The London cyclist and blogger on learning to ride a bike at 21 and how to deal with leering gents
Interview by Sofie Jenkinson
101 Wankers stemmed from a conversation in the pub, as all the best ideas do. I’d cycled to Greenwich to meet some friends, and tackled a particularly steep hill on my ancient three-speed bike. Two different people shouted lewd or mocking comments as I struggled up, so I was in a foul mood when I reached the top. My male friends cycled a bit, but hadn’t had similar experiences, and we wondered whether certain areas were worse than others. And so the site was born.
A lot of the leering gents are passengers, so perhaps they’re bored at traffic lights and looking for a distraction. I’ve never gotten to the bottom of it, but I think a large part of it stems from the fact that women often stick out, when cycling, especially if they’re not in high-viz. The type of bike also has a lot to do with it, friends who ride upright bikes report far more abuse than women riding racing bikes. Whether it’s because you’re taller and more visible, or that the bike is seen as “girlier”, I’m not sure.
I was surprised that the reaction to the blog was almost entirely positive. People found it really funny, and hundreds of women emailed or tweeted to say that their experiences were exactly the same.
I learnt to cycle for the first time at 21, which puts me in the minority of cyclists. The first time I tried to cycle at a nearby park, a dog jumped at me and I went flying. I decided to get a bike at university, as I often had shifts that started or finished when there were no buses available, and taxis were expensive. Luckily, because I started so early in the morning I was often the only one on the road, so gradually became more confident and capable. Now in London, cycling saves me £5.80 a day on transport and means I can get to work on strike days.
Cycling is like very fast running for lazy people. I like how it’s low impact sport, but still keeps you fit, and how I can arrive somewhere “glowing” rather than “sweating buckets”.
The single thing that would most improve being a cyclist in London would be improving the roads – the surfaces are terrible, especially near the kerb, where cyclists are often relegated. Also, I think putting contraflow cycle lanes on one-way streets would make cycling in Central London easier. I get so frustrated by the maze like jumble of dead end/one way signs I often give up and push my bike down the pavement.
They should also limit the number of lorries allowed in. I regularly have to use wet wipes to get the dirt from exhausts off my face. HGVs are hugely dangerous and kill far more women than men, as well as polluting the city. I’ve almost been hit by a lorry several times. I think the media are bound to pick up on fatalities, as they highlight problems with roads and traffic, but I do worry that it doesn’t necessarily give an accurate picture of the danger level of cycling, which is still very low.
Quite a few of my friends are now cycling at my behest. Convincing them has been made much easier by the cycle hire scheme. I recently arrived at a picnic on a hire bike, and a friend had a go on it before it was returned. She then texted me a few weeks later, to say she’d spent the last few weekends cycling around London on hire bikes and was now going to get her own bike. I think they’re great for seeing whether cycling suits you before you make an investment.
I think cycling can be quite political. I started cycling to save money and keep fit, and then after a few months started to get angry at the number of 4x4s and cars occupied by single people – once you spot how many unnecessary journeys are made, and are forced to breathe in the fumes and pollution they pump out, you can’t help but be annoyed that it’s seen as a right to own a car.
My favourite aspect of cycling is being able to see how a city links up, rather than being sat underground, with no clue, for example, how close Trafalgar Square is to Victoria. The freedom of not having to rely on public transport (which is heinously expensive and unreliable in London) is also wonderful.
I’ve cycled in Berlin and it was fantastic – bikes everywhere, cars sharing space and separate crossing lights for bikes. I’d love to go to Copenhagen or Amsterdam though – I wasn’t a cyclist last time I visited the latter, and realise now how much I missed out by traipsing everywhere on foot.
Once when I was cycling home a bloke wound his window down while we were at the lights and said “You can ride my bike, if you like” and winked. Because I was in such a good mood, rather than pull a face, I just asked him, “Do you have a bike?” At which point he looked despondent, and admitted “No”, before I rode off.
Dawn Foster blogs at 101wankers.com