Category Archives: Cycling

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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Won-derful, Won-derful, KØBENHAVN!

Wonderful Wonderful KOBENHAVN

As the Northeastern United States has finished recovering from the inexplicably named Superstorm Nemo, and as we prepare to head off to Oslo for a few days, I reflect this week on our Northern vacation last February up to the city of Hans Christian Anderson and macabre, underplayed murder mystery serials, the Danish capital of Cophenhagen.

It’s true, some prefer to go someplace warm and Mediterranean to escape the cold — hours lounging on the Costa Del Sol perhaps or maybe some Island hopping in Sardinia and Corsica —  but not us. My wife, being Irish, tends to react to the sun the same way the witch of the west reacts to water, and I, being raised in Northeastern Pennsylvania on the Mount of Pocono… by wolves, tend to prefer the cold wintry winds and see them like a refreshing tonic to the system. Besides, the missus has a penchant for design and no one is more beloved in the design world right now than the Scandinavians. And I’m easy and I like the ancient and proud notion of beautiful and desolate North. 

And Easyjet flies there fairly cheaply. Bonus!

Snow covered streets in Copenhagen

Snow-covered streets in Copenhagen

But I have to admit, aside from visiting the Design Museum and the Lego Flagship store (Lego is Danish! Yes, really!), we didn’t really know what to expect of Copenhagen. It turned out to be full of surprising delights.

Going from Place to Place

Transport for instance, which, I know, is usually relegated to the end of the writeup under a subheading like “getting around” or “Tubes and buses” or, in some countries, like Ireland, “Good Luck”, was one of the most exciting elements of our Danish getaway. We touched down thinking that it was a Scandinavian city and so bound to have an efficient underground and bus network of which we would take full advantage. But by our first evening, we couldn’t help but notice that there was really only one main, preferred mode of transport: Bikes!

Christiania Bike Copenhagen

Ring my bell? Me, looking ever so slightly confused pedaling my son around in one of the famed Christiania Bikes. (photo by Paula Hughes)

Everyone rides a bike in Copenhagen, including the tourists. And because of the sheer joy of doing as the Romans do but not having done it in years, this became our healthiest holiday in years. We rented a standard issue four speed for the other half and a Christiania Bike, the kind that were actually invented in Denmark, in which to transport my son.

And we biked for miles every subsequent day of our stay. Gloriously, we cycled through snow, over bridges, in sun and warmth, in traffic and out of town until our leg muscles ached with a kind of gladsome soreness at the close of each day. As Copenhageners are well catered for with cycling lanes on every road, cycle traffic lights, and even metal footrests for when you are waiting for a light to change, biking in this bustling hub was easy, exhilarating, and inspiring (we bought bikes on our return to London). And for my money, the only way to travel around.

Rush Hour, Copenhagen (Taken from the Winnipeg Free Press Website)

Rush Hour, Copenhagen (Taken from the Winnipeg Free Press Website)

The Views

The Rundetarn (Round Tower) in Copenhagen

The Rundetarn (Round Tower) in Copenhagen (photo from Wikipedia)

Other impressive elements of the Danish capital included its sheer and audaciously impressive grandeur. We visited the Rundetarn on our first full day and were awed. A cylindrical edifice built in 1642 by King Christian IV as an astronomical observatory (Remember Tycho Brahe from Science class? Danish.), it is essentially a cobblestone pathway that ascends spirally for 686 feet affording a breathtaking view of all of the city from the top.

Copenhagen from the top of The Round Tower

Copenhagen from the top of The Round Tower

And do you know what? This doesn't even do it justice.

And do you know what? This doesn’t even do it justice. 

The “Quirky” Neighborhoods

When we first started exploring different parts of the world, being vegetarian, we acquired the habit (naturally) or seeking out vegetarian restaurants in each new city. It’s become a kind of pastime and it always tends to lead us into the most intriguing parts of a city. Thus you will find vegetarian cookery in The Lower East Side, Soho (the original, you know William Blake’s Soho), Stoke Newington, Kensington Market in Toronto, Montmartre in Paris, and artsy, bohemian neighborhoods in Edinburgh, Amsterdam and Madrid. So it was with Copenhagen, but the area, in this case, formed part of the main “destination” or attraction.

Christiania Copenhagen

Christiania, Copenhagen (photo taken from ehrasmussentrip.blogspot.co.uk)

The Freetown of Christiania is a ramshackle collection of dirtstreets, homemade houses, caravans, corrugated iron roofed houses, and some new cheap chic looking warehouse studios that falls within the confines of Copenhagen, but outside its laws. Originally a deserted military barracks until squatters took up residence in the 70s, it now boasts a 1,000 residents. Drugs can be bought fairly openly on the streets and there is a wonderfully hippy-dippy free spirit about the place. Despite being on the map, it’s also charmingly difficult to find. We ate hearty vegetarian stews in a clapboard cottage-housed cafe called Morgenstedet and despite the food being delicious and the staff being uncharacteristically effusive (the Danes don’t effuse), the fire-in-a-steel-drum charm of Christiania wore a bit thin on us and we began to worry about the safety of our bikes.

Still, a fascinating wander off the beaten path just for the sheer sight of this community outside of the laws of its surrounding community. And the cheapest hearty lunch to be had in Denmark.

Lego! 

Lego Flagship Store, Copenhagen

Lego Flagship Store, Copenhagen

Yes, we all love Lego and it was a brilliant store, but even more brilliant was how child-friendly a city it was and how child-centered a culture it seems to be. Scandinavians don’t tend to send their children to school or even think about teaching them explicitly how to read until they’re about seven. It may all sound a bit Steiner School, but it also values the idea of a child being allowed to have a free and well adjusted childhood full of play. Not for nothing do our Northern neighbo(u)rs give some of the most generous parental leave of any country in the developed world. Children are encouraged to form strong bonds that will see them through adulthood with confidence. Parents and their charges are openly affectionate and lavish attention lovingly and unashamedly. We could learn a lot.

Plus, Lego!

Lego Copenhagen

My son, in a Lego World

Lego Copenhagen

The fierce dragons of the North

Food and Drink

It surprised me that Copenhagen has recently developed into a culinary capital, but it was a surprise beyond mere joy, especially with a fantastic place like Bio Mio.

Bio Mio in Copenhagen

Bio Mio in Copenhagen

Food is comforting and divine, but the fun element is in the ordering — from a “mood-based” menu, directly from the chefs. I ordered from our chef, trying my one stock Danish phrase, “Taler du Engelsk?,” to which the Danes stock reply was, “Yah. Of course.” To this day, I can’t figure out whether “Yah, of course” is a stock reply they learn when in school or whether they just think it’s mind-numbingly obvious to any foreigner that all Scandinavians speak English better than quite a few native English speakers, but whichever the case, it’s delivered with such amiability and charm that it has to induce a smile, as did our night of dining at this lovely eatery.

Dyehaven Copenhagen

Dyehaven, Copenhagen (taken from mettebassett.com)

And for lunch to Dyehaven, which, again, reminded me of a trendy place you’d find in the lower East Side, or rejuvenated and trendy West Philly, with its artsy locals meeting for a pint over some warming vegetable soup or some impressively tasty beetroot-dependent vegetarian smorgasbord, which of course, we could not leave Denmark without trying. As in the UK and the US, the craft beer movement is in full swing here in Denmark and the local brews were delightfully sophisticated, a party on the palate for the beer connoisseur.

Dyehaven Copenhagen

Vegetarian Smorgasbord from Dyehaven. Mmmm.

Dyehaven Copenhagen

Pale Ales and Dark, Wintry Stouts

And who could forget, Danish Pastries! They really are delicious, but they don’t  really call them Danishes in Denmark.

Well, they wouldn’t, would they?

They call them wienerbrød (literally “Viennese Bread”) and really, what better way is there to start the day. I can’t imagine a single health benefit, but some mouth-wateringly flaky wienerbrød topped with chocolate or cinnamon does transport you. It transported me anyway.

Proper Danish Pastry in Copenhagen

Proper Danish Pastry topped with almonds  from Lakagehuset on the Vesterbrogade

Best of all though… Snow! 

Some people really despise snow. They can’t stand the cold, are frustrated by the icy roads, and won’t take a step outside.

I wonder if those people have ever been to Copenhagen.

Snow in Copenhagen

Snowy City!

Although I’m often asked if I miss America, one of the things I miss most is a proper snowy winter to rejuvenate the soul. Snow, having fallen faintly and faintly fallen gently on the back or our necks hours after checking into our hotel in Copenhagen, snow that chilled the air and seeped into our bones, invigorating our constitutions, that froze the harbo(u)r as we strolled through Nyhavn, packed tightly as we threw it at each other with gusto, snow that rested gently on every branch and bough as we rode through light layers of it, covering the streets of Frederiksstaden, on a crisp morning on the way to a comforting breakfast, snow renewing an innocent spirit of joy.  Here it is in the far North in all its arctic, purely driven, exhilarating grandeur and glory (yes, thank you Geography majors I know that’s not quite correct) in a place that wears a dusty blanket of snow with a particular panache.

Nyhavn Port Harbour Copenhagen

Nyhavn Port Harbor, Copenhagen

Snowy and quaint Frederiksstaden

Snowy and quaint Frederiksstaden

Suburban Snow Copenhagen

Suburban Snow!

Nocturnal Frost Copenhagen

“His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling
faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.” James Joyce, “The Dead”

Christiania Bike on a bridge in Copenhagen

My son, getting into our rented Christiania Bike, “Dukes of Hazard” style.

And with that, we turn our heads away from the snowy North and its enthrallingly desolate beauty and turn our heads towards Spring, which is supposed to come early according to Punxatawney Phil. Before we do, here’s another ode to the Danish storyteller Hans Christian Anderson, an oldie, but goodie.

All photos were taken by Paula Hughes.

 

 

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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