Last night I dreamt of the Skyride again. A day of cycling related revelry, in which they shut off the centre of London to traffic to turn it into a two-wheeler idyll. It returns to London on 4 September, and full details are here: http://www.goskyride.com/.
Last year, the Skyride saw me back in the saddle again after a cycling accident in which I broke my arm. It was only a small accident, but the slightly broken arm took six weeks to heal, and had been a pain. At the time I got so tired of reciting how I’d broken it, I wrote a haiku about the accident, thus:
“Turning right at Putney Bridge,
Car drives on, I fall.
Radial head fractures*”
*Your radial head is the top part of the bone which links your hand to your elbow, and it is what goes nine times out of ten when a cyclist has a proper road accident. The shock of falling hard on your hands goes resonating up the bone until it reaches the tip and tiny gap between your elbow and the bone. The radial head then goes ping. Actual science fact.
Anyway, I signed up to the Skyride because I thought it would be a jolly good way to get my eye back into cycling. It isn’t a perfect solution if you’re a novice cyclist, because of course you actually have to cycle there, although I understand you can hire bikes this year. My solution was simply to set off as early as I could. Wobbly at first in the near empty streets of West London, I pedalled on regardless, and soon realised I could still ride my bike, and rather proficiently at that.
The Skyride is really well organised. It has two routes, a short and long route, both of which share some common ground around Westminster (which gets pretty rammed). There is a carnival area around the Mall, with music, cycling celebs and a variety of stalls. There are squadrons of marshalls around the route which try to keep the flow of bike traffic as steady as possible. I took the long route which went round Buckingham Palace, St. James’s Park, Parliament Square, down the Embankment and out to the City, past Monument, up to St. Paul’s Cathedral and down to the Tower of London and back. At St Paul’s there were sports drinks and a mini-bicycle check, and there was entertainment at various points of the route too.
First, if you want to explore London, a bicycle is a jolly good way of doing it. London is remarkably flat, and cycling gets you round it at precisely the right speed. All the interesting things go past slowly enough that you can see and appreciate them, and fast enough that you never get bored. What the Skyride allows you to do is see into a parallel universe where it is genuinely safe to cycle around town. London really would be a much better place if it didn’t have all this traffic clogging it up. When populated with thousands upon thousands of pedallers, it becomes a cheery place where you find yourself chatting amiably with complete strangers about where you are. I got my bike (a flamingo pink Brompton with titanium forks), cheaply from eBay because I needed a folding bike, and no-one else was willing to buy a bright pink bicycle. I therefore forget it is actually rather flash. Surrounded by the bicycle people, I found my noble steed a constant source of admiration and comment, and went quickly from, “Eh?” to “What, this old thing…?” This was a cheering experience, but you’d get the same effect with whatever you pedalled.
The second thing I learned from the Skyride is that despite always mentally going: “Sh********t,” every time I pedal around Hyde Park Corner, I am in fact a very competent cyclist. Initially I found myself frustrated by my cycling brethren: I was used to zipping around quite fast around our nation’s capital, and you just can’t do that when surrounded by five-year old children who still have training wheels. I kept reminding myself that having incompetent cyclists enjoying the City was the POINT of the exercise, and hopefully it would give them the kick-start they needed to become more proficient.
The thing is, regular commuter cycling isn’t like you’d think. I fondly imagined that given the constant threat of death or serious injury, there would be a spirit of bonhomie. I’d thought we’d be like Spitfire pilots in the war who would form instant friendships as we chatted at the red lights, united against a common foe (lorry drivers). I was sadly disappointed. Lots of cyclists are fiercely competitive and cut each other up before swearing and gesticulating furiously at whatever motorist has just sworn at them. There are friendly cyclists, and I like to think I’m one of them, but not that many.
So the reason you should go on the Skyride if you possibly can this Sunday is that it shows you a vision of what London could be like. Friendly, chatty people of all ages hanging out on bikes, taking in London the best way you can. However bad-tempered you may be at the start, sooner or later that cheeriness will rub off on you. You’ll pedal back like a cycling Ebenezer Scrooge. You don’t need to wait for the Skyride, which comes but once a year to central London. You could do it early one Sunday morning, where the roads are much quieter, particularly in the City itself. If you can Skyride, do. I understand you can hire a bike on the day, and happily the Skyride is still free. All the details are here: http://www.goskyride.com/