LONDON - I rented a bike Thursday morning and saw some really cool things, including my life flashing before my eyes.
I brought a map with me, and it was almost useless. Oh, the map itself was lovely, and I'm sure it was a model of accuracy. But after I took the first few turns, it might as well have been written in Chinese.
That's because if you're an American navigating the streets of London, you're using all of your concentration skills on avoiding getting run over by a double-decker bus. If you think I'm exaggerating, know that an Olympic bus struck and killed a cyclist here Wednesday night.
With that in mind, I took off on what I and most of the world consider to be the wrong side of the road. But not the British, whose lane sensibilities were established centuries ago, when most men carried swords with their right hands and wanted to be ready when a stranger approached. Same with jousting knights holding lances.
It's still not too late to change, mates.
I spent the morning trying to remember which way to turn and trying to keep up with traffic. The problem is that you're so aware of doing things right that you end up on busy streets you would do well to avoid. Before long, I was on what felt like the equivalent of the Mag Mile trying to steer clear of cars, trucks and buses, and hoping they knew what they were doing.
I'm proud to say I got beeped at just once, though it was by a double-decker, which felt like double points off.
There's an interesting book called, "Watching the English: The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour'' by cultural anthropologist Kate Fox. One of those unspoken rules is that people are loath to yell at each other for various public offenses, the way Americans might. If somebody cut in line at the movies in Chicago, others would call him out loudly. Not here, apparently. They would grumble, Fox says.
I committed a major faux pas when I took a right turn about five feet in front of a pedestrian who was crossing the street. Loud enough for me to hear, she said: "A-hem.'' Knowing the Brits' normal reserve, it felt as if she had stabbed me with a knife.
I saw brief glimpses of the British Museum, Big Ben, Westminster Hall, the National Portrait Gallery and what looked like the theater district. The papers are filled with stories about people staying away from London because of the Olympics, but I'm here to tell you a lot of them are here and driving dangerously close to cyclists.
People from all over the world are here to see the Games. Maybe it's the locals who are staying away.
I rode near Buckingham Palace and the Royal Mews (the stables of the royal family), and found myself on The Mall, where some of the Olympic cycling events have been held. I'm guessing those riders had an idea of where they were going. I didn't. I did see some excellent street names: Birdcage Walk, Oxford Circus and Horseferry Road, among others.
But every time I stopped to consult my map, I found myself farther and farther from my hotel. I finally left the bike at a rental docking station near Victoria Station and took the Underground home.
If I might make a suggestion to the bike-rental company: Having helmets available would be a really, really good idea. Or, short of that, signs that say: "Caution, idiot American biker.''