Bike-commuter in London - Interview with Emma

I met Emma years ago at Pacific University, in her hometown of Forest Grove, Oregon. There was a mischievous sparkle in her eyes, barely visible through the thick curtain of her bangs. Emma was bold, adventurous, and asked good questions. When she announced anthropology as her major, it struck me as the perfect fit. Her adventures continued after graduation: Emma attended Oxford, fell in love, married an Englishman, and now lives in London where she commutes by bicycle to her job at the King’s College Mathematics School.  

In this interview, Emma opens up about cycling in London and an unfortunate crash with a car door that bent her front wheel and tore tendons in both her hip and shoulder. 

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Emma attended Oxford, married an Englishman, and now lives in London. 

How long have you lived abroad?

While a true Oregonian at heart, it has been a little while since I’ve called Oregon home. I've been living in the UK since 2012, first in Oxford and now in London.

When did you start cycling in the UK?

When I was at Oxford, I found an older Union bicycle to ride around the city for anything you could imagine: lectures, tutorials, sport practice (and indeed socials!), work (at an 800-year-old pub, no less), and desperate and harried trips to one of the countless libraries to find the books on my weekly reading list. While I relied upon the Union bike, I missed my Iron Horse – there is a special kind of comfort from riding your own bicycle that you know and care about like a friend, in many ways.

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 "My dad passed on his bicycle to me... it would be amazing to know how many miles we’ve both covered on this trusty steed!"

What's this "Iron Horse" you speak of?

The 2001 Iron Horse Triumph is the bicycle my dad passed on to me. It's now in the UK with me, since my dad brought it over with him during a visit while I was at Oxford. It would be amazing to know how many miles we’ve both covered on this trusty steed!

Now that my dad has helped reunite me with the Iron Horse, I can't imagine life without it. My university days are over for the time being, so now my bike and I travel to work and in-and-around London. Honestly, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

What excites you about bike culture in London?

I am firmly in the "bicycle commuter" category of London cyclists, in every kind of weather. It is so exciting to see how many other people remain undeterred by soggy London weather. Every morning, my husband Alex and I end up with a crowd of other cyclists, making their own dreary ways to their destinations. Their fortitude is inspiring.

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"Cycling has unlocked some of my favorite London places that I would have missed on the bus or the Tube."

Perhaps this is part of living in an urban space, but there is also a feeling of power and liberation that accompanies cycling. Throughout most of London, it is faster to travel by bicycle than either driving or public transport, and there are so many hidden routes and sights that wouldn’t be accessible any other way. Stumbling across them reminds me that cycling has unlocked some of my favorite London places that I would have missed on the bus or the Tube.

Were you always comfortable cycling in the city?

When I first moved to London, I was nervous about transitioning into urban cycling, so Alex spent a lot of time cycling with me and teaching me how to navigate traffic safely and correctly. His guidance gave me the confidence I needed to tackle the roads and roundabouts independently.

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"His guidance gave me the confidence I needed to tackle the roads and roundabouts independently."

Have you ever been afraid while riding your bike?

Being scared while cycling does at times feel like it is part-and-parcel of being a commuter cyclist. There are often close calls: cars drifting into the cycle lane, drivers passing close enough to touch, opening car doors, road rage, pedestrians stepping out into cycle lanes without looking, and, sadly, sometimes other cyclists who aggressively cycle and end up putting others at risk. When I gear up for my morning cycle, it sometimes makes me feel as though I am adding layers of armor and steeling myself up for a defensive ride.

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"When I gear up for my morning cycle, it sometimes feels as though I'm adding layers of armor and steeling myself up for a defensive ride."

Tell us about your bike crash that happened in London.

My scariest situation was on a dark evening while traveling home from school. I was cycling downhill at about 25 mph when a driver in the opposite lane took their turn too wide and swung into my path. I had to move closer to the parked cars on my side and then a car door opened in front of me.

I don’t actually remember what happened next – the next thing I do remember is lying on the pavement, looking at how my front wheel had managed to bend in half. I ended up tearing most of the tendons in my left rotator cuff and my left hip flexors. The most amazing thing was my helmet. Once I confirmed that it was safe to remove it, I saw that a rock from the pavement had worked its way completely through my helmet and was just visible on the inside.

How did you respond to that scary situation? 

I went into shock fairly quickly, but I distinctly remember that my main concern was the driver. He was clearly horrified and deeply shaken, and did a brilliant job of looking after me at the time and ensuring that my bike and I made full recoveries in the months afterwards.

Perhaps it was the shock, but I felt a compulsive need to distract myself with small talk, and reassure the driver as much as possible. Since the accident happened right outside his house, he brought me inside to wait for my husband and made me a cup of tea. Through our conversation, we figured out that he was a parent of one of my students! It added some hilarity to what was a frightening situation at the time.

What's one of your favorite cycling/travel memories?

When my dad visited me during my postgraduate years, we cycled from Linacre College up to Blenheim Palace. We followed meandering canal paths out of Oxford and through the countryside. 

More recently, I've become incredibly fond of city bicycle schemes to use when exploring continental Europe. When Alex and I were on our honeymoon, we went from café to café on Vélib’ bicycles.

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"I have become incredibly fond of city bicycle schemes to use when exploring." 

 

This summer in Vienna, Alex, my mum, and I used Citybike Wien to navigate the city in sweltering summer heat. As much as I enjoy cycling, I love the respites during cycling adventures even more. I have space to think, relax, and simply enjoy the feeling of exertion and the pleasure of rest.

Have you ever been sexually harassed while riding a bike?

I would guess that most female cyclists have heard catcalls, wolf whistles, and shouts while riding their bicycles, and I am no exception. No particular incident stands out, and to me it is no different from when a small bug flies into my face while cycling: a couple of quick blinks and shakes of the head, and I have moved on. Honestly, I just don’t give a fuck!

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"I would guess that most female cyclists have heard catcalls, wolf whistles... and I am no exception. To me, it's no different from when a small bug flies into my face. Honestly, I just don’t give a fuck!"

What activity, besides cycling, helps you be a better cyclist?

Alex and I cycle to a climbing wall at least three times each week before work. We have been training with Catalyst Climbing, and it has been a pleasure to have projects to challenge ourselves with, at our own pace.

What are some things that help you feel more comfortable as a cyclist? 

I tend to cycle in Wellies in wet weather, but I realize that some waterproof/water-resistant socks and shoes might be a good investment! Having sodden feet on the pedals has to be one of the most miserable situations while cycling, though I am not a fan of headwind either!

Any big plans for the future?
Ultimately, I hope to complete my PhD in Social Anthropology.


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