We recently came across Sarah Berry’s piece on Medium “Diary of a New Cyclist” and thought it was something many of our readers could resonate With. Even if you are an experienced cyclist, in the sometimes exclusionary world of cycling it’s good to remember what’s it’s like to be new to riding, especially as an adult.
Sarah also has some great experience and insights that might be useful as you try to get yourself to ride more, answer questions from new riders who come to you, or convince your friends that hopping on a bike for the first time, even late in life, is a great idea. So we got Sarah on the phone to chat about her experience cycling; getting on a bike again; writing her piece; and what an inviting world for new cyclists looks like.
Interview by James Lynch | Image Courtesy of Sarah Berry
What made you think about writing about your experience of being a new cyclist, and the joys of it?
As a new cyclist I came to realize my experience cycling, and how I came to it, was different than most of the people I was meeting. Most of the people I knew had learned to ride a bike as a kid. They had been riding their whole lives. When they grew up and moved to cities, places with more cars and less space, they continued to do what they had always done, ride a bike to get around. My story was completely different to that.
As a kid I had a minor crash that led to a major fear of using a bike. I didn’t try again until I was much older. I didn’t learn to do it successfully until a couple years ago in my late 20s. That felt like something that wasn’t being talked about. When I started there weren’t many people around me having a similar experience: people who were new, who were wobbly, were scared to go on certain roads, certain intersections. I wanted to be sure that other people in the world like me who were thinking of starting soon, or might have just started but didn’t have the confidence yet, knew they were not alone, and that was an okay phase to be in as well. You could still call yourself a cyclist and take up space in the road and that was allowed.
What made you decide to get back on a bike? Many people stay away for a long time, what made you okay going through that wobbly stage?
If I’m being completely honest, it was jealousy. I started dating my partner in London and every morning when he would get up and jump on his bike to work in the crisp morning air and I would struggle with thousands of strangers to squeeze onto the subway and be incredibly uncomfortable and frustrated. By the time I got to work I was so angry at everyone around me on this awful commute. I’d ask him how his commute into work was and he’d talk about the birds, talk about how nice it was to be outside, and I wanted to have that experience as well.
I didn’t think I’d ever really be capable of cycling in London to work, but I knew that the only way I’d ever be able to is if I learned. Here in London we are really lucky that the Transport for London group offers free cycle training for everyone. If you decide you want to start cycling they have three levels. The first is how to ride a bike, how to stay upright, how to navigate corners, how to brake, all the really basic stuff, and I took that course.
I am ashamed to admit it now but I was definitely one of those people who harbored anger at cyclists, harbored resentment at people who got around the city that way, “They’re crazy, it’s so unsafe, why are they putting themselves in this position?” If I’m honest that came from a position of, “God I wish I had that kind of freedom,” and a feeling of it was never going to be something that I was capable of. That’s another reason why I wanted to start writing about becoming a new cyclist, overcoming those fears. I sort of have hope that people who harbor that resentment or anger can be made into someone who will want to be on the roads, who will want to cycle if there are the right opportunities.
One of the things you mentioned in your piece was cycling abroad and seeing the various infrastructure that was not available on the crowded streets of London. What would you like to see? What changes would make you feel safer?
What I found was the balance of who was on the street was different, especially in smaller European cities. When you’re in London, you are in the minority if you are not in a vehicle of some sort. In these other places it was much more common for people to be on foot or on bike. It wasn’t the absence of cars that made those places feel safe; it was the fact that it was just as likely to see people walking around on foot, or by bike or scooter, as it was to be in cars. That has to do with infrastructure.
There were so many bike rental places around. A lot of these European cities were really old; the streets were quite narrow; they weren’t two way; there wasn’t a lot of traffic on them. It was also the idea that part of that street was for me. It was available for me to use and the cars and the drivers operating them would be used to seeing me and having me in that space, knowing what to do.
In London there are so many places that cars tend to dominate. We are just so far behind other European cities when it comes to cycling infrastructure. You are sharing the road space completely with the cars, Even where there are cycle lanes, often they will just end abruptly and you’ll find yourself in the middle of a four lane road with no sort of indication of where to go next. None of that felt particularly welcoming to me as a new cyclist.
But changes are being introduced all over London, and more broadly in the UK, since Covid. A lot of neighborhoods are having what they call modal filters: planters with soil and plants in them which change how people can use their roads; cars can drive into neighborhoods, but they can’t necessarily drive through them. It means that the streets are a hell of a lot quieter. There is so much more room to get around and the balance has shifted. You are so much more likely to see people walking or biking than you are to see them driving and that just makes me feel like as a beginner I have permission to be in the space
So much is infrastructure change. Were there pieces of equipment that made you feel safer as a new cyclist?
The bike I have is by a company called The Light Blue. It’s a Dutch bike, upright. It’s pink I have a matching pink helmet. I try and very much demonstrate that I am new to this and don’t know what I’m doing with how I look. Having a bike that was so sturdy and upright was really useful for me starting off. The people I bought it from said it was great for nervous riders and I definitely fell in that category.
The other piece of equipment that really helps is a Quad Lock. It is a device that attaches my phone case to the handlebars so I can look at maps. I can direct myself, and know where I am going without having to take my hand off handlebars or stop and pull over all the time. I don’t end up in a situation where I am panicking because I have missed a turn.
When you talk to friends or if people have reached out after your piece, what’s the reaction? Are people ready to get back into cycling? Is there growth in that community?
One of the things I’ve been struck by was how welcoming the cycling community is. I’ve had hundreds of messages from people all over the world. “Welcome” is the overall message I get. “This is a club and we are so glad to have you in it.” Which is really beautiful.