There has been one constant in my life since I pitched up in London 30 years ago as a hopeful ex-scientist trying to make the leap into journalism: a bike.
In those early days a bike meant the ability to get around town without dipping into my limited means. But over the years, as I have moved up the career and property ladders, cycling to work has saved me tens of thousands of pounds — especially in those years that would have involved a train journey from Balham in Zone 3 to Richmond in Zone 6 via Clapham Junction in Zone 2 (about £2,000 a year in today’s prices).
The number-one problem for cyclists is safety, closely followed by security — or to put it another way, where to keep your bike so it will be safe.
According to the most up-to-date information from the Metropolitan Police, 21,000 bikes were reported stolen in London in the year to June 2020 (Hackney is consistently top of London’s bike-theft league), but many people don’t bother to report a stolen bike. The Met believes the actual figure is more like 70,000.
In one week last month, the Met’s Operation Venice recovered £48,000-worth of stolen bikes. One suspect was arrested while riding a stolen bike and carrying a brand-new boxed one.
My first landlord was the slightly dodgy schoolmate of a university friend who had the good fortune to be offered a council flat in the Elephant and Castle district in south London, as part of a 1980s scheme to keep hard-to-let properties out of the hands of squatters by giving them to students.
It seems amazing now to think that I had a room in Zone 1 for £24 a week. But the prewar mid-rise walk-up was not the sort of place you would expect to lock a bike up and find it still there in the morning. It lived in my — thankfully spacious — bedroom, but that meant carrying it down and up four floors every time I used it.
Pro tip 1: Always buy a bike you can carry up stairs (and be prepared to get oil on your clothes no matter how careful you are).
It took me nearly two years to land a job as a science writer at a medical-industry trade magazine but, with a regular salary, I moved from my studenty digs to a shared house on the border of Zones 2 and 3. There was room in the hall for a couple of us to keep bikes without getting too much in the way.
Commuting out of town in rush hour was a dream, especially as the last couple of miles of the 10-mile ride took me through the royal deer park at Richmond. I would arrive at my desk, bursting with endorphins from the final push up Sawyer’s Hill. Within weeks of starting the job, I had lost nearly 5kg.
At the time I was the only person in the company who cycled to work. Secure cycle parking meant chaining my bike to a crash barrier in the company car park. Changing happened in the toilets.
Commuting 20 miles a day on London streets can be quite punishing for a bike. Chains would rarely last more than a year, but the biggest surprise came when my wheel rims wore so thin that they started buckling.
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Another surprise was how rarely I got wet. Someone once told me that if you commute by bike every day, you will be soaked eight times a year. After 30 years of commuting, that seems about right. It may rain a lot in the UK, but it rarely pours for hours on end.
Snow kept me off roads for a day or so during a few winters, but I realised in my first really cold snap that a warm set of clothes would pay for itself in two months compared with the cost of public transport, warm gloves and shoes being the most important thing.
Pro tip 2: Use this economic rationale whenever you see kit you really fancy.
By the time I replaced my first London commuter bike, the frame and handlebars were about the only original parts — and the crossbar had serious dents from the time someone tried to remove it from a lamp post outside a West End cinema. So much for the benefit of leaving your bike in plain sight of passers-by.
Pro tip 3: Never assume bike racks are safe. If the cycle-crime hotspot warning on the racks outside Clapham Junction Station is anything to go by, they can be quite the opposite.
Which leads me to Pro tip 4: Check your household insurance. While most cover bikes, few but the most expensive all-risk policies will cover the full value of your bike wherever it is locked up.
John Hamlen, who runs my local bike shop, Flag Bikes in Battersea, jokes that if you have got a really expensive bike, you don’t need a lock. “Because you will never lock it anywhere.”
That is true for my road bike. If it is not in my shed, I am on it. If I stop at a café it will be propped up next to me — or someone else will be guarding it while I go inside to order.
I cannot bring myself to attach a huge lock to my beautiful, retro-styled Italian racer but I do carry a small one. It is really just a glorified cable tie, enough to stop an opportunist riding off on it if I need to nip to the loo. But bolt-cutters would slice though it like butter, in a second.
Pro tip 5 comes from Chris Ford, a mechanic at Flag: “Make your bike look harder to steal than the one next to it.” If someone really wants to steal your bike they will, but if another one looks easier, they will take that one.
You would not believe how many people leave very expensive bikes unlocked while they have a coffee. Richmond Park recently suffered a spate of thefts outside a café popular with weekend riders.
The culprit had not been caught when I asked the police, but witnesses say the thief wore Lycra to blend in, casually removed an unsecured bike and was off before anyone could stop him.
So maybe Hamlen’s advice is best taken literally, but unless you never go out after work, there are times when you will have to leave your bike somewhere.
David George, CEO of bike-insurance specialist Bikmo, says 90 per cent of thefts occur away from home. “Leave it somewhere light and leave it somewhere public,” he says.
This is where security becomes something of an arms race. Not all locks are equal. Last year my brother moved back to the UK from Japan, with two bikes. He had locked them but somehow the keys went missing.
One was secured with a no-name generic D lock; the other with a top-of-the-range Kryptonite. My angle grinder went through one of them in seconds. The other took considerably longer. It would take a thief with some nerve to try that in a public place.
Ford says you should look for one that’s highly rated by security specialist Sold Secure. Many bike-insurance policies only cover your bike if you use one.
A top-of-the-range lock such as a Kryptonite New York M18 will set you back over £100 and add 2.5kg to the weight of your bike if you carry it with you. The police recommend using two locks, to secure the frame and both wheels.
In 1999 I bought a flat and joined the FT and, thanks to the subsidised canteen, promptly regained 5kg. My second commuter bike — a lovely lightweight hybrid — lived in the spare bedroom. It was fun to ride but its 16-spoke racing wheels were no match for London’s potholes, especially with a full pannier.
Bikmo’s George says damage claims outweigh those for theft, the three main culprits being “potholes, collisions with cars and trees”. Pro tip 6: If you are going to carry a heavy load, buy a sturdy bike.
Which reminds me: if you commute in sports gear, there will be days when you have to divert to a shop for emergency pants, shirts or — on my first day at the FT — shoes. Pro tip 7: Keep spare pants, socks, shirts and shoes at work.
My transition to grown-up property owner was followed a few years later by the decision to give up sporty commuter bikes in favour of a sturdy Dutch bike and marriage.
The lights are built-in, making them all but impossible to steal. The lock is built-in too — a chain and a bar that goes through the back wheel. And nothing is quick release.
I would not recommend one if your commute involves hills, though. The highest point on my Battersea-to-City of London commute is Blackfriars Bridge and I feel all of its 22kg as I go over it.
My wife (also an FT journalist) and I live half an hour’s ride from the office and 20 minutes from the West End — but there is no longer room to keep our bikes indoors.
True, there are plenty of beautifully designed wall brackets but, apart from the fact that my Gazelle is really heavy, we would rather keep walls for bookshelves and pictures. I am sure it is no coincidence that the marketing images for indoor bike hangers usually feature stark apartments.
Our solution is an anchor point secured to the wall in the back garden. These are designed so that the bolts attaching it to the wall cannot be undone once it is fully assembled.
There has been a dramatic rise in cycling in London over the past 30 years. I expect coronavirus will encourage more people to commute as an alternative to public transport, in cities all over the world. Post-lockdown Paris, for example, is working on turning major thoroughfares into bike highways.
When I joined the FT, there was a bike shed in the staff car park. Over the years the sheds grew bigger and, when the FT moved to Bracken House last year, the entire basement — which once housed the printing presses — was given over to bike racks and changing rooms.
Since the emergence of Covid-19, bike sales have rocketed, resulting in a worldwide shortage as frame manufacturers struggle to keep up with demand. George says Bikmo has not seen a rise in claims — perhaps because with offices, pubs and restaurants locked down until recently, people had not been leaving bikes where they are at risk.
But if a 240 per cent increase in cycle-insurance policies is anything to go by, the fear of being without a bike remains a top concern.
And . . . where can I keep it?
If I had the space, I would keep my bikes in the flat. There are plenty of cool options if you have room.
Cycloc makes wall hangers, including the almost invisible Hero and the classic Solo, which will hang your bike horizontally or vertically and takes a lock. (My hedge-fund lawyer riding-buddy loves his, which displays his classic, steel-framed Condor alongside the art in his kitchen diner).
Dayde’s stained wood and copper stands look like little bookshelves and give you somewhere to leave your helmet and gloves as well as your bike. My friends who fitted these in their living room were glad that their bikes matched, too.
And if you want to hang your bike but need to know it is secure, how about the Airlok, a wall-mounted hanger with a Sold Secured-rated lock?
If you fancy something a bit more industrial, the Stasdock will hang your bike, helmet, shoes etc.
A friend who lives further out of town and has a spacious entrance hall says having this Topeak pole stand by the door is handy. It does not need holes drilling in the wall so it is easy to remove should you be having a house party. It has enough storage for three bikes, one on the floor and two on the rack (and yes it does look like his bikes are pole dancing).
Perhaps the ultimate storage is an on-street bike hangar like the ones fitted by local councils in London (but check your insurance covers it).
David Firn is the FT’s weekend news editor
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