January 26, 2012

I’ve long been a proponent of the theory that regularly cycling – indeed regularly getting drenched and frozen on a bike – does wonders for the old immune system. This is partly borne out by the fact that since I’ve moved up here and regularly got drenched and frozen on the bike, I’ve barely had a cold, or at least not one that’s got beyond a day or so. So when the neighbour – as thanks for looking after his cat – brought back a stinking cold from Australia, the other half duly succumbed but I wasn’t worried. I even nobly headed out for the paper on some pretty ropey days to save the other half the drive and to top up my immune system in case it needed it. The problem was, having begun to believe my own propaganda, I’d mistaken ‘less liable to getting colds’ for ‘my superpower is not catching cold’. And yep. The day before I’m due to be in London for high-powered ambassadorial meetings I have come down with what promises to be a stinker…

I’m not going to let it stop me, though. I’ve spent the last year, one way or another, trying to make the case for decent cycling infrastructure in this country. Far too often, it feels like the very people who should be helping are the ones that hold us back. Never mind the Mr. Toads who hate cyclists – or the hardened vehicular cyclists who feel comfortable mixing with fast traffic and can’t see why everybody else should do so too – they were never going to support us in the first place. No, the real grief seems to come from the people who are nominally supportive of the idea of proper cycle infrastructure but who always seem to come up with a reason why it won’t work here and we should stop wasting everybody’s time asking for it. And the one that comes up time and time again is the ‘crap cycle lane’ argument. You know the one. Because half the time the facilities that get put in for cyclists are derisory, baffling, and occasionally downright dangerous then, so the argument goes, if you ask for cycling infrastructure – particularly separate cycle tracks as they have in the Netherlands – then you’ll just get more of the same. And worse – you’ll be MADE to cycle in them. Ergo, safest not to ask for anything at all and just keep on taking the lane, accelerating up to 20mph to get round multi-lane roundabouts, dicing with lorries 20cm from your wheel – and occasionally taking a cycle tour to the Netherlands to enjoy their superior cycling facilities with your family (who won’t cycle in the UK, for some reason, even though statistically it’s extremely safe) while reminding yourself why it is that such things would not work in the UK due to the fact that we’ve got different laws of physics from those crazy Dutch people.

Oh no, wait, hang on…

What’s really different here from the Netherlands is not the laws of physics but a failure of the imagination. We look at the crap we’ve got and we can’t imagine any different. We look at the amazing facilities the Dutch have and we can’t imagine how we would ever get there given the complete lack of will to create that sort of thing in the UK, and so we give up. We fight our inch-by-inch battles for an ASL here or a bit of shared path there or half a foot wider lanes along the potholed margins of our roads until we’ve forgotten we ever had a vision of something that wasn’t just not crap, but was actually a bit fantastic. And when somebody else comes along, all starry eyed and excited about their holiday in Amsterdam we snarl at them and remind them that it’s never going to happen here and besides who wants to cycle on those lousy Dutch bike lanes with their horrible smooth surfaces and their over-generous width when we’ve got the thrills and spills of a potholed roundabout to tackle…

What we’re trying to do this weekend is to close the gap between the UK reality and the vision that we want to achieve. We’re not trying to change the laws of physics – but we are trying to chip away at the laws of human nature. Which might be a lot harder, but it’s worth a shot. I’m looking forward to it, cold and all. I’m just sorry in advance that I’m going to give everyone my lurgy.

Killer Heels

September 3, 2011

Phew – there’ll be a proper report later of the launch of the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain, but for now I would just like to say that while I found it perfectly possible to cycle in high heels – I was trying to make a cycle chic impression – walking in them is another kettle of fish altogether. No wonder those glamorous Amazons of Copenhage prefer two wheels to two feet…


August 25, 2011

I’m not here, tonight, I’m guesting here.

(I’m not sure if it entirely counts as a ‘guest blog’ when you’re the secretary of an organisation so they can hardly stop you from writing stuff and putting it up on their website but hey, it makes me feel like a proper grown up blogger to say I’ve done a guest blog post, so that’s what I’m calling it)

For those of you who just read on Facebook / RSS feeds and never click through to the links, here it is in its entirety:

Calling all cyclists – in fact no, not ‘cyclists’ – calling all everyone: do you want to see decent cycle paths in your neighbourhood and town? Do you want to be able to ride your bike without having to battle with traffic? Do you want not to have to plunge around a three-lane roundabout on your bike (or walk slowly around the outside to avoid it)? Do you want to see your kids cycle to school? Are you, indeed, a kid who’d like to cycle to school, or even better, home from school or to the park or to the shops? Would you like cycling to be something you decide to do because it’s the quickest, easiest, cheapest way to get around rather than because you find skydiving too tame to generate enough adrenaline? Have you ever not cycled anywhere because it just felt too scary to do so? Or do you feel you can only cycle helmeted and girded for battle, poised to accelerate out of trouble, with all five senses doing overtime, all the time? Have you ever looked across the North Sea at what they’re doing for bikes in the Netherlands or Denmark and thought, you jammy lot, why can’t we have even a tenth of that over here?

And have you ever thought, yes, but it will never happen and there’s nothing I can do about it anyway?

There is something you can do. It may not work, it may be a futile quixotic gesture, it may end in failure and disappointment. But it’s something and it’s a lot easier than learning Dutch and moving to Amsterdam would be.

You can go on a picnic.

Yep, it’s as easy as that. A picnic on the 3rd September in Central London, at the official launch of the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain. With your bike. And your kids (or someone else’s – just ask their parents’ permission first) and your mum or dad or gran or grandad or cousins or anyone else who wants to show up and say: ‘yes, we would like to be able to ride our bikes in safety and comfort every day.’ Because riding a bike should be as easy as riding a bike. Because riding a bike should be a bit of a picnic, every day.

And if you can’t make it to our picnic – and we know London’s a long way off for many – how about this: have your own picnic. Dress up a bit, and make a day of it. Bring your family. Bring your bikes. Take a photo of it all and send it to us and we’ll add them to our site and to our virtual picnic, all around the country.

You never know, it might work.

I’ll see you there, I hope.

Hanging Together

July 29, 2011

Cycling down for the paper today, I was overhauled by another cyclist. He slowed down, or I sped up, and we did the rest of the ride together, chatting about bikes and bike parts and bike routes and bike rides and other fascinating topics. As we reached Papershop village where our ways parted, we stopped to continue the conversation – admiring each other’s respective bikes and discussing the merits or otherwise of clipless pedals, Brooks saddles, carbon forks, internal geared hubs and steel frames. Our bikes couldn’t have been more different – he was riding a modified aluminium cruiser with slick tyres and flat bars vs my old-school touring bike – and we couldn’t have looked more different either; he was kitted out in lycra and I wasn’t, although I’m guessing from his ‘it’s not exactly Miguel Indurain stuff’ remark that we’re about the same age.* But all the same we found much to talk about as, in my experience, two cyclists almost always do, particularly if they’ve got their bikes with them.

Six months ago, I was in on the meeting that founded the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain. Since then, I’ve found out the hard way that the world of cycle campaigning can be bitterly divided in ways that would surprise anyone coming from outside, although maybe not as much if they’ve ever been involved in anything remotely political. I’ve also seen some online discussions in which cyclists disparage other cyclists of the ‘wrong sort’ in no uncertain terms, as if it really mattered what kind of bike you rode or where or how you rode it. It was enough to put me off the whole thing, particularly the campaigning bit. But I’m beginning to wonder whether any of the people concerned actually cycle at all, because I never seem to meet them when I’m out on my bike. Presumably they’re too busy patrolling the internet for people who are doing it wrong to get out and cycle at all. No wonder they’re so grumpy.

The problem is, that if we don’t hang together then, as Lenin said, we will all assuredly hang separately. And fortunately, or unfortunately, there is an issue that has united pretty much all cyclists in London, albeit against a common enemy. As I write this, hundreds of cyclists of all shapes and sizes will be gathering at Blackfriars bridge in London to protest the fact that – despite cyclists outnumbering cars at rush hour – Transport for London is about to press ahead with changes that will make cycling over the bridge much less safe and more unpleasant, despite a vote in the London Assembly to reconsider the scheme. It all seems a very long way away from our quiet roads up here but, sadly, all of a piece with some very car-centric planning that Bigtown Council is proposing. I won’t be able to join the Blackfriars protest, although I would have done had I still lived in London, and I very much doubt if we could muster more than ten people to protest if the council up here actually go through with their proposal to remove a pavement from one side of a busy bridge to accomodate an extra lane of cars. But I’ll be watching to see what happens, and I’ll be keeping on keeping on, remembering that what unites us will always be bigger than what divides us.

* I’m pretty sure that reference to the big Tour de France riders of the past date you as quickly as Blue Peter presenters or Dr Whos.

I’ve Got a Ticket to Ride…

May 20, 2011

… several in fact.

I’m glad now that I decided to pop into the station yesterday to pick up my tickets to Manchester rather than waiting until just before I caught the train tomorrow. Because I hadn’t realised that I would have to wait while the little machine spat out 14 of them, for one simple return trip for me and my bike.*

When the second Cycling Embassy of Great Britain meeting was planned for Manchester I was happy because I knew it was a relatively simple journey for me and I didn’t even bother trying to book until a week or so ago. But that was because I hadn’t counted on the dreaded engineering works. By the time I did get around to booking I found that my simple one-change journey had turned into an epic monster trip complete with ‘replacement’ bus service – which meant no way of bringing my bike – and arriving at Bigtown station just shy of midnight. Further investigation revealed that there was some sort of football match on in the city that day, making accommodation hard to come by. I was faced with a choice of attending the meeting without a bike – again – making joining in on the infrastructure safari a little difficult, or staying overnight in a city centre hotel at a minimum price of £100.

Fortunately the wisdom of the internet prevailed, and after toying with the idea of coming back the scenic way via the Settle-Carlisle line, I managed to get an offer of a sofa from a kind and hopefully not too murderous stranger. Not only that, but I discovered that you can book your bike onto any train in the UK through the East Coast Main line website without any of the normal to-ing and fro-ing that that entails (the not-at-all helpful National Rail site just puts a little cycle symbol next to every train which means that the train company in question has a cycle policy. What that cycle policy is, is up to you to find out by clicking each individual company’s name. Normally it involves ringing a premium rate number AFTER you have booked your own train in order to find out whether your bike can come with you too. Given that most trains have very limited capacity for carrying bikes, this may be a risk you don’t want to take if you’re buying an Advanced ticket. I really wish I was making this up). I’ve got to catch three trains, run by three different operating companies, only one of which (take a bow Scot Rail) allows you just to take the damn bike on the train already. Although it also reserves the right not to allow you to take the bike on the train if it’s full, which may end up being a problem…

So anyway, yay! for Twitter, yay! for EastCoast Mainline and boo! to everyone else, hopefully non-murderous strangers excepted. Now all I have to do is figure out a foolproof way of attaching four reservation tickets to my bike and actually get to Manchester for the meeting.

What could possibly go wrong?

* Outward and return halves, four seat reservations for me, and four for my bike, consisting of two halves each, one for me and one for the bike.

They May Think it’s a Movement

January 31, 2011

And can you, can you imagine fifty people a day, I said fifty people a day walking in singin a bar of Alice’s Restaurant and walking out.  And friends, they may think it’s a movement. (Arlo Guthrie – Alice’s Restaurant)

But first, the humiliation of turning up to the inaugural meeting of the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain on foot. I had planned to cycle, I had been given a lovely route to follow taking in the best of London’s bike infrastructure, I had my Boris Bike key, I had my backup credit card and I had my backup to the backup debit card and I had found a whole rack full of functioning Boris bikes – what could possibly go wrong?

Fifteen frozen-fingered minutes later I had to admit defeat. Not only had I not managed to activate my key, but both of my cards had been disdainfully rejected and my phone had run out of credit so I couldn’t even ring the number and get it sorted out. I was forced to make it to Look Mum No Hands on foot. But make it I did, where I was momentarily stymied by the fact that I had no idea what the people I was meeting actually looked like. Normally, meeting a bunch of cyclists in a cafe – even ones you don’t know – is pretty easy: look for the guys (and they will be guys) who look like obvious cyclists (you know, lycra, hi-vis, helmet hair, permanently startled expression from a close encounter with a taxi on a roundabout) But LMNH is a cycling cafe, and so everyone in it looked like a cyclist. Except, that is, the guy in the corner in a suit, who turned out to be Jim from the Lo Fidelity Cycling Club. That’s the joy of a proper Dutch bike, and that’s the joy of the CEoGB – we’re trying to create something where cyclists look like ordinary people and we had all turned up in character. There were people in suits, people in jeans, people in skirts, even a couple of people in bright yellow because we’re broad minded like that, and besides the revolution hasn’t actually arrived yet and sometimes a little bit of hi vis is what you need on the streets of London.

I’ll leave it to others to tell you about the actual meeting (I was talking too much to listen as usual). Afterwards, a brave man lent me his credit card so I could rent a Boris Bike and join the inaugural infrastructure safari. We weren’t quite fifty people but we made quite a throng as we cycled slowly through the dusk of a London Saturday afternoon on our upright bikes and our rented steeds and – as a passer-by watching our progress was heard to say – ‘I think it’s got to be some kind of a demonstration’

We hadn’t meant it to be, but perhaps after all they had a point.

Cycling Embassy of Great Britain

January 1, 2011

I actually spotted this in a motorbike shop in the US but I’m sure there’s barely anyone who cycles in the UK who hasn’t wanted to express such a sentiment (if not, perhaps, in so many words – personally I think leaving the last one off would be more cutting, and a little subtler). When I saw it I laughed and took the picture but then I thought the whole thing was a little sad. Why should taking to two wheels – even powered ones – be such a cause of open conflict?

I cycle happily on the roads every day. But then, I cycle on largely empty roads among vehicles that have to keep their speed down because single track roads won’t support anything else – if there wasn’t a bike ahead there could be a dog walker or a deer or a cow or a sheep and they won’t have lights or be wearing hi-vis either. For everyone else, cycling in towns is perfectly doable – it’s even not as scary as it looks – but you have to be the ninja cyclist: senses working overtime, including that sixth sense that tells you what the driver on their mobile is going to do next. And that means it’s not nearly as fun as it ought to be. For too long, cyclists in the UK have been taught to take their place in traffic, to assert their right to the road, ride like a car and blamed (even by other cyclists) when things go wrong. ‘Take the lane’, ‘Keep out of the door zone’, ‘ride like a car’, ‘accelerate out of trouble.’ It’s all true, and it all works, well most of the time. It’s just it only works if you’re fit and fast and brave. Can your gran take the lane and accelerate to 20 mph (the official advice for handling a multi-lane roundabout)? Can your seven-year-old? Can you? (by the way, I’ve been cycling for years and I still can’t. I either avoid big roundabouts or I get off and walk). Wouldn’t it be even better if instead of riding around muttering ‘can you see me now, asshole?’ we aspired to cycling like this?

Which is why Jim of the excellent Lo-Fidelity Cycling Club (really must update my blogroll) has founded the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain. Modelled on its Danish counterpart, it will be lobbying for and working towards real cycling provision in this country. Not for me, and my quiet roads. Not for the fit lycra-clad whippets who already ride, or the road warriors who relish nothing better than tackling the Elephant and Castle Roundabout for fun. But for anyone who doesn’t cycle yet, who wants to cycle, who used to cycle but got spooked, who cycles a bit but not to the shops because it’s too scary, who remembers the freedom they had on their bike when they were young but who can’t grant it to their own children because it’s just too dangerous. It’s for anyone who’s been knocked off their bike or almost knocked off their bike, who’s sick of daily assassination attempts: for anyone, in fact, who might feel at the moment they need the hi-vis vest above to cycle anywhere.

I had more to say on the subject but it turned into a rather incoherent overly-technical discussion on vehicular cycling which is something you have to have spent far too long in the cycling blogosphere even to know about. So rather than telling you what I think (there’s another 364 days of 2011 for that), why don’t you tell me? Particularly if you don’t cycle (or not much): what would have to happen for you to want to do it, or do it more? If you stopped cycling, why did you stop? And if you do cycle what is it about it that you enjoy and what would make you want to cycle more?

The inaugural meeting of the Embassy will be in London on the 29th of January. I’m planning to be there, and will also be doing my bit online to get it going. If you’re interested, sign up to the website and find out more. It’s still in the planning stages at the moment, but I’m hoping it’s something that will end up leading to real change. Come along for the ride.