Posts Tagged ‘Tour de France’

Butter Tubs

October 9, 2013

The climb of Butter Tubs will be better known once the first stage of next year’s Tour de France passes over it. How hard the riders find it will depend a lot on the wind. Yesterday, damp and blustery with the wind at my back, I barely noticed it, the gradient never so steep as to force deep effort. But at over 500 metres, conditions towards the top can be dreadful; I’ve been brought almost to a standstill by head winds here, and felt my bike being blown beneath me by side winds.

The Butter Tubs themselves lie just over the pass from Wensleydale to Swaledale; this is limestone country and the Tubs are deep potholes set close to the road, used – legend has it – for keeping butter cool.

The Butter Tubs

From the little market town of Hawes in Wensleydale you can see the Butter Tubs road climbing north over the moor; disconcertingly, the road seems to be clinging to the fellside for dear life. Out of Hawes and across the River Ure, you wind up past the hamlet of Simonstone. Below you upland rain pummels down through Hardraw Force, England’s highest unbroken waterfall. There’s a short, steep section (where the biggest crowds, including me and my family, will gather on the first Saturday of next July) before the road relaxes its way across higher ground.

Getting steeper

Shallowing out

And this is a road, not a lane. I guess it was chosen partly because it stays so wide as it goes so high. Coming half-way through the stage, it’s unlikely to make much impact on the race – chances are a break (hopefully including a Brit, even a local, or two) will have formed, and the peloton will mind the gap before reeling it back for a bunch sprint to the Harrogate finish.

But what impact might the Tour’s passing through this part of the world have on cycling more generally? I love cycling’s continuing high profile. I try to keep it in perspective – for most people cycling continues to be mainly irrelevant – but after a lifetime spent loving something strange I’m starting to feel a bit more normal! Still, imagining we’re in the midst of ‘a cycling revolution’ is wishful thinking and for the Tour de France to have local impact on everyday life in the Yorkshire Dales – and so contribute to a nascent trend of ‘Britain embracing the bicycle’ – requires work. Revolutions never happen; they’re made.

Can almost 200 of the world’s strongest male cyclists passing over Butter Tubs help get Yorkshire cycling? Can the spectacle be turned to participation? And the participation not just of cycling enthusiasts drawn to Yorkshire’s hills and dales, however good that might be for the tourist economy, but also of local people going about their daily business? Put differently, can carbon-heavy cycling – for Le Tour is certainly that – be converted to carbon-neutral cycling? Because only cycling which replaces rather than adds to carbon-based travel will help move us towards sustainability; and no matter how many good things bringing Le Tour here might achieve, that’s – surely – what matters most.

The other side

From Butter Tubs the road drops into Swaledale; it’s steep with some tight corners, but remains wide and is surprisingly well surfaced (although it’ll probably need re-doing after another Yorkshire winter); unless it’s particularly wet and windy, the Tour carnival will hurtle down without a second thought.

Heading into Swaledale

You can’t talk about Yorkshire cycling without mentioning hills, wind and rain. Cosy in a car, you’re immune to all three, but on a bicycle it’s a different story. So is cycling here only for the fit and adventurous riding just for fun, never for ‘ordinary people’ doing ‘ordinary stuff’? Will Le Tour’s legacy be more ‘outsiders’ coming to ride in Yorkshire, while locals stay stuck fast in their cars?

Hay barns dotted prettily across its floor, upper Swaledale is gorgeous. Here I turn left – my route takes me to the top of the valley and the Cumbrian border on the wild and windswept Birkdale Common, but all the riders and the fuss will turn the other way, through Muker and Reeth, before crossing back to Wensleydale down at Leyburn.

Road sign

Yorkshire is talking of Le Tour. For people here there’s no escape. So what to make of it? In a place like Hawes cars are everywhere, and the people you occasionally see on bikes look much like me. The car enables life here to continue to be lived as it’s come – if only in quite recent times – to be lived; everyday life without a car has quickly become unthinkable. Is, then, re-thinking the bicycle as able to do some of the work which the car currently does in places such as this too big a challenge? If so, would that be a failure of cycling, or of our imaginations?

Welcome to Hawes

Yorkshire’s landscapes and people will next year add colour and character to the world’s biggest bike race. But how will the race leave Yorkshire? Essentially unchanged beyond a momentary tourist boom and a contribution to re-making the region as a cycling destination? Or can it leave a longer-lasting and more locally-relevant legacy, developing the region not just as a destination for, but also an origin of, cycling?

Typical Dales' main street

We’re seeing some money to get people living in cities cycling, and also visitors to national parks. For sure we need new thinking and ideas to help make it happen, but we could also now do with some money to help people who actually live and work in places like Yorkshire’s Dales cycle too. The 2014 Tour won’t by itself make much difference; but we can make it make a difference. So I suggest we find ways to use the Tour’s Yorkshire passing as an impetus to develop a rural cycling which doesn’t disappear once the race is gone, but survives locally and contributes to sustainability.

Advertisements

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

Heroes of British cycling: Bradley Wiggins and the pavement cyclist

July 23, 2012

I loved Bradley Wiggins’ victory punch as he crossed the line on Saturday’s final time trial. To launch his fist like that, from an incredibly fast-moving and twitchy machine, having just ridden it all out for 64 minutes and 13 seconds, was no mean feat. But then nor was winning the Tour de France …

The clenched fist is a potent symbol, perhaps because it’s ambiguous. Triumphant? Defiant? Both? Wiggins’ powerful finishing pose reminded me of the work of the Mexican painter David Alfaro Siqueiros, through whose hands the human hand is made to mean so much. This is a self-portrait …

Images are open to interpretation, but Wiggins’ closed and punching fist seems to express defiance as well as triumph. He wasn’t ‘just’ winning the Tour; he was also achieving – executing – his potential; and he was answering his critics and responding to nay-sayers too. As seems so often to be the case with Wiggins, the celebration seemed real and honest precisely because there was a touch of anger about it.

Will anger and defiance now broaden, as many more people feel inspired to get onto bikes in the wake of British cycle sport’s success?

I think it might, as people who have until now shown little interest in cycling sit up and notice Bradley Wiggins and the Tour de France, and look forward to seeing more cycling at the Olympics. I think it might, more importantly, as they pull bicycles from sheds, fix them ready to ride, and think about where to go.

This is the hope, isn’t it? That the phenomenal success of British professional cycle racers will translate into more people climbing onto bikes. Chris Boardman – a man whose cycling exploits certainly inspired me – made this explicit connection during post-Tour analysis and comment on ITV4 this past weekend.

During Wimbledon, tennis courts across Britain are suddenly in demand. Following the London Marathon, more people get out running. But cycling is different, because the majority of the environment in which cycling occurs has other things in it – and roads are especially full of cars.

Thrilled by Bradley’s success? Moved to ride? Then get outside and … and confront (and perhaps truly notice for the very first time, because now it matters to you, personally) the brute reality of roads full of speeding cars and trucks, a fair proportion of whose drivers act as if they have very little – if any – concern for your well-being.

Compared to tennis or running, then, there is for cycling a more complicated translation from inspiration to action. You might have seen the Tour, you might have been inspired, you might feel ready to ride. But where do you go?

We must beware the gap here, which only critical thinking can fill. It’s great that we’ve got a buzz around cycling, and we must certainly seek to capitalise on it. But it’s just naive to imagine that euphoria around cycling will automatically convert to a big boom in everyday cycling journeys. For that to happen, other things need to change, or rather be changed.

Velodromes and sportive riding away from the city can to some extent cater for people keen to try cycle sport. Canal towpaths, sea-front promenades and converted railway lines can cater for those wanting to experience the cycling buzz in a leisurely and rural way. But I’m also wondering whether the pavements of our towns and cities will start to teem with cyclists, trying their best simply to get around using the machine about which there is – quite rightly – currently such a hubbub.

Pavement cyclists aren’t seen as heroes, but perhaps they should be. (To be clear here, by ‘pavement’ I mean what in other countries is called the ‘sidewalk’; a space which is traditionally considered the preserve of the pedestrian (although there’s a longer story to be told there). So in Britain we are taught that pavement cycling is a problem and that it’s wrong; though in truth it is neither.) Today, Bradley Wiggins is the great hero of British cycling, and I hope he enjoys all the adulation he richly deserves. But in the meantime, the great unsung heroes of British cycling –  pavement cyclists – bravely pedal on, or try to any which way they can. They are not celebrated; they are seen as deviant, and are demonised.

Because the vast majority of people feel there is nowhere safe to ride, everyday cycling across the UK is being very effectively and very systematically blocked. Much premature talk of ‘a cycling revolution’ conveniently ignores the fact that a big majority of people are afraid to cycle, and will not start anytime soon unless something fundamentally changes. In the meantime, in most places most of the people who do ride a bicycle do so (either always or mainly) on the pavements. They ride either because they have no alternative – for example, needing to get to shift work (rendering public transport infeasible) at a location beyond walking distance – or because they actually like cycling but they just don’t like cycling in roads full of cars, trucks and buses.

I have no figures to back this up (I don’t think any exist), but I’m sure that pavement cycling is also subject to a huge amount of what transport researchers call ‘churn’, which means the life of a pavement cyclist tends to be brief. This is because to pedal through the disapproving and hostile gazes of society is difficult to do. People who want or need to cycle but who have nowhere safe to go are made to feel guilty. And cycling guiltily is no way to make cycling stick, or big, or inclusive, or aspirational. For cycling to be embraced big-time, the cyclist needs to feel welcomed, not apologetic. (The resilient cyclists – those who do stick with cycling over the longer-term – are those, like me and perhaps like you, who ride on the road, but we form a very small proportion of all cyclists, and an absolutely tiny proportion of the whole population.)

But even though pavement cycling demonstrates a huge repressed demand for cycling, it is seen as a problem rather than a potential.

We badly need to invert the standard moral tale here. According to that tale, people who ride on pavements are committing a crime.

No, no, no. These people are heroes. Any crime is in endorsing cycling but then providing nowhere for people to ride. Any crime is showing how magnificent is cycling, inspiring people to give it a go, but then dashing their opportunities to do so under half-way decent conditions – conditions which the ‘average person’ regards as acceptably safe, comfortable and enjoyable.

I hope and expect that right now, at the start of the summer holidays, there are thousands upon thousands of children across Britain who have noticed and been touched by British cycle sport’s current success. But what a travesty that the very big majority will be unable simply to jump on bikes and discover the delights of riding for themselves? Long days of summer spent exploring their neighbourhoods, let alone further afield, have been closed off to them by an increasingly car-centric society. To taste the joys of cycling, they’ll have to wait until they’re somewhere their parents deem it’s acceptable to ride. And they’ll probably be taken there by car.

There’s something deeply sad about this, isn’t there? We have rafts of policy and pronouncements in favour of cycling. And to add to this we now have a superb and historically unprecedented collection of role models – led by Bradley Wiggins, but including many other remarkable men and women – inspiring people to give cycling a go. And then we have towns and cities which are so dominated by speeding motorised vehicles that we’ve eliminated people’s ordinary habitat as a place to ride.

If we’ve got the ‘crime’ wrong, so also the punishment.

Instead of scolding and/or fining people for riding bicycles on pavements, we should be congratulating and rewarding them for giving cycling a go at all. Meanwhile, this Government should take the lead on making the changes required for people to cycle safely from their front doors, and punish any local authority which fails to adopt those changes quickly enough. Such changes include reducing the amount of urban space devoted to parked and moving cars, radically slowing down the cars which remain, and building top-quality cycling infrastructure where for whatever reason cycling needs (for the time being, at least) to co-exist with other (whether faster or slower) modes of mobility.

The Tour and Olympics combined should encourage many more people onto bikes, before realising there’s really nowhere safe to go.

Rather than giving up before they’ve even got started, which is what tends to happen, we must hope that many will find ways to cope with currently atrocious cycling conditions and – like many of the people I saw cycling during three years of research towards the Understanding Walking and Cycling project –  at least sometimes take to the pavements. (The danger is that because cycling on pavements is hard to do, most people who are inspired to cycle will not do so – they might cycle ‘invisibly’ on a Sunday morning somewhere safe, but their cycling – and more importantly their desire to cycle – will be easy to miss; their invisibility can then be used as evidence by Government that “there’s no demand for cycling, so we cannot justify spending money on it”.)

There are obvious ways to make our cities fit for cycling, but they are not being done. London journalists might believe things are changing fast, but they should get on a bike in Leeds or Worcester or Lancaster or pretty much anywhere outside of the capital. In most of these places, what we have is a huge gulf between rhetoric and reality. I’ve recently been trawling through transport policy documents produced at different levels of UK Government. Reading these, you’d be forgiven for thinking that a sustainable transport revolution – in which walking and cycling dominate our towns and cities and short journeys by car become practically obsolete – is just around the corner, about to happen.

The (excellent) aspiration of one local authority, for example, is “to make it easy to get from any part of the city to any other part of the city without using a car. Pivotal to achieving this is making sure that, when any plans are considered, pedestrians and cyclists are considered first”. But this kind of progress at the discursive level is, so far, completely unmatched with any notable changes on the ground, the place where we actually live out our day-to-day, intensely mobile, lives. We’ve had decades of empty rhetoric about sustainable urban transport, yet politicians remain intent on driving a massive, new and hugely unsustainable road through my home town.

Hordes of people suddenly cycling on Britain’s pavements might be the most effective route to building the pressure to get something done, to create safe space for cycling. If British cycling’s sporting success brings this massive tension – created by encouraging something which it is so hard to do – to a climax, we’ll have its stars and orchestrators to thank. But from where I’m currently sat, that’s a big ‘if’.

I think what’s most likely to happen is lots of fine words, rhetorical flourish, and vague and vacuous pronouncements of ‘a cycling revolution’, accompanied by very little change in the ideological and material structures which currently underpin and reproduce our society in car-centric ways. We need to do what we can to prevent this from happening, and instead make these potentially pivotal moments stick, whether it’s out of respect for cycling, respect for the health of ourselves and our neighbourhoods, respect for our towns and cities, or respect for our planetary home, the one which cycling rather than driving helps make viable.

As a tribute to Bradley Wiggins and Mod I’ll finish with the words of Mod revivalists Secret Affair, “this is the time, this is the time for action”.

Last night my son shook hands with Bradley Wiggins …

June 22, 2011

and how chuffed he was! (My son; I can’t speak for Bradley ….)

Bobby congratulated Bradley on his splendid recent victory in the Critérium du Dauphiné stage race. And Bradley signed Bobby’s Salt Ayre Cog Set racing top, having first sensibly checked that he did really want his autograph scrawled across it.

Bobby was understandably nervous to meet face-to-face, and actually get to speak to, someone he has previously only seen thundering round Manchester’s velodrome, as well as on many more occasions on TV, winning Olympic gold medals, breaking world records, riding time trials, and sometimes clearly suffering alongside the world’s other top riders in the high mountains which are the crowning glory – the pinnacle – of our sport.

So it was good it was Sue, with her much cooler and more sociable personality, rather than I who accompanied Bobby to the track last night. I’d have been useless, but Sue can strike up a conversation with anyone, and usually does. So she chatted easily to Bradley and Ben, and ensured Bobby met a cycling champion.

Bobby has been riding the VanillaBikes.com Tuesday night crits at Salt Ayre, our local cycling track. Last night, Bradley’s son Ben rode in the same youth race as Bobby, whilst his wife Cath rode in the senior’s event. Bradley was there to support his family. How great is that? Fresh from winning a major stage race, and just before heading back to France for the really big one, a cycling star comes down to your local bike track, and mixes with club riders at the sport’s grass-roots.

Very good luck on the Tour Bradley – like people everywhere, many of us in Lancaster are wishing you and the rest of Team Sky well, and will be shouting you on, next month.