My black and red fixed-wheel bicycle leans against the wall of my room, one of four in our ground-floor council flat in Patmore Estate that houses three Aussies on a working holiday in the UK. The damp that is invading the room is causing the cream wallpaper to lose touch with the bricks it covers. I have covered the walls with souvenirs, to remind me of places I have visited, music I’ve seen and the times I want to remember. Each afternoon I drape my cycling clothes over the frame of my bike so that the next morning I can pull the same clothes on and walk out the door only minutes after getting out of bed. I pull on my leggings, then a pair of shorts plus a long-sleeve black thermal top, which I cover with a t-shirt and a red zip-up sweater. I shove my work clothes into a brown leather satchel that my father gave me and clip on my helmet. The bicycle’s wheels are fixed with the pedals, giving me more control of my speed. Riding fixed-wheel means you have to be more alert to the condition of the road; a pot hole hit at the wrong moment can send a severe shock up through the knees and puncture the tyre.
I press the button to open the reinforced blue door that is the entrance to Building 2 of Drury House and walk the bike down the steps. In winter the chill hits, but by the time I cross the garden and reach the end of my street, I’ll be warm. There’s a school on the corner and I turn left. I ride towards the Thames, under the bridge that carries trains to and from Queenstown Road Station. To my right, behind the 10-foot-high brick wall is the New Covent Garden market. As I pedal out from under the bridge the old Battersea Power Station comes into view between the red brick buildings of the estate. There’s scaffolding around the white chimney stacks to allow the workers to disassemble, then reassemble, the towering stacks. The building will become a luxurious residential development, with apartments contained within the existing structure. That, along with the tube station that will soon connect Battersea to the Northern Line, will transform this quiet, yet central area of London in the coming years.
I turn right at the intersection of Nine Elms Lane and put more weight into the pedals. The road is flat and straight with good bitumen. I try to keep up with the cars and trucks as they drive along the riverfront towards Vauxhall. My legs start to tire as I reach the traffic lights in front of the Vauxhall Station, but I don’t have to wait for them to turn green, as there’s a bike path that takes me towards the bridge. The road rises and there is a burning ache that runs through my legs, but it is a feeling I have learned to enjoy and force myself to push through. I re-enter the road, dodging between buses, cars and trucks as I cross the river. I need to turn right immediately after the bridge and the traffic is backed up halfway across it. I slow and pick an entry into the right lane, cycling between the two lines of traffic until I get to the lights at the end of the bridge.
The traffic is heavy and the vehicles lined up at each set of lights use all the time available to cross the road before the lights turn red. I know that when I am able to go, the traffic coming from my left will still be streaming across the intersection, so I take off slowly and wait until the last car clears before starting my ride along Millbank towards the Palace of Westminster and the Abbey. This is where the feeling hits me each day. I join about a dozen other cyclist at the traffic lights at the western entrance to Parliament Square and look up at Big Ben. This is my life, this is my normal commute to work, I live in a wonderful and beautiful city and it has become my home.
As a teenager, my friend Alex and I would sit on the balcony of my family’s house in Rockhampton and discuss our dreams of living and working in London. Fifteen years later and I was here. Alex had done it years prior and I thought I never would, but here I am and I’m under no illusions; I’m not here through my own good planning. It adds to my sense of wonder that I was able to make it at all and somehow eke out a living.
The destination is the opposite side of the square and as the crowd of bicycles takes off from a they fan out across all the lanes. Cyclists rule here. The traffic is so dreadful in the city that it is futile for a driver to become impatient, or enraged. Bicycles are always faster than cars in this environment.
I ride down Birdcage Walk and turn right onto Horseguards Road. I challenge myself to ride as fast as I can until I reach the red bitumen of The Mall. St James’ Park exists in to my left and on the right I pass a succession of Government buildings sandwiched between here and Whitehall – The Treasury, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Downing Street, Horseguards Parade. I don’t notice most of them though and I try and tackle the uphill section of the road without slowing.
Right onto The Mall and under Admiralty Arch, until I reach the Trafalgar Square roundabout. The traffic is always backed up here and I squeeze the bike along the left side of the road until I reach the cyclists at the front. If I an make it across the roundabout and head up the rise past St Martins before the light at the pedestrian crossing between the Square and Charing Cross turns red, I can save a lot of energy, but rarely am I able to do this and am forced to wait, halfway up the rise, as the pedestrians cross.
It is all uphill from here. I have to use all my weight to restart my single speed at the lights and slowly gather pace as I journey up Charing Cross Road, past the entrance to Leicester Square and the Hippodrome Casino, the second-hand book shops on the ground floor of the towering brick buildings on my right, which curve around to the left and block the view too far ahead. I pass the Palace Theatre on the corner of Shaftesbury Avenue, then reach the Tottenham Court Road Station and cross Oxford Street. I am now on Tottenham Court Road and have been able to build up some speed as the bitumen has widened and there is less of a rise. I open up the legs and attempt to keep up with the traffic, dodging in and out of red buses, black taxis, cars and trucks. Even on the coldest mornings I have worked up a sweat.
From here it’s a sprint and there’s not much on my mind apart from making it to Warren Street in time to have a cigarette before entering the building and having a shower.
Riding to work changed my outlook on London. For the first year I lived in the city, I was further from work and took the tube at peak hour. I squashed into the cramped carriage with the rest off the London workforce, like sardines packed in a tin can, and stood in the heat for an hour. The only upside being that there was plenty of time to read.
Cycling opened up the city to me. I started the day with energy. I began to understand the layout of London. I could place locations in context. I saved significant amounts of money and got plenty of exercise. It made me happier, and I don’t believe it was a coincidence that life became better for me once I got a bike.