The average speed of traffic in London is now slower than in the days of the horse and cart, so it's no surprise that more and more people are taking to alternative means of transportation for that tedious daily necessity, getting to work.
Research carried out by one pro-car group showed that travelling across London is fastest by bike, with car and tube roughly equal in second place, and bus slowest1.
So, is it madness to commute by bike in Britain, with its terrible roads, appalling standards of driving, abysmal weather and lacklustre trains?
Just Do It!
The answer is, surprisingly, no - it isn't mad, it's actually quite enjoyable. The best thing about cycle commuting is that you really can experience the freedom, that which the car should offer. While motorists are grid-locked in their little boxes of pollution2, you can slide along quite happily, occasionally taking a diversion along a leafy canal towpath or through a park, and generally out-manoeuvring them with ease.
The worst thing about commuting by bike is definitely the state of the roads. Cyclists out in groups shout 'Hole!' and point when they see a pothole. (Around town, the Reading cycle club has allegedly started shouting 'Road!' when they see a bit of road among the potholes.) Fortunately the vogue for mountain bikes provides a comfortable solution for the worst areas, in bikes with suspension - a market they share with the incredible Moulton, one of the best and most innovative bikes on the market.
What about those days when you look out of the window and see wind and rain? The answer is: don't look! It's never as bad once you get outside, and few days in England will be so cold that you won't be warm as soon as you get going. In an average year there will be about twenty days when it's actually raining during your commuting time. And anyway, cycling in the rain can be amusing, although not usually if it's cold as well.
How to Go About it
You will need three things: a decent bike, some proper clothes, and some determination.
Choosing a Bike
This is largely a matter of where you are commuting. If your journey is under five miles on nice flat roads, a classic roadster in the Dutch mould will transport you in comfort and leave you looking over the roof of all but the tallest cars. For longer journeys a touring bike is a good choice. On pot-holed city streets a mountain bike with suspension and narrow, high-pressure tyres is responsive without pounding the more tender parts of your anatomy. For mixed-mode commuting, a folder is just the thing. In fifteen seconds your bike transforms into a neat hand-portable package which you can carry onto the train.
In every case you are better off with a good quality second hand bike than a cheap new one. Cheap bikes are a menace: their frames are heavy and lumpen. A second-hand bike might need the occasional new component (and you can upgrade them all you like!) but if the frame is heavy the bike is heavy, and there's nothing you can do about it. Look for good cycle shops. Also watch out for people cycling along your route - see what kinds of bikes they ride. Ask them about their bikes. Not all cyclists have beards and can bore for England; lots of them are intelligent people who have decided that sitting on your bum in traffic for an hour a day is a waste of a life.
The distinctions between different sorts of bikes are becoming blurred. The classic diamond frame is giving way to the sloping down-tube design first seen on mountain bikes, and oversize aluminium tubes are common on all types. At first glance this is bewildering, but it's a great thing for functional cyclists3. You can have a super lightweight mountain bike frame with front suspension, and fit pannier racks and drop bars for speed and power. You can get a full-on downhill mountain bike, swap the 'gnarlies' (off-road tyres) for slicks with aramid bands (best-known by the brand name Kevlar), and take on the potholes with impunity.
A good bike shop will sit you down and talk through what you want, and will usually be happy to exchange components for others of similar quality but different specification.
A special mention must go to the Moulton, the first mass-produced full-suspension bike. Moulton's image was badly damaged when they were bought out by Raleigh, who marketed them alongside a range of small-wheeled shopping bikes of unutterable dreadfulness. Dr Alex Moulton4 bought the brand back and today's Moulton is a superb piece of engineering - lightweight, responsive and as fast as most road bikes. Audax riders can be seen riding Moultons, and one broke the un-paced 200m bicycle speed record in 1985. They are not cheap, but they inspire fierce loyalty.
Equipping the Bike
Unless your journey is very short you will need some way of carrying basic tools and rain wear. Panniers are good, as are top bags, which sit on top of the rack and often come with a quick-release fastening. You also need a lock. Actually, several locks is best - you could leave a strong D-lock at work and carry a heavy duty scooter-grade braided cable lock with you. Thin cable locks are as effective a deterrent to thieves as a sticker saying 'Please don't steal my bike'. Good locks often come with a bracket to mount them on your bike and keep them clear of feet and frame. You can also get racks which have a D-lock slot underneath - very handy.
There are many ranges of smart luggage for bikes now, including cases for laptops and really smart briefcases with waterproof covers to keep them clean. Most clip to the bike in seconds and are indistinguishable from 'normal' bags.
Punctures are not the evil they once were, thanks to improved tyres, and provided you keep your tyres inflated properly (soft tyres tend to get pinched on bumps and end up with torn tubes) you probably won't have many. The easiest thing to do is carry a spare tube, then you can mend the old one at your leisure. Above all, you should have the wherewithal to remove your wheels, get the tyres off and mend a hole should the need arise. A complete toolkit for daily riding should easily fit in a small pocket.
Assuming you are going to commute year-round, you will also need lights. Anyone riding a bike after dark without lights is (a) committing an offence, and (b) stupid. There are so many lights that it's hard to know where to start, but they generally fall into two categories:
Battery Lights - Battery lights can be cheap clip-on things right up to the incredible 85W Cat eye. Some have batteries mounted in the case, others have separate rechargeable batteries, which go in a water bottle cage. You need lights for two things: seeing and being seen. For seeing, you buy whatever you need for your journey. If you ride along unlit back roads you will probably need a dual system, which allows you to crank up the illumination. If you ride along well-lit streets all you need is something to fill in the shadows. For being seen you can't beat the tiny flashing white lamps now on the market. These are not strictly legal (and certainly not legal as your only front lamp) but they can be seen very easily.
Dynamos - Dyanamos have come a long way recently. Gone are the days of lamps, which barely lit up until you were pedalling like fury, and dynamos, which felt like you had the brakes on. Modern dynamos are extremely efficient and have amazingly low rolling resistance. The most common type is the bottle dynamo, which sits on the fork and can be moved to roll against the wheel or tyre. Slightly better (allegedly) is the bottom-bracket dynamo, which sits under the bottom bracket and runs on the tread. And definitely best of all is a hub dynamo. This has the disadvantage of being permanently fitted - the other types can be lifted off the tyre or wheel during the day - but with lights off a good hub dynamo is equivalent to climbing an extra foot per mile travelled, which is negligible, and in use they are more efficient and have lower rolling resistance, and require less maintenance and cleaning.
And dynamo lights don't go out when you stop any more. They are available with 'stand lights' - small built-in capacitors which power an LED (or even the lamp) for a while after you stop. Dynamo output is limited to 3W, which is fine around town but only adequate on unlit roads, a second light is preferable, and a head torch (a bright light mounted on the helmet is a good choice for this. The upside of dynamos is that you never get a flat battery.
Rear lights are particularly important, and you need at least two. You must have, by law, a steady red light pointing towards and visible from the rear. It must be fixed (ie, not clipped to the back of a pannier). You should also have a flashing LED light. These are not strictly legal, but if you clip them to your jacket or to a cycle bag they are not fixed to the bike (nice loophole). Flashing lights are between three and five times more visible than steady ones of equal brightness, and cars are beginning to make the link between flashing lights and bikes.
For a nice easy two-mile ride with no hills, all you need is a pair of cycle clips and a helmet. Don't forget the helmet (if your front wheel jams, your head hits the road first). For longer journeys you can wear anything from regular sportswear to the full Lycra shorts kit. Cycle shorts are good, as they are padded. In winter you need gloves, coats, all sorts. Don't be put off! Cycling in sub-zero temperatures is absolutely marvellous - you feel really alive. Make sure your hands and feet stay warm. Lobster-claw gloves (like mittens, but divided into two 'fingers') are brilliant, and overshoes help keep your feet warm.
Rainwear is a matter of preference. If it rains you will, ultimately, get wet - it's just a matter of how wet, how quickly. Gore-Tex rain jackets are great, with big hoods that go over helmets. Waterproof trousers are not often very helpful; cycling tights dry quickly anyway and in summer you just wear shorts.
Whatever you wear the outer layer should be a really bright colour. Motorists habitually drive with their eyes firmly fixed on the brake lights of the car in front and would probably fail to notice the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, let alone a cyclist.
The gyms of the world will all attest to the fact that substantial numbers of people join up in January, go twice and are never seen again.
There are many watersheds for the functional cyclist. The first rain. The first frost. The first icy road. The first spill. Any of these will tempt you to get back in the car. Resist temptation! Anything is less fearsome after the first time, and you will have no idea what it's like riding in a summer storm until you've tried it (Hint: try not to laugh out loud - people look at you strangely. It is a fabulous life-affirming experience riding in an absolute torrential downpour on a hot day). The crucial thing is to decide: 'I am a cyclist'. Your bike is your normal transport, and nobody and nothing is going to make you choose otherwise.
The Bad Bits
Life isn't a bed of roses, and it would be a lie to say that cycling to work is always a matter of sailing gaily through buttercup-filled meadows in brilliant spring sunshine while your colleagues slowly suffocate in their own carbon monoxide fumes. Here are some of the things which can spoil your day (along with some reasons why they don't necessarily have to):
If you don't like the weather in Britain, wait a minute. One minute the sun is shining, the next it's pouring with rain. As long as you are prepared - a roll-up waterproof in your bag and a dry pair of socks somewhere - rain is not too bad. In the depths of winter when it combines with an icy wind, it's a rather less pleasant prospect. But don't underestimate the extent to which you will feel warm and dry because of the work you do pedalling.
Strong wind is perhaps the most discouraging weather for cycling. It always seems to be blowing in your face whichever way you go, and invariably turns during the day to give equal opposition on the way home. But the perception is worse than the reality. Experience shows that the difference in average speed between a day with no wind and a day with a Siberian special is about 5%. In a 20-minute journey, that's one minute. Rather less effect than, say, a broken-down lorry on the North Circular.
It always looks worse out of the kitchen window than it feels on a bike. You will be amazed just how cruddy the weather can be and still not really spoil your ride. Sometimes the weather can really enhance the experience. Riding in snow is a huge laugh. Riding in driving sleet is, however, no fun at all. Luckily this is rare especially in towns.
Cars and Other vehicles
Drivers vary from the courteous to the homicidal. Some drivers are absolutely determined not to let you get past them, others move well over to let you pass. Drivers who won't make eye contact are best avoided, and drivers on mobile phones are generally somewhere else mentally and should also to be treated with caution.
Unfortunately bicycles are not fitted with receivers for the telepathic indicators fitted to most company cars, so you'll have to guess from their road position when they are going to turn left across your path. The best technique is to ride well outside the drain covers, at least 18" from the kerb. Add this to the distance most cars give you and you've got 19" to play with. The further you are from the kerb the better you can be seen, and the more cars are forced to overtake you properly rather than treat you as a theoretical construct of zero thickness and infinite rigidity. You also get a bit more room to move in when the inevitable moron who's been following you at 25mph pulls in as soon as his front bumper passes you, because he discounts cyclists as stationary obstacles.
Of all the things on the roads, cars and particularly lorries are the most likely to actually kill you. But most cyclists don't die this way, and those who don't, live longer. Any Sunday cycling group is likely to contain it's fair proportion of veterans aged seventy and up - many continue cycling regularly well into their nineties. If you live, you'll live longer. And living is largely a matter of paying close attention to what's going on around you and planning a bailout route at every stage. Up the kerb, into the bushes, whatever.
Some people are just gits. They think it amusing to put sticks through your spokes, attack or harass you. You have two things going for you: bikes are fast, and you are fitter than they probably are. If your route goes through dodgy territory, consider an alternative way home when it's dark. You could also get an Air Zound horn, which pumps up with a bike pump and makes the same noise as a portable fog horn.
Lots of people want bikes, and some are less willing to pay for them than others. With luck you can park somewhere reasonably secure - a corner of the loading bay or warehouse, under the stairs, whatever. You might persuade them to let you place a securing bolt in the wall. Some places have secure cycle parking facilities where you can check your bike in.
If you park on the streets you need to take special precautions. Giving the bike a coat of enamel with a 1" paintbrush is surprisingly effective, and always remember to use old-fashioned looking components. A bike with v-brakes is probably new, whereas a bike with centre-pull callipers looks very dated. Remove anything which comes off easily and lock through the frame and wheels. Most thieves specialise in one kind of lock, so have two: a D-lock and a thick motorcycle chain, for example. Get the locks as tight as you can, don't leave room for levers. And run a wire through all the extraneous bits, just to make life even more difficult.
And finally, insure it. Your bike will be covered if it's well secured to a fixed object (not a bollard, they can often be lifted off). Try not to care too much. Alternatively, get a folder. The Brompton and the Birdy are good competent folders, both of which will fold up in under 20 seconds to fit under the desk or into your locker. Do not under any circumstances buy one of the Raleigh folding shoppers of the 1970s (the ones which fold in half along their single front-to-back tube). The words do not exist to express the sheer ghastliness of these horrors.
Punctures and Mechanical Failures
Bikes are pretty reliable as long as you remember to give them a bit of oil now and then. Punctures do happen, although if you watch out for glass and thorns ('puncture weed') you can avoid most of them, and tyres with Kevlar bands are pretty effective. Carry a spare tube and practice changing tubes, and punctures won't delay you significantly. Don't forget, when you get the wheel off, check the tyre for any remnant of the sharp object, which caused the puncture. Use a cloth or be very careful - glass cuts fingers every bit as well as it does inner tubes!
This Researcher rides 15 miles round trip, 75 miles per week. Allowing for leave, site visits and so on that's still over 3,000 miles per year. Total punctures to date: nil5. Total mechanical failures: one, but the bike limped home and was repaired that evening by the splendid Bob Bristow cycle repair service6. And to be fair that failure was the result of ignoring the signs because the bike was about to go in to have the old-fashioned five-speed frewheel replaced with a modern 8-speed cassette system and new indexed rear mechanism. Old bikes can be upgraded indefinitely.
OK, it can happen. Work too hard, you can blow out a knee joint or pull a muscle. Imagine the agony of a pulled thigh muscle 45 miles into a 100-mile ride in the Berkshire downs. The steepest hill is a one in three. But it doesn't happen often, and never if you're careful. If you are prone to injury, or if you feel a nagging pain, talk to a professional. Most gyms have well-trained staff often with sports science degrees or other qualifications. Pay if necessary, often it's not very expensive. See a physiotherapist if you want.
You can avoid injury if you ride within your limits, and always remember to stretch after cycling. A few stretches will stop your muscles and tendons from giving trouble.
So, why on earth would you want to attract the derision of your friends by eschewing a perfectly good, comfortable car for the rigours of cycling? Have you got a couple of days?
Health and Fitness
First and most obvious, every minute you ride your bike is doing you good. You could be doing anything up to an hour of good-quality cardiovascular exercise 'free' - no leisure time lost, no need to drag yourself out of your chair to go to the gym, no membership fees. You will feel the benefit quickly.
So will your employers. Cyclists have fewer sick days, because exercise stimulates the immune system. They are less vulnerable to traffic delays, and even a brief ride will get the blood pumping in the morning so you will be more alert and more focused during the day.
Better still, exercise is the best cure for stress and depression. Niggling problems at work? Drive home and they will be multiplied by the stress of driving in traffic. Ride home briskly and you won't even remember what was worrying you.
A good bike can easily cost a thousand pounds. Gasp! You could buy a car for that! And so you could. But a good bike second-hand is a fraction of that. Now, in a year the car will have lost a big chunk of that value. Few people keep a car for more than three or four years. There is a constant outlay in depreciation and replacement. A decent bike, on the other hand, lasts almost indefinitely. It needs very little mechanical maintenance which cannot easily be done at home (this is part of the fun for many cyclists) and apart from the occasional squirt of oil and breath of wind in the tyres is pretty much free to run.
Of course, if you are smart, you will insure your bike (and yourself). Organisations such as the Cyclists' Touring Club (CTC) offer good policies for a fraction of the cost of motor insurance. Cheaper bikes can be added to your home insurance policy. This is cheaper than car insurance by a wide margin.
Now the savings. Petrol. Add up the amount you spend on petrol in a year just driving to and from work. That's probably enough money to buy a bike, insurance, clothes and everything else you need. And you save the same amount every year. You could put the savings in a pot and get something you really want.
Servicing, You don't get any change from a hundred pounds for a car service. Less miles means less servicing. Tyres. Do your tyres cost less than a hundred pounds a corner? And do they last more than a couple of years? Probably not. Insurance. A limited mileage policy is cheaper! You might do all the leisure driving you want to do and still stay under a couple of thousand miles a year. And don't forget: primary legislation has now been passed which allows for congestion charging and taxation of workplace parking. Oh yes, parking. Free for bikes, you know!
Now the big one: sell the car! If you are a two-car family, selling one car could save you an absolute mint. Add it up: two or three hundred for insurance, a thousand a year for depreciation maybe, excise duty, MOT, servicing, brakes, tyres, exhausts, washer fluid - it all adds up to a very substantial sum. Still need two cars occasionally? Hire one! You'll still come out on top.
Saving the Planet
Our cities are sinking under the accumulated weight of cars, most of which have only one person in them. By riding a bike you are doing your bit to save the planet. This could be a very long discussion indeed, but suffice it to say that if you care about the environment - if you have children and want them to live in a world less polluted than it is now - you will achieve more by riding a bike than by writing to your MP.
You will also suffer less health effects from being in a congested city if you ride a bike. You are higher up than the cars, and their air intakes are often right down at exhaust level. Your immune system is boosted by your fitness. You are in traffic for less time, and you can cut through parks and the like.
OK, not the best motive, but it was hugely amusing cruising past the queues outside the garages during the petrol protests. You will also trundle calmly past seething lines of motorists at traffic lights7 and junctions, slide calmly through shortcuts closed to cars, and use bus and bike lanes to bypass congestion. All of which makes cycling one of the most relaxed ways to travel - because you really are completely in control.
Cars are supposed to give us freedom. But they don't. If you leave five minutes late for work, it's odds-on you'll arrive at least ten and probably nearer fifteen minutes late. At peak hours traffic bottlenecks build up quickly and disperse slowly - but on a bike they make almost no difference to your speed. Neither do road works, accidents, broken-down buses, lorries shedding their loads, fallen trees, failed traffic lights... you get the idea.
Travel times by bike are amazingly consistent, rain or shine, summer or winter.
The longest journey begins with but a single step. In this case, the step could usefully be to your library or bookshop to get a copy of Richard's 21st Century Bicycle Book by Richard Ballantine. This and The Highway Code will tell you everything you need to know, and go into far more detail than there is here.
You could try hiring a bike and riding to your office one weekend. Remember that hire bikes are generally heavy and ill maintained. Take it steady. If you get a bike it will probably be quicker and nicer.
If this has got your interest, a great aiming point is National Bike Week.