Saddle-weary commuters left with a sore deal

Stressed cyclists get little relief at the capital's sights, writes Ben Summers
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Yesterday was Bike to Work Day, but the first thing you would have noticed if, like me, you were out to mark the occasion, is that cyclists hav become something of a rare breed.

I had arrived at Paddington station at 8am, ready to tackle the streets and find out if the capital's attractions make any allowances for the those of us arriving on two wheels.

I soon learned why few cyclists venture out here: London's streets are unforgiving. Just 200 yards down the road from the station I was nearly sandwiched between curb and car.

Perhaps drivers would treat me with a little more respect if I were an MP, I mused. So I took myself off to Covent Garden to see if this was true. There, I found forty honourable members diligently loading up on free croissants in preparation for the 1996 MPs' Bike Ride.

As they pushed off, the group quickly took on the appearance of a cycle protest, forming a thick knot of bicycles. No one wanted to be at the back; everyone wanted to lead. Thus did a clump of MPs make their unsteady way to Parliament, ties fluttering in the breeze.

Taxis hooted angrily, motorbikes cut across and civil servants scowled. Who were these mad men and why were they blocking up Whitehall?

The convoy arrived at the House and the bikes were taken away in a large white van. The parliamentary bike rack, after all, only has space for 35.

Yet 35 turns out to be a fairly healthy allowance. On my subsequent bicycle tour of the capital, only the British Museum could top it, with parking available for 36.

The Royal Academy has justtwo orange hoops on to which four early-bird visitors can chain their treaders. It is left to the railings outside for the rest.

Bottom of the high-culture, low cycle-tolerance league is the National Gallery. As I arrived, a white-haired gentleman was locking his bike on to the only available lamppost on that side of Trafalgar Square.

The man at the gallery's reception desk said there was no official cycle space for visitors. Furthermore, a passing traffic warden warned me that it would be a bad idea to lock anything to anything on the other side of the Square. This is the edge of the centre's "ring of steel".

Would my bike be clamped if I locked it there? No, but it would be reported to the police and they would come, cut the lock and cart it off to the pound. Suitably chastened, I pedalled off in search of some light refreshment. Le Meridien hotel, Piccadilly, looked tempting, but bikes could not be housed on the premises. The Cafe Royal nearby did, however, have space.

The Ritz did not put on a bike rack but there is apparently little demand. One would have to find a railing, suggested the doorman, or he could keep an eye on it for a short while.

It seems the car still rules in the capital. Apart from stage-managed MPs, there were more cycle couriers to be seen than cycle commuters yesterday.

Still, as I jammed my bike back into the train at Paddington, apologising as I went, I reflected that there are some ordeals which are spared to the purest of bike-to-work purists.

Bicycle facts

If one-third of all short car journeys were made by bike, heart disease rates would fall by five to 10 per cent.

In a city, a large car is 85 times less energy-efficient than a bike.

200 cyclists die on British roads each year (of whom 20 are killed in London).

Cyclists are at fault in 25 per cent of collisions with a motor vehicle; motorists are at fault in 57 per cent.