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.


  1. I imagine 'Englandbattingcollapse' is the same in any language.

  2. Skyride sounds a bit like "Bristol's Biggest Bike Ride". Kind of enjoyale but sadly just a tokenistic one day a year to encourage people to get on their bikes for the rest of the year. Usually attracts a lot of people who will ride just that one day a year.

  3. Enjoyale - is that a good session in the pub?

  4. Rob,

    Great blog, well written and extremely entertaining, even for a antipodian (who can't spell). But, and you knew there was a 'but' coming. Your belittling of persons wearing helmets is a concern. In Australia helmet wearing has been compulsory for more years than I can remember and for that I am thankfull. Not the failing memory but the compulsoryness. I have had a couple of accidents in which the helmet has saved the street cleaner a bit of work. One involved a misscalculation of velocity and vectors at a roundabout, another a brain-fade on handlebar width. Neither of these involved a car, admittedly the second was in a race but still, we were all going the same way and going much the same speed.

    Just falling from a standing position onto pavement in an uncontrolled manner can do imense damage to the skull and brain - is it worth it? It may be cool to ride around with no helmet but it ain't cool driving a wheel chair with a straw because you have serious brain damage.

    If you don't want to wear a helmet, fine. But don't critisise others who choose to.


  5. Thanks for that Nigel... I have to respond!

    I blogged about helmets a while back in some detail.

    It seems to me you've fallen into the common trap of trying to reduce the helmet issue to a simple 'it offers protection therefore it must be worth wearing one'.

    That simply isn't a valid argument. You could say the same thing about carrying a cigarette case because it saved your uncle by deflecting a Great War sniper's bullet.

    I don't have a problem with helmets when they offer meaningful protection. That applies in races, for instance, when the rules of engagement are different. The aim isn't to trundle from A to B in a safe and convenient way. Just as racing drivers wear helmets but leisure drivers do not; just as fell walkers wear sturdy boots that protect the ankle but someone nipping out to the shops does not. If I put on hiking boots and take an emergency whistle, Kendal mint cake and distress flares for a five-minute stroll to the pub, I suspect my mates would belittle me, and deservedly so.

    Too many people over-advocate helmets. More helmets does not mean more safety; it means less, as many studies have shown, and as your own country's experience shows too.

    But the worst thing about the helmet debate is that it deflects attention from the real issues. The way to make cycling safer is not some quick-fix solution based on lid-wearing. That may appeal to simple minds but I'm sorry, it simply won't wash with me. Making cycling safer is a complex and subtle process involving reading lots of conflicting data, persuading councils to make better facilities, increasing the number of cyclists on the roads, changing attitudes towards speeding and acceptable road behaviour, tweaking insurance guidelines, altering media perceptions to cycling for the better, and lots more things David Hembrow will think of and put much better than I can. Many, many things which many, many of us are trying our best to do in our own way.

    Put simply, too much helmet wearing reinforces the notion that cycling is dangerous. And there's far too much helmet wearing. What makes cycling dangerous is bad facilities, bad driving, bad thinking. Slapping a plastic melon on your head is not a magic charm that will ward off accidents. But sadly, that's clearly how a lot of cyclists think: no lights, deafened by their iPod, no hand signals, no attention to red signals... but they're wearing a helmet.

    Some of my best friends wear helmets (most don't). I think they're wrong but they're still my friends. Some of my best friends casually take short-haul flights (most don't). I think they're wrong but they're still my friends. Some of my best friends are not faithful (most are). I think they're wrong but they're still my friends. Maybe a mark of a good friend is that you can criticise them and they're still your friend. (Obviously, I don't do anything wrong ever, and so nobody needs to criticise me.)

    So no let-up from me against helmet overenthusiasts, I'm afraid. Insisting on helmets when you're cycling on a soft-surfaced, traffic-free rail trail deserves criticism. But I wouldn't want to upset anyone unintentionally, and I'll try my best to make the anti-pro-helmet case with good humour.

    Thanks again for your comment, and I hope you continue to enjoy the blog.