An American’s Tour of London

By Pan Pan

Part 1:  An English Translation for English

I’ve recently updated my list of words and their associated local meanings during our Look Mum No Hands team dinner at Charlie’s Saturday night.  The list is now:

Spuds = potatoes*

*(not brussel sprouts)

Knackered = so tired you are about to pass out

Loo = bathroom

Porridge = oatmeal

Flat = apartment

Trainers = sneakers

Turbo = trainer

Bacon = a fatty piece of ham that is not crispy

Pants = underwear

Trousers = pants

Jumper = sweatshirt

Lycra = spandex

Spandex = bad form of 80’s leggings used for aerobic exercises involving jumping jacks

Petrol = gas

University = college

College = university

Press up = push up

Stone = measurement of weight

“S” replaces “z” in words like “realize”

Part 2: Road Rules

Rule Number 1. When crossing the street, look the opposite direction you think you should look.

Rule Number 2. Right turns involve crossing traffic.

Rule Number 3. Flashing bulbs with cross walks mean give way to walkers.

Rule Number 4. Turning left does not involve crossing traffic.

Rule Number 5. There is no steering wheel on the left side of the car.  Don’t panic; there’s not supposed to be a steering wheel there.

Rule Number 6. No one knows how to use the roundabouts.  Not even cars.

Rule Number 7. The streets may change name on you.  Don’t try to take short-cuts.  You will most likely get lost.

Part 3.  History

I’d like to think I had a varied racing experience in the United States.  During my collegiate years, I raced for my University for a year.  We traveled all through the northeast, racing in a dozen different states on different terrains.  Every weekend was a little mini stage race composed of a TTT (or ITT), criterium, and road race.  We saw other racers from dozens of other schools, and the whole experience culminated in the Collegiate National Championships in Colorado (a 6 hour flight away) where the airlines first lost our bikes, and then we all got altitude sickness for three days.  It was fantastic.  Those were the days of binge drinking, binge studying, and binge racing.

I tried to become an adult after graduation.  I got a job in New York City, where it is possible to sleep an average of 4 hours a night for 3 weeks, not cook one meal in your apartment for months, and see your housemate an average of once every 2 weeks (usually during an unfortunate or awkward encounter to the bathroom late at night).  I continued racing as a means for sanity and to try to control the 15 pounds I had gained from drinking too many post-work margaritas and eating too much take-out.  Needless-to-say, hilly races were not my forte that season.  Eventually, I was lucky enough to join a New York team, and only my unconditional love for my teammates dragged me out of bed at 4am on Tuesday mornings for God-awful team practices in Central Park at 5:30am and then again on Saturday mornings for our club races.  After our races would end at 7am, we’d all pack up our stuff and go for a training ride which would lead me to consume about 3 muffins and a-close-to-illegal amount of caffeine at the local bakery in a town 20 miles outside of the City.

New York is a place of extremes, and cycling is no exception.  For example, people seemed to think that it was totally normal to ride Zipp 404’s on an easy recovery ride in the park.  And riding down 9W (the one road we had after crossing the George Washington Bridge to leave Manhattan), you’d see 500 cyclists and for a good number of them, probably be able to name the team they were on, whether they were from Brooklyn or Manhattan, and whether they raced that morning.  It was 40% about racing, 40% about socializing, and 20% about style.  But, it was in New York that cycling became an addiction, and my teammates and I would find every way possible way to travel around the northeast to race on the weekends.  I’ll never forget the Green Mountain Stage Race, 2009: I was homeless (my former apartment lease had run out, and my new apartment was under painting renovations), I had half my belongings at a friend’s place and the other half at work, and I was traveling 6 hours to Vermont to do a 4 day stage race that involved a 6 or 7 mile final climb for the road race in stage 3.  It ended up being the first stage race I had ever gotten drunk during.

Two seasons later, I’ve traveled across the Atlantic to give the learning thing another shot.  I was filled with panic about finding rides, people to ride with, non-TT races.  Here is a transcription of a conversation with my coach back home.

“Josh, I don’t know if I can continue doing this.  Maybe I can start running again.  Or triathlons!”

“Pan, were you ever any good at that?  Did you see any results from that?  No.  Stick with bike racing.”

“But what if I can’t find a team to be on?”

“Stop worrying.  There’s racing in England.  How the hell do you think Nicole Cooke got so good?  Just remember to ride on the other side of the road.”  I didn’t believe him.

Part 4.  Wrong Again

One race and two team meetings later, I have to admit that once again, Josh was right.  There’s a hell of a race scene here in London.  My legs reminded me of that January 20, after the Hillingdon race where my thoughts were throughout the race, “[insert expletives], what are those heart rate numbers?  I’m going to blow up.  I’m blowing up.  This is awful.  Oh, maybe I can reward myself with McDonalds after the race.”

The London race community, from what I’ve seen so far, is very similar to the race community that I’ve come to love and miss in New York:  there is a group of friendly faces you see week in and week out, every team has its quirks and individual dynamics, and there’s a number of opportunities to explore and support local and non-local races.  Best of all, London nourishes women’s racing.  From the LMNH café to the meet-and-greet, from the parties to the number of women’s teams, London’s growing female racing population is to be commended.  Every weekend, I had raced with a solid and talented group of 40 or so (and growing) female cyclists in New York.  Already in January, London is sporting races of over a dozen women (a very respectable number for the dead of winter!).  I am elated, excited, and nervous about what the spring and summer will bring in terms of racing.  I’ll be sure to update on that.

Part 5: The Metaphysics of Tourism

I’ve been told over and over again before my move that Americans often find London to be a difficult place to live in at first.  The weather forecasts are either, “White clouds, dark clouds, medium-dark clouds, rain, drizzle, or downpour”.   Coming from a State where it would easily be sunny for two weeks in a row, I found myself moaning about how dark it was all the time, over-dosing on Vitamin D pills, and taking pictures of the sun on the rare days where it would come out.

It’s hard to explore a new place in a genuine way.  Tourism has become a function and endogenous reality of itself, and most tourists find themselves not surrounded or immersed in a different culture but surrounded by other tourists.  For example, when I lived in NYC, the last place I would ever go would be Time Square.  I would go up to go down in that city just to avoid the 2 block radius of tourist-country filled with slow-walking and confused people taking pictures of lit-up advertisements, comedy show advertisers who stuffed papers in my hand, and a guaranteed traffic jam.  Now anyone who wanted to explore the “real” NY would be totally missing it all by going to Time Square – they’d just be seeing other Tourists, a tourism of tourists.  If I had just stayed in London without my bike, I would have been doing just the same.

Instead, I have gotten a rare and special view of the city and the surrounding towns through windy roads and quiet neighborhoods.  I’ve taken pictures of deer in Richmond Park with Charlie, Sam, Lydia and Helen; ridden through Essex and beautiful natural parks with Anna; been scared out of my mind through the country roads with Jo; and seen views of London that can’t be captured in any other ways aside from being on the bike.  When you climb Box Hill in November, and the skies are grey, the leaves display a color that is so striking you realize that pigments can only be accented by the drizzle of the rain that day.  Then when you look right over onto the scene of the countryside and towns, as you feel your heartrate settle into a comfortable pace, you remember exactly what it is that can take your breath away.  On days when it rains in Kent, as you stop to take the flashing light that your teammate gives you to put on your bike, you can look up and see that horses are staring at you, quietly, 2 feet away, their nostrils quivering in the cold.  I think when I leave London, it will be these grey days on back roads following Anna or Charlie’s wheel that I’ll miss the most – the days when the rain hits your body, and you watch it evaporate; the days when leaves are bright and striking and when an American doesn’t miss the sunshine.

What better way to explore a new place than to understand its roads?  Roads are those things that go from one place to the next and lead you from a start to a destination.  I feel the undulations of the landscape.  I respect it more because of this.  What better way to make new friends than to explore these places with them in such a simple way as cycling, allowing someone to show you a sliver of their lives, listening to their stories, sharing your common and different experiences?  And finally, what better way to become closer to one another than to put your head down and grit your teeth, grip your handle bars and put your body through unnatural stress for the pure sake of team glory?  I can’t wait for next race here in London, a continuation of my tourism in a new city.

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4 thoughts on “An American’s Tour of London

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention An American’s Tour of London | lookmumraceteam -- Topsy.com

  2. pan pan, thank you: i too relocated from new york (don’t think i ever saw a bike worth less than US$10,000 at the runcible spoon!) — and your post perfectly captures that feeling — wonder and awe — of cycling in the uk. required reading for my friends and family — and perhaps will explain why i keep sending them photos of the deer in richmond park and random sheep on surrey lanes.

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