Posts Tagged ‘cycling’

Le Terrier

June 9, 2013

Stop for tea at Slaidburn YHA

Our local sportive enjoyed perfect cycling weather last Sunday – a fine, dry, but not too warm day was forecast, and is exactly what we got. I rode with Derek, my brother-in-law. We were amongst the first riders to set off from Lancaster Brewery, at 7:30. We’d got there in time to register, grab a coffee, and chat to Scott and Jamie from local bike shop, The Edge Cycleworks, who were on hand to help with last-minute mechanical niggles.

Le Terrier start at Lancaster Brewery

We rode the longest of three routes, 105 miles with 3,500 metres of ascent. The climbing starts straight away, with the long pull up Jubilee Tower. From there it’s through the Trough of Bowland to Dunsop Bridge, south along the River Hodder, and over Longridge Fell up Jeffrey Hill and down Birdy Brow.

Starting a long ride early means you break its back before you’re fully awake to the magnitude of your undertaking. There’s still trepidation at what lies ahead but, especially if you pedal within yourself and things go smoothly, also a gradual relaxing into the joys of the ride. Then thirty or forty miles in, if you’re still feeling fresh, success seems more achievable. That’s how I felt, anyway, as we rode through Waddington and started the long climb north over Newton Fell to Slaidburn.

A long day in the saddle sees people, places and events quickly come and go in a steadily accumulating blur, so the ride you’re producing becomes hazy even within the process of producing it: incidents occur but are quickly left behind; conversations come and go; sights, sounds, smells and bodily sensations arise and then dissolve … Everything evaporates as it condenses, leaving ‘just’ the ride. So all you’re doing, really, finally, is riding. This is a big part of cycling’s magic, and why sometimes – not always! – long rides seem less hard work than I’d expect.

Climbing Bowland Knotts

We stopped at Slaidburn, over a third of the ride done, for welcome refreshment. From there the ride’s middle third saw us loop round Bowland’s eastern half. We rode through Gisburn Forest up to Bowland Knotts. The panorama there of Yorkshire’s Three Peaks – Pen-y-ghent, Ingleborough and Whernside – is magnificent, and one which – if you lift your gaze – you continue to enjoy as you hurtle down the next few miles.

At Keasden we turned east towards Settle, and then onto little gated lanes via Wham and Long Gill to Tosside. For all the riding I do, this stretch was new to me.

From Tosside we seemed to spend five miles tumbling south off Bowland only to turn near Holden and work our way back up again, to Slaidburn for a second time. My body was tiring now – neither conversation, nor wonder at the ride, nor even turning of the pedals came so easily as they’d done thus far.

Climbing again!

From Slaidburn we made our second south-north traverse of Bowland, this time over the Cross of Greet and down into Wray.

Joining a group

The last thirteen miles are brutal. We talked little now, just the occasional grunt; you need to turn inward, draw on hidden resources. This gruelling finale is along narrow, rough, steep and gated lanes, little more than farm-tracks really. Riding up Roeburndale from Wray you feel like you’re heading into a place with no other way out, yet there is – one which seems to inflict every crease of Bowland’s north-west corner upon you. At points you’re rendered practically stationary, as though the hills are hitting you – they have a power and motion which by now, 90 miles in your legs, you lack. It’s hard to believe that continuing to turn your pedals, however slowly, you’ll eventually see land drop away and sky once more colonise your horizon – with Lancaster, Morecambe Bay, the Fylde, the Lakes, and the Irish Sea all coming finally into view.

Then you’re almost home.

Into the last, brutal miles

Back where we started, what seemed so long ago, exhausted and content.

Le Terrier is a staggeringly good ride. It’s a stunning introduction to the area for those who’ve not been here. The long course crosses Bowland’s bulk three times (via the Trough, Bowland Knotts, and the Cross of Greet respectively) and goes too round its eastern flank; without going off-road, that’s as comprehensive as you can get. There are no major roads, no traffic lights, just a few villages, and mile after mile of quiet and scenic lanes. And for locals it stitches together into one very satisfying and coherent whole many roads on which you might regularly ride.

Without fear of being biased at all, I can say the event was superbly organised. The route was fantastically well sign-posted, and as if by magic food stops invariably arrived each time I was just beginning to fancy a flapjack! A huge thank you to all who made it happen – I’d name names but fear missing out any of the many involved. (I feel slightly guilty about riding rather than helping with the event, but figure that if some Lancaster CC members at least don’t ride it, word might get round that we’ve devised a route so hard the locals won’t do it!)

But there are two equally splendid shorter rides too; a middle distance of 66 miles, and a shorter one of 47. Sue and Bobby rode the latter, with a posse of other parents and children from our local children’s cycling club, Salt Ayre Cog Set.

Cog Set at the Cross o'Greet

The Cog Set Crew

Re-enchantment

June 7, 2013

Carlessness sculpts the contours of Sue, Bobby, Flo and my everyday lives, and our cycling fills in much of the detail. I don’t want to hold us up as a model, but I think it’s interesting nonetheless to reflect on what difference to our lives a car-free and often bicycle-based mobility pattern makes. After all, this blog is rooted in a belief in the bicycle’s capacity to re-make the world in fair and sustainable ways, one revolution at a time.

Flo & Sue

We spent last week in Sedbergh, a small town nestled in the Howgill Hills mid-way between the Cumbrian Lakes and Yorkshire Dales. It sits almost as close to the River Lune as does our home in Lancaster, thirty miles downstream, so that here and there feel connected. Some Sedbergh residents travel to work in Lancaster, and many of Sedbergh’s children were born in Lancaster’s hospital. I sometimes pass through it on my longer rides, but Bobby had been there only once before and Flo never at all. The nearest train station is ten hilly miles away at Oxenholme, and the bus service as poor as rural districts everywhere. So as a family it’s felt a place beyond reach.

Yet it’s a lovely place in a splendid setting. The surrounding countryside is threaded with some perfect cycling lanes and laced with footpaths I’ve been itching to tread. And now they’re older thirty miles, even hilly ones, is a distance Bobby and Flo can manage relatively comfortably. So for half-term holiday we decided to ride to Sedbergh and make it our base for the week. That way two good bike rides would sandwich six days spent getting to know the area on foot as well as by bike.

Dropping down to Sedbergh

As lovers of this corner of the world we often holiday locally, but this would be the first time we’d made the whole journey from home each on our own bike. We stuck as closely as we could to the Lune’s left bank. This is a hillier way of reaching Kirkby Lonsdale, a little over half-way to Sedbergh, but one less disturbed by cars; I wanted our trip to be carefree, not stressful.

Without my really having noticed both Bobby and Flo have become stronger, better riders. Bobby danced ahead with every rise, making them look ridiculously easy as Sue and I laboured behind. And for the first time Flo took hills in her stride, accepting them for what they are – an inevitable, even agreeable, part of any longer ride across beautiful ground.

Cycling amidst the cow parsley

We stopped for cakes and ice-creams in Kirkby Lonsdale, enjoying them in glorious sunshine on a bench in the churchyard. Then we aimed straight north, still on the Lune’s left-side until crossing it just short of Sedbergh. We parked our bikes by the bridge and dropped down to play by the river. Of course it’s very different here to the one we know well in Lancaster, almost at its mouth. At this higher point it cuts down hard through the hills and feels more a part of them – their rock, soil and trees.

Bobby in the River Lune

From our Sedbergh base we walked fresh paths and enjoyed as a family views from hills we can see but not easily reach from home. And we rode lanes which for a long while I’ve wanted to show the kids. The back road between Sedbergh and Dent is particularly special – it’s gated, carries almost no traffic, and stays close to the river, which we played alongside and probed as we went. Perhaps one day we’ll ride such places together as a day trip from Lancaster.

Whatever, I felt happy finally to introduce Bobby and Flo to this special part of the world, and this part of my cycling world. They were of course wonderfully blasé about it all, but I’m fairly sure that the magic of riding and walking such places casts its spell, if in ways which for now remain mysterious to us all.

Our backyard is beautiful, but easy to miss if we’re off elsewhere. I love exploring distant places, but more local exploring deepens and extends the boundaries of our ordinary lives. Last week not just our private explorations as a family, but also our public encounters with people in and around Sedbergh – farmers, shopkeepers, other walkers and cyclists, the neighbours of the cottage where we stayed – deepened our understandings of, and I think our bonds with, this part of the world, making it more part of our own world. In a small way people’s stories became our stories, their land our land. This seems right – after all, we share a territory and our lives are connected by a river in perpetual flow.

I thank carlessness and cycling for many things, but one of their greatest gifts is the incentive they give to staying local, and coming to know that local too. So I guess my wider point here is how life with bikes instead of cars might bring us all closer to home and, without wishing to get too romantic about it, enable a sorely needed re-enchantment of that home.

On Arant Haw, the Howgills

Blossom

May 15, 2013

Blossom

It’s only once it starts waking up again that I realise quite how asleep the world has been; and although it’s not got much warmer, these last couple of weeks it’s really come alive. Yesterday the blossom, which is late this year, was particularly fine. The verges have sprung to life too, and are full of flowers.

You don’t need to go for a ride in the countryside to notice how everything’s growing so fast, and how much colour is emerging. One of the great things about blossom especially is it tends to follow where people live, so it’s all around us, even in a relatively treeless town such as Lancaster. But to ride out and get the full sensory assault of this flourishing flora is a great pleasure of cycling at this time of year.

Yesterday I kept mainly to little lanes on a northerly loop from Lancaster. I rode over Hutton Roof and round Farleton Fell to Natland, just short of Kendal, then west to Brigsteer and round Whitbarrow, on to Levens, and back home via the Yealands and Kellets. This is a more peopled, pastoral route than many of my favourites – it doesn’t roam over moors and fells but moves between hamlets comprising stone farmhouses surrounded by trees. But it makes a more colourful ride – aware it won’t be long before the blossom’s blown away and the countryside goes completely green, I wanted to enjoy it whilst it lasts.

For mid-May it wasn’t warm; I was stung by a storm of hail stones as I climbed out the Kent Valley. But warmer than it was a month or so ago, the birds remain busy, and it’s beginning to smell properly of spring now; especially through the woodlands the air’s heavy with the scent of wild garlic.

Blossom tree at Yealand

Winster Valley

Under Whitbarrow

Towards Crosthwaite

Witherslack Woods

Road cycling is often seen as involving hard effort, long miles and tough climbs. Professional cycle sport and increasingly popular styles of riding such as sportives tend probably to perpetuate such an image. Perhaps it’s one of the reasons rural road cycling is dominated by men? (I’ve not seen studies on this but my own experience supports other anecdotal evidence – when riding outside the city, I’ll maybe see one woman for every ten men.) But road riding can be, should be, is (has always been?) so much more than this; and yesterday– to offer a little example – I was reminded of how it lets you move through (indeed become part of) a multi-sensory floral kaleidoscope.

As with cycling in general, for road cycling to become more popular (and there are good reasons it should) we need to watch for it getting constructed in one way to the exclusion of others. So let’s keep sight (and smell!) of road cycling’s different meanings. Indeed, let’s reflect on, discuss and promote them.

And whilst all this proliferating vegetation can be experienced via other modes, there’s no better way – I’d aver – than by bike.

Blossom

Bluebell woods

Verge 1

Verge 2

Heading home

Get Britain Cycling?

May 8, 2013

Get Britain Cycling

The sun’s out, the temperature’s rising. Spring seemed to take forever to arrive but suddenly now it’s here; everything’s going green, and yellow, and blue – colour everywhere! At this time of year riding should really take precedence. But – even if I sometimes forget precisely why – it continues to be important to encourage others to cycle.

And hey … there’s a petition to sign! Should we have to petition Government to take cycling seriously? It’s easy to be cynical. We’re petitioning for a Parliamentary debate on cycling – for politicians to discuss the just-published Get Britain Cycling report. We’re asking British politicians to start talking seriously about cycling. We can laugh, scorn or mock, but this is the situation we’re in, and pushing for a Parliamentary debate on cycling is our best hope of building top-down support for cycling.

For the report and recommendations from the Get Britain Cycling Inquiry to get debated in Parliament, the petition needs 100,000 signatures. 54,084 people have signed so far; with I think the petition in danger of demonstrating what we already know – cycling, particularly belief in cycling as a major means of urban transport, is marginal (which is precisely why we need enlightened governance and political leadership). So please, sign the petition, and ask others to do so too.

But realise that cycling isn’t in the news because of Government action; it’s in the news because of Government inaction. So more important than signing this petition is maintaining the broader, grassroots agitation for change which has led to it, and which is also applying political pressure in other ways.

Even if we do get the Parliamentary debate, I’m afraid we must expect it – and any Governmental response – to be inadequate. It’d be naïve to expect a Parliamentary debate on cycling to make serious cracks in the dominant car system, though it’s cracks we need; more likely is continuing tokenistic support for cycling of the kind which keeps car use-as-ordinary undisturbed. Cycling politics is resurgent partly because it was repressed during a period of grossly ineffective cycling policy. (We might date this from the 1996 launch of the National Cycling Strategy (which aimed to increase cycling 400% by 2012) until the demise of Cycling England fifteen years later, in 2011.) During that period it felt like ‘things were being done for cycling’, though we know now they weren’t, really. Cycling levels didn’t quadruple; they stayed the same, whilst car use for even the shortest journeys became more widespread, habitual and acceptable.

Freed from constraints imposed by the hegemony of ‘realistic cycling policy’, in the last couple of years many of us have felt liberated to think cycling differently; we’ve stepped up our ambitions for cycling, and have started to talk about cycling as capable of challenging the car’s obese sense of entitlement to especially urban space. We don’t necessarily know anything new. It’s more that we’ve found our voice, one repressed whilst dominant players within the cycling promotion industry enjoyed a cosy if ineffective relationship to Power. We’re learning to contest established cycling promotion orthodoxies, to be bold and audacious. About time really! After all, we’re only saying what everybody else – ‘ordinary people’ who’d quite like to cycle – already knows! But until now it’s been remarkably difficult to say simple, obvious things.

We must be sure to hold tightly onto our new, bigger, bolder, better ambitions for cycling when responding to emerging Government rhetoric, policy and action. Because we don’t want a bit more cycling, we want mass cycling; and because some established players – cycling’s traditional representatives – will likely be too easily satisfied.

In the meantime we must keep pushing from the bottom-up. Of course we must seek greater representation of cycling within ‘anti-cycling’ systems; but if we also cycle more, encourage others to cycle more, and support small, local projects aimed at getting still others to cycle more, then we simultaneously build the grassroots base which cycling needs in order to be politically more powerful and resilient.

Irrespective of whether or not it triggers a Parliamentary debate on the Get Britain Cycling Inquiry’s report, this petition will indicate to politicians how much support there is for cycling. Less than 100,000 signatures demonstrates we’re still small – still a movement pushing at the outside rather than a voice to incorporate on the inside; still marginal, not mainstream.

Part of me tires of trying to get other people to take cycling seriously. Part of me thinks ‘sod it! Just enjoy your own cycling’. But then I remember the reasons cycling matters – its important contributions to local and global social and environmental dignity. Still, it’s hard to keep pushing cycling when people don’t want to listen, and when even those who do so often respond inadequately.

But then, things do change; and we need to create opportunities to help make them change. So we must be sceptical optimists. We must keep hope that things can change dramatically in cycling’s favour. The ambitions of government towards cycling must surely rise sometime; just maybe, this could be the time!

100,000 signatures would give hope that Government might hear our audacious ambitions for cycling, ambitions which would genuinely start to crack the grossly dominant current car system. So please, if you think that’s important, sign the petition here. But know too that whatever Government does, it won’t be enough – we must become used to advocating cycling for a long time yet.

In the meantime, every body matters, so cycling and encouraging others to cycle remains the really important political work. Get out there and enjoy riding through Spring! It’s brilliant!

Dentdale

May 1, 2013

Into Dentdale

A strong westerly blew me out through Wray, Low Bentham and Ingleton, and up the Hawes road past Ribblehead viaduct to Newby Head Pass. 420 metres up, surrounded by windswept moor, this is the ride’s highest point. In bad weather it’s a slightly bleak and discomforting place. The moors seem to stretch forever in all directions but actually I’m about to drop steeply down. It’s another world below, and amazing the speed at which by bike you move between here and there; when the weather is wild (and it often is) to descend is to move from vulnerability to safety, but in any weather it’s to move from the remote and inhospitable to the cosy and familiar. The presence of even the smallest village is reassuring when cycling through less peopled places.

These aren’t thoughts so much as moods, so fleeting I could almost miss them. They emerge then evaporate as I make my temporary place by pedalling through space. Neither thoughts nor moods settle; cycling bypasses psychology. A long ride especially squashes mulling and mithering, helping me dwell in a calmer place, to become a simpler being. It’s good for my mental health.

The best part of this ride starts at Newby Head Pass, with the turn onto the minor road into Dentdale. This is a ride within a ride really, pedalling Dentdale’s length. Although it’s a Yorkshire Dale, you enter Cumbria here.

Little sense here of what's to come

The lane undulates over the moor at first, then turns north-west and drops. The viaducts of the Settle-Carlisle railway appear below, then a short stretch of steep descent later their mighty arches rise dramatically above. You need to watch the road – this is an elemental place and rock, stone and wood mark water’s path across its surface. And like many roads round here it’s been gouged away by the long, hard winter. But especially when riding alone I crane my neck to witness the convoluted topography as it swiftly shifts from moor to dale. There’s no static point. Occasionally I make one by stopping for a photo, but this upsets the ideal cycling experience – cycling’s magic is the elimination of a fixed viewpoint, replaced by the fluid and continuous unfolding of the tight relationship between bike, body, road, land and air. Any ride can produce this experience but the stretch of road from Newby Head to Dent village six miles later is the best I know, and makes it one of my favourite rides.

The railway pushes through the Dale’s head at about the height at which the many becks flowing from the surrounding fells form the River Dee. You’re properly in the Dale now, right next to the River.

Into the valley

The road falls over the next few miles, as it skirts Whernside’s northern flank. You accelerate with the downward gradient into the most thrilling stretch. Your speed together with the need to focus on the road ahead means awareness of this magical place isn’t cognitively or even aesthetically felt. You become blurred with trees, water, rock and road. You lose, escape, who you are. This is surely cycling’s greatest pleasure – your own displacement.

The River’s always different and often disappears beneath its limestone bed. In water’s absence you feel like the downward constant.

You can ride this stretch slowly, but you lose something.

River Dee

From Cowgill lanes run either side the Dee. I cross a narrow, hump-backed stone bridge to ride the northern bank. At the junction here, the Coal Road north climbs out the valley past Dent Station, England’s highest, and over to Garsdale Head.

Signpost in Dentdale

The lane and river stay tight together for another mile before separating slightly just short of Dent village. In the six miles since the Dale’s head the road has dropped three hundred metres.

Bridge over the River Dee

The cobbles through Dent village form a stretch long enough to transport you briefly to Paris-Roubaix, yet are short enough to be pain-free.

Dent cobbles

Rather than ride the Dale’s length I sometimes climb out just beyond Dent, from Gawthrop over to Barbondale. But this time I want to cross the last bridge over the River Dee, just before it flows into first the Rawthey and then the Lune.

The lower Dale changes dramatically. It opens out and becomes more gentle. This change is geologically underpinned, the Yorkshire limestone of upper Dentdale giving way to Cumbrian rock. My riding style shifts according to these deep structures; I come off my drops and up to my hoods, my shoulder’s open, my gaze lifts; the intense riding of the upper Dale gives way to a broader, relaxed outlook.

The lane gets bigger. The Dee no longer sticks rigidly to its side but moves away to become a more ordinary river. The road starts to rise as well as fall and for the first time since the Dale’s head I get out of the saddle and feel the miles accumulating in my legs.

Just before the Dale’s end I drop to the Dee a final time, to cross to its south side via the slender bridge at Catholes. After twelve incredible miles I’m leaving Dentdale behind. I climb round Holme Fell and drop into the Lune Valley. From here it’s twenty-five fairly flat miles along the Lune back home to Lancaster.

Leaving Dentdale

Longer Days

April 22, 2013

Setting sun

The seasons matter to cycling. And cycling makes the seasons matter.

In the north-west of England we’ve finally emerged from the harshest Winter. The days are growing longer and warmer. The deep cold has gone and life is returning to the land.

Struck by a cold, I was off the bike for a week but, with my strength coming back, each of the past few days I’ve ridden out of town for a short, gentle ride towards the end of day. It’s a lovely way to spend an evening, enjoying the quiet lanes and lengthening shadows as the sun falls over Morecambe Bay.

Long shadow

Last night I left the house at 7:30 to do a little loop into the Forest of Bowland and up to Jubilee Tower. Lambs bounced round the fields, hares sprinted off at my approach, and birds busily prepared themselves for the coming night. Occasionally a farmer’s tractor or quad-bike trundled somewhere in the distance, but the lanes were empty of cars. I love the feeling of having all this countryside, all this space, virtually to myself; I sink into it, become blurred, am content.

Forest of Bowland

I hurtled back down to the quiet Sunday night city, passing the Town Hall clock as it chimed a-quarter-to-nine, some light left still in the sky. For the next two months each evening will grow a little longer, and hopefully warmer too. Isn’t this the very best time to be on a bike, the longest days and best weather still ahead? Our bodies turn with our pedals towards the optimism Spring surely brings.

Winter’s cold and dark tempts the closing of curtains and indoor retreat. Spring seduces us back to the world outside. The scope for cycling becomes so much greater. The traditional pro-cycling calendar reflects this – we’ve had the early season Classics and can now anticipate the Summer’s Grand Tours. Locally too Winter’s dormancy has retreated and the cycle racing season begun, the weeks now crowded with events.

Winter cycling is great, but includes a certain amount of ‘getting through’. Winter cycling matters, but there always lurks an orientation to brighter, better days ahead. Many people cycle only once it gets warmer, but surely no one cycles just in Winter.

We know how seasonal cycling is, how warm weather triggers the inclination to cycle. The bike shops get busy, new people on new or refurbished bikes are out and about. Of course we need to create conditions which compel people to cycle all year round, but in the absence of bolder, broader institutional support for ordinary cycling it’s understandable that most people’s interest in riding changes with the weather.

We’re ‘a cycling family’, but cycling is seasonal for us too. On Saturday morning I went with Bobby and Flo to our brilliant local children’s cycling club, Salt Ayre Cog Set, where weekly sessions have resumed. Both complained bitterly at being made to go; I was ‘the baddie’ breaking their winter hibernations in which lazy stasis inspired by staring at screens has taken centre-stage. But the sunshine, sociability, fresh air and exercise boosted their energies, and they came away bubbling with enthusiasm, as though participating had sprung Spring within their little souls.

Springtime cycling is a mechanism for lifting our spirits and horizons, taking us to other, farther, more interesting places.

Of course for those of us who ride year round Spring feels good partly because of the Winter that came before, as well as the Summer that lies ahead. Contrasts are everything: even the places through which we most regularly ride change dramatically; and as the temperatures rise and the days lengthen cycling becomes less shackled by some Winter essentials: lights, layers, gloves and hats; things can gradually be discarded. There’s a ‘freeing-up’ both of cycling and our selves.

My little ride last night wasn’t cold, but we’ve yet to experience a truly warm evening this year. At long last, though, it’s feeling possible; the dreamy, delicious prospect of the after-dinner short-sleeve and shorts ride through warm and windless air has moved one step closer.

Springtime evening sunshine

Indoor Cycling

March 28, 2013

I feel reckless writing about indoor cycling; like it’s embarrassing – both to admit doing it, and to imagine it could be worth thinking about. But I’ve been doing it a lot this week. Spring felt almost here but suddenly slipped away; strong and icy winds from the east have blown away my interest in riding outside. Yet the racing season’s arrived and I’ve some (modest, personal) goals I’m keen to achieve. Turbo training’s the answer.

Actually it’s clear that many people prefer indoor to outdoor cycling; if you see cycling less as a way of moving around than as a route to improved fitness, indoor cycling’s perhaps best. Anyway indoor cycling is still cycling, isn’t it? So thinking about it might be illuminating.

Going nowhere?

Although in my own mind indoor cycling isn’t ‘the real thing’, furiously pedalling nowhere does have advantages:

  • it minimises washing – just a pair of socks, shorts and towel. In contrast, outdoor riding at this time of year generates endless laundry;
  • my bike stays clean;
  • it’s quick – in ninety minutes I can set myself up, do an hour’s quality training, clear away, and shower;
  • I can ride to music – something I never do on the road. This is a treat; each of the last four days I’ve used Last FM to select tunes centred around, respectively, Julian Cope, The Four Brothers, Dinosaur Jr, and Fela Kuti, which has been ace!

Indoor cycling builds fitness; given urban cycling in Britain undoubtedly gets easier the fitter you are, I’m surprised there aren’t cycling promotion projects encouraging indoor cycling as a way of equipping people for outdoor cycling. (I’m not seriously suggesting this – it’d be much better to make conditions conducive to slower cycling.)

Tuning out?

So why does indoor cycling make me uneasy? To ride indoors is to cycle in order to improve health and build fitness. Indoor cycling is attractive because it brings the fitness benefits of cycling without incurring what are widely perceived to be cycling’s costs – principally the need to ride in a motorised environment. Participating in an indoor cycling class probably brings additional social benefits; even if the pain is personally felt, the group can bond in shared suffering. I don’t know participation figures (there’s need for research), but indoor cycling is clearly an important industry; classes are popular and reach many people (especially perhaps women?) who might be reluctant to ride on the road. But whether done individually or socially, indoor cycling is a reduction of cycling as we’ve come to know it.

Obviously, for those who prefer indoor cycling this reduction is good  – why suffer the difficulties and indignities of ‘real cycling’, when you can stay at home or drive to the gym and pedal ‘comfortably’ (if also painfully and sweatily) in an ‘acceptable’ way? From this perspective it’s outdoor, not indoor, cycling that’s strange.

I think my worry is based on fear that the idea of cycling as a health & fitness practice might gain too much ground.

Cycling practitioners are understandably excited about the UK Government Department of Health’s current enthusiasm for cycling; this represents a new (or revived) discursive push (‘cycling to health’), with new money for cycling. This is well and good, so long as cycling simultaneously becomes more central to – rather than deflected away from – transport discourse. We know cycling can satisfy multiple public policy goals so that cycling for transport ticks many health boxes too, but give cycling for health too much emphasis and we could end up with more enthusiasm for riding inside than out.

Most people who love cycling probably have their own sectional interest/s – for transport cycling, cycle sport, recreational cycling, cycle tourism, cycling for health, cycling as a form of social inclusion, and so on. On the one hand this is great; cycling contributes to many things and it’s good it has champions in different spheres. But on the other hand I think it’s clearly transport cycling about which people most need persuading and which most needs championing; so we need to remain alert to the possibility that by becoming more about health and fitness (or sport, or anything else) some of the current impetus towards transport cycling might dissipate. And I think that’s the concern at the root of my unease about indoor cycling. As part of a wider cycling lifestyle, it’s fine. But too great an emphasis on health and fitness and too much riding indoors risks the imprisonment and impoverishment of a practice capable of changing the world.

All cyclings are good, and in building a cycling system it’s important that at central government level cycling is pushed not only within and by the Department for Transport but also within and by the Departments for Culture, Media & Sport; Health; Energy & Climate Change; and all the others too. But some cyclings are better than others; and it’s pushing cycling as transport (at the car’s expense) which is key to building a better, fairer society.

So tomorrow, whatever the weather, I’m going to break out of the house and go somewhere, anywhere, by bike!

Mainroading Cycling

March 21, 2013

Below is a sequence of photos I took yesterday as I rode three miles south from Lancaster city centre along the A6 to Lancaster University. The journey took about ten minutes. I know they’re boring, but please indulge me. We need to discuss the future of cycling on main roads, yet such discussions – much like cycling on main roads itself – remain repressed. Cycling is still expected to take the long route, via back roads. This must change. It’s time to mainroad cycling.


The cycle lane ends

A6 southbound

What's going on here?

Is this good enough?

Worn away by cars

Enough space?

A good place to ride?

Plenty of space for who?

Adequate provision?

Pulling out?

Clear road

Leaving the city

Speeding up

Fast road

Still with me?

The joys of the open road?

Almost there

How much road do you want?

Lancaster University

Let’s look at this specific case, the A6 between Lancaster city centre and Lancaster University.

It’s a stretch I know well. It’s a key route linking two of the district’s biggest ‘trip attractors’. In the city centre are shops, businesses and key services, including the Royal Lancaster Infirmary and many schools. Lancaster University has over 12,000 students and 2,500 staff; it’s supposedly committed to reducing car use to its campus but for the 17 years my life has been connected to this institution it has struggled in half-hearted ways to encourage cycling.

For the first two miles of the three mile route, the A6 runs through residential areas – there are three shopping parades, several pubs, a primary school and a supermarket. Beyond them the speed limit increases from 30 to 40 mph. The road is straight and climbs gently over the first mile before flattening out until the University’s driveway.

As a cycling corridor the A6 has been generally ignored. Much more effort has gone into creating alternatives to it than in improving cycling conditions along it. Although it’s the most obvious route to make cycle-friendly, it’s not been seen that way (for reasons you might know, but which I’ll not explore here).

Dynamo, the local cycle campaign, recently decided to challenge this institutional indifference to cycling on the A6, and specifically to push for high-quality, continuous, dedicated cycling infrastructure along the entire stretch I rode yesterday. As cycling’s relevance becomes more widely understood and its profile rises, it’s time to mainroad – and so mainstream – cycling here.

Dynamo anticipated key individuals to be intransigent and require persuading, but not the County Council’s former Senior Cycling Officer and current Sustainable Travel Officer; he believes dedicated space for cycling along the A6 is impossible, because of lack of space (i.e. width) along some sections, and because residents would oppose the removal of on-road car parking along others. In other words consideration of improving conditions for cycling along the A6 is in danger of falling at the first hurdle due to a dismal (especially coming from the County Council’s Sustainable Travel office) failure of imagination (that the road can look otherwise) and will (that priorities can be changed).

The road clearly has room for dedicated cycling space along this entire stretch; and it’s equally obvious that cycling should trump residents’ car parking – what’s more important, a few parked cars or many moving bikes? So I find both excuses pathetic, and infuriating. I’m sure there are nooks and crannies in government offices everywhere similarly stubbornly resisting an enlightened approach to everyday travel, so I can’t be the only one who gets angry about this sort of thing, can I?

So, what’s it like to cycle these three miles?

For me as a fit and assertive cyclist, it’s OK. I’m used to the strange sensation of a stream of speeding traffic sweeping past my shoulder; and I’m generally trusting in other people’s good intentions and capabilities not to run me down. As we know, however (and this is probably a good thing!), I’m in a minority. And I’m not so daft that I can’t imagine, as I ride, what the experience would be like for others  less like me.

The cars, buses and trucks come thick, fast and often close. You are moving through an environment utterly dominated by motorised modes, with no protection whatsoever. The driver has a metal shell, the pedestrian has the pavement, but the cyclist is exposed and vulnerable. People don’t know this so much as feel it, if only vicariously. Of course they’re not going to cycle here.

Short stretches of red painted tarmac come and quickly go, but it’s not really clear what they’re for; certainly they offer no protection. They’re also very narrow, far too close to the kerb, and usually full of debris. Cyclists are given the option of coming off the road to negotiate a big roundabout just south of the city centre, which wrongly presupposes people would be happy riding on the road to begin with. The changes which have been made on the A6 have nothing to do with building a mass culture of ordinary cycling; they’re about providing enough to keep us quiet (even though these changes are often useless and/or dangerous).

With the hindsight afforded by the Understanding Walking and Cycling research, I was extremely naïve to once believe ordinary cycling might ever grow under such conditions. It’s an insanely hostile environment to cycling. That naivety was of course a (sub)cultural attribute and many cycling advocates have similarly swallowed and become deluded by their own rhetoric.

So people won’t cycle here. But we want people to cycle here. It is on the most direct, flattest routes, with the most services, that they’re most likely to cycle.

So what are we to do?

For this stretch of road, my own proposal is as radical as it is obvious and sensible. It entails twin changes. First, reduce the speed limit to 20 mph. This will civilise the road, returning it from cars to people, and ensuring it’s a fitting gateway to a fine city. Most important slower speeds enable motorised modes to be squeezed closer together; cycling has been squeezed long enough and it’s re-prioritisation time. This will facilitate the second change, of inserting a high-quality, continuous, dedicated cycling route. Because even with motorised modes limited to 20 mph most people won’t want to mix with the volume of traffic that’s likely to remain for the foreseeable future on this road. Also, unless cycling is allocated clear space of its own it’ll continue to be pushed around by transport’s heavyweights.

How do we get these changes?

By believing in them, sharing them, and arguing for them. The fulfilment of cycling’s potential to change our world depends on it.

 

Who should be squeezed?

Parked cars or moving bikes?

Cycling around Lisbon

March 15, 2013

In traffic

I was working in Portugal last week. Initially I was reluctant to go so far for what was essentially a one-day workshop. But when João Bernardino, who’d invited me, offered use of a bike whilst I was there, and said Lisbon’s community of cycling activists would like to meet me, it became more attractive. It was a fantastic experience, the hospitality of everyone I met truly exceptional.

Ana Pereira greeted me at the airport. Ana is one of the founders of Cenas a Pedal – not ‘just’ a bike store or workshop, but a more total project striving to sell everyday cycling in a place where such cycling is still rare. It’s the sort of pioneering place every city needs, and which will multiply and prosper as cycling’s popularity grows.

Ana, on the way to the ferry

Ana rode a pedelec –the sort of bike perhaps most likely to democratise cycling in a hilly, low-cycling city such as Lisbon. She guided me out of the airport and along some big and busy roads to the city’s 1998 Expo site, and from there into a fierce wind along the Tagus River to the ferry at Cais do Sodré where we met João.

Joao

A true gentleman, João rode his wife Filipa’s bike and gave me his own. From Cacilhas on the Tagus’s other side we rode south towards the remote monastery where the workshop was to take place. The roads were full of cars; the dedicated cycling infrastructure was sometimes good, but too discontinuous to be really useful.

Joao en route to the monastery

Punctured!

The Arrábida Monastery sits high above the Atlantic Ocean on the wooded slopes of the Arrábida Natural Park to the south of Lisbon. It’s a stunning place which feels a world away from the capital.

Arrabida Monastery

With a free day before the workshop’s opening dinner, I rode east along the coast to the port city of Setúbal. I set out in thick fog but the road was quiet, it was a lovely ride, and the air cleared as I dropped towards the sea. It was the first time since October I’ve ridden without gloves, and the warmth made me impatient for spring – alas my first ride back home saw me battling through a blizzard!

Above the beach

Setubal cafe

The workshop was part of a European project investigating the long-term future of transport. We were discussing and developing scenarios based on the ‘mega-trends’ considered likely to shape people’s mobile lives over the next half century. One ‘expert’ amongst others from different fields and around the world, I felt like ‘the cycling guy’. It’s important cycling’s represented in such spaces if it’s to have hope of moving from the margins, so it was good to be there and I was happy to play that role.

But the highlight of my trip was Friday night; the workshop over, I shed my suit and had some fun! From my hotel Hercules, Ana Santos, João and I rode to Cenas a Pedal where we met more people and rode together – “a mini-Critical Mass!”, as Ana from Cenas a Pedal described it – to the book store, Ler Devagar, where I was to speak. This is a vast anarcho-dream of a place – evidence of its former life as a printworks is everywhere, bicycles dangle from above, books are of course piled high, and then there’s beer, wine, coffee, music, and lots of signs of the space’s centrality to alternative social and political networks; to me it felt like heaven!

Hercules, Ana and me in Lisbon

Talking in Lisbon

Ana Pereira began the evening’s conversation by explaining the work of MUBi, the Portuguese association for urban cycling. MUBi advocates urban cycling as an ordinary means of moving around. Car ownership and use have exploded across Portugal over the last generation, and whilst it’s on the up, levels of utility cycling remain very low. Mário Alves of MUBi told me that the proportion of commuter trips made by cycle in the city is currently 0.6%. There’s some dedicated cycling infrastructure and some of it’s pretty good, but it’s woefully disjointed and there’s too little actual cycling for that dedicated space to be consistently recognised and respected by pedestrians. On the roads cars dominate, and whilst I was impressed by the patience of drivers, it felt a harsh and unforgiving cycling environment. Like so many other places, to ride here you’d have to be either committed or desperate.

Lisbon intersection

Lisbon cycle path

Committed cycling

This is the context in which MUBi is working, and – with minimal resources – doing an extremely impressive job. But besides MUBi’s various projects aimed at promoting cycling, MUBi campaigners themselves – some of whom I met on Friday night – are crucial to the struggle for cycling. Passionate about the bicycle and clearly recognising the difference more cycling would make, they are cycling’s keepers, continuing to shine a light through the darkest days of automobility, actors of the greatest importance to future life.

This bears on one topic of my talk at Ler Devagar. We need strong sub-cultures of cycling to sustain our favourite practice through the darkest times (though from a sub-cultural perspective these can also of course be the best of times too). And as cycling’s staunchest advocates we’re the ones who are best placed to speak and work for more cycling. From what I saw MUBi is clearly doing a magnificent job on both these counts.

But there may come a time – and probably Lisbon is a long way from it, and in the UK we are closer – when activists would do well to examine their strategies for popularising cycling, and ask whether those strategies result from the identities they’ve developed in order to sustain cycling through bleak times, and whether they might at some point come to stand in the way of –rather than facilitate – making cycling a more normal practice in which identity is a less central factor. As I say, I think cycling’s current marginality in Lisbon society makes such questions remote. And MUBi is well equipped to deal with them when the time comes. I know some people disagreed with what I said at Ler Devagar, but their willingness to hear, and to respond so constructively and respectfully sent shivers up my spine. Wherever I go, I’m struck by how cycling’s in such safe hands.

I’m a lucky man to be made welcome in strange places. In particular I have to thank João Bernardino for inviting me to Portugal in the first place, and also Ana Pereira, Ana Santos and Mário Alves for their extraordinary hospitality whilst I was there. Ana Santos and Mário are organising this year’s International Cycling History Conference. It was an honour to share their company for the evening, and to get a taste of Portugese social life. Such community is our strength, and power.

At the airport

Hey! I returned home to the clearest news yet of the urgently needed paradigm shift away from the car and towards the bicycle as an urban mode of transport. As an unrepentantly critical sociologist I’ll always find problems, but the promised changes to London over the coming decade are good news indeed (and reassurance to many of us that perhaps we’ve not been so idealistically deluded after all!). As my new friends in Lisbon might say, “Viva a velorution!”

Morecambe Prom

March 4, 2013

Cycling on the prom

What kind of place is Morecambe prom?

And what does cycling on the prom say about cycling more generally?

Cycling welcome

Morecambe prom is between the local and the global, nature and culture; and cycling is a key actor here.

The promenade exists between nature and culture

Until 2006 you weren’t meant to cycle the prom, though we did – a little defiantly (“how ridiculous! So much space!”) but uncomfortably too, with one ear listening for disapproving remarks. But now we can. I spoke to the City Council meeting which voted to change cycling’s status. I stressed the prom’s potential as a utility route – it lines the coastal edge of a linear town. But it was easier in this seaside place to insist on its relevance to tourism. Our prom, I said

“is a potentially very major tourist draw, and we should be able to sell it as such … Blackpool, Bournemouth, Brighton, Deal, Dover, Exmouth, Hartlepool, Hastings, Margate, Maryport, North Tyneside, Poole, Saltburn, South Shields, Sunderland, Swansea. All welcome cycling on their proms. All recognise cycling’s importance, not least to the local tourist economy.”

Morecambe prom

Riding the prom is to trace a boundary. The land to one side and bay to the other keep changing, but your place between them stays constant; you the cyclist the moving point between nature and culture. The low steady rumble of traffic is occasionally broken by high-pitched trills of seaside birds feeding on the shore. The wind blows you sideward within metres of buildings full of lives oblivious to the weather. Shoreline smells of salt and seaweed combine with those of buses, chips and bacon butties. You look out towards hills, mud, water and sky, and in towards playgrounds, pubs and streets full of cars.

Man on a bike on the prom

Morecambe’s placed between two identities. Signs of the twin forces of dereliction and regeneration are everywhere. Two of the town’s landmarks are equally but contrastingly symbolic – the Polo Tower stands forlornly waiting for the return of excited kids and candy-floss, the Midland Hotel brings in suited conference delegates by day, and well-heeled migrants from far away for a night or two.

The Polo Tower and Midland Hotel

Resort towns must make something of themselves, persuade people they’re worth a visit. Morecambe developed from the railway. Among Yorkshire mill-workers it was ‘Bradford-on-Sea’. The town’s newspaper, The Visitor, aimed not at locals but holiday-makers; initially it was published only in summer. Back then everybody wanted a sea view and the town stretched out accommodatingly round the bay. But Britain’s urban industrial  workforce melted, and these days people prefer aeroplanes to warmer climes above trains to here. Those who can have abandoned Morecambe for exotic elsewheres, whilst some of those who can’t have moved in, and become trapped.

Morecambe’s flat and poor, so shouldn’t cycling prosper here?

On yer bike Eric!

Woman and child on Morecambe Bay

The town stretches round the bay. Bird life teems across the tidal reach. The views are amazing, sunsets spectacular. Optimistically seen still as a tourist town, regeneration projects aim to develop Morecambe’s ‘USP’, its vantage point, its prom.

Birds on the bay

The unfolding panorama afforded by traversing the long, smooth but otherwise marginal promenade makes the bicycle the obvious twenty-first century vehicle choice. Proms were made for walking but promenading’s a lost art, and these days the prom is made for cycling.

Bird art on the jetty

Nature and cycling are the regenerative forces for a middle-class culture. Though they ride the line between the two, people come here in cars to ride their bikes round a bay full of birds, not a town full of problems. Cyclists on the prom can enjoy the coast and bury their heads in the sand about the problems lying just inland.

Bird and bike

The prom belongs to the cosmopolitans in whose hands the town’s hopes of regeneration mainly lie, not locals.

Birds in front of The Midland Hotel

It’s easy to imagine and construct the prom as a leisure cycling route. So cycling stays a practice other people – people not from here – do. It’s not seen as something local people do or might do even though seeing it that way would contribute to a different, better, stronger, more sustainable regeneration.

That the prom is global more than local makes its current lack of integration with the town easier to overlook. But how likely is it that the prom could become an ‘ordinary route for ordinary people making ordinary journeys’? Clearly, the problem isn’t simply infrastructural. On the back streets of Morecambe you see people cycling. Most ride cheap bikes; they jump from them at the last minute before disappearing into shops, the back wheel still spinning on the pavement outside. But to ride a bike beyond necessity, you’ve got to:

  • want to bike;
  • get a bike;
  • keep a bike;
  • maintain a bike;

and if cycling’s not normal, these things are hard.

Lack of interest in cycling is inevitable consequence of a social, political, cultural and economic environment with neither cues nor props to cycle. In such an environment it will be mainly privileged people who choose to cycle, perhaps partly to communicate their privilege.

The problem of mass non-cycling is not simply infrastructural, but its solution must be infrastructure-led. People won’t cycle in numbers if they can’t cycle easily. Smooth and wide, the prom is a super novice-friendly cycle route but without a car it’s impossible to reach without riding on roads where cars rule. Along the prom sign-posts to other places are excellent, but road conditions in places from which people without cars must ride to the prom are dire.

Good signs, good routes?

Morecambe’s prom is a slim glimpse of the cycling facilities people want, but like cycling itself it lies on the margin, lining a coast to which birds flock but people don’t. Cycling’s been entertained here because space existed and re-making it for cycling brings tourists, not because it serves the local journeys of local people. Morecambe prom is a cycling bypass, of both the town and the lives of most of the people who live there. And that’s a pity.

Letting cycling onto the prom, it turns out, was only the start. The next chapter involves getting local people cycling here. Making Morecambe prom for local cycling would be to follow a bolder, more distinctive path to regeneration; and one which could help the town thrive without depending so much on the tourist potential of its natural setting. It’d involve re-making the whole town, not just its prom, for cycling.


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