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Cycling to work: Seven things no-one tells you when you start commuting on a bicycle

Fed up with the train to work, or the endless traffic on the way in? Think cycling is too risky, tiring or difficult to be an option? So did I before I started. And as it's Cycle to Work day today, I thought I'd share seven important lessons I learned on the road...

Jon Di Paolo
Thursday 14 September 2017 12:42 BST
You see the world very differently when you take to two wheels
You see the world very differently when you take to two wheels

Beware of the MAMILs*

Some of your fellow cyclists will behave as though they’re competing in the Tour de France. They're easy to spot: look out for blokes on bikes made out of carbon fibre, titanium or other exotic substances, clad head to toe in Lycra, expensive shades and cleats (shoes which clip themselves into their pedals that involve a lot of frantic clicking into place as they set off). These chaps ride as fast as they possibly can under all circumstances, treat being overtaken as a personal affront and will always swerve just in front of you when you come to a stop at traffic lights, cos they’re going to get away quicker than you, see? They also tailgate each other (and you) the way the pros do on the telly, with their front wheel almost touching the rear wheel of the bike in front to take advantage of the aerodynamic benefit, and totally disregard the possibility the person in front might need to stop suddenly if someone steps off a pavement, or a car door opens. They’re probably using Strava (an app that tells them how fast they’re going compared to everyone else who uses it) and are almost certainly compensating for deep-seated inadequacies elsewhere in their lives.

*Middle-Aged Men In Lycra

Don't buy a hybrid

If you're commuting any sort of distance and want to do it quickly, you don't have to commit yourself to a flimsy-feeling speed machine with tyres so thin they’re barely there at all. A whole generation of bikes designed for or inspired by cyclocross - a kind of cross-country 'road' racing - offer similar ruggedness and stability to hybrid bikes, but are a lot quicker. Having spent years on my much-loved BMC Alpinechallenge flat-bar hybrid only for it to be stolen, I replaced it with a Ribble CGR and now wish I'd done so years ago. It’s just as comfortable and solid as the BMC was during the eight miles of my journey over kerbs and potholes on cycle track barely worthy of the name, but absolutely flies along as soon as I get to open road - the BMC was no slouch but was 5-10 minutes slower over my 15-mile ride in. And I haven't had to give up the hydraulic disc brakes I came to know, love and rely on to avert disaster at the last second, because unlike road bikes, which mainly stick to old-fashioned brake blocks, the CGR has them too.

There's no such thing as 'puncture-proof'

There’s a whole industry of companies claiming they can save you the pain and misery caused by punctures - but don’t believe a word of it. Puncture-proof tyres - even the mighty Schwalbe Marathon Pluses - are pretty good, but you still get punctures occasionally, and the tyres are then almost impossible to get off the wheel and back on again in order to replace the inner tube. Especially when it's chucking it down, you're already late home and people walking past are eyeing you with a mixture of pity and contempt. There are companies offering solid tyres, which - as they don’t have air in them - are impossible to puncture: but they transmit the road noise into the wheel, and eventually a spoke will give out, which is even more difficult to deal with in the middle of a commute home than a puncture. Getting good at changing tyres, and replacing them before they wear out, is probably the best way to minimise the pain. But don’t be seduced by the army of corporate puncture alchemists promising you they can eradicate them with their product. They can’t.

You might think breathing in all those fumes is bad for you, but inside the cars it's reportedly even worse

It isn't as dangerous as you think...

Despite the reputation it has, commuting on a bike through central London doesn’t mean taking your life in your hands every day, unless you’re putting speed before everything else. A horrifying spate of deaths a few years ago, followed by high-profile campaigns by cyclists, has led to the (gradual) installation of dedicated lanes and better recognition of the needs of cyclists in the capital. Fatalities and serious injuries have been dropping, and there are slow improvements being made such as dedicated cycle lanes segregated from traffic that are encouraging more people to cycle - hopefully building towards a critical mass that will add momentum to the improvements. In fact, not cycling to work might kill you faster - a recent Europe-wide study concluded that inactivity is twice as likely to kill you prematurely than obesity. And of course, it goes without saying that building exercise into your day will help with both. You really are more likely to die crossing the road. In fact, according to Government statistics, the most dangerous form of transport after motorcycling (which is a long way out in front), isn’t cycling or driving - it’s walking. In 2015, there was roughly 1 killed or seriously injured (KSI) casualty per 1 million miles cycled and 1 KSI casualty per roughly 100,000 hours of cycling. So when people say “you’re more likely to be killed crossing the road”, they’re right.

The police are looking out for you - in a good way

Undercover police are running dedicated sting operations to stop inconsiderate drivers whipping past cyclists with only a few centimetres to spare. An initiative that started in the West Midlands and has now spread to other areas of the country, including London, sees plainclothes officers take to the streets on a bike while a marked patrol car or van hangs back out of sight. Any motorist who belts past the officer on the bike is reported back to his or her colleagues in the car, who then speed up and overtake the offender in order to make the error of their ways clear to them. Research shows that cars whipping past cyclists with no room to spare severely intimidates those on two wheels even when it doesn’t result in serious injury or death (which it easily can). In 2014, 64 per cent of people surveyed by the UK’s Department of Transport said they believed it was too dangerous for them to cycle on the road.

It's still good for you even when you're cycling through filthy air

It might feel like it’s doing you more harm than good as you struggle along traffic-clogged roads at rush hour, gulping deep breaths of noxious, foul-smelling engine farts, but it’s not. Yes, air pollution is a killer, and yes, you’re sucking down lungfuls of deadly particulates from the fumes being belched out by the vehicles nose-to-tail all around you. But a study by academics at King’s College London showed that you’d have to cycle for nearly 10 hours a day through rush-hour traffic in the centre of the capital before the damage done by the pollution you’re exposed to outstrips the benefit you’re getting from the exercise. That’s not to say air pollution isn’t a problem: it is responsible for 9,500 premature deaths each year, according to the same research. But in actual fact there is evidence to suggest people in the cars are worse off because they’re trapping the deadly gases inside with them, rather than encountering them outside where they’re dispersed by the wind. And of course if you’re on a bike, you’re not contributing to them, which is something else to feel good about.

Not the most picturesque of cycle tracks

It brings you joy

Despite all the punctures, near-death experiences with vehicles, rain, wind, pollution, lugging kit around with you, the hot water running out in the showers at work, and struggling to get yourself out of bed that bit earlier, cycling in still wins hands down over a packed train commute. It keeps you fit, saves you money, saves the environment and avoids the early-morning stress of competing with your fellow travellers for a tiny portion of space on a hideously overpacked carriage. It also improves your mood (when you don’t get a puncture) and helps you sleep better. And even when your journey is miles of poorly maintained cycle track alongside a dual carriageway and under the planes as they come in to land at Heathrow followed by busy roads in central London there are moments of pure pleasure to be had at the sensation of freedom and speed produced under your own power.

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