I’m back to being boringly busy again it seems, hence the sparse posting, but at least this week part of the ‘busy’ involved leading various bike rides so I’ve managed to get some time out enjoying the fine weather. One was an evening ride to my favourite peat bog, and today’s was actually to New Nearest Village, which involved riding into Bigtown to meet the group, leading them on a glorious loop out the back way to the village within a couple of miles of my house, down by another back route (to avoid the B-road), back along my usual route to Bigtown, and then more or less retracing my steps back home again.
But on a day when May has hit its stride, in good company and perfect weather …
… I didn’t mind a bit.
‘How do you find the energy to keep campaigning?’ someone asked me as we swooped down along empty roads through banks of May blossom, with the sun on our faces and the wind at our backs. Well, days like today are part of it.
Someone said as we headed out of Bathgate after a brief Greggs stop on our ride to Glasgow for POP yesterday. This is one of the great lies of cycling: it’s never ALL downhill and even a net downhill can feel like a lot of climbing when you’re riding into a headwind at a pace that’s a fair bit faster than you’re comfortable with.
I’d hummed and hawed about joining the Glasgow feeder ride at all – I haven’t had the chance to do any really long rides on the bike for ages and I’m nothing like as bike fit as I was last year. But I wanted to mark the occasion with a proper effort, and the complications of getting myself and the bike directly to Edinburgh on a weekend made it less outlandish than it might otherwise be to take the train to Glasgow and cycle the 45 miles to Edinburgh in company. I also wanted to support the friends and parents of Emma Burke Newman who had requested the ride be dedicated to her memory.
Although it wasn’t the longest ride I’ve done by a long way, it was definitely one of the toughest. Forty-five miles into a headwind is bad enough; 45 miles while trying to keep up with riders who are significantly faster and fitter than me was another level. For the last ten miles, I was pretty much concentrating on just keeping in contact with the group and waiting for that mythical downhill section to begin. Every time a gap opened up on one of the uphill sections, the headwind made it almost impossible to close again without a massive effort and I knew that if I got too far detached from the bunch I’d be in trouble, especially once we got into the city proper where a gap of 30 seconds can mean being caught at a red light and seeing your companions disappear off ahead of you forever. With a protest to catch and the world’s most confusingly laid out city (fight me) to navigate if I did lose contact with the bunch, there was nothing to it but to put my head down, summon up my last reserves, and pedal after everyone for all I was worth.
Anyway, I made it, and then I had the opposite problem: suddenly I was at the front of a group of cyclists and attempting to slow the whole procession down as we made our way to the Scottish Parliament on what genuinely was an entirely downhill route. The thing is, if you ride slowly enough with a big group of people of all ages, then the kids have a way of coming to the front. That looks great in the photos, but it also means that when you get to the Parliament itself and the first riders arrive, then you can turn around and find yourself in charge of several dozen 7-12 year-olds on bikes with apparently no parents to be seen. I have never seen so many children looking quite so delighted with themselves since, ooh, the last POP.
Anyway, the organisers done great, with very little help from me. It’s a relief to know that this crazy endeavour that started as an attempt at a flash mob and has somehow become a Scottish cycling institution is in good hands. And just in case I had begun to wonder if it was still needed, I had a nice reminder as I cycled home from the train station this afternoon, when a dopey driver pulled out on me on my least favourite roundabout. My awesome reflexes – and upgraded brakes – mean I didn’t end up with a ghost bike of my own. But if the universe’s irony generator could give it a rest for a wee while, I’d be grateful.
As a freelancer, there are very few reliable constants in my life, but one thing seems inevitable: just as spring gets going, the weather cheers up, and PoP preparations hot up the work will start arriving as if by firehose. Our current bright and sunny – albeit breezy – weather has been brought to you by multiple overlapping deadlines, and I hope you’re enjoying it because I’m mostly just looking at it longingly through my study window. It’s times like these that I’m even more grateful about using my bike for transport because otherwise I’d not be getting out to enjoy it at all.
However busy I am, though, there’s one thing that I won’t be missing: come Saturday morning I’ll be getting up at silly o’clock to cycle to Edinburgh on the Glasgow feeder ride, dedicated to the memory of Emma Burke Newman who was killed on her bike at the start of this year and whose friends and family are supporting us this year. When we started POP in 2012, we had strong support from the family of Andrew McNicoll, who had been killed in Edinburgh at the beginnng of that year. It’s sobering to find ourselves, ten years on, in very much the same position. Much has changed, but progress has been painfully slow, and even the most timid change, nationally and locally, seems to meet political headwinds.
Perhaps that why PoP’s spirit animal this year is a sloth.
Anyway, I’m looking forward to putting the laptop aside, and the phone down, and getting on my bike to face some actual headwinds instead on the ride to Glasgow. Draining as they are, at least if you keep on pedalling you do actually get there in the end.
(I’m told by those in the know that sloths are A Thing at the moment)
We’d kind of hoped that we’d won the big battles with cycling in Scotland, at least getting decent funding at central government level, and that we could all concentrate on the nitty gritty streetfighting of local campaigning: getting actual cycle paths built on actual roads to some sort of decent design, to create actual joined up networks of routes, preferably before irreversible climate change kicks in. But that was before the bizarre slow-moving car crash that politics in Scotland seems to have turned into in the past few weeks in which nothing seems certain any more. It seems we have to keep on showing up and reminding politicians there should be no backpedalling on their promises – because if we don’t get decent funding and leadership from the top, there’s no way we can make progress at the local level, especially if you’ve got a coonsil as in thrall to the car as ours is.
I won’t be cycling to POP this year, after last year’s epic effort. And I’m thankfully no longer really organising it, having handed that responsibility off to people who have the time and the energy to keep it going. But I shall remain its Dowager Duchess, as I have denominated myself, and keep on turning up and spreading the word for as long as it takes to make for a truly cycle friendly Scotland.
Which, given the current rate of progress, may mean ending up being carried down the Royal Mile on a rickshaw at the age of 103. See you there …
On top of the various definitions of the start of spring – meteorological, astronomical etc. – may I humbly propose the addition of sartorial spring, or the point in the year at which you have no idea what to wear when leaving the house to be comfortable (some of us set aside long ago any aspiration to be stylish).
Take today – a Baked Alaska sort of a day, which started with a ground frost so although it felt warm in direct sunlight, the air was still actually freezing. Living as I do at the top of a hill, I set off on the bike rather wishing I’d worn something to protect my ears, but was already feeling somewhat overdressed by the time I’d reached the balmier altitudes of Bigtown – and was rapidly shedding layers on the climb back up. Every year around this time I feel the lack of clothes which look cheery enough to be springlike but are stealthily warm so I don’t have to keep explaining to people in their shirtsleeves in town why I’m still wearing my winter coat in May. And this is even with my commitment to merino base layers.
Sadly, there’s another sign of spring which reliably appears as soon as we get our first sunny weekend…
It never fails to amaze me how thoroughly the remains of a single takeaway can despoil a verge. Time to get the litter pickers out again …
I can’t now remember what I was originally planning to do this week. Something useful or creative, possibly, like writing my next novel,* or getting ready for a local cycling networking event we’re planning at the weekend. Instead what I’ve been doing is cycling round Bigtown on a daily basis, counting empty parking spaces in the many car parks dotted around the town.
Bear with me, for there’s a reason, beyond idle curiosity. You see, the coonsil, in its infinite wisdom, has had plans to build flood defences (it has in fact had plans in development since about the time we moved up here but, you know, all in the fullness of time – I mean, the town only floods once or twice a year). As part of these plans, the main – or at least the most obvious – car park in the town centre was going to disappear under the new flood barrier (I was baffled when we moved up here as to why Bigtown had decided that the obvious use for the banks of a beautiful river complete with resident otters and salmon was parking cars on it until I realised said river regularly bursts its banks). Obviously they couldn’t actually lose any parking spaces, for fear of opening the Hellmouth (the coonsil has a parking strategy which says that no parking place may be lost without an equal or better parking space replacing it, and I really wish I were making this up), so plans were hatched to turn the Greensands, a nice patch of green space upstream, into a replacement car park.
(Joni Mitchell classic lyrics aside, perhaps paradise is a bit of a stretch, but it’s a pleasant enough spot where kingfishers and treecreepers can regularly be seen, and besides we need all the green spaces we can get these days).
Then, due to local political shenanigans that I don’t even pretend to understand the latest coonsil administration fell, and with it the plans to build the flood defences at all. This has left some of the more dinosaurish parts of the coonsil in a quandary: how were they to get their lovely new car park now? The answer was clear – they would put in a planning application to build it anyway, just in case. After all, sometimes the main car park was flooded, and then where would people park their cars? The fact that even they admitted that paving over yet more of the open areas would make the flooding more likely was neither here nor there (nor indeed the fact that when the floods are really bad, that area will be underwater too). And sometimes the fair comes and closes off the car park (never mind that every time we complain that the fair also cuts off the cycle path we’re told that the fair has been coming here since James the 6th’s time and we should just get used to it). Clearly, if we might occasionally lose some parking capacity then we need a spare car park (long time readers may recall that they have form on this sort of nonsense).
Now ask anyone in Bigtown (who isn’t a cyclist) and they will tell you that there’s not enough parking. Especially when the fair is in town. Which it is this week, as it happens. So, taking the opportunity to check whether, in fact, we do need a whole spare car park when the main one is closed, we’ve been spending this week surveying the town’s car parks at various times of the day and counting any free spaces.
The week is yet young, but we’ve already found a few things out. For a start, Bigtown has dozens of little car parks scattered around the centre of the town, all of them free to use and, in truth, mostly fairly full most of the time – it’s no wonder they estimate that a third of the town centre traffic is people driving between car parks looking for a space (there’s also the issue that some of these car parks were laid out in more innocent times and the spaces aren’t large enough to accommodate your average All-Terrain Global Warmer that you definitely need for nipping out to the shops so in some cases one vehicle takes up two places). There’s also a massive car park, right next to the main riverside car park, which is always, even at the busiest times, almost completely empty (this – it may not surprise you to learn – is pretty much the only one which charges for parking). It’s actually quite refreshing to find that there’s one part of the town that’s not completely dominated by cars – at one point there were more cars parked illegally on the nearby supposedly pedestrianised shopping street than there were in the pay and display car park. There is also another large car park, free to use, which is pretty close to the High Street but maybe not quite close enough for some people, which always has a good number of spaces in it. And finally, there’s the Greensands itself, site of the proposed car park, which already has a bit of parking on it, and which is never full. So they’re going to make a half empty car park bigger, despite the fact that even the car drivers of Bigtown don’t want to use it.
It makes no sense. Even the people who want to bring cars back onto the High Street agree it makes no sense. And yet, we’ve had to drop everything positive we could be doing in order to battle this nonsense to prevent Bigtown becoming even more car-dominated and car-dependent than it already is. It does, genuinely, make me despair.
On the other hand, if you want any advice on where to park on a busy Tuesday morning in Bigtown, I’m your woman.
No sooner had I got safely home from Edinburgh on Thursday, than I had to hitch up the trailer and head back out into the evening – in the face of mounting yellow snow warnings which in the end amounted to a light dusting, somewhat disappointingly – for another session of the local Repair Shop:
This was somewhat thinly attended, perhaps due to said yellow warnings, but there were enough people and tools there to help me get new hooks put on the cow pannier, and to make some progress on fixing a wooden clothes horse, plus plenty of good cycling and general repair oriented chat.
Emboldened by my success, I spent the next morning putting new brake blocks on the bike (in retrospect, this might have been a task to do before I’d cycled downhill with a trailer, but fortunately the old brakes held out this time) and have also finally had a go at a spot of visible mending on my jeans (after learning how to do it at the previous repair shop). The end result isn’t quite as beauteous as some of the examples you can find on Instagram, but are at least wearable.
I’m not the only one. The coonsil have more or less finished fixing the washed out road, and I was able to once more cut down to my usual quiet back road to get into Bigtown yesterday, instead of having to stick it out on the main road – at least at the weekend when the work isn’t going on. They’ve not just repaired the washed out banking with some mahoosive boulders, but they’ve also resurfaced a lot of it and even added a few passing places which will make it nicer to ride on with a giant 4×4 on my tail.
Interestingly, though, two months of riding on the B Road have somewhat hardened me to it – and it is a good mile shorter than the more pleasant back-roads route. Now that I have tasted the forbidden fruit of simply going direct, will I want to revert to adding the extra distance just for a slightly more civilised experience? It’s already a bit of a dilemma when I’m short of time, although I imagine it will only take one nasty close pass to send me scuttling back to safety. I’m fortunate to have the choice, I suppose. But it would be nice to live in a world where the bike-friendly route was the direct one …
That said, given the amount of complaining my legs have been doing since taking the trailer into town and back, I could maybe do with the extra miles, just to get back into training.
So, Wednesday saw me on a beautiful, but Baltic, morning, waiting for the Embra bus to mark International Women’s Day in the best way possible – by riding a bike.
The InfraSisters have been lighting up the streets of Edinburgh with bikes, lights and a banging sound system (as I think the young people call it these days) to draw attention to the fact that the little cycling infrastructure we have is often unlit, remote and unsafe feeling – and that spending our hard-campaigned for active travel money on routes that 50% of the population feel uncomfortable using for almost 50% of the year is not on.
I’ve been watching from afar for a while, but (inspired by, and a little jealous of, my little sister organising a big IWD ride down in That London last weekend) decided it was time to join them. Of course, I did have to pick the week that our train service to Edinburgh went from iffy to non-existent (which, weirdly, feels almost like an improvement by removing the last vestige of hope), so the bus it was. And an unheated bus to boot so, although my top half was warmed somewhat by the sun, my feet were frozen by the time the Brompton and I disembarked. Still, that was a good way to acclimatise for an after-dark ride on what was to be the coldest night of the year so far. And I also had the blissful experience of rocking up to a cycle protest that I hadn’t had to organise in any way shape or form. I could just turn up and ride, admiring the excellent marshalling that kept us all in a tight pack, Critical Mass style, through the city streets to Bute House to see if Nicola wanted to join us (she didn’t, sadly) and then to the City Chambers for a spot of interpretive dance (don’t ask).
It was brilliant to catch up with many cool cycling women I know who have picked up the campaigning baton and not just run with it, but thrown in some twirling along the way. And it was even better to see so many faces I didn’t recognise, young women especially, taking things to the streets. For a while, in a world where everything feels like it is going in the wrong direction, cycling policies in Scotland did appear to be on the right track at last, and I’ve been putting my efforts into battles closer to home. But for every step forward, there is always the threat of backpedalling – especially with a new First Minister in prospect. So it’s reassuring to know that there’s a fresh generation with the energy to keep campaigning for change.
As for me, I’m not going to lie, even getting to Edinburgh and back felt like quite enough stress to be going on with – I’ve simply got out of practice with gadding about the way I did before the pandemic. But I’ll keep on showing up for things when I can, if only to prevent the moss from closing over my head completely. And mark your diaries because POP rides on, as we take to the streets again on April 22nd. I might not be organising it, but I’ll be there, even if I have to cycle all the way …
There was a point this week when I feared I might have gained more than just fresh air, exercise and good chat on Sunday’s ride. Typically, the very first time we had returned to having an indoor lunch stop since the start of the pandemic, we had a message the next morning from one of the participants that they had tested positive for Covid. As I was sharing a table – indeed sat opposite to them for the whole of lunch – that put me in the front line for a possible infection.
Obviously the first thing I did was to instantly contract a galloping case of imaginary Covid. I was pretty sure it was nothing other than a combination of a mild cold, slight allergies and a dose of hypochondria, but none of these things show up on a lateral flow test. Fortunately neither (so far) has any actual real Covid and, having had a grim bout of it in the summer, I’m pretty sure I would have known if I was really infected (I will keep testing to be sure though). Hopefully my immune system – fortified by 4 jags and July’s infection – has done the job and fought it off. I’ve suffered no long-term effects from our first round but I’m not keen to keep rolling the dice on Long Covid.
Nor am I keen to pass it, or anything else, to anyone else, particularly not the Pepperpots. So I’ve had an unexpectedly quiet week instead of the busy one I had anticipated. There are, it seems, no real rules about Covid any more but cancelling my indoor meetings and staying well away from most people seemed like the responsible thing to do. In the end it was probably unnecessary, but on the whole a little inconvenience is better than a lot of regret. And it’s no bad thing to discover that the world does keep on turning without you after all.
I have been out on the bike though (it’s the best boost to the immune system I know – if you’re a real doctor, you can fight me on this) and we have exciting road mending news. Not sure how long it will take to restore my link to the quiet route in town but even the most entitled local drivers aren’t going to get past the massive digger they’ve parked across the road (although I’ve no doubt some of them have tried):
Also we are (to channel Margaret Thatcher) a great-aunt.