We Are Traffic

May 14, 2022

‘When you first move here, you’d never believe that you would complain about the traffic here,’ someone told me soon after we’d just moved up. ‘And then, within a year, you’ll find yourself complaining about it.’

Well, she was off by more than a decade, but with the arrival of the Pepperpots, and needing to be going around the town centre by car much more than I’ve been used to, I might just have reached that point. As a cyclist, I’ve had plenty of occasion to complain about individual drivers, but traffic is not something that particularly affects me (and nor does finding somewhere to park). But in the last few weeks I’ve suddenly found out what everyone else has been moaning about as we’ve crawled along routes I could cycle in a flash, and even on one occasion found ourselves unable to find a parking space in a town where you can basically park wherever the hell you like. My bike may not be quicker than a car at getting me the 8 miles into town (which is inconvenient when your parents’ dining room door suddenly jams itself shut with your mother’s laptop on the wrong side of it), but once in Bigtown it feels like an actual jetpack in comparison. It’s just a shame I can’t use it for transporting a couple of octogenarians.

Still, it’s been a month since my parents moved here, and the various services they need are gradually starting to fall into place. Even better, they’ve now worked out a route that enables them to walk the mile or so into town from their house which may not be quicker at their pace than driving it (although it’s a close run thing when the traffic is properly bad) but is a heck of a lot less frustating. So hopefully I will soon be able to spend less time grinding my teeth in traffic and go back to smugly whizzing past it. It will certainly be a relief. Cycling might mean headwinds, flies in your teeth and the occasional homicidal driver, but these all pale in comparison to the horrors of being stuck in traffic. Drivers, how do you manage? Is this why you’re all so cross?

Road with 'SLOW' written on it several times

Evening All

May 8, 2022

We talk a lot about the lovely long summer days we have up here in Scotland, mostly during the rather less lovely short winter ones, but in my experience once they actually arrive, we (by which I mean ‘I’ of course) aren’t that brilliant at actually making use of them. Yes, it’s now light enough to garden (or insert the outdoor activity of your choice) well after 9pm, but in practice by that time the sofa has called and I have answered and – our post supper stroll to the top of the hill aside – I spend my evenings doing much the same things in May as I did in the dark days of November, just with the curtains open.

However, my plan to do Ride to the Sun at the end of the next month (ulp) may put paid to that. Not only will I be spending one of the very shortest nights of the year joining in this eccentric overnight adventure, but the need to get some more miles in my legs first has meant making the most of the extended daylight. My near daily trips to Bigtown to help the Pepperpots settle in have upped my weekly mileage a bit, but I feel that if I’m going to pull off another century ride, I need to be doing at least 100 miles a week and I’m not quite hitting that yet. Time is at a premium, as it always is, but with the cycle campaigning easing off, my evenings are more my own. And so yesterday, with a fine evening in prospect, I took off by myself for a couple of hours round the hills to top up the weekly mileage.

View from top of hill with overcast sky.

I still struggle with the idea of going out for a bike ride without either a destination in mind or a companion to enjoy it with but the other half was firm in his decision to stay at home and tend the fire and keep an eye on the hares, so I had to make do with my own company. Well me, and the cuckoo calling at the top of the biggest climb as I stopped to take in the view. It wasn’t the sort of evening for spectacular sunsets, just a gradual fading of the light as I turned for home, trying not to curse the yarnbomber who had decorated a post box in a way that felt positively cruel to this doughnutless cyclist with another couple of hills yet to climb (it did at least remind me that I had Chelsea buns ready to bake in the freezer so I got some delayed gratification this morning once they’d defrosted).

Post box decorated with crocheted tea cup and iced doughnuts

In the end, once I’d shaken off the sensation that this was all a bit pointless, I settled into the idea of it and started to enjoy being out on the bike, just for its own sake. Our roads, never busy, are more or less deserted after 7 or 8pm, so I got to enjoy our B road, and the descent down from Nearest Village, without having to worry about thinking for the drivers behind me as well as myself (no, seriously, overtaking even the slow lady cyclist on that bend when there is a tractor coming the other way is a Really Bad Idea and you should maybe not do it). It wasn’t the longest or fastest or hardest of rides, but I got home after two hours and 20 miles feeling refreshed from an evening away from the dreaded phone, and somewhat more prepared for the coming adventure. And I also slept like a log, which is a bit of a bonus. All in all, I think, an evening well spent.

Pedal on Polling Place*

May 5, 2022

So after POP, and our local Candidates’ Ride, and a month and a half of trying to fit Walk, Wheel, Cycle, Vote in around my other commitments, today was the day when the rubber hits the road (or the pencil hits the paper) and I actually got to go and vote (as did the other half, despite being a furriner, because he’s now allowed to do that in Scotland).

I’m going to blame busyness, but in truth it’s nobody’s fault but my own that it was only a couple of days ago that I actually took the time to look up the candidates standing in my ward. The voting system here is the single transferrable vote, or ‘vote till you boak’ and I know from having done the lists of parties standing in each of the 32 local authorities in Scotland, there are some quite nausea-inducing options out there in some of the wilder fringes. We don’t have any of the really fringe parties standing in Bigtownshire, but a bit of last minute googling revealed that among the five candidates standing for three seats we had one ‘independent’ who’d been thrown out of his party for making Islamophobic jokes, one Tory who’d been an SNP councillor but left because he felt it was becoming a hard left party, and another Tory who I swear to God appears to be about 12 years old. Only one responded to my question about support for Walk, Wheel, Cycle, Vote, so for the rest of them it was definitely a question of who do you want to see defeated the most, rather than who would you like to see elected, and working back from there.

In the past few years I’ve come to the conclusion that one really good councillor in a position of power beats a large number of vaguely well-intentioned ones. If you look at the councils that have streaked ahead with active travel (other causes are available) they’ve had a genuine champion driving it forward. When most of your interactions with the council feel closer to gaslighting than anything else, you need someone who will stand up to the more obstructive officers, and actually work out how to get things done. Whether we’ll manage to elect anyone like that in Bigtownshire, I don’t know. Almost definitely not among the lot on my ballot paper, but I live in hope, as always. And besides, if you don’t vote you can’t complain so off we went and did our duty.

Bicycles against a wall at the polling station

And besides, it was a nice excuse for a bike ride.

* For some reason, they’re called polling places and not polling stations in Scotland (don’t ask why) which tends to ruin a good hashtag.

Hello Headwind My Old Friend

April 27, 2022
Two bikes climbing up a long road

What can I say, when you’re grinding up a climb into a stiff breeze on day two of a ninety mile ride, during which said stiff breeze has been in your face the whole way, there’s a lot of time to think up stupid tweets for when you finally get to the top

So, we made it to POP although it was touch and go for my friend on her e-bike on the first day – 60 miles and lots of climbing, and did I mention there was a headwind?* takes it out of everyone, even a Bosch motor. In the end, we had to drop our usual commitment to riding in sociable formation, and just put our heads down and ride in close formation for as long as everyone could hang on, and then when the elastic snapped, just do individual battle with the hills as best we could, regrouping at the top.

Bike crossing into the Scottish Borders

This was my first long ride on the new-old bike and it definitely passed the test – there are a few minor details with the setup I’d like to tweak before I get it to level of all-day comfort I enjoyed on the old-old bike, but as we rolled into Innerleithen at the end of day one (with my friend’s ebike battery giving up the ghost just as we pulled up at the hotel) it was my legs that were feeling it, not anything else.

Bikes on the road through empty countryside

It was a bit of a shock to the system on Saturday morning as we crossed the bypass into the Edinburgh traffic and swapped potholes and scenery for even worse potholes and buses and vans and cars and if we were ever in doubt of the need for better conditions for cycling when we left Bigtown, there was none in our minds as we finally made it to the start. The Spaces for People protected lane gave us a short period of respite along one stretch of road (don’t ask me which; there were slight navigational issues with the route and we ended up just pointing ourselves in the right direction, putting on our big boy and girl pants, and riding in tight formation until we reached the safety of the Meadows) but that still left a heck of a lot of Edinburgh to ride through unprotected and we felt every mile.

Crowd waiting for the start of POP

But still, we made it. And so it seems did a couple of thousand others, despite a three year gap since we last filled the streets of Edinburgh with bikes of all shapes and sizes. With no formal organisational duties this year, other than riding at the front with the real organisers, I declared myself the Dowager Duchess of PoP, in which ceremonial role I had a marvellous time. I didn’t even have to listen to the speeches.

And then, despite the theoretical attraction of a tailwind home, I very much took the train back.

Bike hanging up on train

* I think I may have overdone the mentioning on Twitter on our way there, as everyone I met at POP asked me how the headwind had been.

Taking a Breather

April 20, 2022

It’s a very strange sensation at this time of the year, when I would normally be flat out with the organisation of Pedal on Parliament (and those of you who cycle in Scotland are coming out on Saturday to join us, yes?) to find myself watching more or less from the sidelines as it comes together without me. Meanwhile, I’ve been enjoying all the stress of a major house move without the actual moving house part as my parents settle in to their new place in Bigtown (as well as keeping things going as much as possible over at Walk, Wheel, Cycle, Vote.

However, that doesn’t mean I have completely abandoned POP. Indeed, in a fit of enthusiasm back when it was a long time in the future, I committed to cycling to Edinburgh with a small band of fellow campaigners as we reprise our ride to Glasgow for COP, only hopefully with less Novemberish weather. Unfortunately it has been brought to my attention that this is now happening in two days and I’ve done very little of the training I’d planned to do to get myself up to speed for a 60-mile first day with some significant climbing. Unless you count the fact that I’ve been riding into town and back every day (a nice 14 mile round trip with a good 300+ feet of climbing on the way home) plus whatever exercise is involved in moving boxes, opening boxes, emptying boxes, flattening boxes, and then repeating with the next set of boxes, for several hours a day. Fingers crossed that will be enough, and we’ll just have to hope that the forecast block headwind all the way up to Edinburgh is simply the Weather Gods’ little joke … Either way, after the last few days I’ve had, I still think it will feel like a break.

Mum and aunt with brompton

Fortunately, these past couple of days we have had a little help, first in the form of my aunt and uncle who have come to help out with the move. My aunt has bought herself a new Brompton and nothing would stop her from riding it down with me into town yesterday, or indeed, cycling into Bigtown Police station on a rescue mission after my Dad dropped his phone. 101 uses for a Brompton continues

Meanwhile, the wee hare, noting that nobody has had time to do any gardening, has been getting on with trimming the lawn edges for us, much to the detriment of my ability to concentrate on getting any work done. Although gardening can be tiring work, so it spends a fair bit of time just chilling out as only hares know how.

Young hare sitting looking relaxed in garden

One day soon, I hope to be joining it.

Taking the Long Road Home

April 3, 2022

Chatting to a neighbour a few weeks ago about our respective veg plots (and how behind we were with them) he mentioned his grandfather used to say ‘April – you wait all winter for it, and then you miss it.’ This has resonated with me ever since, especially now it is April. Looking at the prospects for the coming few weeks, it’s not just the garden that is going to be behind schedule. We’ve got my parents’ move to Bigtown in a couple of weeks combined with the local authority elections, which means ramping up Walk, Wheel, Cycle, Vote – and, because I wasn’t going to be busy enough, I decided it would be a fine idea to cycle up to Edinburgh with a couple of other intrepid souls from Bigtown Cycle Campaign for Pedal on Parliament on the 23rd – a mere 90 miles, over two days (and some interesting looking hills).

Having spent some time considering the contours of our route, and my general lack of bike mileage in the past few weeks beyond the near-daily trundle down for the paper and back, I decided that I would take the scenic route back from the farmers’ market this afternoon. This turned the normal 8 mile ride home into a 23-mile one with some significant climbing and views to match.

View from top of hill

The route took in what is normally a favourite ride of mine, but I wasn’t quite feeling the love today, I must admit. Partly it was that I’d misread the weather forecast so wasn’t really prepared for what turned out to be an icy headwind for most of it. And partly because it turns out that, while I’m happy to go on a nice pointless round trip in company for the sheer pleasure of it, both legs and brain rebel somewhat at my adding 15 miles and many feet of climbing onto what would otherwise be a straightforward ride home on my own.

This doesn’t bode well for our ride to Edinburgh (let alone my plans for Ride to the Sun), although I did find that my dissatisfaction with the whole idea correlated more or less exactly with the degree of headwind I was suffering at the time. I’ve also remembered from past long rides that the first climb is always the worst, and the one where you definitely decide you’re unfitter than an unfit thing and your companions should just leave you at the side of the road now for the wolves, lest you hold them up any longer. Or maybe I should just get some more miles under my belt before my companions actually do have to leave me for the wolves somewhere on the run in to Innerleithen. Or maybe I simply need to oil my chain …

Anyway, in other news, we have a new wee hare hanging out in the garden and it’s adorable. In contrast to the rabbit, we’re doing our best to ensure it can eat whatever it fancies in the garden in peace (indeed, if it wanted to come in and snack on the tomato and chilli seedlings in our hall, we’d probably let it).

young hare right outside front door

Who needs to use their front door anyway?

Every Day’s a School Day

March 2, 2022

You’d think that bike maintenance – and when I say ‘bike maintenance’, realistically I mean ‘fixing a flat tyre’ – would be a process of gradually improving and evolving skills. Given the number of punctures I get (hello, blackthorn), surely by now practice must have made perfect? Yet what it actually seems to be is an arms race between me and my bikes as I adopt increasingly ingenious measures to compensate for my mechanical ineptitude, and my bikes come up with increasingly ingenious ways to thwart my feeble progress.

Take, for example, this Monday. My new-to-me regenerated bike had developed a puncture on the way home from our latest adventure on Sunday. No problem: armed with my trusty tyre jack, the latest weapon in my flat-fixing armoury, I would have the wheel off, the hole found, and the inner tube patched in a jiffy, if by ‘jiffy’ we mean ‘about 30 minutes including swearing time’.

Tyre jack

Oh foolish me. Because as the new-to-me bike last had its wheels put on by someone with reasonably strong hands, and the wheel itself belonged to the old bike, with a rather old allen key fitting instead of a quick release (because one of the things I’ve learned along the way is that I don’t actually get on that well with quick release wheels), I ended up stripping out the the socket (or whatever you call the bit where you put the allen key) by impatiently trying to loosen the wheel. Gah.

On the plus side, another thing I have learned over the years is how to patch an innertube with the wheel in situ, and I’ve even got the time taken down to about 1.3 jiffies (those tyre jacks really do work, I can confirm).

As a sensible, responsible bike owner, obviously what I should absolutely not do next is leave the back wheel with its knackered skewer on the bike until such time as I really do need to get the back wheel off, probably somewhere very far from home on a day when the rain is travelling horizontally. So if anyone does want to make a helpful suggestion about getting the rear wheel off with a stripped out allen key socket I’m all ears. Other than ‘make it the bike shop’s problem’ of course.

I wonder what maintenance challenges my bikes will throw up next?

Friday Night’s Alright for Consulting

February 12, 2022

As I mentioned on Twitter, we sure know how to have fun around here:

Oddly enough, only five other people took up the opportunity to attend one of the Coonsil’s online ‘community conversations’ on Friday evening to discuss its planned active travel strategy, of whom four were also involved in active travel campaigning in some way, and the fifth was a young woman who stayed entirely silent (although apparently engaged) throughout.

So far, so normal – when the changes to the Highway Code came out last month they were apparently a complete surprise to most people, while the cycling community knew all about them because we’d spent weeks last year discussing the consultation exercise about it, reading in-depth analyses of the pros and cons of the changes, and submitting their own responses, probably on a Friday night because that genuinely is how we roll (I don’t think it made a blind bit of difference to the end result, but at least we can say we tried). It’s currently consultation season at the moment, so I’ve got guilty tabs open on the proposed pavement parking regulations, the Scottish Government’s policy to reduce car kilometres driven, the Strategic Transport Projects Review draft, and the Fourth National Planning Framework which I’d rather hoped I’d missed the deadline for but apparently not. All will get (eventually) read, dissected, discussed, and finally responded to, just as I will be attending the local strategy discussions, stakeholders’ group, and ultimately the revived active travel forum – who says cycle campaigning isn’t a fun and exciting way to spend your days?

It does, however, seem slightly lopsided in that everyone else – those who generally use a car to get around like a normal person and who aren’t paid to attend meetings of a Friday night about transport policy – probably know or care nothing about any of these things and will likely not suffer any bad consequences from that, unless you count the fact that the new Highway Code means they’re now no longer allowed to mow down a passing cyclist when turning left (and you’d be surprised to discover how many Facebook warriors are apparently up in arms about this dreadful prospect). The fact is, if you drive, the chances are that most decisions about things will tend to make sense from the driver’s point of view – you won’t end up with a road that ends in a flight of steps, or asks you mix with the intercity trains on the West Coast Main Line.

Flight of steps on cycle route
(Yes, this is a cycle route)

Cyclists, on the other hand, have had to exert constant vigilance over every plan at every level of government to make sure it doesn’t make things appreciably worse, or cost a lot of money not to make things particularly better. It’s only now, that things are ever so slightly and cautiously changing, that our comments have tended to be along the lines of ‘this is good but could you be a bit more ambitious’ rather than ‘you need to take this out behind the barn and kill it with an axe.’ Perhaps it’s time for the driving folks – what my campaigning pal Katja used to call the mothered motorist – to start looking sharp and showing up if they want to complain about things before they happen rather than after it’s too late.

Of course, from my point of view, I’m not sure I really want the keyboard warrior wing of the frothing militant motoring tendency turning up at these events and killing off any plan that might mean they can no longer park for free in Bigtown wherever the hell they like. But I do sometimes worry that we’re not really consulting the people who might benefit the most through events like this. The cycle campaigning community has come a long way from its original stance of ‘let’s just train everyone to take the lane and it’ll be fine’ and recognises that we need to be building cycling infrastructure for people who don’t currently cycle. But how do you persuade people who don’t know they’re cyclists yet to care enough to turn up and discuss a strategy about it when they possibly had better things to do, like watching a Finnish documentary on paint drying in real time on BBC4, perhaps.

Anyway, perhaps the silent young woman was just such a person, in which case I hope she enjoyed the in-depth discussion on the need to cut visibility splays onto cycle path junctions (this may be the other reason why normal people don’t turn up to these things) and is encouraged to take up some form of active travel when the strategy comes to fruition. Although, given the speed at which this coonsil operates, she may be in a mobility scooter by then.

And how did you celebrate the start of your weekend?

Something Old, Something New, Something Borrowed, Something Purple

February 5, 2022

Meet the new bike, just (a bit) like the old bike:

New bike

As those of you who follow me in Twitter will know, yesterday I headed up to Glasgow to pick up my new-old bike from the lovely folks at Common Wheel. Alarmingly, it was snowing on the way up, which made for a chilly trip as the train I was on appeared to have no heating and half the windows, but fortunately it had stopped by the time the train got into Glasgow (and stayed stopped until I got home).

The bike was undergoing last minute fettling when I arrived, but it was quickly off the stand and ready for me to try out and make the final adjustments to the saddle and handlebars. It felt deeply weird after two months of a very upright e-bike (and occasional forays on the Brompton) to be back on my familiar saddle, in more or less the riding position I had been used to before. The brakes are new (probably a good thing), and the handlebars have been replaced but the wheels, rack, dynamo, drivetrain and, importantly, POP This Machine Fights Climate Change sticker had all made it safely across. The guys in the workshop were a little sad to see it go – it seems that the Marin frame had some admirers. Before I could take it away, I had to promise them two things: that I would always have something purple on the frame, and that I would take it on some nice adventures.

Then it was just a matter of getting it home. I’d swithered over getting picked up from the station as the train got in at 6pm and it meant my first proper ride would be in the dark, but as the weather wasn’t bad and I was itching to find out what the bike was really like, I decided to cycle, and I’m glad I did. I do like night riding around here – even when it’s not that late, as soon as it gets dark it feels like you’ve got the place to yourself. The sky was clear and the new moon was up and the stars were coming out, and (more prosaically) it gave me a chance to adjust the headlight and make sure the dynamo was working as it should.

As for the climb home – it’s early days, and hills are always easier in the dark, but it feels like it will make easy work of most of the climbing I’m going to want to do on it. I can’t exactly explain why – no doubt some mixture of weight and geometry and rider position that I’ll never fully understand – there was just an effortlessness about it that I wasn’t expecting. My legs were feeling it once I got home – two months of ebike riding has taken its toll – but I’m already itching to take it on some longer distances, with no need to worry about range and recharging points. That promise of taking it on some adventures will be easily kept (indeed, I’ve already got one idea in the works, so watch this space).

Today wasn’t the day to start spreading our wings though. There’s no amount of new bike that will make stinging horizontal icy rain anything but type two fun. Especially when your chain falls off after an unwary attempt to see if the granny ring works on the climb. A little more bedding in may be needed before the adventures begin.

Wet dull weather

Thoroughly Spoiled

January 31, 2022

I’m not going to lie, I’ve rather enjoyed having a taste of the good life on my one-stop book tour. Being booked into a properly nice hotel, my own personalised itinerary, having people actually pay in order to hear me talk about my writing (top tip: don’t ask the person who takes 12 years to write her second novel for tips about writing) – it was all extremely head turning and it’s probably a good thing it was only the one event so far (but watch this space, because there may be other events coming up soon!)

(as you can see from the photos, I managed to match my socks to each other but not quite the outfit)

Anyway, having got home on Friday, the weekend was very much back to reality, with Storm Malik (even the Danes are naming the storms now – you’d think they’d be above that sort of thing being Vikings and everything but apparently not) making its presence felt on Saturday’s ride down for the paper. I have to say e-bikes definitely come into their own in a mahoosive headwind – even if I still all but came to a standstill on one particularly wind-tunnelly stretch of road. Indeed, I decided the occasion called for whacking up the e-assist a notch on the ride home because clearly, I’m worth it. It’s probably fortunate that I’ve just heard that my new-to-me bike will be ready to pick up on Friday. Another few weeks of having the e-assist on tap might just have ruined me for unassisted riding …

Let’s see how I fare coming up the hill next weekend, eh?