How to survive London as a cyclist
When I was a kid, I loved cycling. I didn’t live in a great area growing up so I was mainly restricted to the park with my parents, but the simple sense of freedom and control that came with riding my bike made me happy. In my teenage years, I didn’t ride very much, but when I moved to university in London, I decided that it was time to get back onto the saddle.
When I told people about cycling in London, I was normally met by worried faces and the constant reminder that it was “dangerous”. It’s understandable I guess, it seems like we’re always reading about a cyclist who has been killed on the capital’s roads, and anyone who’s ever visited London knows that the traffic looks chaotic at first glance.
Undeterred by the warnings, I jumped onto a bike the first chance I got and started getting used to the city. My first thought was that actually, cycling here was easy, there was so much traffic that I normally ended up being quicker than the cars (which meant nobody trying to force me off the road), and the drivers were much more used to cyclists than they were in my home town. I was still very careful at first though and ironically, I was being as careful as ever when I had my first accident a couple of months later.
The bike I was riding was equipped with a front mudguard which hadn’t been attached properly. Whilst I was riding at a gentle pace along a back street, the mudguard jammed the front wheel causing it to lock up and throw me over the handle bars — face first into the road. I’ll spare you the details but needless to say, I ended up lying in the middle of the road with a broken nose, and spending a number of hours in the hospital.
After that, I decided to stop hiring bikes and invest in my own so that I could maintain it myself. I spent about £300 on a single speed bike that has served me really well over the last 6 months. I also got really interested in watching YouTube videos of incidents other cyclists had been in. I know it sounds kind of strange, and I definitely questioned myself a few times when I found myself watching yet another near miss video, but there was something about them that I found really useful and interesting.
Back in WW2, when aircraft started to carry video recording equipment, pilots suddenly found themselves with a powerful tool to improve their flying. After each sortie, they would debrief and watch videos of manoeuvres they had each carried out and critique each others flying. This allowed each pilot to learn not only from their own experiences, but also from the experiences of their colleagues.
I realised that this was effectively what i’d been doing with the cycle videos. Each time I went out to ride, I was able to analyse developing situations using my own experience, as well as the experiences I’d been able to absorb from other cyclists. This allowed me to start seeing a pattern, or a rhythm to cycling in the city. Most of the other vehicles on the road stuck to this pattern, but I started being able to spot the odd one out, the one vehicle that was about cut me up or pull out on me.
A writer I recently discovered by the name of Malcolm Gladwell wrote an incredibly interesting book called Blink. I’m about half way through it at the time of writing this but already, I can see how the concepts he talks about can be applied to cycling. They key theme Gladwell discusses is our ability to rapidly make mental decisions based on a very small slices of information on an unconscious level. He goes on to talk about decision paralysis in which being overwhelmed with data, as well as our intense desire to consciously process everything, can slow down or even stall our entire decision making process. When you’re playing a fast paced sport, or riding through busy fast moving traffic, your ability to make decisions almost instantly, and without lots of information is essential. Every near miss I’ve ever had on my bike has actually been caused by hesitation. Maybe I spot a gap in traffic and need to decide if I can get through it safely. My first snap judgement tells me I can, but then I start trying to consciously make that choice, I weigh up all the factors and by the time I make a decision on that level, the gap has closed just that little bit too much and I can’t make it anymore.
From my limited experience thus far, i’m by no means an expert, but if I had to draw a conclusion from everything I’ve learnt, it would be that cycling in a city like London is just as much a mental exercise as it is a physical exercise. It requires “blink judgement” as defined by Gladwell, and it requires a rider to be tuned into the rhythm. Something I’ve heard from quite a few people is that when you’re cycling in London, you have to expect every driver to do something stupid so that you’re always ready to react. I don’t think this is quite right. Realistically, there’s no way I can keep tabs on every single vehicle on the road around me, not on the complex level required to be able to predict whether they’re about to do something stupid anyway. What I can do however is “thin slice” and whilst keeping a careful watch on the rhythm of everybody as a whole, look out for the irregularities, the rhythm disruptors.
The challenge of cycling in London is actually one of my favourite pastimes, but as with every new environment, the city has a different set of rules and if you want to survive here as a cyclist, those rules are everything.