Last week I was in Vienna for Velo-city, the world’s biggest bicycle conference.
I’d been asked to present my analysis of fear of cycling, which tries to explain how cycling is made dangerous by attempts to make it safe. (I think some people then want me to say (and some assume I do say) that cycling is not dangerous, which I refuse to do; one point of the paper is to crack rather than reinforce naïve understandings of cycling.) You can see photos of the plenary session I was part of here.
Helmets are a chief culprit in rendering cycling dangerous by attempting to make it safe. Helmet promotion tends inevitably to play on, to reproduce and to magnify an already extant fear of cycling. The helmet debate is unfortunately live in many countries. In Vienna I met Pablo León, a journalist of El Pais, who authors that newspaper’s bicycle blog, ‘I Love Bicis’, and Isabel Ramis who blogs about cycling in Madrid; they are currently battling mandatory national helmet laws. I also met Sue Abbott, a brave and impressive woman who maintains steadfast civil disobedience in the face of Australia’s mandatory helmet laws. Adelaide hosts next year’s Velo-city conference, and it’ll be interesting to see how the city deals with the arrival of hordes of cycling advocates, many of whom rightly see mandatory helmet use as totally anathema to cycling’s promotion.
Please note, this doesn’t mean I think cycling is entirely safe (I don’t), only that promoting helmets is no way of dealing with cycling’s lack of safety. It also doesn’t mean I refuse to wear a helmet – flying downhill into Lancaster at over 40 miles per hour earlier today, I wanted my helmet on; but pedalling more gently around town later, I really don’t.
Between hearing the latest cycling stories from across the globe inside Vienna’s opulent City Hall, I explored the city outside by bike.
Around 6 or 7% of trips in Vienna are made by bike, but 2013 is the Austrian capital’s ‘Year of Cycling’, and the aim is to reach 10% by 2015. These present and target modal shares for cycling reflect the city’s current cycling environment, which feels better than Britain but still a long way from the Netherlands.
The showpiece of the city’s cycling infrastructure is the Ringstrasse, a dedicated loop for two-way cycling around the city centre– basically an inner ring-road for cycling. Ten years from now it could (and should) mark the perimeter of a virtually car-free central core. Inserting this cycling loop has clearly entailed reallocation of space away from the car and some reprioritisation of traffic flow in cycling’s favour; it’s far from perfect but substantially better than anything in Britain.
But although there are many good bits of cycling infrastructure, elsewhere Vienna feels like a city which has been badly damaged by the car, and that damage goes on. And the impression you get, riding around, is that cycling is being squeezed in. Instead of using cycling to start fundamentally restructuring the city away from the car, cycling continues to be seen – and added – as an extra.
Some positive change is happening, but a paradigm shift it ain’t (yet).
Vienna’s current efforts to boost utility cycling are rooted in a solid recreational cycling base.
One afternoon I rode in glorious sunshine along the cycle routes which parallel both the River Danube and the Danube Canal which leads from the central city to it. It made me appreciate how much quality infrastructure for leisure cycling the city has. It felt like most of Vienna was out on its bike, enjoying the weather along what’s effectively a long and attractive city park. And these riverside routes are well integrated into the city’s wider (and higher) cycling network via some nifty cycling ramps.
But the best vision of mass cycling came courtesy of the traditional Velo-city ride. The conference brings together a mixed bunch of people who probably disagree about many things even when it comes to cycling; politicians, administrators, consultants, representatives of the cycling industries, advocates, activists, researchers and students arrive from across the world – from places where cycling is normal to places where it’s almost extinct (it felt impossible to speak equally to everyone during my presentation to a packed City Hall; I suspect many of the Dutch participants, particularly, wondered what on earth I was sometimes on about!). The host city also uses the conference to boost its cycling reputation and to promote cycling to its citizens. The big Velo-city ride, then, enables a brief but powerful demonstration of unity amongst conference delegates, and is a way for the city very visibly to announce its love and ambition for cycling.
Velo-city is worth it for this momentary but delicious vision of mass cycling alone.
I was prompted to write this piece based on a post by Carlton Reid on his Quickrelease blog, in which the a comparison is attempted between building infrastructure for bicycles as a means of increasing their use and building baseball stadiums as a means of increasing the popularity of baseball in the UK. As an analogy, it doesn’t really work (and I know I’ve strained a few myself on this blog in the past) but it is at least an interesting revisiting of a straw man with whom Carlton has been arguing with on and off for a few years now.
The straw man I refer to is as follows; that of the cycle campaigners advocating replication of The Netherlands’ approach to cycle infrastructure here in the UK, a significant proportion believe that implementing a botched half-measures as seen in Milton Keynes or Stevenage is enough to produce cycling rates in the UK which are comparable to those in The Netherlands. No-one is saying that quality cycle infrastructure is the entire solution to the unpopularity of cycling as a mode of transport in the UK, it is just most of the solution, difficult, an entirely essential component of the solution and the most obviously visible part of the changes required. It makes sense that people are talking-up infrastructure; it is a very visible part of the changes we need, it is easy to communicate and it is the very foundation of making cycling a viable mode of transport for normal people. Talking down infrastructure, however, helps none of us, and is a particularly odd thing to do if you have previously made the case for the need for cyclists to present a united front to decision makers.
Carlton beats his straw man over the head with examples such as Milton Keynes or Stevenage, neither of which come close to representing what cycle campaigners advocating replication of The Netherlands’ approach to cycle infrastructure here in the UK are proposing. Whilst the treatment of main roads in these places may superficially resemble approaches used in The Netherlands, without the corresponding changes to other classes of road, such as residential streets, and the requisite inconveniencing of short-hop car trips arising from this infrastructure, attempting to use these places to argue that The Netherlands approach to cycle infrastructure would not work in the UK due to unspecified cultural difficulties is dishonest.
Instead, the importance of the built environment on the modes of travel people choose is downplayed, with unspecified cultural reasons suggested to be the real issue. As most of you will know, using the bicycle as a means of transport in most parts of the UK is not a normal thing to do. Using a means of transport which differs from the dominant means of transport; the car, on infrastructure designed entirely around the car, and amongst car users who have little understanding of cycling or cyclists can often make the act of cycling for transport into something of an ordeal. When facing this situation day in, day out, it can be very, very tempting to see the decision of others to drive rather than cycle as a personal failure, or a result of culture, rather than as a result of the environment. “If I can cycle in this, so can they,” you think to yourself, after a close overtake or a multi-lane roundabout, “if only they weren’t so lazy, or stupid, or addicted to their cars.” I find myself thinking along these lines sometimes, after a particularly gruelling ride to work. But really they’re just ordinary people, people who haven’t given much thought to why they chose the mode of transport they have. The cultural argument for why cycling has failed in the UK is so alluring because it allows us to feel morally superior to those who drive. Accepting that those who currently drive in the UK are the same as those who currently cycle in The Netherlands is hard because it means committing to changing the road environment here to more closely resemble that over there, which is a big job. It also means losing the thing which makes us special; being a cyclist, despite the environment, in a place where cycling is marginalised.
Carlton, it’s time to put this old straw man out to pasture.
There was an interesting comment nestling in a report of an inquest into a cyclist’s death, from road.cc yesterday -
Police Constable Ian Clark said it was “likely” the cyclist had been wearing earphones at the time of the collision – the implication being he may not have heard the vehicle behind him – adding: “I think a significant majority of motorists would have done as Mr Coggon [the driver] did,” he said.
It seems the cyclist was moving out to turn right, and was hit by a car that happened to be overtaking him. Obviously a tragic incident. Given that there are sparse details about what actually happened, it’s hard to say whether the verdict of accidental death is a reasonable one.
My concern here, however, is specifically the highlighted statement from Constable Clark. You can see that Mr Coggon is being defended in terms of how ‘the majority of motorists’ would behave. Put simply, Constable Clark is suggesting that Mr Coggon wasn’t doing anything wrong – couldn’t have been doing anything wrong – because he was driving like everyone else. The standards of driving set not by what is objectively safe, or proper, but by how ‘the majority of motorists’ would behave.
Is that appropriate?
In my experience, ‘the majority of motorists’ do not pass me with anything like the recommended passing distance covered in the Highway Code – Rule 163. ‘The majority of motorists’ do not overtake me in a way that gives me the maximum amount of safety while I am cycling.
Equally, the ‘majority of motorists’ seem quite happy to overtake me around junctions, in plain contravention of Rule 167 -
DO NOT overtake where you might come into conflict with other road users. For example… approaching or at a road junction on either side of the road
This happens to me each and every day, and I’m sure (anecdotally, of course) that any person who rides a bike can report that it happens to them too, with remarkable frequency.
Now of course we don’t know the extent to which Mr Coggon flouted these rules of the Highway Code. He may well have been driving perfectly, and the cyclist was entirely to blame, swerving out randomly into the middle of the road.
The issue here, rather, is a police constable appearing to believe that the way ‘the majority of motorists’ behave is a reasonable and sound guide to what constitutes good driving, when in reality a ‘significant majority of motorists’ will quite happily overtake a cyclist, at close proximity, through junctions. The way the majority behaves is obviously not a sound guide to good driving.
The unspoken assumption behind a statement like this is that everyone behind the wheel is intrinsically well-behaved and reasonable; an assumption quite naturally shared by the general public, who make most day-to-day trips in their motor vehicles. If an individual crashes their car, news reports will describe how a ‘car crashed’ (even, bizarrely, that a ‘car lost control’), as if something unspecified went wrong with it, rather than a human being making an error. Likewise, if we get caught breaking a law, then it is the law that is wrong, and sneaky, and not our behaviour, which is obviously reasonable, because everyone else is behaving the same way. See how speed cameras are described as ‘traps’ that unfairly catch out ‘otherwise law-abiding’ motorists, snaring them in a moment of weakness. ‘Ordinary’ drivers are good; circumstances, or the government, conspire to make them momentarily ‘bad’.
This logic is reflected in this remarkable statement from Ken Clarke, the former Justice Secretary, made in the House of Commons -
In the case of ordinary dangerous driving without any serious consequences, although I deplore all dangerous driving we cannot start imposing heavy prison sentences on everybody who might otherwise be a blameless citizen and then behaves in an absolutely reprehensible way when driving his car.
In the first place, we have the description of dangerous driving as ‘ordinary’ merely because the person behind the wheel had the good fortune – or blind luck – not to maim or seriously injure someone. A ‘blameless citizen’ who blasts through a zebra crossing at speed, while someone is on it, would only be engaging in ‘ordinary’ dangerous driving, not the kind with ‘serious consequences’.
In the second place, we can see that behaving ‘in an absolutely reprehensible way’ in a car is a completely different kind of reprehensible behaviour than the kind which might pose an identical – or even lesser – amount of danger, but doesn’t involve a car. It’s almost as if we expect people to behave badly in cars, that there’s something about a car that can turn ‘blameless citizens’ into ‘reprehensible drivers’, and we should make an accommodation for that kind of behaviour. Indeed, there appear to be so many of these ‘blameless citizens’ behaving reprehensibly in cars that we couldn’t possibly lock them all up!
I suppose it is natural that in a motorised society ‘reasonable behaviour’ is defined by how the majority behaves, even if the consequences of that majority behaviour could turn out to be appalling for who happen to be travelling by minority modes of transport. A jury apparently considered that a lorry driver who failed to spot Mary Bowers, clearly visible in front of him while stationary for at least ten seconds, could not possibly have been behaving dangerously, despite a catalogue of other offences. These kinds of extraordinary lapses are presumably not quite so extraordinary for these juries. A strange form of moral majority, that I hope will begin to dissolve, and soon.
The Times’ excellent correspondent, Kaya Burgess, is currently in the Netherlands on a fact-finding mission, along with London’s Cycling Commisioner Andrew Gilligan, Scotland’s Minister for Transport Keith Brown, and others. I hope they like what they are seeing (it’s impossible not to). However, I think it is important that they fully understand the context and application of the interventions for cycling they are looking at.
Just one example – on Monday Kaya tweeted this picture of the ‘Fietsstraat’ sign -
Writing that it ‘gives cycles priority’ on Dutch residential streets.
Well, yes and no. Literally, the sign suggests that cars are ‘guests’ on this particular street. But it was immediately misunderstood by several people who responded to Kaya’s tweet – one wrote that
Every cyclist [should] make one and put it in their street
THIS is what we need to back up the 20′s plenty campaign
On every road cyclist are protected by law, and cars take second place. If there is a acident its by law the cardrivers fault.
Every single aspect of that last tweet being completely wrong.
Here’s what the Dutch CROW manual has to say about one particular version of the Fietsstraat -
I have highlighted that this particular Fietsstraat treatment (combined profile, i.e. motor vehicles and cyclists travel on the same ‘red’ cycle surface) should only be applied on access roads, where, as you can see, motor vehicles should not number more than 500 per day, or just 20 per hour (likely to be rather higher at peak times, of course, but probably only amounting to around just one or two vehicles every minute).
The same is true for other versions of the Fietsstraat. They are intended for use only in these very low motor traffic environments; places where motor vehicles are only using the Fietsstraat to access a deliberately small number of properties. The cars are ‘guests’ only because they are using the cycle street to access their own houses; they’re not being told to be ‘guests’ in a ‘please play nicely’ kind of way, which is likely to be completely ineffective.
Here’s a different version of the Fietsstraat – one with cycle tracks to the side, and central divider.
Simply plonking up ‘cyclists have priority’ signs on a typical UK residential street, which will have much higher levels of motor vehicle usage, will almost certainly achieve nothing, and may even be a recipe for conflict (I have pointed this out before).
The key ingredient of the Fietsstraat is the removal of motor traffic; the signs are merely the icing on the cake.
Risk compensation – the proposition that a person’s perception of risk influences their risk-taking behaviour – has now become conventional wisdom. No one now disputes that rock climbers with ropes will attempt manoeuvres that they would not attempt without them, or that trapeze artists will attempt manoeuvres with nets that they would not attempt without. The insurance industry calls it “moral hazard” and accepts that people with insurance take more risks than those without. Financial regulators now acknowledge that banks that believe themselves, and their trading partners, to be too big to fail will take risks that others would not – confident of their government safety net.
Risk compensation has become conventional wisdom with a peculiar blind spot – seat belt laws. Seat belts have become the popular metaphor for just about anything that offers protection against just about anything. Googling “fasten your seat belts” yields half a million hits – almost none of which has anything to do with road safety: the top hit at the time of writing this is “Fasten your seat belts – a balance of payments crisis looms”.
Repetition has created a constantly self-reinforcing myth that has rendered belief in the efficacy of seat belt laws impervious to attack. A new book entitled Against Autonomy: justifying coercive paternalism has just been called to my attention. Its cover announces seat belts as its iconic exemplar of effective “coercive paternalism”. Conly deploys the “success” of seatbelt laws as a justification for further applications of coercive paternalism such as banning smoking:
“… we see widespread acceptance of seat belt laws, even for adults who are sober, rational, competent, and so on, because they so clearly prevent great harms in circumstances where there is no other way to stave off the damage that will otherwise ensue. “ (p5)
No need to cite evidence. Their prevention of great harm is so clear and obvious.
Such routinely reiterated publicity for the life-saving effect of seat belt laws helps to explain why they don’t save lives. The risk compensation effect works through perception. If you perceive that something will make you safer you will modify your behavior. Both the belt itself, and the incessant publicity for hugely exaggerated claims for its effectiveness, help to account for the fact, now acknowledged even by supporters of the law amongst the leadership of Britain’s Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport Safety, (see “Seat belt laws: why we should keep them”), that Britain’s seat belt law led to an increase in the numbers of pedestrians and cyclists killed.
The law didn’t work precisely because coercive paternalism was overridden by autonomous drivers. Pater could compel them to belt up, but could not compel them to want to be safer than they chose to be.
A thoughtful review of Against Autonomy by the person who brought it to my attention can be found here – http://grumpyarthistorian.blogspot.co.uk/2013/06/sarah-conlys-against-autonomy-reviewed.html .
Readers new to this argument can catch up here – http://www.john-adams.co.uk/category/seat-belts/
There’s an interesting piece by London’s Cycling Commissioner, Andrew Gilligan, in today’s Evening Standard. It’s actually pretty good. The focus of the article is, broadly, compliance with the law by cyclists, and by motorists. It has a silly headline about women being nice, and men being full of testosterone, which doesn’t correspond at all to what he has written, and I think can only be explained by the Standard’s keenness to get some pictures of young women on bikes at the top of the article.
I do think he is overstating the issue of bad behaviour by cyclists somewhat. I have pointed out here, many times before, that this is an issue of perception – frequent bad behaviour by motorists goes largely unnoticed, because is habitual, common and background, while bad behaviour by cyclists is more glaring, and observable. Motorists speeding around London, or parking on double yellow lines, or failing to yield while turning into side roads, is so common that we don’t even notice it; someone on a bike moving along a pavement, or passing through a red light while you have a green man to cross, is something we observe far more readily, and contributes to the perception of cyclists, as a group, being somehow ‘lawless’.
However, unlike most articles on this subject, Gilligan is careful to avoid suggesting that that offences by motorists and cyclists are somehow equivalent; indeed, he quite rightly points out that the very reason we don’t impose such strict controls on the use of a bicycle is directly because the user of a bicycle has far less potential to harm others than the driver of a motor vehicle.
We can’t enforce against cyclists jumping red lights and pavement riding in the same way as we can with motor vehicles, because bikes don’t carry numberplates. The reason they don’t, and motor vehicles do, is that when a motor vehicle disobeys the law, the consequences are usually more severe than when a bicycle does.
Gilligan subsequently makes an even more important point, and one which I wish to expand on here.
We also think the new infrastructure we’re putting in will improve cyclist behaviour. Removing one-way streets and gyratories will cut the incidence of cyclists riding the wrong way or on pavements. Giving cyclists defined space of their own will reduce conflict between them and pedestrians. One of the best ways of stopping people cycling on the pavement is to give them better places to cycle on the road.
That is exactly right; and I think this point can be framed even more broadly.
British roads and streets are designed, and set out, in a way that rewards and prioritises driving, and simultaneously penalises cycling and walking. We should not be surprised, therefore, that the people flouting the rules are those whose journeys have been made unnecessarily arduous, circuitous or dangerous, and that the people who are apparently obeying the rules are those for whom the rules have been written.
By contrast, when it is driving that is made difficult, and cycling and walking the obvious and easy thing to do, the only lawbreaking is carried out by motorists. East Street in Horsham provides a textbook example of this kind of environment. It’s a ‘shared space’ street, which it is illegal to drive down, or park on, unless you are loading on the street (and using the bays for that purpose), or if you are parking on the street (again in the marked bays) with a disabled blue badge. You can only drive in one direction; cycling (and of course walking) is allowed in both directions.
There is no lawbreaking by cyclists on this street, because there aren’t any laws for them to break. There is, however, an awful lot of lawbreaking by motorists, because the rules are not in their favour.
These two cars were parked in a loading bay at about 8pm in the evening recently. They’re plainly not loading; the owners have simply decided to flout the rules, driving illegally onto the street, and parking illegally, because they can’t be bothered to walk from further away.
Similarly, on another evening, only one of these cars was legally on the street.
Another example. Because the street is only one-way for motor vehicles, accessing it is difficult from the town centre – it involves driving some distance around a one-way system. So you will often find drivers flouting the rules, going the wrong way up a one-way street.
You even see HGVs doing this, as another Horsham cyclist discovered.
And the bollards at the eastern end mean delivery drivers have to find somewhere to park, so they can load in. Usually that means blocking the pavement, rather than walking from somewhere less obstructive further away.
All this bad behaviour is a simple consequence of the rules not working for motor vehicles any more. There is absolutely no lawbreaking by cyclists in this location, however, because the rules work in their favour. There are no rules for them to break.
This is, by and large, how urban environments designed for cycling work. I rarely see lawbreaking by cyclists when I visit the Netherlands, because there’s no real incentive to do so. The system works for them. This video, by Mark Wagenbuur, illustrates this quite well.
Hundreds of bicycles passing through a signal-controlled crossing, in just four minutes, yet only a handful of people jump the lights. Why is compliance so much greater? I don’t think it can be explained by any cultural difference, or by greater enforcement. Anyone on a bike in the Netherlands knows that their journey is safe, easy and convenient, and that jumping lights purchases no extra safety, or advantage in time or comfort. The road system is designed around their needs.
There’s no cycling the wrong way up one-way streets, either, because these streets are always designed to allow two-way cycling. And to make a blindingly obvious point, there’s no pavement cycling in the Netherlands, at all, because there’s always a far better alternative for cycling than the pavement.
Sometimes its explicitly allowed, sometimes its explicitly forbidden, and sometimes it falls into the middle ground of being quietly tolerated. At the recent Hackney Cycling Conference, I was told by a London Borough Cycling Officer that some cycle lanes along a notoriously cycling-hostile busy road in his borough did not need to be of a better standard (they are currently awful) because the police were quite happy to allow people to cycle on the pavement.
The problem in a microcosm.
Our local sportive enjoyed perfect cycling weather last Sunday – a fine, dry, but not too warm day was forecast, and that’s exactly what we got.
I rode with my brother-in-law, Derek. We were amongst the first riders to set off from Lancaster Brewery, at 7:30. We’d got there in time to register, grab a coffee, and chat to Scott and Jamie from local bike shop, The Edge Cycleworks, who were on hand to help with any last-minute mechanical niggles.
We rode the longest of three routes, 105 miles with 3,500 metres of ascent. The climbing starts straight away, with the long pull up to Jubilee Tower. From there it’s through the Trough of Bowland to Dunsop Bridge, south along the River Hodder, and over Longridge Fell up Jeffrey Hill and down Birdy Brow.
Starting a long ride early means you can break its back before you’re fully awake to the magnitude of your undertaking. There’s still trepidation at what lies ahead but, especially if you’re pedalling within yourself and things go smoothly, also a gradual letting go into the joys of the ride. Then thirty or forty miles in, if you’re still feeling fresh, success feels more achievable. That’s how I felt, anyway, as we rode through Waddington and started the long climb north over Newton Fell to Slaidburn.
A long day in the saddle sees people, places and events quickly come and go in a steadily accumulating blur, so the ride you’re producing becomes hazy even within the process of producing it: incidents occur but are quickly left behind; conversations come and go; sights, sounds, smells and bodily sensations arise and then dissolve … Everything evaporates as it condenses, leaving ‘just’ the ride. So all you’re doing, really, finally, is riding. This is a big part of cycling’s magic, and why sometimes – not always! – long rides seem less hard work than I’d expect.
We stopped at Slaidburn, over a third of the ride done, for welcome refreshment. From there the ride’s second third saw us loop round Bowland’s eastern half. We rode through Gisburn Forest up to Bowland Knotts. The panorama there of Yorkshire’s Three Peaks – Pen-y-ghent, Ingleborough and Whernside – is magnificent, and one which – if you lift your gaze – you can continue to enjoy as you hurtle down the next few miles.
At Keasden we turned east towards Settle, and then onto little gated lanes via Wham and Long Gill to Tosside. For all the riding I do, this stretch was new to me.
It seemed from Tosside we spent five miles tumbling south off Bowland only to turn near Holden and work our way back up again, to Slaidburn for a second time. My body was tiring now – neither conversation, nor wonder at the ride, nor even turning of the pedals came so easily as they’d done thus far.
From Slaidburn we made our second south-north traverse of Bowland, this time over the Cross of Greet and down into Wray.
The final thirteen miles are brutal. We talked little now, just the occasional grunt; you need to turn inward, draw on hidden resources. This gruelling finale is along narrow, rough, steep and gated lanes, little more than farm-tracks really. Riding up Roeburndale from Wray you feel like you’re heading into a place with no other way out, yet there is – one which seems to inflict every crease of Bowland’s north-west corner upon you. At points you are rendered practically stationary, as though the hills are hitting you – they have a power and motion which by now, with 90 miles in your legs, you seem to lack. It’s hard to believe that by continuing to turn your pedals, however slowly, you will eventually see the land drop away and sky once more colonise your horizon – with Lancaster, Morecambe Bay, the Fylde, the Lakes, and the Irish Sea all coming finally into view.
Then you’re almost home.
Back where we started, what seemed so long ago, exhausted and content.
Le Terrier is a staggeringly good ride. It’s a stunning introduction to the area for those who’ve not been here. The long course crosses Bowland’s bulk three times (via the Trough, Bowland Knotts, and the Cross of Greet respectively) and goes too around its eastern flank; without going off-road, that’s as comprehensive as you can get. There are no major roads, no traffic lights, just a few villages, and mile after mile of quiet and scenic lanes. And for locals it stitches together into one very satisfying and coherent whole many of the roads on which you might regularly ride.
Without any fear of being biased at all, I have to say the event was superbly organised. The route was fantastically well sign-posted, and as if by magic food stops invariably arrived each time I was just beginning to fancy a flapjack! A huge thank you to all those who made it happen – I’d name names but fear missing out any of the many involved. (I feel slightly guilty about riding rather than helping with the event, but figure that if some Lancaster CC members at least don’t ride it, word might get round that we’ve devised a route so hard the locals won’t do it!)
But there are two equally splendid shorter rides too; a middle distance of 66 miles, and a shorter one of 47. Sue and Bobby rode the latter, with a posse of other parents and children from our local children’s cycling club, Salt Ayre Cog Set.
Carlessness sculpts the contours of Sue, Bobby, Flo and my everyday lives, and our cycling fills in much of the detail. I don’t want to hold us up as a model, but I think it’s interesting nonetheless to reflect on what difference to our lives a car-free and often bicycle-based mobility pattern makes. After all, this blog is rooted in a belief in the bicycle’s capacity to re-make the world in fair and sustainable ways, one revolution at a time.
We spent last week in Sedbergh, a small town nestled in the Howgill Hills mid-way between the Cumbrian Lakes and Yorkshire Dales. It sits almost as close to the River Lune as does our home in Lancaster, thirty miles downstream, so that here and there feel connected. Some Sedbergh residents travel to work in Lancaster, and many of Sedbergh’s children were born in Lancaster’s hospital. I sometimes pass through it on my longer rides, but Bobby had been there only once before and Flo never at all. The nearest train station is ten hilly miles away at Oxenholme, and the bus service as poor as rural districts everywhere. So it’s felt a place which as a family is beyond our reach.
Yet it’s a lovely little place in the most splendid setting. The surrounding countryside is threaded with some perfect cycling lanes and laced with footpaths I’ve been itching to tread. And now they’re older thirty miles, even hilly ones, is a distance Bobby and Flo can manage relatively comfortably. So for half-term holiday we decided to ride to Sedbergh and make it our base for the week. That way two good bike rides would sandwich six days spent getting to know the area on foot as well as by bike.
As lovers of this corner of the world we often holiday quite locally, but this would be the first time we’d made the whole journey from home each on our own bike. We stuck as closely as we could to the Lune’s left bank. This is a more hilly way of reaching Kirkby Lonsdale, a little over half-way to Sedbergh, but one much less disturbed by cars; the main thing I wanted was for our trip to be carefree rather than stressful.
Without my really having noticed both Bobby and Flo have become stronger, better riders. Bobby danced ahead with every rise, making them look ridiculously easy as Sue and I laboured behind. And for the first time I can really remember Flo took hills in her stride, accepting them for what they are – an inevitable, even agreeable, part of any longer ride across beautiful ground.
We stopped for cakes and ice-creams in Kirkby Lonsdale, enjoying them in glorious sunshine on a bench in the churchyard. Then we aimed straight north, still on the Lune’s left-side until crossing it just short of Sedbergh. We parked our bikes by the bridge and dropped down to play by the river. Of course it’s very different here to the one we know well in Lancaster, almost at its mouth. At this higher point it cuts down hard through the hills and feels more a part of them – their rock, soil and trees.
From our Sedbergh base we walked fresh paths and enjoyed as a family views from hills we can see but not so easily reach from home. And we rode lanes which for a long while I’ve wanted to show the kids. The back road between Sedbergh and Dent is particularly special – it’s gated, carries almost no traffic, and stays close to the river, which we played alongside and probed as we went. Perhaps one day we’ll ride such places together as a day trip from Lancaster.
Whatever, I felt very happy finally to introduce Bobby and Flo to this special part of the world, and this part of my cycling world. They were of course wonderfully blasé about it all, but I’m fairly sure that the magic of riding and walking such places casts its spell, if in ways which for now remain mysterious to us all.
Our backyard is beautiful, but easy to miss if we’re off elsewhere. I love exploring distant places, but more local exploring deepens and extends the boundaries of our ordinary lives. Last week not just our more private explorations as a family, but also our more public encounters with people in and around Sedbergh – farmers, shopkeepers, other walkers and cyclists, the neighbours of the cottage where we stayed – deepened our understandings of, and I think our bonds with, this part of the world, making it more part of our own world. In a small way people’s stories became our stories, and their land our land. This seems right – after all, we share a territory and our lives are connected by a river in perpetual flow.
I have carlessness and cycling to thank for many things, but one of their greatest gifts is the incentive they give to staying local, and coming to know that local too. So I guess my wider point here is how life with bikes instead of cars might bring us all closer to home and, without wishing to get too romantic about it, enable a sorely needed re-enchantment of that home.
Finally, as ‘a little treat’ (!) for anyone who’s made it this far, this is kind of thing my family does to me should I happen to fall asleep beside a river ‘-)