When I was asked if I would teach a course in East Ham, it did seem like the ideal opportunity to get some base fitness going again after NZ. The ride over there is 25 miles and gets interesting at Battersea as it ploughs through central London, crossing Tower Bridge, before heading out via Tower Hamlets and Stratford.
Now, I've been regularly commuting by bike for 10 years but never somewhere like central London, and it's a bit of a shock. As you head in, and the traffic starts to clog, there is no point whatsoever in waiting in line. Those cars are going to be nose-to-tail for the next 15 miles. So, you want to duck inside or out and get through. But it's not so easy, the place is swarming with motorbikes, scooters, and other cyclists trying to do the same.
Much looking over the shoulder is required, but it's fun cruising past the cars on the wrong side of the road. The sheer number of cyclists is completely alien to me, but normal to them. There are no nods of acknowledgement. People pull up in front of you at traffic lights (if they stop at all). Riders take offence if you overtake, and ramp up speed to try to hang on behind you. I took away a sense of hostility from the week of riding across London, and most of it came from the cyclists.
Still, it was strange how compelling the dance of the other traffic was every morning. The miles would fly by, the sights would be unnoticed. I would take risks that I could control (overtaking on the right) and shy away from those I couldn't (overtaking moving traffic on the left). It had a kind of buzz, and day-by-day my times for the ride went down.
The evenings were better, though. I left the school by 3.30, so the traffic hadn't hit its peak. I didn't have a deadline to get home (except the increasing debt that I owed my stomach), so I could finally look around. The Gherkin would rise up ahead of me MIND THAT BENDY-BUS! and I would cruise off down a quieter road. The blue supports on Tower Bridge would embrace me and I would watch the tourists spin around, whirring their cameras as I whirred my pedals. Hospitals and hair-dressers, I could glance at little scenes all over the city. Harlequins Rugby Club would always be busy and signal that I was nearly at Kingston and from there, nearly home.
In the middle of it all, there were surprising moments. Cars giving way without need (people outside of London may find that unremarkable, it can make your day down here), and just when I was tired and jaded, another cyclist. He set off up Kingston Hill in front of me, and I tucked in behind. I hoped he wouldn't get annoyed about towing me up the hill, but as he pointed out a pot-hole, I knew he wasn't cursing me. Both being red-light stoppers, we had a good chat about riding. Where we'd been (on the same road for more than 10 miles), and where we were going.
Where I was going was back to ploughing my usual furrows and to speculate on whether more cyclists is really a good thing. In the outer boroughs of London, I see almost no other fast-moving bikes. If we get the change we're trying to bring about, and more people do cycle, I hope the combativeness of the centre doesn't set the tone for all cycling in London.