Posts Tagged ‘children's cycling’

10 years of Cycling and Society

September 13, 2013

I’m just back from the 10th annual Cycling & Society Symposium, hosted this year by the University of Central Lancashire at their outdoor campus, Ty’n Dwr, near Llangollen in mid-Wales. It was superbly organised by Richard Weston, and pulled together around 35 of us face-to-face, as well as Jennifer Bonham in Adelaide, Australia via Skype.

As someone who’s been around since the start, I was invited to say a few words about where as a research community we’ve come from, where we might go, and how in the wider world cycling is changing. I decided to start by telling the cycling story of my daughter, Flo, who like Cycling & Society is 10 years old.

Flo was born into a bubble structured by cycling; her parents love cycling and live without a car. For a decade she has developed through that structured space, into a skilled and experienced cyclist. At the start she had to be physically carried or pulled …

Sue & Flo in the Netherlands

But she soon learnt to propel herself, initially on a balance bike, then through a series of pedal-driven machines; the bikes grew bigger and she became stronger, faster and more independent.

On Morecambe Prom

Racing at Salt Ayre

Flo BMXing in Silverdale

For so long as her friends were the children of our friends, cycling remained normal. But then slowly, inevitably, she has through school developed friends of her own, friends whose lives are not based around the bicycle but the car. And cycling is steadily becoming less ‘natural’; it’s becoming more unappealing. We’ve taught Flo to cycle, but it’s getting steadily harder to make her cycle in a world which mainly doesn’t. Her agency is being structured less by us her parents, and more by the world outside. For now she’s riding slowly away from us, towards the car. Her transport preferences are becoming normal. In her own little, sweet and innocent way, Flo shows how far we remain from a cycling world.

The personal and the social are inextricably, complexly connected. I struggle with but also accept Flo’s resistance to cycling; she’s finding her way in the world, and wants to fit in. We’ve helped her – and some of her friends – to understand more about cycling, but they’re all part of a car-centric society in which ‘being normal’ matters. In the world as it is her reluctance to cycle is part of learning to be sociable. So our challenge as parents is changing; if over the last decade we’ve taught and encouraged our kids to cycle, over the next one I hope we’ll teach them to navigate and negotiate a world of multiple and sometimes clashing visions and values – in other words, politics. We’ll explain cycling’s significance to a healthy, peaceful, happy, just, and green world, and we’ll try to nudge them some ways more than others, but they’ll figure things out for themselves, including what role cycling, if any, should play in their own lives.

But this next decade is crucial, either to cycling’s continued marginalisation or else to its normalisation. A decade ago cycling was ignored and/or treated as irrelevant by most academics, including those with expertise in transport and sustainability; today, in contrast, there’s a steady stream of peer-reviewed journal articles about cycling, major research funding for cycling projects, and more respect shown to those who argue for cycling’s importance. Cycling’s shift from the margins towards the mainstream of academia is an effect but also a cause of cycling’s shift from the margins towards the mainstream of society in general; both trends are tentative but have the potential to develop significantly between now and 2023. So I look forward to the 20th Cycling & Society Symposium in 2023, and hope I might have good news to report there on Flo’s cycling trajectory over the coming decade,  as she moves into adulthood. By then cycling could be much more normal, and Flo and her friends might perhaps be cycling, and less self-consciously.

Llangollen was a cosmopolitan affair. There were people from Brazil, China, Poland, Romania, Denmark, France, Portugal, Italy, Ireland, the Netherlands, Spain, Hungary and the UK, as well as Jennifer from Australia. I find this truly inspiring and encouraging – the thirst for new cycling knowledge, like the push for cycling, is now happening almost everywhere.

Tim on Horseshoe Pass

The beautiful, rural and remote location provided good opportunities for riding. Many participants got out and about by bike during the event; for myself, I rode over to Llangollen from Crewe with Tim Jones (above) – who gave a super presentation about the MAMIL (Middle Aged Men in Lycra) phenomenon – and Cosmin Popan (below) – who’s recently started a PhD on cycling at Lancaster University. And after a full day spent listening to twelve diverse but uniformly excellent papers, the three of us rode with Peter Wood – who’s close to finishing his PhD on cycling at The Open University – up Horseshoe Pass.

Cosmin on Horseshoe Pass

It’s a huge privilege to hang out with researchers such as Peter and Cosmin who, compared to Tim and me, are starting out on their journeys into cycling research. The energies and enthusiasms of others who love cycling are infectious. And there’s still so much to know, both about cycling per se, and about how best to promote it.

Cosmin, Tim & Peter on Horseshoe Pass

Seeing in Llangollen the continuing passion for and growing expertise in cycling, it strikes me that thinking about cycling is in a pretty healthy place, and that it’ll continue to make important contributions over the next decade.

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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?

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

Skills for Sustainability

April 5, 2013

Sustainability isn’t simply a concept; it’s more importantly a practice, or set of practices, one of which is cycling. And sustainability won’t just happen; it must be taught. If we don’t teach children to cycle many simply won’t learn. Raised by car-dependent people in a car-based society, they’ll be more likely to perpetuate than to challenge and change that society.

Cycling is a practice of sustainability. Teach a child to ride a bicycle and we teach her how to make an effective contribution to a different future, a sustainable planet.

A society serious about making cycling the normal mode of short-distance travel must teach cycling. The best place to teach cycling is in schools. That way every child learns how to ride; just as important, it sends a clear signal that cycling is serious – taken seriously by government and to be taken seriously by citizens.

The Department for Education is currently consulting on reform of the school curriculum. With cycling’s profile riding high, this provides an excellent opportunity to push cycling onto the curriculum, so every child learns how to cycle.

Bobby and Flo approaching junction

Would this be putting the cart before the horse, encouraging all children to cycle before conditions are made more conducive to cycling?

Everyday cycling needs to become systematically embedded in society. That includes giving everyone the capacity to cycle through teaching everyone how to do it – How should a bike be set up? Why and how do you change gear? What’s the best position to take at junctions? How can you interpret what other people around you are likely to do? How do you decide which route is best for cycling?

Of course cycle training must occur alongside infrastructural changes that make cycling easier. We know the current cycling environment is badly deficient and we know many ways it could and should be made better. Such improvements in actual cycling conditions are necessary but they don’t preclude (and quite possibly in some respects depend upon) improvements in cycling skills and confidence.

Wherever they cycle, under whatever kinds of conditions, people need to know how to ride safely, sensibly and confidently. And as with most things in life, it’s better to learn at an early age and from experienced and thoughtful teachers than it is to muddle through (picking up bad habits) by yourself.

Teaching people how to ride makes them more likely to ride; and more cyclists are a civilising force on the urban environment and could pave the way for less experienced cyclists who might currently be too timid to give cycling a go. More cyclists will also give cycling a stronger voice for further changes. So teaching cycling is an essential part, if not the only part, of making cycling genuinely ‘for all’.

Motoring organisations such as The Automobile Association (AA) and IAM (Institute of Advanced Motorists) – as well of course as the various cycling organisations – support the push for cycle training’s inclusion on the National Curriculum, a push being led by the Association of Bikeability Schemes (TABS). If you want to see and/or use TABS’ submission to the Department for Education’s consultation, which closes on 16th April, go here.

You can email your response to: NationalCurriculum.CONSULTATION@education.gsi.gov.uk

Bobby & Flo riding in line

Shifting away from short-distance travel by car and towards sustainability assumes that today’s children will incorporate cycling into their lives and across their lives, instigating a long-term trend towards urban space governed less by cars and more by bikes. But with cycling literacy still so low and so few cycling parents around to help, this new orientation to cycling won’t just happen. It must be manufactured; children must be given the resources to ride from someplace outside the home. This is surely what education’s all about – to change the world for the better, not merely reproduce it as it inadequately is?

I love it that my kids cycle; but they’ll be much more likely to keep cycling if other kids cycle too. And if all kids cycle they’ll keep one another cycling, and together they’ll build cycling as a mainstream activity, create a society organised more around cycling, and contribute to a sustainable future. I know this, you know this, but does the Department for Education know this? Possibly not, unless we tell them.

Yorkshire Dales

February 25, 2013

Cycling in the Yorkshire Dales

We spent the half-term holiday in the Yorkshire Dales. We began by taking the train to Giggleswick near Settle. Travelling off-peak with children we hoped we’d get all four bikes onto one train and we did, both ways (though the uncertainties involved in train travel with bikes really aren’t conducive to cycling’s promotion).

Bikes on train

We’ve done lots of cycle-touring as a family, but this was the first time each of us rode our own bike for more than a day trip in Britain. We wanted to see how it’d go.

It didn’t start well. A car approached from behind on the short stretch into Settle. I was riding at the back. We were getting close to a blind bend so I moved further out to deter the driver from overtaking, but he kept coming, so I kept moving out. He overtook at the bend’s apex, on completely the other side of the road as a car came towards us from the other direction. Rather than stop the overtaking driver moved back in on us, getting uncomfortably close to Sue and Bobby at the front. He must have seen the horror on the faces of the people in the oncoming car, and he should certainly have heard what I had to say, but still he wound his window down in order to tell us that cyclists oughtn’t to be in the middle of the road. Unfortunately we encountered similar recklessness towards our well-being and a similarly over-inflated sense of entitlement to Yorkshire’s rural roads amongst motorists again that day.

I wonder whether local authorities in Yorkshire have started to think about driver/cyclist interactions ahead of next year’s Tour de France which will inevitably see cyclists flocking to this part of the world in advance of the pro peloton thundering its way through?

I usually shrug off drivers’ aggression when I’m cycling alone or with my peers but when I’m with kids I’m incensed by it; it also seems more common then, perhaps because we’re riding more slowly and (the adults at least) defensively.

That wasn’t at all what I meant to write here but I suppose it’s an important and consequential part of our half-term cycling story, and more significantly part of British cycling’s collective story. The Yorkshire Dales is tremendous cycling country, but for who? This was my own children’s introduction to it, and an antagonistic one which they’ll remember. Do we want the Tour’s coming here to encourage children’s cycling? If so, we need to take action. A start would be signs on the roads and in the media requesting motorists to slow down, give space – and if necessary give way – to cyclists. Awareness campaigns – perhaps with Dales’ school children who might most effectively influence adults’ driving – should start now.

Climbing out of Langcliffe

Playing in the snow

Malham Cove

We went over to Malham from Ribblesdale. The climb out of Langcliffe is brutal; the road rises sharply and steeply off the valley floor. Bobby and I were on mountain bikes. Sue rode her town bike, and carried all our gear – I’d feel guilty if I didn’t know how hard she is! I doubted little Flo could make it up, but she did. She never seemed tempted to get off and push, despite (or perhaps because of) my repeatedly telling her there’s no shame in doing so.

As usual we mixed cycling with walking. (What do families who do neither actually do?) But Bobby and I had taken mountain bikes in order to do an off-road ride, so on Wednesday we rode into a bitterly cold wind east from Malhamdale over to Wharfedale.

I’m already excited by the thought that next July the world’s best bike riders will be riding here. Past The Tennant Arms – the pub in Kilnsey where we stopped for bowls of chips and to warm ourselves beside the fire – they’ll scorch so fast it’ll barely register as a blur.

From the pub we rode north a little way into Littondale, then back over a route high enough for snow still deep in places.

Leaving Wharfedale

Riding higher

Through water

Snow drift

Grassy riding

All up of course it’s great to introduce to our kids, and see again for ourselves, parts of the world we know and love, via the two modes of mobility – walking and cycling – which make that world so precious and special. But both Sue and I were struck last week by how hard British cycle-touring as a family might prove to be: it’s not that our kids aren’t competent riders – they are; we’re just unsure whether the stress of shepherding them along roads on which so many anti-cycling motorists drive is conducive to relaxation. I’d thought our continental cycle-touring of the past decade would make way for more domestic cycle-touring over the next, but I’m now less sure.

It’s a shame to think the roads through the magnificent countryside of northern England might be off-limits to my kids, that they might be denied the pleasures of rural cycling. But then many of the roads round town, within a stone’s throw of home, are off-limits too. Whichever’s the greater, both seem like crimes to me. And then I think how the thousands of children lining Yorkshire’s roads to cheer two hundred cyclists next July don’t have the chance to travel their own backyard on two wheels, to experience this magnificent world from the seat of a bicycle, and it seems not a crime but a tragedy.

Leaving Malham, following the River Aire towards Gargrave, we took a stretch of National Cycle Network Route 68. On her little road bike Flo again coped magnificently, this time with mud, puddles, rocks and stones. But what sort of alternative to being harassed by cars is this? I’d hazard one more likely to drive most nine-year olds to tears than to a love of cycling.

Sorry to be bleak. We had a fantastic holiday! I guess I’m just sharing the realisation that the Tour de France coming to Yorkshire next year will be great for cycle sport and great for Yorkshire’s tourist industry but, unless we get our acts together, it’s unlikely to be great something that matters far more, cycling.

National Cycle Network Route 68

Tough riding

Cycling struggles, 8

January 16, 2013

Domestic cycling system

The previous cycling struggles have all in different ways demonstrated the victory of anti-cycling structures over people’s everyday travel decisions. But I hope they’ve also shown people’s agency too – that although it’s difficult to cycle in urban Britain today, people do nonetheless manage to do so. People, in other words, can and do exercise (cycling) agency in the face of hostile (anti-cycling) structures. Such agency is perhaps at its highest in this cycling story; I show how not just individuals but whole families can embrace a cycling lifestyle, and move around regularly by bike. These are families for whom the bicycle forms an important means of everyday transport for every family member. It’s a story which demonstrates that even here, even now, families do cycle in urban Britain.

I encountered two such families during fieldwork for the Understanding Walking and Cycling project, and merge their stories here. Obviously such ‘cycling families’ are exceptional; so whilst on the one hand their existence gives us hope, on the other that they’re exceptional proves the rule – that it’s much too difficult regularly and routinely to cycle ordinary journeys across urban Britain today. There are similarities between the families: both are white, middle-class, educated, and could be characterised as ‘alternative’ or ‘green’; both comprise two parents who work, and two school-aged children, a boy and girl. But there are differences between them too: they live in different cities; one family owns a car that’s used for longer journeys and/or when cycling is too difficult, but all family members tend to cycle daily, whilst the other family has no car (though both parents can drive) and uses trains for longer journeys, but – mainly because of a residential location proximate to key destinations – walking not cycling is the main means of day-to-day travel.

8. A family cycling story

All four parents have long experience of cycling. In one family, the mother, Sashi, comes from a cycling family. She commutes three days a week by bike and train. The father, Kyle, cycles to work. His past commutes have been as long as 14 miles each way, but his current commute – which he’s been doing for ten years – is around three miles each way. He also uses his bike during the working day. Both Sashi and Kyle ride whatever the weather, including snow, and are confident road cyclists. Like most regular cyclists, Kyle says “I don’t mind riding in traffic, though I’d prefer it if there was none.” In the other family, Doug and Sara have never owned a car. They’re both keen cyclists, for leisure and holidays as well as utility. Cycling forms part of an alternative lifestyle. When asked why they don’t have a car Sara says:

“I don’t really feel the need for one, I wouldn’t want to spend the money on one, I don’t particularly like driving. And I think I’d probably become lazy if we got a car. I’d probably stop using my bike so much. And I can’t imagine it being so easy to get the kids to cycle if we had a car sat outside.”

In both families a lot of shopping’s done by bike. The parents have bikes with front and rear racks, capable of holding four panniers which provide enough capacity to do a sizeable shop. Doug does a big weekly supermarket shop by bike, supplemented by small shops as necessary:

“It was easier when the kids were little and we had a cycle trailer which I could load up”, he says. “These days I fill the panniers, and also take a rucksack for light stuff like cereals and bread. People are always amazed at how much stuff I can carry – it’s a big topic of check-out conversation!”

Family-friendly utility bike

Children’s cycling in a cycling family

With cycling parents, all four children learnt to ride before starting school, have been on bike rides and cycling holidays for as long as they can remember, and have been taught to ride competently and confidently on the road. Part of families in which cycling has been normalised, they take cycling for granted. This makes them different from most of their friends, but perhaps because three of them at least are still relatively young, that doesn’t seem to be a problem; cycling’s simply something they do.

As cyclists themselves none of the parents is naïve about the cycling situation, and they think long and hard about giving their children more cycling freedom. Only Sashi and Kyle’s son, Ray, who is 15, is allowed to ride on roads unaccompanied. Sara and Doug’s son, Ben, who’s 11, is currently allowed to ride alone only under specific conditions, though Sara thinks he’s almost at the point where they’ll let him ride with less constraint. “I’ll feel a bit worried when he goes off by himself”, she says, “but we know he’s a good rider.The problem is we can’t be sure how other road users will treat him. But then that applies when I’m riding too.”

These parents understand, but resist, the sentiments of other parents we met during our fieldwork, parents such as Brian from Leeds who, when talking about his two teenage children who had cycled occasionally when they were young, said:

“Neither child ever asked to cycle to school, so we never had to sort that out. And from my own point of view I was really pleased that they didn’t want to, because I find cycling around here incredibly dangerous … I was quite pleased that they never particularly wanted to cycle, I never encouraged them cycling, and eventually neither of them cycled … it just sorted of fizzled out.”

Brian is in the majority of parents who’d prefer their children, on the whole and given present conditions, not to cycle. But the parents in the cycling families value cycling in general, and the independence it can give their children in particular. Kyle says: “We don’t really believe in molly-coddling them; that’s not good for their independence, for their own selves.”

Of the four children Ray is the only one who rides regularly to school. He rides a hard-tail mountain bike with wide knobbly tyres. His Dad thinks his touring bike would be more appropriate, but it’s not, I suspect, nearly so cool.

Ray may not always choose to use his most appropriate bike, but the machines used by these families have been fully equipped, with mudguards, racks, lights and, often, kick-stands and mirrors; they’re fit for purpose. The children’s bikes are not the cheap, heavy machines typically given to British children, but good quality lightweights; the three youngest children ride Islabikes, a British manufacturer whose mission is to produce decent but affordable bikes for children.

Children's Islabike

Tania is in her final year of primary school. She sometimes walks, sometimes runs, and sometimes cycles to school, either on her own bike or on the back of a tandem. If she makes the trip on foot she does so solo, but if by bike she’s accompanied. She’s the least enthusiastic cyclist in her family, and, says Kyle, “can get a bit moan-y at times” In the other family Ben and Frances also walk to school. Frances walks the ten minute trip to the nearby primary school, Ben about twenty minutes to a secondary school slightly further away; both walk with friends. When they were younger Sara would walk with them, but if Doug was taking them he’d encourage them to go by bike. He says:

“I always used to cycle with the kids, because it was a chance to get them cycling as much as anything else. On the bikes we’d go a slightly longer, but also slightly nicer route which didn’t include any really nasty bits. But Sara walked it because cycling took longer probably – to get the bikes out of the shed, then cycle, then lock them up at school – than it does to walk.”

It’s worth noting that the mobilities of the car-less family are sometimes enabled by the cars of others. This is particularly the case with the children, who in order to participate in child-oriented social life such as birthday parties and trips out with friends’ families, quite often jump in their friends’ parents’ cars. This is not because those journeys necessarily require a car, but because the car has become for everybody else the default option, such that in order to be sociable you must ‘jump in’ too.

The kids travel by car much more often than we [Doug and her] do”, says Sara. “We try to resist their getting lifts to things which are only a few minutes’ walk away, but I have to admit it’s also very handy sometimes to have our kids taken places by other parents rather than have to do a cycling trip.”

Even these cycling families – and particularly the children – would cycle more of their journeys were cycling conditions to improve. As Doug says, “if we lived in the Netherlands, or even Germany, Ben and Frances would have full independence by now, I’d be happy for them to travel around town by bike alone. But not here, not yet anyway”.

Cycling system at the micro-level

From micro cycling system to macro anti-cycling system

These cycling families have created a cycling-friendly world at the micro-level. They’ve assembled domestic cycling systems – effective storage for many bicycles and their multiple accessories, libraries of maps, and wardrobes of appropriate clothes. And for now the parents’ own pro-cycling psychologies remain intact, and they have successfully (though of course children always moan!) instilled them in the next generation. So cycling feels normal, until you step outside. The normalisation of cycling at the domestic level is challenged and undermined out on the streets, at every level (social, cultural, infrastructural, political) beyond the household.

Concern for their children’s welfare leads to parental concern with cycling conditions and route choice. Car free routes are strongly favoured, big junctions and dangerous driving are key anxieties. I accompany Ray on his journey to school of around two and a half miles, which takes about 15 minutes. His route is busy with rush-hour traffic and involves negotiating some big junctions, but Ray’s a strong and competent rider, and has gradually adjusted to such difficult riding as he’s grown older and gained experience. At one point on our journey a car turns right across his path; we’re travelling faster than the motorised traffic and the offending driver simply hasn’t anticipated or seen us (a reasonably common experience in UK rush-hour riding, unfortunately). Ray has his wits about him, brakes hard, and his back wheel goes into the air; if he’d not seen the car or not braked so hard, he’d have gone over its bonnet. Ray seems fairly calm following the experience; he says they’re reasonably common. He gets angry, he tells me, at how drivers act as if cyclists aren’t there, but seems to see that as inevitable, a fact of life.

The parents have many stories to tell of altercations with motorists whilst cycling with their children, though they also prefer not to dwell on them – to do so would function as an impediment rather than affordance to continued family cycling. They keep riding, and keep their children riding, out of sheer conviction it’s the right thing to do, and a refusal to let prevailing conditions see them sacrifice cherished values and pastimes.

Summary

As I said at the start, such cycling families are exceptional. With things as they are, they will only ever form a tiny minority of families, for whom cycling is most probably part of a vaguely counter-cultural lifestyle. Both sets of parents have imposed cycling on their children. This is not an accusation; it’s no different to how most parents impose (sedentary, unsustainable and, I’d argue, civility-destroying) car use on theirs. However, car-based kids are in synch with broader culture in a way which cycling kids are not; if you travel by car your (parents’) transport choices are continuously validated by the world as it is. In contrast, the children here live within a pro-cycling bubble which risks being punctured by contact with the anti-cycling world.

Leaving it to the most pro-cycling parents to instil cycling in their kids is no way to produce cycling in the next generation, nor to build a cycling culture. Yes, these families prove cycling can be done, but they’re going against the grain. In effect, the whole family is holding out against a broader culture designed to make them take the car. We can’t leave the work of building a cycling culture to individuals (and families) alone. Without broader, deeper structural affordances to movement by bike, cycling will remain in a marginal, unsustainable place.

Mountain Biking

January 5, 2013

Bobby climbing Longsledale Pass

January’s off to an exceptionally mild start in England’s north-west. Riding conditions have been ideal for this time of year, so I’m getting some decent miles in. I’m a road cyclist at heart; I advocate for more quality, dedicated space for cycling in cities but out in the countryside I love riding on roads – the quieter the better. But yesterday the winter road bike took a rest and Bobby and I went mountain biking in the Lake District.

Until now I’ve only dabbled in mountain biking. It’s never held much appeal, but I’m hoping that’s about to change. I’ve an eleven year old son. For him the idea of hurtling fast downhill over rocky ground is much more exciting than pedalling fluidly across smooth tarmac. Last year we experimented with mountain biking as a family, hiring bikes at both Grizedale in the Lakes and Mabie in southern Scotland. At Mabie we also got some coaching in the basics from Ruth Asbery of Bottle Green Biking. Sue and Flo tolerated these experiences, but they’re in no hurry to repeat them. I quite enjoyed them, though I remain much happier on the road. But Bobby simply shone. He shows little fear, rising to and relishing the challenge of traversing difficult ground.

This is a lad who’s growing up fast and like most kids can easily spend whole weekends glued to screens. So we bought two mountain bikes for Christmas. My hope is we’ll make mountain biking a shared activity and maintain a bond between us. If there’s a chance it’ll prevent – or at least defer – our drifting apart, I’m up for it.

Bikes out of boxes and ready to ride, yesterday was the start. And an experiment … We’re surrounded by fantastic mountain biking country, but how to get there without a car? We took the train to Staveley. Fingers’ crossed it always goes as smoothly. £11.05 return for both us and our bikes to get to a great departure point, complete with super café, fantastic pub/brewery, and excellent bike shop. This could be the beginning of a great adventure.

We rode north on tarmac to begin with, up Kentmere valley. It was so mild we rode without gloves. The River Kent flowed fast; it’s been a wet Christmas. I’d never travelled this road before – on a road bike, it doesn’t go anywhere. As the valley widens at Kentmere Tarn a splendid view unfurls of high fells to the north. I was seeing the Lakes in a new way, and beginning to see the magic in mountain biking. Riding alongside Bobby felt great. I think like me he was excited and apprehensive at a ride started but still unknown. My (irrational) irritation with his holiday slovenliness, which I’d felt building over Christmas and New Year, dissolved under the pleasure of riding together through the weak winter light.

Concentrating hard!

Just short of the road head at Hallow Bank we turned east to start the steep stony climb up Longsleddale Pass. Across uneven ground Bobby rides with a grace I can scarcely believe. Meanwhile I’m almost spectacularly inept, struggling to hold my nerve and line through slippery mud and stone. Technically he’s way better than me, though rides such as this should force me to improve. I’m surprised how much concentration it takes to stay upright and move forward. When I lose focus my foot goes almost immediately to ground. Sue and I sometimes worry Bobby struggles to focus on school work; but such anxieties evaporate out here, seeing him flow, in his element.

Difficult descent

Mountain biking seduces me. The relationship to your immediate environment, especially the ground just ahead, is intense; the effort required hard, yet over so quickly. The experience creates deep moments different from those produced through road rides (the closest equivalent is a really demanding climb). It’s intoxicating.

The descent off the Pass is incredibly steep and technical, full of jagged, unforgiving rock. I’m relieved Bobby is happy to dismount for the most difficult section. It’s a challenge just to steady our bikes, made frisky without our weights on them. We turn south onto a bridleway across open fell. Mist descends, drizzle sets in, and the going gets tough – neither the ease of tarmac nor the exhilaration of technical track, this is simply bog. It feels exposed and hostile. It’s time to dig in. I worry Bobby will falter, but he doesn’t.

Muddy bridletrack

We spend long sections pushing through mud. I have the same ambivalent feeling I get when fell walking in harsh weather; part of me wanting to be down in the valley, cosy and safe, but part of me happy to stay up high, because it’s the continuing experience which produces the yearning for comfort and which enables its eventual indulgence to be truly savoured.

We plough south round Cocklaw, Green Quarter and Staveley Head Fells and finally the ground begins to fall away. With gravity in our favour we’re able now able to ride over the kind of terrain which on the upward side had stopped us in our tracks. We hit a long section of single track which snakes down off the moorland. Something switches in my head and I’m suddenly able to go for it in a way which a couple of hours earlier I couldn’t have. Bobby keeps with me easily as we fly down the fell. The last miles are a delicious clattering blur of rock, stone, mud and moss. Contrary to my expectations this is a superb way to be experiencing my favourite corner of the world. We rocket onto Hall Lane and down over Barley Bridge into Staveley. The descent ensures we finish with an adrenaline rush which will I hope make us impatient to return.

Mud spattered, we eat a late lunch and hang out in Wilf’s Café. And I think how happy I’d be to have five more years of this mountain biking.

Where do the children ride?

September 3, 2012

This is Flo. She’s my daughter. She’s nine years old. I think and I hope she’s learning to love cycling. The question I ask in this post, in my convoluted way, is what are the prospects of her becoming, over the next few years, an ‘ordinary’, ‘regular’ cyclist – a young woman who uses a bicycle in order to stitch the different aspects of her everyday life together?

We’re just back from a three-week cycle-camping trip to Bavaria. It was Flo’s first cycling holiday riding her own bike. Two years ago we made this same transition with Bobby, who’s now 11, by heading to south-west France. He took to solo riding brilliantly, and he continues to be on the whole enthusiastic, if not fanatical, about cycling. But Flo is a less keen cyclist; this year she has done the occasional race, and if we’re going for a cycling day out she will come along (and enjoy herself), but on the whole I get the sense that she rides only because the rest of us ride, and because – as part of a family without a car – she sometimes simply has to, if we’re to get where we want to go.

In other words, cycling for Flo is normal, but it’s not actually desirable. She has yet – I think – to discover her own love for cycling. I know there’s no guarantee she ever will. If she doesn’t that is of course fine – she’ll find her own ways to live. But in the short and medium-terms, as she is part of a family which lives without a car yet thrives outdoors, it feels important that we continue to try to cultivate her ability and desire to cycle.

Encouraging Flo’s cycling feels more of a challenge than does Bobby’s. Why? I guess partly we’re a gendered family. I’m (a bit) more passionate about cycling than Sue; I get out on my bike more; and most of the cycle-sport we follow (and so talk about) is male. Nurturing a love for cycling in Flo is also perhaps more difficult because we’re part of a gendered world – we tend to follow male cycle-sport because it dominates the cycling calendar, it’s what gets shown on TV, and it’s what gets reported in the press. (I’m perhaps privileging this concern with sporting role-models in  children’s imaginations and interests because we’ve returned home from Germany to find a nation – including many of our own friends – obviously still in the grip of (albeit now gradually eroding) Olympic, and especially cycling, fever; although in terms of gender politics the Olympics fares much, much better than does the rest of cycle sport.)

However, I think the main difference between Bobby and Flo, though still heavily cultural (and so heavily gendered), is more embodied. Basically, and maybe this has only happened over the past couple of years and Flo is set to follow, Bobby has learnt to be comfortable with – and perhaps even sometimes started to thrive on – bodily discomfort, and I think this ability is indispensable to becoming happily and sustainably active.

(Broadening my argument, I’d suggest that the embodiment of such a disposition is necessary in order to build active lifestyles more generally, and so too a culture of mass, everyday cycling; if an activity requires some degree of physical effort, for it to become normal the physical effort it requires must also become normal. It was interesting in Bavaria, how many of the (mainly older) recreational cyclists we saw would get off and push their machines up even the slightest inclines – I may be wrong, but my impression is that Bavaria has successfully built a (lucrative) culture of recreational cycling, in which many older people participate, but if those people are ever in a hurry, they surely jump off their bikes, straight into cars (BMWs, Audis or Volkswagens).)

The Olympics show us women and men pushing bodily discomfort beyond the limit, and perhaps – being so visible and so emotionally moving – that is an important and lasting legacy. Watching people exceed themselves is tremendously inspiring, and perhaps the kind of thing able to prod generally inactive people into sporting action. (Some people will note that utility cycling is precisely not a sport – nevertheless, it’s surely true that for people to start cycling they must to some degree become comfortable with using their bodies, in public; and that to do so they will need to overcome not just political, social and cultural resistance, but also overcome bodily sensations resulting from physical resistance too.)

Before our time in Bavaria, Flo didn’t seem comfortable with the uncomfortable bodily sensations which arise from hard physical effort. I don’t want to succumb to lazy stereotypes of ‘how boys and girls are’, but it does sometimes seem that she gets too much cultural (and gendered) support to maintain this ‘comfortable’ position – particularly from a culture of ‘young girl-ness’ which seems to be threatened rather than validated by sport. Flo and her girl friends prefer to play (remarkably imaginatively and cooperatively) indoors more than out, and tend not to challenge one another to take physical risks in the way that Bobby and his boy friends seem to do (and they’ve both moved much more firmly into gendered social worlds over the last couple of years). And she gets insufficient support to be otherwise – whilst we encourage her to be active, and we have wonderful local cycling and athletics clubs to help, there are strong counter pressures encouraging sedentary inhabitation of the private sphere.

So planning a cycling holiday which depended on Flo’s ability and desire to ride – and to keep riding – her own bike was a gamble. But I’m glad to say it’s one which paid off – Flo thrived on cycling in Germany.

Over the three weeks, she amazed me with her tenacity, endurance and skill. She sped across loose gravel surfaces over which in the past she’d have ridden with trepidation. Often coaxed by her older brother, she dug into and excelled on hills which I’d have thought might make her cry, and she looked thrilled with herself when she reached their summits. And often she and Bobby forced the pace, leaving Sue and I struggling behind – laden donkeys on the racecourse.

What Flo made me realise is that if only we could take away the factors which constrain our children’s desires and abilities to cycle, they’d be able to attain a freedom, independence and grace we can nowadays scarcely even begin to imagine.

Rid of the barriers which operate back at home, Flo was free to fly. These barriers include ‘typical’ ‘girls’ activities’, and TV (or in our case – as we don’t have a  TV – the probably slightly less invasive iPlayer) and computer games. They include a socialized aversion to the bodily discomfort which physical exercise produces.

But we all know, don’t we, the overwhelmingly significant (I’d be tempted to call it the ‘determining barrier’, were that not likely to see me regarded as a bit too crude and somehow ‘unreconstructed’) barrier? Although key players within (what in my more cynical moments I’d label) ‘the cycling promotion industry’ sometimes seem intent on denying it, the major barrier to all cycling, but children’s cycling especially, relates to space, and how amenable or not it is to cycling.

In my admittedly limited and partial experience, Bavarian cycling infrastructure varies, but almost everywhere it puts British cycling provision to shame. And where facilities are less cycling-oriented, driving seems to have been civilised to the extent that it doesn’t matter. We certainly didn’t find a cycling paradise, but we did find ‘a cycling situation’ far ahead of the one in which we’re mired here in Britain. I now understand why my friend and colleague Tim Jones considers Germany more relevant as country which Britain could emulate than the Netherlands or Denmark – whether we were riding along dedicated cycling routes running parallel to big and busy main roads, or pedalling on the road through traffic-calmed town centre streets, I often thought how these quality cycling experiences could relatively easily be reproduced back home.

Cycle-touring is very popular in Bavaria. We felt normal! ‘Ordinary’, utility cycling is also unremarkable, although I personally found one sight quite remarkable – in a small town somewhere south of Munich, as we sat in the shade eating lunch and chilling out, we watched a girl of maybe four or five pedal up and back down the main street, several times. She rode completely independently. She looked happy. She looked free.

I’m angry about my children being barred from riding where they live. Seeing their own taste for freedom and the freedom which other children enjoy when we go somewhere such as Bavaria helps me to see what’s possible, and thus helps me feel more optimistic. But the clear fact that we’re not moving any closer in the UK towards achieving what’s been achieved in Bavaria makes me angrier still.

Each time we’ve travelled overseas to go cycling as a family it has felt to me as though we’ve taken a little step into the unknown. Of course, we know the different reputations for cycling which countries have. We know and talk to people who have cycled in these places. We read guidebooks and websites, and buy maps. But still, we don’t really know what a place will be like – particularly for children’s cycling – until we’ve been there.

I’ve heard far less about cycling provision in Germany than I have the Netherlands or Denmark, but to be both blunt and blithe, we found Bavaria to have almost as good provision for cycling as the Netherlands, but with the advantages (for us as camping holiday-makers) of higher temperatures and better scenery!

We experienced a wide variety of cycling environments. This included dedicated cycle routes alongside many bigger roads, signed cycle routes on very quiet rural back roads, and – within towns – lots of space shared (with no obvious conflicts) with pedestrians. Our upland rural itinerary also included lots of forest tracks – these would often start out (near to a village) as a surfaced lane, before switching to a loose gravel track through forest, and reverting to a smooth tarmac surface ‘on the other side’, as we approached another village.

Uncertain as to how Flo would cope with hills, we’d anticipated staying on flatter ground to the north of the Alps. But it quickly became apparent that she was up to any challenge we might throw her way so long as we kept daily distances appropriate to her age – our longest day was around 55 km (or 35 miles) and most days we rode more like 35 km (or 20 miles). So we rode into the heart of the Bavarian Alps, into Austria and out again.

Flo’s surprising and unwavering appetite for cycling forced me into realising how children – including our own children – are capable of so much more than we usually imagine. Provide them with appropriate opportunities and support to do something, and they can and probably will do it.

So I think the moral of this cycling tale is this – provide children with safe and supportive places to cycle, and of course they will (love to) ride.

During three weeks we had only one day off the bikes. We’d expected to have more, but even when we camped at the same place for a few days, we’d use the bikes to get around – visiting nearby towns such as Bad Tolz, Mittenwald and Fussen.

Bavaria lacks a coastline. Nonetheless, water’s everywhere – and people know how to make the most of it; in the summer heat they flock to the region’s lakes and rivers, and we did too. But guess what, on our rest day, the kids wanted to do? Ride surf-bikes!

By the last week Flo was riding in ways I’d have no thought possible only a few weeks before – descending hills at 30 miles per hour, climbing up them with both grit and composure, and handling her bike over rough, rocky roads.

Over three weeks she rode 400 miles. And in all that time there was not one close and/or uncomfortable encounter with a motorised vehicle. Holidays are different from everyday life; often we are in less of a hurry, we are keen to see ‘the best side’ of people and places, and we tend to go to places we think we’ll like.

Holidays can also sow seeds of dissatisfaction with ‘ordinary life’; they throw new light on ‘things as they usually are’. This is something we badly need in Britain – more people (including, but not only, so-called ‘decision-makers’; we’re all decision-makers) seeing what cycling elsewhere is like, and thus what it can be like, even here. Then agitating to make it happen.

That our idyllic Bavarian cycling holiday experience could be replicated anywhere in today’s Britain is utterly inconceivable to me: there isn’t the provision to keep cycling separate from fast-moving motorised vehicles; and not enough courtesy, care and consideration towards cycling and cyclists has been structurally embedded in ordinary driving practices where motorised vehicles and cycling do co-exist.

So back home in Lancaster, England, Flo’s freedom to ride has been curtailed. She moves around independently on foot in the immediate neighbourhood (and Bobby moves around independently by bike further afield, but only to quite a specific and limited set of places). But she’s no longer routinely using her bike to move around. Although she’s become a great little cyclist, we’re refusing her that independence.

A nine-year old girl moving around an urban area independently by bike? It seems outlandish, doesn’t it? But it’s not outlandish across much of the Netherlands, Denmark and Germany. In a small town south of Munich, I know for a fact that it’s not outlandish for a girl a good deal younger to be moving independently by bike.

Flo should be moving towards independence over the next few years. As part of that move, I aspire to her being able to move around her town by bike. But how many teenagers do you see cycling where you live? How many teenage girls? The outlandishness of the idea of young people cycling independently is a sign both of how badly we’ve lost our way in organising our urban spaces for movement, and of how far we’ve got to go in creating sustainable, democratic and convivial urban space.

Yes, I know there are rare exceptions, and I’ve little doubt that I will be told about them. But I don’t want exceptions; I want norms! I don’t know what I feel more angry about – the fact that young people don’t cycle, or the fact that even competent and accomplished cyclists such as Flo are unable to cycle in our cities. (Of course, I am equally angry about both, because they are connected, symptoms of the same problem.)

I want to make clear what I mean here; I am not barring my children from cycling. I encourage them to cycle all the time, and they are both fantastically good cyclists, Flo much more so after three weeks of ‘fast-tracking’ in Bavaria. It is the conditions out there which bar them from using their bikes when they want and where they want. As adults and parents with a duty of care over them, Sue and I respond appropriately, by refusing them the freedom to cycle.

There is no choice here.

The language of choice, in which many people who say they are promoting cycling continue to engage, is poisoning cycling’s future. We must move away from it, because it is a lie – when it comes to children’s cycling, we have exterminated agency. Until we recognise and rectify this, we will have no democratic culture of everyday cycling, let alone children’s cycling, in Britain.

We are an extremely pro-cycling, and fairly adventurous family – unusually so, I’d say, without wanting to appear arrogant, proud or pious. If we don’t let our kids ride through streets which they know by bike, I don’t think anyone (in their right minds) will. But of course, as someone who loves cycling and wants his children to cycle, I am very unhappy about this situation – unhappy, frustrated, angry and sad.

How lovely it was to see my nine-year old daughter, at the end of our holiday, pedalling amongst Munich’s early morning commuters. For three weeks she’d participated in a mass culture of recreational cycling; now she was tasting an urban culture of mass utility cycling for the first time, and you could see the thrill and delight coursing through her cycling body.

So the moral to this tale is obvious, and it’s one which I’m pleased to hear being repeated regularly and in many places right now. If we’re serious about accomplishing a cycling culture, we must create environments in which people can accomplish cycling and become accomplished cyclists.

But I have come across this moral tale so often lately that I’m also beginning to find it a bit worrying. So many of us are saying the same thing, yet still so little is being done.

Bradley-based momentum and Olympic excitement can’t last forever; we need to take advantage of them, with actual gains – gains which extend beyond the backwards-facing incrementalism which we’ve all become so accustomed to; gains which reach towards that radical re-structuring which so many of us recognise is really needed – NOW.

At the end of a summer which has seen so much British women’s cycling success, the project of encouraging Flo to continue cycling goes on. For now she’s thriving on the new-found sense of herself as fit and feisty Flo. On Thursday evening down at our local cycling circuit, Salt Ayre, she lowered her two-mile time trial personal best.

But Sue and I know, even if Flo herself does not, that bigger forces are set against her. I don’t know how much longer Flo will pedal, but I do know that the answer is for now very largely out of her, or (as her parents) our, hands. The answer depends on what is done for cycling, by people who she’s never met and via processes which she doesn’t understand.

Her mobility future, her health and well-being – just like the mobility future, health and well-being of her entire generation – lie in their hands. It shouldn’t be the sole and it’s probably not the most sophisticated strategy, but at some level I trust that if only we can keep shouting, they might just start hearing.

Cycling in south-west Ireland

April 27, 2012

Earlier this month we had a great trip to County Cork, Ireland, to visit Sue’s brother, Mike, his wife, Helen, and daughter, Yola.

Mike, Helen and Yola live in Schull, a delightful village on the Mizen peninsula, one of south-west Ireland’s ‘fingers’, which stick out into the Atlantic ocean. The coastal scenery in their part of the world is  spectacular, and we were blessed with fine weather in which to enjoy it.

Superb hosts in every way, Mike and Helen sorted bikes for us to ride whilst we were there; nothing flash, but good enough to get us around. Actually, although I jokingly referred to it as ‘a farmer’s bike’, the machine Mike borrowed for me from his mate Matt was great.

And Bobby, who normally rides either his road bike or BMX, loved riding a mountain bike.

Without our usual cycling gear we rode in ordinary clothes and managed fine, although on longer rides I sometimes wished I’d got a pannier to put my waterproof and/or jumper. I found it refreshing to be reminded, through the circumstances, how it’s perfectly OK to ride 25 or 30 miles in jeans, shirt and jumper. (In the past Sue and I have cycled thousands of miles, often through very hot places, wearing ‘ordinary clothes’ – including fully covered legs and arms, for both modesty and sun protection, in countries such as India and Nepal; but more recently this has given way to ‘lycra-as-normal’.)

One day Mike and I rode out to Mizen Head, where the Irish end-to-end either starts or finishes. On another, Mike, Sue and I rode up Mount Gabriel, at 407 metres the highest point on the peninsula.

And Bobby and I took bikes over to Ireland’s most southerly island, the beautiful and rather romantic Cape Clear.

I’ve cycled in this part of the world a lot in the past, but not for a few years. And I was struck by how different it felt to cycle here, compared to England. The following observation is based only on nine days’ riding in which I covered only around 150 miles; nonetheless I noted it sufficiently often to feel confident it’s not groundless.

As someone on a bike in this part of Ireland, you clearly belong to the ‘road community’. Initially, I noticed this through the ways we were generally treated –  drivers stopped or slowed down when approaching us from the opposite direction; if they approached from behind, they didn’t try to force their way past, but waited patiently for an opportunity to pass courteously (or for us to pull off the road and out of their way, if that made sense). Such behaviour is quite unlike that I’ve come to expect when riding in England, where drivers rarely either slow down and/or make any other obvious concessions for you; it’s much more similar to behaviour we’ve experienced in France and The Netherlands.

Only later did I start to notice how my presence as a cyclist on the road was actively acknowledged by most drivers. Typically this ‘salute’ takes the form of a raised finger from one hand, off the steering wheel. A small gesture, but a significant one. It’s active recognition of you as a person, and validation of your presence on the road – as I said, a sign that you’ve a right to be there, that you belong to the community of road users.

In England I much more often feel I’m an ‘outsider’ on the roads. This outsider experience stems mainly from the lack of respect often demonstrated towards me through the behaviour of other road users. Occasionally I’m treated well, and I tend to think “they must be a cyclist too”. More occasionally I’m treated so badly that I fear not only for myself, but for everyone else – though especially of course other cyclists – who has to share the roads with such behaviour. My most common experience, however, isn’t of hostility but of absolute indifference towards me, almost as though I’m not there. This is close to, but not, the kind of civil inattention described by the sociologist Erving Goffman as required to live comfortably in close proximity among strangers; civil inattention is not cold and indifferent, but a deliberate inattention in the interests of living together anonymously yet respectfully.

It’s perhaps closer to what another sociologist Georg Simmel characterised as ‘the blasé attitude’; a kind of de-civilising (or certainly anti-communitarian) process brought about by the scale, pace and density of metropolitan life (Simmel was writing at a time of rapidly industrialising and expanding cities across Europe). This results in a disregard for others who are seen as not belonging to your own community. Speed, scale and proximity definitely have an effect on levels of civility on our roads; on quiet country lanes you’re more likely (for most of the year, even in tourist areas) to be cycling among ‘locals’ in ‘a neighbourhood’, but as roads get bigger and busier you’re more likely to be riding amongst strangers who are moving faster, live further apart, and have less time and inclination to acknowledge one another. The shift from ‘familiar to strange’ is generally a distancing (and for the cyclist a dangerous) one.

Certainly, and loosely following the work of another sociologist, Norbert Elias, the delegitimisation of the cyclist as a figure on our roads during the last half-century of runaway and increasingly taken-for-granted automobility has on the UK’s roads led to a retreat in the ‘civilising process’, and a return of a repressed animosity towards ‘the other’, an animosity which needs now urgently to be re-civilised.

Why are motorists more civil towards cyclists in south-west Ireland than in north-west England? It’s possibly to do with style of dress and style of cycling. When cycling the lanes of north-west England I’m usually wearing lycra and helmet, riding a road bike, often with others, and going quite fast. In south-west Ireland I wore ‘normal’ clothes, no helmet, and rode an ‘ordinary-looking’ bike not very fast, and if I wasn’t riding alone I was riding with other people (Sue, Mike, Helen, Bobby and Flo) who also didn’t look like ‘proper cyclists’.

It also possibly has to do with the numbers of cyclists and profile of cycling in general. In north-west England cyclists are asserting their presence on rural roads, particularly on weekends in good weather. Some motorists, maybe, don’t like that – cycling’s presence antagonizes them. In rural Ireland my sense is that cycling remains for now lower in profile and popularity, so that cycling hasn’t become constructed as adversarial to driving in the same way.

Those analyses would implicate (but not blame) the behaviour and/or dress of ‘road cyclists’ in their own (and cycling’s more generally?) marginality, and anyway, I’m not sure they’re quite right. (Although as I wrote in ‘Fear of Cycling’, I do think we’ll see more conflicts emerge around cycling as it becomes more significant a mode of mobility.) They certainly don’t tell the full story.

I think the answer has more to do with broader social and economic conditions. I think motorists in south-west Ireland are less hurried, more accustomed to slower-moving vehicles (such as tractors) and delays on the roads, and more patient. I also think there’s a clear link (though not one which has to the best of my knowledge been proven by rigorous research) between the age and size of a car and its drivers subjective sense of ‘a right to the road’. Older cars make up a far greater proportion of all cars in south-west Ireland than they do in north-west England, and I think the drivers of older cars tend to be more careful of cyclists than do the drivers of new, expensive cars. Finally, I think that in south-west Ireland the person hasn’t eclipsed the mode of transport as a source of identity and (mis)recognition, so whether you’re riding a bike or in a car you still belong to the broad community of persons, rather than fall into one or other smaller communities defined by transport mode (motorist or cyclist).

I’m not saying south-west Ireland is cycling nirvana; far from it. I’m saying I felt a qualitative difference in the way I was/we were treated by motorists there compared to back home in north-west England – especially on the smaller, quieter roads (what we call ‘lanes’). And I think it’s worth wondering why this might be. As I’ve said, a partial potential explanation is how I/we looked – ‘ordinary people’ riding bikes. Here’s Mike and me at Mizen Head …

And Bobby riding on Cape Clear Island …

To reiterate, we look like ordinary people riding bikes, and are perhaps then seen as such – as belonging to the community of persons. In contrast, when I ride in lycra and helmet on a road bike, whether alone or with others, I wonder whether I/we ‘disappear into a category’ – ‘the cyclist’. As such, I/we stop being identifiable as fellow members of the road community, and it’s easier for us to be treated with impunity. I’m not condoning this treatment, but nor do I want to deny its plausibility out of some misplaced sense of political correctness. (I am attempting to establish the situation, not make judgements.)

But I think there’s a wider (albeit inter-connected) story here, too – about changing attitudes and behaviour towards others, about who counts, why and when. This story has more to do with broad, gradual and difficult-to-grasp changes in culture, and related norms of civility. It’s a story which recurs often in sociological literature; the version I know best (because it was influential during the process of my doctoral studies) is the story told by Robert Putnam in Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, although a more poignant version is elaborated by Richard Sennett in The Corrosion of Character: The Personal Consequences of Work in the New Capitalism. Basically, crudely and for the sake of my argument, as our lives become busier, more dictated by the needs of a global capitalist economy and more stressed, our identities become fractured and the long-term development of character becomes more difficult to accomplish. It is such character – and the civility towards others which it tends to nourish – which we need on our roads; and which can still in my experience be found on the back lanes of south-west Ireland, but less so on the (more commuter- and/or consumer-dominated?) lanes of north-west England.

Finally, then, how do we re-embed (or perhaps embed for the first time, because there is almost certainly no lost ‘golden-age’ here) a civility of the road?  How do we get motorists to show more care towards cyclists?

One ‘shallow’ answer (because it doesn’t deal with the deeper, historical, structural issues) might be awareness-raising campaigns – for example, TV adverts which attempt to inculcate greater understanding of cyclists’ experiences, and greater respect towards people riding bikes.

Absolutely. But a ‘deeper’ answer needs to recognise how discourteous treatment of cyclists by motorists is an outcome of motorists’ (more theoretical) sense of ‘a right to the roads’ (whether rural or urban) and (more practical) experience of having domination of those roads; so this deeper answer needs to challenge both theoretical and practical sense of entitlement to something (the space, time and rhythm of the road) which ought to be much more democratically, and sustainably, held.

If cyclists truly have a right to the road, we urgently need a range of practical initiatives (such as slower speeds, reallocation of road space away from motorised modes, and a general de-privileging of the car’s ‘right to roam’, as well as awareness campaigns) to demonstrate that fact. Otherwise, it’s bullshit.