From the outside, Nena Kazantzidou looks like a seasoned cyclist. Her Instagram page is a colourful showcase of what London has to offer by bike. But in reality, Nena had actually been too terrified to cycle in London – until the lockdown began.
Nena lives in Greenwich Millennium Village. Before she moved to the UK from Greece, she used to cycle everywhere. But for the six years she’s lived in the capital, headlines of cycling accidents and the heavy traffic made her feel too scared to cycle the city’s streets. “The traffic is always too much here in London,” she said. “But then the pandemic happened, and I thought it was about time.”
At the start of the pandemic, Nena was made redundant. Then she was offered a role that “fitted perfectly with her passions and skills” but the company retracted the offer due to a hiring freeze. “In general I’m quite positive and optimistic, but this really, really affected me because I like being busy and doing things. That’s when I bought the bike. It was a lifesaver.”
The pandemic has fuelled a cycling boom as many caught on to its benefits – fitness, mental wellbeing and an alternative to public transport to name a few. Government figures showed that as car use almost flatlined, cycle use rose 300% at its peak. During the lockdown, bike manufacturer Brompton reported a five-fold increase in sales and many other retailers reported selling out. The Association of Cycle Traders said “extreme demand” had been placed on the industry.
Nena has felt the benefits of cycling through lockdown first-hand, and is evangelical about how it has helped her cope with the difficulties of the last few months. The effect is long-lasting, as now she shares her discoveries and favourite routes on her dedicated Instagram account, and has started cycling with locals in Greenwich.
Once Nena had bought her bike, she kept her routes local. “I was literally only doing the Thames Path. From home to Tower Bridge was 18km, which I found great.” After her first ride, Nena said: “I was feeling empowered and confident.”
Though she has lived there for two years, cycling in and around Greenwich has helped Nena discover new pockets of the area. “With a bike you have a different independence and flexibility, and I have discovered a lot of hidden gems. For example, I discovered a little church with a very old tower that I didn’t know existed.”
With the narrow parts of the Thames Path closed off at the height of lockdown, Nena started to branch out. Then a friend asked her to meet in Crystal Palace. “That was my first non-Thames Path route. I felt proud. I could take my time and do whatever I want and stop if I felt scared. I think that helped me a lot. Now I use the bike for everything.”
There are now national aims to update infrastructure to make cycling easier, safer and more accessible, including schemes across London.
As a new cyclist, Nena has noticed some of the temporary adaptations around Greenwich. “There’s definitely progress but there is a lot of room for improvement. Streetspace mostly helps the pedestrians, which is great. It definitely gives extra space and weirdly I don’t really see it affecting the cars. We are lucky we have the park but you can’t use the bike. It’s not very clear where you can use it.”
Nena lists safety, education and security as three main reasons cycling may be a barrier for people. She would like to see more cycle lanes, and the addition of kerbs on roads for greater separation between cyclists and traffic. “That makes me feel really safe.” On the Thames Path at Greenwich Peninsula, she notes, cycle and walking lanes swap sides part way through, which can be dangerous if people don’t pay attention.
She added: “One thing that really puts me off still is the fact I don’t feel safe about locking my bike anywhere. The problem is the government is encouraging people not to use public transport but I don’t think they see the bigger picture.”
Nena has abandoned cycling into town to visit galleries and museums because of the limited amount of secure bike parking, calling it a missed aopportunity. She encouraged investment from businesses to actively promote bike locking at their locations, and noted how she has noticed some hospitality businesses offering a “cloak check” service for bikes.
Now Nena has built her cycling confidence, she hopes to inspire others by sharing her favourite routes, stories and photos so people know what to expect when they get on their own bike. With the quiet roads of lockdown gone, her advice for gaining confidence includes going out early in the morning when it’s quiet, finding other people to cycle with, and to stick to cycling for leisure and pleasure, without any timeframe so you don’t feel pressured.
“If I can help one person get on the bike and feel confident on the cycle then that’s great,” she said. “I really think a lot of people can share this journey that I’m going through now. Regardless of the pandemic, people constantly have struggles to deal with, that’s life. I really think cycling is a good way to release all that for a bit.”
Follow Nena’s trips on instagram.com/mybikelondonandme
This is one of a series of stories we are running on how people in SE London have responded to the coronavirus pandemic. Let us know if you have a story to tell.
LAURA DAY is a freelance journalist specialising in health and wellbeing. She is based in Hither Green.
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