Riding Home

The signature distinction between North and South London is found in its transport and the reasons you use it. In the North you use the tube to get home. In the South you use the bus, Thameslink, whatever else is available, to go and experience something. It’s that unspoken paradox that the most exciting parts of London are where the tubes won’t go.

Cycling beyond the map is one of the two options if you’re commuting to the middle. The other is the bus, and yet cycling remains an activity both brave and maddening. Weaving through the midst of traffic and pedestrians through just-wide-enough lanes and around the multiplying bollards breeding like rabbits on the tarmac. You recall finding yourself shooting through the city exposed to speeds you can only dream of on public transport, cocooned inside the metal boxes, cushioned by the bodies of others, communally suspending our lives as we wait to get back across the river.

The trains from Victoria are a third option, but to use them everyday is to commit financial suicide if you don’t live far enough away, and where exactly is that nowadays? But you’re at Waterloo and ready to begin the journey proper, so you might as well commit; the tube won’t take you far enough, it’s a half hour walk to Victoria and waiting at Clapham Junction is too much today. It’s quiet, warm. The sun’s still up and there’s enough of a breeze to make you commit to the pedals. Coupled with the constant vigilance needed to avoid becoming an interesting new piece of street graffiti, there’s enough to acknowledge the trade-off you’ll have made in exchanging a bench for a saddle. Cheaper too, mostly. Who can really afford to be in the centre?

The bus surrounds you from the back. Inexplicably white, advertising a movie that was meant to come out at the height of the pandemic when the streets were a paradise for your tastes, London abandoned by the lumbering familial bricks that have since returned with a vengeance to plague the lives of those outside them. Still, everything but them is on the right route, your route; the route you need to get back home, so you’ll be merged together as you make your way home.

The Old Vic whizzes past, patrons already sealed within as Bernard Shaw is once again revived inside. Get to the roundabout, streets and streets about as you stop and go and stop and go and stop and dart around pedestrians who shoot out for the challenge or for a mutual test of reactions. Horns scream and the bustle doesn’t relent but eventually you’re at Elephant and Castle where the waiting picks up as your companion releases a compilation of passengers. The process repeats, you get to Camberwell , that hamlet, near-isolated by transport and then to the hospital, waiting as an ambulance pulls in and visitors take their leave, those times having passed hours ago.

Champions Hill they call it, and they’re not wrong. Climbing steadily, slowly, legs igniting. The bus pull into a stop, leaves, repeats. You feel yourself overtake it, get overtaken by it, steadily dancing in between. You ascend together. Others get off because of exhaustion or geography, you keep your place. You’re seeing this to the end, you have no other option. Patrons of the hillside pub stare at the combination, but only as a passing interest. It’s too warm to move to go inside and too expensive to find something else to cool down with, solidarity on that part.

At the top it flattens out, a mild relief. The pain dissipates, you carry on, that awful dance between yourself and the passengers continues. TfL couldn’t have more perfectly designed this, there’s no delay and you have to concentrate. Stop start, stop start, dive in, dive out, dance together, don’t break the mirage. Somewhere within the velodrome on the other side, Beryl Burton would demolish records, and you feel good, maybe you could too if you commit to training? In this moment you have that confidence, you’re that far inside the dream. You continue. Down, down, descending carefully, aware of the stop at the bottom; the traffic lights immediately afterwards. It’s red, people ahead of you want to leave.

Respite again, but then they’re off and then it turns green and the whole thing restarts. You dive back into the rhythm. Flat now. Slight rise. Herne Hill to Tulse Hill, into West Norwood, that lane in between. Homeward bound and there’s nothing much to separate you from the end. A rarity this season, the festivals would usually send something out onto the roads, at least you don’t have to see the fun you can’t afford.

It’s a crawl to the finish. The surface deteriorates. Every bump and crevice jostles into your spin, but soon it’s the end. You indicate, you feel yourself swing into the shoulder. You stand, you’re off, finished. Practically home and it’s time to walk. You stare at the bus as it drives away, still emerging from your imagination. It’s been six months since you’ve been off the bike and you can’t fight the emptiness.

Theo Stone