The worst I ever had of it was two broken ribs and a laceration of my right hand.
I came to, in the middle of the road with five Parisians hunched over me and several more abusing the owner of the 4×4 who had opened his door into me with such timing that I had no idea where I was or what had happened. The concern on their faces told me it was ugly, my bike was gnarled and twisted out of shape and drops of thick dark blood were dripping from my knuckle onto the tarmac. I think I started crying.
Three weeks later on the way to Charles de Gaulle airport, delayed trauma from the impact made all the muscles in my chest contract and I went sheet white and passed out. With the help of other passengers my brother took me off the train and sat me down on the platform to wait for the Pompiers. I’d seen you like that at festivals too many times to be that concerned, he said later.
I’ve been doored three times but none worse than that. Cars have gone into the front and back of me, pedestrians have stepped out into me. I’ve been spat at, kicked, pot-holed, turned left-into, and run off the road and chased by a white van man, for wearing a pink beanie. I’ve gone over my handle-bars more times than I can remember, shedding skin and spilling blood on roadsides and pavements around the city. I once cycled into the Regent’s Canal.
I should probably be less alive than I am.
For two and a half years in my early twenties I cycled around London for eight hours a day with a radio strapped to my chest and a bag over my shoulder full of documents needing dropping off with a life-threatening urgency. Of all the things I experienced in that time, none were greater than London itself. The city would smack me in the face every day, an enormous beast of brick and fumes and ghosts and noise, baring itself in all its guises, battering me with indifference as it attended to the business of being London.
Yet at some incidental time of day when I least expected, some afternoon along a towpath or catching my breath on a stoop in the late morning, the din would recede for a moment and in that pause the city would let me in, as if it was winking at me, reminding me I was part of its plans and I belonged.
I grew to know its geography in a way that seared itself into my brain. I learnt how different parts of the city connected to other parts, mapping out the connective tissue where artery met tendon and capillary. I learnt the city’s contours, the hills, the churches and cemeteries, the circuses, the old City gates, the order of the bridges, where the river curled and where it straightened, the one way systems and the shortcuts, even the timings of the traffic lights.
I could tell you the lights along Clerkenwell and Theobalds Rd were etched in my head so exactly that if I timed it right I could do the junctions blind. I told a mate and he asked me if I thought I was Sean Connery in the fucking Rock.
Doing the circuit, it was called.
You were on call from 8 til around 6, beginning mostly in the City picking up and delivering documents to the big banks. You’d get to know the bowels of important buildings, the dirty underbelly, the despatch area, where men in shirts and Hi-Vis coats would peer boredly over spectacles or bark at you, where you’d cross path with other riders doing runs to other banks and chew the cud of the mid-morning.
I learnt a new way of riding. One that weaved and cleaved and hopped up and skittered across and was always morphing. Traffic lights ceased to mean much, I learnt how to ride across the city without stopping once and without running one light. There were spaces in between things I learnt, that if you knew where to look for were everywhere, waiting for you to slip through them. I learnt how messengers would face down vehicles most capable of killing them, running fingers along the sides of buses to show they weren’t afraid. Above all I learnt that getting somewhere could be more fun than being somewhere.
I never got to know the real courier family. I knew those who worked for my company and recognised many as I passed them in the street. When they invited me to hang at messenger spots or drink with them at day’s end by the Foundry on Old Street, I was too shy. I’d summon the courage and right at the last minute I’d cycle by.
When I left my first company I bought the office a box of Quality Street and they laughed at me. It wasn’t a very courier thing to do. Most bike messengers stepped to the beat of their own drum, respecting few but their own. There was a lawless irreverence to their spirit, a life of squats and beer and alleycats and identity that I didn’t come close to touching.
But I sensed a slightly lost side to the existence too.
Of being surrounded at all times and still alone. Winding through traffic, catching the lights just right, flying past the madness, pushing and weaving and skidding, at its best it was a dance of joy. But the embers of the fire revealed something sadder. As if you were seeking something that couldn’t be had because the relentless engulfing city had you first, it was a clipped sort of flight, a Truman Show type of freedom. It made me wonder who in a city was ever free. All these years later I still see some of the same riders I once shared the road with, gliding along, ears tuned to the intermittent static from their radios.
But I was quite happy.
For those two and a half years the love affair was between me and my city. I hardly spoke to anyone all day. Sign here. Sign here please. Just here on the line. In three years I took the tube less than five times. When I did I would feel mole-like, burrowing along underground to stick my head above the surface. But on a bike I was a hawk, surveying the city from a great height, moving through it like a sea, it was the journey I loved the most.
Slowly they revealed themselves to me. Strange unknown parts of the sprawl existing as they always had. Harlesden, Rotherhithe, North Finchley, West Norwood, I’d cycle anywhere. I liked the longer journeys so my controllers would send me further and further away. That’s how you become a top rider, my boss would tell me, knowing he’d have to spend triple the money on a van. Different parts of town would recall different friends and memories, each one of them had a story. At the end of the week I’d get an envelope with six fifty pound notes in it.
I’d head to the New Era shop in Soho and pick up a fresh cap.
And it was sad too. Like life.
And tiring and repetitive and surprising and monotonous and ecstatic like life. But I wouldn’t have the deep understanding of the city I do without the time I spent trailing lines of coloured ribbon along its lanes and alleyways. If one talent of mine could be worth matrixing into another person’s brain, I thought, it would be my London. Sitting in the back of taxis I’d argue with cabbies over routes, especially when I was drunk, until they’d point out how the fuck they were gonna get their cab the wrong way down a bike lane and through a park, so I’d shut up.
People talk about their lives sometimes in terms of chapters. First day at school. The day I saw my father cry. First love. The birth of my first child. Certainly one of the chapters in my life will be cycling the streets of London at top-speed with headphones in, whooping at the top of my lungs, transported to some other place entirely. If this sounds a little dangerous then I could tell you the by-product of cycling a city every day for fifteen years is an understanding of the road, and what not to do.
A few years ago I drew together the most important lessons I’d learnt from my time cycling around town, and came up with the Six Cycling Commandments.
My legs are tiring now, I’m getting older.
The fury and relentless energy of my messenger days have taken the left-hand turn to memory. I still cycle a lot, but I have an oyster card now. If I have to cross London and can smell a hair-breadth of an excuse, before I know it I’ll find myself sat on the Overground. I like it because I get to stare at people. I never got the chance to do that before. The bike was too fast and ceaseless and impatient. You’d get the wind in your hair and a warmth in your loins, and you’d be off. But you couldn’t just sit and stare at somebody for half an hour. It’s taking some getting used to.
Taking a pause. Stopping to stare.
The way you might stare at a somebody you love when they’re not looking.
Somebody, or something.