The High Trestle Trail: Non-Silo Thinking

September 7, 2019

grain silos

Apologies for those who are here for the gardening, hares and persistent light rain – normal service will be returning soon when we return home next week. But meanwhile we have been down to Iowa for a couple of days and our hosts were keen to stick us on a couple of bikes and send us off on their local tourist attraction, the High Trestle Trail (‘it’s a 46 mile ride but serious bikers like you should be fine’ … um).

iowa farms

I can’t tell you much about utility cycling in Ankeny or Des Moines (although there were an impressive number of bikes parked outside the local elementary school as we set off in the morning) but I can tell you that Iowa takes cycle tourism seriously. As well as an annual mass ride across the state (around 450 miles; Pedal for Scotland, eat your heart out) they’ve invested big time in leisure cycling with a massive 1,800 miles of cycle trails. And by ‘cycle trail’ we’re not talking ‘a goat track interrupted by steps’ or even ‘a blue sign alongside an A-road‘, but (at least as far as the route we took) something that’s an absolute pleasure to ride on a bike

toilets and bike parking

Complete with actual toilets, oh glory be.

honesty lights

Oh and lights sold on an honesty box system.

It helped that we chose a glorious day to cycle out to ‘the bridge’ (as it’s labelled on the direction markers) with a nice breeze (more of that later) to counteract the forecast 30 degree heat. The cycle to the start of the trail was mostly along the usual American shared-use sidewalk (‘double wide’ to accommodate cyclists) but once on the route it was completely off road, almost entirely level, and smoothly paved (unlike many of the roads we crossed, which in a reversal of normal practice, were often just gravel).

flat tire lounge

This unpaved gravel road is for the cars – the bike path is paved. Sustrans take note.

These routes are largely intended to be a tourist attraction and the towns we passed through are clearly keen to take advantage of all those passing hungry cyclists.

BBQ sign

 

This shouldn’t be rocket science, and yet it’s something we often forget to do in the UK – sending cyclists out into beautiful countryside, often bypassing any towns with any actual shops in them, and then neglecting to do anything to take their money from them.

We were a little nervous about committing ourselves to such a long ride on unfamiliar bikes (especially once we realised we were riding a strengthening tailwind) but the trail was so pleasant and the miles ticked away so easily, it seemed churlish not to go and at least look at the bridge, so sustained by granola bars (and a free banana) from a shop in a small town en route, we pedalled on.

High Trestle Bridge

The bridge was entirely worth it, too. Photos don’t really do it justice, but I did wonder at the sanity – and climbing skills – of the graffiti artist who had tagged the nearest pier.

view from the bridge

Bridge admired, and ridden over, there was nothing to do but turn around and go back again, but first we had to inject some of our tourist dollars into the local economy, in an extremely pleasurable way (not quite up to the standards of our taco safari, but very tasty nonetheless and the standard ‘feed a family of four’ serving size was welcome after a morning of steady pedalling).

The last 12 miles were into what was now a stiffish headwind, and my bottom was beginning to comment unfavourably on the non-Brooks saddle on my otherwise lovely borrowed bike and wonder in increasingly insistent terms where its comfy leather hammock was, but we got our heads down and took turns to be in front and before we knew it we were back at our hosts and ready to go out and eat All the Food once more.

If you’re ever in Iowa (and why not?) I would highly recommend getting onto a bike and exploring the trails. Now all we have to do is build something of similar quality in Scotland and start hoovering up those tourism pounds.

Bison

Moo-I-5 might need to up their game a little though …

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Shoreview: A Suburban Cycling Adventure

September 4, 2019

So we might be staying in the depths of American suburbia – but that doesn’t mean we’re not attempting to get around by bike … In fact, it’s been a pleasant surprise to discover that it’s actually easier to cycle around this particular corner of suburbia than it is in Bigtown – as long as you’ve got time on your hands.

So far we’ve been out and about a few times – enough to get a feel for the place and work out our way around. Crucially, we’ve also tried actually cycling to places, rather than just going out for a nice bike ride – I reckon there are very few towns and cities where you can’t find at least one nice bike route if you’re not fussy about where you go or whether there will be anything to do when you get there.

Snail lake park

Shoreview and the surrounding areas has plenty of those sort of routes – in a state famous for its lakes, there are plenty of places where you can cycle along through parkland and alongside the water to your heart’s content.

roadside cyclepath

But you can also cycle along most of the main roads completely away from traffic – which is not so pleasant, but much more helpful if you’re trying to get to a shop (any shop …) or anywhere that isn’t a lake.

big intersection

Not somewhere where you want to be ‘finding a gap in the traffic’ …

We’ve felt catered for at every crossing, which is a good thing because some of the intersections were not for the faint hearted, and we’ve found very few gaps in the network (at least in Shoreview – the next suburb down is less well catered for, and apparently in the nearby private estate the police will come and escort you off the premises if you attempt to cycle into it). The drivers have been unfailingly nice (another thing the state is famous for) – sometimes to a fault when we ended up in a standoff with the driver of a massive pick up, each trying to let the other go first.

bike locker at bus stop

In short, Shoreview passes the ‘could I live here?’ test – with pretty much all everyday journeys eminently cycleable and there are even bike lockers at some of the bus stops, so you could go properly multimodal should you need to go further afield. Its cycle friendliness is borne out by the other people we’ve seen out on bikes – from a high proportion of women among those riding to plenty of kids cycling independently – and even a couple of teenage girls, the true unicorns of the Anglo Saxon cycling world.

baguette and bag

No bike basket and the baguettes prove too tempting at the farmers’ market? No problem … (that is what the side pockets on your backpack is for, right?)

What there were not, were all that many other cyclists (aside from out on the lakeside trails). There were a few parked up at today’s farmers’ market, but otherwise we’ve had the bike parking more or less to ourselves at the various shopping locations we’ve stopped at. The problem is that, lovely as all the lakes, parks, spacious houses, leafy gardens and wide roads with ample room for bikes are, they do mean that everything is a long, long way from everywhere else. So, apart from kids and stubborn visitors from the UK with time on their hands, everyone just drives, because it’s a heck of a lot quicker.

The more I look into what makes for mass cycling, the more I realise that it’s complicated. Yes, the infrastructure is important, but that’s a necessary condition not a sufficient one. You also need places to be in easy reach, for shops not to stand marooned in an acre of parking, for the wait for the green man to be brief, and for driving simply not to be the easiest option. That’s happening in the cities – but if Shoreview is anything to go by, the suburbs have a lot further to go.

boardwalk cycling

Coming up next – cycling in Iowa if (as my father used to say on his blog) we are spared.


Choices, Choices

August 17, 2019

Stopping to admire a view during the Bigtown Cycle Campaign ride this afternoon, I mused that we too have a nice view from our house – and that as someone who rides a bike for transport, I take the time to appreciate it because I have earned every metre of elevation. In fact, I added, it was worse than that because the final road to our house drops down before the final hard climb.

‘You’ve chosen the worst possible place to live, as a cyclist,’ someone pointed out, who has visited ‘Wherever you go, its always uphill home.’

All of which is undoubtedly true. And yet, how could I now live anywhere where this wasn’t my road home?

road home

Or this?

road home

It’s sometimes worth reminding myself just how fortunate we are to have stumbled upon this corner of the world and made it our home


Warm Showers

August 6, 2019

It’s not often that I’ll chase after a miscreant driver on my bike – not so much because it’s largely pointless remonstrating with them, but mainly because I’m generally too slow to catch them. But there I was riding into Bigtown in the rain this morning having almost reached the state where I couldn’t get any wetter, when a driver decided to finish the job by accelerating through a puddle as he passed me. Fortunately I was on the cycle path so being engulfed by a wall of water was unpleasant rather than dangerous but I was sufficiently ticked off by the indignity of it, if nothing else, that I made the effort to catch up with him at the end of the road and have a word.

To be honest, I was expecting the driver to be a young lad who thinks that kind of thing is funny but in the end it was an older man who was simply oblivious – and pretty apologetic – leaving me somewhat mollified but still dripping and (once off the bike) audibly squelching in my shoes. My trousers are reasonably quick drying, and my waterproof jacket had largely proved Waterproof in Scotland, but I know from bitter experience that once my socks and shoes are wet, then they stay that way. This was a problem because I had a whole day to spend in town and although Scottish summers might be characterised by – as the Glasgow cyclists say – slightly warmer rain it’s not warm enough that spending the whole day in wet socks was going to be any good for my health.

So for the avoidance of trench foot I had to make a couple of emergency purchases – hiking socks (because why-oh-why can you no longer find any other kind of sock in mostly natural fibres? Even running socks are mostly polyester these days and it’s just … don’t) and a pair of sparkly plimsolls because if you’ve been forced to buy emergency shoes then why not get something that might also serve for a Fancy occasion? Especially as they cost less than the socks, so topsy turvy has our world become.

I wonder if Back On My Bike will consider these fancy enough to go with a frock?


Fancy That

August 4, 2019

I’ve been an admirer of the Fancy Women Bike Ride for a while now, and when an unexpected window opened up in Back On My Bike’s calendar on the appropriate day, we leapt at the chance to organise one in Edinburgh.

It’s refreshing to be involved in an event where not only has someone done most of the thinking for you – but which has joy firmly at the heart of it. And of course, no sooner had we floated the idea on social media, than a man jumped in to suggest how we might better run an event that came about because women were sick of being told what to wear on the bike, so now I’m more determined than ever that this will be a cavalcade of awesomely glamorous and wholly impractically dressed women (chaps are allowed, as long as they stay at the back) having a fantastic time and not letting anyone tell them anything about how they should do anything.

POP tshirts hanging to dry

Of course there is a slight hitch in that most of my fashion choices consist of deciding which grey jumper and/or POP t-shirt to wear (usually the clean one). Indeed, I think Back On My Bike only agreed to the whole thing because she’s curious to see what I look like in a frock (rainskirts apparently don’t count). But in this it turns out I am not alone – although one of the purposes of the ride is to encourage more women to cycle, from the enthusiastic comments I’m getting online, it also seems to be very effective at encouraging cycling women to consider wearing a skirt. For, while I do know some very stylish women among my cycling pals, it’s fair to say that most of us are going for more of a scrubbed outdoorsy tomboyish vibe than the full cycle chic. If we can indeed encourage some more ‘normal’ women to join us in Holyrood park on the 22nd of September, then this should be a wonderful meeting of minds and I’m looking forward to it immensely, at least now. Come back in a few weeks time when I’m in full-blown panic over what to wear …


Cardiff Calling

July 23, 2019

The sun always shines on the Cycling Embassy AGM, but there was a point this Friday when I did wonder if this weekend was going to be an exception…

car and flooded pavement

But in the end, as it always does, it came good.

riding bromptons in the sunshine

I’m not sure how exactly the annual gathering has evolved from a meeting with a bit of a bike ride* attached, to a weekend of advanced bike-borne kerb nerdery with with a meeting shoehorned in around the edges, but you won’t catch me complaining. I’ve been encouraged to note that quite a few other cycling meetings now seem to involve an outing or two before the business proper begins, but at the Embassy gatherings, the bulk of the discussion seems to happen on the bike – at least those conversations that are the real reason why I go to conferences of any description – the chance to catch up with fellow campaigners (and like-minded road engineers), swap war stories, exchange information, learn new things and hatch plans for the future.

looking at roadworks

“What did you do at the weekend?” “Oh, I went down to Wales to look at some half-completed road works”

Cardiff seems like a city that’s going places although (like pretty much all UK towns and cities) it is very much not there yet as far as cycling goes. The council appear to have big plans, and they’re being driven on by Wales’ Active Travel Act which means every local authority in Wales has had to develop an active travel network (coming from Scotland, where our so-called Cycling Action Plan for Scotland neither did much to force any action, nor contained anything you would recognise as a plan, this came as something of a revelation).

bicycle street

The city also has the sort of can-do attitude that can only make me look at the coonsil up here and weep. Putting in a sustainable urban drainage scheme? Why not make the whole area low-traffic neighbourhood while they’re at it? And not only did a councillor and a council officer attend the second of our rides, they were busy discussing where they could put in some extra dropped kerbs as we made our way back. We can’t even get councillors and officers in the same room up here, let alone out on bikes together, in case it removes their magical powers to pass the buck to each other.

Tackling the ‘Alpe d’Huez’. I’ll leave you to insert your own metaphor about uphill struggles.

And of course, as serious campaigners and professionals, there was no temptation at all as we passed the skate park to see what a Brompton could do over a tidy set of ramps and jumps.

Bromptons in Skate Park

No temptation at all.

*I would like to put it on record that I am the coiner of the phrase ‘infrastructure safari’ – the point of the weekend when we set off around a city examining every bridge, barrier and bollard, and of course those all-important kerbs.


Ambassadorial

July 17, 2019

side by side cycling

I’m in danger of becoming one of those bloggers who post at increasingly infrequent intervals, mainly with a litany of excuses for not having blogged more frequently, yet somehow here it is a week since I last posted and unless you want photos of compost* and some not-very-thrilling garden updates (the asparagus is looking a little more chipper, the beetroot is coming through, we’re still on a three-line lettuce-eating whip) there’s not much to say at the moment or at least I’m not feeling all that inspired to say it.

Life should get a little more exciting in coming days as I’m about to embark on a couple of weeks of unaccustomed sociability: the Cycling Embassy AGM in Cardiff, an old school friend visiting, another all-ability cycling day of chaos in Bigtown and then a dash up to Fife to visit more old school friends from a different school. All of which would be much more enticing if the major editing job which was supposed to be finishing this week hadn’t been extended for the next fortnight – hello freelancing life and the freedom to work to your own schedule as long as that schedule involves spending half your supposed holiday time hunched over a laptop.

'can you see me now asshole' vest

Some things haven’t changed since 2011

In preparing to write this, I did dig out this ancient history from 2011, just at the start of the Cycling Embassy – the first cycle campaign I ever started. Scrolling through the comments reminds me of how far we’ve come – there are few cycle campaigns in the UK now that don’t recognise the importance of proper cycling infrastructure – and also how far we have to go – some cities are cracking on with building a cycle network but even the best are making painfully slow progress, while other places are doing nothing. It seems everywhere in the UK, from the government downwards, is happy to declare a ‘climate emergency’ but whether that will translate into accelerating progress over the next few years is anyone’s guess.

That said, Wales has been quietly getting on with things (implementing the 20mph limits Scotland was too feeble to support, cancelling a motorway, drawing up decent design guidance for cycling infrastructure instead of kicking it into the long grass) so the Brompton and I will be curious to see what cycling in Cardiff will be like. Assuming I get to unchain myself from the laptop for long enough to find out …

* Don’t worry if you do, you will still get them, but all in good time.