A Roving Revolution On London's Streets

London Mayor Boris Johnson, is a great believer in the idea of cycling to work, and since taking office, he's done a lot to encourage Londoners to take their commute on two wheels. NPR's new London correspondent, Philip Reeves, also likes the idea of riding his bicycle to work — but is finds his fellow cyclists seem to take the whole thing far too seriously.

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Every now and then, NPR foreign correspondent Philip Reeves sends us an essay describing daily life in his part of the world. For a long time, those colorful updates came from India. Now, Philip has just taken up a new post, in London. And here's his first dispatch from his new city.

PHILIP REEVES: A friend has persuaded me to cycle to work. He made a strong case. London's red double-decker buses are fun to ride, but painfully slow. The subway - or Tube, as Londoners call it - is depressingly grubby. London lies along the River Thames, on a sweep of flat land stretching out to England's east coast. Perfect cycling country, said my friend. He calculated it would take me just 35 minutes to pedal the six miles from my new home to NPR's bureau.

The journey runs along what was once the world's most fashionable boulevard - the King's Road - past Buckingham Palace, Queen Elizabeth's official residence, and across Trafalgar Square.

Dusting off my bike, I pictured myself sailing through history as sedately as Her Majesty herself. I was wrong. In fact, I've been unwittingly recruited to a sort of army of roving revolutionaries.

Some of my fellow cyclists are young. Some are old. There are some women. But many are middle-aged men like me, weather-beaten guys who look harmless in a suit and tie, but who are transformed in the saddle. They whizz through the streets in bright-yellow, luminous jackets, gray hair poking out from beneath their aerodynamic helmets, thighs bulging in skin-tight, black Lycra shorts. I say they because I'm only a rookie. I'm not yet one of them. In fact, they find me annoyingly slow.

As they line up on the road behind me, eager to squeeze past, I can hear them growling like cats. The British take their traffic laws extremely seriously, yet these cyclists think nothing of jumping red lights. They'll challenge anyone who crosses their path - even London's notoriously fierce cabbies. They seem fearless and supremely confident. After all, as I said, they're part of a revolution.

That revolution is led by London's mayor, a flamboyant, middle-aged man and cycling nut called Boris Johnson. The number of cyclists here has risen dramatically in the last few years. Boris wants a fourfold increase over the next decade and a half. He's creating superhighways for cyclists - extra-wide cycling lanes that run in from the suburbs and are painted bright blue. This Sunday, Boris is hosting a giant cycle rally in the middle of London.

I'm not sure how long I'll be part of this revolution. My fellow cyclists are a little too competitive for my taste. I've seen them looking contemptuously at my bike, which - unlike theirs - is cheap and has unfashionably fat tires. But there's no denying Boris' revolution is a very good idea.

Philip Reeves, NPR News, London

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