Professional cycling has always been populated by cheats, and in the early years of the sport some of their methods were almost comically baroque. The winner of the 1904 Tour de France, Maurice Garin (who'd won the year before, too), was later disqualified for taking a train between stages. Several other riders were caught being towed along by cars, holding corks in their teeth attached to long wires (they could spit them out when they passed potential witnesses).
Not so long ago, I had a bicycle accident in the quarter of Camden Town that forms the background for many of Frank Auerbach's paintings. The front wheel lost its grip as I rode over a manhole cover, made more slippery that morning by overnight rain. It was bad luck, but my good luck it wasn't worse — my bike slipped away to the left, I fell to the right, my hip and chest took most of the impact, I wasn't wearing a helmet, it happened on a side street used by few cars, two people picked me up.
When Vittorio De Sica was looking for funding to make the film that became Bicycle Thieves, the story goes, David O. Selznick offered to put up the money on condition that the lead would be played by Cary Grant. Film historians tend to take this as an instance of Hollywood crassness, though maybe it should be classed as one of cinema’s lost opportunities.
Being a bicycle courier is incredibly dangerous. In terms of days lost through injury it’s up there with farming, meat-packing and deep-sea fishing. Most couriers are classified as self-employed subcontractors for tax purposes, but many courier companies treat them as contracted employees. The freedom to chose what work you do turns out to be a mirage: turn down a job or two and you’ll quickly be asked to hand back your radio and find a new company to work for. It’s also badly paid. At CitySprint, one of London’s largest courier companies, a low-priority bicycle delivery from EC2 to SW1 pays the rider £1.25. The company defends its rates by arguing that no courier is ever asked to go on these schleps across the city with just one job in the bag: if you’re quick you can pick up several packages in one part of town and deliver them all at the other end. But what you’ll earn for the work is pretty much the same as it was twenty years ago.
London’s two velodromes were built in the 19th and 21st centuries. The indoor track at the Lee Valley Velodrome, one of the fastest in the world, is housed in a beautiful stadium built at cost of £94 million. Its distinctive roof, a hyperbolic paraboloid clad in 5000m2 of custom-cut Western red cedar, is a prominent landmark at the edge of the 2012 Olympic park. The open-air track at Herne Hill is completely hidden in a South London suburb.
I was walking along the Prinsengracht in Amsterdam’s inner canal belt when a woman whizzed past on a bike. She was perhaps in her fifties, and presumably, like most English visitors, on the chuckle-gum trail. I knew she was English because of the way she screamed at nobody in particular as she zipped by: ‘They’ve given me a bike with no fucking brakes!’
In 1919, 130 cyclists registered to race in the Tour de France. Only 69 turned up at the start line: the war had made rubber scarce, and many couldn’t find tyres. Riders were instructed to bring their passports with them as they’d be travelling through contested territory, and there wasn’t enough sugar around for the organisers to keep them properly fed. By the time the peloton arrived at the foot of the Pyrenees, only 25 riders were left in the race. Ten made it to the finish line. The last rider to complete the race, Jules Nempon, limped home 21 hours after the winner, Firmin Lambot. Géo Lefèvre, the tour's originator and its most breathless early chronicler, called it ‘the most beautiful Tour de France I have ever seen’.
Six cyclists have been killed on London’s streets in the last fortnight. On 5 November Brian Holt, a hospital porter from Aldgate, was hit by a lorry on Cycle Superhighway 2 in Mile End. On 7 November a man died after a collision with a bus in Croydon. Last week Francis Golding was hit by a coach at the corner of Southampton Row and Theobalds Road. He later died in hospital. On Wednesday morning a woman was hit by a heavy goods vehicle as she cycled round Bow roundabout, where two other cyclists have died this year.
A few days ago a coroner released a report on the deaths of two cyclists killed in London. Both died while cycling along Cycle Superhighway 2, which runs from Bow to Aldgate. Both were hit by heavy goods vehicles. One of them, Philippine De Gerin-Ricard, was riding a Boris Bike.
Philippine De Gerin-Ricard was killed by a heavy goods vehicle as she cycled past Aldgate East tube station on Friday, 5 July. She was riding a Boris bike along CS2, one of Transport for London’s pale blue ‘Cycle Superhighways’, painted onto the roads two years ago to encourage people to get on their bikes. She was the third person to have been killed on CS2 and the second cyclist to have died in east London in the last fortnight. HGVs make up only 4 per cent of traffic, but were involved in more than half of all cyclist deaths in London in 2011. In Paris, where HGVs are banned from the roads during the day, no cyclists were killed in 2011. Sixteen cyclists died in London in the same year.
On the night of the Olympic opening ceremony several hundred cyclists were kettled by police when they ventured too close to the stadium. They were taking part in Critical Mass, a leaderless, spontaneous bicycle ride celebrating cyclists’ right to use the road that has taken place every month for the past 18 years.
I’m trying to remember what I thought about Lance Armstrong before the USADA report came out. I mean, if I thought he was clean. I’ve got personal reasons for liking him: he comes from my hometown, and in 2006 may have helped to save my brother-in-law’s life. Asher Price, who works for the local Austin paper, the American Statesman, got the same kind of cancer that Armstrong had. On the day his testicle was removed, he got an email from the cyclist, which offered not only the usual sympathy but a recommendation: he should see Lawrence Einhorn in Indiana, the doctor who pioneered the treatment that saved Armstrong.
David Runciman on Lance Armstrong in the LRB, 22 November 2012: Blood-doping was what gave Armstrong a shot at becoming one of the legends of the sport. But it is clear that in his own mind what made the difference was how he doped: he simply did it better than anyone else, more creatively, more ruthlessly, more fearlessly. He exploited the same opportunities that were available to everyone. For Armstrong, drugs added an extra element of competition to the sport: the competition to be the person who made best use of the drugs.
I watched the Olympic opening ceremony sitting on the roof of a narrowboat near King’s Cross. Boat dwellers have had it hard under the Olympic regime, and many of the boats moored opposite us were exiles from the Olympic Park, moved on because they supposedly presented a water-borne security risk. Danny Boyle’s nostalgiafest was projected onto a screen stretched between two trees on the canal bank. I didn’t pay close attention – the trees got in the way, the BBC iPlayer kept cutting out – but cycling, which the British have been expected do well in, seemed to feature heavily. Bradley Wiggins rang a bell; Chris Hoy paraded round waving the Union Flag; hundreds of winged cyclists flapped their way, ET-like, into the evening sky.
National teams haven’t raced in the Tour de France since 1961, when pressure from bicycle makers led to a return of the trade teams. But that hasn't held back the patriotic cheering for Bradley Wiggins, the first Briton to win the Tour in its 109-year history. Chris Hoy has called his victory ‘the greatest individual achievement in the history of British sport’, though Wiggins owes a fair amount to his team mates: winning the Tour is both a cumulative and a collective achievement. Unlike Hoy – who with his freakishly powerful body looks as if he could have excelled in any number of sports – Wiggins seems to have been born to be a cyclist. His father was a professional rider, nicknamed ‘the doc’ by his peers because he used to smuggle amphetamines to races in his son’s nappies, and Bradley was brought up watching the Tour. ‘It's what I’ve dreamed of for 20 years,’ he said yesterday.
Beware the wrath of the cycling lobby. In an editorial for the latest issue of add lib, the minicab company Addison Lee’s in-house magazine, its chairman, John Griffin, called for cyclists to ‘get trained and pay up’ if they want to share the road with drivers.
Last Thursday the Times launched a campaign to ‘Save Our Cyclists’. It was also the first anniversary of the death of 28-year-old Dan Cox, killed on his bike by a lorry at Dalston Junction. A memorial walk traced his last journey across the city. A ‘ghost bike’ near the spot where he was hit has been painted white and adorned with flowers and a copy of Kafka’s The Trial.
Bicycle road-racing has never been much of a spectator sport. Its origins lie in journalism, and the first great races, the Tour de France and the Giro d’Italia, were designed to be read about rather than watched. The yellow jersey worn by the leader of the Tour is the same colour as the pages of L’Auto, the newspaper that first organised the race. No one really knew what was going on out on the road during those early races. Cheating was rife and Géo Lefèvre, the only journalist to follow the first Tour from start to finish (the race was his idea), was described by his son standing at night ‘on the edge of the road, a storm lantern in his hand, searching in the shadows for riders who surged out of the dark from time to time, yelled their name and disappeared into the distance.’
Last week all the new walk-sequencing machines in our area broke down. This meant that only about a third of the letters arrived at our delivery office on Wednesday. So on Thursday we had two days’ post to deliver, and everyone’s mail was late. Walk-sequencing machines sort the letters into the order that they are going to be delivered in. The old walk-sorting machines only organised the post into rounds: postal workers had to do the final sorting. Under the old system, all the post was in the delivery office by 7.15 and we were usually out on our rounds by 9.00. Under the new system, the last lorry arrives at 9.15 and sometimes we don’t get out until after 11.00. It’s quite normal for a postal worker to finish work at 3.30 these days, and for posties doing rural rounds still to be delivering letters as late as four in the afternoon. The machines also have a tendency to break down, as we’ve just discovered, so on some days no post is delivered at all. But they are central to the Royal Mail’s ‘modernisation’ programme.
The invasion of the Boris bikes is complete. They stand on street corners, corralled like docile, futuristic horses in their blue harnesses. They’re good bikes – sturdy and solid – with a rather pleasing sit-up-and-beg riding position the better to survey the road around you. Undocking them is also quite fun, like something out of 2001: A Space Odyssey. The name has become universal, which is only to be expected, launched as they were with all the pomp the bicycling mayor could muster. It’s not that we’ve forgotten that the bikes were originally Ken’s idea, but that Boris is a far more visible cyclist. The official name, ‘Barclays Cycle Hire’, was never going to take off, despite the lurid corporate livery.
HSBC has its own radio station. Standing in line at the agency counter in the Fenchurch Street branch, waiting to pick up cheques to be cleared by other banks, I used to listen to piped muzak interspersed with financial advice and adverts: ‘That was Abba with Money Money Money, and have you thought of an HSBC high interest savings bond for yours?’ Banks have a habit of creating these artificial worlds, homogeneous commercial hubs strung out across London.
With the Tour de France just starting, a new round of allegations of blood doping has surfaced from the serial whistleblower Floyd Landis, himself stripped of a 2006 Tour victory for doping. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Landis admits that he paid an accomplice posing as an autograph-hunter $10,000 to deliver him bags of his own blood which he’d then transfuse himself. That’s about 3000 times more than an NHS courier gets. He accuses the US Postal team, including Lance Armstrong, of similar practices. Armstrong and U S Postal are now the subject of a federal food and drug administration investigation, and whatever the outcome it seems likely that during this, Lance’s last Tour, some of the mud will stick.
Though classified as self-employed sub-contractors for tax purposes, most bike couriers have in practice a rather more restrictive relationship with the firms that hire them. You may not get a guaranteed income or any benefits, but if you don’t work a full week you’ll generally be out of work pretty quickly. You’re often obliged to wear some sort of uniform or carry a branded bag. The better companies take a deposit for radios and xdas (the palmtop computers on which you receive job details and record signatures) which you get back when you leave, as long as nothing’s been damaged. Last month one of London’s largest courier companies, CitySprint, informed its riders that they would have to fork out £3 a week to rent some new bags they’d ordered. A disgruntled courier leaked the memo:
Some courier jobs pay more than others. ‘Wait and returns’ are sometimes the best rewarded, especially if you can wangle a lot of waiting time. The vast majority of these jobs are embassy runs, collecting visa documents and waiting in line to have them processed and stamped. The new design for the American embassy in Nine Elms may look like ‘a non-turreted Norman keep’, but even with the addition of a moat it will be difficult to increase the fortress-like security of the current set-up in Grosvenor Square. Deliveries there have to be checked in by the client in advance. Queues are long and supervised by armed police, who don’t take kindly to anyone cycling on the bollarded road at the front of the building. Once you’re inside, a rigorous search ensures you’ll clock up plenty of waiting time. It’s all very different
You’d think that after cycling several hundred miles during the week, bicycle couriers would be glad to hang up their bikes at the weekend. But, come Friday night, many are itching to up a gear, an impulse that is occasionally channelled into ersatz point-to-point races. Usually these alleycat races follow a series of checkpoints through London, where manifests must be stamped or strange rituals performed. They are fast, exhilarating and exhausting. Though non-couriers are welcome to enter, I don’t know of any who have won.
Cyclists, unlike motorists or pedestrians, tend to notice other cyclists. When I was working as a bike messenger, Jon Snow was an almost permanent fixture of Gray's Inn Road, shuttling to and from the ITN building. I saw David Cameron, for all his eco-trumpeting, only once. He was going down Whitehall with the telltale wobble of the amateur enthusiast. There was a car following, though whether it contained a change of clothes and briefcase I couldn’t say. And then there was Boris Johnson. A regular pick-up from the Angel going to Burlington House on the Strand would send me down Rosebery Avenue, where I’d often see him emerging from Amwell Street. On a particularly slow and dismal day I chased him down and said: ‘Giz a job.’
To a cycle courier, the conflict between public and private, between the rules of the road and those of corporate estates, is constantly apparent. The glee with which the police hunt down and fine couriers who jump red lights, while letting off their commuting counterparts, is well known. But the guardians of private land are just as intolerant.
One of the main appeals of bicycle couriering is the freedom it seems to offer. Freedom from the inanities of office life, the freedom of the city. But there's also the freedom to freeze on a slow day in the rain, the freedom to be injured on the job with no chance of sick pay, the freedom to die on the road. It’s a wild, unregulated business, which is part of its attraction. Cycle couriering is the modern equivalent of running away to sea, or joining the circus, without having to leave London.
Riding a bicycle round London for ten hours a day is grindingly difficult. A bike courier is paid £2-£3 per job (with a 10 per cent bonus for working a full week if you’re lucky), income can be fickle, and a slow week spent standing in the rain is no fun at all. Though it varies dramatically, couriers cover distances averaging around 300 miles a week. Couriers are obliged to deliver whatever a client wants delivered as quickly as the client requires; if you can’t get from pick-up to destination within 40 minutes, you don’t get paid. Covering London from (roughly) Wapping to Knightsbridge and Camden to Elephant and Castle, you see a lot of the city, a lot of weather, and a great many post-rooms.