A courier's guide to city riding: From fixing a puncture to dealing with furious drivers

Emily Chappell couriered in London for six years, and is now a freelance writer. Her book, 'Unburdened: The Life and Opinions of a London Cycle Courier', will be published by Guardian Faber next year

Emily Chappell
Friday 29 May 2015 16:18 BST
(Matthew Brazier)

1. Fixing a puncture isn't really that hard

The hardest part is usually fending off all the knights in shining armour who insist on standing around giving you advice, even when it's very clear you know what you're doing.

2. 'Wear as little as possible' is not an acceptable summer waterproofing solution

True, the rain's not that cold, and true, most lightweight waterproofs let in more than they keep out. But you just try riding home when it's 10pm, you have been soaked to the skin, and you're shivering so violently that you can hardly keep the bike straight.

3. Stop at red lights

You'll get far fitter accelerating away from them than you will if you just keep rolling.

4. Communicate with drivers (and pedestrians, and other cyclists)

This means constantly looking behind and around you, making eye contact, signalling, waving, nodding, smiling, giving the thumbs up, and occasionally making the no-no-after-you! gesture. Seems a lot of work at first, but it will give people the impression that you have your brain and manners switched on, making them more likely to switch their own on in response.

5. When filtering through traffic, don't lose concentration

If the gap's really tiny, first size up whether you can get your handlebars through it (they're the widest part of the bike, unless you're carrying panniers), then focus on keeping your right (or left) hand as close to the car or bus as possible. If you try to watch both hands at once, you'll end up wobbling.

6. You will very rarely get the last word in an altercation with a driver – even if you are in the right

This, of course, will not stop you devoting hours of your cycling time to rehearsing every possible line of argument, in the hope that the right words will be on the tip of your tongue at the moment you need them. But most of the time they'll arrive about five minutes too late, or they'll be yelling so hard they won't hear you anyway. Let it go. It doesn't matter.

7. Take public transport now and then, just to remind yourself of what you're not missing

Last time I got on a train there were no spare seats, and the bar I gripped to keep me upright was slimy with what I quickly realised could only be other people's bodily fluids. At least on a bike you always get a seat, and the only bodily fluids you end up covered in are your own.

8. Nine crashes out of 10 are harmless

But if a driver knocks you off, don't jump up right away. I've lost count of the times I've got back on the bike in an initial surge of adrenalin, ridden off, and only later discovered that some part of me or the bike is dented, by which time the driver's long gone. Hang around and get their details even if you don't think you'll need them.

9. You will get more punctures when it rains

Bike nerds have never been able to agree on why this is, but do yourself a favour: check the weather forecast, keep your tyres pumped up hard, and don't put off changing them "just one more day" if they're wearing out.

10. Remember that you have the ideal antidote to road rage right there beneath you

If you feel the stress building up, just ride and ride and ride and you'll burn it off. And spare a thought for the poor old drivers, stewing in their metal boxes, who don't have this option.

11. Enjoy the road

And, if you live in a city, enjoy how many of them you have to choose from. I have several different commuting routes – a fast one, for when I'm late; a quiet one, for when I'm lazy; a hilly one, for when I have energy to burn; a sociable one, which goes past my favourite bike shop. You'll quickly find that, on a bike, you know the city better than anyone else, and the choices are endless.

Emily Chappell couriered in London for six years, and is now a freelance writer. Her book, 'Unburdened: The Life and Opinions of a London Cycle Courier', will be published by Guardian Faber next year

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