Category Archives: Cycling London

London Cyclist Diaries: The Heartbreak of a City Cyclist

Raleigh Access

The sad and mangled corpse of my beautiful Raleigh Access. Mournful sigh.

Owning a bike is an emotional investment. There’s no two ways about it. Your bike takes you places. You take pride in it. Sometimes you brag about it to your friends. It helps you to defy traffic by flying past giant metal boxes on wheels sat stationary in gridlock. You glide through the wind, coast in the glory of the sun; sometimes it even makes the 9 mile commute pure pleasure.

So, if you’re a cyclist and you live in a city, you probably also know the heartbreak that I felt in January when I opened the door to my East London flat to find the woeful and pathetic assembly of parts you see above. You could have taken a jagged, rusty dagger, thrust it into my abdomen, twisted hard and repeated and you would come somewhere close to appreciating how I felt. To reappropriate Shylock, the curse never fell upon my nation until that moment. I never felt it until then.

I might as well come out and say it: I loved that bike. We had come home from our week long holiday in Copenhagen, an absolutely brilliant cycling city, last February, having had the healthiest and most exhilarating vacation we’d ever known, cycling through snow, over bridges and rivers, through settlements and hipster hangouts and we came back having been bitten by the bug. We were determined to acquire ourselves wheels upon our return to the metropolis.

My bike before it was stripped.

There it is, in all its marvellous, urban glory. Grieving sigh.

Before Denmark, I hadn’t really cycled in years, but it didn’t take long to fall in love with zipping speedily down urban thoroughfares, drunk with the power that comes with the speed and control of my own muscles, reawakening after sleeping lazily in a near atrophic state for years. I was surprised to notice — actually notice from day to day — becoming physically stronger in partnership with my two-wheeled 6 speed wonder. I went from a 5 and half mile limit to 9 miles in just over 40 minutes rapidly (Oi, serious cyclists! Stop laughing. I was doing well) and with that came such a euphoric sense of accomplishment — all from pushing with my two legs in a cyclical motion.

All right. I know in the end it all comes down to an endorphin rush, but at the time, it was an epiphany. And my bike and I were one. If you are a cyclist or passionate about anything, you know the feeling.

And then it was savaged. My beautiful machine.

No. It wasn’t stolen. I would almost have rather they had done that. At least there is some finitude in a clean theft, some sense of closure. No. Some very talented and very vile scum patiently — but quickly I imagine and with help I imagine — picked my bike clean and left its bare skeleton clothed in nothing but its rear brake calipers still locked to the signpost to which it had been fastened for nearly a year.

Words are difficult at such points. If it’s happened to you, you know that all you see is red. I saw red. Blood and danger and fiercely marching Soviet red. And all I could think was, “Please. Let there be a hell. Let it be good and hot, full of hungry serpents, sizzling vats of oil brewed just for torment, pits of spikes and chains from which you may be fettered while vultures peck at your flesh inducing everlasting pain. Let there be a hell of boundless pain. And drop all bike thieves right down in the bottom of it.”

Dramatic? Perhaps, but if you know the feeling, I think you’ll probably agree, my response is quite a liberal one.

Want to know the kicker? I’ve had two bikes stolen since! One, a Dahon Matrix acquired fairly quickly after the Access, lifted at night, liberated from its quick-release wheel, which the spiteful spawn of Satan left me with.

Wheel Dahon Matrix

A cruel joke? I find myself flailing around for a sense of humor.

The last one, most recently, was a find off gumtree that I counted myself lucky to acquire: A Dahon Dream, a model rare in Britain, built for the domestic Chinese market, but after acquiring a loyalty for Dahon and Raleigh, I know any Dahon is going to be well built. All for £60. That’s right. £60!

Dahon Dream

No Raleigh Access, but after three weeks, I was starting to grow rather fond of it.

Alas. It seems the brotherhood of Hackney Bike Thieves have made me a marked man.

I thought I had finally hit on the perfect security system. I had started packing away my folding bike (I’ve become quite attached to the urban flexibility of folders) in the trunk of my car. So far, so safe.

And then, after three weeks of riding around this lovely little ride, just three weeks, I rode home late one friday, having babysat for a friend, locked away my orange wonder, thought nothing else of it until two days later when I opened the trunk of my car and was met with this:

Empty trunk

I know something valuable is supposed to be here.

I must have started becoming calloused. After being hit for a third time and after 30 seconds of taking in the full impact of the emptiness that lay before me and what happened, I nearly shrugged.

Then the litany of profanity followed. As near as I can figure, some local, morally depraved trolls must have seen me putting my bike in the trunk, picked my lock and neatly plucked the bike out. Bloody hell. At this point, I started to feel bereft of any reason to have an iota of faith in humanity.

I’m not a fan of putting profanity on this blog, but I thought this image I found by a righteous defender of the cycling faithful just warmed the heart.

bike theft fuck you

Yes. That is the bike thief victim’s pain, powerlessness and rage, encapsulated neatly in a wheatpasted flyer. (image taken from alleycat.hk)

And one of the worst aspects of this whole thing is that I leave my home now looking around at people in the street with narrowed eyes thinking, “Which one of you, huh? Which one of you did it?” Was it the youths on the corner or the vegan anarchist volunteers in the cafe downstairs? It really is anyone’s guess.

According to statistics from 2011, there are over 22,000 bike thefts in London reported every year and I live in one of the worst boroughs for it (Hackney, over 1500 thefts annually). I didn’t report my second one and my first one I was told by the police that there wasn’t much point. I suppose it’s supposed to be, “a comfort to those that are wretched to have companions in misery,” but somehow it just makes me want to give up the hobby altogether.

I’m not of course. Criminal vermin won’t scare me off the roads that easily. But I’ve learned some lessons:

  • If you care about it, insure it.
  • If you’ve got a folding bike, do the logical thing and keep it inside.
  • Register your bike with the police. Might not make any difference, but at least you’ve done all you can.

With that in mind, somewhat incredibly, I find myself trawling ebay again, search terms: Dahon/Raleigh folding bike. I don’t foresee the financial grounding until next month, but it’s nice to look. It’ll never be like that Raleigh Access, but I’ll get on my bike and ride.

Raleigh Access

Somehow, I’ll ride again

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Our Special Relationship

Prime Minister on US TV

Now now. I’m not here to talk about why my public school education has left me ill equipped to answer questions about British culture. That’s for my researchers. (Photo taken from BBC News site)

For the life of me, I cannot see what David Cameron was thinking. Stiff as a waterboard, there he went, onto Letterman to face an audience of my compatriots, supposedly to “bang the drum of British business”. Did he not think that BP had done enough damage? He was very worthy and neither likeable nor wholeheartedly dislikeable, just affirming to America that, like the perception of British food, this country’s people are as insipid and as humourless as salty Scottish gruel. So worthy and so bland.

Somewhat bizarrely, much like his first Prime Minister’s Questions in the House of Commons — not as Prime Minister but in opposition facing off against Tony in his last days — he seemed to come off very left of centre, which may suggest he knows how to play a Letterman audience after all. Facts of existence in the UK like the absence of gun usage and the thought of carrying a gun being incomprehensible drew cheers from the live audience, as did the fact that political parties are not allowed to advertise on British TV. Period.

But the point of the exercise still baffles me. Letterman controlled the banter and all the best lines were his, as they should be, so the only motivation one can possible detect is that this appearance is the latest in the bizarre oneupmanship contest between Cameron and the more affably charismatic Lord Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, who also appeared on Letterman in June, and who, unlike Cameron, took an equal share of the best lines and drew a much better reaction from the audience with all his bumbling and foppish Freudian slips (Letterman: Would you ban giant sodas [as Bloomberg has done]? Johnson: I I I… We’re not that… We’re not that… Whilst I am certainly bigger than Mike [Bloomberg], as a city, we’re not that… … fat. YET. [hearty and appreciative, self-deprecating guffaws from the audience]).

Much as it kills me to admit it, Boris is one conservative that I don’t wholeheartedly disagree with on all policies. He opposes a third runway at Heathrow, is pro-public transport, pro-cyclist, and stood up to Romney over the summer when Mitt paraded his blustering ignorance in the field of statesmanship doubting out loud that the capital could handle the Olympics. He’s very far from perfect, but his interview is well worth watching and quite entertaining.

Five Things About The Olympics That Will Sodden Your Sporting Spirit

I have to admit, I like the concept of the Olympics. I like the idea of the whole world being united in a sporting contest that goes back to antiquity and encourages a striving for excellence in physical abilities as well as sportsmanship. I like the idea of sport, unmotivated by lots of corporate sponsorship and greed as it seems football is here in England (and Baseball was in the 1990s, when I stopped following my team, The Mets, because I lost faith in players during the strike). And in some weird, perverse, London way, I feel a sense of pride that we got the games. But being an adoptive Londoner, I think I’ve also acquired a kind of second-nature scepticism about waves of positivity sweeping over a place like a juggernaut leaving nothing but vitamin C and sunshine in its wake. It smacks of the worst of blind American optimism and as Springsteen said, blind faith in your leaders, or anything, will get you killed.

There’s no smoke without fire and no scepticism without a seedy little fact lurking behind those shiny Olympic rings.Whilst I think The Games should be an enjoyable experience, here are a few uncomfortable truths to bear in mind as we are jubilantly celebrating sport.

Mowing down the Marshes

The Borough of Waltham Forest, on 7th February, 2011, greenlighted The Olympic Development Authority to build a large basketball training facility right on top of a massive amount of green space in the Porter’s Field section of Leyton Marshes. You can read all about the campaign to prevent the courts from being built here. The ODA say they are obliging themselves to restore the Marshes to their former state by 15th October 2012, but as with rainforests, no matter how many trees you plant and fields you build over, there is no going back to the ‘original state’ of an historic green space. And I have to ask, why does London, a city with a surprisingly large amount of green spaces, need to sacrifice some of them? We host millions of commuters from the home counties every day. It’s not as though we don’t do big events.

Roll up, roll up, Olympic festival fans, it’s Walthamstock

Exploiting green spaces for quick cash during the Olympics seems to be a real trend with Waltham Forest. A council licensing panel granted the Big Events Company (BEC) permission to sell alcohol and have dancing and recorded music between 1 and 10 pm, despite protests from local residents. According to The Waltham Forest Guardian‘s website: 

 ‘Last year the council secretly signed a contract to lease the land to the firm, hoping that a share of the profits from the deal would help pay the estimated £1.5million bill for its ‘Big 6′ series of events to celebrate the Olympics.’

A cynical person might think Waltham Forest was milking the games for all it was worth.

Branded like Cattle 

We have new stadiums, we have a new shopping centre, we even have a new postcode (E20, as if we can really call Stratford a city) but could we please leave our E15 greasy spoons alone? Kamel Kichane, the owner of The Olympic Cafe in Stratford was forced to change the name of his caf or have to pay the council £3,000. The following is Mr. Kichane’s low cost solution to the problem.

What it reveals though is a wrong-headedness, a blinkered vision about the Olympic Brand. What was I saying up there about a competition untainted by commercialism? Correction. The sponsors and organisers project an image that the Olympics is not motivated by commercial greed and work very hard to project that image, but the fact is, according to Adweek magazine, the Olympics has been about greed and private sponsorship since LA in 1984 when Peter Ueberroth, the president of the Los Angeles Organizing Committee of the games that year, actively gunned for private, corporate sponsoship to resurrect a moribund tradition lurching towards oblivion.

Ben Johnson, left, beats Carl Lewis in the 100-metres on Sept. 24, 1988.
Growing up in America, the notion of purity in the Olympics was cultivated. There was a general sense that these weren’t like quarterbacks and big hitters getting paid several hundred thousand dollars per game; you expected double dealings and deviousness in sports like American football and baseball, what with their stink of greasy piles of dollar bills wafting through ballparks and stadiums acorss the country.  We were taught that Olympians were different; these were hard working athletes training for seven or eight hours every day to represent their country in some noble tradition.

We grew up with names like Flo Jo, Greg Luganis, Carl Lewis and Ben Johnson ringing with heroic clarity in our heads. And even in this short but famous list, only the reputations of of Joyner and Luganis remain intact. Lewis is still dogged today with the cloud of controversy caused by his testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs in the 1988 Olympics in Seoul and still being allowed to compete. Canadian Johnson famously tested positive and was stripped of his gold medal the same year. Such was the pressure of the freshly minted money-fed sponsorship-driven games that a slew of Athletes are alleged to have taken steroids and got away with it. Is it pure coincidence that this unethical practice became popular in the wake of the games going corporate? This was an atmosphere that was capable of corrupting even Canadian athletes. Canadians, I say. Canadians! When you’ve got to the point where can wreck the moral compass of the good founders of The Peaceable Kingdom up north, all hope is very nearly lost.

As a result of all this branding, aside from it not being a fair representation of unenhanced human athletic ability, to paraphrase Steve Punt in last week’s episode of The Now Show, the official food of the Olympics is McDonald’s, drink is Coca-cola, official chocolate is Cadbury’s and official disease is type 2 diabetes. Perfect Pint UK reports that there is no British beer to be represented either at the London Olympics, just Heineken. God help you if you are drinking any water except Evian anywhere within the walls of the fortified Olympic Village. The Olympic village will have a ‘pop-up McDonald’s’ that will officially be the largest in the world. With the Olympics in London for the first time since 1948, what do we want to showcase? The sophisticated array of top-notch intelligent chefs and creative organisations and restaurants that the British food industry has grown up into, or the ode to efficiency that is the brainchild of American Ray Kroc? Actually, the former might take some effort. It’s not as though there are any Olympic boroughs serving any good British food nowadays and what chefs can we really claim of any reknown, let’s go with cheap and cheerful, eh?

In efforts to protect trademark rights, you are not allowed to consume anything made by anyone outside of those producers who are official Olympic sponsors. Bog standard confidence trick: advertise freemarket and freechoice, get the punters inside, eliminate the choice and jack up the price, thus annihilating any image the games ever projected of being a competition of pure, uncorrupted athletic prowess for the sake of athletic prowess.

The World’s Biggest Competition to Demonstrate What Exactly?
 
For an event that’s been advertised as a massive benefit to London in the long-run, it doesn’t seem to be doing much for us in the short term. A path I have only just started enjoying along the canal between Hackney and Stratford or rather Stratford and everywhere has been closed and placed under armed guard. Yes, because of the potential threat, you are no longer able to use your own athletic abilities to get near the site at which athletes from the world over are competing  to demonstrate their athletic abilities. Surely this is sending the wrong message, especially since the Games organizers had originally put money and efforts into improving the path and making sure the public knew that it was going to be an enjoyable way to get to Olympia, East London.
G4S — The Mos Eisley of Olympic Security?
Indeed, as the list of revelations slithers out from under the carefully closed and locked doors of the Olympic media machine, I wonder if it would be possible to find a ‘more wretched hive of scum and villainy’ than in the offices of the firm G4S. I posted about a protest I saw at St. Paul’s about the Anglo-Danish firm, not knowing much about them at the time. I’ve since researched and correct me if I’m wrong here, but we seem to have contracted a lawless band of unaccountable mercenaries to guard London in the summer of 2012. Were G4S a Catholic, the list of sins it might start with in the confessional booth run as follows:
  • The death of Angolan refugee Jimmy Mubenga whilst in the custody of G4S guards on a flight from Heathrow to Angola
  • Hiring confessed murderers as security guards
  • Carrying out the government’s deportation policy while sustaining 773 complaints of those that were within their custody
  • Failing to fulfill the contract to keep The Olympics safe in 2012
  • Hiring a director with really bad hair. I’m no one to talk, but if you had as much money as a CEO with a company like this, wouldn’t you try to look like you were older than 14?  
Probably best we just leave G4S and the local priest in the confessional. No telling how long either of them might be there.

When you wade through cliches, slogans and soundbites like ‘take the stage’, ‘London prepares’ and ‘Take the respect’, what do you have left at the centre of all the smoke and mirrors? We seem to have a London that has taken performance-enhancing security firms, regulations and cash injectiosn in order to improve its performance as a city this summer. It would probably be wise for us as Londoners to bear in mind that the Olympics committee chose London, in all its brash and savage beauty, not some sanitized, tarted up, Americanised caricature of itself.

Will we, for these and other less than savoury things about the 2012 Olympics, be like the people of Ursula LeGuin’s people of Omelas, and our joy be all the richer for knowing its real costs? I’d like to think so, but I’ve got a feeling that we shall just close our ears, open our mouths and eyes wide and smile, asking only for bread and circuses, lights and neon.

For more on G4S, take a look at http://notog4s.blogspot.co.uk/
For more on the creepy crawly things scuttling around underneath the sheen of the Olympic brand, look at
http://www.olympicsredflag.blogspot.co.uk/
To find out more about the efforts being made to fight the deleterious effects of the Olympics on Hackney and the East End check out http://saveleytonmarsh.wordpress.com/

To read about a very clever  and creative response to all this Olympian palaver, have a look at ‘The Austerity Games’.

This post has also been informed by the following two articles:

London Cycle Diaries: Irony on Romford Road

I cycle the length of Romford Road nearly every day, newsagent-lined, paan-spit splattered, multicoloured, aroumatic thoroughfare that it is. But I have to come from Ilford, just East of London, a suburb that looks something like a low-key Paterson, New Jersey, complete 60s/70s era low rise tower blocks of offices filling the place with upright oblong shapes, and a moderately sized mall (or shopping center/re).

The most efficient way to enter onto Romford Road from Ilford is to first careen down a road called  Mill Hill into a tunnel so narrow that space only allows for one car at a time and so dark that you never know what will meet you on the other side: the light  still red, sedans and smart cars waiting in readiness or the oncoming grill of a BMW with which you are about to have a close encounter. Once safely through the tunnel, you ride up to a traffic light, beyond which you can either join the traffic and turn left back into Ilford, or pass one lane and turn right into what looks like a labyrinthine mess of wide pot-hole speckled concrete paths, one of them being an entrance ramp onto the A12 motorway. The trick is to go right, past two busy roads that allow cars into Ilford from the A12 and continue right onto the exhaust-fume-fogged Romford Road, safe in the knowledge that you are out of any danger of being criss-crossed by two trucks and a hatchback. It is a bit of a daunting spot.

So it’s no surprise to me that in waiting at that light, I first witness a cycling accident in London.

I wait at the light between Mill Hill and Romford Road, keenly observing the traffic when I see a bright yellow blur zoom past from left to right heading in the same direction in which I am about to go. I see the blur slow down near the entrance ramp, enough to recognize that he is in fact a very professional looking cyclist who seems to have just taken a detour from the Tour de France, complete with spandex and sponsors on his top, but through the cacophony of horns and engines, and the interlacing of Cadillacs and Puegots, I can only just about make out that he starts to sway, like a circus man balancing on a unicycle. Balance is not in his favour and he topples to the ground, just near enough to the A12 to be in the way of oncoming vehicles.

This is it, I think. Time to prove what a good Samaritan I am, what a good paid-up member of the brotherhood of cyclists I am. Tragic and sudden though it seems, I’ve been waiting the whole two months that I’ve owned my little urban fold-up to prove my mettle to other two-wheeling travelers.

The light turns and I speed round to the right, slowing down as I near my bicyclist brother-in-wheels. Alas, he’s surrounded by the time I get there by a whole village of seeming Samaritans, and so I say breathlessly, even as I’m slowing my bike in readiness to spring to action, ‘Has anyone called 999?!’

A bulky Eastern European man with a shaved head, turns to me with vague interest and gestures towards his bleached blonde wife, also standing by the side of the road and says, ‘She’s on the phone to emergency services now.’ Right. Good. Glad I’ve established that. I look around to take in the rest of the scene now that I’ve gained a closer position on the concrete island between the entrance ramp and Romford Road.

Our cyclist is sat on his bottom on the road, legs spread, elbows and knees scraped and bloody, otherwise looking not generally harmed, but dazed, periodically shaking his head in an effort to clear any disorientation. Hovering over him is a middle-aged Spanish woman, offering him his water bottle. Beside her are her curious son and daughter, looking on with unashamed amazement. About three feet to the side of them stands the father, squat, proletariat and noble, every once in a while asking the man if he is all right. I seem to be the last Samaritan at the scene, but it’s okay. I’m sure I can act as a witness.

The cyclist seems to shake his head free of any remaining wisps of confusion enough to look up into the Spanish man who is currently crouching down furrowing his brow. With a veritable international community of concerned citizens looking at him with utter sympathy, the cyclist says to the Spanish man, ‘You caused this!’ It takes a minute for anyone to register what the up-until-a-minute-ago-victim of the situation has just said, perhaps because the accusatory tone, more than anything else, shocks the air itself, but we all stand rigidly still, the wind from passing cars gently whooshing by. Cyclist continues, ‘That’s right. You were in the wrong fucking lane, mate. You caused this.’ Possibly through sheer awkwardness and an inability to articulate what any of us are feeling, or not feeling, I think we all turn the other way, unable to face the accuser. I also think I can see our collective sympathy leave us and rise up like a haze of smoke in the smog-filled air.

‘You shouldn’t have been turning there. You un-der-stand?’ he shouts, clearly convinced that this foreigner doesn’t and has obviously passed his driving test in a country with poor road safety standards, with all the patronizing bigoted vitriol of the a card carrying member of the British National Party. ‘You fucking caused all this!’ All of us begin to recover our senses.

‘You still want us to call emergency services?’ asks Eastern European Man.

‘Yeah,’ says the cyclist, ‘the police, on him.’ Blonde Eastern European lady stays on the phone looking a bit confused and helpless. Yellow-shirted cyclist sits resignedly, arms crossed, awaiting the local constabulary so that he can have the satisfaction of testifying to a middle-aged Spanish man crossing his path on a busy road in Ilford, having lost all the sympathy in one breath that he could ever generate for himself in one accident. The Spanish man blinks uncomprehendingly at his wife. I’m sure he understands English perfectly, but can’t understand what’s going on. I begin to look for an out, worried that I may really be asked to be a witness when, in truth, I only saw it distantly and could hardly make anything out when it happened and certainly didn’t see any motorists cutting any cyclists off.

‘You know,’ I begin to say to Eastern European Guy, who is still looking frustrated and confused at having now to call and wait for emergency services for the most ungrateful cyclist on the planet, ‘I only saw things from pretty far back. To be honest, I’d make a pretty poor witness.’

He shrugs. ‘Go ahead.’

‘You sure?’ I ask.

‘Sure. No problem.’

I look back towards the cyclist, now shaking his head and swearing under his breath, and I shake my head myself, thinking I am late for work, and that perhaps Good Samaritanism is over-rated. 

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