26 December 2012

One way to avoid punctures: Ski-bikes in Germany

We've just got back from southern Germany, where it was too snowy and icy to cycle.

The Bavarians, though, see such weather as an opportunity rather than a threat. This was what we saw on the local BOB train out of Schliersee. Each carriage here has space for twelve bikes, and about as many snowboards or sets of skis.

Does this count as skis or a bike (picture)? Not sure, but it certainly isn't a wheelchair.

12 December 2012

IJ spy: In Amsterdam, even the Erotic Museum involves bikes...

I've just got back from a few days in Amsterdam. Everyone cycles here of course, except stag-party Brits, so I took a bike (picture) to ensure I wasn't mistaken for one of them. It worked: the prostitutes ignored me.

Also, when I bumped into another cyclist, momentarily forgetting which side of the cycle path I should be on, he swore and threatened to kill me in Dutch. I was delighted, as I had been taken for a local.

Anyway, I took my folder, taking advantage of a five-quid Megabus each way - thus ticking two boxes much approved of by our Netherlands chums: 'bike use', and 'economy'.

It was snowy, blustery and cold, but Amsterdam's streets were still thronged with bikes. So were the pavements (picture), littered by fallen machines whose kickstands failed. Most parking is not Sheffield stands or racks, it's just a painted square of pavement where you stand and self-lock your town clunker.

The preferred luggage carrying option is the black plastic crate (picture). Wicker baskets are rare. Perhaps they've smoked them all.

Some baskets make a statement. My favourite was this beer crate (picture), though I'd have preferred Amstel, as that's the other river Amsterdam is on, apart from the IJ. Much English keg beer also celebrates a well-known river, the Piddle in Dorset.

Thanks to the amount of people on two wheels, cycling feels a normal and safe thing to do. High-visibility clothing is evidently unnecessary, and few people bother with lights. The only red lights I saw were in those prostitute booths I cycled past unacknowledged. In fact, most riders seemed to be listening to their iPod, texting, web surfing etc, with little negative impact on safety.

Many even walk their dog (picture). Some American viewers may be surprised to see that the dog is not wearing a helmet.

The bakfiets is a common way of transporting children around, such as this group in Albert Cuyp market (picture). The box is so big, it can accommodate two children, or one cheese.

Of course, I cycled gleefully round to some of the city's must-sees: cosy Jordaan cafes, snowy Vondelpark, quirky canalsides, the Rijksmuseum's Rembrandts, the Hermitage's van Goghs, the newly extended Stedelijk. Anyone who thinks the Stedelijk's art collection is a load of old rubbish is quite wrong. It's all modern.

I didn't actually go into the Erotic Museum, but I was intrigued by the blowup doll riding a bike in the foyer (picture). The sign clearly states Dutch priorities: DON'T TOUCH THE BIKE. If we want a cycling culture in the UK, this is the sort of thing we have to emulate. I can see council groups excitedly lining up factfinding trips now.

22 November 2012

Trust me, I'm a cyclist: Honesty boxes on Route 65

Cyclists are honest people. I certainly am. Like when that Addison Lee cab cut me up in London last Saturday. I told him honestly what I thought of him. And I sincerely meant every word.

Further proof of cyclists' integrity came today, when I was cycling past Naburn Station (picture), now a cafe/B&B sort of place on the railtrail south of York that is Route 65. (I blogged last year about the entertaining sculptures on the bridge just up from here.)

Because there's a 'Trust Hut' (picture), permanently open for passers-by on bikes (and walking dogs) to help themselves to coffee and tea, paying in an honesty box (actually a tube).

My honesty wasn't tested in the event, as Patrick and then the owner Ann came out to chat, telling me lots of interesting stuff about the place.

(Like the fact that, in addition to the scale model of Saturn there that's part of the Planets Trail, there's also a one-third scale model of the Cassini Space Probe that's currently investigating Saturn. I'd mistakenly thought it was a rather fussy satellite dish.)

It's not the only Trust Hut on Route 65. In Blacktoft, a small village on the banks of the Ouse a few miles west of Hull, there's a church hall (picture; see Google map) that's also open for help-yourself tea and coffee with an honesty box, plus a small book stall.

Cycle rides that go through farming areas offer you plenty of produce - usually eggs, often vegetables - laid out on a table with a dish for your change. This rhubarb (picture) was just outside Ambleside. At first I thought no, but then I thought, it's rhubarb: force yourself.

The most lavish honesty stall I've ever seen was on the Wainwright Coast to Coast in the village of Brompton on Swale (picture), which had a range of cold drinks and sandwiches, so maybe walkers are even more honest than cyclists. Or perhaps they just can't get away as fast.

Anyway, honesty boxes are a good thing, and a sign of a decent society. I bet that Addison Lee driver would like them, too. He'd take all the rhubarb, sod off without paying, and swear blind to his employers that it was the cyclist's fault.

09 November 2012

Naked in Marrakech: Orange juice and wine in tandem

I was in Marrakech the other week. Its central square, Djemaa el Fna (picture), is a good example of a naked street, in much the same way as London's Exhibition Road isn't.

There are no road markings at all, just a wide expanse of pavement. Bikes, horses, mopeds, taxis, buses and cars mingle with sidestepping pedestrians. I was there a week and saw nobody coming to grief, except for some tourists being royally ripped off by the snake charmers.

The narrow cobbled side-streets that curl off the square into souks (picture), so intimate they defeat Google Maps as well as most visitors, are a more linear mayhem.

Not too many bikes there - outnumbered nine to one by hurtling mopeds, I'd say, but matched by horses and the odd delivery-van - but there are enough to count (picture).

And - while fresh orange juice, not beer, is the drink of choice for people-watching in the square, and only thirty pee per glass - you can find Moroccan wine (picture) if you look hard enough.

Not sure you'd get a tandem down those side-streets, though.

29 October 2012

W2W: Walney to Wear to Wetherspoons - trip report

I've just come back from doing the very enjoyable Walney to Wear coast to coast cycle route (W2W) - one of the Sustrans suite of Irish-to-North-Sea cycle routes. (It was for an article for an upcoming issue of the CTC magazine, in case you're from HMRC and wondering why I'm claiming all that cake and beer against tax.)

The W2W goes from Barrow to either Whitby or Sunderland - splitting, much as my saddle did, just outside Barnard Castle.

It's a more strenuous traverse than 'the' coast to coast, the C2C (Workington/Whitehaven to Newcastle/Sunderland). The W2W involves around 150 miles, vaulting over some lofty Pennine highlands, and probably three days.

Day 1 was Barrow to Kendal, about 45 miles. Barrow is Britain's most working class place. This is based on metrics such as density of betting shops, fish and chip takeaways and tattoo parlours, in which case my home street in York must give it a run for its money.

The scenery here is rolling south-of-Lakes hills and some flatlands (picture). At friendly Ulverston you can see a statue of Laurel and Hardy - Stan being a local boy - who weren't cyclists, but whose example of well-meaning but hilarious incompetence informs most of Britain's cycle infrastructure.

Highlights include Grange-over-Sands's extraordinary promenade (picture). Rather than overlook gunmetal waters, it now fronts meadows of invasive grass munched by sheep. (I suspect there's no cycling, despite what these people thought.)

Day 2 was Kendal to Barnard Castle, about 55 miles. This was a tough day of headwinds (unusually: the prevailing direction is westerly) and sharp climbs, but also superb autumn scenery along the Lune Valley and the Howgills (picture) in shades varying from red to golden yellow to deep green, rather like my face.

The climax of the day, and the route, is at Tan Hill Inn (picture), Britain's highest at 1732 feet (or, in metres, erm, quite a lot) up on a remote Pennine hill. On a clear day you can see both Irish and North Sea coasts. On a day like the one I was there, you can't even see both sides of the car park. It was drizzly, cold and misty, with zero visibility. I could just, however, make out the sign that said 'Naked Ramblers Welcome'.

Day 3 was Barnard Castle to Sunderland, about 60 miles. Much easier in terms of hills - and with many miles of flat but spattery railtrail (picture) - this was still a trial thanks to the headwinds.

The worst challenge, though, was following the Sustrans signage into Durham (a convoluted route evidently modelled on the decay trail of a Higgs Boson) and out of it (I lost it completely, in every sense, especially when I realised I'd come in a circle back into the centre). So this sign was pretty appropriate (picture).

The final riverside run in central Sunderland takes you past artworks representing the planets (picture), similar to York's Planets Trail, though obviously not as good, as this is not Yorkshire.

The grand finale is the ride out along Roker Pier (picture), and the commemorative picture of your bike at this fine monument. Then some commemorative drinks at Wetherspoon's waiting for your train home.

Advice for the trip: it's rough in places, but nothing you can't enjoy; take your time; and you get best results if you drink plenty of fluids. Funnily enough, the same goes for the Wetherspoons.

17 October 2012

News mill: York has UK's top roundabout - official

York's Holgate Mill 'roundabout' (all pictures; see map) has been chosen as the top gyratory in the UK by the prestigious UKRAS (UK Roundabout Appreciation Society). Their 2013 calendar features it on the front cover.

After the good news making the York Press yesterday, the mainstream media has picked up on it, and when I arrived this morning, there was a camera crew doing a feature for Look North tonight.

Well, I say 'crew'. It was one bloke doing camera, sound, interviewing and direction. In TV school they call this versatility. In TV itself they call it economy.

Anyway, after his interview with tourismo tsarina Gillian Cruddas (right), the multitasking camera guy borrowed my bike to get footage riding round the thing itself (bottom right).

He then videoed me doing the same, so you may briefly glimpse me in the feature tonight.

And I say 'roundabout'. It's not a real roundabout as it doesn't serve a junction; it's just a doughnut-shaped episode of a residential through-street - Windmill Rise, about half a mile south of the station - that happens to enclose a rather nice restored mill, landed Tardis-like amid a housing estate.

But it did look quirkily attractive (right) in today's crisp autumn sunshine.

Much in the same way as I didn't, following my recent grapple with a feisty Bradford curry.

06 October 2012

Flood is thicker than water: Cycling York's new Everglades

York's great flood - the biggest since 2000 - topped out at 5m above normal on Wednesday last week.

It wasn't the best time to realise you'd left a bike locked to the riverside racks by Lendal Bridge (picture).

Or to attempt to cycle the riverside path north out of the city (picture) without a wetsuit.

But now, over a week on - even though the river has dropped to near normal levels - many surrounding areas are still under water. The low-lying meadows north of the city are huge water tanks, storing up potential flood water until it can be safely flushed down the Ouse.

Cycling is, therefore, not always straightforward (picture).

York's outskirts are more like the Everglades. Here's the riverside path (picture) just north of Skelton, a couple of miles from the centre, last Thursday.

This particular bike ride decided not to go any further; anyway, one of the group said they were allergic to fish.

And this (picture) is Rowntree Park this morning, transformed into a giant lake, a little bit of Florida in East Yorkshire.

There's No Cycling in the park, though local custom is to ignore it. Nobody was cycling today, though.

So perhaps York's city centre Pavement Cycling problem will resolve itself soon, thanks to global warming: those low-lying footways will simply be too flooded too often to bother cycling on.

19 September 2012

Rio grand: Cycling in Madrid

I've just come back from Madrid. As the pleasant young man in Tourist Info confidently told me when I asked for a bike map, there isn't such a thing. Nobody cycles in Madrid.

Last Sunday (top right and bottom right) I rode past several thousand of those nobodies, on the new 10km riverside cycle path and in the vast parklands of Casa de Campo.

In the centre of town, true, cyclists are as rare as a vegetarian bullfighter. There are no cycle lanes at all, and virtually no cycle parking. And I thought Manchester was bad.

This is a typical scene (right): intrepid bloke on bike wondering whether to risk riding up the main road, or weave in and out of strolling pedestrians on the footpath. Or just give up and spend all afternoon with beer and tapas.

But a few cyclists do ride around the old centre. It's not only possible but, in the mazy backstreets, actually quite pleasant. If you've cycled in London, and certainly Manchester, central Madrid will seem no more challenging.

So I hired a bike from the excellent Trixi Bikes - only 8 euros for four hours - and spent a blissful Sunday afternoon on two wheels.

The few miles of that riverside cycle path, Madrid Rio (right, see map of path), and Casa de Campo, were absolutely stuffed with cyclists. Clearly a lot of people have bikes, and a lot will use them if the facilities are there.

Facilities such as bike-friendly bars and cafes: Casa de Campo was full of them, their bike racks full with Sunday riders enjoying a one-euro-fifty glass of beer with free tapas (right).

As I blogged in May, Barcelona turned itself from a cycle desert into a cycle oasis in a few years thanks to sheer political will.

There's nothing to stop Madrid - whose main roads are gridlocked with motor traffic despite good public transport - doing the same.

Despite the fact that, as the Tourist Info man said, nobody cycles.

07 September 2012

Sermon on the dismount: Bike-unfriendly works by the Hub

What planet are the contractors on? These roadworks (right) happen to be right outside the Hub, York’s friendly bike-recycling place.

The signs give priority for traffic going away from the camera up the narrow half of the street left available.

But another sign tells cyclists to dismount – even though motorbikes and cars are evidently fine to proceed.

Most cyclists, I’m happy to say, ignore the ‘Dismount’ instruction (which I’m assured has no legal status) and ride assertively but cautiously straight up the middle, as they have every right to do.

Some, though, get caught in two minds (top picture), not sure whether to dismount and push along the pavement (which isn’t wide enough for a pushing cyclist to pass a ped coming the other way in any case) or to sidle up the extreme left-hand side, which encourages oncoming vehicles to try and pass dangerously rather than give way as they should.

Of course, the smart cyclist (bottom picture) rides in behind a car, using it as a force-field.

The contractors would no doubt say they have safety in mind, but the effect – as we know from our experience here – is that it persuades some drivers that cyclists ‘shouldn’t be on the road’.

This is an opinion they are so happy to share with us, they will even break off from their mobile phone call to do so.

Instead of 'Cyclists Dismount', the sign should say 'Cyclists Proceed (but watch out for bad drivers)'. And as well as 'Give way to oncoming traffic', the sign at the other end of the roadworks should add 'including cyclists'. In theory.

But then, in theory, it's possible to land a robot the size of a Mini on Mars, and we all know that could never happen. Unless that's the planet that the contractors are on.

30 August 2012

Mystery is over: Dinosaur cycle parking

I installed this new bike parking in my front yard this afternoon.

It’s a topiary diplodocus: one of the props from the much-admired York Mystery Plays, which finished last Monday. At the after-show party on Tuesday they auctioned off some of the props, which included a set of topiary animals depicting Creation: elephant, snake, shark, unicorn etc.

(Diplodocid sauropods are not specifically mentioned in Genesis, true, which is one of the reasons I was keen to have it.)

And cycling was a part of Mysteries (just as it was part of the Olympic opening ceremony, with those dove bikes). During the Creation scene, angels on bikes whirled in and out of the hedgy megafauna, harvesting fruit in their baskets.

The bikes were auctioned off at the end of the party, too, perhaps offering an alternative to that taxi home for some.

So now, when I invite some of my fellow thesps from the show, they’ll have somewhere familiar to put their bikes when they come for dinner.

24 August 2012

Decorated at the Olympics: Weybridge's bike sculptures

Legacy was a keyword for the Olympics, and Weybridge has celebrated its inclusion in the Cycling Road Race route by putting up some entertainingly decorated bikes at various points, apparently as legacy sculptures.

Here are some at one roundabout we passed (pictures) while I was leading a leisure ride earlier this week.

We stopped for a group photo, pretending to ride the bikes. I nearly got flattened by a lorry mounting the roundabout as I took the snap.

I don’t want to address the question of my own personal legacy in detail just yet, thank you.

Decorated bikes are even at Brooklands, the historic motor racing circuit and museum, just up the road (picture).

And some locals have even done their own bike installations in tribute to the cycling racers (picture).

Or perhaps it’s the only way they can beat the bike-shed thieves.

01 August 2012

Ten Top Yorkshire cycling experiences

It's Yorkshire Day, so here's Ten Top Cycling Experiences in Yorkshire. (That's PROPER Yorkshire, not the post-1974 boundary-meddling nonsense.)

1 Spurn Head
One of Britain's strangest rides: four miles along a windswept sand spit, sometimes no wider than a York cycle lane, to a remote community of austere beauty.

2 Swaledale
A glorious downhill that cuts through sheepy hills and delightful villages such as Keld and Muker and Reeth – the pubs aren't bad either. Entry via Buttertubs Pass (right) is not always flat

3 Scarborough-Whitby railtrail
The views on this coastal cinder-track marvel, particularly from Ravenscar to Whitby via Robin Hood's Bay, stop you in your tracks. As does the often bad surface – you need a mountain bike

4 Humber Bridge
The world's longest single-span suspension bridge that you can cycle over. A thing of wonder – as in, I wonder if it'll ever be paid for

5 York
Probably England's cyclingest city outside Cambridge. Pedestrianised centre is a pain but lovely cycle paths by the river and sometimes under it, a fabulous Millennium Bridge, city-wall gates to cycle through, and a scale model of the planets!

6 Middlesbrough Transporter Bridge
One of a handful in the world: fly across the Tees with your bike for 70p on a cross between a ferry, bridge, tennis court and coat hanger

7 Way of the Roses
Almost all in Yorkshire, this varied and often challenging three-day coast-to-coast takes you from Morecambe, in somewhere called Lancashire, to Bridlington on the seabird coast

8 The North York Moors
A trekker's micro-alpine gem, with flattish offroad tracks criss-crossing the moortops. Lunch at Blakey Inn and climb Rosedale Chimney, officially England's steepest road climb

9 Dentdale
Cycle-camp in the quintessential Dales town of Dent. Explore the Three Peaks and Cam High Road, an astonishing Roman-road bridleway that gunbarrels its way straight over the hills

10 Five Rise Locks
The steepest hill on Britain's canal towpaths? Hurtle (carefully) down by the famous staircase-lock marvel at Bingley, and explore the post-industrial world of Saltaire and Leeds from the saddle.

Happy Yorkshire Day!