Thursday, 26 April 2012

Commuter Racing

Okay, so maybe i'm missing some fundamental point in life here, and if you feel i am, please comment on my blog and let me know, but i often find myself on the outside looking in when it comes to life in London. Maybe it's the contrast with village life in rural Scotland, maybe it's simply that i haven't had enough time to become a "naturalised" Londoner, i don't know, but there are many things about this city that i just find odd. They're not bad, they're not good, they're just remarkably strange.
The classic example, one that i face most days in fact (except when the weather's bad, or my legs are sore, or i wonder why i have an oyster card at all - i.e. when i get the bus!) is commuter racing. There's something peculiar about the bicycle as a mode of transport that makes people very very competitive. I remember this when i first started cycling to lectures in Cambridge many moons ago; i used to see how late i could leave my college and still get to lectures on time, bonus points for passing lots of slower people on the way! And you still see it now, grown men on bromptons pedalling furiously to overtake other grown men in suits on Boris bikes. Personally, i'm something of a plodder when i'm on the way to work - i'm in no rush to get there, and cycling in (at least when not avoiding the ever-present danger posed by Addison-Lee cabs) gives me time to mull my day's tasks more abstractly. This seems to make me something of a bunch-engine for the races that rage around me through the mean streets of Elephant and Castle, as personal scores are settled between people who've never actually spoken to one another.

I'm honestly not sure where i stand on this. On the one hand, i have a naive hope that some of these people may understand the errors of their ways, and one day enter a proper race, where the competition is more tangible, more fierce, but so much more rewarding. On the other, i worry that it gives a thread of competition to that most mundane of tasks, getting to work - and that once this attitude has settled, it may not lift when the same person gets in a car.

Perhaps there is the rub. It's largely okay if people become competitive on bicycles, it might seem a little petty, and occasionally people go too far in trying to cut ahead, or think that it's okay to go beyond the lights for a head start, when really all it does is force faster people behind into the main flow of the traffic, but by and large it's safe enough, and noone gets hurt. The people who really scare me on my commute are the competitive car and truck drivers, the ones who have to be ahead "just because". At the end of the day, it's probably worth remembering that in the commuter race, if you win, you lose - you're the one at your desk first!


  1. Chris - nice capture of something pretty common. Here in the Denver area (Colorado in US) we're pretty "bike friendly" for the US. I commute year-round, though not every day. (In the winter I'm lucky if the weather lets me commute 2 days a week.) We don't have nearly the commuter traffic or density that you seem to, and we all "change clothes" when we get to work - nobody rides to work in the clothes they'll work in.

    I find that the commute is essentially a time trial for me each day. It's about 20 miles each way, and on a really nice day maybe I'll pass 2 or 3 other commuters. There's always the "boost" when you pass someone, but it's always the clock I'm really watching. Folks at work actually ask me sometimes what my time was on the ride in.

    I agree with you that maybe it would be nice to relax and enjoy the ride, mulling over the upcoming day. If I have a headwind, I do sit back and relax a bit more in most cases. However, if the wind is calm or at my back, the clock is always pushing me just a bit. If I hit some lights lucky, then I find I'm really pushing hard, hoping for that new record time.

    Helps the training too I think. I don't ride competitively - it's all just about increasing the fitness and endurance for me - so I'm looking for 2 or 3 hard rides a week. If I can get one or two of those in during the weekday, all the better.

    Thanks for the post - I enjoyed it!


  2. You should try proper racing once, just to see what it's like!

    After i wrote this blog, i remembered a wonderful quotation from Tim Krabbe's book "The Rider"; "Road racing immitates life, the way it would be without the corrupting influence of civilisation. When you see a competitor lying on the ground, what's your first reaction? To help him to his feet! In road racing, you kick him to death...".

    It's perhaps a little extreme for my morning commute, but there are people who genuinely treat the importance of overtaking anyone and everyone they come across as a matter of life and death! Like i said at the start of the post, London's a weird town...