bus home that evening, I was annoyed with my stupidity, and upset about my loss. Not just financially, but also the loss of my keys to the city, and the loss of a special friend – we’d gone *everywhere* together, doings thousands of miles, including:
- Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia and China – on the ‘bikepacking’ trip of a lifetime with Rachel Porter (which led to this blog being started)
- Glastonbury Festival, Green Man, Supernormal, Wilderness, and the Howlin Fling on Eigg – twice!
- The COP21 protests in Paris, and the Ende Gelende action for COP23 in the Rhineland, Germany
- Tree planting rides all over the place (Hebden Bridge, Heart of England forest, Knepp, Epsom)
- Countless trips around SE England, Isle of Wight, etc.
- Two Dunwich Dynamos (count ’em!)
- Twice London to Cambridge on FA Cup day (weirdly!)
- Various cycle-based protests including a Stay Grounded action at Heathrow Airport and a Stop the Arms Fair action at Docklands Excel Centre, plus many Critical Mass rides and the Tour De Frack in summer 2018
- Hundreds of rides across and around London
But, I reflected, a bike is also just another ‘object’. Inanimate, replaceable. No-one died and at least I don’t have an unjust prison sentence hanging over me. Keep things in perspective, man.
And luckily, I had a ‘spare’ Trek Hybrid in the shed – itself stolen from Brick Lane while I was having a ukulele lesson (what else?!) Miraculously, it was recovered by the police a couple of years later and returned to me, thanks to being ‘Bike Register‘ marked. Although a bit rickety, it’s kept me on the move during the last couple of weeks, and now my sights are set on a new bike.
One thing about Dorothy Dawes was that although she was rather heavy, she was incredibly sturdy and reliable with it: no major mechanical or frame fault in four years, and no punctures either! Pretty incredible considering all the stuff I’ve asked her to do and carry.
I’ve joined a couple of rides with London Bike & Beer Group over the years, including one out to Box Hill in Surrey, which I got up fine, but I struggled to keep pace with the group, who were all on road bikes with slick tires. Even before the theft, I’d been contemplating getting a really cheap road bike as a second bike, for rides like this.
But typically, when I go cycling, I end up off-roading at some point; taking a short-cut across a farm, looking for that elusive Youth Hostel in the South Downs, a gravel canal-side path…
So, I want the reliability, sturdiness and comfort of Dorothy Dawes, combined with some of the speed and performance of a road bike. I’ve done a bit of research and, since 2014, it looks like there’s a new kind of bike in town called an Adventure Bike, imported from the US ‘gravel bike’ scene.
They have disc brakes (which would be a first for me), clearance for fatter tires, and can take mudguards and a back rack for touring. I already miss not having a pannier, so that’s a must. I’m not gonna spend heaps (I live in London) so here are my two options: The Calibre Dark Peak (£550, sale) or the Voodo Limba (£350, sale) from Halfords, which is 2.5kg heavier, has fewer gears (16 compared to 20) and slightly inferior parts.
I went to Halfords yesterday and they were worse than useless, but neither do I fancy a trip to Thurrock Lakeside just to look at a bike. Why is buying a new bike so difficult?!? I’m leaning towards the Dark Peak, as it’s so damn light, but also sturdy, which is the hybrid upgrade I’m after. It also gets a great review here.
Update: I went for the Voodoo Limba from Halfords. Time will tell if this was a good decision. I’m worried it doesn’t have enough gear range, but I have got up Jerningham Road and Sydenham Hill successfully so far..!
Any advice, recommendations or tips appreciated – as I’m not so tall, I need a smaller frame size, which limits options somewhat (especially on eBay/Gumtree).