Archive for September, 2010

Autumnal cycling in north-west England

September 27, 2010

I love the weather in north-west England, and the last two weekends I’ve been lucky enough to experience it in all its magnificent diversity.

Last Saturday, following the brilliant (he says immodestly) Bicycle Politics workshop, I rode across to Kettlewell in the Yorkshire Dales, to join up with Colin, Jim and John, who’d been there since Thursday, getting lots of quality miles in. They’d enjoyed a couple of dry and sunny days, but on Saturday the weather changed, so that when I met up with them outside the youth hostel at 6pm, we were all pretty soggy. Sunday was forecast to be wet, and indeed it was – it started damp and drizzly, and got wetter, and wetter, and wetter from there …

But not once during that long wet day did I feel miserable. It helped that it was relatively warm; it’s when wet combines with cold that I sometimes really start to question the wisdom of being out on the road. And it helped that I was in such fine company; riding roads with people who also love to ride those roads, and who recognise themselves as similarly privileged in being able to do so – that’s real privilege!  Although there is banter and piss-taking in other regards, when during one or other of our rides one or other of us pauses to reflect on our intensely good fortune, he is never met with macho scorn and ridicule, but always with a shared sense that we must indeed be the luckiest men in the world … there is no price for what we experience out there on our region’s roads …

Last Sunday we rode from Wharfedale over to Bishopdale and then west through Wensleydale for coffee in Bainbridge. We crossed the valley to Askrigg and climbed over Cross Top to Muker in Swaledale. North-west from there, over Birkdale Common and then the long descent into Nateby, for a generous welcome and lunch at the Black Bull Inn, where Jim showed me how to dry your track mitts by treading them into a carpet, and where I hope no one had to sit where we sat for a good few hours after … South up the ever-beautiful Mallerstang, then fast west down the always-pleasureable Garsdale into Sedbergh, where, having checked the cafe’s seats were wooden and immune to saturation by our sodden clothes, we enjoyed afternoon tea. Down Garsdale the rain had become much heavier, and it continued as we rode south along the west side of our Lune towards Kirkby Lonsdale, and on for tea at the Bridge Inn. There the four of us squeezed into the gents’ toilets, and emerged in dry clothes like new men to devour our tea and drink our beer before, late into the night, setting off again to get one final drenching along flooded roads on our way back home to our beds. 90 miles, a couple of thousand metres of climbing, huge amounts of rain – the kind of day which makes me glad to be alive and able to enjoy that kind of day.

If I’d been at home last Sunday, I’d have probably on several occasions looked out the window and failed to find the motivation to get outside. No matter how exhilarating cycling through difficult conditions can be, it’s still hard to force yourself out there to do it. Comfort too often, too easily, wins out over the potential to feel exhilarated.

This weekend was different. The forecast was dry for Saturday, and – with Bobby and Flo happily off with Sue, Paddy, Ben and Rachel for the weekend – Sue and I pedalled north through the Yealands, over the River Kent, around Whitbarrow and up the gorgeous Winster valley, to drop down to Bowness-on-Windermere a few very happy hours later.

Yesterday we took the ferry across Windermere and rode up through the Sawreys and down to Esthwaite Water, before riding south into another little south lakeland gem of a valley, the Rusland. The sun continued to shine, and we arrived home after 2 days and 100 miles pedalling through north-west September England as dry as we had left. The dryness of the weekend was all the more enjoyable because of the previous weekend’s damp, and the dampness of that weekend stands out because such dampness is not entirely typical. Here in autumnal north-west England there is no typical, and the uneven climate combines with the uneven topography to produce an extra-special slice of the cycling universe.

So here’s my little thought for the next time you’re thinking about making a cycling journey, and you check the forecast or look outside, and you realise that if you go by bike then you’re in for a soaking – go for it anyway. Experiences do not stand alone; they speak to, and so importantly make, each other. And of course, in making each other, they are also making us …

Cycling champion!

September 15, 2010

Warning, this post is written by a proud Dad – if you’re prone to nausea at parents singing the praises of their kids and/or dwelling in the thrill of parenthood, you might just want to skip it ….

I love being a parent. It happened by accident, to be honest. It’s ten years ago now, when we found out Bobby was on his way (Sue had been feeling a bit strange on and off through our fortnight’s cycle-tour of the Pyrenees, and especially on the long ascent of Tourmalet …), and back then I felt completely unable to predict how I would find it. It’s still an open-ended adventure, of course; but wow, on a day-to-day level it’s great, and then – just occasionally – it’s absolutely sublime. And this weekend was absolutely sublime.

The opening stage of the Tour of Britain was due to pass through the Trough of Bowland and over Jubilee Tower on Saturday. That’s our cycling backyard, but it’s a backyard that our kids – because we don’t own a car and very rarely travel in one - have barely seen. I ride beyond the city limits regularly, and Sue fairly often, so Bobby and Flo hear about places like the Trough of Bowland and Jubilee Tower, but those names don’t mean that much to them – or so I thought. Actually, I know now that those names are lodged into my son Bobby’s nine-year old imagination, and that the thrill he felt at actually being able to ride and experience them for himself was just immense …

After our recent holiday in France, Bobby had 300 touring miles in his legs. Out there, he’d also proven himself a very adept rider; he handled his bike well, was able to concentrate for relatively long periods in the saddle, and road calmly and competently when occasionally we encountered busy roads, full of fast-moving motorised traffic. This gave us confidence that he was ready to ride more seriously on our local roads. Perhaps our biggest reservation was the severity of the climbs around Lancaster – it’d be impossible to go anywhere Bobby hadn’t already been without tackling some pretty fierce gradients. Although he’d coped with some hills around the Dordogne, they were nowhere near as relentless and steep as those found in our local cycling country.

There’s a buzz about watching professional bike riders on your own roads, and we’re lucky in that in recent years the Tour of Britain has passed regularly along ours. The last couple of years it’s come through on a school day, and Sue and I have ridden out without the kids to catch it. But this year it was coming on a Saturday, which meant that Bobby could come along too. We considered how best to turn the experience into a little adventure, and I booked Bobby and myself into Slaidburn youth hostel on Friday night. Straight after school we’d ride the 24 miles out there, through the Trough, have dinner at the super village pub, The Hark to Bounty, stay overnight, then ride back to the Trough to watch the pro peloton ride through on Saturday, before continuing back home over Jubilee Tower. I was a bit apprehensive about how Bobby would cope with the hills, and the absence of child-friendly distractions along the way, but I also figured that even if we had to walk all of the tougher sections, we could still make it before nightfall.

You just don’t know until you give things a go, do you? But I know now that I needn’t have worried, and that Bobby is a stronger and more feisty little fella than either Sue or I had ever imagined.

We got lucky with the weather; it stopped raining as we left home and started again as we tucked our bikes into the youth hostel’s cycle shed at Slaidburn three hours later. But Bobby moved through the hill country of north Lancashire with such ease and grace that I wonder if those first two weeks of his pre-natal life spent cycling the high Pyrenean cols haven’t somehow found their way into his legs and lungs, and given him a cycling soul (though I take nothing-for-granted here, and for now his love of football seems stronger than his love for cycling). The first four miles we followed the route of my commute, to Lancaster University. Then we traced the back road through Ellel to Galgate; only there do you really start to feel like you’re on the lanes; my lanes; our lanes …

The riding gets more hilly as you move towards the dark bulk of the Forest of Bowland, but Bob rose out of his saddle with the land – he can stand on the pedals for minutes at a time; he never seems to tire of doing so. He wasn’t at all fazed by the wall of tarmac which greets you on what – following our friend Tom Cahill - we call ‘The Duke’s Road’ to Marshaw; it’s short, but the gradient must exceed 1 in 4. And he danced his way up the easy side of the Trough, where I showed him the memorial plaque to Bill Bradley, winner of the Tour of Britain in 1959 and 1960. Here he is at the top …

But if Bobby excelled at the cycling, his interests and priorities seemed elsewhere. The highlight of his trip was rescuing a frog off the road which runs over the River Wyre at Street. When we got to Slaidburn he wanted to call Mum and list the creatures we’d spotted along the way – not just the frog, but a sparrowhawk, a hare, countless rabbits and a black cat. All along the way he was keeping a list of the things he’d seen. Initially I thought this odd, but when I quizzed him he told me he was relaxed about the cycling, and confident about tackling the climbs, because Sue and I believed that he could do it, so he believed he could do it too. The big deal for Bobby was not the cycling, but the world which cycling was opening up to him. At times I watched him riding in front of me, getting blown by the wind as he made his way across the moors, and it almost blew my head away – the vicarious sense of what he must be experiencing; how he was encountering with all his senses this magnificent world by bike which I tend so often to take for granted. The adventure for Bob was less in the turning of the pedals, than in the world which his pedalling was bringing about.

The biggest test of the trip would undoubtedly be the following day, tackling the Trough from the south-east, the hard side. We rode out of Slaidburn on the back road to Newton, a road I’d never taken before and which will forever now be for me ‘Bobby’s road’, and then onto Dunsop Bridge, where we stopped for coffee, hot chocolate and to feed the ducks. Sue and I have ridden past the Dunsop Bridge ducks so many times and said to one another how much Bobby and Flo would enjoy them – often they waddle their ways across the road, or simply sit in it, holding up the cars – so that drivers must emerge and ‘shooo’ them out of their way. And here, finally, was Bobby’s introduction to the Dunsop ducks; we bought a bag of duck food from Puddleducks and out on the village green, and much to his delight, he was quickly surrounded; the pure and simple joys of childhood ….

At Dunsop Bridge we began to feel ourselves to be participating in ‘an event’. People were converging, many by bike, and moving towards the Trough. We moved with them. As we approached the beginnings of the climb Sue appeared from the other direction; she’d ridden out from Lancaster to meet us. Together then, we headed onto the hill. We were careful to keep Bobby’s expectations in check – this is one tough climb; it reduces many people to pushing their machines. People already lined the road, and as they saw Bobby approach many of them began to cheer him on. I saw his resolve set in. We’d intended to stop half-way up, to find a spot from which to watch the pros, but I could see that Bob wanted to do the climb. How I loved that – to see in my own son that pure appetite to ride a hill, to rise to its challenge so that the world falls away and it becomes just you and the road, with as the only end the point at which the up becomes down. As the road ramped up he rose to it. I burbled the inanities I burble to myself when I’m in that fight – “keep it going”, “focus on your front wheel, don’t look up just yet”, “stay calm, keep your breathing under control”; but I don’t think he needed them – he was in his own zone. And he just kept on and on, and I was as astonished as many of those standing at the side of the road seemed to be, that this slight nine year old lad, on such a little bike, was successfully climbing the hard side of the Trough …

We returned to the steepest section of the climb to watch the riders come through. Friends were among the many people continuing to arrive – first Jules and his daughters Anya and Mia, and then Hayden, Jim and Reuben - and together we shared the very specific and very intense enjoyment which comes from anticipating the peloton about to pass you by. Then, suddenly they were upon us – first a breakaway of three riders, Richie Porte and Wout Poels, with Jack Bauer struggling on the gradient to stay in touch with them. We cheered them on. A few minutes passed and someone shouted that the peloton was at the foot of the climb. I looked down to the valley’s bottom, and there – what a feeling!

Not a view but a feeling … I could call it a religious experience … it filled me with awe. The peloton filled the valley – our valley, one we know well, was suddenly full of men who ride bikes for a living. From where we stood, high above them, they looked almost static, though we knew they were moving faster across that ground than we ever will. To witness such a thing provokes a very special sensation in me … I suppose other people feel that way when they see a cathedral, or a work of art, but I never have been so moved by those things. But a bunch of cyclists – it’s less than a moment, but it etches deep into my being. Sacred …

Then they were upon us, point blank, moving so fast it took our collective breath away.

And in an instant they were gone. The event had moved up the road, leaving us behind, with our little moments, tiny fragments of sensations and memories. The bike race had punctured our everyday cycling lives, which are different now, as are the roads on which we will continue to ride.

We set off home via Jubilee Tower, another place about which Bobby had heard us talk but to which he had never before been. He wanted to cycle up Jubilee Tower. We approached from the moor side, the easy way. One day soon, now we know what he can do, we’ll tackle it the hard way, from Lancaster. He was chuffed to bits to reach the top of the climb, and then to climb up the Tower itself. Through his cycling he had won views, of the bay and of the hills, which he hadn’t known existed; he could see his home from another perspective.

Whatever the conclusion, another chapter in Bobby’s cycling journey has begun. I’m not so sure about Bobby, but Sue and I are thrilled.

7th Cycling and Society Symposium, Oxford

September 10, 2010
  • Was it the venue – the prestigious University of Oxford?
  • Was it the marvellous organisation of Tim Jones?
  • Is it that research into cycling is really on the up?
  • Is it a reflection of cycling’s growing popularity?

Whatever the reasons, this year’s Cycling and Society Symposium, which took place earlier this week, was the biggest yet.

Far more paper abstracts were submitted than could possibly be squeezed into a one-day programme – which was the first sign that the event’s appeal had broadened. Tim invited me, along with Henrietta Sherwin from the University of the West of England and John Parkin (who I think we can call the UK’s first ‘Professor of Cycling’!) from London’s South Bank University, to help him review the abstracts. It was hard to turn down so many submissions, given that they all sounded interesting and covered important topics. But on the upside, I think we came up with a blistering programme, which included researchers at very different stages of their careers (including I think I’m right in saying our first ever presentation from an undergraduate – Samuel Johns’ excellent exploration of the fixie phenomenon), from varied backgrounds (with Andy Cope, head of Sustrans’ Research and Monitoring Unit, giving the day’s last paper – which I took as a call for us academics to try harder to make our research really count), from around the world (Jennifer Bonham is over from Australia, and Peter Pelzer came across from Amsterdam), and orienting to an eclectic mix of highly pertinent themes (interactions between cycling/cyclists and others; gender, and the lifecourse; cycling cultures and sub-cultures; theory into practice).

More people came than ever before too. Around 50 of us, crammed into a splendidly light and airy room at the University Club, overlooking the cricket pitch (I was last in this room for an advisory board meeting of the project I work on, which unfortunately coincided with the opening match of this year’s World Cup, between South Africa and Mexico – supporters of those teams had congregated to watch the match in the room below, and we upstairs valiantly struggled to make ourselves heard above the irrepressible cacophony of vuvuzelas). Although I am obviously favourably predisposed to say such a thing, I think the Cycling and Society Symposia have become – in my experience – among the more inclusive spaces within academia; cycle campaigners sit alongside university lecturers, local authority practitioners next to Masters and PhD students – and everyone seems to get along famously and to be able to make their voices heard. For a perspective from one first-time attendee, you can check out the account composed by Kevin Hickman, Chair of the Inclusive Cycling Forum, on the Sustainable Witney website.

Congratulations and thanks to Tim and his Oxford team for a really magnificent event. Here’s the lovely man himself – I can say that because we know each other pretty well, having first met at the event I organised in Lancaster back in 2004, having both stuck with research into cycling since then, and now finding ourselves working together on a ‘proper project’.

Although it’s far from cycle-friendly, Oxford is the most cycle-friendly city to so far host the Symposium (previous venues being Lancaster, Cardiff, Chester, Guildford, Bristol and Bolton), and I enjoyed pedalling between the train station, the Symposium venue and Tim’s house, where I stayed the night. It’s the second time I’ve cycled in and around Oxford this year, and I have two main, obvious and blunt observations.

First, the number of people on bikes is striking. Lancaster, where I live, is seen as a relatively good place to cycle, and it has been one of Cycling England’s ‘cycling (demonstration) towns’ for five years now; yet I never feel part of a steady stream of cyclists – and so I never feel ‘normal’ – in the way I do when riding around Oxford. The students aren’t back yet, but the number of people moving around by bike is staggeringly high relative to Lancaster. Of course, it could be much higher – all I want to note here is how the experience of cycling is so qualitatively different in such a place. I don’t feel out of place, I don’t feel like I’m trying to make a point. Much more than I ever do around Lancaster, I consciously feel like I’m simply riding a bike.

Second, the increased prevalence of cycling clearly translates into altered behaviour among drivers of motorised vehicles. I want to say much more about this in the context of our recent family cycle-touring holiday in south-west France when I get the chance, but … I think there’s a discernible difference in the way in which car drivers interact with cyclists between Oxford and Lancaster. I want to stress that it is a minor difference, but a minor difference which nonetheless translates into a major qualitative leap in my sense of cycling ease, comfort and security. Cycling in Oxford I was still vigilant; I still often felt hemmed in and threatened by cars; cycling with Tim two-abreast down a quiet and narrow one-way back street with a 20 mph limit, I still felt vaguely discomforted and harassed by cars approaching from behind – almost as if we were doing something wrong; I still felt cars had priority and that I was fitting in as best I could around the edges. But I also felt noticed; I felt that motorists recognised my presence; and I felt that motorists were prepared to – and did – alter their behaviour because of my presence. Of course motorists in Lancaster also do all these things, but sitting on my bike in Lancaster, it doesn’t feel like they do these things, whereas sitting on my bike in Oxford, it does feel like motorists there do. I suspect it comes down to very small changes – a few miles per hour knocked off the motorist’s speed as they approach you, a few extra centimetres clearance as they come past, a few extra seconds willingness to wait, rather than steer into your path - but, especially when they’re taken together, from the cyclist’s point-of-view these very small changes really matter.

I’m sure cyclists in Oxford take this extra little recognition and courtesy for granted, which of course they should. And they should also be expecting much, much more. But for me the lesson of this little comparative study between Lancaster and Oxford is clear, and it pretty much follows CTC’s Safety in Numbers campaign - our road environment can be civilised, and every little step we take in civilising our road environment will result in a noticeable improvement in the quality of the cycling experience. There’s a chicken-and-egg here; the number of cyclists in Oxford has over time altered the behaviours of motorists, but how do you alter the behaviours of motorists when you don’t have the cyclists to help? To me, it looks like we need a few more rules and regulations in advance, to legislate for the kinds of behaviours which have emerged more organically, more culturally in a place like Oxford. It could be a failure of my imagination, but I can’t see how we can make the behaviour of motorists more generous and civilised towards cyclists without, for example, introducing urban wide speed limits of 20 mph, and without changing liability rules to put greater responsibilities on motorists in the event of collisions with more vulnerable others. Introduce those things and I’m fairly confident we’d need the quantity of cycle parking in Lancaster which they currently enjoy in Oxford, and in Oxford they’d need the quantity of cycle parking which the citizens of Dutch cities currently enjoy; in other words, we’d see a step-change in levels of cycling across the UK.

Bike Politics, across time …

September 8, 2010

With Aurora Trujillo I’m busy working towards next week’s Bicycle Politics workshop, which we’re holding at the Centre for Mobilities Research, Lancaster University. And this morning I’ve received a timely reminder of the significance of bicycle politics, in the form of a lovely little article in the latest edition of Huck, which is a cool lifestyle magazine, focusing in this issue on counter-cultural stuff. (The illustration above, by Stevie Gee, comes from the article.) Olly Zanetti interviewed me for his piece, which is why I know about it, but he writes much better than me, and in remarkably few words crafts a beautiful story of the bicycle’s ongoing contribution to re-making our world for the better. Some of the things which across much of the world we now take pretty much for granted, from women’s ability to dress as they see fit to the good sense of public bike hire schemes, were once fiercely fought for by people, using bikes. I like to think that next week’s workshop will play its own little part in continuing that process, so that – for example – one day we might take almost completely for granted cities devoid of cars but full of bikes and life and love and laughter …

(Just in case anyone out there likes the look of it, I should say that I’m afraid the workshop is now full and registration closed, but I’ll report on it here in due course …)


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