When ‘ordinary cycling’ meets a hill

I was in Bristol to take part in the City Council’s Inquiry into Cycling Safety last week. I’d been asked to give evidence from the Understanding Walking and Cycling project, into the question “what can the Council and its partners do to improve safety for cyclists in the city?” It’s great these kinds of question are now being asked in Britain’s city halls, and a privilege to be part of the process – we just need to work together to make sure they translate into bold and concrete actions which make cycling simultaneously bigger and safer.

It was great, too, to see so many people riding in Bristol. The parts of the city centre I rode felt relatively hospitable to cycling, and hugely better than here up north in Lancaster. I’d say that Bristol has done relatively well in re-making its central spaces away from cars and towards people. The section of dedicated cycling space in the photo above is directly outside the City Council’s offices on College Green where the Inquiry took place; I was told that this lovely green space was partially reclaimed from motorised traffic in the 1990s. I suspect – as is the case with most big cities which have enjoyed recent gains in cycling – the major challenges now lie elsewhere, further out from the city centre.

And out there be hills! Bristol is unquestionably a hilly city. Mmmm … I admit to feeling slightly awkward when hills are raised as a potential problem to creating a culture of cycling as ordinary. The discussion typically goes as it did at the Inquiry into Cycling Safety in Bristol: Jim Davis, Chair of the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain, gave a splendid overview of best-practice cycle provision, based mainly on the Netherlands. (It was wonderful to see the work which Jim and others have done – to promote a paradigm shift in thinking about British cycling – recognised by Bristol City Council. Like mine, I take his invitation to Bristol’s Council House as welcome – if tentative – evidence of a ‘turning-point’ in UK cycling policy, planning and provision.) Then came the typical question – ‘isn’t it the case that the Netherlands has a huge advantage, when it comes to getting people cycling, that it’s pan flat?’

Forget the superb provision for cycling – making it the easiest, most convenient and obvious way of moving around Dutch towns and cities – which Jim’s presentation had just evidenced; when it comes down to it, this line of thinking asks, isn’t the difference between a country with high levels of cycling and one without down to topography?

My awkwardness here reminds me of the awkwardness I feel when discussing whether or not cycling’s safe, whether or not people are inherently lazy (and so unlikely to get on bicycles), or whether segregation or integration is the way ahead for UK cycling. It’s an awkwardness based on awareness that both ‘sides’ have a point, but both are sometimes ill-prepared to hear the others’ (put philosophically, we forget to look for a synthesis of the thesis and its antithesis; put psychologically, we’re better at denial and repudiation than exploration and understanding).

As Jim did, I might point out that rates of cycling can be high in hilly places, such as Swiss cities; I might point out that the winds which often blow across the Netherlands are as hard to push against as many hills; I might (following Professor John Parkin) take the ‘engineer’s line’ that hills can usually be mitigated through sensitive planning of cycle routes (reducing gradient by increasing length, basically) or even (as in Trondheim, Norway) through ‘bike-lifts’; or they can be dealt with at the point-of-purchase through electric bikes; or I might suggest that much of Britain is flat (even most of the routes in a supposedly ‘hilly city’ such as my home town of Lancaster are actually surprisingly flat), and even if rates of cycling tend to be a bit higher across the flatter (and drier) eastern side of Britain, they remain far below typical Dutch rates of cycling.

In other words, we can and do make the case that we can successfully override topography through infrastructurally and/or culturally providing for cycling in ways likely to make it normal. But how persuasive is our case? And anyway, my awkwardness remains, a little niggling, nagging uneasiness. For reasons I find hard to identify, I still somehow feel I haven’t successfully answered the question. Perhaps, however well we answer the question, it’s hard (and even perhaps unwise) to evade a fundamental truth? Because we all know, don’t we, that it’s easier to cycle on the flat than in hills? (In much the same way, we all know, don’t we, that it’s actually more pleasurable to cycle in the absence than the presence of motorised traffic?) It may be less exciting, less fun and less interesting to cycle up hills than on the flat, but it’s certainly (all else being equal) easier.

This makes me think I should change tack, when asked such questions in future. First-of-all, up-front, fair-and-square, agree that ‘yes, it’s easier to cycle when it’s flat, and this almost certainly helps to explain why – when it comes to the ‘rich world’ – the Dutch and Danes are most likely to cycle’.

But then second, to insist that:

  1. places are often flatter than realised;
  2. that people often cycle even in hilly places;
  3. our task nonetheless remains – for all the very good reasons which we already know – to get many more people cycling in all places, including hilly ones; and
  4. what we mean by ‘cycling’ isn’t fixed, but can and will change.

When we spoke to people about cycling during the Understanding Walking and Cycling project, perhaps surprisingly, they expressed concerns about hills (and wet weather) much less than they did about heavy and fast-moving traffic. (And looking through the evidence it presented to Bristol City Council, I note that Bristol Cycling Campaign found a similar story when it surveyed rail commuters at the city’s Temple Quay station; over 70% of them identified ‘stressful cycling conditions’ as a reason for not cycling; far above hills and weather.)

People who did not cycle but who were required by our research questions to think about the prospects of their cycling did sometimes mention topography (especially any steep local hills they knew of) and weather (especially rain), as reasons why they’d be unlikely to do so. But our overall impression was that hills (and weather) are far from being the most important reason why people don’t cycle. In Lancaster, perhaps the hilliest (and wettest) of our case study towns, the profile of cycling is probably highest. Topography and weather might influence the amount of cycling undertaken, and the route chosen, but the effect of these fixed factors is much less than the impact of other variables over which we do have some control. That said, I do think that seeing motorised traffic as being more of a barrier to cycling than hills is a function of the cycling which most people currently do. Either they ride exclusively for leisure, in which case they find terrain (and weather conditions) to suit – that usually means flatter ground, alongside rivers, canals and coastlines, or along disused railways. Or else they are relatively ‘serious’ cyclists, for whom hills (and wet weather) aren’t really an issue – they’ve long since equipped themselves with the equipment (range of gears, waterproof clothing) and physical and mental competences to cope.

But in a place which is closer to building a culture of cycling as ordinary, such as Bristol, hills become more of an issue. These places are producing a new kind of cyclist – someone who doesn’t belong either to the ‘hardcore’ and ‘committed’ minority or to the much more sizeable ‘cycling only sociably on summer, sunny Sundays’ contingent. Bristol dubs itself ‘Britain’s first cycling city’. Partly funded by the now defunct Cycling England, it has in recent years enjoyed substantial support for cycling. There are far more cyclists on its streets than I’m used to seeing at home. I believe the current level of cycling is around 8% of all journeys; the target is 20% of all journeys by bike by 2025. That will require cycling to become ‘ordinary’, and given its topography, that will require cycling uphill to become ‘ordinary’.

So how do people – including those who aren’t necessarily super-fit, who aren’t necessarily riding high-quality machines with a good range of gears, and who aren’t necessarily inclined to get sweaty – move around a hilly town successfully by bike?

Exploring the city once my work was done, I saw a pub with big plate glass windows at the top of Park Street – exactly the kind of place I like! I got a table in the window and spent a happy couple of hours watching people outside. I was struck by the numbers of people walking their bikes up Park Street, away from the city centre and towards the University.

Please excuse and indulge my naivety here, because I’ll admit to not having noticed so many people pushing their bicycles uphill in an urban environment before. I’m used to the idea of people sometimes pushing their machines up hills when cycle-touring, and occasionally here in Lancaster I’ll see someone get off to push, usually as they head over the canal into the city’s hilly eastern suburbs, or as they approach Lancaster University, which sits on higher ground to the city’s south. But, perhaps because I’ve never really stopped to notice (and stopping to notice is an important strategy when exploring and understanding urban cycling) I’ve never before seen so many people dismount to push their bikes up the same hill.

However, I think this is less about the hill than it is about the place; the main issue to do with ‘ordinary cycling’ and its approach. In Lancaster we’ve not reached ‘ordinary cycling’; people ride mainly for leisure and tend to avoid hills (and – as much as possible – roads), or else they belong to the ‘hardcore’ minority who (almost unthinkingly?) pedal up the hills. Bristol, in contrast, is building a culture of ‘ordinary cycling’. This ordinary cycling will meet hills, and I’m interested to know what happens when it does. The ‘established’ cultures of ordinary cycling developed by the Dutch and Danes haven’t had to tackle this. We can follow them in providing for cycling in most other respects, but not necessarily when the road rises. We’re entering another dimension …

So next morning I abandoned my plans for a long ride around Bristol and set off to the foot of Park Street instead. The road rises from the docks and heads out of the city towards Bristol University. As it runs adjacent to College Green and the Council House, there’s a dedicated cycle lane. A bit further, and this gives out, near the bottom of the hill.

It’s (deliberately?) ambiguous, what you do here. Riding alone, I would take to the road. Riding with my kids, I’d stick to the (shared space?) pavement (or sidewalk). But as you continue up Park Street, it’s increasingly obvious that cycling’s ‘proper place’ is on the road. And though the pavement remains wide, most people I saw were indeed cycling on the road.

I imagine that it’s about now that you clearly feel you’re on a climb. The gradient ratchets up a notch, you can see the road stretching ahead of you, and you know you’re in for a work-out.

A bit further along, the pavement narrows again, and it’s become obvious by now that cycling should be on the road. As the gradient kicks in, hitting (I’m guessing) around 10%, people respond in different ways.

Some rise out the saddle, but on the whole I was surprised by how many people don’t. There is obviously more stuff to say about types of bikes and ranges of gears here, but I’m not going to (I’ve rambled on enough already) … I will note, though, that I saw a few guys (only guys, and two of them were I think messengers) riding fixed-gear up Park Street (no photos, I’m afraid), but none riding down – did I miss them, or do they descend via a different route?

Researching this piece, I find there’s been a hill climb on this section of road in the last couple of years, though one which doesn’t take place at the traditional ‘roadies’ hill climb time of year, which is autumn, but in February. Riders use different kinds of machine to tackle a 250 metre stretch of the hill – it looks an ace evening’s entertainment!

I’m sorry to generalise in such ugly sociological fashion, but my guess is that different ‘types of people’ ride the hill at different times of day. The previous evening, sat in the pub at the top, more people seemed to be pushing their bikes, and looked to be returning home from work. In the morning, I’d guess many riders to be students and/or lecturers, and a higher proportion of them – in fact, the majority – rode. Indeed, most people seemed to be riding up quite comfortably.

A few people rode Bromptons. Unsurprisingly, given they don’t have the same range of gears as more ‘standard’ bikes, most of their riders were pushing rather than pedalling, though here’s an exception …

The line of riders going up was fairly continuous. Some rode faster, some slower.

The photo below gives a sense of the climb’s length. Certainly, it’s not a climb you can bludgeon your way over – it lasts long enough that you must decide how you’re going to engage with it, the attitude you’re going to take. You can see there’s no specific provision for cycling; the carriageway is sufficiently wide, and cycling speeds sufficiently low, that this didn’t seem to cause any problems. (I’d expect inter-modal conflict to be more common, and more a problem, going down.)

But it would be surprising if everyone rode up this hill, and of course they don’t. A lot of people get off and push. I saw some people do this almost from the foot of the hill, but more often people rode until the hill ramped up, and dismounted there, at the steepest section.

Following people as they pushed their bicycles up the hill, it struck me that here is a simple, rational and straightforward way of tackling ‘the problem’ of hills. The people I saw didn’t look tired, stressed or embarrassed by their ‘decision’ to dismount; they walked uphill with their bikes in a composed way, as if it was entirely normal, which of course it is. So perhaps their strategy doesn’t recognise ‘a problem’ at all? Pushing is something you simply do when you don’t want to ride. (There are questions arising from this preliminary observational work which could only be tackled through stopping to talk with people – how do they experience the act of stopping pedalling and starting to push?)

The one pre-requisite, you’ll perhaps notice, for this pushing strategy to work is a broad pavement (or sidewalk), which Park Street has.

These people demonstrate how hills aren’t a barrier to cycling; they’re only a barrier to a particular, and rather fixed, conception of cycling. ‘Ordinary cycling’ can adapt to hills in different ways, and perhaps in the process challenge and change our understandings of what it means to move around cities by cycle.

To see people dismount to push their machines through junctions or along stretches of road which have effectively ‘designed-out’ cycling is one thing; it is to see evidence of active discrimination against cycling on the part of politicians, transport planners and engineers. I have talked to many people who push rather than ride their machines through difficult junctions and along busy roads, and they do so because they are terrified by the thought of pedalling through those hostile conditions. But this doesn’t mean that any time people are ‘forced’ to dismount there’s a problem. And to see people dismount in order to negotiate a hill which they consider too steep to ride is a different matter. People push their machines for many reasons: to accompany friends on foot; to negotiate pedestrian-dominated space; to browse from shop-to-shop along a high street. The bicycle’s size and easy manoeuvrability gives its user a flexibility unavailable to people travelling by car.

We should I think then celebrate, rather than unduly concern ourselves with, the fact that here is a machine which – if ever the ground rises too sharply and the going gets too tough for our liking – can be pushed as well as pedalled. Where we should concern ourselves is first, with ensuring pavements are sufficiently wide to accommodate not only pedestrians but also those who choose to dismount, and second, with ensuring an openness and tolerance towards different styles of cycling sufficient to ensure no-one feels maligned and marginalised.

As ‘ordinary cycling’ grows the visibility of the current ‘hardcore’ who tend to ride hills come-what-may will steadily diminish. Their (our) way of cycling will gradually become just one possible way of cycling. And that’s good. We want cycling to be ‘ordinary’ (easy, convenient and obvious) not only in flat places, but in hilly places too. And that is perfectly possible. There’s no ‘failure’ in walking a bike up a hill; only ‘success’ in another person making another journey by/with bicycle.

My happy morning of sociological fieldwork took a turn for the even better whilst I mooched around near the top of Park Street, where who should I bump into? The most straightforward – and I think perhaps the best – sociologist I’ve ever known, Dr Ben Fincham, also on a short visit to the city and caught here in the act of parking his bike. Ben’s doctoral work comprised a fascinating (almost ruthlessly unromantic) ethnography of bicycle messengers, and he is one of the founders of the Cycling and Society Research Group. Whenever we talk – which is alas too little – I am always bowled over by his ability to cut through stultifying academic convention and speak honestly but still sociologically from the heart. It was fantastic to so unexpectedly bump into him, and spend a couple of hours drinking coffee in his company.

Back on Park Street, I had a train to catch, and headed down to the city centre. Yet of course, I’ve told only half the story, the uphill half (and only a small part of that, based as it is solely on observation. Any Bristol-based sociology or cultural geography students out there, looking for a research project?). I watched riders fly down Park Street at 30 mph or more. A couple of times I flinched. With motorised traffic, including HGVs (heavy goods vehicles) and buses, many parked cars and a fair few side streets, this is an ‘interesting’ environment to be riding so fast, and the other side of the ‘hilly coin’. For starters I’d suggest hilly cities are not only more demanding of people’s physical capacities going up, but also of their psychological capacities going down. But how ‘ordinary cycling’ might adapt to them, and they to it, are questions for another day (unless there are people out there (and I’m sure there are) who can already tell us something about ‘ordinary’ downhill riding in hilly cities?).

Finally, apologies for the blurriness of my photos – I’m technically inept and, Sue tells me, had the camera set up for portraits. Whoops!

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31 Responses to “When ‘ordinary cycling’ meets a hill”

  1. Luke Says:

    This isn’t meant to sound rude, but aren’t you stating the bleedin’ obvious which we (myself included) have all somehow forgotten? As a very fit teenager with no interest in or knowledge of cycling as a sport, I walked up frankly modest hills (partly through complete misunderstanding of gears). I never thought twice about it. It got tiring, I got off. Remember the hovis ad? A steep hill, so the young lad used his brain and walked.

  2. SirVelo Says:

    I’m constantly amazed at seeing the number of peeps grinding their way up hills when they have 4or 5 more gears available to them. Similarly, the squealing and clunking of an unlubed or poorly maintained chain is a significant impediment to getting up hills. A litle bit of education on this would immeasurably improve most people’s enjoyment, not to say efficiency, at climbing hills.

  3. LoveloBicycles (@LoveloBicycles) Says:

    “aren’t you stating the bleedin’ obvious” I’m glad he has, as a relatively young fit fellow I will cycle up anything, which means if I;m ever confronted by the ‘what about the hills?” dilemma it would never occur to me to suggest you get off and push, because it is not something I would consider doing. But as pointed out here it is a perfectly legitimate way to continue a journey.

  4. samsaundersbristol Says:

    Another thought provoking post. Many thanks.

    It’s often the task of sociology to notice what some people take for granted, something they might have forgotten they even know, and then connect it with another part of social life and offer an important insight.
    In this case Dave has connected the hidden “obvious” (just get off and walk) with a policy issue (“people in Bristol don’t want to cycle because it’s too hilly” – but they do!).
    I was going to post about that ambiguous ending to the cycle lane at College Green (4th picture) . It is very odd, and not at all unique in Bristol in having a mysterious layout. A Council map from 2011 seems to show the cycle path turning away from the road and the central area, across the pavement, without any “shared space” on the pavement ahead. On the street it seems to offer a route onto the pedestrian crossing, with nothing beyond. As a regular user of that route I simply ignore the whole path and stay on the road, so that I avoid conflict with pedestrians at the crossing and don’t find myself having to pull out into traffic going uphill.
    Ambiguity and inconsistency seem to me to be fruitful lines of enquiry. It is possible to stand and observe a lot of creative cycling in Bristol, some of it wise, some a bit suspect, but all of it necessary because the clues given by signs and layouts are non-standard or, at least, capable of more than one interpretation. Ignoring the cycle facilities altogether is one of the options, and one that I have seen in a lot of situations. (see this blog for a couple of examples)

    • Bikecat Says:

      Interestingly that lane was very well designed until they put in the recent bus ‘improvements’ just beyond it. It was designed to let the cyclist join the traffic in a traffic free space i.e. in the space between where the uphill traffic was and the kerb. That space is now much narrower due to the wider pavement built out for the bus stop. My guess is that no-one considered the design of the existing infrastructure! Have a look next time you cycle in that area.
      As for coming down Park St, stay away from the parked cars and you will find yourself in the middle of the lane at the traffic lights and from then on keep in the middle and signal R and gain the cycle lane at the next lights. Simples!
      I agree with you re ambiguity. Caused by lines and paint being applied by people who know very little about what cyclists need and how they use the roads. National Standard training for traffic engineers may help?

      • Guy in Vancouver Says:

        “National Standard training for traffic engineers may help?”

        I think that’s a profound statement. So many cycling advocates fight for every intersection and path and it’s a struggle each time when if cycling infrastructure was just in the design guidelines for how you make a street then they would get followed.
        I say we look to the far future by lobbying to put cycling into the curriculum of traffic engineers, at the same time lobby to change the guidelines they follow when designing or changing a street or road.

  5. Dan Says:

    Here in Oxford we also have the odd hill. The city is in a bowl. It wouldn’t occur to me to dismount, but many people do. It is odd how it has never struck me that dismounting is something we ought to think about and celebrate, as well as teaching people about gears, if we want to increase the attractiveness of cycling to current non-cyclists.

  6. travelwyse Says:

    Reblogged this on travelwyse.

  7. Luke Says:

    Lovelo, as I said, I wasn’t meaning to be rude, and thought the post was a point worth making. Part of the problem with cycling advocates being enthusiasts is that they/we don’t think of the obvious solution – when I used a bike ‘cos that’s all I had and was uncorrupted by Chanel 4 coverage of the Tour de France, I walked up hills. Twenty years and two stone heavier, I ride up them.

    • Dave Horton Says:

      Thanks for all the great comments; they’re much appreciated. And don’t worry Luke, I know you weren’t being rude! (Although it is perfectly legitimate to point out that my observations are very obvious – which I agree with. Sociology is often accused of making the obvious complex; but it is often sociology which encourages us to see things ‘as if for the very first time’ when we’ve been living with them all along …) I guess one of my aims, with this piece, is – as several of you have already pointed out – to try to diminish the significance of the “Britain’s too hilly to develop a culture of ordinary cycling!” cry. I’ve often heard it used as a kind of fatal flaw in our efforts to get Britain on its bike, when it’s clearly not. As we’ve seen, many people already push rather than pedal up hills, and many, many more could do so.
      Thanks all, for reading.
      Best wishes

      • Martin Parkinson Says:

        Alternatively, we could say that Bristol is developing a walking culture and we deal with the boring (flat) bits by means of a bicycle …

        (being silly. Sorry. But am quite keen on ‘active travel’ rahter than *just* cycling)

  8. carmarthenbaywatcher Says:

    Thanks for this post David. If we are ever to re-normalise cycling we need to lose the sport/leisure image and allow people to just “ride” at what ever pace feels comfortable. If that means getting off and pushing that’s OK. One of the other main arguments that get thrown at us is the lack of showers and changing facilities at work but if only people stopped treating the commute like a work-out (not having to “man-up and take the lane” may help!), showers become unnecessary – just like in the Netherlands. It’s all about changing the the way the cycling/bike is marketed in the UK.

  9. Antony Says:

    That’s me in the eighth picture down – fame at last! And yes, the hills issue completely illustrates the gulf between the realities of cycling and the naysayers who dismiss it as a practical form of transport. I remember no less an authority than Terry Wogan roundly ridiculing the choice of Bristol as a cycling demonstration city on breakfast radio, because… well, you can guess!

    It also occurs to me that when people cite hills as an unpleasant factor in cycling, it’s not just about the hill, but the traffic they’re sharing the hill with. The combination of an increased speed difference, exhaust fumes, lower manouverability and the occasional fatigue-induced wobble can make riding slowly up a very busy hill, with cars speeding past inches from your elbow, one of the nadirs of a cycle journey.

    • S Says:

      Anthony’s second paragraph is bang on. I am not a very good hill climber but the biggest obstacle is not the incline but the impatience of drivers behind who feel the need to pass, at speed and close, even if it means they stop right in front of me, thus destroying what little momentum I had. I can see the planners arguing that dedicated segregated paths are a waste of money if most people push but increasing cycling rates is about giving potential riders options – and besides, the planners need to explain the lack of infrastructure where people don’t push!

  10. mcd116 Says:

    Great article and some good comments.
    What would be really nice would be if a “dismount area” and a “remount area” were provided as part of the infrastructure. Then could I also ask for a dedicated cycle lane or a complete ban on vehicles overtaking me going up the hill and then stopping immediately in front of me! I ride up Park Street on my way home from town and can now do it with a couple of gears to spare – it’s a case of keeping the momentum/cadence going – but any obstruction such as a parked vehicle and I don’t have the speed/balance to safely look round and pull out – especially when the ystop without due notice.
    So my answer to hills is yes, flatten them where possible, otherwise provide spaces for peopleto dismount and remount and room to push their bikes, and provide a segregated wide cycleway so that we can cycle up at our own speeds without people stopping and blocking the way.
    Whilst on the subject of walking the bike, I started a Bristol Cycle Chic blog a while back and whilst I keep taking photos of people cycling I rarely have time to up load them, but I’ve noticed more and more people going around town walking their bikes. It could be because the bicycle has now become a fashion accessory/icon – witness all the shop window dressings using bikes and the adverts with people on bikes – so maybe the pushers don’t actually ride them?! – but it does seem that it is socially acceptable to walk with your bike and converse with friends who are not with bikes. Of course in Holland etc they would all be on bikes on nice cycleways where they could talk as they cycled!
    I have a growing album of pictures of people walking their bikes – any takers?
    NIce to meet up with you again Dave.
    Martin McD, Secretary Bristol Cycling Campaign, etc.

    • Guy in Vancouver Says:

      Hills can be designed for. If there is room, such as in a park or undeveloped area, there can be gradual routes designed with a low grade, even switchbacks can be used for very steep hills.
      The other thing is the width. As some people can cycle faster than others up a hill there needs to be passing room. The cycle lane should be wider going up a hill. (Unless it’s already wide enough of course.)
      Other things which are nice are a bench and drinking fountain at the top to rest if it was a challenge.
      Also having a slopier alternative for those that are fitter than most to just get up the hill faster than the gradual route.

  11. vlgi Says:

    I took part in a mini sportive outside of Bristol up a hill called Dundry ( 4 climbs up it ). My Bike had only the one gear, and I had no foot retention so when the pedaling got impossible, I switched to my hidden gear, and walked up, which I did at a furious 5 km/h.

    A few years ago I went on a cycling holiday around cornwall, to get there involved a fair few hills, one such on the outskirts of Minehead called Porlock Hill, I pushed my bike up that hill as well, not only that I had the opportunity to see some beautiful wild life on the way up I wouldn’t have appreciated so much if I was cycling.

    When I used to cycle to Bath to the University it ended in a climb up to Claverton Down, I’d cycle until I gave up and walk the rest.

    I’d like to think I’m a very accomplished bike pusher up hills, when you need to get up a hill you do it by any means necessary, I only have a bike now so I go everywhere with it, its not always rideable, but if that fails its always pushable. (And sometimes carry-able through dense undergrowth but thats another story.)

    People manage, they find a way, a lot of limitations we make up in our head, the hills are too steep, the traffic is too dangerous, I’m not fit enough. If you build these mental blocks in your head you will always fail.

    The way I see it, in life, and in cycling, is that I have something to do and so I’ll just go and do it, things might get in the way, if they do I just deal with them, hills are the least of my problems.

  12. Oliver H Says:

    Hehe, that’s me in one of the pics, towing the green bike trailer (taking my 2 kids to nursery). It’s hard work getting up the hill, esp with the 50kg+ of children+trailer on the back axle: like you say it’s mostly about the psychology.

    I dislike exercise in general, but I have to say I feel a lot more awake/alert on the mornings when I cycle the kids up Park St than when I don’t (I work at the bottom of Park St, so it’s normally a flat ride in along the river). It’s odd, common sense would suggest one would feel more tired after such exertion. Guess that’s why people go jogging (eugh!).

    I started cycling in Bristol when I moved here as a student in 1996, purely as a practical matter since halls were a couple of miles out of town. I honestly can’t think of a better, more practical way to get around this city. I had to drive today, and it took me an hour to get home from nursery (as opposed to the reliable 20 mins on a bike).

    Great article, anyway, thanks for all your hard work 🙂

  13. SirVelo Says:

    We need to educate cyclists to use all the gears available to them, stressing the fact that it is more efficient, better for the knees and back, to use proper technique when cycling.

    Notwithstanding, with a few exceptions, Britain (and particularly England) is not an especially hilly country,in comparison with Spain, Italy or Switzerland, for example.Certainly, no one who lives in the south east or Midlands could complain that hills were a serious deterrent to cycling. My own view is that separate cycle paths (adjacent to main roads but segregated) are the key to encouraging cycling in “hilly” areas. Where that solution is not implemented, then at the least a fully segregated cycle lane for cyclists should be installed on any city centre hill with a gradient +5%, over say 500m in length, with any parked vehicles or other motoring infringements dealt with rigorously.

    Moving on to cyclists walking their bikes in city centres: some do this because there is nowhere legitimate to cycle; others due to fear of mixing it with motor vehicles.

  14. Alastair Says:

    In New Zealand, Wellington has experienced the greatest growth in cycling, despite being one of the hilliest cities in the country if not the world. Part of the reason is the availability of low geared mountain bikes, but it does illustrate the point that hills are a perceptual rather than a real barrier to cycling.

  15. Clare Says:

    Did you find out why people were ‘choosing’ to push their bikes up Park Street? If they were planning to continue on up Whiteladies Road they may have decided to push when it got tougher because of the cycling nightmare that is the Triangle at the top of Park Street.

    This is a (500mish) one way section, still heading slightly uphill, 2-3 lanes of traffic travelling at 30 mph given half the chance (or gridlocked & apt to try and change lanes regardless). It’s a major bus route (no bus lanes) with lots of vans, delivery lorries, taxis etc changing lanes and you have to get out into the centre/right hand lane or end up forced by the lane planning into taking the wrong direction. There is no cycling provision – not even silly little bikes painted on the road. I suspect many people are willing to push their bikes up Park Street because they have no intention of cycling around the Triangle and are planning to get off and push at the top anyway. I am a very regular cyclist who cycles all over the city and I seldom cycle up Park Street because of the Triangle. I’d rather go up St Michael’s Hill which is steeper (there are plenty of steeper hills in Bristol).

    From the outside this looks like an ‘ordinary’ solution to a hill but it may really be a safety/fear issue.

    • Dave Horton Says:

      Thanks again, all, for such thoughtful comments and insights.

      Clare, talking to people about their experiences (of either riding or pushing up the hill) would be an obvious ‘next step’. I only had a couple of hours, and I also sometimes like the ‘power’ of plain and simple observation, but such observation – as you note with your question (and associated hunch) – has its limits. I think there’s a nice little research project for someone (I’ll do it if someone would pay me!), about the different ways in which people experience hills, and what these experiences do to their cycling biographies.

      That people might be pushing their bikes up Park Street in response to the surrounding traffic conditions (and especially, I guess, the close proximity of smelly and/or speeding cars, trucks and buses) starts to blur the theoretical distinction between more ‘fixed’ barriers (such as hills, which it’s difficult to change) and ‘variable’ factors (such as the infrastructural and vehicular context, which can be changed). To impose another (potentially fruitful but also slightly false) dichotomy, I think we should celebrate pushing where/when it’s a response to a hill (whilst accepting people can also choose better bikes, learn how to use gears more effectively, and get fitter), but challenge those in power where it’s a response to uncivil conditions for cycling (too much motorised traffic, going too fast, too close).

      This gets us back to the broader debate about cycling’s future/s which is (I’m glad to say) now picking up across the UK – what kind of cycling do we have? What kind of cycling do we want? What kind of cycling are we creating?

      My sense is that over the past half-century ‘we’ve’ created a rather ‘macho’ culture of cycling in the UK. ‘We’ve’ created ‘extraordinary cycling’ when what we’re after now, surely, is ‘ordinary cycling’? This ‘extraordinary cycling’ has become rather cemented (and what sociologists call ‘reified’) as ‘the right way to cycle’. We’ve developed too fixed a conception of “what it is to cycle”, and I think we perhaps need to challenge and change that conception in order to make “what it is to cycle” more welcoming, open and democratic. One part of that, for me, is actively to legitimise walking with your bike, because in the context of our ‘macho’ cycling culture some people might see walking with your bike as ‘weak’ or ‘pathetic’.

      As a ‘fit’ and ‘keen’ UK-based cyclist, I was amazed the first time I visited the Netherlands and Flanders, how slowly many people cycle! But as others have already said, “yes to slow cycling”!

      Thanks all. Please, keep reading, but more importantly of course, keep riding, oh, and pushing (your bike if it’s up a hill which you’d rather not ride, or for changes if it’s conditions which are unacceptable; i.e. almost everywhere!)!

      Best wishes

  16. tryingtothriveinlondon Says:

    What beautiful writing and insightful commentary. Thank you. It will inform and enthuse my campaigning in Merton, London. And thank you to those who drew it to my attention last night.

    • Dave Horton Says:

      Thank YOU, for the feedback, and affirmation – it’s very nice to hear, and very helpful in keeping me going! And good luck with your campaigning.

      I worry when I read headlines (again yesterday, following the publication of a report from the London School of Economics) that between them Bradley Wiggins and the Olympic Games have helped to make cycling unstoppably popular. If only it were that easy! (I fear that much innocent enthusiasm for cycling is bound to give way to dejection, cynicism and mass dismounting, when prevalent cycling conditions are actually experienced.)

      But then I’m encouraged, that there are currently so many informed, intelligent and committed people pushing for bigger and better cycling. Even though so much clearly needs to change, with so many capable people clamouring for those changes, we will – I’m fairly sure – make some gains, and perhaps trigger a ‘tipping-point’ or two.

      Thanks again, and best wishes

  17. Guy in Vancouver Says:

    Shimano makes the “Megarange” freewheel. The lowest gear is extra low for going up hills.

  18. Why do the Dutch cycle more than the British? | As Easy As Riding A Bike Says:

    […] are places where good cycling infrastructure is just as important as it would be anywhere else (Dave Horton has written convincingly on this subject). Flatness is not ‘essential’ for mass cycling (by which I mean cycling […]

  19. Kolo, město a kopce - Prahou na kole Says:

    […] A na závěr jeden odkaz pro inspiraci, právě o Bristolu. […]

  20. Tony Crowther Says:

    I’m a 60 year old who would love to cycle to work everyday in Bristol, but from where I live in Bradley Stoke, it’s about a 3 – 4 mile slog uphill followed by a 3 – 4 mile down hill into the city centre, and therefore the same in the reverse direction, walking up the hill in either direction is not a realistic option, whereas jumping off for a 4 minute push up Park Street is a completely different matter, hills really do make a huge difference to us non hardy cyclists!

    • Dave Horton Says:

      Thanks Tony, and agreed. Would an e-bike do the job? (I don’t know the answer, merely wondering.)

      Still, I’m sometimes struck, when we take friends of my children out for bike rides, how even seemingly healthy & fit kids, haven’t really got much muscle, and almost no stamina! I think there’s a (currently non-existent, but potentially very significant) debate to be had around this: would we like kids to develop the kind of strength during childhood that would enable them to walk and cycle distances and terrains which today many find ‘too hard’, ‘too uncomfortable’, even ‘impossible’? Do we want, in other words, to try to challenge the current cultural norm (of lack of physical strength and endurance in kids), in order to replace it with a new one (strength and endurance is constitutive of a fit and healthy childhood, and thus also for the rest of life)? There’s a lot more to say here, and it’s a discussion which needs handling with care, and I’m definitely not pointing at you, but I suppose the central question is something like, “actually, as a society (and so also as individuals), are we too unfit?”

      Thanks for reading and commenting
      Best wishes

      • Dartmoor Electric Bikes Says:

        Hi Dave, I’ve just read through this whole blog with interest and thought I would (belatedly) answer your question: Would an e-bike do the job? I live in hilly Devon on the edge of even hillier Dartmoor. I rarely cycled until I acquired a used e-bike to cycle to work. Then I discovered it could even get me up the hills onto Dartmoor and what a wonderful discovery that was. It has transformed my relationship to cycling. I still get plenty of exercise, but can tackle the hills knowing I’ll make it to the top without having a heart attack. I’ve enjoyed it so much that I gave up my job and have set up Dartmoor Electric Bicycles, which takes people out exploring Dartmoor on our top-of-the-range Swiss Flyers – 8 gears and 3 power modes but NO throttle. Come and try them out some time if you’re down this way: http://www.highdart.co.uk/electric-bikes
        Inga Page

  21. suicyclist Says:

    I have two routes I commute on. One is straight-ish and flat-ish and is the fastest route but the wind tends to get channeled down the road so headwinds are a problem. The alternative is slightly longer and has more hills but is more sheltered so I use it when it’s windy.

    So I agree that there’s no real difference between cycling up a hill and into a headwind.

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