Cobbles, cycling and the Hell of the North

Cobbles of BelgiumSunday was a day for cyclists to dig deep, to bounce through the endless, jarring cobbles. Stay light in the saddle, I was warned. Take some pressure out of the tyres. Go for a higher gear. Get ready to feel every tooth rattling in your skull.

Sunday was of course the greatest of the one-day classics, l’enfer du nord (the hell of the north), the Paris-Roubaix race covering 27 ‘sectors’ on bone-shaking pavé, or cobblestones. So in our own little homage to one of the great cycle races, ride organiser Pip of Le Sportif managed to find the only cobbles in Bristol to finish our Sunday morning training. A lap of Queen’s Square was quite enough to leave my teeth chattering and my admiration soaring for those that ride for hours on cobbles that probably make ours look like gravel.

Then we adjourned to Bristol’s Mud Dock to watch the race unfold on the big screen. The duel between Fabian Cancellara and Sep Vanmarcke lasted until the final yards of the 254 km race. Cancellara covered that distance to win in five hours 45 minutes and 33 seconds – about the same time it had taken me to do just half the distance in training that day – and my ride comprised just 200 yards of cobbles.

A Tale of Two Tunnels

This weekend saw the opening of another first for Bath – seven years after the idea was first proposed, the ribbon was cut on the longest cycling tunnel in the UK.

The Two Tunnels project brought two former railway tunnels back to life nearly 50 years after they were closed. There’s now a flat route from central Bath south out to the beautiful Midford Valley – made perfect for cyclists, walkers and for the bats that live in the tunnel too. The lighting has been hung low and kept dim to keep the top of the tunnel arch dark to accommodate the rare bats that have lived there for years.

There were none of those to be seen on Saturday however, as I was one of more than 2,000 people to ride through the tunnels on the day of the opening ceremony. The experience of riding from the glorious spring sunshine (that appeared bang on cue for the festival of cycling that marked the opening) into the low-level lighting of the tunnels was unique. Any other cycling tunnel I have been through, you can always see light at the end. Here the second of the two tunnels runs underground for 1.8kms so it takes a while to let your eyes become accustomed to the low-level lighting.

Pic by Neil MorrisEven in the crowds using the tunnel on its first day, there were still moments of peace that you rarely get cycling anywhere in the UK, made even more memorable as you cycle past the interactive sound installations placed at intervals through the tunnels. The tunnels themselves have needed very little work to open up again. Structurally they’re much the same now as they were when steam trains ran through them – a real testament to the 19th century engineers who built them.

Then you emerge, blinking, into the spring sunshine of the beautiful Midford Valley – straight onto the restored Tucking Mill viaduct and then into Midford village, where you can look back towards Bath up the steep Midford Hill and realise you don’t have to cycle up that to get home!

The traffic-free cycle route continues to Wellow and even on via Radstock to Frome via the Collier’s Way, albeit with quite a few breaks in what was once the Somerset & Dorset railway line where further work is needed to make the cycle path more or less unbroken. And there’s now a pretty flat and almost entirely traffic-free circular route from Bath out to Dundas Aquaduct and then back on the canal towpath

The Two Tunnels project is a testament to what a few committed individuals can achieve. It’s taken the involvement of the fantastic Sustrans, £4m of funding (£200,000 of that raised through the brilliant King Bladud’s Pigs project auctioning artistic pigs) and a great deal of hard work from volunteers. But what has been achieved is another great boost for cycling in Bath and a UK-wide attraction. And looking at the beaming smile from my nine-year-old son when he had ridden through the tunnels with me on Saturday, it’s already proving successful in inspiring the next generation onto two wheels too.

New New Kit for Cyclists

Let’s face it. Plenty of us cyclists love a new piece of kit. It seems half the people I ride with start most sentences with “have you see the new …”.

So I shouldn’t be surprised when my post earlier this week about Cycling Innovation got quite a few responses talking about other favourite improvements on bike accessories. So here’s an update on some more cool stuff to spend your money on:

The Blaze bike light, from Britain, featured in my last post. Well cool new bike lights are clearly hot to work on at the moment. Revolights, based in the San Francisco Bay Area, have come up with a brilliant idea – two narrow rings of 12 LEDs clipped directly onto each side of the wheel, white LEDs on the front wheel and red at the back (picture above). A small, fork-mounted magnet and an integrated accelerometer provide speed and orientation data to the rings. So only LEDs on the part of the ring facing forward (at the front) or backwards (at the back) actually light up.

This gives the lights the appearance of a pair of brackets that stay in the same position even as the bike moves forwards. The idea is both to ensure 360deg visibility of the bike, but also for the front light to cast a better light onto the road ahead by being closer to the road itself than handlebar-mounted lights.

Like many good innovations, simplicity underpins the idea behind the Koala Bottle, also from the USA. Simply by putting a magnetic ring around a cycling water bottle. it does away with the need to get the bottle in and out of a normal cage. You don’t have to take your eyes off the road to put the bottle back in – it firmly attaches using a magnet.

My last favourite (for today) is from Graham Hill, founder of Graham has , teamed up with bike manufacturer Schindelhauer bikes, to develop the ThinBike as a solution for those who need to leave their bike in the hall at home or in a corridor at the office. The width required to store the full-sized urban bike goes down from 21 inches to 6 inches as the handlebars fold in line with the frame, and the pedals fold up.



Cycling innovation

Kickstarter was the original crowd-funding platform. It brought consumers, funding and publicity to thousands of tech projects in its early days. So it’s hardly surprising that some brilliant (and some pretty left-field) cycling innovations are now finding their way onto the market thanks to the spotlight and funding Kickstarter has brought to creative new ideas.

Top of my list of Kickstarter cycling favourites is a London start-up, Full Windsor, and the beautifully-named The Nutter. Like all good innovation, they’ve taken something complex (the toolset you need with you on the bike) and made it simple, awesomely simple. With over three weeks still to go on their fund-raising, they’ve already raised more than £23,000 on Kickstarter (against a target of £8,000).

The Nutter manages to squeeze a multi-tool, spanner, and tyre lever (and even found room for a bottle opener) into a small pouch, made partly of recycled inner tube, which will fit under the saddle. Beautifully designed, well thought through.

Another favourite of mine is the Blaze bike light. Blaze closed their Kickstarter call for funding at Christmas, having raised £55,000 – more than double their target.

Their innovation was to build in to a powerful front light a projector that casts a bright green neon image of a cyclist about 5 metres ahead of the bike. Lorries, cars and buses turning out of a side street or failing to see a cyclist in the blind spot of their mirror, each now see the green neon image. Blaze is also from London (I’m not trying to favour the British here, I just think both of these are great).

Next up is the ONDA cycle . Is it a stunt tricycle? Is it a recumbent? They argue it’s “Not a bike or board. Redefining the way you move. 3 Wheels, 2 Pedals, and YOU. The most daring machine you’ll ever ride. Guaranteed.”

I am not going to argue it’s not innovative, but I won’t be trading in my road bike any day soon. Some clearly love it – ONDA has already raised half of its target of $30,000, with 17 days still to go to get to the minimum funding figure. And nearly 50 people have pledged the $350 or so for one of the first models produced.


Not all the ideas on Kickstarter are so successful. The Road Bug Bicycle Engine Kit – a motor to attach to the luggage grid to get you up hills, gained less than 25% of the $20,000 funding it needed to go into production.

Other ideas range from the functional – the Badger 360 degree LED jacket does what you’d expect from the title by embedding hi-vis LEDs into a hi-vis jacket – to the fun – Pushing Pedal Pops is a “gourmet popsicle bike cart” designed to bring healthy treats to the citizens of Richmond, Virginia. And there are dozens more ideas looking for cycling fans’ support.

Kickstarter is enjoying huge growth at the moment. After funding projects to the tune of $80 million on 2011, that figure rose to $274 million in 2012. Whilst not every project seeking funding could be classed as genuine innovation, it’s great to see good ideas being brought to market in this way.

Trading guns for bikes

It’s a brilliant idea. Take guns off the street and replace them with bikes.

Uruguay rates 9th in the world for the number of guns per capita. With a population of just 3.3 million, there are more than a million guns – half of those unregistered.

Under the Uruguayan Interior Ministry’s “Weapons for Life” campaign, residents turning in an unregistered guns will each receive either a new bike or a (simple) computer. The scheme is an alternative to the weapons buyback schemes that richer countries like the USA and Australia have tried. And of course the idea has the potential to improve health and transport as well as reducing the murder rate.


On Your Bike, Bath

Growing interest in cycling has accelerated since the Olympics and here in Bath, like many other cities across the UK, cycling’s role in an integrated transport plan has been boosted as more people campaign to make it a safer and better city to ride in.

Tonight, I’ll be joining other cyclists at a meeting in the city to discuss how best to invest the additional £500,000 the local council is making available for cycling infrastructure in the next year. There are already two projects under way to improve cycling provision here – the Two Tunnels cycle route is opening to the south of the city on 6th April, and a brand new off-road track is under construction at Odd Down.

Later in the summer the second Bike Bath festival takes place, after a fantastic inaugural year in 2012. Alongside the rest of the KPS 1000 team, I’m signing up for the ‘Centurion’ rides – two rides of 100 miles each on consecutive days. If that doesn’t put us off riding to John O’Groats in a week, then nothing will!

Cycling to the top

Photograph by NZPA (I wish I'd done this but I didn't! If anyone's up for recreating it down London Fields later let me know!))

It’s late in the evening and the snow is lying inches thick on the ground. Normal people are planning relaxing summer holidays on a beach somewhere. I’m planning a cycle route that will take around a dozen cyclists old enough to know better more than 1,200 kms from Bath to the northern tip of Scotland in late July 2013.

None of us have ever undertaken anything like this before. Which is probably for the best – we don’t yet comprehend what we’re letting ourselves in for. At least two of the group don’t have a road bike. Many have never cycled more than 100 miles in a day. And in July we’re planning to average more than 110 miles – day-in, day-out – for a week.

But already there’s a team spirit emerging. We haven’t even been on a training ride together. But we’ve got together in the warmth of the headmaster’s office and agreed that it can’t be that hard, can it?

So, over the coming weeks and months we’ll be spreading the word, recruiting a few more riders and a lot more sponsors towards our target of raising £10,000 for Bath’s RUH Cancer Care Centre.  Oh and we’ll be doing some training too.

Right now, I’m not sure which goal is more intimidating – 1200 kms or £10,000 raised for charity. Both seem to look like a pretty big mountain to climb (one more literally). So I’ll close with some wise words from Ernest Hemingway, who knew a thing or two about taking on challenges:

“Always do sober what you said you’d do drunk. That will teach you to keep your mouth shut.”

Make our cities fit for cycling

The Times Cities fit for cycling
Today the House of Commons will debate the vital issue of cycle safety for the first time since 1996. The debate comes after pressure from The Times’ national campaign to make our cities fit for cycling, supported by Sustrans and other cycling lobby groups. As a regular cycle commuter over the past five years, it’s a subject close to my heart but one that I passionately feel is in Britain’s interests on so many fronts – safety; health of the nation; traffic pollution; congestion on the roads and on public transport; sustainability of cities; participation in sport.

The Times initiated the campaign only after one of their staff was nearly killed in an accident. In November Times journalist Mary Bowers was just yards from arriving at work on her bike when she was hit by a lorry. Mary, 27, is still not conscious and is making a slow recovery in hospital. More than 27,000 cyclists have been killed or seriously injured on British streets in the past 10 years and the number seriously injured in 2011 was the highest this century.

On average, 66 miles were travelled using a bike by every male in the UK in 2010, with a much lower figure of just 19 miles for females. A total of three billion vehicle miles were made by bike during 2010, which is one per cent of the total journeys made by all vehicles. In 1950, 12.4 billion vehicle miles were travelled by bike.

The urgency of the debate on mutual respect among road users was highlighted last week when Bristol bus driver Gavin Hill was jailed for 17 months for intentionally running down cyclist Phillip Mead in April 2011. The incident was caught on CCTV (below). Mead suffered a broken leg as a result of the incident.


The Early Day motion for today’s debate states:

That this House believes that cycling is an extremely efficient form of transport which is good for health and the environment; supports successive governments’ commitment to encourage the use of bikes and reduce the number of cyclist-related accidents; notes with concern that the number of cyclists killed on Britain’s roads rose by 7 per cent. between 2009 and 2010; further notes that a disproportionate number of cycling accidents involve vans and lorries; supports The Times’ Cities Fit for Cycling campaign; and calls on the Government to take further action to improve cycling infrastructure and reduce the number of casualties on roads.

Only 67 MPs have current signed up to attend today’s debate (click here to see if yours is planning to do so). Those 67 are comprised of 35 Labour, 18 Liberal Democrat, 8 Conservative and 6 others. This from a country where our Prime Minister and the Mayor of London are both high-profile cyclists. And surely cycling shouldn’t be a party political issue.

There are only winners in making Britain safer for cyclists – what’s being proposed involves spending no new money, merely focusing a small proportion (2% of the Highways Agency spend) of current budgets on measures that will make Britain a better place for those on two wheels. Which will of course in turn make Britain a better place even for those who don’t want to enjoy the freedom of cycle commuting.