Simon’s Cycle Shorts are now available to buy in both paperback (£8.39) and Kindle (£2.99) versions from Amazon. HERE

 

I’ve just been through the hardest two months of my life. It all started when he decided that more money was needed for Christmas and so took a job in Central London. Now, you might think that this would seem like a sensible idea for a young man in his final year of university who is up to his overdraft limit; until you realise that the job entailed him riding me around the streets of the busy roads of the capital for ten hours a day – which wasn’t so sensible. Yes, he thought it was a cool to be a cycle courier; he’d learn the streets of London on a bike and get paid for it!

Now, in 1984, dispatching was a motorbike-only occupation; so turning up for that Monday morning ‘interview’ in a scruffy office over a shop just off the Kings Road in cycling shorts and top, and riding on a fixed wheel bicycle, didn’t go down too well.

“What bike you got mate?” It was the very first question and, I suppose, one he should have expected.

“Er…a bicycle?”

“No mate – what motorbike you got?”

“I don’t have one – I’ve got a bicycle?” As you might imagine, this wasn’t a great start to the interview, but, amazingly, after twenty minutes of polite cajoling with the fat controller who initially decided he was talking to a complete idiot, he managed to clinch a weeks trial – and one where they would just give him the short drops around the City and West End – the ones that the motorcyclists didn’t like to do on account that they didn’t pay well enough. The best thing about this arrangement was that there was no suggestion that he should be on a different pay rate to the ‘proper’ dispatchers; if he was happy to do just the short runs then he could ‘ave ’em.

So armed with a genuine BT pager that would beep out details of jobs, and a brand new A-Z with the coloured (but not waterproof) central pages, we set out on our first pick-up; a brave new world of piecework on his bike, when all around were striking their jobs out of existence. To be honest, he didn’t know his way around London to start with, and I doubted he would last. But he surprisingly got used to the map and the first day passed quite quickly. We started in a sun-filled Sloane Square, went up through Knightsbridge to Marble Arch, before being sent to the City for a few lunchtime jobs. Then, after a short break with a pinta milk and a pasty around 2.00 o’clock in a park near Old Street, it was back to the bustling West End. The day ended with a circular trip of BT offices from Holborn to Vauxhall and Chelsea. Easy. Sadly, the sunny start to our new job ended there and then.

Tuesday morning brought grey overcast skies and a constant drizzle; the temperature had also fallen to a more seasonal six degrees late-September norm. The eight mile ride from New Cross to the City was wet and cold and we both realised there and then that this wasn’t going to be such an easy job after all; wouldn’t cocktail bar waiting or revising history have been a better idea? Our first fall of many came on that Tuesday morning. Pedestrians were always going to be the biggest danger and we thought we knew this before we started. But spending so many hours riding in the most populated streets in the land where people rely on only one of their senses at a time or rely on some innate belief in their own inner radar, is very dangerous.

It is well known in the City that enjoying the FT whilst walking along a pavement makes the reader immune to the usual courtesies that pedestrians give to one other; but what people probably don’t realise is that the same Inner City slicker with his pink paper under his nose is so skilled that he or she is even able to negotiate a busy road using just their hearing; an incredible talent. Yes, we’d seen it many times; can’t hear a bus or a cab or a lorry so it is safe for them to cross whilst simultaneously digesting breakfast and Lex.

Now, this is all fine when a silently approaching cyclist has learned to read the minds and bodies of bankers immersed in FT’s. But if they haven’t, then the result is going to be painful for both. Before anything could be done to avert the collision, my left brake lever hit the pinstriped trader on his hip forcing the brake to engage and instantly shred the tubular tyre from its rim. My rider went over the front and managed to embrace the startled stock-picker as they went to the ground together. I bounced my way painfully down the road. There was a moments silence as the street stood still; a silence very quickly filled with a tirade of expletives from my rider as he pulled himself embarrassedly away from the fallen pedestrian with the ripped suit and bloodied lacerations – the asphalt is much harder than it looks when you’re knocked down by a speeding bicycle. Picking me up, my rider examined the bent front wheel and turned towards the city man.

“Now you’re going to pay for this – where’s your wallet?”

“But what about my suit?” The voice was weak with a pronounced Tory whine, and the request sounded like he didn’t actually expect to receive a positive answer.

“Where’s your wallet? Get it out now!” The requisite banknotes were handed over and the two parties separated; we walked to the nearest bike shop for a new tubular tyre; the humbled young slicker retired to the safety of his office with bloody knees and even bloodier indignation. My unexpectedly aggressive rider had been unhurt by the incident but the forcefulness of his anger and his intimidating manner had surprised everyone that saw it; there must be something about riding a bike fast and then falling off which causes the fight or flight response to favour the former; the banker was twice his size. Even I was surprised, as I’d never seen him be like that before; and it turned out not to be the last time. Everyone was out to kill him became his new, oft-repeated, maxim.

Despite what is said about the dangers of cycling in London, we did find it to be an efficient way to earn a few bob. Once we were up and running and got to know how to get the deliveries done quickly with as little hanging around as was necessary, we were doing nigh on 100  miles per day. Punctures were infrequent and really close shaves occurred only once or twice a day; they were actually pretty exciting and usually involved a calculated risk that, thankfully, paid off. Buses and lorries are slow moving beasts which largely do what you expect of them; the unpredictability of a Black cab u-turn makes it, conversely, a highly predictable event – if you see a fare get in from the pavement, then within ten seconds the cab will move away and either go straight on or do a u-turn; it’s what they do; people shouldn’t be surprised.

But pedestrians are another case. Pedestrians have plenty of opportunities to cross roads safely using Zebra or Pelican crossings but, no, they insist on taking their chances where and whenever it suits them. Paid heaps to beat the market means that City workers lose all sense of personal responsibility and deem that everyone has to stop for them because they have ‘right’ to cross the road; they take risks with millions of pounds every day; crossing roads is nothing. We hated pedestrians; we didn’t ride on their pavements so they shouldn’t walk on our roads!

The BT pager came to dominate our lives. It was the only source of work and therefore, pay; every little beep meant money. He recorded all the jobs on a special sheet provided by the fat controller, but once it was handed in he had no record of what he had done. The company decided how much he was paid and there was no breakdown; he just accepted what they said; he always got more than he expected so he believed whatever he was told.

It is important to remember that this all happened in 1984 when there were no big brother CCTV cameras watching our every move and a time when the British public had largely fallen out of love with the Victorian bicycle; drivers had not yet learned to hate the lycra clad, middle aged proles on their carbon machines who dogged the cities in the early part of the following century. It was the year when the Austin Maestro was Britain’s second best-selling car and the tatty old pound note was withdrawn after 150 years in circulation. The 1980’s was, despite all this, a great time to be a bicycle because you were largely ignored and frequently alone on road; other road users just thought you were slightly nuts and no one ever tried to steal a fixed wheel bike. Also, nobody jumped the lights and there were no cycle lanes or big boxes at the lights to give you a head start; we were the curious sideshows that hovercrafts and C5’s would eventually be. How were we to know that we were both behind and ahead of the times?

The pedestrians crashes kept coming and we escaped injury and serious damage every time through pure luck. There was the Greek man near Trafalgar Square who was angrily hauled in front of a policeman outside St Martin’s when his offer of a handful of Drachmas was refused as compensation; the sage old bobby suggested that sterling might appease the crazy cyclist, and Stelios took the hint; another new wheel.

The young woman in Oxford Street got no less sympathy than the rest of them. She even looked before stepping off the kerb in front of us; we hit her very hard. I think from her screams that she probably broke her wrist when she went down, but we were late for a pickup and were able to keep upright, so didn’t stop. She was quickly forgotten. It didn’t pay to dwell.

As the weeks went by, and our traffic skills improved, so the more chances we took; rapidly closing gaps in the traffic were a speciality and many a motorcycle was dropped through the middle of traffic moving in both directions.  Dirt-stained shoulders from running along the sides of grimy London buses were common in the cold dark winter streets. Christmas was approaching and the money was good. He didn’t want to stop; the stone broke student wanted to afford the best Christmas ever.

He started to push for the jobs. The fitter he got, the faster we went, the more money we earned. The moves that were once risky were now safe, a sure bet even. The traffic seemed to slow down in our presence and we simply flowed through in our endless mission to deliver. Every day got easier as we battled through the cold, the rain and the slippery roads. He was even learning to shout warnings to pedestrians. We were on fire; even the fat controller began to appreciate our incredible work rate.

We probably would have made it to Christmas it if we hadn’t tried that manoeuvre on Victoria Street. Yes, we were in a hurry. We had the right of way to overtake the bus at the bus stop, but if he had just thought about the passengers exiting from the bus in front and how they might just walk straight across the road through the stationary traffic? We hit four of them in one go. A record, yes, but an expensive and painful one. Concussion, a broken right wrist and collar bone, dirty lacerations to the left side of his face, and another bent wheel. He looked a mess and, like the pedestrians we hit, he was going to be sore for Christmas. Band Aid was no help to any of them. I was fine, bar a couple more scratches and the wheel. Everyone got home eventually, and no one made a claim – no one did in those days. But Christmas and the remainder of the winter were quiet for me. A bit of a relief really; it could have been far worse.

 

Simon’s Cycle Shorts are now available to buy in both paperback (£8.39) and Kindle (£2.99) versions from Amazon. HERE

Copyright © 2016 by Simon Bever. All Rights Reserved