31 August 2009

Bikes welcome in Southwark parklife

A picnic with friends or family for Bank Holiday Monday might be just the job. But cycling in parks is a dodgy issue, as BBC TV's Jeremy Vine found out earlier this summer.

So come to Southwark for your holiday picnic. You're allowed to cycle in all of its 130 parks, so long as you do so responsibly.

30 August 2009

Hamburg's water-bikes: Wurst-Käse scenario?

Well, Hamburg is clearly the place to be this weekend: there's the 34th Alstervergnügen, whatever that is, but it looks fun, and features cool aqua-bikes (scroll down to the Wasser-Fahrrad section).

(The bikes might come in handy for the residents of Greenwich, whose tunnel - used by hundreds of cyclists per day - is now being closed off for long periods of refurbishment, with no alternative to get a bike across the Thames apart from several miles' detour to Woolwich or Rotherhithe. They could just ride across the river instead)

In England, the home of bog snorkelling, we seem to prefer underwater biking, as demonstrated by a woman in Brighton in June. Sorry, but I'm with the Germans on this one. Biking on top of water, and enjoying a few sausages and beers as you wait patiently for the main verb: sounds a fine way to spend a bank holiday weekend to me.

29 August 2009

London old and new: bikes are the difference

Propaganda, like a lot of TV presenters I expect, is more effective the less clever it is. So I've always rather liked the simple ploy of Sustrans's books: every single picture has a cyclist in it somewhere. The message is hardly subliminal, but it works: bikes are the right answer for everything.

I had this in mind last week. I was breezing around town taking a pictures for work of various London spots. They'd all been featured in an 1870s photo album recording the look of London's streets and buildings. (The entire album is on the British Library website.)

I was taking exactly the same views from the same spot, to show how things had changed, or not. It involved a few hours visiting around 25-30 places each for 15 minutes or so, all within a two-mile radius or so.

Yet another of those things impossible, or horribly cumbersome, by any other form of transport: a parking nightmare by car, a slow logistical slog by bus or tube, ludicrously expensive by taxi, way too far to walk.

But on a bike it was just a delightful way to spend a couple of half-days, nosing round back streets and lanes in the city that have been unchanged for over a century in their non-provision of bike parking.

The pictures, new and old, will feature on the blog of the next big British Library exhibition, the photographic blockbuster Points of View this winter. The three examples here are:
St John's Gate, Clerkenwell (top; see the 1870s version);
Canonbury Tower, Islington (bottom; see the 1870s version); and
Great St Helen's, off Bishopsgate (middle; see the 1870s version).

And, as you can see, I've done the Sustrans thing, and smuggled in cyclists wherever I could. Oh, very subtle. Maybe I have a career in propaganda. Or at least as a TV presenter.

28 August 2009

Films of old London: but where's the bikes?

In the old days, central London's streets were full of bicycles, with traffic nothing like as scary as today... weren't they? Not according to the films of old London street scenes from 1896, 1903 and 1927 on London Screen Archive's YouTube channel.

In fact, what's striking is exactly how few cyclists there are, and how clogged and chaotic the streets look. Mind you, cycling doesn't look an attractive prospect in the horse-drawn era; I thought exhaust fumes were bad enough...

On Blackfriars Bridge in 1896, for example (above) - at the height of the cycling boom - there's only one cyclist to be seen.

In Old London Street Scenes from 1903, the streets look frighteningly busy, and totally cyclist-free, except for a couple of daring chaps just by Parliament Square.

The longest and most enjoyable film, despite its arf-arf intertitles, is Open Road (1927), thrillingly in colour (right). It shows some streets (going into Hyde Park, for instance) comically empty of motor vehicles compared to today.

But while there are a few more cyclists in evidence here, despite the tramlines, it's still not that many. My cyclist count is London Bridge 1; scene with copper directing traffic 1; Whitehall 2; Hyde Park Gate 1; Marble Arch 1; Petticoat Lane 0; Albert Embankment 0. (Or as TfL would have counted it had they been around then, London Bridge 435, Whitehall 924...)

Petticoat Lane was clearly too crowded to take a bike down. Evidently there was nothing to do on a Sunday in London in 1927 as a man except put on a cap and stand around looking gormless in the market with ten thousand other men while your wife cooked the roast.

Someone with a little bit of time, money and talent, which rules me out on three counts, could make a modern-day equivalent of all these scenes. It would be fascinating to compare.

Of course, some things haven't changed. Westminster had no cycle parking then either.

27 August 2009

Sign of unreliability

You can't trust half the signs people put up in London, you know.

Take this one, for instance, on railings in Carter St this morning, just by St Paul's Cathedral. It says 'No Bicycles', yet there's clearly a bicycle there.

26 August 2009

Pedersen: Old, but still way cool

Pleased to see this smart, shiny Dursley Pedersen - half bike, half crane, half coat-hanger - parked on a Plantlock somewhere up St John's St yesterday morning.

The fact that Pedersen's design can still be comfortable and effective over a century on is pretty remarkable. It's hard to think of another hundred-year-old machine that could genuinely serve its purpose as well as a modern counterpart.

Everywhere else you look (cars, computers, phones etc) the sleek and sexy new gadget is cheaper, quicker and cleverer than the rusty, lumbering old pile of scrap that used to do it. And by the way, yes, I have met the person who's taking over my job when it finishes on Friday.

25 August 2009

Naughty bus

Bus, NO.

BAD bus.

Bus get back behind ASL this minute.

Naughty bus.

Bus go back to garage with NO petrol for supper.

(Waterloo Bridge this morning - bus not just encroaching on ASL, but invading it, colonising it, rigging elections, installing puppet rulers, and stripping it of all its natural resources. Bad, bad bus.)

24 August 2009

See? Cycle Fridays do work

I bumped into a couple of familiar faces this morning on the way to work: Laura and Priscilla, two of the riders on last week's Cycle Friday. (Laura's the one in the bottom pic.) Evidently they'd buddied up and decided to bike in themselves on this nice sunny morning. Hooray! The scheme's working!

2 for 1 at Aldi (bike parking, that is)

Wow: is this the most squashed cycle parking in London? It's the set of Sheffield stands outside the Aldi supermarket on Old Kent Road, snapped yesterday.

The typical distance between the stands is 12 inches/30cm, nowhere near enough to get two bikes in. The distance between the two stands nearest the building is 10 inches/25cm, which isn't actually enough to get one bike in properly. Mine wouldn't go any further without clattering the derailleur.

Further down, Old Kent Road McDonald's obviates the need for cycle parking by having a drive-thru section. I guess you could bike-thru if you wanted, but I couldn't find it in myself to try buying a burger. I'll have a go at most things, but some things (potholing, ballroom dancing, Big Macs etc) are just not negotiable.

23 August 2009

Docklands bike lane: load of old blocks

In April I posted about a cycle path, purportedly leading to the Museum in Docklands, which led nowhere but right into a blue hoarding blocking your way.

I passed by it again yesterday, and I'm pleased to say the blue hoardings have been removed.

Now, instead, the way is blocked by concrete blocks and metal barriers.

22 August 2009

Cycle Friday: Stimulating the news cycle

I did the whole Brixton-Russell Sq Cycle Friday yesterday morning (right). This was in contrast to last week, when I just shuffled out to watch it go past my house, yawned, and went back to bed to shout at politicians on Radio 4.

The Cycle Fridays are fun, and I recommend them. They do seem to be succeeding in getting hesitant cyclists on the road and giving them a bit of confidence, and the atmosphere yesterday was good. I can see myself joining in purely for the social side, and the buzz of being with a large group of cyclists. Thanks to the proximity of the Brixton-Russell Sq route to home, I can easily join it as it passes, and it ends very near where I work. I'll do it every Friday from now until my contract finishes. Unfortunately my contract finishes next Friday.

Yesterday was business however - I'm writing it up for a well-known top-class cycling magazine - so I had to cycle away from my house to the start point at Brixton (right). And at Russell Square I couldn't continue on to work because I had a dentist's appointment... back beyond Brixton. After which I did eventually get to work, having done the Cycle Friday route four times.

Still, all enjoyable cycling on a fine sunny day, and interesting to watch the route evolve and change through the course of the morning, gaining a bit more broken glass here, another crisp packet here, a couple more escaped fillings there.

There are some enormous advantages of Cycle Fridays so far unmentioned. The two or three dozen riders yesterday were accompanied by almost the same number of journalists, reporters, bloggers, photographers, AudioBooers, and aspiring film-makers checking out the possibilities. Well, August can be a bit of a quiet month in news media... (The scheme has already, pleasingly, generated quite a bit of approving press coverage.)

So, 20 minutes before the ride started, when all the scribblers, snappers et al had arrived but none of the 'real' cyclists, you had the entertaining scene of them all interviewing each other (right), Whicker Island style.

Then, when the first real cyclist arrived (right), she was swooped on by a dozen of us with cameras, handheld sound recorders, iPhones and notebooks.

So need to go on the X-Factor if you want a taste of stardom: just turn up to a Cycle Friday about ten minutes early disguised as a normal person.

If Cycle Fridays achieve nothing else, at least TfL's value-for-money financial contribution has helped create a few media jobs.

21 August 2009

'Pimp'? No, I said, 'do you have a pump'

Apparently we've had a few bikes nicked from both staff and public parking areas at work recently, so we were sent an internal email reminding us to take care.

The email included the sensible advice to make a note of your bike's frame number, and to register it with immobilise.com. (Both of which I did before my last bike got nicked. It didn't help one bit, and the police were about as interested as if I'd gone in to tell them about Shostakovich's use of twelve-tone sequences in the later chamber works; but still worth doing I suppose.)

Unfortunately, the email misspelt the website as 'imobilise.com' - so anyone following the instructions and clicking through to safeguard their bike was hauled up and reported by the internal website-spying software, which has 'imobilise.com' down as a pornography site. Doh!

Names, faces, bikes? I'm a basket case

I'm pretty good at recognising people, but sometimes a bit too good, especially at remembering the wrong sort of detail. ('You're Andy, aren't you? We met in that pub in Wolverhampton in about 2003, didn't we? You'd just come out of jail, drink-driving wasn't it, after that disastrous affair with the prostitute I seem to recall, and wanted to put it all behind you and start with a clean sheet because you said you'd just met someone and you thought This Is It didn't you? Oh hello, love, you're that someone are you? Pleased to meet you. You look a bit surprised...')

And I tend to recognise people by their bikes first and then their faces. This is a characteristic of being a Real Cyclist (see the test, left). It happened again yesterday evening at the Barbican. I had a voucher for a free DVD rental and so cycled four miles there to cash it in. I don't have a DVD player, but a free voucher to a Yorkshireman is a free voucher.

At their excellent bike racks I thought hello, I know that sleek, vivacious, elegant, beautiful shape - it's Vanessa's bike. Oh, and that's Vanessa (who's also sleek, vivacious etc., of course). Fortunately this time there was no unwisely divulged backstory or unsuspecting partner to confuse the issue. We met at that fabulous Solstice Ride to greet the midsummer sunrise on Primrose Hill with hundreds of other bikes, and she had a cute borrowed dog in her basket.

Anyway, I'd wanted a snap of Vanessa's bike sans dog, because I just think it's a really cool town bike, with its capacious baskets, sturdy blackness, and flowing-hair, upright ride, and she happily obliged (top right).

20 August 2009

The Beaufort Scale of angry cyclists

The Beaufort Scale classifies the severity of storms. We're familiar with it in Britain from the Shipping Forecast on BBC Radio 4, which wakes us up and sends us to sleep with its mystical incantations of South Utsire, Dogger, Fisher, German Bight, three becoming four or five occasionally six, one thousand and seven, rising slowly, good. Whatever that means.

Well, it's about time the scale was adapted to describe the severity of cycle-driver confrontations. How serious was the incident this morning when you got cut up by a taxi and shouted at him? Well, with the scale below, now you know.

 BeaufortCycle-car confrontation Police action
0CalmNo noticeable reaction Nothing
1Light airSlightly extended eye contact Nothing
2Light breezeRaised eyebrows Nothing
3Gentle breezeGentle tutting Nothing
4Moderate breezeSotto voce comment Nothing
5Fresh breezeComment audible to other cyclists Nothing
6Strong breezeComment audible to driver Nothing
7Moderate galeSlight slowing-down in order to comment to driver. Some finger pointing to location of incident. Nothing
8GaleCycling alongside car at same speed to address driver. Shouted comments with mild profanity. Finger pointed at driver's head. Nothing
9Strong galeDismounting of cycle to shout loudly with regular profanities. Threats of legal action. Possible waving of fist. Exaggerated writing-down of number plate, cab licence number, bus route, etc. Nothing
10StormCycle leant against front of vehicle to impede its progress. Other cyclists join in and surround vehicle. General din of shouting voices and profuse swearing. Jostling of vehicle. Tutting of passers-by. Attempts to hand driver leaflet about global warming. Caution cyclists
11Violent stormVehicle immobilised and surrounded by large mob of angry cyclists. Mild but expensive damage sustained to car paintwork. Slight rocking of vehicle. Passers-by stop to take photos on mobile phone. Attempts to hand driver leaflet about joining London Cycle Campaign. Arrest cyclists
12HurricaneVehicle overturned, doused with petrol and torched. Driver lectured by cycling blogger at length on content of Highway Code Section 178 and the Road Traffic Act 1988 Section 36. Passers-by post pictures to Twitter. Mob of cyclists go on rampage through area, taking photographs of sub-standard cycle parking and handing out leaflets on forthcoming Farmer's Market and Cycle Friday scheme. Implement national crackdown on "all this dangerous pavement cycling"

19 August 2009

Shock tactic

I'm still shaking a bit. This morning it happened again - something I only experience about half-a-dozen times a year, but when it does it colours my whole day.

I was cycling up Hayles St, a two-way street with cars parked all along one side and only enough room for one line of traffic. A white van was coming the other way, and without any warning, he stopped before the line of parked cars and waved me on.

I looked behind me. I was alone - no vehicles behind that he might be waving through rather than me - but I didn't panic, and rode steadily through. It crossed my mind it could be some sort of trap, but I waved a thank-you, and he waved cheerily back, and I got out unscathed.

Drivers, please be careful when you display such blatant consideration to cyclists. It will come as a shock to most of us.

18 August 2009

The law is a harass

I'm not a fan of legislation, over-regulation, warning signs and threats; I'd much rather live in a society where commonsense, a timely quiet word, and shared social discipline prevent bad behaviour before it happens. (If you know of one anywhere, please tell me.)

So I don't quite know what to make of today's story in the US paper The Missourian. Columbia City Council reaffirmed an Ordinance passed in June making it an offense, possibly even an offence, to "harass bicyclists". It is a "Class A misdemeanor", which is clearly a bad thing, to "throw anything at bicyclists, to threaten or knowingly endanger them or to deliberately frighten or disturb them. Violators can be fined $1,000 and/or be sentenced to a year in jail."

On the one hand, it's great to envisage revenge. In the last ten years in London I've had maybe five or six incidents of genuine, unprovoked harassment - a driver spitting at me, a hoodie throwing a stone, a motorcyclist rather bizarrely riding up by my side and leaning firmly on me while in motion, that sort of thing.

But would such a law have made any difference? We know that reporting incidents to the police, even in traceable circumstances such as taxis knocking you off under a CCTV camera, is a waste of time unless someone is killed or, even worse, damage is done to a car.

And there'd have to be a tit-for-tat law to satisfy the car lobby against cyclists shaking their fist or shouting at a driver. And you can bet the press would love the first conviction against that one. Look, for example, at the prominence given to the recent jailing of a pavement cyclist who ran into and killed an old man, compared to the routine ignoring of (a) pavement drivers who kill pedestrians and (b) road drivers who kill cyclists.

To paraphrase the old saw: man kills cyclist - not news; cyclist kills man - news. And we can't legislate against that.

17 August 2009

Confusing signs and mixed signals

Blimey - I know those Sustrans routes can take a roundabout way sometimes... but downtown New York (right)? We were trying to get to the Lea Valley Crossing...

The culprit, as ever, was a film crew: they were making a Bollywood movie. Just as Stamford is easy to disguise with a bit of sawdust as an Austen-era town centre for a period costume drama, so a fake road sign can make Canary Wharf a cut-price travesty of New York.

But it does make you wonder where you buy these fake traffic signals. Where would you get British-style ones from? Might help to slow the traffic outside our house.

Perhaps the David Mellor cafe in Hathersage might be a good bet. Mellor - no, not that David Mellor - designed the classic British traffic lights, and the visitor centre dedicated to his work offers another odd sight: of signal-controlled queues for the buffet (right). (Thanks to our Derbyshire correspondent for the photo.)

Of course, just round the corner from the faux-US signal being serviced by ice-creams above is Traffic Light Tree (right), the celebrated sculpture on Westferry Circus roundabout. No cycle-specific traffic lights anywhere in it: well, that might make it confusing.

16 August 2009

Tiger-Bee-Wasp Bike

Ooh, very nice.

Bee? Wasp? Hornet? Tiger?

Boiled sweets?

Hull City supporter?

Someone who clicked at the wrong time and inadvertently bought a job lot of hazard-warning tape on eBay?

15 August 2009

Cycle Fridays' glimpse of the year 2060

Yesterday was London's first Cycle Friday, a series of weekly led rides from now until 2 October encouraging commuters to bike into work. There are six routes, covering Zone 1-2 like a monster snowflake, each starting at 8am and converging in central London. It's a development of the one-off Bike Tube ride staged in response to the Tube drivers' strike in June.

Now, 8am is clearly far too early for me - I'm working temporarily at the British Library. This is a place where 'early modern' means 1500. However, the Brixton-Russell Sq route happens to go past our house, so I shuffled out in my dressing gown and slippers, watched it go past, and then went back to bed.

There were about 50 riders, I'd say. Many of them, refreshingly, were wearing everyday clothes. Some really could have passed for normal people. This is exactly the sort of commuting I like to see, especially when I can amble back for a stimulating breakfast of leftover curry.

The more I think about Cycle Fridays, the more I think they're a pretty good idea. They cost nothing to organise, apart from some volunteer time. As a participant you don't have to commit to anything, and you can join or leave the route at any point. I can see many regular cycle commuters tagging on for a bit just for a bit of company and a quick chat. I can also see nervous cyclists quickly getting confidence to break out on their own. (Actually they have to learn fast. There's no return trip - Friday night London tends to be a spontaneous and stay-out affair - so you're on your own on your way back.)

Scalability is no problem either. If you can get the volunteers, you can add more routes, more days of the week, and more setting-off times, no problem. New routes can incorporate bike-hire stations when the London Bike Hire Scheme comes onstream next May.

Who knows, if the scheme takes off, we might see TfL's ambitious target of quintupling cycle use between 2000 and 2025, with the percentage of cycle journeys rocketing from, er, 1 per cent to 5 per cent. So by 2060, it'll be the Netherlands every day in London, with half of all trips by bike!

Maybe I'll be a sort of Harry Patch or Henry Allingham of cycling then, and they'll interview me as the last survivor of the car/bike trench-warfare of the early millennium, before CO2-sequestering anti-gravity flying pocket bikes were invented.

Anyway, I'm confident the Cycle Fridays scheme will be extended to the rest of the week and next year will be called something else. If only because nobody's yet snapped up cyclefriday or cyclefridays.com, .co.uk, .net or .org. Oh, the temptation for mischief, when you can snap up a free-host domain name for a fiver...

14 August 2009

What cycling press releases are really saying

These days, a lot of 'news stories' you read in the press or online are in fact press releases, reproduced almost verbatim, and subject to no criticism or analysis.

So here's a quick reader's guide to what press releases about cycling facilities say, and what they actually mean:

"A glittering example of a cycle path"
It's full of broken glass

"Reflects the increased number of cyclists using this route"
There's a massive puddle across it

"Cycling is a quick and cheap way to get around London..."
And we certainly don't intend to spend any time or money on it

"...it's environmentally friendly..."
Many cycle lanes also serve as recycling skips...

"...and it can keep you in trim too"
...and they're only wide enough for thin people

"This stunning new facility"
There's a road sign in the middle of it you crack your head on

"We believe this new route will appeal especially to first-time cyclists"
Nobody's going to use it twice

"This cycle lane adds a new transport option for commuters"
Taxis and TfL cabs use it to pick up fares

"We intend to make London a world-class cycling city..."
Once we've moved it to the Netherlands

"...through ambitious but achievable targets"
OK, move it to Cambridge, then

"In February 2008, the Mayor announced a new programme to build on these successes, aimed at achieving a growth in cycling of 400 percent by 2025."

"London's twelve Cycle Superhighways are a key part of our policy to stimulate a cycling revolution in the capital"


13 August 2009

Gnashing of teeth on Nine Elms Lane

I cycled out and back along Nine Elms Lane for a session at the dentist yesterday. As usual, I coped with the searing pain and helpless discomfort by seeking refuge in black humour.

I'm not talking about the dentist, but Nine Elms Lane. Its southern side has the second-worst cycle lane in London.

It's a succession of dangerous nonsenses. For instance, the lane will disappear abruptly (top right) for no clear reason; perhaps Lord Lucan used to cycle this way.

Or the lane will be blocked by a sign (right). With pleasing circularity, this one warns road users that the bus lane might have a bike in it, presumably because there's no room in the bike lane, because it's blocked by the sign.

Only one cycle lane in London is worse than Nine Elms Lane's southern side. And that's Nine Elms Lane's northern side. I blogged about it back in January, but the good news is, it seems something's being done at last. Until now the cycle lane has been blocked at regular points along its path by signs, posts, bus stops and electricity boxes. Now there's an additional blockage in the shape of a road crew (right).

Perhaps they're constructing an exciting tunnel by-pass. Or installing some sculptures to look at during your constant dismountings.

Or perhaps, at long last, they're just giving the Nine Elms bike lane a decent burial.

12 August 2009

Hanwell Locks: Take your bike on a flight tonight

I'm quite a fan of short-haul flights, so long as they're canal locks. They offer a best-of-all-worlds cycling experience: gentle freewheel downhill; scenic waterscape; and sometimes, a lock-keeper's cottage isolated from the road system where a ruddy-faced chap in a self-knit sweater has a sideline in home-made pickles or carvings.

Britain's longest canal downhill, the 30-lock monster serpent at Tardebigge near Bromsgrove, has a towpath but it's 'not officially open for cycling', according to British Waterways. (I intend to investigate just how not officially open it is at some point soon.)

Caen Hill's famous 16-ish-lock staircase (above right) just outside Devizes is visually more impressive, being as straight as a cycle pump, and as wheezy if you try to bike up it, and welcomes cyclists too. (There's a chapter about it in my book.)

Five Rise Locks at Bingley (right) is shorter (but, being in Yorkshire, steeper and tougher) and is also a cycling frisson.

London cyclists can enjoy the gravity-assisted tour of locks on Regent's Canal and Hertford Union, but the towpaths often duck under bridges in an alarmingly narrow and twisted way, so you have to keep getting off.

So the best London lock-flypast is on the Grand Union Canal at Hanwell Locks (right), about a mile or so before Brentford, as the canal starts its final descent south to join the Thames. It's a sequence of half-a-dozen locks with a pleasantly wide, curving towpath, and connects the vivid little-India melee of Southall with the shiny little-Singapore office blocks of Brentford, and the little-England riverside village of Old Isleworth lauded two days ago.

So we recommend downhill canals. Perfect riding for a summer's evening. And from your position of freewheeling ease you can gongoozle at the narrowboaters hacking through the locks. Watching honest toilers engaged in tedious, repetitive tasks for minimal gain may enlighten you as to how your line manager feels when they see you working in the office.

11 August 2009

All tide up: London's quirkiest cycle parking

The most curious bike park in the capital is at the Moorings, a little-known boat-dwelling community just east of Tower Bridge.

Around 70 people, plus various children and pets, have lived in this floating hamlet since the 1980s. Their 40-odd bikes nestle on the roof of one of the barges.

The community - a mixed bunch of artists, professionals and families - have their own covered outdoor centre on one of the barges. It offers residents all the things you need for civilised living: sofas and tables for dinner, table tennis, cinema, grand piano, and incomparable views of the river and Tower Bridge.

The boats are decorated with lush gardens. They're open to the public once a year in summer, the occasion of our visit

Getting there can be precarious in windy weather, through a locked gate on the riverside path and across a gangway over the Thames, or more usually, mud.

Outside that annual open day, access to the boats, and bike park, is only for residents... unless, that is, you work at MPA or Axis Mason, two architects based in the building overlooking the Moorings. Their employees are allowed to use the community's unique tidal cycle parking.

Which, we reckon, is about as swell as you can get, without being sea-sick.

10 August 2009

Hot, fabulous: Hounslow Skyride curries favour

I'm normally very suspicious of large-scale organised activity - mass-participation bike rides, hosting an Olympics, wars and so on - but I went to yesterday's Mayor-of-London's-Hounslow-Skyride with an open mind.

'Skyride' is the rebrand of what was the Hovis Freewheel: a window of a few hours where a handful of city streets are shut off so that cyclists, particularly families, can trundle round unmolested by traffic.

It started in London in 2007, but this year - with the new sponsor and rather irritating name that makes it sound like a queasy rollercoaster - it's doing the rounds of Manchester (2 Aug), Glasgow (23 Aug) and Leicester (30 Aug), as well as central London (20 Sep).

Yesterday was Hounslow's turn. From 11am to 4pm, on a day hot enough to fry eggs on your saddle, cyclists could amble round a four-mile circular route that linked Syon and Osterley Parks by roads cordoned off from traffic.

At first, joining the melee from Isleworth station, I was sceptical: there seemed to be five million stewards with loud-hailers shooing us into the cycle corral. Some spectators were shouting encouragement - 'Come on! You're doing fine! Keep going! Not far now', as if we were approaching Ditchling Beacon on the London to Brighton, and not freewheeling along Church Road on a circuit that wouldn't trouble a dachshund.

All participants were being nagged to put on an official Skyride-branded reflective jackets. I resent being made to wear uniforms, and had no intention of capitulating to this Young Pioneer-style conformism. But on the other hand, they were free, so I took one and stuffed it in my pannier in case it comes in handy one day.

And there was the paranoid line-up of laughably unnecessary helmets. Well, I know there's no traffic, but there's a chance you might be struck by a meteorite, isn't there? Better safe than sorry, eh....

I was starting to feel herded and annoyed. Cycling is about freedom, not restriction, and I don't like the implied message that it can only be done once a year with rigorous policing and commercial backing.

But I soon started to enjoy it. Southwark Cyclists are quite keen on a sort of 'knowingly naive' approach: yes, we know this facility or that proposal isn't perfect, such as the London Bike Scheme coming next May, and we'll address the problems as they arise, but meanwhile we'll be positive and keep maintaining the simple message that anything which encourages people to enjoy cycling is worth being involved with.

And, in short, it was a thoroughly delightful day. The stewards were all chirpy and friendly as holiday-camp redcoats. The route went through two fine parks and past the Severn-like bankside pubbery of Old Isleworth. There was a special pontoon bridge made of plastic cushions, like walking your bike over giant floating ravioli.

And it was packed with cyclists, including lots of families - even a substantial number who dared hurtle along at over 5mph bare-headed, with cavalier disregard for the risk of cranial impalement from a carelessly pointed lolly stick.

So, much as it pains me to compliment a heartless mega-company who managed to make me redundant twice in three years, Sky organised it excellently. It was a total success and all bodes well for the London Hov... er, Skyride next month.

In fact, you know, this one was rather more enjoyable than the London 2007 one, which felt a bit pressurised, crowded and contrived. Here there was space for all the cyclists, greenery, parks, and a ready supply of pub barbecues and ice creams.

Anyway, we peeled off about 3ish and cycled up to Southall, a vibrant piece of India in the capital, and home of London's best curry experiences. We ate splendidly and inexpensively at Salaam Namaste and watched the cricket highlights on their satellite TV, with England's abject capitulation to the Aussies thoroughly analysed and explained. But all in Hindi, a language I do not speak or read.

Unfortunately, I understood every damn word.

09 August 2009

Patience of job

I love cycling in London, and it would be nice to do it for a living. But as I quite like going slowly, stopping to take a picture of something every five minutes, and investigating any alley which has a pub with hanging baskets, I'm not cut out to be a courier. And being allergic to offices, piloting a sandwich bike-trailer is probably out too.

This looks more like it: pedalling a recumbent-based advertising hoarding round the centre, like this one I snapped on Fleet St the other day.

Going slowly, especially where large groups of people are gathered such on the pavement outside pubs, is actually an advantage.

08 August 2009

Bar-bicycle: it's a winner

When people tell you how they'd spend their lottery winnings, they're so generous, aren't they? They'd pay off their friends' mortgages, give most of it to charity, and just keep a modest, sensible amount for themselves. Then they sit back to bask in your admiration, and wait for you to buy the next round.

Well, if I won the lottery, I wouldn't pay off any of your mortgages, or support Battersea Dogs Home. But no yachts, Bentleys or swimming pools for me either.

I'd buy a shedload of bikes of all sorts, including at least one like this beer-vending machine: the apparent result of a collision between a bicycle and a dinghy-sized refrigerator. It's an esky with wheels, a mobile bar, a picnic on pedals. It plies a nice summer trade in the astroturf park outside the National Theatre. You charge the fridge up overnight and it keeps your party cool for about five hours, according to the amiable guy behind it.

Business in ice-cold lager wasn't brisk on Thursday night - this, you recall, was the evening deluge when 40mm fell in central London in six hours, compared to the monthly average of 51mm. Actually those figures sound worse in inches, whatever that would be.

The bike is made by www.businessonwheels.co.uk, and you can pick up a brand spanking new one for under two and a half grand, which I reckon, quite seriously, is a snip. Must rush out and buy a lottery ticket. And maybe I was lying about the swimming pool.

07 August 2009

Ma bike lane's bin murr derred sirr!

This is central London, so when we block cycle lanes, it's with style. No mere broken WKD bottles or smeary discarded kebabs for us.

This is the contraflow bike lane going down from Waterloo Bridge to the South Bank, blocked up last night by filmcrew stuff. No signs, no alternative route: you're forced out with no notice into oncoming traffic. At least, in the spotlight, you can audition for Britain's Got Talent during your final seconds.

The handiwork was that of Scottish TV, filming a murr derr scene for detective series Taggart. In fact, they couldn't film because just after I took the pic, the heavens opened for business and deluged central London all evening. So the film crew had to stand around inside, kick their heels doing nothing for five hours, and just swop apocryphal stories about famous people they've worked with. Instead of business as usual, which is to stand around outside, kick their heels doing nothing for five hours, and just swop apocryphal stories about famous people they've worked with.

Some might criticise the tedious Glaswegian gumshoe as being unrealistic; like every other screen cop all he does is investigate (and invariably solve) unawful killings. But actually, screen cops are true to life in one way. You never see real police chasing drivers who block ASLs, chatter on their phone, or speed through residential roads either. Or give a toss about blocked cycle lanes.

06 August 2009

Turner Prizes by bike: it's crystal clear

On a whim en route home the other day, in that way you can do on a bike, I dropped in to experience Roger Hiorns' Turner-nominated work Seizure.

It's a flat in a derelict council block by the Elephant and Castle which was filled with warm copper sulphate, left, and finally drained to reveal walls and ceilings encrusted with fist-sized blue crystals: a sort of gleeful mix between a childhood chemical garden run amok, and a nightmare case of council-flat mould.

There's no bike parking, but you can shackle up to the railings on the stairs to the unused first floor, and the phantom residents won't mind.

The flat was open earlier this year but whenever I went the queues were round the block. Now, with the work's Turner nomination in mind, it's been reopened until 18 October (Harper Rd, Thu-Sat 11am-7pm, Sun 11am-5pm, free).

And the queues have shortened, so you shouldn't have longer to wait than it takes to text a couple of friends to say 'I'm just waiting for a drain'.

You can walk right around the flat and feel the crystals' beautiful, soap-coal sharpness. If you think your own bathroom couldn't be in a worse state, this one should reassure you.

It's nice to be able to explore a Turner nomination by bike (the main exhibition runs at Tate Britain from 6 October, with the winner announced on 7 December). And it made me wonder about bike connections of previous winners.

House, Rachel Whiteread's controversial 3D negative of a dwelling off Roman Road that won in 1993, was demolished in 1994, so there's nothing to bike and see there. The 1994 winner Antony Gormley created a series of life-size statues placed around London for a few weeks in 2007, and one of them, on Waterloo Bridge, proved an unintended but handy impromptu bike park (right).

Damien Hirst, winner in 1995, was in the news last month for designing a special Tour de France bike for Lance Armstrong encrusted with real butterfly wings.

Grayson Perry, who won the 2003 prize despite or perhaps because of his strange habit of appearing in public displaying pottery, wrote a well weird book called Cycle of Violence about a champion racing cyclist who becomes a serial killer. There seemed to be a bit of cross-dressing involved too, but I daren't flick through slowly enough in Tate Modern's bookshop to find out.

But the cycling king of the Turner Prize winners is, of course, Jeremy Deller. A real cyclist himself, when he won in 2004, his winner's speech dedicated his victory to all London's cyclists. With Southwark Cyclists in mind he also designed a bike-celebrating T-shirt – yes, I've got one, and you can still buy them from Tate's online shop. Jeremy, we salute you.

So, there you have it: you can use a Turner Prize winner's cycle-related artwork without having to be Lance Armstrong, and without cruelty to butterflies.