Thursday 27 August 2015


Well, my 19 year old daughter Harriet has just been converted to riding a bicycle.

She was brought up in a sub-rural setting, on the edge of a prosperous Surrey market town surrounded by kilohectares of National Trust common land, but the geography, topography and fast, winding rural roads would discourage all but the most committed on-road bicycle enthusiasts.  It is also the area with about the highest penetration of car use anywhere in the UK, at around 83% of households.  One of H's friends - admittedly a more than averagely indulged child of more than typically affluent parents for this area - received a brand new Mini for her 18th birthday.  Other less fortunate kids had to make do with second hand Polos as their coming-of-age gift.  To them, a bicycle is merely a toy, a mountain bike for playing on the many miles of bridle paths just on our doorsteps.

Small wonder that H's ambition was to start driving lessons at 17, and that she had no real interest in bikes despite her father's enthusiasm. I have been sticking my fingers in my ears and La-la-la-ing for quite a while as she coaxed and wheedled for me to pay for driving lessons.  Imagine then my relief when she asked me to buy her a bicycle.  Mrs M made faces at the cost of a quality Dutch-style bicycle (from Fitz & Folwell, kind of Montreal’s answer to Bobbin Bicycles), but driving lessons would have cost more, never mind the insurance cost of adding her to our policy.

Breezer Downtown, one of a clutch of "Dutch" bikes, such as Canadian makes Linus
and Simcoe, and the UK's own Bobbin and Pashley, stocked by
in Montreal.  They also offer great bikes for rentals
Then she went on to Uni.  Ever independent, she opted to go abroad, to Montreal to study.  Montreal is reputedly one of the leading North American cycling cities, and the university - McGill - is located just on the [south]* western boundary of the Plateau Mont Royal.  Her first year residence was on Avenue du Parc, just inside the Plateau.  This year she is sharing an apartment a little further east* into the Plateau, close to Rue Rachel/Boulevard St Denis.

Montreal's reputation as a cycling city shouldn't be overplayed.  You certainly see more cyclists than you do in London, especially outside commuting hours, and Montreal is a few years ahead of London in developing decent infrastructure - the equivalent of the East-West superhighway, on Maisonneuve, having been in operation for a few years now. 

However, Amsterdam it ain't.  Like London, a considerable portion of the bicycle use is in one part of the city. The Plateau has far higher bicycle use than the city as a whole, and reminds me quite a lot of Hackney/Shoreditch. Located just to the northeast* of the main commercial/financial district of Downtown, slightly dilapidated built environment but vibrant and full of life, quite young feeling.  They have much of the cycling infrastructure, but like our own Hackney not much of it is segregated!  It is easy to navigate downtown on infrastructure but it is far harder to navigate back uptown, with one-ways without contra flows or cycle lanes.

H will benefit from the best that they have, living close to Rue Rachel which provides a segregated two-way about 3.5m wide all the way over to Parc, where more segregated paths take you down to the University. 

Rue Rachel cycle track with, to right of frame, Bicycletterie JR, one of Montreal's numerous bike parts/repair/rental shops which doesn't sell bikes.

For wider travels, she will, from time to time, have to "man up" and ride the road which, entirely unlike London, is far less threatening as motorists do seem to be far less aggressive, far more patient, and almost universally law-abiding when it comes to traffic lights. In fact, in the 15 or so days I have spent in Montreal, I don't think I have ever seen a motor vehicle or a cyclist run a red light, and few pedestrians either.

But I don't think it is the infrastructure, such as it is, or the road environment, which has achieved this epiphany, or at least not directly.  What has made the real difference is the sheer normality of cycling here.  It really looks like everyone cycles.  Every row house (typically divided into two or three apartments in "Colonial" style) has a half-dozen bikes chained up outside, or on a balcony or staircase. Around metro stations, supermarkets, or Downtown you'll see dozens of them vying for any available lockable object.
I would hazard a guess that schemes like Maisonneuve and Rue Rachel, together with more leisure routes such as the Lachine Canal, have brought out more, younger and older, and more timid, cyclists, but that the real momentum has come from the normalising effect of this first wave of new riders, making a mass of potential cyclists feel that they won't be freaks if they join them.
That, I fervently hope, is what will happen, gradually, with London's East-West and North-South superhighways.

* Montrealers tend to twist their city map around so that the principal crosstown streets, Sherbrooke, Maisonneuve, Sainte Catherine, run across the page.  In fact they run slightly to the north of northwest, rather than East-west.

Thursday 9 July 2015

Nothing (much) to do with cycling: “Greece is the Word, the Word..”

A few years ago, I took the family for an October half-term holiday to a Mark Warner resort near Kalamata, in Greece.  We had been spending this week for some years at Sunsail resorts in Turkey, until, for reasons too complex to go into here, their entire Aegean operation folded, and we were left looking at late notice for a Plan B and at this stage we had not yet discovered Neilson.

The proposition is similar across several operators including Warner, Sunsail, Neilson, Club Med etc.  A hotel and beach complex offering pool, spa, pilates etc plus dinghy sailing and windsurfing, with RYA-certified courses and instructors, and tennis, with a team of coaches.  Mark Warner is heavier on the tennis than most, with about a dozen courts in their Kalamata resort.  But (and I’ll return to this later) no mountain biking, normally a significant part of the mix in these resorts. (Actually, what they mean is a 50/50 mix of on and offroad riding, using upper midmarket Hardtail XC bikes by Specialized or Gary Fisher).

Anyway, back to Kalamata.  With capacity for about 500 guests, the resort witnesses the Home Counties professional middle classes wandering about in their tennis whites, enjoying a drink at the bar between matches and coaching sessions.  You have everything you (apparently) need right there.

Your chances of meeting a Greek though are pretty small.  The hotel manager was local, and quite possibly the housekeeping staff were too, although they kept themselves largely invisible.  All the beach staff, the instructors and the tennis coaches, were British.  The bar, restaurant and kitchen were staffed by Poles and Balts.

And you were not very likely to meet Greeks outside the resort either.  There were no organised trips to sites of local interest (Kalamata, as a city, is actually not very interesting, despite being the home of the eponymous olive) and barely any information either, just a few typewritten notes and photos in a folder at reception about Pilos, a small port town to the west – a local bus service every hour, with the stop at the top of the service road about a mile from the resort entrance – walk there yourself.

And, curiously for such resorts, no bicycles.  Not merely no MTBs for guests, and no guided tours.  Knowing this in advance I packed my Birdie (full-suspension folder) in its carrying bag and, after a tense discussion at the charter operator’s check-in at Gatwirck, checked it in as hold baggage.  I tracked down a 1:100,000 road map of the area, photocopied the relevant pages, and made annotations from a careful study of Google Earth photography.  Thus equipped I was able to tour widely around the resort on roads and tracks, coming across the occasional ford not detectable on map or Google and giving my Birdie a much-needed though unplanned wash, and visit the local small towns and villages.

A few intrepid guests solved the dilemma by going into nearby Messina and hiring a curious motley of roadster bicycles, but otherwise I suspect 475 out of 500 guests never ventured past the resort gates all week.

Now, how much was any of this doing for yer average Greek?  Not much, it would seem.  I don’t know whether locals were too snooty to work in tourism, or were simply undercut by eastern European migrants and British Gap Yah types willing to work for beer money, a roof over their heads and as much sun and sex as they could lay hands on.  The hotel owner was probably a corporation or a wealthy individual whose wealth and profits were quite likely being spirited out of the country to avoid tax, while local people didn’t appear to be making any money on which to evade tax. 

Contrast this with Neilson on the Turkish Aegean coast where, through Turkish labour policy and what I suspect was a more socially-responsible corporate policy, all housekeeping, catering and bar staff were locals, together with a fair proportion of the sailing and waterski instructors and the mountain bike guides – many of whom were brought to the UK in the off season to freeze their butts off in the Solent undergoing instructor training courses.  There my money really was going partly into the local economy, and that made me feel better.

The problems faced today by Greece are many and complex.  Go back far enough, and there is the wartime occupation and the plundering by the Nazis of Greece’s treasures, for which only fairly minimal compensation was ever paid.  The Euro can’t have helped, denying as it did the latitude to devalue the exchange rate to protect Greek exports from “unfair” price competition and put up barriers to the more frivolous imports.  I think it has long been suspected that much of the government borrowing went ultimately to line the pockets of politicians and their cronies.  And the major investment banks have been shamefully let off the hook when the IMF, unusually, insisted that the consolidation of Greek government debt into the NGO lenders should fully repay the private banks, at least one of which to my certain knowledge actively marketed complex derivatives which they promised would serve, Enron-style, to disguise the related borrowings from the national balance sheet.

Whatever.  The one person you can confidently say is not responsible for this mess, but is being made to pay the price, is Iannis, or Androulla, Publikos.

Wednesday 10 June 2015

Feedback loop

Why do so many cyclists have to look like a character from “The Roswell Incident”?

This morning on my way into work, astride my Brompton, dressed in  a cotton long-sleeve business shirt and navy blue cotton chinos, I come up at the lights behind a guy on a carbon (I guess) road bike with skinny tyres, derailleur gears and treadless skinny rims.  His attire comprised cleated shoes, lycra shorts and jersey, helmet and shades, topped off with a natty Rapha rucsac.

All for the journey into work.  At least I guess that was his plan – he wasn’t practising for Le Tour de France.

I think this was a fairly extreme case, but it is a commonplace that London cyclists ride derailleur-geared bikes – when hub gears are far more practical for stop-start at lights and junctions – without mudguards or panniers, and they wear broadly sporty clothing, shorts and tees even in cold weather.

But, isn’t that just part of a vicious circle, a feedback loop?  People ride in what is comfortable for the style of riding they want to adopt, and on machines which they consider, on balance, to be more efficient for the style of riding they want to adopt.  That style is VC – behave like a motor vehicle, occupy the road and keep up with the traffic.  Because that is what makes them feel safe and tolerably comfortable in the traffic conditions.

It also reinforces their alien quality, their otherness, which validates in the minds of non-cyclists their dislike and distrust of them.  It excuses politicians and engineers for disregarding the interests of cyclists, allocating virtually no money to their needs despite the fact that they pay quite substantially towards the roads (as all taxpayers do – “road tax” is pitifully inadequate to cover the true cost of roads) and then taking back even what they have allocated.  The result is no or insufficient good cycle infrastructure which would otherwise bring ordinary people in ordinary clothes on ordinary utility bicycles out of hiding, leaving the roads still dominated by “Small Grey”, and so the cycle continues.

Only two days ago, I was passing the works on a section of the new East-West superhighway on the Embankment in front of the Whitehall government buildings and Portcullis House – in a taxi, as I maintain you might not need to be mad to cycle there, but it certainly helps – and I could see that a fairly respectable width of track was being created behind a clearly defined line of kerbstones.  It is good to see that this is actually happening.  Let’s hope that when it is finished, it sees lots of new cyclists riding those ordinary bikes in those ordinary clothes, at a sedate jogging pace with occasional stops to respect the traffic lights imposed on the route.  With that perhaps we will see firstly the irrefutable empirical proof that infrastructure is good both for cycling and for all other modes of transport, and secondly an appreciation from the general public that “cyclists” are just people, trying to go about their normal business, only on a bicycle.

Thursday 28 May 2015

A Senior Moment

So, BikeHub reports on research conducted by the University ofWestern England into why “seniors” do so little cycling in the UK, compared with Denmark or the Netherlands.

I could have told them.

I “celebrated” (if that is the right word) my 60th last week.  Tomorrow is my last day as a full-time worker – from next week I give up my position as a partner in an accounting firm and I start a part-time consultancy with them for a year or two.  I have already collected my “Senior Railcard” – which I will need to make my commuting bill manageable as South West Trains makes no provision for part-timer season tickets and has no apparent intention of doing so in the foreseeable future.

I digress.  My commute to work is a sandwich, two short cycle trips as the bread with a 50 minute train ride as the meat.  The bottom slice is a peaceful saunter down a country lane, through the station car park and a hundred metres or so of busy road to the station entrance.  The top slice is from Waterloo to Blackfriars, over Blackfriars Bridge.

I hope that I will still be working and commuting this route when the new North-South Cycle Superhighway, whose construction has now started, is complete and could take me from Stamford Street to a point barely 100 metres from my office, where Farringdon St meets St Bride St.  By then I think I am going to need it.

Why?  Firstly, anyone over 40 will know that your faculties begin to decline with age.  My one-time 20/20 vision has now deteriorated to eth point where I have to increase my reading specs prescription every 2-3 years.  I am not quite at the point of needing specs for driving, but I can’t be far off.  More to the point, my strength, stamina and flexibility are all declining, and I have to work ever harder in the gym to slow the rate of decline.  I am now overtaken by more often than I overtake other cyclists.  I am finding it ever harder to achieve the sprint speeds and rapid acceleration which John Franklin calls for in his book to be a vehicular cyclist – a term I deplore although I readily acknowledge that VC is the only real strategy for staying safe on busy roads.  I have mild osteo-arthritis in my left knee and I know there is only one way that can go – downhill.

Secondly, I am losing my confidence.  I am becoming more anxious and more fearful.  That seems to be a common feature of ageing.  Older people’s fears – of strangers, youth, immigrants, anyone who is somehow “different” from themselves, may not be laudable but I can understand it as I experience more anxiety about other things which really don’t matter like whether I forgot to put my phone on charge. In cycling terms, I am becoming more anxious and less confident about the behaviour of people around me.  Not only motorists but occasionally other cyclists – I have been unbalanced by close-passes to my right, and experience an increasing number of close-passes to my left which, if they unbalanced me, could tip me into the path of something much heavier and faster and more lethal.  I view most motorists these days with suspicion, even if that great majority of them are actually not hell-bent on killing me.

But there is one thing about which my anxiety is entirely rational – fear of injury.  As you get older, you take longer to recover from injury or illness or the effects of an operation.  I have had four collisions with cars or taxis since I took up cycling in London, and the last of these, while really no more serious than the first three, which I shrugged off, left me in need of an operation on my shoulder which, 2 ½ years later, I have still not fully recovered from – in most respects I get along but when my personal trainer makes me do a plank, it is not my core strength which fails me but my right upper arm and shoulder which buckle after about a minute.  Inability to recover from injury really frightens me, as I recall how a botched operation to repair her knee largely immobilised my mother and started her spiral of decline into eventual dementia and a care home.  (Thank the Lord that she is no longer around to suffer the steep spiral of decline we can expect in local authority adult social care – they were piss-poor five years ago, I shudder to think where they are going now).

So, I simply don’t see myself continuing to cycle in central London for much longer without segregated cycle provision. My travel by bike has already been curtailed to routes I know well, and where I can stay clear of the worst situations such as deliberately-narrowed busy streets like Cheapside, Strand, Pall Mall or Ken High Street.

So roll on the two segregated superhighways.  May they be only the first, as I am sure they will be, when live data hammers home the point beyond even the densest petrol-head minister’s capacity for self-denial, that they are a brilliant solution to any city’s transport problems and should be implemented wholesale.