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.