Archive for the ‘CYCLING EXPERIENCES’ Category

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

Snowdrop One Hundred

February 4, 2013

My road bike is back in action, the snow and ice have almost gone. And compared to most of January the first day of February was forecast to be mild and dry. So I took advantage, celebrating the start of the last month of winter with a long ride. February’s weather can be harsh but sometimes its sun has warmth, and the days keep getting longer. And look, snowdrops are out! Surely a sign of spring’s approach.

Snowdrops

The world’s opening up again, and mine with it. A quick breakfast and I’m out by 7, planning a second more leisurely feast forty miles into the ride. I follow the River Lune upstream, cross it into Halton, and take the back road to Kirkby Lonsdale; I see my first snowdrops at dawn in its graveyard.

Snowdrops at Kirkby Lonsdale church

I take the road north-west towards Kendal. I don’t drop into the town but turn north at Oxenholme to skirt its eastern side along little-used lanes to Meal Bank. I cross the Rivers Mint, Sprint and Kent in quick succession and stop at Wilf’s in Staveley for that second breakfast.

From Staveley I climb south to Crook and then turn west to Windermere. A hundred mile ride is a day out of life. It’s a day spent moving through other places. Those places would be there anyway, but by riding through them we make them places for cycling, and they in turn add colour to our cycling biographies, and make us as cyclists.

The Windermere ferry’s a gift to Lakeland cycling. It lets you avoid bigger roads and stay off the beaten track. The rule is cyclists on last, off last, so on the other side with any cars gone you get the road to Hawkshead to yourself. It’s a glorious stretch, with Lakeland’s central fells rising up front, drawing closer all the time.

Windermere

Friday’s ferry was empty save for me, and I was given the trip across England’s longest lake for free (it usually costs £1). It’s a stiff climb off the lake to Far Sawrey. This is the ride’s literary stretch; past Beatrix Potter’s Hill Top home at Near Sawrey, and alongside Esthwaite Water into Hawskhead (the village centre’s closed to cars, which adds to the quiet pleasure of riding past William Wordsworth’s school).

Hawkshead village centre

Then it’s up Hawkshead Hill, taking care not to push too hard. I ride 100 miles rarely, and there’s a right way of riding them. That’s above all carefully! I ride with the end in mind, making sure to save something for the last third.

View from Hawkshead Hill

This is the heart of today’s ride, on roads ordinarily out of reach. I drink their novelty. The descent through the woods to Coniston Water is especially fine. Then at the Lake’s northern tip I turn south and trace its eastern shore. John Ruskin’s home is here, Brantwood. More easily accessed from the industrial south once the railways (opposed by Wordsworth) were built, the shores of the southern lakes are sprinkled with the mansions of wealthy Victorian men including, for all his socialism, Ruskin. But he loved nature and when you see his home and its views (views which perhaps contributed to his thoughts?) you can understand his extravagance.

Ruskin's Brantwood and Coniston

I pedal gently below the beech woodlands of Coniston’s sheltered shore. My legs appreciate the easier terrain but still I feel the fatigue building. The woodland’s ground is coated with autumn’s fallen leaves. Their colours are vivid after the white blanket of recent weeks.

Coniston's eastern shore

Beech leaves

I ride beside the River Crake as it leaves the Lakes, travelling south out Coniston Water towards Morecambe Bay. It flows under Lowick Bridge and Spark Bridge, where I leave it to head round to Bouth. I’m cheered by the Twenty’s Plenty sign; the push for slower speeds isn’t just an urban one, it’s happening here in rural Cumbria too.

20's Plenty in the country

The road from Haverthwaite to Grange-over-Sands takes me through Cark, Flookburgh and Allithwaite. It’s a lovely route which for the most part marks the line where hills give way to moss, marsh, mudflat and, finally, sea. By Grange I’ve covered 80 miles. My hunger for food has gone, but I know my body needs fuel. I stop at Hazelmere Bakery and eat enough to get me through the homeward leg.

Heading home

The route from here’s a familiar one, across the flat moss roads, then beneath Whitbarrow Scar to Levens, and from there across the River Kent and south via little lanes I’ve learnt like most cyclists to link up as a peaceful alternative to the A6. The last part of a long ride’s so different from the first. My curiosity in the wider world’s blunted and replaced by growing introspection, as tiredness reallocates my body’s dwindling resources. Places through which I pass no longer grab my attention; they’re still there, but my focus now is on turning pedals and steering home. I don’t dislike the sensation, it’s part of the long ride experience. A hundred mile ride starts with a target and ends with a memory, but perhaps the best bit is – back at home at the day’s end – the feeling of exhaustion earned.

I wonder whether I’ll ever tire of what feels to me now like the pure privilege and pleasure of a full day spent on my bike?

Wind Power

January 26, 2013

Wind turbine

Wind farms and bicycles – two technologies appropriate to a sane, sustainable future. But more than that, they’re symbolic of that future; there are surely no objects better symbolising the age towards which we’re moving, too slowly, but surely. For me the aesthetics of technology is ethical. I love wind turbines like I love bicycles because they’re good, pointing in the right direction.

Bicycle and wind turbine

Of course I know both bicycles and wind farms are hugely, strangely controversial. They’re sometimes ridiculed, but it feels like both are gradually becoming accepted as necessary. And though not nearly enough, both are proliferating – wind turbines off our coasts and over our hills, and bicycles … well, where exactly? A Parliamentary Inquiry is currently investigating how to get Britain cycling. Pay attention to our London-centric media and you’d be forgiven for thinking we’re on the brink of ‘a cycling revolution’. Use of the bicycle is probably rising across some towns and cities, yet so slowly it’s barely a trickle.

My own hunch is that bicycles are proliferating most in people’s imaginations and aspirations. For many Brits their status has upped a notch, and the idea of cycling is less outlandish than it was a year or so ago. And cycling has moved a tiny bit further towards the centre of our collective cultural ideals of good lives and good cities. There’s a zeitgeist to convert, and we’re waiting for politicians to convert it, because the main changes necessary to get Britain cycling must be made at national level with huge reallocation of resources away from the car and towards the bicycle.

Lancaster Cathedral and Town Hall

It’s because I love cycling that I’m involved in debates about cycling’s future, but it’s because I love riding that I’ve some immunity from the emotional roller coaster that involvement in those debates can bring. Sure, I’d like everyone to have cycling in their lives, but at least in the meantime I can enjoy having it in mine.

But I’ve still no road bike. It’s still cold and icy. My world has shrunk. I’m feeling hemmed in. Parts of north Lancashire and Cumbria close to the coast are clear of snow, but the world a short way inland remains white. Unable to go farther afield, today I jumped on my mountain bike to explore little known places close to home. I’ve lived and cycled here 15 years, but there remain roads and tracks within ten miles I’ve rarely been.

I rode east across the city, up past the Town Hall and Cathedral, up past Ashton Memorial in Williamson Park, up over the M6 and onto the Forest of Bowland’s north-westerly fringe as it falls unevenly towards the River Lune. (There is no forest by the way – the Forest of Bowland is in fact a vast moorland.)

Ashton Memorial, Williamson Park

Right onto Little Fell Road, then down Stock-a-Bank towards Littledale. Past Baines Cragg and sharply down to Artle Beck. When my kids were tiny and driving me crazy, these lanes – quiet yet close – formed my escape route; an hour away from the house, out here, would lift my spirits and send me home closer to sanity

Ahead the wind turbines’ slowly rotating blades strike brilliant white in the low winter sun. Their slim white lines have the elegance of the egrets we sometimes see at Leighton Moss, a short way north on Morecambe Bay. Depending on my position the turbines seem sometimes close, at others distant. Sometimes they take me by surprise, their blades appearing suddenly above, disturbing the point at which land and sky meet. I love riding this compact, complex topography.

Wind turbine blade

To reach the wind farm I drop down almost to Brookhouse before climbing up again on a lane I’ve not taken in years. It rises steadily to Caton Moor, the wind farm all the while drawing closer. Up here the drifted snow is deep in places.

Wind turbine blades

Sheep with wind turbines

This was one of the UK’s first commercial wind farms. When it came into service back in 1994 it produced 11% of the UK’s total wind energy. Wind technologies have developed fast, and in 2005 its original ten turbines were replaced with the current eight. Their combined capacity is 16 MW, enough energy to power 10,000 homes.

Wind turbines in the snow

I ride reverentially between the white giants standing in the snow. They’re so high (55 metres) they make me and my bike feel puny. Standing next to one I turn my head to see its blades (35 metres long) tumbling one at a time down from the sky toward me. It’s like staring into the heights of a great cathedral, but better. I feel giddy, overawed.

Wind turbine from below

Cyclists know the wind’s power. We feel its pull and push. When it lends a hand the world seems easier. When it’s in our faces we hunker down and push harder. We know its noise too – the way it roars, at times so loud it’s hard to hear the words of the person riding beside you. Where would cycling be without wind?

A bridleway follows Kirkby Gill off the moor down to the Lune. Where it’s not covered with ice its surface is full of brick. I drop out of the snow and under the aerial ropeway which until recently took clay from the pits above to Claughton brickworks below. Just before Claughton a little track goes east through Farleton where I join the main road.

Iced bridleway

Out of the snow

I follow the Lune downstream to home. I’m glad to have been forced into this little ride, but I’m a coiled spring waiting for my road bike and milder weather to return so my corner of the cycling world can open up again. It’s snowing now, as I write, but a thaw is on the way.

The River Lune

Easy Riding

January 19, 2013

Today was one of those days I hadn’t much energy to ride, but also one of those days when I knew a ride would do me good.

I could put my fatigue down to mid-January blues, though it’d be more truthful to admit I’ve overdone it on the turbo trainer which I pulled out for the first time this winter on Monday. I’ve since done three evening sessions on the trot. Because I aim to ride faster this year, and to have a pop at bunch racing, getting on the turbo was overdue.

Turbo training (in the snow!)

But frankly I was forced into it, because my winter bike is being fixed. It’s taken a pounding these last few months, so I’ve handed it over to our local mobile bike mechanic, Colin Stones. For someone who rides so much I’m dreadful at looking after bikes, and Colin saves me having to improve.

I’ve timed my bike’s absence well – it coincides with a cold snap in which it’d be tough to get out for long rides anyway. That said, snow is forecast, so road riding might prove tricky a while longer yet.

But once I’d set it up, in my first rush of enthusiasm for the turbo trainer I probably went too hard too soon. And the effort’s left me jaded and below par.

When like today I don’t feel like riding but know a ride will do me good, I go for an easy ride. An easy ride brings the pleasures of cycling but without the stresses; it leaves you feeling restored, not depleted. Amongst racing cyclists they’re called ‘recovery rides’ (though I think calling them that misses something).

I’ve found simple ways to keep rides easy. I stick to well-worn, familiar ground, close to home, and aim to ride for little more than an hour. And partly to trick myself into getting out the door in the first place and partly to prevent my getting ‘serious’ once I’m out, I include a couple of bike-based jobs. Those jobs include taking our empty Tetra Paks to the nearest recycling centre, making local deliveries (rather than using the postal service), and shopping of various sorts. Today it included buying eggs and nipping into the supermarket for tonight’s tea.

With my usual bike out of action, my race bike on the turbo (and strictly speaking not for riding at this time of year anyway), I took advantage of the need to use my mountain bike by planning a little loop that’s often muddy in parts.

The best way south to open country from where we live follows an off-road route alongside the west coast main line, then down a little snicket which either side of its narrowest part has signs, ‘CYCLISTS DISMOUNT’. I find them offensive and am not sure why I’ve never stopped to take them down. I’ve been this way thousands of times without dismounting; I slow down and stop for passing pedestrians, but dismounting to push would make me a wider obstacle for longer time. I’m courteous but the signs make me deviant, and people sometimes tut-tut.

Cyclists dismount?

Twice under the railway and onto Aldcliffe Lane which runs beside the canal. This stretch of road’s recently become part of a 20 mph zone. Signs say so, but few motorists stick to the new limit; some race down here at twice that speed. Is it hypocritical to think rules designed to civilise motorised traffic should be obeyed, but those which govern cycling stem from prejudice and should be ignored?

20 mph?

A small hill separates the canal from the Lune’s estuary. I ride over it and through Aldcliffe village to join the route to Glasson Dock. This is a favourite stretch of off-road riding. There’s a picnic site a short way down. We’d often stop when the kids were younger. We’d spot its location far ahead from the power lines above, stretched between pylons which march across the landscape from the square block power station on the western horizon. Making it here was a victory to celebrate with a treat. These days we could zoom past without a second look but often still stop, for nostalgia’s sake I think.

Picnic spot

The route follows a disused railway along the estuary. When ships became too big to reach Lancaster a dock was built at Glasson at the estuary’s mouth, with goods carried between city and sea by train.

Cycle track to Glasson Dock

The ride is full of birds; I see curlews, lapwings, redwings, long-tailed tits, swans, geese, ducks, herons, and – out on the mud – lots more whose names I don’t know. Ice sheets across the track and it’s fun to scrunch my way through the biggest bits. I’m glad I’m on the mountain bike.

Ice

I make a loop around Glasson village. It takes me to higher ground and a view in all directions: south across the Fylde to Blackpool Tower; west to tiny Sunderland (which at high tide effectively becomes an island) and over Morecambe Bay; north towards the snow-topped Cumbrian fells and Yorkshire Dales, barely visible through the murk; and east over the M6 to the Forest of Bowland. Then it’s down to the village.

Glasson Dock

From Glasson I retrace my ride to Conder Green where I take the lumpy little road east, via Sellerley Farm for eggs, to Galgate. The back road north from here runs tight between but higher than Lancaster Canal to the west and the A6 and railway to the east. With the Lancaster University cycle route which I join at Bailrigg it gives a quiet ride back into town.

The Big Egg

Lancaster Canal at Galgate

I pop into Booths supermarket for food for tonight’s tea, then pedal the last miles home.

Shopping at Booths

I’m still tired, but less so for the ride. A bike, any bike, lets you out the house on a difficult day; for an easy, restorative ride.

New Day Riding

January 11, 2013

New day ridng

Winter riding’s full of pleasures. For me one of the greatest is the proximity of daybreak. Far more easily than in other seasons, you can leave the house in darkness, ride into and through the dawn, and out its other side. It’s just another ride, but also an adventure. I know it’s probably not for everyone, but nonetheless it’s an experience I highly recommend.

This morning I left the house before seven. This early I like to ride through the still sleeping city centre. It’s almost empty of people, and those around don’t seem to mind the solitary cyclist.

Lancaster rises quickly and steeply to the east. The climbing starts at the Town Hall on Dalton Square. Going this way makes a hard start to a ride; sometimes it feels too hard, but it’s somehow more inviting when the streets are quiet, dark and cold; taking this road, spinning a low gear, warms you up nicely.

I start climbing to the sound of people scraping ice from car windscreens. It’s turned decidedly cold the last few days. A few minutes later I’m out of town, passing under the M6, already busy with traffic. This time of day in this part of the world most people are travelling north/south; few are going my way. The air’s so still the motorway’s noise stays with me for a long time as I climb higher. The road undulates its way south-east, the crescent moon bobbing on my horizon to the south as I go.

Before dawn

The road drops steeply down Quernmore Valley. At the bottom the climb to Jubilee Tower begins. From Quernmore crossroads the road really ramps up, leaving the village and valley behind, set almost straight for the moors. Just five miles from the city’s centre at the Tower I’m already 300 metres high.

East through the Trough of Bowland. The trees began as shadows in the dark but are gradually becoming more deeply etched against the steadily lightening sky. By Dunsop Bridge I no longer need my lamp to light the road ahead. Gulls swirl and starlings swarm above the fields of the Hodder Valley.

Gradually becoming clearer

By Slaidburn, twenty miles into my ride, the sky is clear, the sun has finally crept above the horizon, and the day feels properly broken. Of course it’s still early on a mid-winter’s day but the contrast with my departure in darkness an hour and a half earlier makes me feel I’ve reached a place of comfort and ease. Sunshine makes the riding easier.

Day break

Getting close to trees is the biggest winter cycling pleasure for me. I love to see their shapes, skeletons, limbs unclothed by leaves. A de-cluttering of the landscape under the dark and cold renders their naked forms majestic. They stand strong and proud. I find them impossible to ignore; though other things inevitably get in the way I fix my gaze on one, then – as I move past – find another, solo winter riding a joyful procession between magnificent trees, standing sentinel over the sleeping land.

At Slaidburn there’s ice on the Croasdale Brook Bridge, and my tyres slip twice as I start the climb to the Cross. The low January sun at my back lends a golden hue to Bowland’s fells. With the sunshine, lack of wind, and my body warming with the climb, it’s stopped feeling like a mid-winter’s ride.

Riding to the Cross

Over 400 metres up at the Cross o’Greet I’m well above the fog now filling the valleys whichever way I look. The top of Ingleborough away to the north looks for all the world like an island of its own. I drop down towards Bentham, then turn west along Mewith Lane towards Wray. The fog thickens and the temperature drops. By closing off my wider view, the fog forces awareness and appreciation of the immediate. The broader environment out of the way, I feel more intimately placed as I pass. I’m the moving centre of a clear pocket of air with perhaps a twenty metre radius. Moisture drips as I pass below the trees lining the River Hindburn which I follow into Wray; as the fog’s thickened they’ve become ghosts. It’s so still I hear approaching vehicles, but hope their drivers see my penetrating lights long before me. It could feel claustrophobic were it not to feel so eerily beautiful and special.

Sheep

Over the Hindburn before Wray and the Wenning before Hornby. There I turn north to cross the Lune at the only point possible between Halton six miles to the south and Kirkby Lonsdale eight miles to the north. The fog holds its height and I drop in and out of it as I cross the folds and furls of the Lune’s north side. By the turn off to Aughton I know it’s downhill or flat almost all the way home and I back off slightly, starting quietly to savour the gentle satisfaction of another ride almost done.

Back in fog-bound Lancaster, I can hardly believe only a few hours ago I set off in darkness, to ride through and out of the breaking day and into glorious sunshine. Like most rides my memory of this one will quickly dim. Nevertheless they accumulate, these rides, eh?

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.

When ‘ordinary cycling’ meets a hill

September 25, 2012

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!

Cycling in France

July 10, 2012

In the continuing poor excuse for a British summer (flooded roads and an absolute drenching on yesterday’s ride), it already seems unlikely I was so recently riding under a warm sun and often cloudless skies in south-east France. But I was, with Jim, who also lives – and for the rest of the year rides – in this corner of north-west England. It was a super trip, comprising three lots of three days’ riding.

We started in the Ardèche, riding 300 miles over a mountainous three-day course which formed part of L’Ardéchoise, a massive annual cycling event which this year celebrated its 20th anniversary.

What an event! Jim had ridden it four times before, and had told me quite a bit about it. Indeed, it was Jim and Jules raving about their experiences of previous L’Ardéchoise – sat in the pub following long, hard riding on cold, dark winter nights – which had first piqued my desire to give it a go. But you know how you can’t quite imagine something until you actually experience it yourself? How, no matter how well someone describes something, it remains just that, a description – until you actually, practically, taste it directly?

So nothing Jim had said prepared me for the magnificence of L’Ardéchoise. The best way I can think to (unsatisfactorily) describe it is to ask you to imagine an area you know well, and perhaps often ride in. For me, it’d be somewhere like the Lake District or Yorkshire Dales National Parks, in this part of England. Then imagine that bit of the world being given over almost completely, and absolutely unapologetically, to cycling. For four consecutive days. Imagine the area announcing in no uncertain terms that it is throwing open its doors to cycling, and cyclists. During L’Ardéchoise I detected not a hint of ambivalence to this welcome: out in the countryside, farmhouses are decked with balloons and banners; at the roadside, people join together to provide drink and food to the riders, whilst bands play as you pedal past; and the villages! Entire villages re-make themselves for the event – the whole place often organised according to a theme (the village below was in the moo … d). It’s as if they’re intent on outdoing one another in the generosity of their welcome.

Towards the end of the first day, having ridden over a hundred miles, I was feeling weary. I’d got insufficient hard miles in my legs, the long climbs had taken their toll, and a spoke snapping in my front wheel had forced us to detour off route in search of a bike shop (huge thanks to the guy from a great bike shop in Vals-les-Bains, Topvelo Vals,  for dropping everything to fix my wheel so quickly and happily). It was getting late and I knew we still had some way to go. And then we emerged into the village square of Chassiers.

Suddenly we rode into a party: music playing; the master of ceremonies announcing our arrival to the whole village; people cheering and clapping; we were being congratulated, and offered food and drink by a happy team of people, who’d presumably been offering riders food and drink over the past few hours. I don’t think I’ve ever, anywhere, felt so valued and appreciated, just for the simple fact I was riding a bike, into their village! It’s too glib to say, but I’ll say it anyway – the British mistreat the cyclist; the Dutch take her or him for granted; but the French – or certainly the French in the Ardèche during L’Ardéchoise – know how to celebrate the cyclist. What a rare and joyous experience, to feel wanted – as someone who loves riding a bicycle – by a whole village; no, by an entire region! This experience helps me understand how the French embrace le vélo in ways which other nations don’t, at least not yet …

If you’re following this year’s Tour de France, you get a sense of this radical orientation to the bicycle when you watch the riders ascending the big mountains, and getting funnelled through a tunnel thick with cheering, screaming, spectators. Paul Sherwen, the British ex-pro cyclist who is now a TV commentator, described a few days ago how that was an experience which, as a rider, would make the hairs on the back of his neck stand up. For a mortal like me, L’Ardéchoise is probably as close as I’ll get to that experience. But boy, it’s good!

Also like Le Tour, there’s something special about the involvement which L’Ardéchoise inspires. Actually, ‘involvement’ isn’t the right word, it’s too passive; ‘ownership’ is better. In various ways people don’t simply ‘accept’ the event, or get ‘involved’ in it; they take ‘ownership’ of it – they make it their own. This ownership is demonstrated in folk art. You see it during TV coverage of Le Tour. And riding L’Ardéchoise, you spot it (but also no doubt often miss it) everywhere; bicycles –  clustered together in a velo-love-in, or dangling elegantly and alone – painted in the colours of the Ardèche, the yellow and purple of the wild flowers so wonderfully abundant in late spring.

Material statements of support for the event (and of course there are sound economic motives here) and cycling are everywhere: hand-made sculptures, banners, posters and placards welcoming the ride’s arrival, or more simply stating support for the bike – ‘Vive le velo!’. In these ways, the bicycle is annually, symbolically re-incorporated into the Ardèche (and during Le Tour, the entire French) psyche. Through this folk art people announce and honour their allegiance to the bicycle, and those who ride them. I don’t just mean this romantically – people embracing cycling, taking it to their hearts. I mean it as a tangible process – people in their ordinary lives mundanely reproducing the bicycle’s significance and iconic status within French culture. This cultural work around the bicycle matters. To get concrete about it, let’s look at one empirical outcome we saw often on the roads of south-east France as we rode 650 miles over nine days.

You might argue a society that really respects cycling shouldn’t need to remind motorists to give people riding bicycles space, as they overtake. But perhaps only a society that really respects cycling takes it upon itself to see such signs as important and worth installing. Although I’m wary of a culture of ‘signs for everything’, instruction is needed to bring about changes in behaviour which, when regularly repeated and aggregated, help shift social conditions. In Britain we need to shift conditions on roads to make them better places for cycling, and such signs provide a means of doing so. So we need such signs as one step towards effecting a cultural change towards greater recognition of cycling, and greater respect towards the cyclist.

The cultural work the French do around cycling ensures the status of cycling and the cyclist is preserved, even though few French people cycle. Such cultural work, then, is an essential but insufficient part of a bicycle system oriented to making cycling mainstream. Whilst such events don’t do much – if anything – to get people cycling to school, college, work and the shops, L’Ardéchoise is nonetheless a super example of solid cultural work in support of cycling. The organisational effort behind the event’s success is magnificent. We each paid 200 euros to take part in the three-day Montagne Ardechoise – this covers two night’s (very satisfactory, if basic) accommodation, two (superb) evening meals, two breakfasts, baggage transfer, ride jersey (modelled below by Jim), a meal at the end of the ride, and most importantly, all the behind-the-scenes organisation which makes such an event possible.

Jim and I were two of 15,000 participants. Most riders are French, and many clubs ride together. Although we didn’t meet any, a smattering of participants come from elsewhere around the world. We didn’t get a sense of how big the event is until the last day when our route, one of many, converged with the other rides, and took to closed roads for the final miles to L’Ardéchoise HQ, the village of St Felicien. As the road steadily thickened with cyclists it seemed like the previous two days had been only the prelude to this extravagant finale. We became part of a cycling procession. On the climbs barely an inch of tarmac was without a bike. On the right-hand edge of the roads people cycled slowly, and some pushed their bikes up the steeper sections of the longer climbs. To their left a steady stream of riders overtook. And to their left, sometimes accompanied by shouts of warning as they approached (“attention!”, or “a gauche!”), formed the fastest line of riders.

Over these final hours the event overtook me; the miles passed with my barely noticing. My ride became an experience I was sharing with thousands of fellow cyclists – not ‘strangers’, because this shared act involved some kind of communion – an opening out to others not based on knowing who they are, but on the shared practice of cycling. Together we become part of something sacred. Cycling’s the practice which has most reliably takes me towards something I call sacred, and I don’t think I’m alone.

Given we numbered in our thousands, our procession was remarkably quiet. It became a pilgrimage. How often do we share a ride with so many others? This is not the aggregated mass of individualised, stop-start cycle commuting that can be experienced on a daily basis in cities across the Netherlands and China, or in the Danish capital, Copenhagen; this is thousands of riders moving in the same direction, through the same beautiful countryside, with the same final destination – riders dropping deliriously down a mountain’s side before becoming a concertina crawl up the next long slow climb. There’s no inside/outside here; we become the experience we’re witnessing. Like others at such times I’m unwilling to break the silence, the reverential hush, which together we create. We contribute to something sacred, and our behaviour unconsciously adapts to it. We lose control, and the freedom is ecstatic.

The last 20 km of the ride were breathtaking. They involved a fantastically long descent from Lamastre to St Felicien, via a road that must have been deliberately selected by the local tourist board to stun each rider into a personal promise to one day return – a continuously unravelling panorama of Ardèche countryside at its most achingly beautiful. And sat with Jim and a cold beer in the sunshine at the end, our L’Ardéchoise experience felt complete as we applauded the rides of others, including Robert Marchand – the centenarian, who recently set a new hour record for his age, was the oldest participant in this year’s L’Ardéchoise, completing a day’s ride beyond what many people half his age could ever do. So who knows, perhaps my best riding years might still lie ahead of me?

From the Ardèche we travelled east to the Vercors. We based ourselves in a peaceful riverside municipal campsite at Pont-en-Royans for another three days of riding through outrageously spectacular countryside. The limestone cliffs and deep gorges of this part of France are incredible. Some of the roads we rode left me incredulous – “how on earth did ‘they’ build this road, and why, here?” I’d barely heard of the Vercors, but Jim insisted it provided some of the best cycling in France. And I’m sure he’s right; now I’ve seen it, I aim to return …

And then from the Vercors we travelled east again, basing ourselves at Le Bourg d’Oisans for three days of riding in the French Alps. I’d not been to the Ardèche or Vercors before, but nor had I been to the French Alps, and for me, this was the reason above all for making this trip – a big part of my love for cycling has been shaped by places I’ve only ever seen on TV and read about in books and magazines, places like Col du Galibier and Alpe d’Huez. Without wishing to sound over-dramatic, riding those mountains for myself would be a dream-come-true. It’s also an ambition, a challenge, and – if successful – an achievement, of course. Perhaps the most seductive aspect of challenging rides, for me,  is the slow, unsteady process from hatching the plan, through getting prepared, and finally to its (never done until it’s done) execution.

Jim and I had discussed riding the route of La Marmotte, but in hesitant tones. It would depend …. on how we’d been riding until then, on whether we felt we had the legs, on whether we got lucky with the weather. I wanted to ride both Galiber and L’Alpe d’Huez, but was less sure I’d feel up to riding them together, as part of a day’s ride as long and hard as La Marmotte. To climb 5,000 metres in one day? That’s over three miles in a line straight up to the sky from the ground! But over the first week of our trip we seemed cautiously, slowly and silently to move towards a tacit consensus that we’d give it a shot. The day before, we pitched our tents and did the gentlest local ride we could find, engaging our lowest gear to soft-pedal our way up Col d’Ornan. We checked the weather forecast, which promised a fine start to the day before thunderstorms later, and then during the day we both grew quieter: beginning to focus on the ride ahead, to organise our minds as well as our bikes, and to solidify our conviction that we’d set on a course which we now would steer, come what may.

This is such a strong reason why we ride these rides – to test ourselves, to translate our potential to do a ride into actual achievement, something to stay with us forever; an addition to our own personal palmares. It doesn’t matter if no one else cares – by riding we move towards who we want to be, and become who we are. However amateur, if you ride even half-seriously you develop your own cycling biography, and it’s something which – as Robert Marchand demonstrates – can be added-to until life ends.

We rose at 5, were away by 6. What a feeling! There’s real intensity to the privilege of going into the unknown, not entirely sure what will happen, but knowing that you’re embarking on one of the rides of your life; obviously not emulating the legends of cycle sport, but getting closer to experiencing the obdurate magnificence of a cycle-scape created by all those riders who the world has ever heard of. Of course we rode conservatively, we couldn’t do otherwise. But we made steady progress, up first Col du Glandon and then Col de la Croix de Fer, over which the 2012 Tour de France will in a couple of day’s time ride.

Descending to St Jean de Maurienne Jim hit a stone that slit his tyre, forcing a search for a bike shop to get a replacement. But still we made good progress, the weather stayed on our side, and we grabbed food at St Michel de Maurienne before starting up Col du Telegraphe. Down from the Telegraphe, though Valloire and onto the Galibier. We both were riding well, and hard as it was, this is of course the right kind of ‘hard’ … chosen, of our own free will, and something which adds to rather than detracts from our sense of ourselves … an almost ridiculously (perhaps, in a world so full of involuntary hardship, criminally?) privileged ‘hard’, then.

It’s a long, long descent off Galibier, first down to the Col du Lautaret, where you’re still over 2000 metres, and then down the Romanche valley back to Le Bourg d’Oisans. We knew we could stop here, our campsite less than a mile away. But we over-ruled the little voices in our heads and kept going past the town. So we were onto L’Alpe almost before we knew it. With a hundred miles and 4000 metres climbing already in our legs, it felt outrageously steep. Then the storm broke, thunder rolled, lightning flashed and water was everywhere. We buried our heads, dug deep and kept going, entering our own little worlds. I loved it. My feet were on fire, hot spots breaking out across the base of both. Both my legs began to cramp. All the water was aggravating saddle sores which had built over the past week. I felt as slow as an ox. But I was climbing L’Alpe! Each hairpin carried names of heroes of our sport, and was another step up the mountain, another part of a day which I’ll remember forever.

As we gently rode a recovery ride the next day, we looked down on the road up to Alpe d’Huez. It seems almost vertically to ascend the mountain from the valley floor through 21 switchbacks. We couldn’t quite believe we’d had the strength to ride up it, in a thunderstorm, after ten hours and more than 100 miles in the saddle, just the previous day.

Finally, back to what the French tell us about building a mainstream culture of cycling. As Jim and I rode the roads around Le Bourg d’Oisans, I thought often to myself, “I would not want my kids riding these roads”. Le Bourg d’Oisans feels like a town oriented towards cycling, but not to the everyday needs of ordinary cyclists. The French, to generalise, love cycling. But not in a way which enables everyone to do it.

Huge thanks to Jim for most of the photos (I dropped and broke my camera at the top of Col de la Croix Fer!), for being such a truly amazing travel companion, and for tolerating not just my company but also my  slow descending for so long.

Cycling and the politics of time

May 30, 2012

Something that struck me time and again, talking to people during the Understanding Walking and Cycling project, was the interconnections between cycling and time. I’ll begin with two observations about how the availability (including lack) of time influences people’s cycling.

First, people who typically feel busy sometimes cycle as a way of reclaiming time for themselves; so for example, I met a middle-aged chap in Leicester who spent far more of his time than he’d like driving all over the country by car, but who relaxed once he got home by taking to his bike for a leisurely evening ride, to unwind from the stresses of the day. Many people described cycling in such ways – as about quality ‘off-time’; in fact, based on our fieldwork I’d argue that this ‘leisurely cycling’ is the dominant experience of cycling in Britain today. In other words, if you’re ‘time poor’ cycling represents quality down-time, in which to relax and be restored.

Then second, people who have more leisurely lifestyles find it easier to integrate cycling as part of their ordinary, everyday lives; so for example, an older semi-retired couple in Worcester cycled for many of their local journeys. They felt able to do so because they never felt in a rush, and could schedule their lives as they liked, rather than having to fit into the demands of others. In other words, if you’re ‘time rich’ cycling can work as a way of organising and connecting different aspects of your everyday life.

There’s a contradiction here, between how cycling works for most people today, and how transport policy would like cycling to work.  On the one hand, our research suggests cycling might be encouraged by making life in general more leisurely and relaxed. This would also probably promote sustainability, by making life slower and more locally-rooted (and, I’d argue, more enjoyable and convivial).

Yet on the other hand, cycling’s increasingly promoted through attempts to speed it up. This trend is clearest in initiatives such as Copenhagen’s ‘green wave’, whereby traffic signals on the popular arterial cycling route of Nørrebrogade are synchronised to enable continuous movement for people riding at 20 kilometres per hour.

Copenhagen is the city of efficient cycling par excellence, and there at least, judging by its high and rising modal share, ‘efficient cycling’ seems popular. Understandably, if also problematically, we’re speeding cycling up to fit the world-as-it-is, rather than attempting to slow the world down, so cycling-as-it-is fits into it better. My main question here is: do we want cycling to be made efficient?

My reason for asking this question: what happens to cycling in the drive towards making it more efficient? Speeding up cycling makes it more competitive, and thus potentially more attractive, vis-à-vis other modes. But what’s lost by these gains in time?

I’m not disputing that cycling can be fast and efficient, and that’s sometimes why we ride. If I want to get from home to Lancaster University, 4 miles away, cycling is – for me – much quicker than any other means of getting there. But that’s not the only reason I choose to cycle, and to ‘sell’ cycling because of its speed is, I think, overly to instrumentalise it.

The instrumentalisation of cycling risks killing its inherent value. Writing of the emergence of train travel in The Seven Lamps of Architecture, published in 1849, the great Victorian art critic John Ruskin said:

“The whole system of railroad travelling is addressed to people who, being in a hurry, are therefore, for the time being, miserable.”

Ruskin goes on:

“No one would travel in that manner who could help it – who had the time to go leisurely over hills and between hedges instead of through tunnels and between banks … The railroad is in all its relations a matter of earnest business, to be got through as soon as possible. It transmutes a man [sic] from a traveller into a living parcel.”

I invoke Ruskin to suggest there’s a trade-off: incorporating ever more efficient cycling into an ever more efficient society probably takes some of the sheen off it; it risks turning cycling from freedom to chore. As cycling becomes more integral to the world-as-it-is, it becomes less able to transform that world for the better.

Instrumentalisation of cycling in the name of efficiency is everywhere: using cycling to make cities less congested and polluted; using cycling to make people’s bodies more healthy and less obese; using cycling to bring tourist cash into the local economy; using cycling to announce our city as a truly ‘progressive’ place.

We should be wary of attempts to encourage people to cycle because cycling is good for something else. For starters, I’m not sure it works. But also, cycling becomes something else to be marketed and sold, often by people who are selling and marketing it not because they love it, but because it’s their job.

A couple of years ago, sitting in a Copenhagen café during a winter’s day spent exploring the city by bike, I made these field notes:

“I’ve ridden here, there and everywhere, breathing in and drinking up the city. It might have a lot to do with the time of year and the freezing conditions, but I’m struck by how utilitarian cycling in Copenhagen feels. Everyone rides as if they’re going somewhere, which of course they are. I’d like to return to ride in summer, to see how it differs, but what’s missing in my early December experience is the slow, lazy, loitering style of cycling which might actually build solidarities, communities and social capital.

“It feels ironic that this is the city where Gehl Architects are located. Through work such as Life Between Buildings and Cities for People Jan Gehl helped teach me the significance of walking and cycling to civilising cities, challenging and transforming the dominant rhythmicities of cities. Yet here in his city of Copenhagen, people ride bikes like automatons. Often, I feel as though I’m on a conveyor belt I can’t get off. Everyone seems to know where they’re going, and they’re going there. They’re taking no prisoners, they’re not slowing down.

“It’s the opposite of the cycling city as the relaxed, unhurried, people-centred city; this is the cycling city as the functional, efficient city, keeping the cogs of capitalism whirring round. I feel as though I’m on a capitalist treadmill; the bicycle keeps this city going, and it’s a capitalist city. Cycling here is about efficiency. It makes me want to rebel.

“And they ride so fast! Maybe they’re trying to warm themselves up. OK, I don’t know where I’m going and I’m not used to riding such a clunker, but I’m not accustomed to being so regularly overtaken, and to overtaking so little. There’s no dilly-dallying here. And they come so close! The cycle lanes already feel narrow, perhaps because the snow and ice have encroached. But when a faster cyclist approaches from behind, there’s little room for manoeuvre. A few times I brush shoulders with an overtaking cyclist. After a while it feels less alarming, almost normal.

“And I’m so hemmed in. (It feels like) there’s no escape. Cyclists are so numerous, yet so constrained. Strange …

“I’ve also fulfilled a dream, to visit Christiania … and here I leave the fast, one-track efficient city and move into the slower, multi-tracked and more textured city, Gehl’s city. Suddenly there’s room to loiter, to look up (or rather, to look over my shoulder behind me, to see there are no cyclists approaching fast, and I can relax, breathe deep, find my own pace, take my own line, and simply ride ….).”

Copenhagen embodies the dilemmas of contemporary cycling – particularly what it’s for. I’ve returned since, continue to find it stimulating, and continue to worry about the possibility of slow cycling. What happens to the slow cyclist – perhaps the older person pottering on her or his bicycle, or the idler, going nowhere in particular – in the rush to get more people to school, college and work more quickly? What happens to cycling as a ‘political’ tool of resistance to the society we’ve got, once the society we’ve got learns to use the bicycle to more effectively reproduce itself?

I don’t want fast cycling eliminated. We need multiple rhythms of cycling in the sustainable city; not one monotonous cycling speed. Unlike cars, bikes are skinny, so there’s sufficient space within urban environments to cater for and cope with them travelling at multiple speeds.

The Understanding Walking and Cycling project found that in the UK cycle lanes are needed to enable people who don’t want to ride fast and furiously (on ‘faster’ bikes) to instead ride slowly (on ‘slower’ bikes) along big and busy roads. Meanwhile, in Copenhagen cycle lanes seem oriented to making people ride not slower, but faster. This throws up questions about what dedicated cycle lanes are for, and why.

In both the UK and Copenhagen it’s ridiculously hard to cycle sociably. In both places cycling conditions forcibly reduce the cyclist to the individual level, and reproduce cycling as a strictly utilitarian practice. This must change. Sociable cycling challenges instrumentalising logic, showing cycling can be more than getting from A to B as fast as possible. A civilised city would enable people to talk as they cycle alongside one another; a sustainable city would see it as unjust if people can do this when travelling by car, but not by bike.

Everywhere there’s cycling (and cycling is almost everywhere) we should resist imposition of single speed solitary cycling; single speed solitary cycling is – effectively – what we’ve created in the UK and it stops many people cycling. And the instrumental logic behind cycling’s promotion in Copenhagen irons out and renders less and less visible any difference, and imposes single speed solitary cycling there. Only resistance – in the name of multiple speed, sociable cycling – will enable cycling to be democratised across differences of age, fitness, gender, and motive.

Greater incorporation of cycling into urban space, at the car’s expense, potentially but not inevitably alters the character of that space. To see bicycles as no more than ‘skinny green cars’ is to reproduce the city much as it already is, and to miss cycling’s radical potential to change the world fundamentally for the better. Bicycles enable inhabitation of urban space in ways radically different to cars. Let’s not lose this difference. The bicycle shouldn’t simply be a substitute for the car, but a vehicle for re-working and re-shaping the city in broader sustainable ways; only then can the potential ethics (cycling’s contribution to the good life) and aesthetics (cycling’s contribution to pleasure) of the bicycle be fulfilled.

Finally, three questions:

1. On waiting: what do we want to do about bicycles and waiting? Should waiting be extinguished? Does it reflect lack of accommodation of the bicycle in the urban transport environment? Or is the rush to erase waiting a symptom of an impatient, accelerating society? Should cycling reclaim waiting? Does it matter where you’re waiting, for how long, and why?

2. On cycling experience: when you cycle, are you moving through empty space? Or (to polarise) are you making your place in the world? Are you sometimes doing more of one and less of the other, and if so, why? Is cycling a neutral means of making your way in the world, or by cycling are you creating something? If so, what?

3. On cycling’s potential: do we want more cycling? Do we want cycling to change the world? Are they the same question? If ‘yes’, why? If not, why not? Should institutional efforts to boost cycling always be applauded and/or supported? Of course there’s a relation between the two, but have we been seduced by quantity (increasing the number of cyclists) and risk losing sight of the importance of quality (cycling’s contribution to a better society)?

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.