20 September 2009

London Skyride: Marshalling arguments

Whatever it's being called - the Hovis TfL Mayor of London Sky TV Freewheel London Skyride or whatever - the annual closed-road cycle ride round the centre of the capital today will be touted, with good reason, as a big success: lovely weather, and over 50,000 participants.

Sky certainly put in lots of resources: cheerleaders encouraging us through loudspeakers to ding our bells and put our hands in the air and shout 'boo' to cars; bags of freebies; branded reflective bibs; many-tented entertainments; wacky bikes making their way along the route; and lots of marshals telling you to go faster or slower and not to stop there and not to do that.

It was a fine spectacle, and enjoyable to see such a staggering number of bikes saturating the route (Buckingham Palace to Tower Bridge and back, essentially) and St James's Park (the rest and recreation area). There were lots of happy people, tons of families, and most people seemed delighted to be there. Which is good.

But, as with the Hounslow Skyride last month, I feel uneasy about several things. One is the implied message that cycling round London can only be done once a year with the help of heavy sponsorship, police cooperation and road closures.

Another is that I don't like mass participation events and hate being told what to do by marshals. Look, you're not a copper. I'll decide if I want to join the ride here and leave it there, thank you, whatever you say. Perhaps the main reason I cycle in the first place is the control I have over my movements; don't you go telling me what to do.

I didn't care for the dumbed-down hectoring of the emcees along the route either, telling us to wave our arms in the air and shout, smacked too much of those 'spontaneous demonstrations' in support of the regime in tinpot Soviet-era countries.

But then the Skyride isn't for me; I'm happier cycling round London at my own pace to my own schedule. It's for all those occasional cyclists who might just be persuaded to do more cycling, such as the same time next year.

I hope it has the right effect, and yes, I shrug my shoulders and say yes, it's a good thing. I met a friend (another regular cyclist who makes a point of ignoring what marshals tell her to do) who did it with her toddlers, and we picnicked in St James's Park, and it was very nice, so there you go.

Actually, the best bit for me was swanning around Whitehall on the way home. It had been closed off to traffic but the ride hadn't yet made it here officially, so I could scoot round the tarmac plains by Downing Street and Banqueting House with the road all to myself.

The best effect the Skyride could have would be to persuade London to have a regular traffic-free selection of roads on Sunday, like Paris or Bogota. If that happened I'd happily put on the reflective bib, ding my bell when the emcee says, and follow the marshal's directions to the letter next year.

And one thing still mystifies me. I can understand people wearing helmets for the Skyride. I think it's rather absurd, on a traffic-free route that goes at most 8mph, but I can just about imagine why people might do it.

But wearing helmets for a picnic lunch? There were plenty of such people, evidently worried about serious head injuries sustained from flying Scotch eggs or ground-to-air cheese sandwiches.


  1. It is so obvious that cyclists are picked on in london. I was fined £200.00 for riding on the precious grass in green park. The policeman who booked me said the queen hates bikes. Funny that, she sits in her palace as the workers face hefty fines. The enforcement amazed me also, hundreds of police on bike patrol in the parks, also on the streets.Have they not got anything else to do. What a backward society!!!!!

  2. Good post Rob. Always helpful to highlight the dangers of Scotch eggs (and skewer the weird special treatment for bikes that the Skyride seems to bring out).

    And there's some horrible irony that it took place on the same day that Mrs Bradley Wiggins has her bike taken out by a 'sorry I didn't see you' driver: http://twitter.com/cathwiggins


  3. I must say a post like this doesnt supprise me that you have no reason to want to protect you head. Even at 8 mph if you hit the tarmac head firat and 10 or so cycles land on you a helmet isnt a bad idea. Sky Ride was great fun not a social revolution but a good day out.

  4. I usually like your blog but I'm quite disappointed by some of the negativity about this event. My children cycled with me 20km through major roads to get to the Skyride and loved it. We were grateful for the marshals who encouraged them from a few kms outside and never felt hassled or policed once. Yes, we wore hats and even the dodgy green bibs being handed out and it was no big deal. We smiled lots and it was a joy to see so many thousands doing the same. I don't see a helmet doing an 8 year old any harm - just great to be on a bike and getting the chance to ride round some landmarks on roads usually choked with buses and taxis.

  5. I didn't go for the reasons that you mentioned not liking it-- I went last year, and I loved being able to ride on major roads (traffic free) but to me much of the enjoyment of urban biking is (a) having somewhere to go, and (b) negotiating traffic. Without both of those things, this even is just... a bit pointless for me. If I had a family with young kids, or something, it would be great (especially on a weekly basis) but for me, I don't need it.

    Anywho-- about the helmets. Assuming that you recognise that helmets can be useful (I know there are lots of militantly anti-helmet people who deny this) I think you should look at people wearing helmets in these situations differently: they're treating the helmet as just another item of clothing. If a helmet fits well, it's no more annoying than a pair of shoes (did you take your shoes off when sitting down to picnic? Even though you didn't need foot protection?) and it helps emphasise that biking is just part of the day-- rather than a distinct 'activity' that requires a complete change of clothes, or a set of protective equipment.

  6. Thanks, all - a few quick responses:

    @josh - In fact, I *do* take my shoes off to picnic. Hope this revelation doesn't spur criticism from people saying that someone they know had their toes run over by a pushchair, but they were saved by their shoes, and it'll serve me right if I get crushed feet from a passing cyclist.

    @Andrew - pleased you enjoyed the event. Sorry if it came across as negative - I was delighted to see 50,000 people enjoying themselves, and our little group of mum, toddlers, and stand-in dad had a very pleasant time. The organisation was good (though they ran out of water later on) and I hope it's as successful next year.

    @Anonymous 1 - £200 for riding on grass? Clearly bonkers. My views on hereditary monarchies (with exceptions for cycling royalty in Denmark or the Netherlands) are probably similar to yours.

    @Anonymous 3 - Sorry, your argument doesn't work. Presumably you're quite fond of your heart-lung system, so why don't you wear a stabproof jacket? If *you* collapsed under a melee of ten cyclists, your chest wall would inevitably suffer massive damage without such protection under all those protruding bits of metal. So clearly you're stupid, and don't care for your own safety, etc etc...
    The reason most people wear helmets is because they see others wearing them and it feels normal. The reason people don't wear stabproof jackets to cycle is because noone else wears them and it would feel silly. Logic plays little part - otherwise people would wear both.

  7. @Rob - Jesus. I've got to re-evaluate my worldview. This is big.

  8. @josh - and, oddly, I always take my glasses off to eat. I don't know what that says about me, though Freud probably had a view.

  9. @Anonymous 1 - "fined £200.00 for riding on the precious grass in green park"? Please tell us more.

    This figure is far higher than the £50 fixed penalty proposed earlier this year for breaking the cycling regulations in the Royal Parks.


  10. I would've liked to take my helmet off during the ride, but it wouldn't fit in my bag!
    Pretty good fun - wasn't expecting so many people!


  11. Yesterday, I volunteered to marshall the London Skyride at a busy intersection. Although I'm a keen cyclist and might otherwise have participated, I thought I'd get involved in helping with a community event. Not a thankless task, but hardly a very fun one - please remember that!

    Gratifyingly, despite your relatively negative comments, I found that everyone was extremely friendly, thankful, positive and open-minded about the whole event.

    Yes, occasionally, we prevented people stopping in the middle of the road because they wanted to cross over and see what was going on elsewhere.

    Regarding the autocratic nature of us Marhsalls' behaviour, the system was in place for public safety - pure and simple. Everyone I spoke to about this fully understood once the reasons had been explained to them. Sadly, on two occasions, people blocking the road caused accidents. I personally don't like seeing crying children on a day when it's supposed to be a community event.

  12. @Anonymous.. thanks very much for your comments. I'm feeling a bit of an old curmudgeon now and wish I'd been a bit more positive when I hurriedly typed up my impressions on Sunday afternoon! Glad you had such a good experience.

  13. I thought crying children were a key feature of community events... one reason I avoid them.

  14. @Tim... and at every wedding ceremony, when they get to the vows, a baby starts bawling and is rushed out by its mum. I must ask my wedding planner friend Steph if this is standard, programmed practice nowadays.

  15. @Rob...I'm glad you covered it and on rereading your post I think it's fine that you weren't so gushing about the whole thing as I was. That's cool.
    I cycle to work everyday and cover about 140 miles a week doing so: so to be honest when it came to Sunday morning the last thing I fancied was riding into London again. However, I'm really glad I did. It made people cycle (outside of the Skyride) just to get there which is great; it was tremendous for children and if you look at some of the videos it was heartwarming (must be going soft in my old age) to see people of all ages and shapes and sizes on their bikes clearly having a good time.
    If the event encouraged a few more commuters to cycle to work or as in my case children to cycle to school then job done. Thanks again for covering it.

  16. I suppose the purpose of the cycling ban on grass is a carpet ban to everyone just to stop a few the weekend mountain bikers going mad. I ride my bike to work through a royal park and was told off for cycling on the grass by a police woman who was driving her land rover all over the grass and churning it up. Also I've seen police on horses churning the grass up. A bit of common sense I think is needed.