The cycling experiment: using a TFL bike after years of Brompton

Brompton TFL
Weight ~9 kg ~23 kg
Gears 3 3
Brakes 2 (front and back), pads, immediate action 2 (front and back), drum brakes, not quite immediate
Feels agile, responsive sluggish, leisurely

I normally cycle to the office, but yesterday I had to go somewhere before the office, and that place wouldn’t let me store my foldable bike. So I took the tube. On the way back, determined to not to take the tube and also not to walk because I know I can reduce the time to less than half, I used a TFL bike (also known as “Boris” or “Ken” or “Barclays” or “Santander” bike, depending on who’s perceived as responsible for introducing or sponsoring them).

This was very intentional, so I had brought my helmet and gloves. I was determined to do the same ride home as usual, only using a different bike.

I hadn’t used one of these since 2014, so I didn’t remember where things were, or how heavy and big they are compared to my Brompton. It did feel as if I was wearing somebody’s jacket and I didn’t know where the zipper was, or whether it was not a zipper but concealed buttons.

The other noticeable aspect is how useless the gears are. The first one, marked “start”, is literally useful for a few centimeters only. After you’ve reached a minimum speed, you find yourself frantically pedaling and trying to engage the next gear. Unfortunately it seems I got a slightly defective bike, so the next gear would either not engage or jump directly to gear 3, the longest. Which still felt super short. I’d say it felt like 2.25 and 3 (compared to the 2 and 3 gears on the Brompton).

Apparently this is by design: the bikes are designed to go 22% slower than a “normal” bike of that style and with normal gears would go. This made me feel really stupid going up a bridge, as it is slightly uphill, as most bridges are, but it was very windy yesterday. So if I went to gear 3 it was really hard to pedal, gear 2 would not engage, and gear 1 was evocative of public humiliation as I’d be pedaling like a hamster and barely moving at all–pedestrians were just slightly slower than me.

The gear mechanism is also slightly different from the Brompton’s too, so at the beginning I was expecting the gear to change, but it wouldn’t engage until I had pedaled a bit, whereas the Brompton’s is near instant. Cue some more hamster pedaling!

The brakes also felt quite used. I wasn’t really sure if I was braking at points, as I didn’t feel the very effective “ooomph” and subsequent slow down you get when you brake hard on a “normal bike”, but I was going so slow anyway that I’m sure I could bring myself to a halt by a combination of not pedaling and putting my heel on the floor 😜

Good aspects were that since the wheels are way bigger than my Brompton’s, the potholes, manholes, bumps, holes and any other anomaly in the roads (of which there are many) were less noticeable. I also liked the more upright position, and the fact that the pedals are further away from the road compared with the Brompton’s: I often need to be careful when going near pavements to make sure the pedal is on the higher point on that side, otherwise it’s highly likely to be scratched.

The other good aspect is that other drivers would just see me cycling on this bike, and just assumed I’d be slow as a turtle, and leave me alone on my side of the road. It did feel true that drivers were more careful around me driving a TFL bike 🐢

On telling this story to my partner, I’ve been suggested I get a pin that proclaims:

My other bike is a Brompton

so I can proudly wear it next time I use a TFL bike, and assure everyone I am normally NOT this slow. Maybe I just got the slowest bike in the system! It didn’t even have the laser lights.

We’ll see next time…

How to get a new bike (without actually buying a new one)

For the impatient:

  • Rub the dirt off the wheels with paper towels (or some rag you don’t mind throwing away, because it’ll get very dirty)
  • Grease the chain thoroughly to dissolve the soot adhered to it
  • Very gently rub the dirt off the chain
  • Grease the chain again
  • Wash your hands (many times) with warm water and gentle soap, perhaps a brush
  • Possibly moisturise your hands

Continue reading “How to get a new bike (without actually buying a new one)”

How does one survive cycling in London?

Many people read my last post and asked me how did I manager to cycle in London. They find it scary (no wonder) and stressful (indeed).

My solution is two-fold: framing and intention.

Framing: I consider the bike as an instrument that will get me where I want faster than if I walked or took public transport (as I can go door to door). I am not trying to win a race or competing with anyone… and honestly, it would be quite ridiculous to attempt that with a folding bike. Let the fancy bikes speed ahead!

Intention: I try to be as generous as possible with everyone else in the street. Everyone in London is so goddamn stressed with everything, and rushing everywhere. So obviously they are going to cut corners to get to places faster. In contrast, when I cycle, I’m often where I would be in 40% or less of the time I would spend otherwise, so I have a lot of time to be generous.

Pedestrians will try and cross whenever they can. Motorists will speed ahead when they see an amber light (instead of stopping) which often results in they invading the Advance area for cyclists, or 👏🏼the 👏🏼 whole 👏🏼 zebra 👏🏼 crossing 👏🏼.

I used to get so upset with all this, but as we say in Spanish, if you want to get upset you have two tasks: getting upset and calming down. So I’d rather not get upset, but be more empathetic and generous instead.

I used to go to great efforts to place myself in the Advance area. But after being gifted with a few death threats from other motorists in the past just by placing myself in my designated area (which the Met police ignored very efficiently, I must add), I have decided that I’d rather wait behind the psychopaths’ cars. Let them speed ahead! I also leave enough space for cyclists and motorists in a rush to squeeze through the gaps as well. If they want to brave the side mirrors, the drivers spitting through the window while stopped on a traffic light, the doors that open unexpectedly and all that, let them do it! I’ll wait behind–or if the traffic is too bad, I’ll walk and push the bike on the pavement, and become a pedestrian temporarily, instead of breathing the exhaust fumes from the vehicles.

I also try to be super careful with pedestrians, by riding as slowly as possible in situations where there’s a lot of people on the pavements (rush hour!), and basically assuming any of them will jump on the road the minute I least expect them to cross.

I also used to get super upset at this as well (“Are you trying to kill us both!!? do you not see what YOU are doing??!”), but now I just try to imagine that…

  • they’re tired, or
  • they have had a bad night’s sleep/a long day, or
  • the layout of the street doesn’t make it clear enough that they’re walking on the cycle lane, or
  • they are just overwhelmed, and essentially can’t notice when very quiet cyclists approach (in contrast with a noisy motor vehicle).

So instead of getting upset, I try to just get on with it. It’s a busy city, full of people, and as I said, I’m in no rush. Everything’s chill, I say to myself. With enough warning, I’m more than pleased to slow down or stop and allow people to cross, even if there’s no explicit zebra crossing. Spending 45 seconds on that won’t make me late, and I might have contributed some good will to their day. Sometimes they even smile! I think this generosity is worth it.

That said, I’m considering getting one of those laser lights, as they seem to be more effective at announcing my presence than my super bright lights. TFL have installed them on their public hire bikes and I have seen pedestrians noticing them and not crossing the road immediately.

But you know what still gets me sometimes? The mansplainers—which are always a white man on his 40s. He shows up from nowhere, imparts you a lesson on whatever aspect of cycling he deems worthy to illuminate you on, and then leaves before you can even ask them to “get lost” 🙄. I mostly ignore them and give them a blank stare (“is this your voice that I’m hearing or is it just the buzz of the city?”), but some days I commit the error of trying to argue with them, and it’s always doomed to fail! 💩

Please note that I am not condoning other people’s irresponsible behaviour (jumping lights, crossing on red, etc) and suggesting we all work around that. I do wish people did abide by the rules, because it would prevent accidents, make traffic flows more efficient and make everyone more relaxed, and I also wish TFL improved infrastructure and signalling so flows were safer, more synchronised and efficient, but until all those puzzle pieces fall in place, this is my strategy to cycle without getting upset.

New cycle achievement unlocked

I normally cycle to work, but I hadn’t dared cycle to the gym from work yet. Those days, I took the tube, although I did find it cumbersome to walk to and from the station: it’s about 20 minutes extra I could possibly shave off if cycling.

“But what if I’m tired?”, I kept thinking. “What if cycling to the gym is tiring and then I am too tired to cycle from the gym?”

And so I kept taking the tube on gym days.

But yesterday something flicked on my brain and I was determined to do it. And I did it! 💪

It was mostly easy on the way in, but the way out took me through many, many back streets, and I spent as much time as if I had taken the tube, because I had to keep checking the directions on every turn: there were too many for me to remember, and London’s layout is very difficult to keep in your brain.

That said, I was very pleased with myself that I achieved this. Yay!

As a funny end note, I was tracking my route with Strava, which has “user-generated” segments in routes. One of the segments I went through has the best name ever: “little path of horrors” 😂–I don’t remember that area being particularly bad or full of potholes, but it made me crack up nevertheless, haha!

Electric Berlin to Spring-ish London

I came back from Berlin today.

Sorry I didn’t tell any of you, Berlin-based friends. This trip was for work and I ended up so tired every day, I barely had enough energy left to order dinner.

I love visiting Berlin–I like its edgy/artsy/DIY/independent vibe a lot. But I think this week was way too cold for my poor Mediterranean self. Thankfully, I did look at the forecast before leaving, so I was prepared.

But dry spaces like an office plus warm clothes tend to cause a lot of static electricity on me, and I ended up getting shocks with everything I touched, metal or not: tables, doors, my laptop, my phone, people (I’m so sorry I gave sparks to so many people this week when shaking hands), chairs, sofas, and would you believe it… AN APPLE! Have you ever had an apple shock you? Well, I had, and it was a most puzzling experience! I could even hear the spark! 😱

It reached a point in which I was afraid of touching things–I became a hesitant creature which delayed touching whatever it was I had to interact with, while I tried to decide what would be the best way to maximise surface contact so the shock was less focused and painful. For example, I tried to grab the door handle with the palm instead of the tips of the fingers. Or quickly tried to place both palms on my laptop after coming back to it, for the same reason. Or I devised futile solutions to reduce my electric potential such as walking barefoot, or touching the floor with my hand before touching the door. Eventually, nothing worked and I got the shocks anyway ⚡️. Ahhh!

I also somehow managed to just visit Vietnamese and Japanese restaurants while I was there. It wasn’t intentional-it’s just it’s such a great place for Vietnamese food; I always find fantastic stuff while there, really fresh and fairly priced.

That said, I was happy to go back to London, if only to not to get more shocks!

Berlin had turned the “brutal cold that makes your nostrils want to retreat into your skull” into “acceptable winter chill with sunny intervals” yesterday, but it had migrated into “somewhat miserable damp day” today. This was topped by the ever-so-claustrophobic experience at Tegel–I’ve never seen an airport so cluttered!

What a nice surprise it was when we landed and the sun was shining. I didn’t even care that much that they dropped us in Terminal 5C and I had to take the train to T5. There were still a couple hours of daylight when I arrived home!


I have not seen much of it this week, and I felt as if it was suddenly March and the air is full of promises of Spring and flower scents, and songbirds.

In truth, what it was possibly full of is toxic gas fumes and other pollutants because people can’t be arsed to take public transport or walk, and so keep using taxis and ubers, and ordering take aways and buying online stuff that needs to be delivered to your doorstep… but let’s skip over that part and the noises, and just focus on the fact that I could aimlessly walk around my neighbourhood during daylight, looking at the roofs and the facades tinted in yellow, appreciating the distinct architectural styles… and all this without carrying a bag or backpack or my luggage, and also without being covered in layers of winter clothes. What a wonderful feeling!

I missed this.