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Pleasures of a balanced commute
By Lucy Kellaway

Published: July 2 2006 18:29 | Last updated: July 2 2006 18:29

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One of the greatest thrills you can have as a needy journalist is discovering that the stranger sitting next to you on the train is avidly reading something you wrote in that morning’s newspaper. In 20-odd years I have had such a thrill twice, each time glorious enough to be worth a decade’s wait.

Alas, this pleasure is no longer available to me: 18 months ago I gave up the train and now cycle to work instead. However, the other day something even more gratifying (and odder) happened on my bike on the way to work. I had stopped at traffic lights beside a fine looking man in an expensive suit not designed for cycling. We looked at each other, looked away and then he looked back at me intently. This sort of thing never happens to me these days (if it ever did) and particularly not when I’m wearing an oversized, fluorescent, road sweeper’s tabard and garish cycling helmet.

Then he said: “I’m riding my bike today because of your article in the paper.” The lights turned to green, and off he went.

This was joyous. It was also puzzling as I hadn’t written about cycling: I had written about being middle-aged. Still, he had read an article of mine and had been converted to cycling as a result.

It made me think: if I can convert one man without even trying, think how many more I can convert if I put some effort into it.

So today I have come up with 10 excellent reasons why cycling to work would be a very good idea for you. It will make you richer, healthier, possibly thinner and definitely less bonkers. It will help you make new friends, it will make you feel virtuous, it will give you more spare time. You will be more productive at work and you’ll also save the planet. If you are in your mid forties, you will lose a quarter of a century instantly and feel just like an undergraduate again.

This is a very impressive list of benefits, you must agree. In fact
I defy anyone to name any other change to the working day that could be so beneficial in so many ways as commuting by bike.

Admittedly one can get a bit sweaty when cycling, and one can also get killed, but I’ll come to these drawbacks in a minute.

By far the biggest advantage for me is what my bike does to my spirits. Every day I am calmed and cheered by my ride. Cycling is the perfect buffer between work and home. You have to concentrate when you are cycling, which means you can’t think much, and you can’t fret – neither about the children’s missed dentist appointments nor that half-baked column. Instead I often sing as I cycle. Today it was the Chris Isaak song “Wicked Game”.

The other great beauty of cycling is its efficiency. My commute is five minutes quicker than the train and costs £80 ($145) less a month. I never have to wait, I never have to be crammed up against other people’s bodies at rush hour. Neither do I ever have to go to the gym, spending hundreds of pounds a year and many wasted hours on those awful machines.

(In truth I never went to the gym anyway, which means that cycling has made me fit for the first time in my life, which is nice, if strange.)
I cycle quite fast now and so occasionally overtake young men wearing all the kit on Southwark Bridge, which gets the morning off to an agreeably competitive start.

If your employer has a bike shed then you will find you make new friends as you lift your bike into the racks every day. You have nice little undemanding chats about the traffic and the weather – which are the sort of thing that make office life so reassuring.

Now for the two main shortfalls. The first is sweat, which a lot of people tell me is what prevents them from getting on their bikes. Speaking personally, I don’t find this much of a problem. I cycle in high heels, lipstick and normal office clothes and go straight from the bike sheds to my desk neither unduly soggy nor dishevelled.

I noticed one young City of London banker cycling along Cheapside last week looking cool in a beautiful double-cuffed pink shirt and Church’s brogues, with one pinstriped trouser leg pulled up to save it from getting stuck in the chain, revealing a touchingly white hairy calf.

For nerdier, sweatier cyclists who insist on doing their brief commute dressed for the Tour de France, most big offices have showers so that they can peel off their clinging garments, wash and put on something more suitable.

There is finally the question about getting killed. Cyclists are bundles of soft tissue who don’t have much chance when up against one of those massive bendy buses. Cycling is dangerous, and you are very silly if you cycle without a helmet and all the safety gear.

Yet despite the risk, I hardly ever feel frightened on my bike. I feel alert and alive, but not scared. Recently
I was cycling out one hot evening to give a speech to some businesspeople. I was feeling fine about the ride, but not fine about the impending talk. On the way, I was nearly hit by a passenger door being flung open, swerved and narrowly avoided a van.

I put the thought to myself: how come I’m not frightened of being crushed to death but I’m terrified of minor humiliation in front of a small audience of civilised people?

Suddenly I wasn’t frightened any more. I may have perspired a little on that hot night cycling at speed, but on the stage sweaty palms were no longer a problem. Which is the most unexpected bonus of all. Cycling has made me a bit more intrepid, not just in the saddle but out of it, too.

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Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2006
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