Zoe Williams on thoughts from being knocked off the bike

London Cyclist columnist, Zoe Williams - Why is it that a tumble from your bike makes you consider things in a philosophical way?


I was intending to write this column about Jack Thurston’s wonderful book of London-handy home counties bike rides, Lost Lanes; indeed, I was on my way to St Pancras to do one of his Kentish routes when some idiot junkie ran in front of me and knocked me off my bike. It’s been ages since I came off my bike, indeed, I don’t think I’ve come off at all since I mastered some basic principles (don’t hang bags off handlebars, don’t be drunk, er, that’s it). A lot of things felt like new information, although maybe they’re things I already knew but just forgot.

1) People are outrageously kind to you when you’ve hurt yourself. It’s a weird primeval thing, the minute they see blood, they mentally clear their diaries. “Security guard, you say? Never mind the security, there is a person here with a BLEEDING THUMB. I’m afraid I really must ask you to stop using the lobby while I administer the BIGGEST BANDAGE IN THE WORLD, so that now it looks like her thumb has been amputated.” At one point, I had six people engaged fully in holding my stuff; the train guy at St Pancras changed my ticket; the woman in WH Smiths offered me a free Boost (the bar, not an uplift in mood). It was just this massive groundswell of human sympathy and cooperation. I would go as far as to say it has made me look at the whole world slightly differently.

2) You can have quite a dramatic tumble without hurting yourself. It’s weird.

3) Everything looks about 15 times worse than it actually is. There’s some sound physiological reason for this, related to the fact that your blood is pumping faster because you’ve been cycling. But even knowing that, your first thought is that you must have severed an artery. One of those lesser known finger arteries. That’s what must’ve happened.

4) But then when you realise that you haven’t severed anything, you are filled with a powerful elation, a sense not only of your own resilience but of invincibility, such as you haven’t known since you were a teenager, and didn’t really recognise at the time because you were too busy hating your thighs.

5) And it is to this that I attribute the total failure to make any realistic inventory of what’s just happened — so you check out all the obvious stuff, find yourself to be totally unharmed, and think “wahey! Back on the road! Nothing can touch me, I’m like the Hulk; an incredibly, no, slightly feminine Hulk!” Only five minutes in do you realise your handlebars are totally battered and your brakes don’t work and your white handbag is covered in blood and you have scraped your leg from ankle to knee, so that it looks like you’ve rolled your trouser up for the sole purpose of showing everyone your graze. You look like a total lunatic, in short. The Hulk, were he to meet you, wouldn’t even speak to you in the street.


Getting back in the saddle

6) Sometime well in the future, a few hours or even days after the event, you start to think about what would have happened if things hadn’t been going your way, if you’d fallen off into the path of a lorry. This is the danger moment for the commuter cyclist. It’s different if it’s our hobby and your passion, in that case adversity just makes you even keener. But when, like me, you mainly do it for love of the convenience, your rational mind does present alternative scenarios, like, well, it wouldn’t be very convenient if you had your head smashed in, now would it? You’d kick yourself for that haughty, twowheeled self-sufficiency if you ended up with two broken legs (it’s true that you wouldn’t be able to kick yourself very hard). Given that your bike is smashed up anyway, not to mention covered in blood, chained to some lamp-post while you hobbled home, this is the time when your habit could be poleaxed. Fifteen years of unbroken London cycling could come to an end, just like that, a combination of a sore thumb, a wrecked bicycle and the heebie-jeebies.

 7) Which brings us neatly back to Jack Thurston’s book — as great as London cycling is, sometimes you need to get out to the sea, or the owns, or the cuttings round Canterbury, or the flats of the Suffolk/Norfolk borders, just to rekindle all that is good about you and your bike.

Think of it like a mini-break for the pair of you. A little bit of quality time for your relationship, after a rocky patch. That’s where I’ll be going, as soon as I’ve got my handlebars fixed. Back to St Pancras, where the mini-break was supposed to begin.


Zoe Williams is a freelance journalist and columnist who contributes regularly to publications including The Guardian and New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the June /July 2013 issue of London Cyclist magazine, delivered free to LCC members every two months.