Watch it, mate!: Alexei Sayle looks back on his 30 years of two-wheeling around London
Menacing bendy buses, thieving toerags, lethal bike lanes... It's enough to make any cyclist mad, says the comedian Alexei Sayle – but having pedalled round London for 30 years now, he wouldn't travel any other way
Sunday 27 June 2010
The original Comedy Store where I was the MC [from 1979] didn't close until the last punter staggered off into the Soho night at 4am. Tired and sweaty, I would collect my bike from where it was chained in the alley that connected Dean Street and Wardour Street, and cycle the three miles home to my council tower block in Fulham.
Twenty-eight years old, I was high on optimism (and the five free drinks I was entitled to every night), flying down into the empty underpass beneath Hyde Park Corner; the humid, diesel-soaked air hitting me in the face like a soggy newspaper. But, undeterred, on the up slope I would rise out of my saddle and continue turning the cranks over in the highest gear, certain that I was pedalling towards my golden future. Those ecstatic, homeward-bound cycle rides are clearer and more joyful in my memory than all the spreads in The Face or the good reviews in Melody Maker that I was getting at the time.
I'd begun cycling in earnest the year before. Following more than half a decade of unemployment and crappy part-time jobs, I'd started a one-year course studying to be a further-education lecturer at a college in Roehampton. It was a 10-mile round trip everyday and with no obvious public transport links, a bike seemed the best option – but I needed a decent machine to get up the hills of south-west London.
From WF Holdsworth in Putney I purchased a tailor-made frame in Reynolds 531 tubing with Campagnolo Record gears, Mavic wheels, Cinelli stem and bars. Basically it was an out-and-out racing machine, which I wanted more for the look of the thing than for any practical reason. I thought that in the shop they'd be all utilitarian about the choice of colour, but the assistants spent more time agonising with me over the shade and hue of frame-matching handlebar tape than they did helping me choose the pedals or a saddle. Before long I was covering more than 100 miles a week travelling to college and going out in the evenings.
Soon I discovered the limits of my racing machine; having no clearance for mudguards, on rainy days I'd turn up to lectures with a soaking-wet bottom, gaining a reputation as a student with poor bladder control. So I purchased another bike that I referred to as my "winter trainer", a 1950s Grandini with room for mudguards. Then I started worrying that these two quality machines might get stolen, so I bought a five-geared, straight-handle-barred Peugeot in a ghastly shade of green, solely for going out at night. It was this bike that I rode to the Comedy Store and a year later, having moved to the Comic Strip club, I sold it to Adrian Edmondson for £40, which was a lot more than it was worth. After the hypnotism wore off he attempted to get the Peugeot stolen and left it unlocked outside his house – but so repellent was the colour that it remained untouched for weeks and I think in the end he might have thrown it into a canal.
In those days, the world of cycling didn't offer the same opportunities for consumerism that it does today. Once you had bought your machine, some clothes and a cotton cap with a peak that flipped upwards, that was pretty much it. I think there was one single paperback that everybody who cycled owned; this book did contain a few brief sections on maintenance, cycling clubs, safety and so on, but I seem to remember that what obsessed the author more than anything else was different ways to kill dogs. Obviously at some point in the past while out riding, this man had had a traumatic encounter with a canine, so there were whole fevered chapters on exactly how to dash a terrier's brains out on the pavement or the best way to stick your fist down an Alsatian's throat so it choked to death.
At the peak of my cycle ownership, some time in the 1990s, I possessed nine different machines, including a Claud Butler racing tandem. These days I'm down to a mere four. But while I have fewer bicycles, there are, of course, lots more cyclists than there were 25 or 30 years ago, and they seem better served by specialist shops, cafés and activist groups.
One of the things that is different about the modern cycling environment is the number of cycle paths that there are now, but I find it debatable whether this is an improvement. The columnist Paul Johnson has a theory that Ken Livingstone, when he was mayor of London, realised that the middle classes had begun cycling, so introduced the bendy bus to the city's streets specifically to kill them.
I would say the same of the cycle lanes introduced during his reign. There is an east-west stretch near my house that has to be potentially the most lethal length of cycleway in the world. A driver turning left or right has to look out for cars and bikes coming at them from about eight different directions, while as a cyclist you can find trucks and cars turning across your path in a way that would be much more unlikely if you were among the traffic and able to judge your speed and position rather than separated from it. At some points, to slightly alleviate this threat, there have been installed special bike-only traffic lights that seem never to change to green from one day to the next, meaning riders have to jump them if they want to get anywhere without premature ageing. At some point on this path you will certainly come to a point where it is being dug up, forcing you to swerve abruptly into the traffic anyway.
In contrast, late last year I spent a week in The Hague and there, as in the rest of Holland, the situation appears to be completely different. Bikes, people, buses, trams and cars all mix together in a harmonious way that seems much safer than when cycles are restricted to narrow lanes. The cyclists obviously feel safer, too, mothers pedalling along with two or three children in special-wheeled compartments. I didn't see a single cyclist wearing a helmet or ugly fluorescent tabard, yet they all rode with confidence and consideration, without the slightly hunted look that city cyclists in Britain seem to have.
Helen Pidd's book, Bicycle. Love Your Bike: The Complete Guide to Everyday Cycling, is surprisingly free of tips on pooch-murdering, but she quite reasonably writes that she doesn't see why she shouldn't ride around town on a high-quality machine. Consequently, she gets a lot of bikes stolen. There is a gang of young cycle thieves operating in my area who appear to have discovered the secret of invisibility; when they sweep past, nobody seems aware of them except me. Sometimes I feel like Haley Joel Osment in The Sixth Sense, though rather than dead people, I see bicycle thieves. ' "Look, look!" I say to my wife, "they're pinching a bike right in front of that policeman!" Occasionally I intervene – and they don't make a fuss, simply hopping on to the bikes they've already stolen and sidling off – but after a while you get fed up and leave them to it. I tell myself that they're all Dickensian orphans who live in a loft in Seven Dials. However, not wanting to have my Condor racing machine nicked, the bike I use every day now is a Kona hybrid in a particularly crack addict-unfriendly shade of lilac.
Yet there are many great things happening in the world of cycling, too. Nationally, 2010 marks the 15th anniversary of the National Cycle Network founded by Sustrans. The network is made up of more than 12,000 miles of traffic-free walking and cycling paths, quiet lanes and on-road cycling routes, and carries more than a million walking and cycling journeys every day. In London, the Cycle Hire scheme launches on 30 July. If it works half as well as the one in Paris, it will presage a revolution in cycle use. And the first two of 12 planned cycle superhighways are set to launch in the capital on 19 July. If they can speed cyclists safely from the edges of London into the centre, maybe that golden cycling future will finally arrive.
Alexei Sayle's memoir, 'Stalin Ate My Homework', will be published by Sceptre in September, priced £20
Pedal power: Three cities gearing up for cyclists
With its segregated cycle lanes, saintly drivers and waves of commuting cyclists, Copenhagen leads the way in urban cycling, and the Danish capital is now exporting its know-how to world cities including London, New York and Melbourne. Here's how they match up:
Mayor Boris Johnson is spending £116m on cycling this year, including funding the capital's cycle-hire scheme, signposting cycle superhighways, training and education. From 30 July there will be 6,000 bikes for hire from 400 docking locations. The first two pilot superhighways – Barking to Tower Gateway and Merton to the City – launch on 19 July. Ten more are planned by 2015.
The number of journeys by bicycle in London has doubled over the past decade. Safety and theft are the greatest concerns of cyclists; the latter is being addressed by 30 police officers patrolling on bicycles and targeting bike crime.
Since 2008, New York's transportation commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan has transformed the city's layout to make life easier for those on two wheels: parking places have been replaced by bike lanes and bikes are permitted on the subway. Mayor Michael Bloomberg's PlaNYC 2030 sustainability plan calls for more than 500 miles of segregrated bike lanes and 1,200 miles of painted lanes by 2030. At least 50 miles will be installed annually until the network is complete; 200 miles of new lanes are already in place. Last year the city rejected congestion charging but it is installing car-free zones. In the three years to 2009, bicycle commuting in NYC rose by 45 per cent.
The Danish urban-design guru Jan Gehl spent a decade advising Melbourne (from 1994 to 2004), so he could be excused for sighing on reading the June headline in the city's paper The Age: "Copenhagen bike lanes cause chaos in Melbourne"; this after one lane of Albert Street, a dual-lane artery into the city, was turned over to cyclists after rush hour. But, in general, Victoria's state capital has embraced the bicycle. In 2009, nearly £70m was committed to improving the city's cycling network; new lanes are being built and a bike-share scheme rolled out this month, with 600 available from 50 stations. But unlike other city bike-hire systems, Melbourne's is somewhat hampered by Victoria's compulsory helmet laws – a BYO policy is in place. Robin Barton
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