15 June 2013

Feeling faint: Northern Rail's invisible bike signs

I've been busy blogging elsewhere, cycling Land's End to John o'Groats.

But back home in York, I was pleased to see that Northern Rail continues to make those of taking bikes on trains feel special. Such as on the service to Hull (picture).

Most passengers would naively expect the cycle spaces - which, in fact, are behind this door here (picture) - to be indicated by some sort of visible sign.

Hah! Not likely! The magic mark (above the yellow rectangle on the left-hand side in the image above) is near-transparent, applied in special non-seeable paint (picture - heavily modified by software to make it more prominent), so that only the chosen few, 'real', cyclists know where to go.

01 May 2013

Moving story: Kotor's cargo trikes

I've just been in Kotor, on the coast of Montenegro.

The walled old town (picture) is traffic-free. This makes walking around its cosy lanes and squares delightful.

Until the cruise-ship daytrippers arrive, when you pine for the relative tranquillity of the North Circular.

The only way to move things around (apart from an electric cart which takes the bins in and out) is therefore by trolley or bike.

So many of the locals either own or rent cargo trikes like this (picture).

Although it's apparently taking up a car-parking space, it causes no problems with motorists in the main town's streets.

That's because Balkan drivers just park on the pavement anyway (picture).

Anyway, here's a Kotor family back from the supermarket run (picture) on a model of more rusty vintage.

The bikes tend to be pushed when in the old town, as cycling per se seems to be prohibited too.

But definitely open to bikes - and closed to cars - is the shoreline road 20km to Tivat, along the headland in the top left of this picture. Kotor old town is the red triangle at the bottom (picture).

It's a stunning ride, and - rarely for mountainous Montenegro - flat.

So I was told. Though if that information is as trustworthy as Podgorica's taxi drivers, you'll need crampons and oxygen.

I would have done it, except the only bikes available for hire in Kotor were those cargo trikes. I could have taken quite a picnic with me, though.

18 April 2013

Midi life crisis: Cycling the Canal du Midi

I was in France last week, cycling the Canal du Midi (picture).

The 240km long engineering marvel, linking Toulouse with Beziers via Carcassonne (and hence, with other watercourses, the Atlantic and the Med) offers a flat, traffic-free cyclable route through the south of France. What's not to like?

Well, er, quite a lot, actually. The 40km east out of Toulouse is superbly surfaced, and skatable-smooth. But the scenery is as dull as yesterday's croissants, and you don't go through any towns or villages. It's plain boring.

About the only noteworthy sight is this car sculpture in a farmyard near Gardouch (picture), which may be a comment on French driving.

Once the tarmac finishes, you're into the canalside lottery familiar to English towpath riders: a mishmash of smooth gravel, bumpy gravel and muddy, lavishly-puddled paths (picture).

Fine on a mountain bike, but what's the point of a mountain bike without mountains? I did it on a shopping bike, because at least there were some shops. And the front basket was big enough for a baguette, bottle of red and slab of pate.

Carcassonne, with its magnificent medieval walled town, is a highlight. You can cycle to it across the traffic-free old bridge (picture).

Its old town is magnificent, though some aspects, such as the towers' pointy roofs and the cycle parking by the entrance, are evidently inauthentic.

The Canal du Midi is, in sum, a bit dull; for me, exploring France by backroads is much more interesting.

But Toulouse itself is of interest to the real cyclist. It has a bike hire scheme (picture) along the same lines as that in London or Paris.

You wouldn't call it a Cycling City - it's not Cambridge, but then, where is? Oxford, perhaps - though Toulouse has a steady trickle of everyday cyclists (picture).

The flatness helps, but so does the permeability. In the centre, it seems every street, even if one-way for cars, is two-way for cyclists.

Often these lanes are startlingly narrow, but I had no problem with the salmon-thing, cycling against oncoming traffic (picture).

Indeed, French drivers seemed on this trip very good at overtaking me with plenty of space on rural roads, and driving safely and steadily on cramped city streets such as this (picture). I wish English cities were as flexible with bike contraflows.

Perhaps that farmyard sculpture in Gardouch isn't a comment on French driving after all.

15 April 2013

Lost and found: Home Counties wilderness by bike

Lost Lanes – published today (see sample, or buy it online now) – is a fab cycling book by Jack Thurston, of Bike Show renown.

It’s a sort of routes-guidebook, describing 36 Home Counties rides; but it captures the real essence of cycle-exploring far better than the average cobbled-together routebook clone you see bookended in Waterstone’s.

Real cycling, as Jack knows, is not about cycling; it’s about what else it enables you to do. Those of a cake-stop or pub-destination mindset will know exactly what I mean.

And, indeed, the book’s routes – from marked ones such as the Crab and Winkle way to bespoke back-lane delights – are rated for, say, pub and good-food opportunities en route. But they also reveal the sort of mildly bohemian adventure you don’t usually associate with the posh South East: wild camping, wild swimming.

It’s possible to see wildlife in London, of course, though this is usually the sort that throws stones at you on the Walworth Road. Lost Lanes gives you a genuine taste of wilderness, a more metaphorical stone’s throw from the capital.

These routes don't require helmets, lycra longs, or a 4x4 with a bike rack (train access is listed for every route): only a sense of adventure. And, perhaps, a picnic, your trunks and tent. And your iPhone, to make your Facebook friends insanely jealous of your carefree, vibrant lifestyle.

So get this book and set out on your bike the next warm sunny day. Er, when the warm sunny days actually do arrive. Clearly, the photoshoots for the lovely images in the book must have been done on last year’s one rain-free weekend...

18 January 2013

Aye, what a Grand Depart: 2014 Tour de France comes to York

On Sunday 6 July 2014, Day 2 of the Tour de France will start here in York.

This is astonishing and fantastic news. It means that, for once, bikes will have priority through the centre of town, unencumbered by vans delivering flatpack wardrobes to Argos, cars displaying disabled badges whose occupants miraculously walk unaided to Barnitts, and tourists stepping out backwards in front of you as they try to get the Minster frontage on their iPhone.

The press launch of Yorkshire's Grand Depart for 2014 - aye, grand indeed - was in Leeds Town Hall, last night (picture).

We learned brief details of the route: that Day 1 (good for sprinters, picture) will go from Leeds to Harrogate, and Day 2 (good for attackers) from York to Sheffield.

Perhaps wary of the links between drugs and past, now-forgotten, Tour winners, the launch involved no performance-enhancing chemicals. There wasn't a free glass of wine or canape to be had.

Well, this is Yorkshire. If you want a drink and a snack, there's a Wetherspoon round the corner, you know. We're here to work.

But it was still packed out, with standing room only (picture). When Welcome to Yorkshire announced they were bidding for the Tour it was something of a joke. Now it's happened.

To paraphrase Bob Monkhouse, when I told people I wanted to be a comic writer, everybody laughed. They're not laughing now.

If you'd said to me 20 years ago that in future people will pick up dog poo in plastic bags, pubs will be smoke-free, and people will show you videos of their cat on a mobile phone, I'd have just about believed you. Even, maybe, that we'd have a British Tour de France winner.

But the Tour de France itself going almost past my front door (picture)? No way.

Indeed there won't be a way. It'll be too crowded, especially as all my friends and relatives are now angling to come and stay.

Now, at least, we can enjoy the 2014 Tour in the same way as the French: stood in a bar, half-watching it on telly, complaining about the crowds, and moaning that today's cyclists are not a patch on the old guys.

The launch party finished outside, in the swirling snow, with flaming-jugglers and fireworks (picture).

Obviously I had to Facebook my snaps, and had to find a wifi opportunity. Luckily there was a Wetherspoon round the corner.

I've also blogged this morning about the Tour de France coming to York on the excellent York Mix website.