I have an admission to make. I can’t do a track stand. It’s mainly because I’ve never really tried to learn. Not for me the humiliation of crashing to the tarmac from a position of unsustainable stasis, trying not to howl in agony as my clipped-in ankle is wrenched painfully into an unnatural aspect.
There’s no doubt, that becoming a wobbly, two-wheeled statue as you wait for the lights to turn green, looks mightily impressive but I don’t agree with the hardened roadie who proclaimed imperiously, “If you can’t do a track stand, you’re not a real cyclist”. That smacks too much of pedal-powered elitism to me.
My commuting journey takes me from leafy west London into the very heart of the capital – Kingston-upon-Thames to Regent Street. That means lots of stopping and starting at traffic lights. How do I manage without the track stand trick? I have a better one.
Let’s talk about lampposts, traffic light poles and even plastic bollards. As you pedal through the same exact routine day in day out, you soon learn the sequencing of particular traffic lights, the precise position of specific potholes and raised metal drain covers and, in my case, you memorise exactly where it’s possible to grab hold of a nearby upright at red lights, thereby dispensing with the need frequently to unclip your foot from the pedal.
The beauty of this cannot be overstated. It means you’re already clipped in when the lights do turn green, giving you a handful of crucial, extra seconds to get across the junction safely. At most lights, grabbing the pole means you are well clear of the vehicles behind, a little further forward than you would be even if you’d come to a halt inside the Advanced Stop Line’s ‘reservoir’.
You still need to be aware of cars turning left across you, as this method means you can’t stand waiting in the primary position, squarely in front of the motorist behind.
There are other pitfalls. Why for instance, is the light post at the junction of Portman Square and Seymour Street, always unpleasantly sticky to the touch? It’s a puzzle I’ve never solved and it’s probably best not to dwell on this conundrum for too long. Some junctions have lamposts which are tantalisingly out of reach. It’s not worth trying to grab them as a spill is almost inevitable. At some crossroads of course, there’s nothing to latch onto, or a pedestrian is loitering – nearly always with a burning cigarette in hand – right where you need to be. Or, horror or horrors, another cyclist has got there first. How humiliating to have to unclip behind them and touch terra firma with your cleat, waiting for the green light and the scramble to get reattached to your pedal while the interloper who’d ‘stolen’ your ‘perch’ sails obliviously ahead, clear of all traffic.
There used to be quite a lot of railings at crossroads in London. These were great for leaning on but obviously represented a grisly death trap for any cyclist sandwiched between them and a turning bus or lorry whose driver had not noticed them. I’m not advocating the return of pavement-side railings, but there could be a middle way. It’s one which has an impressive pedigree.
Porter’s Rest used to be a quirky feature of Piccadilly in central London. I’d first noticed it back in the late eighties when I was a frequent visitor to London rather than a resident.
It was a long slab of wood like the bar in a traditional pub. It was held up at about chest height by two stout iron pillars – one at either end. It was first installed at the side of the road in 1861. It’s purpose was to allow porters carrying heavy loads to set their bundles down and have a much-needed rest. Who’s to say it wasn’t also used by London’s first ever chain gangs – bewhiskered gents, raising eyebrows by trundling around the city astride their new-fangled boneshakers?
Recently, the Grade Two listed, 150-year-old piece of street furniture, went missing. It’s fate remains a mystery. It was believed to have been the only example left in London, of something which had once been a common sight around the capital. Recognising what one local historian dubbed a ‘heritage crime’, Westminster Council has built a replica Porter’s Rest in place of the missing artefact. It could be a lesson for urban street planners trying to make the city a better place for cyclists.
I can envisage a line of bike commuters waiting at lights, all leaning on such a resting board. There’d be no more competition for the junction’s solitary lamppost. And as it’s supported by individual legs rather than a continuous fence, it would be possible to duck under and through such a construction to escape any rogue manoeuvres by inattentive HGV drivers.
There is one word of caution to add. In the absence of convenient metal poles, I’ve been known to make use of plastic bollards which often mark junctions. The procedure is the same. Glide up to the bollard and rest one hand on it whilst waiting, still clipped in, for the lights to change. This works like a dream usually. But in the summer months, it can prove hazardous. Grabbing a bollard, which all through the winter has supported your weight, can, on a very hot summer’s day end in farce. Try pressing your body weight down on a plastic post which has been sneakily melting all day in the sweltering sun and you’re in for a comedy dismount, at best; a humiliating pratfall at worst.
Of course, better bike-handling skills would make all of this academic. I doff my casquette to those giants of the cycling superhighway who’ve mastered the track stand. One day I might even get round to giving it a go myself. But for now, when it comes to commuting by bike through London, the track stand’s still not for me. I have other leanings.