Thursday, 23 April 2020

Locking in the Benefits of the Covid 19 Clampdown

 Most of us are suffering economically as a result of Coronavirus. Many people have been ill, will get ill, and sadly many will die. There is no denying the fact that this is a disaster for public health and welfare. However, those that manage to stay well are benefitting from cleaner air and safer roads and streets due to the reduction in traffic. So many people have been able to appreciate the beautiful buildings and spaces in towns and cities that are normally hidden from view by dense traffic and a haze of pollution. With more time on their hands and fewer legitimate reasons to travel, many people have turned to walking, cycling or running for their daily exercise. Others have started to use these modes to commute because of cuts in public transport services or for fear of contact with the virus.
The shortcomings of our pedestrian and cycle infrastructure have become apparent – how can you realistically socially distance from others when the cycle track or footway is often less than 2.0m wide?

Mark Strong of Transport Initiatives has produced an excellent ‘Mini Guide’ to some of the options available to local authorities that wish to provide protected space for walking and cycling during the Coronavirus pandemic. This is available on the CIHT website at:

The main options available for local authorities to alter infrastructure are suggested in the article as:
“•Create temporary walking space on roads–it may be possible to achieve this on multi-lane roads without a TRO by coning off all (or part of) the inside lane, or on single lane roads by narrowing the carriageway. However, this will still need sign-off by a senior councillor or officer. The reduced level of traffic means that this will have little or no impact on those people making essential trips by car, including emergency services.
•Create temporary cycling space on roads–mandatory cycle lanes can be installed without a TRO and it is also possible to use ‘light segregation’ to reinforce these (wands, ‘armadillos’ or even cones). However, this will still need sign-off by a senior councillor or officer.
•Removing all lanes for motor traffic in one or both directions will need an Experimental TRO and changes may be required at junctions. The reduction of lanes will have an impact on higher speeds hence reducing the risk of casualties. There is a minimum period of 7 days between making an Order and being able to implement measures.
•Create waiting areas on shopping streets–footways could be temporarily extended outside shops using existing legislation9allowing people walking to pass to keep 2m from those queueing to enter. This could be done by traders using movable equipment (e.g. cones) to close off parking places. This could be removed when shops areclosed. Permission will be needed from the local authority to suspend parking.
•Remove through motor traffic from residential streets (and other roads where possible) –this would allow people to walk in the street with greater safety. Cycling would also be safer, especially for children. This is also likely to need an Experimental TRO but is easier to achieve than temporary lanes, using simple barriers or planters. Particular attention could be focused on areas outside hospitals and other areas where there is a higher level of front-line work so that these people are less at risk from traffic.
•Suspend pedestrian and cyclist push-buttons at signalled crossings–this would remove the need to touch a surface and hence reduce the risk of infection. It would also be of general benefit to people walking and cycling. Timings would be automatic. This would require a risk assessment of the crossing and sign-off by a senior officer.”

One of the main ‘tools’ for managing the operation of the highway and defining who can and can’t use a road, introducing parking restrictions and speed limits is the Traffic Regulation Order. The Department for Transport published some interim guidance on Temporary Traffic Orders during the Covid 19 pandemic last week ( Although this was widely reported as a ‘change in the law to make it easier’ it does not really alter any legislation, it merely suggests that local highway authorities will need to change the way they advertise and consult on TRO’s during lockdown. It also reminds local authorities that the TRO process is entirely within their powers and doesn’t need any central approval from DfT. Interestingly, the DfT revision does not refer to Experimental TROs, only to temporary and permanent ones.
It is a bit of a red herring because while local authorities are legally obliged to advertise in the printed press and on street, and to make plans available for inspection, the vast majority of this already happens via their websites and using sophisticated tools such as Commonplace to capture public opinion, as with this example from Lewisham ( .

As ever with Coronavirus, things are moving quickly and Transport for Greater Manchester announced today (23rd April) that they are altering the signal timing at pedestrian crossings so that pedestrians won’t have to wait so long and can therefore avoid crowding together. Last week Brighton and Hove Council closed the seafront Madeira Drive to motor traffic so that there is more space for walking and cycling. In other places residents and shopkeepers are making their own informal arrangements to provide safe space and maintain social distancing within the highway.
It seems increasingly likely that at least some cities and towns will start to follow the lead of Berlin, New York and Paris and introduce some temporary cycle and pedestrian infrastructure. It also seems likely that a lot of people, having experienced more pleasant roads and streets, will not be keen to rush back into pre-Covid traffic conditions. There is therefore an excellent opportunity to make a land-grab for safe space within the highway. While it will be pleasant for six months, we really should have the ambition to make this permanent. But how?

Temporary TROs (TTROs) are commonly used for events such as cycle races and marathon runs where the streets are closed to traffic for a fixed period of time, and during construction or maintenance works on or next to the highway or other public rights of way. They are administered by the local highway authority. The TTRO will typically take 12 weeks to process and can last up to 18 months (6 months on public rights of way). The recent DfT guidance specifically deals with the advertising and consultation requirements for TTROs, in recognition of the fact that the statutory requirement for a printed advert in a local newspaper may be difficult at the moment as many have closed down, and that displaying a hard copy in the Council Office for people to inspect will also be impossible. The amended guidance suggests other ways for the local authority to demonstrate adherence to the consultation requirements. With a TTRO, temporary features such as traffic cones, crowd barriers, removable planters etc can be used to demarcate the space. Dublin has already taken this kind of approach.

An Urgent Temporary Traffic Regulation Notice may be issued more quickly e.g. for a gas leak or burst water main, and lasts up to 21 days. Does Coronavirus count as an emergency?!

The process for introducing a Permanent TRO is almost identical to the TTRO. So any authority that goes to the lengths required for the temporary TRO will have done 90% of the administrative effort required. It would be a relatively simple exercise to perhaps introduce a mandatory cycle lane with light segregation (physical separators) along links. The signs and markings on the road (cycle lanes, mandatory cycle lane signs, double yellow lines etc) are what enables the TRO to be enforced by the Police, and so the physical works would need to be completed for a permanent TRO to take effect.

Local authorities may also consider using an Experimental Traffic Order (ETO). These orders are usually applied when an authority is considering something (like pedestrianizing a street) and wants to test the impact and public reaction prior to constructing a permanent scheme. The big advantage of an ETO is that it can be introduced without consultation (because essentially it IS the consultation). But, that does mean (in spirit at least) that it should normally be a pre-cursor to a permanent scheme and there should therefore be a formal process for the public and other stakeholders to feedback their reactions to the council. However, the legal requirement is only for a 6 month experimental period in which objections may be received and considered. Like TTRO, the ETO uses only temporary and removeable physical measures in the highway, so can be introduced very quickly. If the ETO results in a permanent change, this must be constructed within 18 months.

You can read more detail on the legal basis and intricacies of various TROs in the blog of The Ranty Highwayman (

Creating more cycle lanes, wider footways and cycle tracks may be relatively straightforward if the road is wide enough (and they often are). The arrangements at signalised junctions are more difficult. Creating the physical space for cycling, and giving cyclists their own time separate from motor traffic is complex and usually needs additional traffic signals and updates to older equipment. In most larger urban areas the signals are also linked into a wider control system that manages the flow of traffic. However, there may be some things such as advanced stop lines, alterations to signal timings etc that can be introduced relatively quickly on a temporary basis, especially while the usual concerns about the impact on traffic capacity do not apply.

There are of course many other considerations besides the legal process. Most local authorities are operating with reduced staff and are managing emergency protocols to deal with the epidemic and ensure that the most vulnerable people are safe, so transport isn’t necessarily a priority for them at the moment. Even if they want to introduce measures, there may be practical difficulties for highways contractors being able to work safely and maintain social distancing.
However, it is becoming increasingly apparent that many people will be reluctant to risk public transport in the aftermath of the pandemic, and it is unfeasible for people to switch to the private car, so there is a very strong case for safer places for walking and cycling as part of any phased return to normality.

In England and Wales most local authorities have already undertaken studies (published as Local Cycling and Walking Infrastructure Plans and Active Travel Networks respectively) which identify the priority routes where there are concentrations of short trips (under 5km) that could potentially be done by walking or cycling. So we already know where temporary measures could have the most effect in enabling permanent behaviour change. Many local authorities have also prepared a preliminary business case to illustrate the potential economic benefits of introducing their network.

Most local authorities have also been monitoring the reduction in traffic and consequent reduction in congestion, air pollution and noise pollution all of which usually have a strongly adverse effect on public health and the wider economy. It is therefore possible to put an economic value on ‘locking in’ some of the benefits of a reduction in short car trips. Finally, many local authorities with automated counters are reporting record levels of walking and cycling along routes. Around 65% of the economic benefits of active travel are due to the personal health benefits, so even though the majority of these trips will only be for daily exercise at present, they are still playing a small part in mitigating some of the many economic disbenefits of Coronavirus, and hopefully reducing the future burden on the NHS. It looks like the Covid 19 is going to be a threat for a few years, and we should do all we can to enable people to maintain these healthy lifestyles when we all get back to work so that they can more easily withstand any infection.

Of all the tools at our disposal, it seems that the ETO would be the best way to bring about the rapid introduction of temporary infrastructure and at the same time lay the groundwork for permanent changes. Not everywhere will need permanent infrastructure, although even on streets temporarily closed for ‘public exercise’ there may be a case for permanent mode filtering.

However, the ETO should not be used for expediency (to avoid public consultation) but with full monitoring of the numbers of users and any adverse impacts of traffic diverting onto alternative routes. There must also be a clear intention that the ‘temporary’ infrastructure along commuter routes is an experiment with the intention to introduce permanent safe space as and when budgets permit.

The DfT could really help local highway authorities by providing technical leadership and clarity over the use of ETOs, funding for the sort of comprehensive monitoring and public relations work that was used in the Waltham Forest Mini-Holland programme, bringing forward the planned capital programmes for Transforming Cities and other funding streams to enable temporary interim schemes to be enacted immediately, and by relaxing the 18 month implementation period to allow sufficient time for full design, consultation and procurement of contractors for permanent construction when the pandemic is over.

Friday, 2 June 2017

Not Quite the Three Peaks

I came across the attached article in a copy of International Cycle Sport from October 1970. May be of interest to some 3 Peaks obsessives! Including the two mile 1 in 7 hill to get to the start line!

Wednesday, 4 January 2017

A Winter Bike Ride

The 'social season' is a magical time for cycling in England. While summer has its long days and sunshine, there is something special about the winter. Frequently cold, windy, wet and dark, but still special.

I started cycling with a club when I was 14 or 15, in the early 1980s when our heroes were the 'hard men', Sean Kelly and Bernard Hinault. We were in no doubt that they would be clocking up the winter miles. Asked if the weather was ever too bad to go out training, Kelly replied "I go out and then when I get back I decide if it was too bad or not."

There was no club in my home town of Hebden Bridge, so it was almost always a solo 10 miles to start and finish the day, either along the Calder Valley or up over the lonely moors above Oxenhope. This is the story of a typical day.

In the silent early morning light I pedal down the valley to the rendezvous, along deserted roads with only the occasional bloke out to buy the morning paper or walk the dog. Although its light, the day has the kind of flat, grey lack of contrast when the sun has woken up but chosen to stay under a thick cloudy duvet.

A 9:00 start inevitably stretches until at least 15 minutes past. Arrangements and promises made after several pints the night before are sketchily remembered. 'I'm sure he said he was coming, but then he got talking to a lass.'...... A straggler turns up, out of breath. Ribald comments about his whereabouts the night before. I notice that his jersey is steaming on his back, like a racehorse in the winter chill.

On this occasion we're making a short run to the south and east of Yorkshire. It's not the picture postcard Dales, its pits and power stations, but it's flatter, easier cycling. Two of our number are miners. One, an ex-miner now, has a roly-poly stomach and the tell-tale 'wheeze' of a life underground, and is nicknamed 'Puffing Billy'. The other, still (just about) clinging onto his profession and earning decent money is a small wiry bloke. He always claims his job in the pit is to 'Lig abaht' (lie around) on a shelf cut in the rock at a junction on the underground line to make sure the coal trucks don't get derailed. I never did find out if this was true!

We climb out of the Calder Valley and through the historic parklands of Nostell Priory. First stop is a transport cafe, somewhere south east of Wakefield. There's a different type of Yorkshire accent in south Yorkshire, harder and broader than in West Yorkshire. The woman behind the counter has 'SHAFT' tattooed on her knuckles - more ribald comments, some of which I (an innocent 15 year old) don't understand! However, she is a scary-tough looking woman with short bleached hair, so the banter is subdued! Once again I'm amazed by how much food a bunch of skinny cyclists can put away. It's all bacon butties and beans washed down with gallons of tea - no scientific diets and designer coffee for us!

We saddle up for the second-half of the morning. I'm still a newbie so I never know quite where we are going, but every week follows the same pattern. The pace starts to pick up at about 12:00 and that signals that we're about half an hour from the pub. There's some final jostling for position and an ad-hoc sprint for the village sign, and then lunch. Which is often 'liquid'. While the 'grown ups' down as many pints as they can before Sunday closing at 2:00, we younger ones drift back outside after we've eaten. Someone has a tennis ball. We play wall-ball and then football, and then have a quick 'circuit race' around the village, or we hang about talking about the things that 15 year-olds talk about.

On that subject, we are an exclusively male bunch. The only female cyclists I ever see in our part of the world are World Champion Mandy Jones, Julie Earnshaw - a Tour Feminin rider, and Lisa Brambani - a good looking youngster already on the national squad. There's also the legendary Beryl Burton, but I only ever see her at time trials - and she's off with the favoured riders while I start very early in the morning with the no-hopers. The next summer I meet a French cycle tourist and spend a day in the Dales with her, making a total of five women I have seen cycling!

Our leaders emerge from the pub. Everyone is a bit merry. We set off back, across the flat-lands passing cloud-belching cooling towers and whirring pit heads.  A kestrel is hunting along the edges of one of the slag heaps, and winter starlings are lined up along the telephone wires. There's no wind and we bowl along effortlessly. Someone rides alongside, flapping his 'wings' like a Condor - the name of our club, its motif stamped on our chests.  Soon we're all at it, swooping along the road, arms outstretched. It's not long until nature calls and there's an unscheduled stop. We're barely off again when someone has a mechanical. It's just a chain off so we ride on slowly for him to catch up, but then somebody decides we'll hide. We slip through a gate and hide behind the hedge, while he rides past, looking for us on the road ahead. Then we quietly remount and slowly catch him up - but he's going faster and faster, still thinking we're ahead. By now we're just a few yards behind him. Somebody sniggers and the game is up. 'You bloody daft buggers!' he shouts. Angry at being made to look a fool.

There's another stop, but this time we pass through some gates, which are padlocked by a chain just wide enough to get a person and bike through. We're on a big tarmac drive through a country house estate. Somebody tells me the history of the place. A wealthy noble family was stupid enough to mine underneath their own home which is now abandoned, cracking and crumbling with subsidence. A herd of deer is grazing in the distance. It is completely still and quiet, just the swish of our tyres as we scurry on through.

Its already starting to get dark on this short winter day, and our lights are switched on. My winter bike is kitted out with a dynamo. I have put a bigger bulb in the back light, because the standard dynamo bulbs always 'pop' when going down the steep hills of Yorkshire. Now, the faster I go downhill, the brighter the light. The whirr of the dynamo wheel is a comfort in the dark, but also puts a bit extra drag onto tired legs. Every so often, a friendly hand rests on my back and gives me a push to keep me in the bunch.

As we get nearer to Calderdale, people peel off towards their homes. I can smell Sunday dinners and coal fires. The smells and warm glow from the houses seems to emphasise the cold and dark outside. I tick off the valley landmarks and mill towns: Ravensthorpe, Cooper Bridge, Brighouse, Elland, Sowerby Bridge and then a steep kick up towards the main road, and finally back to Hebden Bridge. Its been a great day but its always nice to be back home out of the elements.

Thursday, 20 October 2016

Leeds Bradford Cycle Superhighway - Update

In July 2015 I paid a visit to the Leeds - Bradford Cycle Superhighway (see Last month I was invited back to see the finished article, along with staff from Transport for London and various other English local authorities.

When the Superhighway was being constructed this kind of separate infrastructure was new, not just in Yorkshire but also in London, with only one short section of separated cycle track running out towards the Olympic Park in Stratford. I was occasionally invited to contribute to the external design review panel for the Leeds-Bradford route, and there were endless discussions about kerbs, drains, width and junction designs.

Civil engineering, and the 'traffic engineering' branch of it, is largely about adhering to standards, and cycle routes are invariably non-standard. Online cycle campaigners have given the Leeds-Bradford route quite a bit of stick for being 'sub-standard' during the last year.

The problem is that many of our roads and streets date from Victorian times and their dimensions are largely determined by the medieval field boundaries of the plots of land that were sold to Victorian developers at a time before cars existed. There has to be some flexibility and creativity to adapt these to the needs of the 21st century. Can traffic lanes be removed? Can parking be moved? Can you still drive a bus round the corner if the road is narrowed? Will there be enough time for drivers to see cyclists when there are walls and buildings obscuring the view? What looks at first like a simple 'Space for Cycling' exercise in two-dimensions quickly becomes more complicated when you factor in the gradient, sight lines, the dynamics of moving traffic, the swept path of large vehicles, the way in which surface water will run off and the capacity of the existing drainage to cope with more run-off, how close are tree roots, gas mains, electric and fibre optic cables to the construction, and ......  the list goes on and on.
The bus stop that breaks all the design standards - but in practice, with rarely more than one person present at any time, is this really a problem? During the peak hours there are two lanes of queuing vehicles here and there was a requirement to retain space for emergency vehicles to get through.

Besides the technical debate there is always politics. Every junction becomes a political battle ground about delays to buses, lengthening the queue of traffic and speculation about safety for pedestrians, cyclists and drivers. Every car parking space that needs to go is viciously contested by the people affected. Virtually every shopkeeper in the land thinks that 100% of his business arrives by car.

Leeds - Bradford is all about the art of the possible. What can realistically be done in a hilly, low cycling neighbourhood with high car ownership and limited public support. It also represents a bit of a pioneering phase for segregated cycle infrastructure, particularly as many of the originally proposed junction and crossing treatments only became legal after construction, so designers had to revert to older solutions such as toucan crossings.

Residential parking space retained to provide protected cycle track to nearside of cars, with a coloured 'warning strip' in the door zone.

At around 9 miles long, the Leeds-Bradford route must be the longest stretch of (largely) separate urban cycle track in England. For the most part this isn't a 'shared footway' with pedestrians on it, it is a genuine road for cyclists.

Typical two-way section with adjacent footway. Some parts are also one-way on either side of the road. While this section may not look ideal, you have to compare it to what it was like to cycle into Bradford on the carriageway here before (below)

The next phase is to complete the route into Leeds city centre and out to the east. At the moment it stops at the ring road, which is its major failing. A segregated route into the city will be the key to fulfilling its potential to get large numbers of users.

New parallel cycle/zebra crossing under construction near the start in Armley. These crossings only became legal in Summer 2016.

On some of these site visits where I come away thinking that I would never use it. Thankfully there were only a few compromises here, mainly junctions that were beyond the budget and timescale of the original scheme. Most of these are due for upgrade at some point, but in the meantime they stand out, particularly the ring road crossing mentioned in my last blog, where cyclists get a green man most of the way across and then get held on a very narrow traffic island on the final left turn slip. This would be very dangerous if more than one or two cyclists were present. Having had a green light most of the way through the junction, it would also be easy for a cyclist to assume priority at the last light and get run over. This site is due a major junction upgrade, which would potentially give cyclists the a fully grade separated arrangement.
Major junction at the ring road still needs to be completed.

Some of the narrow bus stops and bus boarders have had very unfavourable press, not from users but from bloggers. In reality these are stops where only one or two people are ever present, and the chances of encountering a cyclist are rare. The dimensions are not ideal, but they are entirely adequate for the local context. The use of toucan crossings at some of the junctions is a bit 'clunky', and I imagine that these are largely bypassed by cyclists who either don't wait for the lights or revert to the carriageway to maintain priority. Some of the locations would be ideal for a 'European style' parallel green system to enable a simpler layout with fewer delays, something that British Cycling is about to campaign for.

Nice straight and clear path for cyclists at this signalised junction.

In contrast, this toucan crossing to go across a side road, constructed in 2015, is very 'old school' and less convenient than the advanced stop line it replaced. 

In other places, more modern and direct crossings for cyclists have been introduced, enabled by regulatory changes in 2016.

The 'shared space' at Stanningley Bottom is a section where the road was too narrow for cycle facilities, where there was also pressure from local businesses to retain car parking and access.  A 'naked streets' approach  has been adopted, but without any vertical or horizontal traffic calming, no change in surface texture, no carriageway narrowing or side road entry junction treatments. So it feels quite out of place compared to the segregated provision on the rest of the route. The replacement of a T junction with a 'virtual' mini-roundabout has however been a success in helping to slow down traffic and improve the functionality of the junction. It's a location that is hemmed in by the railway line and surrounding topography, so no obvious solutions to finding space without demolishing some buildings.
This junction and shared carriageway section are distinctly 'out of keeping' with the remeinder of the route. To make a truly 'low speed shared space' here would require a major investment in  'place-making' works such as a textured road surface and further 'visual narrowing' of the carriageway. However, due to its location it will always be a very busy place with few alternative routes available.

A lot of lessons have been learned in building the route, and the sections that were constructed later are noticeably better than those that were done first. More importantly, the route has proven that multiple political and technical obstructions can be overcome, which in turn has helped to secure future political support for new cycle routes.

One-way cycle track at side road crossing with clear priority over turning vehicles

The route hasn't seen the kind of overnight increase in users that occurred when the cycle superhighways opened in central London this year, but it is a hilly suburban route between two cities in an area where cycle ownership and use is extremely low. Nevertheless, cycling has increased by 30% in the few months since the official opening in June 2016, with over 30,000 journeys to date. This is a route along a busy road that is primarily used by commuters. We didn't see many other cyclists on our late-morning site visit, but everyone that we saw, from old ladies to lycra-clad club cyclists, were using the cycle tracks. When I visited in 2015 it was during the evening peak, and I found myself sharing the carriageway with cars going at 60 mph in places and then trying to squeeze past queuing traffic at walking pace a few hundred yards further on. I can certainly see the benefit of being able to cycle at a consistent speed.

Perhaps more telling was the attitude of local authority staff who were present. Five years ago if we went on a cycling site visit, everybody would have been in hi-viz and helmets, and we would have been given a 'risk assessment' to read. Instead we had a very relaxed site visit, most people in normal working clothes, where we were able to stop and chat in safety.

High quality facilities are also being delivered in Cambridge, Bristol, Leicester, Manchester, Nottingham, Newcastle and Norwich at present, so it appears that there is at last some momentum outside London.

Sunday, 2 October 2016

An Appeal on Behalf of the Three Peaks Syndrome Association

Three Peaks Syndrome generally manifests itself in the early days of summer, when in late May or early June, even the most tight-fisted Yorkshire-man may feel an irresistible urge to part with £50 quid and sign up for another year.  Around 650 people are affected annually, mainly in the north of England but it has been known to occur in cyclists from as far afield as Australia.

The initial stages of the disease are characterised by anxiety, waiting to see if the entry has been accepted. By July this might progress in two ways, acute anxiety will occur if the entry has been accepted, while mild anxiety may continue for a further 6 weeks for those on the reserve list.

The secondary stage is acceptance. The patient becomes afflicted with a grim determination to take long bicycle rides over the most unsuitable terrain for cycling. Even the most innocent bike ride may end up as some sort of 'hill-fest'

This may involve carrying a bicycle up steep hills, riding down steep rocky paths, carrying a bike up moorland steps and then riding it back down again. Some patients may also choose to run, with or without a bike. It is not uncommon for patients to harm themselves and their bicycles during this period. If a family cycling holiday is planned during August or September, it may be disrupted by odd behaviour such as 'why don't we go this way, away from the road for a bit'.

By mid-August all patients will experience nausea in the pit of their stomach, triggered by words such as: Ingleborough, Whernside, Pen y Gent, cyclo-cross. This is often accompanied by obsessive behaviour about tyres, gears, brakes and race day nutrition. Fortunately there are many online communities to feed this obsession, so family members may be spared the worse.

The culmination of the disease is mass hysteria, where all sufferers converge on a small village in the Yorkshire Dales and proceed to ride en-mass along road, tracks and footpaths. Scrambling up the most unsuitable steep slopes, down boggy moorland tussocks and mud-strewn slabs. Their final act is to hurtle down Pen y Gent lane at breakneck speed, only to finish back where they started.

Exhausted but elated, they may celebrate in the traditional way by consuming alcohol and recounting their 'journey' to each other with great detail about their physical and mental anguish.

If you or your family has been affected by these issues, just say NO next year! Our thanks go out to all the organisers, marshalls and mountain rescue staff who look after these poor souls.

Thursday, 4 August 2016

300 miles and one Black Dog

Like many people this year I have been fighting depression. I can’t say why I am depressed. I have a good job, a home, a loving family, I’m physically healthy and I live in a beautiful part of the country. What is not to be happy about? I have to confess, I normally have little patience when I read about celebrities who apparently ‘have it all’ and depression, but the bottom line is you can’t buy happiness. And then there's the whole Brexit angst, plunging the entire country into mild shock, and an upsurge of random attacks by terrorists and unhinged loners. I guess it all just becomes too much to take in sometimes.

On Monday night I watched a documentary about Bradley Wiggins. I was aware of his epic binge earlier in his career after the 2004 Olympics, documented in his book ‘My Time’. I also sensed in his interviews in the run up to the 2010 Tour that all was not well and it wasnt going to be a repeat of his breakthrough 2009 Tour. When an ‘introvert’ talks himself up, it always seems that its an exercise in self-assurance.  At least that’s how it works for me. When you are actually confident, you’re more likely to say something self-deprecating. It’s complicated being a depressive! I wasn’t aware that he’d plunged into depression after the 2012 Tour and Olympic TT wins, coming down from the 'high' and struggling to adjust to being a celebrity.

But after listening to his experience I could see what has happened to me over the last year, albeit in a far less pressured and public environment. You live your life trying to fulfil as many obligations as possible, to not let anybody down and suddenly find you’re emotionally exhausted with nothing left to give. But the work, and the other things you have to do keep on piling up and suddenly you’re like a rabbit frozen in the headlights, with life bearing down on you at a speed that you can no longer cope with. This year I definitely didn't cope and have messed up things at work and at home. A friend of mine, who I once helped through a similar experience, describes this as ‘The Fear’. For me it comes as a sort of writers block, because mostly I have to write to earn money, but also a gradual withdrawal from all other activities.

Once I reach this state it’s really hard to break out. I find it hard to make progress with anything. I know in my head that a problem shared is a problem halved, but the prospect of confessing to my hopelessness is too much to bear. Equally the prospect of relaxing and socialising to get things in perspective is unrealistic because you don’t want to impose your misery and self-loathing on others. I know that we should talk, but talking for me is hard at the best of times and no matter how much I think about it I have no real reason to be anxious, stressed or depressed, it just seems to happen out of the blue.

Cycling can be a great help at these times. Normally at this time of year I am training for the Three Peaks cyclo-cross and such is the nature of the event that there is no choice but to get the hours in, trekking over the moors, driven by the fear of failure, of not living up to my own standards. While this is hard, it is pretty therapeutic and mentally cleansing.

This year I didn’t get into the Three Peaks and lost a bit of focus. However, I was down to do the Ride London 100 and knew that it would be a good idea to try some longer rides than my usual 25-30 miles circuits. Up until three weeks ago the ‘Black Dog’ had stopped me. One Saturday in early July I got up, donned my cycling clothes and then sat, and sat, all day long. Unable to face going out of the house. By the end of the day I hated myself for being so lazy and useless.

The next day I got up early and forced myself out. I headed up into the Yorkshire Dales riding as fast and hard as I could, to Skipton, to Grassington, over the hills to Settle. Not thinking, just concentrating on pushing the pedals round. Eventually I started to feel better and take notice of my surroundings. I was alone up in the hills between Settle and Slaidburn, not quite sure where I was going, on a road that I probably hadn’t been on since 1980 when I went on my first club run to Tosside. 

It reminded me of everything that I love about cycling, the adventure of new places and the ever-changing face of familiar haunts. I returned home almost 100 miles done, feeling more able to face the world than I have done for 6 months. The next week I did a long Audax ride, 135 miles covered out to the Lancashire coast and back, enjoying the camaraderie of riding with others for the first time in ages. 

Speeding along in our mini-peleton I suddenly felt at home, like when I first discovered as a teenager that cycling was ‘my thing’. Last weekend was the Ride London 100, another great experience which just left me wanting to do more and more. I’d happily have ridden round again straight away if I had the legs!

So I’m writing this for anybody else who may, for whatever reason or none, have lost their ‘mojo’ this year. I know it is so hard to get going, but you are not alone. If it is in any way possible to get the wheels turning once more, get out there, but do it on your own terms. Cycling and life are about the art of the possible, not about meeting the expectations and wishes of everybody else.

Tuesday, 2 August 2016

Ride London Surrey 100

You would imagine that the streets of London would be pretty deserted at 5:30 on a Sunday morning. I was looking forward to riding through the city's ripped backside a la Iggy Pop (with that song in my head!). Not so!  Marble Arch and Oxford St were already noisy and busy with buses and cars. Travelling onwards towards the City I was joined at every side street by more and more cyclists. As we headed East, bleary eyed revellers were emerging from nightclubs ready to go home to bed. I love it when you see these glimpses of other lives from the seat of your bike.

Following the yellow signs we were all fed onto Cycle Superhighway 2 to Stratford and the Olympic Park. Unfortunately so was all the other traffic, queued nose-to-tail because the adjacent A12 was closed for the Sportive riders. It was easy to spot the regular cycle commuters weaving their way through the traffic, while the leisure cyclists all looked a bit bewildered. What really surprised me was that they waited behind the cyclists advance stop lines as if they were still in their cars, leaving the bike box empty.  Perhaps its time to bring back the old 'Public Information Films' to explain how to use these features.

Lucky Bagpuss waiting to start the challenge

It was an anxious 20 minutes of steady shuffling through Bow Roundabout and Stratford High St before I was able to reach the starting gate. A few minutes late for my allocated time but no harm done, apart from no time for the toilet! Standing in the start area the sheer scale of the event became apparent. In every direction, as far as the eye could see, there were colourful but slightly worried looking cyclists.

At 7:00 we were off. Steady pace out of the Olympic Park and then onto the open road. I latched on to a couple of fast moving, big solid looking German blokes. Greipel lookalikes? Riding back across London on silent main roads through all the tunnels and overpasses that you normally avoid on a bike was a bit surreal. 'It's like being in a video game' said my new companion, in his best Schwarzenegger accent. In no time at all we were out through Kensington and heading towards Richmond Park, Mecca for London's cyclists.

I have to admit to holding some reservations about Sportives. The purist in me says that if you want to race bikes, get a license and do proper races. Somehow the idea of training and riding really hard in a sportive seems morally wrong! I know I have autistic tendencies and I never know in my own mind what to do faced with ambivalent situations. I love riding fast but riding at race speed is a different kettle of fish. It is usually a horrible feeling of grey illness and impending exhaustion, punctured occasionally by relief or euphoria. Why put yourself through all that when you don't have to? I settled for riding fast along the main roads and then sitting up to enjoy the views in the Surrey hills. The decision was pretty much taken out of my hands anyway when we reached the first climb to Newlands Corner and the fast boys and girls that I was with disappeared up the hill.

I was joined by a friendly bloke who I'd been chatting with at the start and we rode along for a while, taking in the scenery. I'm always put off riding anywhere near London because of the amount of traffic, even on the country lanes, but with closed roads you could really appreciate the pretty villages, rolling hills and ancient woodlands.

The gradient on Leith Hill was surprisingly brutal and I lost contact with my companion as we just had to ride it at our own pace. Thankfully it was all over quickly and we were soon off down the other side. I think it was here that we passed the aftermath of a nasty crash with around seven riders down. One lady appeared to have a broken collar bone. Sickeningly, the blood from a head injury was trickling across the road while the man involved was being held carefully still by one of the marshalls. It had only just happened and there were no medics there yet. This brought back memories of a hideous fatal crash that I witnessed about 10 years ago where I had the misfortune to see somebody bleeding to death from a head injury while we waited for an ambulance. I am forever haunted by the way her breathing went from normal, to laboured, to death rattle and by the thickness and stickiness of the blood as it dried. Quite out of the blue I found myself shuddering and tears rolling down my face in some sort of post-traumatic episode. I saw a few other shaken people sat head in hands at the side of the road. These times in life you just wish somebody would give you a hug, and you count your blessings! I don't know if this was the crash that ended up with air ambulance and route diversions for the later riders. Soon afterwards there were two other less serious crashes on other downhill sections. I really hope that all involved make a full recovery.

This illustrated my other 'problem' with sportives. We may all like to imagine that we are Peter Sagan, Ronan Bardet, Lizzie Armitstead or Mark Cavendish but the fact is that these are exceptional bike handlers in a field of the world's best experts, and they still crash pretty frequently. In a sportive the fast riders are often more like a bull in a china shop, assuming that slower riders know what they are doing, will ride predictably and in a straight line and will not stop suddenly. These are wrong assumptions. It is not a race or a club run and the majority of people taking part are simply not used to riding in a group and just want to enjoy the ride and get around the course. Finishing is an achievement for them. They can't be blamed for not observing 'your' personal race rules. As in real racing, the safety onus is on the person overtaking from behind to do so safely. It is absolutely terrifying to come down a fast descent with some nutter 6 inches from your back wheel and it's a completely unnecessary risk which even the pro cyclists rarely take, instead allowing each other enough space in case things go wrong. Rant over.

Onward to Box Hill. If God (or Carlsberg) had invented a hill for the bicycle, it is Box Hill. The gentle, even gradient is perfect for cycling, the tarmac is smooth, it has a few 'continental style' hairpins and stunning views that make you feel like you are in a Frank Patterson sketch. I can see why people from miles around would choose to head there.

The summit of Box Hill included a refuelling point. I took the chance to fill up on malt loaf and other snacks and sat down for a while to watch the spectacle of riders passing by. It was amazing to see all shapes, sizes, ages and genders passing by. Everybody smiling, relieved to get to the top, some clearly surprised and delighted by what they had achieved. It was quite tempting to spectate for longer. A man flashed by on an orange Brompton, overtaking 3 immaculately turned out club riders. Another bloke swished up to the top, one arm strapped carefully across his chest. Then you start looking at the jerseys, so many charities, so many people trying to do something for others while having a bit of fun. You know that these will be people who survived an illness themselves, who survived the death of a husband, a child, or they may be full time carers for the critically ill and injured, or helping those fleeing from war, famine or persecution. So many reasons why people choose to ride for charity. Whatever you think of the cycling politics of these big events, there is no doubt about the huge impact such rides must have for the income of the charity sector. In my own case, I was raising money for the Trigeminal Neuralgia Association, ( an organisation that provided me with valuable emotional support from fellow sufferers and practical information when it came to treatment options. I managed to raise a modest £180 (donate at .

From Box Hill it is not quite downhill all the way to London but that's what it feels like. A train of riders came past on my right and I jumped on the back for a free ride pretty much all the way to the Mall. The crowds were lining the roads the whole way in, and there we were, zipping along at 25 mph, sweeping round the bends and waving at the children like some sort of rag-bag returning army. It was a side of London I'd never seen before, a massive 20 mile long street party with the riders taking centre stage. Normally pedalling through west London is anything but pleasurable. This must be what it's like to be in the Royal Family. The queen probably imagines that standing at the roadside waving flags is what ordinary people do all day.

The politics and intention behind the Ride London weekend is interesting to me. It was explained by TfL at a meeting I attended with British Cycling on the opening Friday as part of the Choose Cycling initiative ( I spend a lot of my time working on strategies to boost cycling. Sportives and mass cycle rides are usually supported by councils as a way to attract visitors to come and spend money.

The Ride London weekend is different. Closing the roads of central London on Saturday is all about getting families who live in London to explore the city centre by bicycle.  It's great to see people out and about with children, without the fear of getting run over. Most people can't even do this in the street where they live. The event gives them a little snippet of what cities can be like when the car is used appropriately and not to the detriment of everyone else, helping to build public political support for cycling infrastructure. 70% of daily traffic on Blackfriars Bridge is now cyclists, but only 2% of all trips in greater London are by bike. There is a long way to go towards mass cycling in most boroughs outside central London.
Lots of stuff going on at the Free Cycle festival

The Sportive is a legacy of the 2012 London Olympics. Entry is always oversubscribed with preference given to London addresses. It is a reward for the citizens to enable them to be inspired by the Olympians to try and take on a challenge themselves. Inspiration to participation. TfL had to spend money to organise the first year events when nobody knew whether they would be a success, but now the sponsors meet the full cost of the weekend, but it still of course relies on the political support of the areas through which it passes, whose residents are disrupted by the weekend of festivities and road closures. TfL do some follow-up monitoring and estimate that around 20,000 new cyclists are still cycling 4 months after being inspired to start by the Ride London weekend. That figure excludes existing cyclists who maybe do extra cycle trips to work and other places as part of their preparation for the 100 miles ride. The mens and womens professional races are seen as the vehicle to generate tourism revenue, showcasing the city and the Surrey countryside on international TV. Indeed, the commentator on Eurosport noted that one of the riders had booked a holiday in Britain after taking part in last year's Tour of Britain.
TfL and British Cycling officials show other councils around the new infrastructure as part of the weekend. Embankment now moves 18% more people per day than it did when there was no cycle track, so far from reducing capacity, the space taken from cars has enabled more movement.

Nearly at the finish. I'd been chatting to a fellow Bianchi owner on the way up Whitehall, where crowds lined the roads to cheer us. She was perfectly dressed top to toe in Bianchi team gear, even down to the celeste shoes. As we passed through Admiralty Arch onto the Mall after 5 hours on the road I didn't want it to be over. 'We'd better slow down and savour this moment'. 'No way, its a Strava segment!' she shouted as she sprinted off to the finish line.  I still don't quite get the sportive mentality......

They think its all over, but the cycling revolution is just beginning.