Cycling Speed

August 1, 2013

I have multiple cycling speeds that I can’t rank ‘better’ and ‘worse’. 10 mph enables me to ride with kids and potter about town. 15 mph feels comfortable for longer rides out in the countryside. 20 mph I’m either going downhill or training. And then there’s 25 mph.

How fast?

25 mph is the speed of performance cycling. Road races typically average around this speed, and time trialling at 25 mph makes you half-decent – that’s something I set out to do this year, to ride 25 miles in under the hour, and 10 miles in under 24 minutes. The other night presented probably this season’s best chance of a sub-24 minute 10 mile ride; a warm, dry and calm evening – perfect conditions, on one of the fastest courses in the country, up and down the A590 near Levens in the south Lakes. My mate Jon also rode, similarly intent on breaking the 24 minute barrier. We make good training partners because we’re about the same level, which creates healthy competition between us and means we push each other to go faster.

Warming up

Time trialling emerged as a clandestine activity at the end of the nineteenth century in response to a ban on road-based bunch-racing. Darkly-dressed riders set off at regular intervals around dawn, to ‘test’ themselves over a secret course. Nowadays it’s almost the opposite – signs are erected around and along the course warning motorists an event is taking place, with riders encouraged to make themselves conspicuous through fitting a powerful rear light to their machine.

It might seem one of cycling’s conservative enclaves – most riders come by car (as a teenager my mates and I would cycle long distances to race, but these days Jon and I are unusual in cycling so far as twenty miles to Levens, and back, to take part) to pedal fast through intensely motorised space, using specific and costly bikes and equipment to enhance performance. Yet there’s politics amidst this personalised search for cycling speed.

Like the more overtly political Critical Mass, road time trialling claims increasingly motorised space for cycling, but instead of collectively claiming urban road space it (alone, I think) maintains cycling’s precarious presence (at one minute intervals) on big, busy and fast roads through the countryside. Only such fast cycling as this has hope of survival here; almost as if technological progress has enabled time trial speeds to keep up with broader accelerations in societal speed.

Perhaps less like Critical Mass, time trialling doesn’t seek to subvert the logic of these speeding corridors of automobility – the draughts produced by big vehicles passing close by help you ride faster! – so much as break the near monopoly which motorised movement imposes on them, by insisting cycling (and play, actually) is possible even here. If that seems a dangerous game, think how cycling’s almost lost its right to these roads – roads hugely important to cycling futures – and how without time trialling they’d become motorways in all but name. (What we really need on roads such as these is high-quality dedicated space for cycling, of whatever speed, along either side.)

Warming up at Levens

I set off one minute after Jon, by which time he’s disappeared into the distance. With five straight miles until the big Meathop roundabout, I concentrate on sustaining maximum power whilst keeping my cadence smooth (the graceful blend of immense effort and relaxed poise, neither of which I have, is what makes a great time triallist.) I know immediately I’m going fast, but more surprisingly, it seems a speed I can sustain.

Riding hard along a road which seems made for speeding cars, trucks, and vans with trailers is a strange experience. I have an abstract awareness of my flimsy and fragile exposure to other vehicles’ bulk and speed, yet my physical effort renders me almost oblivious to the specifics of their presence, unless they get uncomfortably close, in which case I use their proximity to boost my speed, accelerating as they pass; a rare bonus from less courteous driving.

Perched on the front of my saddle, tucked aerodynamically in, I gobble up the road. (I fit aero bars to my road bike ahead of a time trial, enabling a more ‘tucked’, streamlined position.) My fear as I approach the roundabout to return the other way is I’ve had a tail wind out and will hit a head wind back, but the second leg feels harder only because of the effort I’ve so far made. Although I refuse to believe it until my ride is over, it seems increasingly likely I’ll beat my target by a good margin.

Heading home

Jon does too, and we ride home happy, both knowing we’ve ridden 10 miles faster than we’ve ever done before. From a serious cycling perspective our times remain unimpressive (we finish 22nd and 23rd of 44 finishers), but they’ll do for us for now.

(Yes, Jon’s helmet is on backwards; it’s just the kind of thing he does, riding home from a time trial – during which he wears it the right way round.)

Heading home 2

At a personal or cultural level there’s nothing wrong with the search for speed; it’s part of a rich and varied cycling life. But I worry that, although cycling has variable speeds, it seems more generally to be speeding up, just when we need it to be slowing down. Cycling promotion seems often to want to speed cycling up, to make it better fit a fast society; the quicker we can make cycling, the more ‘competitive’ it becomes: inter-modal competitions regularly pit the bicycle against the car to prove cycling’s superiority through urban space; Copenhagen’s ‘Green Wave’ speeds cycling up by giving it priority through junctions; and high-profile British success in cycle sport continues cycling’s acceleration, displaying cycling as something best done fast, not slow. Speed becomes everything.

But making cycling fast makes it less democratic. Cycling is most popular in places where it’s slow, because slow cycling requires less effort. And isn’t life already too fast, and cycling better used to slow it down? A slower life is fairer, greener, and probably more enjoyable. There’s no single cycling speed; all speeds matter if cycling is to play the fullest role in society. But for most people most of the time cycling is best done slowly, and unless we create places where people can ride slowly the British cycling experience will continue to resemble a race amidst speeding traffic – an environment where a few might test themselves but most simply dare not pedal.

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Kirkstone Pass

July 23, 2013

Kirkstone Foot

Do you ever get the urge to spend a whole day by bike? For me it starts as a vague sensation but builds gradually into an itch that’s difficult to ignore. The older I get, the longer I’ve ridden, the more seriously I take it. It feels instinctive but I’m sure it’s not, it’s a habit I’ve developed – this occasional need for being all day on a bike. It’s not about training, almost the opposite – more like therapy; a form of meditation I suppose. The urge usually finds form in a specific ride idea through reading and chatting with others, and through a cycling imagination which – once the promise of a long ride takes hold – excels at the blend of map-based research and daydreaming required to make it happen.

So that’s how come I headed out early the other morning, for a day long ride.

Setting out

I took my favourite route to Sedbergh, my tyres sticking to the sap through the littlest of the overhung lanes, bursting with foliage and grass running up them. But one of the best things about longer rides is how they move you beyond your ordinary territory: villages, lanes, buildings, views become steadily less familiar until, finally – the confidence of a map in your pocket – you reach fresh ground.

This transition towards unfamiliarity begins thirty miles in. It’s years since I last followed the long, lonely, lovely lane– an old Roman Road – north from Sedbergh along the Lune; taking the Howgills’ western side, it stays high but cuts sharp down and up across each beck as it falls from the fells.

But finally all routes big and small are funnelled through the Lune’s gorge near Tebay and run parallel north until at Low Borrowbridge mine is forced underneath the M6 and West Coast mainline to their other sides. It’s strange, being so close yet feeling so removed from people inside the trains, trucks and cars; we’re differentially speeding in the same direction, parallel, but I feel out of time. And invisible – I’m so hidden on these tiny lanes they must be oblivious to me; cycling silently present but outside the mainstream.

The Lune’s highest reaches lie east of Tebay but I keep north. Back home I’d seen on the map a lane running between the north- and south-bound carriageways of the M6 for a couple of miles, along the 250 metre contour, and of course I want to ride it – a central reservation slow lane crammed full of moorland birds, sheep and a solitary cyclist. I’m sure it often feels wild and windswept, but today it’s wonderful.

Central reservation

The other side of the watershed, the lanes from Shap to Pooley Bridge are bliss; smooth, fast and largely traffic-free. Pooley Bridge is the northernmost point of Ullswater, and also of my ride, and back in the planning, it’s this next stretch which had particularly fired my imagination – to pedal Ullswater’s length before climbing out its valley over Kirkstone Pass.

Ullswater’s shoreside road is busy with cars, throwing into stark relief the car-free lanes I’ve enjoyed so far. But by now I’m so far into my own zone they don’t much bother me, even the few which get too close; on longer meditative rides like this, by distracting my focus cars actually help restore it, becoming a resource to deepen rather than destroy my cycling experience. Besides, the views down and across Ullswater to Cumbria’s finest fells are stunning.

Ullswater

I ride through the village of Glenridding to the lake’s southern end, then past Patterdale, Hartshop and Brothers Water to the inn at Kirkstonefoot where, as its name suggests, Kirkstone Pass properly begins. Suddenly most of the cars are gone. Ahead the road climbs south into the distance and I move inextricably, inevitably into that priceless zone where the world gets temporarily reduced to just you slowly moving upwards through turning pedals. (The longer we’re ‘forced’ to inhabit this zone the more ‘classic’ is the climb.)

Kirkstone Pass 1

It’s the highest pass in the Lakes, but Kirkstone is not too difficult a climb, and it’s a satisfying one. Going the other way the views down over Ullswater and its surrounding fells are incredible; this way it’s the straight line taken between the cosiness of lake, village and pasture up to the high fells which makes it special.

Kirkstone Pass 2

And then the apex, the glorious bit of road at the end of a long climb which precedes the magic moment when up turns finally to down. There are many things I’ll never experience, but to think in a life lived differently this could have been one …

When up turns to down

I crouch into the bike and hurtle down Troutbeck. The day’s hardest riding is done now, and from Staveley I’ll be homeward bound on familiar lanes, much like this morning’s largely devoid of cars, just made for bikes.

Close to home

Do long rides like this much matter? For me a day in the saddle is simultaneously a day off, a day free from care. There’s a tendency to see cycling as hard work, but it’s equally possible to see it as taking it easy. I suppose some people laze on beaches or go to spas for their rejuvenation. Me, so long as I can remember, I’ve rejuvenated by being on a bike. Also, the longer I live and ride in north-west England, the more I seem to invite it to inform and shape my biography. The more places I ride and reach by bike, I suppose, the more personally meaningful they become. So being all day on a bike extends and deepens my sense of home.

In a sustainable world I suppose I think both these things matter.

Cycling’s Helpers

July 16, 2013

Attending to cycling

It’s tempting to treat events as somehow ‘natural’ – they just happen and we simply show up, to watch or participate. But that’s the easy bit, consumption. What about production? Because events never just happen, they’re made to happen, they’re produced. This includes cycling events – and if you want more cycling you might sooner or later want to get involved. At this time of year cycling events abound even in a small place like Lancaster. There’s something happening (or rather, being made to happen!) most evenings, and at weekends too.

Helping hand

For example, every Thursday from early April until late August Lancaster Cycling Club organises an evening time trial at Salt Ayre cycle track. I participate regularly, and help out occasionally. A gorgeous warm and sunny evening, 68 people rode last week’s event: 15 (mainly younger children) at two miles; 19 (children and adults) at six miles; and 34 (mainly adults) at ten miles. Between them those 68 rides reflect enormous work on the part of the riders, in training beforehand and the race itself. But those 68 rides also require huge work from others.

Signing on

Much of that work takes place elsewhere. Cycling’s unsung heroes, its hidden helpers, are busy all year; meeting, planning and preparing even in the darkest depths of winter. But it’s likely these same people who on a Thursday evening during the racing season are down at the track before the first riders arrive, still there after the last riders have gone, and – when back at home the tidying up and paperwork are finally done – back again next week to do it all again. For its helpers, cycling is often less about riding than about making the riding of others happen. People often say they’re ‘giving something back’ to cycling, but these people don’t just ‘give something back’, they keep cycling going. And their lives are shaped by the help they give cycling.

Pushing off

Much work is out of sight, but on any evening at the track there’s plenty still to do: someone must put signs around the track to let other people (especially dog-walkers) know cycle racing is taking place; the track might need sweeping, dog mess clearing up; there are tables and chairs to get out, and – if it looks like rain – gazebos to erect. At the signing-on desk people help riders register, collect race fees, and issue numbers. At the start line, riders are pushed off at the appropriate time (one minute intervals). Near the finish line someone spots and shouts numbers to the time-keepers, who monitor riders’ progress (each lap is 0.8 miles, so 10 mile riders must complete 12.5 laps) and ensure everyone gets their finishing time. Back on the other side of the track, someone sorts refreshments – drinks and biscuits that keep people hanging around and turn the event into an important social as well as sporting occasion.

Salt Ayre time-keepers

When the racing’s over and the riders gone, everything’s quietly and carefully tidied away again, and cycling’s helpers head home to do the paperwork, process and distribute the results, clean kit, check equipment, and circulate details of the next event.

Lancaster's time-keeping crew

That’s Thursday, time trial night. Tuesday and Wednesday evenings see bunch racing, which requires more helpers – including commissaires, marshals, and gear checkers. Racing also takes place at weekends. Then there are training sessions on Saturday mornings, and other evenings. And this is just what happens in one small place, Salt Ayre. But if there weren’t people prepared to organise all this, it simply wouldn’t happen. And a similar story is of course repeated, with local variation, elsewhere. So thanks to cycling’s helpers everywhere.

Refreshments

It’s easy to become a cycling helper. Besides the key organisers, every event requires a bunch of people simply willing to lend a hand – stand with a flag, note down numbers, make some cakes or pour the tea. ‘Doing a turn’ is a basic ethic of how we ride, and applies off the bike too. Because we’re good at taking turns cycling’s calendar is crowded with events. If we’re able, we willingly do our bit. And this is the way to make a more bike-friendly world – if cycling matters to us, by working together, contributing to events, we can help make it matter more to others. Cycling’s profile and popularity will rise as more people commit to doing this kind of work; it would fall were it not for the countless people who already devote a chunk of their lives to help cycling.

Cycling doesn’t just happen; it’s always being made to happen – by people, people like you and me. There are countless ways to help cycling. The cycling world is full of clubs and associations which, between them, contribute to cycling culture and keep cycling going. I’ve focussed here on cycle sport but we can choose any cycling focus. The point is that nothing ‘just happens’; the Berlin Wall didn’t fall by itself, South African apartheid didn’t end by itself; and a cycling-friendly world will not come about by itself – it will be made by people such as those you see here, people like you and me.

Hard to see

This post is dedicated to Bob Muir, who is on the far right of the above photo – it is he who, more than anyone, makes Thursday nights at Salt Ayre so reliably and so successfully happen. Thank you Bob!

Forgetting Cycling

July 11, 2013

For six years, between 2005 and 2011, I lived in a Cycling Demonstration Town. Supported by central government, my hometown was one of an initial six that received increased funding for cycling, to get – to follow Cycling England’s mantra – ‘more people cycling, more safely, more often’.

Cycling_Town_Logo

Locally, the project described itself as ‘Celebrating Cycling’. It centred on infrastructural improvements, but also included a wide range of promotional activities, such as maps and brochures, events, led rides, maintenance classes and cycle training.

In an Autumn 2006 publication delivered to households across the district, the City Council said:

Not only do we want to increase cycling in our district but more than that we want to create a real culture change that will not only see cycling become a mainstream and popular way for people to travel locally but that will also see the community understand, positively embrace and celebrate cycling’s vital role in the sustainable future of our district.

(Lancaster City Council, 2006: 11)

Based on various surveys, official pronouncements, anecdotal evidence and ethnographic observations, it’s clear the project produced some gains – a raised profile for cycling locally, improvements to cycling infrastructure on the ground, and increased levels of cycling activity.

So albeit slowly and not on a scale likely to achieve mass cycling anytime soon, change was happening. Building a bicycle system takes time and the project rightly had a long-term focus. In 2009 the Department for Transport published a report containing preliminary findings from the first six demonstration towns. It concluded that:

a sustained and well-designed programme of investment in cycling at about the level of £10 per head of population was sufficient, in every one of the Cycling Demonstration Towns, to achieve an increase in cycling.

It is worth emphasising that this is in some ways a surprising conclusion. It is commonly supposed that past failure to increase cycling levels is proof that it is not possible to increase cycling in Britain. In fact, the Cycling Demonstration Towns have demonstrated, in every case, that it is possible to increase cycling, even in towns which almost completely lack a ‘cycling culture’.

(Sloman et al, 2009: 26)

This report recognised much more still had to be done, but finished on the upbeat note “that the six towns have achieved ‘lift-off’ for cycling” (Sloman et al, 2009: 26).

So change was underway but this was seen as only the start of a longer-term process. The Cycling Demonstration Town project aimed to explore the impact of sustained investment in cycling. Another Department for Transport report noted how the level of funding for cycling in the first six Demonstration Towns was

comparable with the annual investment in cycling in towns that have successfully increased cycling in mainland Europe, which over about 20 years of investment have achieved continued growth in urban cycling.

(Department for Transport, undated but 2010: 17, my emphasis in bold)

It’s now 2013 and I don’t live in a Cycling Demonstration Town any more. I haven’t moved, institutional commitment to cycling has. The Cycling Demonstration Towns project was abandoned with Cycling England’s dismantling in 2011, and Lancaster City Council’s commitment to cycling has declined ever since.

At the Project’s beginning, with ambitions at their highest, signs were erected at each of the District’s road boundaries:

These signs welcomed people with the programme’s logo and the words ‘celebrating cycling in our city, coast and countryside’. They acted as a permanent advert for Lancaster’s commitment to cycling.

(Department for Transport, undated but 2010: 60; my emphasis in bold)

Celebrating Cycling sign

Those signs have gone, the official endorsement of cycling they seemed unambiguously to announce left barely a trace. (In an hour’s trawling of the Internet, the image above is the only one showing the ‘Celebrating cycling’ road signs I found). That we ever were a Cycling Demonstration Town is being erased.

Why? Are we embarrassed that we might once have celebrated cycling, and imagined things could be different? Or was cycling’s celebration only a momentary blip for so long as the money lasted, and we’re now back to business- (and motoring-) as-usual?

And who’s responsible for this local institutional erasure of cycling? Central government pulled the plug prematurely on what always needed to be a long-term process. Local government was unable to develop and institute effective strategies to support cycling once centralised funding ended. Also, what seems an obvious prerequisite for long-term success, the development of broad and deep civil society support for cycling through building links at grassroots level, was never an important objective of the Cycling Demonstration Towns project.

It’s not just that the project has ended; some of its minor gains are now being eroded. One casualty is cycling children. Through cycle training, improved facilities (especially bike parking, which had been ripped out of many British schools as it became seen as irresponsible to cater for, let alone encourage, something so ‘dangerous’ as cycling), and promotional activities, the Cycling Demonstration Towns won quick increases in schoolchildren’s cycling. But without continuous encouragement, cycling to school along roads hostile to cycling is impossible to sustain.

It’s ironic that the ‘Celebrating Cycling’ signs welcoming people (people driving, mainly) to the district were on roads, because it is those roads where the project spectacularly failed to change conditions in cycling’s favour, and those unchanged roads are the reason why the small gains made for cycling during the project’s lifetime are now so easily being lost. The car’s centrality to the local transport system was never even questioned, let alone challenged. Even in a Cycling Demonstration Town cycling had to fit in with, never displace, the car.

Still, the signs that demonstrated a brief and fragile institutional commitment may have gone, but cycling of course remains. It’s two years since we stopped ‘celebrating cycling’, but the last week has been dry, warm and sunny – perfect cycling weather – and people are out and about on bikes, though fewer than you might imagine given how recently the push for cycling has ended.

Of course many of the people cycling have been here all along; people like us. Unlike our governing institutions we don’t forget cycling, and alongside our enjoyment of it, at least part of our collective grassroots task remains, to help others remember it again.

References

Department for Transport (undated but 2010): Making a Cycling Town: a compilation of practitioners’ experiences from the Cycling Demonstration Towns programme, Qualitative Survey, 2005-2009.

Lancaster City Council (2006): Your District Council Matters, Issue 9, Summer/Autumn, 8 page pull-out guide – ‘Celebrating Cycling in City, Coast and Countryside’.

Sloman L, Cavill N, Cope A, Muller L & Kennedy A (2009): Analysis and synthesis of evidence on the effects of investment in six Cycling Demonstration Towns, Report for Department for Transport & Cycling England.

Fun Cycling

July 3, 2013

Riding Grizedale's Red Route

My twelve-year-old son Bob wants cycling to be fun. He’d love life to be one long, uninterrupted stunt show. He craves the adrenaline rush. He’s fearless, constantly searching for, then rising to the next physical challenge, driven to test his limits. Watching him play sometimes scares me so much that – not wanting to stop his boyhood thriving – I look the other way. If his body senses a barrier, it seems compelled to surmount it. Pleasure is for him bodily, not cognitive. He loves fun fairs, laughs out loud at slapstick, and takes wicked delight in playing tricks on sister Flo.

The more fun cycling is, the more he wants to do it. But much of his cycling isn’t much fun, like we’ve taken the fun out of cycling. He rides because he must, as part of a carless family. With enough persuasion he’ll join a family leisure ride. But the riding he wants to do is riding he finds fun: he finds time trialling slightly fun, bunch racing more fun, track racing still more fun, and BMX and mountain biking greatest fun of all.

On the boardwalk

But there are different kinds of mountain biking, and my idea of mountain biking isn’t fun: I want mountain biking to contain those things I find enjoyable about road riding – lack of impediment, smoothness, duration, flow; Bob wants the opposite – obstacles, friction, interruption, difficulty. The rides we’ve done since getting mountain bikes for Christmas have usefully built our off-road skills and confidence, but they’ve been so far away from what makes Bob thrive I almost wince. Slowly trudging over barren, windswept moor does not for him constitute fun, even if the descents are exhilarating.

So giving Bob the MTB fun he craves felt overdue. This means trail centre riding, the more challenging the better. Last year we hired bikes at first Mabie and then Grizedale Forests to get a taste of this style of riding, but we stuck to easy green and blue routes which left Bob unfulfilled, frustrated. Clearly it was time to move up a level, to try a red route. This is Grizedale’s Red Route description:

This trail will take you through the forest by way of sinuous singletrack, offering adrenalising sections of singletrack descent and leg burning climbs. Be warned, there are plenty of challenging boardwalks in case you needed more to be scared of! This trail is suitable for mountain bikers only and requires a high level of skill and fitness.

It doesn’t mention fun, but Bob’s eyes shone as I read it out loud; this is just the kind of language which speaks to him. This sounds like cycling fun!

Falling off

Bam! Bam! Bam! Riding singletrack is like being in a video game where things keep coming at you – rocks, roots, branches, trees – and you must decide whether to dodge or tackle them (my instinct is to dodge; Bob’s – because it’s more fun – to tackle). One thing is quickly eclipsed by the next; there’s no time to dwell, let alone reflect. On the toughest stretches you can’t take your eye off the trail for a second.

Our riding speed is somewhere between the two speeds we regularly move through the countryside – more slowly when hill-walking, faster when road cycling – but the sensation is quite different from either. Riding these narrow, rocky trails requires more intense concentration and quicker reaction than hill-walking ever does, and a much more intimate, nuanced and responsive relationship between terrain, body and bike than road cycling. Because I’m timid I stay mainly upright, but Bob falls often – he shrugs off his tumbles and fears falling so little that he takes risks and learns fast, racing from feature to feature as I follow clumsily behind. I feel my comfort zone intensely, but it’s a concept he seems not to know.

Features are most fun, especially the sections of raised boardwalks and rock paths. These represent specific challenges, test your skill and nerve, and make crystal clear whether you succeed or fail. If Bob fails he tries again. Although I have a go these things feel to me like obstacles placed awkwardly in our path, blocking our ride; which is of course exactly what they are, but Bob interprets them ‘properly’ – to him they’re the whole point we’re here, and form the heart of our ride.

Smooth singletrack

Road riding gives me enormous pleasure but I’d be hard pressed to call it fun. Riding Grizedale’s Red Route helps me see my normal cycling in fresh light – as slightly detached and ponderous. Compared to mountain biking in Bob’s exuberant company, my road riding seems a bit serious; it makes me wonder whether I’m a grumpy old roadie who’s got no sense of cycling fun.

Is cycling fun? Is cycle commuting fun? Could it be? Should it be? Youthful sub-cultures of cycling seem a lot of fun – looking cool on a bike, bicycle polo, alleycats, generally larking around and having fun on bikes. Can we learn something from cycling that’s fun – from mountain biking, from these youthful sub-cultures, from the fun that people – perhaps especially kids – get from cycling?

Is it time to inject more fun into cycling?

Fear of Cycling: a summary

June 26, 2013

After presenting on ‘Fear of Cycling’ to the Velo-city Vienna conference recently, I was asked to summarise my talk for the post-conference magazine. It’s lost some nuance and complexity but I’ve got the argument down to 1,000 words, and post it below for anyone interested. I do so because Velo-city reminded me how ‘live’ is the issue of helmets, particularly – helmets look set to become mandatory in Spain, and already are in Australia – where next year’s Velo-city takes place, in Adelaide; so it seems not everyone yet knows how huge an impediment to mass cycling is helmet promotion, let alone compulsion.

Helmet promotion

Introduction

Cycling is so good, yet many people still don’t cycle. Why? We must start by recognising how cycling conditions remain so generally poor; to do otherwise is naïve. Most people simply don’t want to, and won’t, cycle along roads dominated by fast, motorised traffic; the thought of riding amongst or close to big, heavy vehicles is one they find very scary. Nobody wants to get hurt and, rightly or wrongly, people feel getting hurt is more likely if they move by bike.

For anyone who wants to see more cycling, the instinct here is to try to persuade people that cycling is actually, really safe. We might explain how cycling is:

  • objectively safe – the chances of a crash when cycling are very slim;
  • relatively safe – for example, there is more chance of being injured when cooking than when cycling;
  • much safer than not cycling – the health benefits of cycling, it’s said, outweigh the risks by 20:1.

Better still, we might try not only to encourage people to ride despite their fears, but meanwhile also push for substantial – radical – improvements to current conditions for cycling. But the question remains: why is cycling – something which perhaps gives us pleasure and benefit – in the minds of other people so worrying? Yes, people might overstate cycling’s risks. Yes, more must be done to make cycling (feel) safer. But might there also be cultural and political processes at work which make cycling seem dangerous, more dangerous than it is, and which produce fear of cycling? And if this was the case, and we identified those processes, couldn’t, shouldn’t we intervene, to stop them?

Emotions can be, and are, constructed. Cycling is not inherently dangerous and a fear of cycling is not inevitable. We need only look to the Netherlands to see that – cycling there is so normal that people barely even think about it. But across most of the world cycling is more problematic, with many people reluctant to cycle because they think it’s dangerous.

How is fear of cycling produced?

So let’s examine how fear of cycling is produced. There are three clear ways in which cycling is made to seem more dangerous than it is. Ironically they all purport to be responding to cycling’s danger and to be making cycling safer, but instead they produce cycling as a dangerous practice, and thus contribute to fear of cycling; they do, in other words, the opposite of what they intend.

1. Road safety education

Road safety education teaches everyone, but particularly children, that moving around is risky, roads are dangerous, and they ought to be very careful, especially when walking and cycling. You know the kind of thing – leaflets telling children to keep out the way of cars. Such ‘information’ reinforces driving as the normal means of moving around, and makes cycling seem difficult, awkward and dangerous; it usually puts responsibility for safety squarely on the (child) cyclist’s shoulders – it’s up to you to devise a quiet route (however long), to wear hi-viz clothes and (of course!) a helmet. Road safety education doesn’t make places safer; it makes driving more normal and cycling more dangerous; and it seems often deliberately designed to instil fear of cycling.

2. Helmet promotion

In a context marked by widespread fear of cycling, promoting helmets – or even making them mandatory – can seem like an easy, obvious, quick and sensible thing to do. Which is why it’s done. But this is no way to promote cycling, because promoting helmets depends on associating cycling with danger, and will therefore inevitably increase fear of cycling. Like road safety education, helmet promotion puts responsibility onto the wrong people; and instead of making streets safer, makes cycling more dangerous. To promote helmets is to promote car use and to repress cycling.

3. New (safe) spaces for cycling

If fear stops most people riding, an obvious solution is to change cycling’s place. And in the short to medium term this might be a necessary step to overcoming fear of cycling, getting more people riding, and building a mass culture of cycling. But can you see how the logic here remains similar to the previous two examples? We try to make cycling safer without tackling the root problem, the danger imposed by fast motorised traffic. And with similar results – the impulse to take cycling off the road inevitably increases people’s fear of cycling on the road, and also makes those who remain cycling on the road a bit more ‘strange’.

So all three attempts to make cycling safer actually make cycling (seem) more dangerous, and produce a fear of cycling whilst failing to change how most people, most of the time, move around (which across most of the world, is increasingly by car). And so cycling remains in the minority, and the cyclist remains strange.

Conclusion

But we’re trying to promote cycling aren’t we? Yes, apparently, and we shouldn’t be surprised if there’s discomfort about (even resentment and resistance towards) the push for cycling – because by inviting people to cycle we’re asking them to become different. However, cycling would be more successfully promoted if we stopped making it seem dangerous and difficult, and worked instead to make it the simplest, easiest thing in the world. The sooner we make cycling normal, the sooner people will stop feeling cycling is a strange thing to do.

So finally then, how do we combat fear of cycling and make cycling normal?

  • From the bottom-up – by grassroots empowerment, communicating cycling’s benefits, and helping people insert cycling more effectively into their lives. The more people cycle, the safer cycling becomes;
  • From the top-down – by explaining to our governing institutions how cycling remains much too difficult and dangerous, and requires radical political re-prioritisation. The more cycling is prioritised, the safer cycling becomes;
  • From everywhere – by shifting away from the misguided attempts to make cycling safer discussed here (with the caveat that high-quality dedicated cycling infrastructure is often now a necessary step to mainstreaming cycling), and concentrating instead on making motorised traffic less dangerous – by for example increasing restraints on driving, slowing speeds, and enforcing careful driving. The more we recognise the real danger to be driving, the safer cycling becomes.

Fear of cycling can be otherwise, but we must work to make it so.

Longest Day

June 24, 2013

Longest Day

We’ve had the year’s longest day. It seemed, during the long, hard winter, to be taking ages for spring to arrive. And now, so suddenly it seems, the summer solstice has been and gone and we’ve started the slow slip down the year’s other side. The best of days hopefully remain ahead, but it’s certainly time to make the most of them, to get out and ride. In the northern hemisphere this is the apex of the cycling year – opportunities for daylight cycling peak as the sun stays longest in our sky.

Flo spent the shortest night at a friend’s house. Bobby, after racing two evenings on the trot, craved rest. But I couldn’t let summer’s solstice pass without a ride, especially when a cloudy day made way for evening sun. Sue agreed, so together we rode nine miles out to The Redwell Inn for our tea. We’d raced the night before too, so rode gently; it was good to feel tiredness and tightness clearing from our legs.

Longest Day

We rode up river to the Crook o’Lune, and from there began the steady climb north-east towards the pub. This is a favourite stretch of road. The Lune’s valley drops away to one side and the Keer’s to the other as you climb, and as you rise there appears before you the most spectacular panorama of England’s highest ground: farthest away, to your left across Morecambe Bay, stretches a saw-like line of Cumbrian fells, which give way to the Howgill’s unmistakeable humps; then straight ahead, like you’re aiming at them, rise Yorkshire’s Dales, and finally – to your right – squat Lancashire’s moors. You feel you’ve got England’s finest scenery completely to yourself, and sometimes I think how to ride the road once would be worth the price of my bike; yet I’m lucky enough to ride it often.

Longest Day 3

Is there a finer drink than that earned from cycling, enjoyed outdoors as the sun slips slowly out the sky?

The Redwell Inn

By cycling we put ourselves into nature. We appreciate the countryside because we pedal through it. The roads belong to us because we assert our right to ride them. The land is ours because we ride across it. Cycling is potentially open to everyone, and so too the countryside. These roads and this land, my roads and my land, could be everyone’s road, everyone’s land.

From a car, speeding fast past through it, nature might seem not quite real, almost like a construct. Cars separate us from our world. But from a bike we know our place much better, that we’re fully of the world. There’s no screen to protect us, and we move quickly upon a skinny frame of metal attached to remarkably spinning wheels. We’re knocked by wind, beaten by rain, shone by sun. We snake along lanes, beneath trees, below hedges, under changing skies. When cycling there’s a permanent privilege to being so close that you become part of this precious living world. Of course it’s not all roses and birdsong: we’re sometimes hit by insects (poor things!), or offended by the sight and smell of creatures killed by cars; and love it or loathe it, we’re forced bodily to respond to what from a car remain vague and abstract topographies. Cycling we greet the world as it is, warts and all.

As a sociologist I seek to explore and understand the world, as an activist to critique and change it, but by bike I confront it up close and accept it as it is. Investigation and judgement take a back-seat – when cycling we dwell in pure, elemental place. And so by riding we come to appreciate the world more fully. Riding is raw, truthful and above all, real.

Heading home

We returned to Lancaster the way we’d come, though it felt different now – not only were we going the other way, but the sun had dipped below the horizon, the temperature dropped. The longest day was drawing to a close, and the twilight wove midsummer magic, casting us under its spell.

One year it’d be good to ride continuously from sunrise to sundown on the longest day, or another to ride through the shortest night. They’re adventures for the future, to add to the reassuringly long – more than a good life-time’s long – rides-still-to-do list.

Velo-city Vienna

June 19, 2013

Velo-city at Vienna City Hall

Last week I was in Vienna for Velo-city, the world’s biggest bicycle conference. I’d been asked to present my analysis of fear of cycling, which tries to explain how cycling is made dangerous by attempts to make it safe. (I think some people then want me to say (and some assume I do say) that cycling is not dangerous, which I refuse to do; one point of the paper is to crack rather than reinforce naïve understandings of cycling.) You can see photos of the plenary session I was part of here.

Helmets are a chief culprit in rendering cycling dangerous by attempting to make it safe. Helmet promotion tends inevitably to play on, to reproduce and to magnify an already extant fear of cycling. The helmet debate is unfortunately live in many countries. In Vienna I met Pablo León, a journalist of El Pais, who authors that newspaper’s bicycle blog, ‘I Love Bicis’, and Isabel Ramis who blogs about cycling in Madrid; they are currently battling mandatory national helmet laws. I also met Sue Abbott, a brave and impressive woman who maintains steadfast civil disobedience in the face of Australia’s mandatory helmet laws. Adelaide hosts next year’s Velo-city conference, and it’ll be interesting to see how the city deals with the arrival of hordes of cycling advocates, many of whom rightly see mandatory helmet use as totally anathema to cycling’s promotion.

This doesn’t mean I think cycling is entirely safe (I don’t), only that promoting helmets is no way of dealing with cycling’s lack of safety. It also doesn’t mean I refuse to wear a helmet – flying downhill into Lancaster at over 40 miles per hour earlier today, I wanted my helmet on; but pedalling more gently round town later, I don’t.

Cycling in Vienna

Vienna contraflow

Central city cycle circle

Between hearing the latest cycling stories from across the globe inside Vienna’s opulent City Hall, I explored the city outside by bike. Around 6 or 7% of trips in Vienna are made by bike, but 2013 is the Austrian capital’s ‘Year of Cycling’, and the aim is to reach 10% by 2015. These current and target modal shares for cycling reflect the city’s cycling environment, which feels better than Britain but still a long way from the Netherlands.

The showpiece of the city’s cycling infrastructure is the Ringstrasse, a dedicated loop for two-way cycling around the city centre– basically an inner ring-road for cycling. Ten years from now it could (and should) mark the perimeter of a virtually car-free central core. Inserting this cycling loop has clearly entailed reallocation of space away from the car and some re-prioritisation of traffic flow in cycling’s favour; it’s far from perfect but substantially better than anything in Britain.

But although there are many good bits of cycling infrastructure, elsewhere Vienna feels like a city which has been badly damaged by the car, and that damage goes on. And the impression you get, riding around, is that cycling is being squeezed in. Instead of using cycling to start fundamentally restructuring the city away from the car, cycling continues to be seen – and added – as an extra.

Some positive change is happening, but a paradigm shift it ain’t (yet).

Vienna bike lane

Cycling in traffic, Vienna

Skinny wiggly Vienna bike lane

Vienna cyclist

Vienna’s current efforts to boost utility cycling are rooted in a solid recreational cycling base. One afternoon I rode in glorious sunshine along the cycle routes which parallel both the River Danube and the Danube Canal which leads from the central city to it. It helped me appreciate how much quality infrastructure for leisure cycling the city has. It felt like most of Vienna was out on its bike, enjoying the weather along what’s effectively a long and attractive city park. And these riverside routes are well integrated into the city’s wider (and higher) cycling network via some nifty cycling ramps.

By the River Danube

But the best vision of mass cycling came on the traditional Velo-city ride. The conference brings together a mix of people who probably disagree about many things even when it comes to cycling; politicians, administrators, consultants, representatives of the cycling industries, advocates, activists, researchers and students arrive from across the world – from places where cycling is normal to places where it’s almost extinct (it felt impossible to speak equally to everyone during my presentation; I suspect many Dutch participants, particularly, wondered what on earth I was talking about!). The host city also uses the conference to boost its cycling reputation and to promote cycling to its citizens. The big Velo-city ride, then, enables a brief but powerful demonstration of unity amongst conference delegates, and enables the city visibly to announce its support and ambition for cycling. Velo-city is worth it for this momentary but delicious vision of mass cycling alone.

Mass bike ride, Vienna

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