Cycle commuting – an empathy

no-lightsI know that I’m not alone in visualising just about every bike ride before I set out on it. This visualisation happens in overview, it’s a brief summation of the whole, picturing myself within it. Invariably this summation includes a lot of positive images. I usually imagine myself perfectly attired, the bike soundless in its efficiency, the terrain devoid of others and submissive to my smooth technique. It doesn’t matter what kind of ride I’m about to undertake I always visualise the positive, the cheering crowds, the “magazine front “photographic poses and the inevitable trunk full of Strava Koms.

Extracting my bruised face from a canal side puddle in Birmingham rarely forms part of my pre-ride visualisation.

The catalyst for this huge expectation mismatch came from work. My small start-up company is still small, but we’re nudging ever closer to some real success. In our world the vast majority of work comes from being in the right place at the right time whilst knowing the right people. I need to know more mapping people so had wormed my way into a three day mapping conference hosted in the centre of Birmingham. Three night’s hotel accommodation equated to a new set of Campagnolo wheels and came with the added stress of trying to discern whether the receptionist’s brummie accented greeting contains words or  yodelling.

So I hatched the cunning plan of a small businessman in charge of his own budget. I’d drive the campervan to a campsite 10 miles from town. Pay £39 for three nights accommodation and cycle to the conference every day. I visualised myself waking to the sound of gently chirping sparrows (and brummie campsite owners), supping tea on a deckchair then  gracefully swooping along deserted cycle paths before deftly nipping through town centre traffic as drivers looked on in awe at the lithe streak of lycra punctuating their mundanity. This cunning plan needed an early start as registration ended at 9.30am. I prepared well by working into the night on a particularly challenging piece of computer code. The challenge came from the fact that I’d clearly written it in Sanscrit rather than SQL and the computer was not hesitating in telling me so.

Therefore it was no surprise that I slept through the 7am alarm, 8am would have been cutting it fine but the actual rising time of 8.25am was just plain annoying. This left one hour and five minutes to dress, eat, pack and ride 10 miles along a completely unfamiliar route. A timescale that seemed faintly achievable but equally hugely optimistic. Getting up ten minutes later would have been better as I’d clearly not make registration and could relax in the fact that I was going to be late. However, I’m a stickler for punctuality, always first to arrive at the party, always sat in the pub on my own looking at my watch, always doing three laps of the block to kill ten minutes before a meeting.

I needed to make registration to keep my punctuality sanctimony intact.

Thus began the ritual of the panicked cyclist. A bowl of cereal ingested by suction, teeth cleaned whilst having a poo, a bag stuffed with anything vaguely resembling clothes (I didn’t even try to explain the tea towel I later pulled out in the lecture theatre) and of course swearing. Lots of swearing, in fact so much swearing that Gordon Ramsey’s kitchen was rendered temporarily silent as the UK went over quota on “fuck”. Somehow I was away from the van within 15 minutes of awakening. I wish Strava had an achievement  email for that:-


Uh oh! Dave Barter just stole your BTR on Campsite to University of Aston

You just lost your “bed to ride” on Campsite to University of Aston to Dave Barter by 4 seconds, an orange juice and 300g of Sugar Puffs. 

Now wake up, ignore the shower and have fun

-Your friends at Strava


Fortunately, I had plotted the route upon my GPS device and simply had to follow the line on screen from campsite to conference. 10 miles in 50 minutes should be no problem. I’d ridden the distance in half that time before. However, there was a complication, fifty yards from the van and I couldn’t see the GPS. In my panic I’d used a clever mental diversionary tactic to put the fact that it was raining heavily to one side. Scientists have studied this trait and given it the technical term “idiocy”. Apparently its due to certain brains only having limited capacity for analysis due to their constant fuck ups.

Going back to my visualisation, this rain was not supposed to have happened. Summer had clearly forgotten what Britain looked like and decided to pay a return visit this year. I’d had nearly three months of riding without a coat. The day before had topped 30 degrees and thus I’d imagined cycling to Birmingham in my pants. The rain currently falling was huge and malevolent. Some drops were so large and aggressive they hit me, split, hit the road, bounced back and wet me again on the return trip. The GPS screen was unreadable as it contained a lake and my prescription glasses were more hydrated than I was. Seeing the road was as challenging as reading the GPS and I gingerly felt my way along with left hand in the hedge for reassurance.

In this situation I felt for all proper commuter cyclists. The waterproof manufacturers all do a wonderful job, but when the British weather system decides you’re going to get wet, you get wet. No matter how much GoreTex you swath about yourself the water will find a way in. It’s simply a matter of time. In my case it’s usually the feet that are first to go. I’ve tried every possible combination of waterproof shoe/trouser/sock/welly but spray comes at your feet from all directions and in order to get your foot in a shoe needs a hole. At first there’s a small slightly chilly sensation around the ankle warning you that the hatch is about to blow. It’s time to resign yourself to the flooding which comes a few minutes later as the whole system gives in and welcomes the water to marinade your foot. To make matters worse, my right foot always seems to go a few minutes before the left. A single dry foot is no consolation, it simply reminds you how much worse the other one feels. Shortly after the feet, my gloves usually give way and then the water wicks its way through the network of underclothes to the nether regions.

Proper commuter cyclists go through this every day for months. I’m sure someone will tell me of a foolproof system they’ve employed that keeps them dry, I’ll know they are lying unless it’s travelling by cab .

Three miles into the ride, nearly twenty minutes burnt and I hit the Birmingham canal path. The stress of traffic had gone and I hoped I could make up some time. Sadly the rain had not abated, it had been busy churning up a previously smooth sandy hardpacked surface into something resembling butterscotch Angel Delight mixed with Murray Mints. The rain continued to fall and my vision deteriorated further. I experimented with the removal of my prescription glasses only to realise that a trip to Vision Express is well overdue as I was simply flitting between different versions of a seriously blurred landscape.

In my experience there are two types of cycling crash.

Type one cannot be experienced at all, you find yourself lying in a tangled mess wondering what the fuck just happened? A tiny fragment of conscious memory remains but this consists of a few noises and lots of rotation. No matter how hard you try you cannot piece together the sequence of events that led to the accident or what actually happened during it. All you can do is assemble the physical evidence that lies around you in a cycling version of CSI. Bruises, missing bolts, dents in trees and laughing companions all offer vital clues.

Type two crashes are the worse. They often begin with a short moment of hesitation or line decision making, then enter a terrible phase of realisation that a crash is inevitable. During a type two crash time slows, the mind has space to analyse the poor decision or action that led into this moment. It’s then able to calculate the various trajectories and impact forces and lay the inevitable consequences out in front of the rider like a spike ridden “welcome” mat.  The only sound you can hear is the long, deep, slow motion rumble of your own voice shouting “Nooooooooooooo”. To make matters worse a small section of your brain is telling you the actions required to evade the final impact. Your body nods in acknowledgement but does the complete opposite. Type two crashes always end in a bloody heap and a few pain free seconds wishing for a time machine to allow a replay.

My canal path crash was type two.

This particular section of trail has a raised concrete curb to the left to hold the path in place. The curb is about an inch wide, inch high, bordered by vegetation and then a metal slat fence. Somehow I managed to get my front wheel to the left of the curb whilst the rear wheel remained firmly on the right. To carry out this manoeuvre consciously would require a huge amount of skill. I have absolutely no idea how I managed it, as the phase “huge amount of skill” has never entered the same sentence as myself without the addition of “unlike Dave”. The complete lack of forward vision was probably a factor.

So began the hesitation. I realised that something was up and a small section of my mind chipped in with a brief analysis.

Dave, the wheels are either side of this curb. Simply hop the front wheel over to the right and all will be OK.”

Instead I took my left hand off the bars and reached out to the slat metal fence. Ignoring my mind’s advice I’d decided that a better course of action was to attempt to remain upright by leaning to the left. The fact that I was moving at speed had been ignored as had the more important issue of stability. Leaning the bike would lever the rear wheel off the ground. And so I entered the phase of inevitability. As required by a type two crash I began to holler “Noooooo”, my mind informed me that I’d fall left, hit the fence, bounce back onto the path and impact my face into the puddle approximately 4 metres ahead.

All of this came true including a few additional tweaks that my mind had chosen not to mention. My left index finger was momentarily trapped in the fence and hence sprained quite badly. The curb dealt my left shoulder a few serious blows as I came down and something stabbed through my gloves and punctured my left hand, to this day I don’t know what it was but it appears to be a form of foliage made from steel needles or a startled hedgehog.

I lay face down in the puddle listening to my mind chuntering on about hopping the wheel to the right. Just as it got to the “if you’d kept your hands on the bars bit” I loudly told it to “fuck off”, then I told the curb to “fuck off”, then I kicked the bike and told it to “fuck off” and finally I added in a “fuck off” for anyone within earshot who’d missed the previous three.

I spat out a mouthful of butterscotch bike trail and assessed the damage. Everything seemed to be in working order including me. The bike was completely unscathed, the GPS had survived and landing face forwards had protected the contents of my rucksack. There was a wide range of niggling pain from many regions but nothing appeared to be broken. I cautiously remounted and sulkily cycled my sodden saddened self onwards to the centre of Birmingham.

The rest of the journey mostly went to plan if you allow me to edit it a bit and include riding through a shopping centre, incorrectly traversing one way streets, annoying pedestrians with cycle path U-turns and taking evasive action from a texting taxi driver. I arrived at the conference almost 30 minutes late, locked the bike in a shelter and went in search of a toilet to get changed.

My empathy for cycle commuters was notched up another level. Every single part of me was sodden and I had no option but to get completely naked and change into dry clothes. The men’s toilets afforded no privacy apart from a few cubicles, these had been installed in order to maximise toilet frequency rather than occupant’s space. Clearly designed by the same people who install airline seats. To make matters worse the toilet seat covers had been removed as men would only leave them in the fully upright position. I found it incredibly difficult to undress whilst keeping all ancillary items off the piss swept floor. The open toilet pan beckoned items towards it and I almost lost the GPS after bumping into the toilet roll holder on which it had been placed. Further stress was added by the need to clearly separate the wet from the dry. I completed the cycling equivalent of a Tower of Hanoi puzzle as items of clothing were swapped from me, to the hook and then back into my rucksack.

The occupant of the adjacent cubicle must have wondered what was going on as he listened to a series of grunts, shuffles, splats and sighs. I imagined him furiously filling the glory hole with paper as a public service.

Eventually I emerged and presented myself to the mirror. Mud, sand and blood stared back from a face that was topped with a helmet hairdo akin to a 1970’s punk band. I did the best I could with the annoying automatic tap and hand sanitiser gel dispenser. A few minutes later I simply looked like a bloke who had been repeatedly punched in the face. This caused a few double takes at registration and made the gent I sat next to in the conference pretend to get something from his bag so he could move along a chair.

I sat listening to lectures on maps with dull aches reminding me of the trauma that had led to this place. Those around me looked a little more relaxed which was no surprise as the bike shelter had been empty. They’d come by bus/car/taxi/train and not one of them sported a thick lip. The strange thing was that I couldn’t find a single thread of envy within my soul. By cycling I’d avoided commuter farts, awkward stares, waiting rooms, traffic queues, overpriced coffee and lines of people staring at small devices willing them to push some interest into their dreary experience.

Yes, I was in a bit of a mess, late and had a lot of washing to do that evening. But I had something to talk about (and write several thousands words), a calorie deficit and the survivor’s glow of one who has emerged scathed from a physical battle. Riding back that evening the sun came out. The same route delivered an entirely different experience. I found myself whistling but quickly put a stop to that, “Oops I did it again” was surely tempting providence.

Tagged with: , , ,
Posted in Cycling blog posts
4 comments on “Cycle commuting – an empathy
  1. Tony says:

    Good to see you posting again as well! you are exactly right, bike commuting in the rain is full of challenges! But, only a pro can crash well, get back in the saddle and continue on. Well done sir!

  2. Paulw says:

    great to see you back again Dave!

  3. Cyclegirl says:

    At least your crash happened during daylight! Imagine what a mess that would’ve been at night with your cygolight aiming off into the woods!

  4. Davvidas. says:

    You write like I think Dave. Your descriptions of your cycling exploits are extremely entertaining and you have cheered me up which believe me is a feat.
    Thanks and keep it up.