I’m on a street corner close to HMP Wormwood Scrubs last Sunday evening, and I’m mentally spinning a coin on whether to turn left or right – Google Maps is not helping me right now. I choose wisely, and the delivery notes the customer has provided help me find the exact address, tucked away at the end of a courtyard.
Once I’ve delivered her shopping, and been told I have 15 minutes to get back to the depot, I have a slight panic due to it taking a couple of minutes for enough of a gap to open up in the endless stream of traffic to allow me to cross the A40 safely (yes, I’ve hit the beg button, but the wait for the lights to change seems interminable).
But I do get across, and make it back to the depot with 1 minute to spare. 14/14 deliveries and 9/9 return trips done on time – I’ve just pulled the perfect shift, and as I hit the button on the PDA to confirm I’m back, I punch the air as though I’ve just won a stage of the Tour de France from a long solo break.
That I managed it was due in part to the luck of the draw, with the planets aligning perfectly on the day, but also due to the knowledge and of course the improved fitness that I’ve picked up during the nearly three months I’ve been doing this job, covering up to 80km on a seven-hour shift, five days a week.
Weather-wise, the conditions were near-perfect, a mild winter’s evening with no rain. True, there was a strong headwind from the west at times, but the e-assist on the bike dealt with that easily.
It helped that the shift was a bit quieter than usual not only in terms of orders, but also West London traffic – both of which I’d guess are due to it being the last ‘normal’ Sunday before Christmas.
So not only did there seem to be fewer orders with tight delivery times to fulfil, but the roads were clearer, too, across the entire area I deliver in.
Timings are crucial here, from picking up the orders in the warehouse – one order with two or three bags in some cases, but perhaps five orders with 20 bags in others – to expected delivery window to the customer and then, once the final delivery has been made, getting back to the depot.
At first, it’s daunting, and you wonder how longer-serving colleagues manage it. There are so many things that can take precious time away from you and, in the early days, make it seem impossible to finish a shift with all of your orders delivered on time, and all your returns to base done ahead of schedule.
To give just a few examples, a bag may not be where it’s supposed to be in the warehouse, so needs to be found.
The delivery address may mean you have no choice but to head there via the level crossing near the depot, and if that is closed, you have to wait for the train – or, if you’re unlucky, trains, plural – to pass.
You may encounter roadworks, and the accompanying temporary traffic lights, which take forever to change, on a street that you rode down unhindered just the previous evening, before it was dug up.
On new developments of multiple apartment blocks, it may be difficult to find the correct building the first time you visit – and worse, at times the sat-nav may take you to within metres of your destination, only for you to discover there is an impassable fence, so you have to find a way round it.
Even then, you may need more time to take several heavy bags to the main door, then after gaining access through the intercom, carry them through the lobby to the lift and, on reaching the correct floor, lug them to the customer’s front door.
And that’s to say nothing of the usual traffic congestion, which on some roads might be easily got round on a road bike but less so on a cargo bike with a big bin on the front, or having to wait while a driver slowly carries out a three-point turn in front of you.
In short, there is a lot that can go wrong, and will take valuable seconds or in some cases minutes from your schedule.
Luckily, our shift supervisors – who have all done this job themselves, so are fully aware of the potential pitfalls – are understanding of such delays provided you communicate them, but that isn’t reflected in what’s shown on your PDA. A late delivery is a late delivery, and a return to depot beyond the scheduled time remains just that.
There are a few things you can do to mitigate potential delays and, in some cases, even gain time, some of that down to local knowledge, some through experience of actually doing the job.
I thought I knew West London’s roads pretty well before taking on this job, but the last three months have taken my knowledge to another level entirely.
Those roadworks with the temporary traffic lights? Take a left and right before them, ride through a low traffic neighbourhood filter that’s been there for decades on a parallel side road, a right and left afterwards and you’ve saved a few minutes.
You learn which underpasses beneath the A4 can be negotiated in 30 seconds, and which ones may take minutes to get through due to having to manhandle a heavy cargo bike through multiple barriers and ramps.
Traffic light phases become imprinted in your mind’s eye, giving you time to perhaps adjust your route as you approach them and thereby avoid a delay.
Load your bike so the bags for the customer you are delivering to first are on top, the ones for the final stop on the bottom. It takes a few seconds before setting off, but can save a lot of time at the destination.
Take a quick look at the suggested bike-friendly route, but don’t feel bound by it – a direct route along traffic-free roads on a Sunday evening may prove minutes quicker than the one being suggested along cycleways and bike lanes that turns out to be more circuitous.
And memorise the house number – the last two digits of FA Cup final years is one of my mnemonics of choice – before setting off, to avoid having to stop and look it up once you are near your destination but not quite there, as well as ensuring you read any specific delivery hints the customer has advised.
Oh, and maybe as shown in the photo above, wear a Cardiff RFC jersey from the early 1990s Nigel Walker era underneath your jacket and hi-viz – I may not ever have been as speedy as the former Olympic hurdler on the wing on a rugby pitch, but wearing it as one of my several layers helped me get everywhere I needed to be on Sunday evening ahead of time.
Even so, a couple of things conspired to almost derail my efforts on Sunday – one, the level crossing barrier dropping just as I was 60 seconds or so away from getting back to the depot. Luckily, the train passed by moments later and I made it back in time.
The other was a hard-to-find address on a development by the Thames that was also protected by big security gates that needed a code to be entered before they opened. I found the correct house, handed over the shopping, and hit ‘delivered’ on the PDA with seconds to spare before it would have been marked as late.
Like that Tour de France breakaway rider mentioned above who took an unexpected stage victory from the break, though, it was back to normal the following day. For me, not one spent anonymously in the peloton, but a shift when I experienced some of the frustrations outlined above, meaning I was late on some deliveries, or on getting back to base.
But now I’ve done it once, and I know it’s possible, and the feeling of satisfaction that comes with it, I’m determined to do it again – and once I’m back on the bike out delivering groceries in the New Year, my resolution is to repeat that perfect shift at the earliest opportunity.
Simon joined road.cc as news editor in 2009 and is now the site’s community editor, acting as a link between the team producing the content and our readers. A law and languages graduate, published translator and former retail analyst, he has reported on issues as diverse as cycling-related court cases, anti-doping investigations, the latest developments in the bike industry and the sport’s biggest races. Now back in London full-time after 15 years living in Oxford and Cambridge, he loves cycling along the Thames but misses having his former riding buddy, Elodie the miniature schnauzer, in the basket in front of him.