Letter from the Islington front line

Perhaps I should not have left my bike out locked to a rather doddery picket fence outside my partner’s house just off the Seven Sisters Road in Finsbury Park. But it was only for a couple of hours in broad daylight and you could see the bike from the bay in the front window, though the Xmas tree was rather in the way. Normally I take the bike into the house but there was lots of Christmas clutter and my D lock is robust.

But I had let my guard down which is fatal in the big smoke. It probably only took a firm kick to knock off the upright where I had locked the bike from the rest of the fence and ride it away. It was all done in a moment since my partner, Deborah, had checked on the bike about half an hour before I discovered its absence. While I fumed, she said I should take her bike to go on my errand and as I cycled round the back of the nearby Waitrose I noticed a cyclist in the distance, with what I thought vaguely resembled my bike. I gave chase, and found that it was not mine, but there, outside a garage next to the supermarket car park, was a bloke busily removing the mudguards from my bike.

I rode up to him and with a lot of expletives asked him what he was doing with my bike. He was clearly terrified that I was going to thump him – I was a lot bigger and the thought certainly crossed my mind – and claimed that he had bought the bike off a Kosovan in nearby Blackstock Road for £30 who had told him that the bike came from Walthamstow.

‘But you knew it was stolen?’, I said. ‘yeah, yeah, of course’. He was, he claimed, ‘a bike handler, not a bike thief’, The mudguards, rack and bell were being removed in order to disguise the bike but it was a pretty thin story. Young Will – he was around 25 – was probably the thief and had somehow managed to destroy my D lock as well as steal the bike and begin to dismantle the recognisable bits all in the space of 30 minutes or so. Being middle class softie, despite my deep desire to thump him, I gave him £15 if he fitted the mudguards and rack back, which he did badly, and went off on my reacquired bike, some £70 poorer by the time I got a new mudguard and lock and gave the little toerag his money.

I could, of course, have called the police but he would have fled and gone off to nick another bike anyway, and it was Christmas. The police, in any case, have little interest in bike theft which is one of the major deterrents to getting people to cycle.
I should not really have colluded in the little toerag’s dishonesty but I was so relieved to get my bike back that I was feeling rather generous. I thought, wrongly, that he might get me my D lock back, too, but the mobile phone number he gave me was for someone in Leeds. There is a lot more the police could do. Most of the bikes end up at Brick Lane market in Tower Hamlets on a Sunday morning, where they are sometimes retrieved by their former owners but more often sold for about 20 per cent of their real value.

While on the subject of getting more people to cycle, which is the mission of Cycling England on whose board I sit, I was invited up to Huddersfield to look at the efforts of the local Kirklees council to boost cycling spearheaded by an energetic Tory councillor and long time cyclist, Martyn Bolt. The main efforts of the council are to create Greenways throughout the area, principally using old railway lines. Working closely with Sustrans, a network is being built up but when I visited, on a sunny day in December, there were few cyclists on the excellently designed tracks which, at times, went through stunning countryside. The problem is that there are insufficient links to the Greenways and on one, the first one that was built, there were barriers preventing motorcyclists from getting access to the path, which forced cyclists to dismount and thus effectively making it impossible to use for a commuting journey.

It was an instructive trip showing that it takes more than goodwill and some good infrastructure to attract people back onto their bikes. There was, for example, very little to help cyclists in the towns such as Huddersfield and woe betide anyone trying to cycle between Cleckheaton and Leeds because the Highways Agency says they should not try to go on the roundabout under the M62. Kirklees, though, has at least made a good start and has pro-active councillors and staff but there is a long way to go to recreate the kind of cycling culture that has now developed in London. I write this on the day of having bought my 26 year old daughter her first bike for ten years.

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