The Dying of the Light

October 5, 2022

Riding back from the Bigtown Cycle Campaign AGM last night, I found myself wondering how I could have been extolling the joys of night riding barely more than six months ago. As the nights draw in, I’ve twice had to ride back in the dark from various events recently and I’m finding the experience increasingly testing. In particular, for whatever reason, I no longer feel confident that I’m able to read the road surface in time to avoid the worst of the potholes. Mostly this doesn’t matter, because I have ridden the road home so often I know where they all are, but in places I’ve found myself forced to brake going downhill to stay safe (a crime against momentum) and even lost track of where I was on the road on some of the twistier bits. It’s taken me back to the days before I got my lights properly sorted out and riding home in the dark meant gambling on there being a full moon.

The problem may be due to my light set up – the way the bracket is mounted, the front mudguard casts an unfortunately phallic shadow onto the road ahead which certainly doesn’t help matters. I’m also wondering whether the light itself – which is, after all, 10 years old – might simply be dimmer (do LED lights fade with age?). And then there’s the worry that the problem is my end – that I’m seeing less well in the dark. I’ve always had terrible eyesight, and I know that your night vision can deteriorate with age, although I had hoped it wouldn’t be happening quite yet. I’ve noticed that the issue is actually worse at dusk or as I’m leaving the bright lights of Bigtown, rather than when it’s fully dark, which suggests my eyes might be taking longer to adjust. Either way something to get checked out at my next eye test which is due in a month.

Matters aren’t helped by the fact that I’m currently nursing a sore knee – possibly due to tripping over my Brompton on an escalator in our haste to catch a train in Brussels (in fact, now I come to think of it, almost all of the injuries I’ve had in recent years seem to have been Brompton related; it’s possible the bike is out to get me).

General decrepitude is one thing, and probably to be expected as I advance further into my fifties. But when it starts affecting my ability to cycle, then it’s a bit of a problem. Hopefully the knee will sort itself out, and a new light will restore me to happy night cycling. But if not, perhaps my e-bike – and varifocal – years are coming sooner than I’d hoped.


I Didn’t Need Another Hobby …

September 28, 2022

And yet it seems I have one, or a project on my hands at least: restoring the gravel drive.

Partially cleared weed grown gravel drive

The orthodox way to sort out a weed-grown gravel drive is to spray the lot with herbicides and then dump a bag of fresh gravel on the top but I was never going to do the first step, and the second is increasingly recognised as being unsustainable. So I’ve gone for the alternative, which is to painstakingly dig out the weeds, pull out the shreds of landscape fabric which was doing nothing to keep them down, and rake out the gravel that’s become embedded into the soil underneath over the years, inch by gradual inch.

Like unravelling wool, this is actually more enjoyable than it sounds. Even though I know that the drive will be weedridden again as soon as – maybe even before – I get the whole thing clear, there is a meditative enjoyment to be had in doing a task that is just difficult enough to be absorbing, while it’s still possible to make visible progress in an afternoon. Add in a couple of podcasts or a decent few hour’s worth of radio programmes (adjusted for whether a monarch has recently died or not) and you will also learn something. Plus it’s time spent outdoors and, as autumn and winter looms, that feels increasingly precious.

And besides, it certainly beats cycle campaigning, especially at the local level, which has the same repetitive nature but largely without the visible sense of progress. After 11 years at the helm of the Bigtownshire Cycle Campaign we thought that, if nothing else, we’d at least finally cracked the problem of the Rood Fair blocking our main cycle path, the one that joins all the other cycle paths together and which is summarily closed for a week every year since time immemorial. Last year, we actually managed to get a meeting with the fair operator and the council together and amazingly came up with an agreed solution to the issue that was too late for that fair but would definitely, definitely be in place this year.

Definitely …

There’s little more dispiriting than starting your week by setting aside all the positive things you were hoping to do and instead spending the morning lobbying the coonsil and anyone else you can get to listen, simply to get them to implement the thing that they have already agreed they would do. Especially after you’ve just spent a week visiting three cities whose authorities have actually been getting stuff done. So, after having most of yesterday morning hijacked by the ultimate in dispiriting activities, and with no chance of doing anything productive with the time left, I did the sensible thing and headed out to the garden to reclaim another few centimetres of gravel for civilisation.

Pointless as it may have been, it felt way more productive …

(I should add, in fairness to the coonsil, that after a combination of our lobbying, an official complaint, and some journalistic enquiries, a way has been found to reopen the cycle route. So a victory of sorts but oh dear sweet baby Jesus, why does it have to be this hard?)


Vive l’Evolution

September 23, 2022
Bromptons lined up in front of the Eiffel Tower.

After the pleasant surprise that was Brussels, we moved on to sample the much better publicised efforts of Paris to become a cycling friendly city. Lulled into a sense of false security by the delights of Brussels’ car-free day, we didn’t really plan our route from Gare du Nord to our accommodation in the 14th arrondissement in any great detail, other to not that it was more or less due south. Rookie error. According to the authorities, Paris’s car free day led to a 40% drop in traffic compared to a normal Sunday – but this turns out to still be quite a lot of traffic, to the point where we were wondering whether we’d actually got the date wrong. In fairness we’d missed the properly pedestrianised sections of the event, but compared to the incredible experience we’d just had of a Brussels empty of cars, it wasn’t quite in the same league

So our ride to the hostel (the wonderful FIAP Jean Monnet which is highly recommended, not least on the cyclist-friendly grounds of its FREE BREAKFAST) involved a number sections where we had to – not for the last time – put on our big girl pants and mix with the organised chaos that is Paris traffic. This was combined with the joys of navigating a city which eschews the conventional grid system in favour of junctions where five, six, or even seven roads would meet in a gloriously confusing system of radiating diagonals which meant you (and by ‘you’ of course I mean ‘me’) were never quite heading in the direction you thought you were. Throw in Google Maps’ conviction that telling you the name of the street you’re looking for is nothing like as important as informing you that the café on the corner has 3.7 stars, and we resorted to choosing whichever road at any given junction looked like it had the best infrastructure and then regrouping periodically to correct our course if we had gone too far adrift.

Cyclists looking puzzled at a junction

Over the next couple of days we conducted a rigorous test of Paris’s cycling infrastructure through the medium of getting lost while trying to work our way around a number of tourist attractions of Paris. What was encouraging to see was that not only are the city authorities building new cycle tracks (and not just in the honeypot tourist locations) but they are widening existing ones to make space.

widened cycle tracks

And a good thing too because Parisians are FAST – they drive fast, they walk fast and they cycle like stink – if you hear the squeal of poorly maintained brakes behind you on a cycle track then move over because a Velib is COMING THROUGH, generally with inches to spare from your elbow.

And there are lots and lots and lots of cyclists and scooters everywhere you look, which can actually be the most stressful part of cycling in Paris, especially if you’re sticking to the better routes where cars are less of an issue. There’s no getting around the fact that Parisians take a relaxed and interpretive approach to the rules of the road and the cyclists are no exception: there are signs allowing bikes to turn or go straight ahead at some red lights if it’s clear but at pretty much every light, most of the cyclists would go a little bit before they got an actual green. In a way, it’s a roll-your-own version of the cyclist advanced green – getting the bikes out of the way of the right turning traffic (and probably the only way to safely manage a left turn short of doing it Copenhagen style in two stages). For those of us who were sticking to the rules, any turning drivers were pretty good about waiting for the bikes to clear before turning across the lane – one advantage of bikes reaching critical mass in a city, I guess. As with Brussels, turning conflicts were already built in to the system (cars can turn into a road while the pedestrians have a green man to cross it), which would be hard to translate into the UK context where we’re used to everyone being given their own cycle of the lights.

There’s no doubt about it – cycling through Paris is an adrenaline ride, and one which remains off-putting to many. You arrive feeling fully awake after a 360 degree, senses-working-overtime experience. There were roads which were objectively scary (usually when we’d got lost and strayed into the parts of Paris which remain untouched by the cycling revolution) and there were junctions where we had to resort to getting off and pushing (and ones where we couldn’t even fathom where we were supposed to do that – looking at you Place de la Concorde) but mostly it felt as if bikes were expected, catered for (to some degree), even perhaps welcome, and that you almost definitely wouldn’t die if you kept your wits about you. For a massive, busy, complex place like Paris, that’s an achievement indeed.

Place de la concorde with one cyclist entering a massive space full of traffic

And as always, while the best cycle tracks were pretty good – wide and well separated – the best cycling experience was not those, but the places where whole roads had been given over to people rather than cars. The cycle lane up the Champs Elysee was pretty meh (I think I may have mentioned that I’m not a fan of cobbles) but the ex-car tunnel underneath it at the top was brilliant. And for those looking for a joyful ride rather than an exhilarating one, the ex-expressway along the Seine is an absolute delight. Like Brussels car-free day, it was a reminder that roads designed for cars tend to just work, whereas most bike infrastructure (especially the retrofitted stuff) tends to be a bit more improvised.

Entrance to the tunnel under the Arc de Triumph

I’m now in London, having ridden the 8 miles north from St Pancras along a mixture of nice infrastructure, quiet filtered streets, Finsbury Park, and then a hang-on-to-your-hat blast up the inaptly named Green Lanes until reaching the relative safety of Enfield.

Like Paris, London is a big and complex city that has made impressive strides towards retrofitting a cycle network onto streets that have become traffic clogged over the years. Both are so much better than they were – although Paris definitely has the edge at the moment, both in terms of density of infrastructure and of sheer numbers of cyclists. It shows us what can be done when the will is there not just to build new stuff but to keep improving, scaling up, and taking space for people. Because, for all the talk of a cycling revolution, it’s evolution that’s needed if we’re to bring a whole city along for the ride.


Cobbled Together

September 19, 2022

So we’re in Paris, after two nights in Brussels. More of Paris anon, but there is much to say about both cities, so stand by for a two-parter.

Umbrella that says 'fucking rain'

I’m going to admit that I knew nothing of Brussels the actual place before we visited (as opposed to Brussels the concept of the European Union) except that it was considered pretty car centric but it had recently been making some efforts to change that. So with suitably low and managed expectations (compounded by the fact that it was raining when we arrived and contrived to rain every ten minutes like clockwork during our only full day there), I have been pleasantly surprised by it, both on the cycling and on the general interestingness front.

House with bicycles attached to it.

Obviously, there’s a limit to what you can glean about a place from a day’s tootling about on bikes mainly around the historic centre, but, with that caveat, it did seem like a remarkably cycleable city, and much much more chilled than you might expect. The default speed limit is 30km/h – 18mph – falling to 20 km/h in residential areas, which were also heavily filtered. Many of those streets were one way to cars and two way to bikes, without any other attempt to contraflow lane to make space for cycling, which probably helps keep the speeds low.

Brussels street signage showing 20km/h zones and contraflow bike lanes

We decided to follow a suggested route that more or less circumnavigated the inner part of the city, using three different named and numbered bike routes. These were largely down back streets rather than major roads, which had the advantage of being pretty quiet but the major disadvantage of being heavily cobbled, a road surface that leaves a lot to be desired especially in the rain. They also made some interesting route choices (why yes, hello, I’d love to cycle through the middle of a bus station, thank you so much) but then again also took us past some interesting fleamarkets, a vegan street festival, and the sort of alleyways where the greenery has taken over.

The infrastructure itself ranged from nice wide separated tracks to doorzone bike lanes (with added cobbles) and it was noticeable when we strayed from the official bike routes (the signage was good but not that good) it disappeared altogether and the roads became much scarier (one low point was a large and confusing roundabout with cobbles AND a light dusting of gravel and sand which was extra exciting to naviagate on a fleet of Bromptons).

cobbled street with doorzone bike lane

As far as I can tell, the whole city seems to operate on the basis of ‘who blinks first, loses’ – pedestrians step out onto crossings, drivers nose forward to see if you really mean to assert your right of way, and sometimes you just have to make the room for yourself that you need. At slow speeds (20 km/h is barely over 10mph) this just about works and the streets were surprisingly calm given that everyone was technically in conflict with each other at all times. However, although we saw plenty of adults on bikes and tons on e-scooters (which proved remarkably good at negotiating the uneven road surfaces), we saw almost no children during the whole of Saturday.

All that changed on Sunday morning when we emerged to sample Brussels’ car-free day:

I had read that the city was completely closed to cars, but I had assumed that meant the centre – inside the pentagon. But as we headed out we discovered that it was the whole of Brussels that was affected, and apart from trams, taxis and buses, it was pretty much exactly that, car free and the city’s streets were alive with cyclists enjoying the freedom to ride along even the largest roads: direct, wide, empty, and best of all – entirely cobble free.

All in all, I liked Brussels a lot, from what I saw of it (if nothing else a city famous for its frites and its waffles is a city close to my heart). It’s clearly got a long way to go but it already feels way more cycling friendly in the centre than Edinburgh or Glasgow. The UK could definitely take a leaf from its book and be more ambitious about lowering speed limits, filtering streets, allowing contraflow cycling – and running car-free days worthy of the name.

Although maybe don’t bother with the cobbles.


Another Mad Adventure

September 14, 2022

In our search for hashtag notoriety, the five* who go mad are off again on Friday to sample the delights of Brussels and revisit Paris. Our goal as ever is to see for ourselves what other places are doing to make cycling mainstream (or not), to hopefully make connections with other cycle campaigners and find out how they got there (or didn’t) and to have some fun.

central Amsterdam canal bridge

So far we’ve done Amsterdam, Seville and Nantes (as well as Paris) abroad, and the London Mini Hollands (which I somehow neglected to blog about), Arran and Bute, and Islay closer to home. Since I wrote up the latter, there’s been something of a sea change in thinking here about tourism by the local enterprise partnership, with a pivot away from driving holidays towards bringing cyclists in. So far this hasn’t got much further than a nice document with lots of ambitious ideas in it, but I am an optimist (it’s why I’m still standing) and hopeful that at least some of it will actually turn into reality. Meanwhile, places like Paris are reportedly just getting on with it and we’re off to find out what that looks like on the ground.

sightseeing by bike

For those who like to follow along on Twitter, there is of course a hashtag (#5GoMadOnEurostar). Our first challenge will be to get ourselves to London without being trampled by the crowds heading down there to pay their respects to the Queen, and then – after a quick tour of the London infrastructure highlights if the conditions allow – to get four Bromptons into four suitable bags and onto the train.

cafe and patisserie

We may also have to pack at least a fancy hat or two, as we’ll be hoping to join the Paris edition of the Fancy Women Bike Ride on Sunday, which should theoretically be a chance to actually enjoy the event rather than spending the whole time running around organising it. Although in reality, my anticipation is somewhat tempered by the thought of having to show up looking reasonably put together, in the middle of a bike tour, in Paris. As someone who doesn’t really do chic, cycle or otherwise, at the best of times, this is a big ask. Don’t say I don’t suffer sometimes for my cycle campaigning art.

group sitting at a pub table

* There are four of us. We know. Please don’t write in.


Look, Ma, No Teeth

September 2, 2022

So, at the age of 53, without really putting too much effort into it, I have acquired an unexpected new life skill: riding no handed, something I never thought I’d have the courage event to attempt, let alone master.

This partly may be to do with the geometry of the new bike – even though it looks pretty much the same, the mysteries of bike physics – beyond the ken of mere mortals like me – may make it more amenable to hands free riding than other bikes. And it’s certainly to do with another aspect of its geometry, which means it’s still not quite set up as comfortably as the old bike, meaning I’m spending more and more time pushing myself more upright to take the weight off my hands and straighten out my neck. From there, it’s an easy step to floating one and then both hands off the handlebars, for micro seconds at first, and then longer and longer, until the magic happens and you’re pedalling down the road, hands free, grinning like a loon (this last part may not be necessary but it does seem to be an integral part of the practice).

Empty road ahead

So far, my newfound skill hasn’t got as far as doing anything useful with my new freedoms, such as taking anything out of my pockets, putting on a jacket, or even just bowling down the road while rolling a cigarette/sending a text (delete as appropriate according to your generation). My left hand remains fairly close to the handlebars ready to take control, and my focus is entirely on keeping the show on the road. But now that I’ve cracked it, I can’t stop practising, and who knows where it will take me (hopefully not A&E …). If nothing else, I can take a leaf out of a local teenage girl’s book – she discourages drivers from close passing her by riding along with both hands outstretched. That certainly puts the ‘strategic wobble’ into perspective.

And now that this old dog has learned at least one new trick, what others might I manage to crack? Out on a group ride the other day we disappointed a passing gang of teenage lads going the other way when not one of us was able to do a wheelie. I’m not even sure where to start with that one (although the amount of crap I carry around in my pannier must surely help), but it’s got me thinking …


There’s More that One Way to Skin a Cat …

August 18, 2022

… and there’s more than one way to add to your Eddington number. Sure it’s nice to slip off for a day out on the bike with lunch with a friend thrown in – but there are also days when the miles add up just through various errands and those count too.

Take yesterday, when a suddenly busy diary meant I had to be down in Bigtown with the Pepperpots, then race back home for an online meeting at four, before heading back into town again to lead an evening bike ride. Somehow that meant I’d racked up 45 miles which (given I’m currently working on an E of 37) will do very nicely for my totals. OK, so it wasn’t anything particularly epic, but miles is miles, and my legs were certainly telling me all about it on the climb back home last night.

I think I’ve said this before, but one of the less-commonly acknowledged benefits of cycling primarily for transport is that the busier you get, the more riding you end up doing. The Pepperpots are gradually settling in but there’s still lots to be done so I’m back and forth most days, just as in-person activities are returning more or less to their normal frequency. If I cycled mainly for exercise, or leisure, it would have been the first thing to go when the going got tough. As it is, I have a built-in minimum of 15 miles a day – which means an hour and half every day on my own, with nothing to do except pedal (and not even that on the freewheel into town). Some days, when I’m slogging up the hill into a headwind in the rain, it doesn’t exactly feel like ‘me time’. But you take the rough with the smooth and I have a feeling that it’s giving me exactly the headspace that I need at the moment.

And besides, yesterday was a glorious day as the sunshine made what turned out to be a brief encore appearance. The lightest of breezes, with coolish air but warmth from the sun, followed by a perfectly calm and warm evening (and good company on the ride to boot). Days like that, it’s a privilege to be on the bike.

Tomorrow I’m off on a different sort of adventure. More on that later, if I’m spared.


Eddingtonned

August 6, 2022

Recently (having realised I missed it), I resurrected the idea of tracking my Eddington number. Having been bitten by the loss of my tracking spreadsheet, and not wishing to get involved in the murky waters of Strava (even though it might have made the latest regional transport analysis a tiny bit less skewed), I have gone low tech:

Notebook with 'Eddington Rides' on the cover

I don’t do many Eddington rides – I’m unofficially aiming for one a month, where anything over 37 miles would count towards increasing my number, but longer is better – so it’s not a massive bureaucratic burden to write a brief note of each qualifying ride and then update the various tallies accordingly. Indeed, I’m hoping that, in time, the notes themselves will act as a prompt to remember some memorable days (and nights) out on the bike, even if this blog itself is long gone.

Yesterday was a case in point. The occasion – a chance to meet up with a friend who is holidaying out west for a walk and a catch up. The distance – a total of 55 miles, largely on the quiet roads we do so well out here …

Road lined with beeches

Along wooded river valleys …

narrow road with woods on either side

And up into what I think of as raven country …

Empty road across moorland

Coming back, I had a tailwind, and on a warm late summer afternoon there’s really nothing finer than bowling along for miles and miles and miles on an open empty road with the wind at your back. No pressure of time, nothing to achieve, nobody to please but myself and nowhere I needed to be except (eventually) home. It’s not something I’d want to do every day or even every week, but yesterday filled a hole I didn’t even know needed filling until it was gone.

Eddington number tallies

Getting one step closer to increasing my E-number is just a bonus, really.


Repositioning Cruise

August 3, 2022

It’s been a busy week; we came back from our US holiday with just a week to prepare for a massive family reunion, possibly the first time the whole of my mother’s side of the family have been together since the family Christmases started getting out of hand once my generation started having children of their own.* Fortunately for all concerned, even though we held the event in Bigtown in honour of the Pepperpots’ new home, I wasn’t on the organising committee (my idea of a party being going for a bike ride instead). Instead, my sisters managed the impressive logistical feat of assembling nearly 30 of us in one place ranging in age from 3 to 85 and did so remotely, and what can I say, I’m glad they did and I’m glad it wasn’t me as I’m shattered enough as it is.

Selfie with family members

My contribution to the weekend was more limited and consisted of helping assemble a motley fleet of bicycles for those who preferred to be pedal powered over the weekend. Bicycles make wonderful transport but they are also a bit of a bugger to transport themselves, resulting in sort of logic puzzle where you’re trying to get a fox, a chicken and a cabbage across a river, but with a big hill instead of a river and a couple of Bromptons, a hired mountain bike, a Paperbike and other machines standing in for the rest of the cast. This meant the weekend started with my sister driving my nephew up to our house, and swapping him for my cousin (do try and keep up at the back) so my nephew could ride the other half’s commuter bike down to Bigtown, and ended with a relay arrangement that for reasons too complicated to go into involved me riding twice into Bigtown on the big bike first to retrieve the Brompton from one spot and then leave it in another (and, the ultimate indignity) actually walk somewhere in between to make it all join up.

The end result of all this is that two thirds of our working bike fleet are now at my parents’ house, and I’ve conclusively determined that Covid has had no effect on my ability to cycle up our hill. We may have to resort to the car to repatriate the last of the bikes (I’ve towed the Brompton down the hill on the trailer in the past but I’m not sure I fancy the return trip) and I might just invest in a combination lock in case we ever decided to do something similar again.

* I recall sending an email out to the wider family after the last Christmas we actually managed to have all together titled ‘a modest proposal’ although, to be clear, I was only suggesting finding self-catering accommodation, not actual cannibalism.


Literary Criticism, Rural Style

July 27, 2022
Calm river with early morning light

Cycling into Bigtown early yesterday morning in something of a jetlagged daze, I noticed a car waiting in the road ahead. As I passed it, the window wound down and a waving hand emerged. I stopped to see if I could be of assistance and it turned out to be one of my road pals – the people I regularly wave to and occasionally stop and chat to on my regular trips into town. Along with the yellow raincoat woman with the big dogs, the very smiley woman with the small dog (we always exchange very enthusiastic ‘hiyas’ and I think now neither of us is certain whether or not we actually know each other or have just been saying hello for so long we think we might) and the small chap with the large tree (he doesn’t always cycle with a tree, to be fair) who updates me with a slice of his life every time we’re on the same road together, there’s the woman I met in the shop who had been waving at me from her car for months and hadn’t quite realised I wouldn’t recognise her when she wasn’t wearing a silver jeep.* And now she had somehow worked out that I had written a book (have I mentioned that I’ve got a book out at all?) read it and really enjoyed it and wished to let me know.

Anyway, she was delighted to hear I’d be happy to sign her copy and was genuinely planning to achieve this by just keeping it with her as she drove around until we bumped into each other again, which isn’t actually the worst idea in this part of the world (in the end we decided that exchanging phone numbers might be a tiny bit more efficient). All of which made for a nice boost for a tired brain as I pedalled on into town.

This has reminded me that I did rashly promise a book signing by bike this year. So far I haven’t managed to work out a window of time, weather and fitness to make this happen but I have not abandoned the idea. And if anyone is too impatient to wait for me to get it sorted, they too can just randomly roam the back lanes of Bigtownshire until they bump into me. It’s surely only a matter of time.

* I could have sworn I’d blogged about this incident, but I haven’t been able to find it again so apologies if I’m repeating myself here.