8 tips for hesitant first-time London cyclists

On 27th January 2013 I first set wheel on London’s streets.  18 months later, I now cycle to work every day and have stronger feelings towards my bike than certain members of my family (j/k) (actually serious).

Whilst veteran bike-users and speedy Lycra-clad racers are far more technically knowledgeable than I, they mostly don’t (want to) remember what it’s like to gingerly venture out for the first time.

Practical tips are endlessly available (never undertake a left-turning vehicle, don’t run red lights, always look before turning etc) but I struggled to find helpful advice on how to make things comfortable and easy.  Countless friends, astonished at my newly-embraced penchant for two wheels and tentatively interested themselves, asked “But aren’t you scared?”  Yes, I was, but it’s surmountable and the benefits are huge.

So, from a woman who only reluctantly took to cycling after 28 years and at the behest of an incredibly persistent boyfriend, here are eight pointers for reticent yet curious people considering setting wheel to road for the first time.

It looks like a hat, but it's a helmet. There's absolutely no excuse for that hideous mess of a jacket beyond it being the only waterproof I owned at the time.
My first day out on a Boris bike. That looks like a hat, but it’s a helmet. There’s absolutely no excuse for that hideous mess of a jacket beyond it being the only waterproof I owned.

1) Don’t buy a bike (at least not at the beginning)

Whilst you may decide to buy your own bike down the line (as I did), settling on which one is a whole other expensive, stress-inducing and time-consuming kettle of fish, and an unnecessary distraction when you’re setting out for the first time.  The fear of wasting hundreds, if not thousands of pounds on equipment for an activity you may not even enjoy is understandably off-putting: so don’t do it.  Why would you, when Boris has so kindly provided a far cheaper, safer, and more accessible alternative?

The Barclays Cycle Hire scheme (aka Boris Bikes) is fantastic.  They’re regularly maintained, easy to use, and according to my boyfriend, who knows these things, extremely well-designed and manufactured.  According to me, they don’t bruise my bottom, which is excellent.  No, they’re not titanium framed or particularly sexy, nor are they designed for overtaking Lamborghinis.  But they are stable, reliable and remarkably comfortable.  They’re city bikes which basically means you sit upright (although less so than the traditional Dutch style) and don’t have to hunch over the handlebars; a scary position to take when you’re nervous and don’t know where you’re going.  There’s no fannying about with tyre changes or maintenance: if your bike goes wrong, find the nearest docking station and exchange it for another.  They’ve got a nice smooth ride but don’t go too fast, and the “basket” is a decent size.  I definitely recommend buying a key.

A small but often overlooked bonus is the necessary rest-stops.  In order to keep your journeys free you’ll need to limit them to 30 minutes, which means swapping bikes every half hour.  However, there is an enforced 5 minute break in between returning one bike and taking out the next.  Stubborn people (um, me) won’t want to admit that 30 minutes solid exercise as a brand-new cyclist is actually surprisingly tiring, but this way you’re obliged to take a break and don’t have to admit that you need it.  Lack of fitness be damned!  You’re just being economical, yo.

2) Wear a helmet

Yeah, they’re not pretty.  But there are ways around that (I’ll do another post on nice helmets and how to keep your hair looking good).  Most importantly: IT MAY SAVE YOUR LIFE.  Peeps, I don’t want to be all melodramatic about this, but I’m also not going to shy away from the realities: it’s dangerous on London’s roads and as a nervy newbie, you’ll feel a lot happier knowing you’ve at least an outside chance of survival should you get hit by a lorry.

N.B. THIS PROBABLY WON’T HAPPEN.

But it might.

So please, for the love of god, take whatever small precautions you can.

An aside: there are naysayers to the helmet movement and a lot of people out there who don’t advocate wearing them.  If you choose not to wear one at a later date, hey, it’s a free world.  But when you’re starting out, so long as it doesn’t make you more reckless, please, just be careful, wear a helmet, and forget about the sweaty-head look.  It’s better than the caved-in head look.

3) It’s illegal to cycle on pavements (but you can do it if you’re careful)

Paul Boateng, the minister responsible for the fixed penalty which was introduced in 1999, said:

“The introduction of the fixed penalty is not aimed at responsible cyclists who sometimes feel obliged to use the pavement out of fear of the traffic, and who show consideration to other pavement users.

“Chief police officers, who are responsible for enforcement, acknowledge that many cyclists, particularly children and young people, are afraid to cycle on the road. Sensitivity and careful use of police discretion is required.”

There are movements to make the law clearer, and it’s recently been reviewed.  In January this year, Robert Goodwill (current under-secretary of state for transport) echoed Boateng’s words in a new statement:

“Pedestrians should expect to be able to use the pavement without fear of being in a collision with a cyclist and we are determined to discourage dangerous behaviour, which is why last year we increased the fixed penalty for this offence to £50.

“Enforcement is a matter for the Police but we endorse their approach of showing discretion in instances where a cyclist is using the pavement alongside a dangerous section of road out of fear of the traffic, but is being mindful to not put pedestrians at risk.”

Don’t be bullied into the road if you’re scared to be there; should you feel you’re genuinely at risk then you could argue that you aren’t breaking the law by cycling on the pavement.  But it’s not an excuse to avoid one-way systems or traffic, and you could justifiably be fined, so think carefully.

And please, please, please be nice to the walkers.  Remember that they have priority, and nowhere else to go.  It’s bloody terrifying to see a cyclist (or two or three abreast) bearing down on you at 20mph.  My poor grandma’s been forced into the gutter by reckless cyclists on more than one occasion and I absolutely do not want to advocate this happening again to other grannies or vulnerable pedestrians.  So when you must cycle on the pavement, do so responsibly, slowly, politely, and with good grace.  If someone says you shouldn’t be there, do your best to reply with as much dignity as you can muster (though I know myself this can be difficult).  But if they’ve done so because you’ve careered into or frightened them, then remember that you’re breaking the law.  There is never any need to endanger pedestrians: if necessary, get off your bike and push.

With all of this in mind, I recommend that you stick to the roads as much as possible because it really is more respectful, it’s where you ought to be, and it’s good practice.  You don’t want to get used to cycling on the pavements, and you shouldn’t have to either.

Put simply: you can (arguably) be on the pavement, but you should be on the road.  Roads are scary, I know, but if the idea of ploughing down Oxford Street is freaking you out then you can build up to it.  How?

4) Use the parks / side roads

You know what’s shit about London?  Our terrible cycle network.  (It’s getting better, undoubtedly, but it’s still nothing compared to Amsterdam or Copenhagen).  You know what’s great about London?  The parks.  They’re EVERYWHERE.  Even if it means that a journey will take longer, it’s worth doing as much as you can through the parks since it gets you away from vehicles, smog, and traffic lights.  We have so many green spaces in London, it’s amazing.  We also have a lot of side roads so again, even if it lengthens your journey, take the one-way streets and smaller avenues and especially try to avoid bus routes.  You’ll get used to cycling on streets and dealing with smaller amounts of traffic but you won’t constantly find yourself darting in and out of jams, or stuck behind a double-decker.  Work up to Haymarket, and don’t be ashamed if it scares the living daylights out of you the first time you have a go.

Now bear in mind that you can’t cycle everywhere in the parks, only where it’s marked (check the cycle routes on googlemaps) but it should be pretty obvious.  And the roads and paths where you can cycle are fantastic places to practice and get used to the bicycle’s handling.  I spent literally hours in Hyde Park with my boyfriend going round and round in circles learning how to indicate, stand up on the pedals, look behind me without toppling into a bush, stay upright whilst barely moving, etc etc.  All of these are essential skills and unless you have a garden the size of the Queen’s, get thee to a park.  And if you can . . .

5) Go with someone experienced

Not everybody is lucky enough to have a boyfriend who’s a keen cyclist but doesn’t act like a dick about it.  I was, and I doubt I’d be here* today if it weren’t for him (*cycling/alive).  If you don’t have one of those, locate a trustworthy cycling friend who won’t whizz away at traffic lights, is patient enough to teach you the same things ten times, and sympathetically remembers the fear of starting out.  If you’re nervous, don’t go it alone, because you’ll hate every minute and probably make some really basic mistakes due simply to fear, not to mention the added stress of not knowing where you’re going.

I’m a pretty brave person (plus stubborn and naive) but it took me a good few weeks before I felt bold enough to take the lead and cycle in front of my boyfriend, let alone venture out solo.  Navigating on a bicycle requires confidence, so whilst you’re still learning the ropes, make somebody else do it for you!  It’s a relief to have somebody in front who knows the route and keeps an eye out, leaving you free to concentrate on the fundamentals of staying upright and changing gear.

Don’t have a helpful cycling mate?

6) Consider taking a course

Did you know that many councils offer cycling proficiency courses for adults?  You may have done one in primary school (or, like me, you may have missed the opportunity having not learnt to ride a bike until you were 11) but frankly, even if you remember a lesson from 20 years ago, it’s unlikely to have the same relevance now.

Take a look at your local council’s homepage and see what’s on offer or contact TfL for more information.  Most are geared at adults, many are even one-to-one – and for some you don’t have to pay a penny!  Think of it as a refresher course, the sort you might take if you’re a driver who’s been out of the country for a few years.  It’s not shameful or awkward, just a great way to build your confidence and learn the rules of the road.

7) Avoid the rain (at least to begin with)

Nobody likes cycling in the rain.  Unless you’re a total masochist, it’s fucking miserable.  18 months in and I still get grumpy when I feel water trickling into my shoe and have to keep stopping to demist my glasses. When I had to go from Islington to Shepherds Bush in a raging gale last December, I spent the entire ride swearing (loudly) and most of it on the verge of tears.  I’d like to say “push through it, you lazy git” but you know what?  Don’t.  Seriously, don’t.  Cycling in the sunshine is glorious and cycling in the rain is hideous, so if you start off with too much of the latter then you’re only going to have bad memories and be liable to give up before you’ve even started.

You’ll work up to it.  Honestly, you will.  These days, although I avoid cycling to work when it’s truly grim, I’ll voluntarily hop on my bike under ominous cloud cover, and even a homewards commute in the rain isn’t so bad.  But back in the early days, when my boyfriend suggested a quick Boris bike jaunt to work in so much as a light drizzle, I was seriously inclined to jack the whole thing in and swear off cycling forever.  So take it easy, stick to clement weather, and deal with rain only when you absolutely have to.

Basically: if you’re dubious about this whole cycling malarkey, you should be going out of your way to make the first few journeys as pleasant as physically possible.  Which leads me to . . .

8) Don’t start off by commuting

If you’re anything like me, you’ll always leave the absolute bare minimum of time to arrive at your desk.  Why complicate matters by having your introduction to adult cycling at 8am on a Monday morning when you’ve got a deadline to arrive by and a boss who’s always early?

You want to start cycling when there’s no time constraints, and perhaps not even a destination.  Basically, a Sunday afternoon.  Decide on a vague plan (along side roads and parks, obvs!) and factor in several stops along the way (cafes, pubs, a restaurant – perhaps stick to soft drinks though).  And if you’re doing this on a Boris bike then the really fantastic part is that you don’t even need to know your own fitness; the moment you’re too knackered to continue, you can just give up and take the tube home.

Commuting on a bicycle is brilliant – eventually.  But there’s no need to layer on that extra pressure until you’re confident both in navigating rush-hour traffic and knowing how long it’ll take.

And above all: treat yourself.  Be excited by every little victory, whether it’s cycling at night, going it alone for the first time, or simply remembering to indicate.  Don’t allow your cycling buddy to respond to your chocolate-fuelled celebrations and screams of “I’VE JUST CYCLED FIVE WHOLE KILOMETERS AND DIDN’T DIE, WOOOHOOOO!!!” with “That’s nice, I do 50km on a daily basis”.  Ignore those cobwebbed naysayers and celebrate your successes – you did good, my friend, and with every pedal you’re saving both yourself and the planet.  Go ahead, have a drink on me.

Same same but different: ten months later, still practicing in Hyde Park but on my very own bike
Same same but different: my first weekend with Grazel, ten months after starting out on the Boris bikes
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3 Comments

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  1. Thanks a lot for these tips, Robyn! Many of these tips work for cycling in Paris (where I live), too. And since I have never gotten beyond the stage of cycling right behind someone who’s more experienced, I’ll try following your advice to become a bit more independent.

    • Oh fantastic, I really hope you do! Small steps, it’s the best way. And don’t worry if you find yourself taking a while to get out from your cycling partner’s shadow – it’s great to even be out there in the first place. Independence will come eventually 🙂

  2. Hiya – I found your blog via our mutual lovely friend Josy – I actually took the free cycling courses offered by my local council and it was great. Helmet hair will be in fashion one day I hope 😉

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