17 October 2010

In Argentina

I'm now in Argentina for a few months, updating the next edition of the Bradt Guide.

I've started an occasional blog at http://updatingargentina.blogspot.com

Buenos Aires has a few cycle lanes, and you do see a handful of intrepid ciclistas threading their way through the cut and thrust of the New-York-style traffic mayhem.

But in the world's sixth-largest country, I don't think I'll be doing much getting around on two wheels...

16 September 2010

Last post: It's goodbye

This is my last post here. Possibly for a few months, possibly for ever. I'm leaving London and going walkabout.

There may be occasional posts from exotic places round the world - Argentina, Stevenage, Japan, Hull Job Centre, who knows? Life is what you make of it. Except usually the instructions are missing, and the screws are the wrong size.

I'll miss this a lot: 717 posts, at least one per day, since 11 January 2009. I'll miss having the excuse for cycling round London and nosing around taking pictures and talking to people. I'll miss your comments. I'll miss you other bloggers. I'll miss the sheer exhilaration of living in a city where everything happens, everything and everyone comes to you, and it's all only a bike ride away.

I won't miss the psycho bus drivers, arrogant taxis and lawless minicabs. Or the Elephant and Castle roundabouts.

It's been a remarkable year, with the advent of the hire scheme and the Cycle Superhighways. London is certainly enjoying a cycling boom in terms of bike culture, buzz and PR; for the adventurous urbanite, there's no more exciting place in the world to explore by bike.

One day I hope to be back in London, and I also hope it's a better place to cycle. A place not just for wasp-men in sun-yellow jackets, wraparound shades, helmets and road bikes jumping lights, but for real cyclists: people in normal clothes simply going from A to B, where A and B might be shops, school, work, pub, home, friends', or even undefined, because it's just fun.

But a lot will have to change. Facilities remain patchy at best, and usually non-existent or positively dangerous. We're not even as far as the O of Copenhagen.

So now it's up to you. See you. Safe cycling everyone.

15 September 2010

Freewheeling uphill: Scotland's Electric Brae

Cycling in Scotland the other day I took the chance to do some uphill freewheeling near Ayr.

Croy Brae, often nicknamed Electric Brae, is a 'gravity hill' - an optical illusion that fools you into thinking an up slope is a down slope, and that the laws of thermodynamics are being temporarily suspended.

It's on the A719, about seven miles of gentle climb and coastal views south out of Ayr. A sign warns you of slow traffic: lots of cars can't resist the temptation to stop, let off the handbrake, and roll magically against the gradient.

There are several such gravity hills (I featured one in Aston Clinton, near Tring, in my Quirky Bike Rides book). But Electric Brae is the best one to cycle.

The illusion really is astonishing. This stretch of road clearly goes downhill into the trees, doesn't it?

Actually not, as the detailed stone plaque informs you in the lay by. In fact it's a quarter of a mile of 1 in 86 descent the other way, towards the camera.

If you stop on your bike 'down' in the middle of those trees and face towards the camera, you roll 'uphill', reaching a freewheel speed of about 10mph. (Conversely, of course, cycling the other way feels oddly strenuous for a 'downhill'.)

The strangest thing is how the illusion disappears the instant you lower your viewpoint (right), particularly when you're looking through a camera. With the surrounding hills out of your eye line, it's suddenly clear that the slope runs towards you. It's a remarkable demonstration of how subtle, but powerful, the subconscious effect is of the skyline on your mental spirit level.

14 September 2010

Model cycling facilities at Wimborne

Cycling in Dorset the other day I popped in to Wimborne's Model Town.

This is one of those 'world famous' attractions that has the term 'world famous' in quotes, which means you'd vaguely heard of it from an uncle when you were little, or from that primary school teacher from Poole you failed to chat up once.

The Model Town, opened in 1951, is a charming one-tenth size reconstruction of Wimborne as it was then, shops, houses, minster and all. You stride around the traffic-free streets, sixty feet tall, like a benign B-movie monster in search of a cycle shop.

There are two, both with miniature (but rather modern-looking MTB-style) bikes in their windows.

Crawford's (tel. 347) looks the place to buy a decent new bike for a few guineas, while Dacombe's (tel. 452) seems the place for repairs and advice, or buying an inner tube for a 2.7 inch wheel.

Not much sign of bike parking in 1940s Wimborne by the looks of it, though.

Afterwards you can cycle round the full-size modern-day town, to see if the shops are still there (they're not). It's a pleasant enough place, but when you get cut up by a white van you wish you were sixty feet tall again.

13 September 2010

It's the only language they understand

Our East of England correspondent has sent us this picture he snapped on a ride near Ely over the weekend. It instructs road users to drive and cycle on the left, not just in English but also, helpfully, in Spanish.

Here are a few similar signs we'd like to see in London. (We accept no responsibility for clumsy Babelfish translations.)

Japanese Biggu Ben no shashin o toru to, watashi no mae ni doori ni tachanaide kudasai. When having your photo taken in front of Big Ben, please don't step out backwards into the road in front of me.

Russian Если вы сидите рядом с пивом канала выпивая, то пожалуйста дайте мне комнату задействовать в прошлом If you are sitting next to a canal drinking beer, please give me room to cycle past.

Italian Cammini prego sulla pavimentazione, non sulla pista ciclabile. Particolarmente quando siete un gruppo di 24. Please walk on the pavement, not on the cycle path. Especially when you are a group of 24.

Dutch Ja, weten wij onze het fietser faciliteiten shit zijn. Geen behoefte houden vertellend ons. Yes, we know our cycling facilities are rubbish. No need to keep going on about it.

12 September 2010

Domino effect: Pizzas by bike

The branch of Dominos pizza in Queen St, in the City, does a lot of its deliveries by bike. (Delivery policies are not set centrally by the company, but locally by franchise holders.) We saw six of them stacked up the other day.

Given the current bike boom in London, we think restaurant menus should add some new pizzas for cyclists:

Bike Hire Scheme pizza Half the time, arrives as an empty plate. The other half, the pizza does arrive, but there's nowhere on the table to put it

Cycle Superhighway pizza Whatever toppings happened to be there before, only now coloured blue

Boris pizza Lots of capers but little else

11 September 2010

2010, year of the blues

Blue is clearly the biking colour of 2010: the Barclays-tinted hire bikes, the kerbside cobalt of the Superhypeways...

Now a dive shop has got into the act as well, with this icepop-coloured advert bike, spotted outside Sainsbury's in Clapham. Very nice, but I wish people wouldn't use our bike racks as free advertising space when I'm stopping off to buy a loaf.

Unless, of course, it's some sort of wry comment on the depths to which London's cycle facilities have sunk.

10 September 2010

Hire bike pile up at Kings Cross

Over 18,500 journeys are being made on London's hire bikes every day, which is even more than the number of press releases TfL send out about the success of the scheme. The latest informs us that over half a million journeys have now been made, and that 80,000 people are signed up as members.

The scheme has unquestionably contributed to London's cycling culture: it has massively increased the proportion of cyclists who blog, tweet and post Facebook updates about empty docking stations here and full docking stations there.

Kings Cross is a good place to see the redistribution process in action. Here, like herds of wildebeest at the watering hole, hire bikes pile up ready to be spread back around the city. So, shortly after this photo, I was overtaken by 20 hire bikes. Unfortunately they were all on a trailer.

09 September 2010

Rose to fame: New coast-to-coast bike route opens

A new signed Sustrans coast-to-coast route opens on Saturday, Bike Radar tells us. The Way of the Roses runs 170 miles from Morecambe to Bridlington across the Pennines, Dales and Wolds, taking in Lancaster, Settle, Ripon and York en route.

The map is now available from the Sustrans shop.

Right: Morecambe promenade bustling with walkers and cyclists

I rode the route earlier this year and took these pics, which give you an idea of what it's like. (The trip was for an article in the latest issue of Cycling Plus, October 2010, which has pictures of someone who looks like me but older in it.)

Bridge over the Crook o'Lune, and a cyclist waiting for spring to arrive

The most famous coast-to-coast route is the C2C (or 'Sea to Sea'). That 140-mile route, from Workington / Whitehaven to Sunderland / Newcastle, is said to be Britain's most popular leisure cycle route. In some ways it's been a victim of its own success, though: accommodation is hard to find as it gets booked out in advance by charity cycling throngs.

That's the road to Clapham, that is. The Yorkshire village, not the London one

So Sustrans devised a series of alternatives (Hadrian's Cycleway, Reivers Route etc) to take the pressure off. The Way of Roses is said to be the last in the set.

It's a sheep, or a cow, or something. How should I know? I'm a city boy

The endpoints are close to rail stations, and you can get between London and Morecambe/Lancaster or Bridlington for a tenner each way if you book in advance. (Lancaster is only 3-4 miles from Morecambe along a well-surfaced railtrail.) Bridlington's superb station bar has been authentically restored in Edwardian style, complete with (presumably genuine) old adverts with very rude words in them.

Typical Dales scenery, this, where your only fellow traffic is likely to be tractors, horse riders, walkers, and calendar photographers

I took a leisurely four days to do the trip, overnighting at Settle, Ripon and Pocklington, where there are camp sites. It was April, so most of my mornings were spent thawing out. There are plenty of B&Bs on the way too. And pubs. You may well need them.

Brimham Rocks. Hey, yes, it does!

The first half, to Ripon, is hilly. The second half is mostly flat. The wind is mostly west to east, except if you do it that way, when it'll be east to west.

Bikes are valuable things to have in cycle-friendly York. So valuable that a group of youths tried to steal my bike while I was taking this photo

There's nothing particularly new about the route apart from the signposts: the Way of Roses is mostly made up of existing routes. (Morecambe-Lancaster rail trail, Lune Valley trail, Lancashire Cycleway, Pennine Cycleway, White Rose Route, NCN1.)

This is yer actual Stamford Bridge, east of York - and yes, it's caught out several lazy GPS users trying to get to watch Chelsea

Still, it's a fine three- or four-day traverse of some thrilling scenery, between two lesser-frequented seaside resorts. If you've done the C2C and are looking for something similar-but-different, it's well worth doing.

Most of East Yorkshire is snooker-table flat, and about as interesting. But Millington Wold, east of Pocklington, is a gem

Journey's end, at Bridlington. With its handsome old town and gaudy candy-floss seafront, there's a 1960s feel about the place. Indeed, that's probably when the pub we celebrated in was last redecorated.

08 September 2010

Success for team visiting all bike hire stations in a day

We've just noticed on Londonist the success of the 24 hour London Bike Hire Challenge.

Last Thursday, two teams attempted to visit all 336 docking stations in 24 hours by hire bike: over 100 miles of travel. (See map)

The teams, led by Patrick Bishop, were raising money for a water projects charity.

One team managed it, despite having only seven minutes available for each journey, and the doubts of critics who should know better. (Though it looks like they wisely dropped the sumo suit idea.)

(The other team had to drop out when their keys wouldn't work properly. Bad luck. I thought it was frustrating enough when my key didn't work the other day and I had to walk to the off-licence instead.)

Congratulations. And lucky that they hadn't scheduled their attempt for yesterday, when strike-busting cyclists hoovered up most of the hire bikes.

07 September 2010

Three strikes and you're out on your bike

Did the latest tube strike this sunny morning bring out more cyclists?

I can't really judge, as I'm not normally out at this time, what with the terms of the ASBO and the electronic tag and everything.

But the ASL at the top of Kennington Park Road certainly seemed packed with bikes. (See larger pic)

Actually, the Northern Line - which the blue stripe of the CS7 follows (right) - was working this morning (though with 'some stations closed').

I couldn't work out the implications of this for modal share though. I was too keen on coming back for breakfast.

06 September 2010

Yellow fever: Skyride 2010

Yesterday's Skyride, according to the event website, saw '85,000 hit the streets of London'.

Good job most of them were wearing helmets, then. Clearly the event is a lot more dangerous than I thought.

I didn't see any tarmac impacts when I trundled round with the masses though.

In fact, the road closures between Parliament Square and Tower Bridge were simply enjoyed by everyone - especially on Westminster Bridge.

Here, a mini-fad spontaneously evolved for being photographed sprawled out, fashion-shoot-style, on the car-free road surface (right).

Organised mass rides in uniform, especially ones as occasionally claustrophobic as this, aren't my thing. But for those who took part on this cool, cloudy September day, most of them clad in Sky's complimentary tabard and turning the streets yellow, it was definitely a success.

It was very crowded, as usual, with families much in evidence. All the parents'n'kids groups I chatted to were delighted with their day out, so fair enough.

I didn't see as many extravagant machines as last year; just the odd recumbent, one triplet, and a good sprinkling of hire bikes. (Other bloggers who got up earlier than me had more success, such as Freewheeler and London Cyclist.)

As well as the usual marquee shanty town offering entertainment in St James's Park, this year offered a 3D cinema experience.

You could wheel your bike inside a dome cinema tent set up on Horseguards Parade and see a five-minute promo film for Team Sky (right) that featured brief 360 degree and 3D sections.

The surround-view interludes put you right in the middle of a peloton, with uncompromising close-ups of someone's oscillating bottom.

In contrast, the 3D episodes swooped you around lots of gee-whiz perspectives of racing action, interspersed, a little puzzingly, with owls.

Most intriguing about the film however was the helicopter shot of Team Sky whizzing along, owl-free, but apparently laying out the blue stripe of a Cycle Superhighway behind them (right).

There was a bit of a bottleneck on Lower Thames Street before the underpass, giving the corked droves plenty of time to read the cheery sign: TUBE STRIKE MON & TUES SO WHY NOT CYCLE TO WORK.

Great idea, but if it's as crowded as this, it'd take about four hours.

At one point we were entertained by roadside members of the West Withering Gilbert and Sullivan Society in costume - something to do with an upcoming programme on G&S on Sky Arts.

It made me ponder on bicycle-related works that the operettic twosome ought to have written. I've got a little list:
I am the very model of a modern major road
Yeomen of the Mudguard
Velo tit velo
HMS Pinarello
Cox and Advanced Stop Box

Clearly it was time to peel off and have some refreshment.

05 September 2010

Better shred than dead

We had a ton of stuff to shred the other day - several panniers' worth - and took advantage of a cycle-through security shredders in Greenwich. For peace of mind we could drop the blade-fodder ourselves directly onto the conveyor.

It comes out the other side mashed up into postage-stamp sized pieces. They in turn are trussed up into bales together with similar scraps of confidential confetti in a variety of languages.

Most seemed to be tantalising fragments of text in Cyrillic and Arabic. All very exciting; it could be the setting for a Bond movie fight scene.

Appropriately the entrance gates, in the industrial estate by the Blackwall Tunnel, had shredded fragments of text too.

04 September 2010

Helpful signs at railway stations

I enjoyed this sign at Plockton station, up in the Highlands, the other day. Useful information, it says: There is no taxi rank in the vicinity of this station. There are no bus stops near this station. Good job I had a bike, then.

And this one, displayed on the window of a Northern Rail service between Harrogate and York. It lists the lengths the company will go to to protect their staff against abuse: Whether it's swearing, shouting or spitting, we will do everything in our power to stop anti-social behaviour and protect our people in the course of their duties.

Well, if it takes swearing, shouting or spitting to protect your people, that's what you have to do.

03 September 2010

Height of folly: Biking up Bealach na Ba

The road west over the hills to Applecross, on the north-west coast of Scotland, is Britain's longest steep hill. Simon Warren's recent book on Britain's top 100 cycling hills rated every one out of ten; this one rated eleven.

The hill is Bealach na Ba, usually translated 'Pass of the Cattle', but I prefer 'Cow Pass'. Bealach is the Gaelic for 'pass', pronounced rather like someone unexpectedly throwing up, which is appropriate.

The sign at the bottom - a candidate for Britain's most verbose - sternly warns learner drivers and caravans off its jackknife hairpins and vertiginous gradients.

The road was built in 1822, and they were clearly made of stern stuff then: it rises from sea level to 616m over a distance of 9km - or 2,053 feet in five and a bit miles in old money - giving it an average gradient of 7%, or 1 in 14 in imperial.

(It was listed in the Guinness Book of Records, as it was then called, as the longest steep hill in Britain for many years, before Guinness went all populist and turfed out stuff like that in favour of yummiest flavours of ice-cream, or the most unicyclists in Santa Claus outfits etc.)

It's Britain's most Alpine ascent, getting steadily steeper and steeper as it staircases up the wall of the pass, with the dramatic switchbacks at the top reaching 1 in 5.

But - yesterday, anyway - it was sheer delight to cycle up, from this tourist's point of view, stopping frequently to take pictures and swig water, and wave at motorcyclists hurtling to the summit. From the viewpoint at the top you have the magnificent skyline of the Cuillin ridge, keenly observed by people sitting inside motorhomes.

The other side - down to Applecross - is a whizzy adrenaline rush, with good sightlines, mostly easy corners, gentler gradients than the eastern ascent, and long straightish bits: five, maybe six miles of freewheel. And there's a pleasant pub in Applecross with a beer garden on the edge of the loch, and a fine view of Red Cuillin - that's the Skye Brewery beer, not the peak.

This, you see, was my birthday present to me.

02 September 2010

Tasty: Bike to the bus cafe

As we know, bus drivers can sometimes be a problem. Now, don't get me wrong - I rarely have wrong words with bus drivers, mainly because I can't understand what they're shouting at me, and I recognise that it's only the badly-behaved majority that tar the rest with the same brush - but we rather like the novelty of having a friendly encounter with a bus.

So here's your opportunity: Foodmaster, a double-decker bus converted into a mobile cafe. It serves top coffee and cakes, and hearty German sausages, and is currently doing a season in Mile End park every week (by the Art Pavilion at the end of Ashcroft Road) from Thursday to Sunday.

There's lots of bike racks, and it's just off the canal, so you can get there pleasantly and traffic-free. It therefore joins the growing list of bike-friendly cafes in London, which are appearing faster than TfL press releases these days. So if you miss it, don't worry, there'll be another one along in a minute.

View Larger Map

01 September 2010

Going for gold: Bike paint job

We stopped to admire this all-gold bike parked on Long Lane the other day. Shame about the saddle - perhaps they could source a gold Brooks on eBay?

We hope the owners are preparing an all-silver and all-bronze model for the 2012 Olympics too.

31 August 2010

Plane speaking: Bike to London City Airport

Cycling to visit an airport is usually about as enticing a prospect as dental work with a hangover, but London City Airport is an exception. It's only a few miles from Tower Bridge, and a pleasant run: you can go alongside the Ornamental and Thames much of the way, then through Canary Wharf and over the Lea bridge.

The airport is next to Victoria Dock, a cityscape built by robots for an offworld colony. With ExCel, a strange almost-transporter bridge, clean-cut alien buildings and a curious hidden beach, it offers a city-of-the-future vision from a 1960s boys' annual.

At its eastern end you cross an all-metal footbridge and duck under planes (above right). They abseil down and belay their way up the sky at unusually steep angles, thanks to the cramped runway.

You can park your bike almost opposite the terminal entrance, under cover of the concrete aqueduct that carries the DLR. The modest racks almost give you enough space to lock your bike comfortably, and look more patronised by staff than by citybreakers.

If you're travelling light and flying from London City Airport, bike is a fine way to get there - not that you'd know it from their website. Still, the bike sign is pleasingly Netherlandish.

We didn't actually go in the terminal on our visit yesterday - the coffee costs more than most Ryanair flights - but there's an excellent cafe nearby. Just to the west of here, across the main road, is Thames Barrier Park (right) which has a stylish, inexpensive cafe and coffee shop in the pavilion by the lawns.

So for a budget citybreak, cycle out to the airport, then turn back and stay in London. All the buzz of the airport, the cheapness of a staycation, and the excitement of finding your way round where nobody speaks English.

30 August 2010

TfL promo vids: Bare-headed, or thin film on top?

We spotted this TfL film crew at work yesterday, filming a lass on a hire bike trundling up and down Cycle Superhighway 3 on Narrow St.

The British film industry may be worried by budget cuts at the moment, but TfL is doing its best to rescue things single-handed, with their five lively new films promoting cycling.

Each features a different type of London cyclist, covering the whole range of Londoners that matter: two TV celebrities, two more attractive young white women, and a diversity-box-ticking young chap called Mohamed. No older, or otherwise ugly, people, obviously. Not in the target demographic, no doubt.

Still, to my mind it's good to see that only two of the protagonists are wearing helmets. This lack of lids worried BBC Tranport Correspondent Tom Edwards in his recent blog, though.

Evidently the Beeb guys are a nervous lot when it comes to headgear - and their impartiality snaps faster than a non-Snell standard helmet. For example, the BBC Radio 4 programme More or Less last Friday (listenable again until Friday 3 September) 'covered' the helmet debate.

(It surely didn't make best use of researcher Ian Walker, and then allowed the pro-helmet Angela Lee to assert opinions backed by no statistics whatever - which seems curious for a programme on statistics. Overall it was flimsy, full of holes, and gave little worthwhile coverage. Which is probably appropriate for an item on helmets.)

But the presenter couldn't help but sign off saying how he wears a helmet. (Tock, tock, as he taps his helmet, ooh, that's good use of the radio medium you see, they're trained professionals, you know.) The Beeb hackette writing the BBC website article about the same programme couldn't resist putting her oar in too, saying she always wears a helmet.

Of course, it's very unlikely that a BBC programme is likely to cause damage to your laptop or radio, when you lash out in anger at them during another superficial item on cycle helmets that uses anecdote and opinion as 'evidence'. But just in case, it's a good idea to take precautions. Protect the laptop or radio with some sort of cover. Can't do any harm, can it? I think that's the point the programme was making anyway.

So I'm pleased to see TfL is not capitulating to the helmet correctness lobby.

If they could broaden out from their emphasis on bright young people though I'd be even pleaseder. An attractive young woman on a bike is a pleasant sight. But a healthy cycling culture needs more than flowing-haired models pedalling small dogs in baskets. It needs schoolkids, and pensioners, and business suits, and dumpy tired-looking middle-aged people too.

Speaking of which, if TfL needs another extra, I've a bit of time available right now.

29 August 2010

The cream of cricket: What a mess at Lord's

Sooner or later, every pannier I have ends up smelling of sour milk.

Because sooner or later, despite the lessons of history, I'm tempted to transport a pot of cream. And sooner or later, trapped under something heavy - a bottle of water, say, or a folder full of job rejections - said container explodes, transforming the pannier in a white-out instant into a milky Chernobyl. Ortlieb becomes Prypiat.

My lactose-emulsive cataclysm came yesterday, cycling to see the final England-Pakistan test at Lord's. (No cycle parking at all, but some handy hire-bike docking stations.)

Possibly under the weight of my picnic lunch, possibly following an over-enthusiastic baggage search, the tub of Tesco's double lavishly self-destructed.

'Suitable for pouring, whipping and cooking', it says on the tub. It should add 'unsuitable for carting around in over-stuffed bike panniers'.

I spent the first hour of play mopping up fugitive lagoons of cream from me, from the concrete floor, from fellow spectators. It was like a bomb in a Dulux factory, a new shade in the Exxon Valdez range, snowdrift with a hint of stale Camembert.

I flushed out the pannier in the gents with an OCD rigour but it still reeks, inevitably, of baby sick.

What a terrible, sad, needless, sticky mess; a mess that can never be properly cleaned up; a day that will be grimly remembered by all those involved. And that's just Pakistan's batting.

Remember, when transporting hazardous foodstuffs by bicycle, there is a line you shouldn't cross, a mark you shouldn't overstep. Same goes for Pakistan's bowling.