26 June 2012

Teesing it out: Middlesbrough's Transporter Bridge by bike

I was up in Middlesbrough the other day, to do its famous Transporter Bridge by bike.

Transporter Bridges are a curious solution to the problem of providing a crossing where bridges or tunnels are impossible: part bridge, part ferry, sliding an Edwardian five-a-side football court underneath a giant coat hanger (right).

Less then two dozen were built, all around the beginning of the 1900s, and only a handful survive today.

(The only other working one in Britain is at Newport, and featured in my 50QBR book.)

Bikes go in the two corridors at the side (right).

The single for pedestrians or cyclists is 70p, which will buy you two cups of vending machine coffee in the pleasant visitor centre on the south side, or 40 per cent of a pint at Wetherspoons half a mile away in the town centre.

Or the deposit on a terrace house.

There’s not much to do on the other side except cycle away from Middlesbrough, which isn’t a bad option; or return and head for the nearby train station, which isn’t a bad option either.

There’s a short (2 min) video of the Bridge on YouTube (embedded below).

24 June 2012

Current affairs: More flooded cycling by the Ouse

York's been awash at least three times so far in 2012, and after the recent Noah-style deluge, the riverside routes are aquaplanes again (top right).

No wonder some of the orbital route's signs give you wet-weather alternatives (right) as a matter of course.

You pity the cyclists camping on the racecourse (right), visiting this weekend's York Cycle Show.

Not quite as glutinous as the current Isle of Wight mudfest, but pretty miserable nevertheless. Still, at least they won't get trapped in traffic jams back to the ferry.

21 June 2012

Light entertainment: Torch bike escort video

York Press often has letters from people who write in capitals with green biros, saying cyclists should be shot.

Well, here you are: 150 of them, shot in a brief video (1 min) of the Olympic Torch Cycle Escort on Tuesday.

It’s from the cyclist’s eye view, the cyclist being me. I’ve edited out the bits in the bar at the big free Racecourse event afterwards, chatting to that nice couple about cycling the Canal du Midi. And the stuff in Wetherspoons.

20 June 2012

Flaming cyclists: Following the torch on 150 bikes

So, yesterday evening when the Olympic torch came through York, locals saw something they’re unlikely ever to see again in their lifetime: me wearing a cycle helmet on a British road.

It was all because I was part of the 150-200 strong cycling entourage that escorted the Cigarette Lighter into town. The regulations, enforced by the LOCOG lackeys, demanded a lid. I couldn’t be bothered to kick up a fuss, not that anyone would have noticed.

But, know this, H&S Nazis! I wore my helmet with the straps undone, meaning it would have been of virtually NO use in the vanishingly unlikely event of an accident! HAH!

Much like a correctly-strapped-up helmet, then.

Anyway, those of us on the list gathered at York College (top right), down south by the ring road, and registrated in order to garner the free red tee-shirt (right).

We set off as instructed en masse, perhaps half an hour before the torch was going to come anywhere near the city boundaries, and ambled past the families lining a sunny Tadcaster Road (right).

It was a pleasant change from the Elephant and Castle, being cheered instead of being told I should pay road tax, and having union flags waved at me instead of taxi driver’s fists.

En route to Micklegate, we had a couple of twenty-minute waits while people with hi-vis jackets and mobile phones discussed the next photo-opportunity (right). Noisy corporate battlebuses in Samsung and Coca-Cola and bank company livery rolled past. But it was sunny and warm and we were all in a good mood so nobody minded.

Eventually the torch came by, jogged along by a blonde lass, a little swamped by the din of outriders and escort vehicles, and went through Micklegate into a town centre circuit shut off to traffic.

So the bike pack trundled over to York Racecourse, which was the venue for a rather splendid early-evening event (right) with special bike parking too. Thousands of people were there to enjoy free music from the big stage, and exorbitant lager from the bars. It’s fine Katy B being fizzy, frothy and short, but not the beer.

Eventually the torch re-emerged, on horseback, held aloft by someone who used to be Harvey Smith. The old boy was looking his age a bit, but hats off to him for doing the business, and no, he didn’t do a Harvey Smith.

Though, actually, he kept his hard hat on while he ceremonially lit the big central flame on stage; hmm, had he, too, been got to by the helmet enforcers?

Well, it was a nice day, we met some pleasant fellow cyclists, got free entertainment, took part in a bit of fun, and I’m another t-shirt to the good. About time. I really should stop wearing the one I also use to wipe my chain with...

19 June 2012

Flame and fortune: Olympic torch comes to York

The Olympic torch is coming through York. Which is great, though we're a bit wary of running around with flames too close to our Minster, given what happened in 1984 (right, pic from Minster website).

Anyway, this evening, around 5.30pm, the torch will be accompanied by a cycling escort, including me. This is a special privilege (only Cambridge has a similar bike entourage) granted to York, as cycling is one of the things it is most associated with.

So, it was either cyclists, or having the torch followed by a rowdy collection of hen parties.

I recently contributed an opinion piece on it to YorkMix, which is a rather good new what's-on web guide to the city.

So if there's any kind of comedy relight needed, when the torch is misappropriated by a drunken gaggle of women in high heels and nun outfits, you'll no doubt read it first there.

I'll report in full on the Olympic Torch Cycle Escort tomorrow.

Meanwhile, a quick mention to Stuart Potter, who's starting a ride today from Edinburgh to London to raise awareness of mental illness. I wrote an article recently for the CTC magazine about the benefits of cycling on well-being, so I'm happy to wish Stuart the best of luck for his trip.

16 June 2012

Joyce Country: Cycling and Ulysses on Bloomsday

Today is Bloomsday: the date on which all the action of James Joyce’s Ulysses takes place.

Bike events in Dublin retrace some of the steps taken by the book’s central characters, Dedalus and Bloom, as they wander through the city on 16 June 1904, eventually meeting for some drinks and entertainment.

With their adventures in mind, I’ve biked through Dublin a few times intending to tour the whole city. However, I’ve never managed to finish more than a tiny fraction of it, getting waylaid by other things (right). Rather like Ulysses, in fact.

There are several bicycle references the book, as shown by a search of the online text. They pop up twice in Molly’s infamous stream-of-consciousness finale, for example.

Here’s one extract, which gives a taste for aspiring readers of what they’re in for:
(He smites with his bicycle pump the crayfish in his left hand. On its cooperative dial glow the twelve signs of the zodiac. He wails with the vehemence of the ocean.) Aum! Baum! Pyjaum! I am the light of the homestead! I am the dreamery creamery butter.

Here’s another, from the question-and-answer chapter 17, ‘Ithaca’:
What facilities of transit were desirable?
When citybound frequent connection by train or tram from their respective intermediate station or terminal. When countrybound velocipedes, a chainless freewheel roadster cycle with side basketcar attached, or draught conveyance, a donkey with wicker trap or smart phaeton with good working solidungular cob (roan gelding, 14 h).

It seems Joyce himself was a keen cyclist. In summer 1912 he and his lover Nora cycled through the picturesque Galway mountains (right) from Galway to Oughterard and later from Galway to Clifden. (Coincidentally, the area round here is called 'Joyce Country'.)

The latter is a round-trip of a hundred miles, in a day, which some cycling Joyce scholars question, given the parlous state of the country’s roads then and his thin physique. Rubbish! People often did such trips then, and being thin is hardly a bar to being an Audax cyclist. I've cycled almost their exact route, and it's mostly flat.

Besides, Joyce was a determined sort, and from the evidence of the astonishingly hard-core letters he wrote to the energetic Nora – Googlable for those with robust verbal constitutions – was clearly used to long, hard sessions of extreme physical activity.

Happy Bloomsday.

15 June 2012

Wainwright vs Raleigh: Coast to Coasts compared by foot and bike

I've just finished Wainwright's Coast to Coast walk (WC2C).

The 200-mile trod from St Bees in Cumbria to Robin Hood's Bay in Yorkshire is the most popular long-distance walk in the UK, and deservedly so: 10-15 days of mediumly challenging routes through stunning scenery in the Lakes (right), Dales and Moors. And quite a few bogs.

But... as comedian Tim Vine quips, 'I've just been on the holiday of a lifetime. Tch! Never again.'

Because, though it was a fabulous experience I thoroughly enjoyed and am delighted to have done, I prefer doing it by bike. I realised it especially here (right), on the Cleveland Way entering the North York Moors, when I enviously saw these guys trundle past, and get to the pub two hours before me.

Sure, you lose some of the footpath-solitude on a bridleway/road route, unless you're a very adventurous offroad trekker. But the WC2C is pretty busy anyway: it's often hard to escape your fellow walkers (particularly, for some reason, mad middle-aged Dutch women who keep angling for your email address).

And on a bike it's far more practical: you can do it in much less time, three or four days, and still get a wonderful - and blisterless - experience. Walkers get punctures too; they're just patched with Elastoplast and Compeed rather than a Halfords repair kit.

I know this because I've done several biking Coast to Coasts now. 'The' C2C is the Sustrans Whitehaven/Workington to Newcastle/Sunderland route, though there are several others.

These include Hadrian's Cycleway, the Reivers, and the recent Way of Roses Route, from Morecambe to Bridlington. All very enjoyable, doable in that long-weekend slot, and plied by charity-fundraising teams who can't quite believe that you're just doing it for fun.

(The dullest, surprisingly, is the Trans Pennine Trail, from Southport to Hornsea. Ideal for raising money for some heart-related charity perhaps, or other organisation associated with the avoidance of overexcitement.)

But my favourite was the Ravenglass to Ravenscar bike route I did shortly before walking the WC2C (whose track it roughly parallels).

This isn't an official route, just something I made up on a whim - coastal opposites both beginning with 'Raven', and both at the end-ish of an Esk Valley.

Which is exactly what Wainwright intended. His route was planned as a model of how to devise your own route, not a walk to be followed exactly. He'd be thoroughly dismayed to see the hordes dutifully following his exact trail, guidebook in hand, looking for a nice man to take back with them to Eindhoven.

I had three days of glorious cycling: one in the Lakes (including the three-biscuit ascent of Hardknott Pass, above right); one in the Dales (including Buttertubs Pass and breathtaking Swaledale); and one in the Moors (bottom right).

So yes, the WC2C is a lovely thing and I heartily recommend it. But for me cycling's still much better. No problems having to go an extra mile or two at the end of a day to find accommodation or a pub. Virtually no luggage weight limit, so you can take luxuries such as deodorant as well as necessities such as laptop. And mighty range that makes your investment of time-off (or, in the case of most WC2Cers, their pension fund) go that much further.

And - the thing I miss most of all when I walk - those life-affirming, shout-for-joy freewheels downhill. Straining the knees to walk down the side of a fell feels like you've saved up only to get a whoppingly negative interest. Which reminds me of my pension fund.

Verdict: WC2C is great. But biking it is better. I'm doing Barrow to Jarrow next...

11 June 2012

Roughed up by the Reivers

I cycled the Reivers Route the other week - one of the family of 'alternative Coast to Coast routes' that takes you from Newcastle to Carlisle through Northumberland.

It's evidently now referred to as National Route 10. Perhaps 'Reivers' - the name for the ancient cattle rustlers who marauded the area - sounded too wild, too rough.

Though that's exactly what it is, in this central section west of Kielder (right) - not what you'd expect from a designated National Cycle Network route.

Or, if you've done quite a lot of Sustrans routes, exactly what you'd expect from a designated National Cycle Network route.

Maybe it's to put off anyone with an expensive thin-tyred road bike from tackling the route. No doubt bike rustling is more profitable these days.

08 June 2012

Hadrian's wall post: Helmets on NCN72

We saw this sign the other day while cycling Sustrans's NCN Route 72, between Carlisle and Newcastle.

It's called Hadrian's Cycleway, because it largely avoids the remains of Hadrian's Wall.

Helmets are emphatically not required by law in the UK, though this sign seems to be recommending them.

However, the pattern of helmet proposed here surely does not conform to either the European Standard EN1078 or the supplanted, but more stringent, Snell B-90 standard.

Now, it may provide some protection against injury in some forms of accident, such as being assaulted by a Pict with a squarehead axe.

But there is no experimental evidence to suggest it would protect in impacts with chariots or Roman Road surfaces at speed; besides, there is arguably an increased risk of rotational head injuries caused by projecting parts of the helmet snagging during collision.

Anyway, the Hadrian's Route is OK (right), gives you an insight into what tribal life was like in primitive times on the edge of civilisation.

Especially if you go out for a beer in Carlisle town centre on Saturday night. A helmet there might not be a bad idea.

07 June 2012

Pass notes: Cycle-friendly sign in Clapham

I was in London over the Jubilee weekend. No, not celebrating archaic hereditary privilege, but in search of excellent, cheap South Indian curries in Tooting.

En route to Chennai Dosa, a fine restaurant at the epicentre of the Asian quarter - and I use the word pretty accurately, in its seismic sense - we went past this sign in Clapham.

I've seen similar signs in Cambridge, but never here in York.

I'm happy to preserve some differences between us and the capital - it's quite nice having decent fish and chips, fresh air, lovely local pubs and plumbers who speak English and only charge a fiver for fixing your leaky tap the same day you call them - but this is one aspect of London I'd like to see more of up north.