In addition to the many practical benefits of commuting by bike, it can also be something of a feast for the senses. Unlike when you’re sealed in a car or train, your experience of the city involves all your senses. Except taste, now I think of it. Though, if you really wanted to … nah.
On the bike, you hear snippets of others’ conversation; you feel the elements. Quite often you feel too much of the elements, but nevertheless your connection to the environment and the changing seasons is heightened.
Visually, your vehicle imposes no artificial horizon, so you’re free to gaze up at nice buildings, skies, trees etc … *honk* sorry mate.
Combined with your relative slowness of travel, this open field of vision means you are particularly likely to notice things. I find myself noticing statues. Indeed I could plot the final stages of my old commute to Hachette on Euston Road thus: Hepworth > David > Dumb animals > Sikorsky > Hepworth again > Nelson.
The first Hepworth is the lovely Single Form, by the lake in Battersea Park (subject of a treasured misunderstanding between friends “is that a Henry Moore? / Do you mean a moorhen?”).
David is the monument to the Machine Gun Regiment at Hyde Park Corner which bears the chilling inscription “Saul has slain his thousands / but David his tens of thousands” and whose figure boasts what an old girlfriend maintained was the best bronze butt in London.
Half way up Park Lane is a vast and vastly daft monument to ANIMALS IN WAR (the inscription is rendered in a font all too obviously based on the titles for The World at War) which proclaims “THEY HAD NO CHOICE”. You don’t say.
On Portland Place, Wladyslaw Sikorsky, Polish hero and leader, is a personal favourite mainly for the sheer pleasure of saying his name. And finally the odd elevated tree-planter installation in Triton square features a sort of stone frieze which, it turns out, was a spare from Marble Arch, depicting Nelson’s breakthrough victory at the battle of Cape St Vincent.
That same route, in a homeward direction, could also be plotted in smellnotation: roast dinner > roast chestnuts > charcoal barbecue > cigar box.
The roast dinner aroma was the most perplexing, cropping up at the junction of Wigmore Street and Welbeck Street. Does the Wigmore Hall have a carvery in operation at 5.45 on any given week night? Someone does …
Just beyond, at Oxford street, there was a roast chestnut vendor by the traffic lights. Surely there’s no product whose taste delivers so poorly on the promise of its aroma (apart from fruit teas, obvs).
Crossing Knightsbridge onto William Street always involved cycling through a comforting fug of middle eastern grill smells and the attendant temptation to run in and grab a hot pitta from the coals.
Finally, speeding over the river and past the park keepers’ enclosure in Battersea Park, I would get a pungent blast of what I assume was some kind of organic fertiliser. It reminded me so strongly of the cigar boxes I used to handle when I worked in a wine shop that I felt there must be tobacco leaves in the mix somewhere … unless the cigar boxes were themselves reminding me of compost all along? Who knows.
Sometimes a bike commute is just an ill-tempered slog in bad weather, but far more often it will provide sensory treats of the sort that help make cycling by far the most rewarding way to travel.