From A Bygone Era

With the prospect of another spell of chilly weather starting tomorrow, it would have been daft to not make the chance to get out for a ride today.

In just under a couple of hours I saw two family groups out cycling – one mother with three children; one mother, father and two children. (It’s half-term for many schools around here.)

Seeing them, the thought that came unbidden was that it was reminiscent of a bygone era. A moment’s reflection and the fact that I thought that struck me as pretty depressing.

I’m a cyclist – I don’t think of cycling as odd or anachronistic. Nevertheless, my unreasoned reaction – if you like, my ‘unmediated by my consciousness’ reaction – to seeing a family out cycling was that it was an event of a time now passed.
That even a keen cyclist like me is thinking that, surely, is a testimony to the power of marketing and how well we’ve all been sold a shiny, motorized, hi-tech and non-cycling life as the norm.

If ‘cycling’ wants to succeed as a lobby group, I fear it has an awful lot of counter-marketing to do.

A Worthwhile Legacy

There are enough words written already about the London Olympics and, now, about the ‘Olympic Legacy’. I’ll try and keep my bit brief.

As a nation we’re proving very good at cycling; I’ve heard punters on television talk about this being a great time for cycling and cyclists. When riding today, what I wanted to hear about is a legacy goal that would be meaningful for all cyclists whatever their motivation, age or ability. I wanted to hear of someone taking up the cudgels for applying a decent national standard to road repairs and maintenance.

Reality? Reality is that no-one will take up that fight because it’s not glamorous. The cretinocracy we live in has promoted ‘leaders’ who only do ‘sexy’. The chance of anyone high profile, with power, fighting for something as basic as a decent standard of road mending is nigh on impossible. It is easier to imagine little Martians cleaning the lens of the camera on the Curiosity Mars rover than it is Lord Coe using the momentum of the games and his new role as ‘legacy ambassador’ (whatever that might be) to achieve something meaningful, that will help people other than elite athletes.

Away from the glitz, what’s happening is depressingly criminal in the amount of money being wasted. Councils, private contractors and anyone else with the power/responsibility to dig up and/or mend roads need to be held to account. It is that simple.

Out today, thinking this, I stopped along a lane and took some pictures (below). I didn’t have to hunt to find examples – this was just where I happened to think of taking photos. Looking at them now, here are a few draft regulations, made up as I write:

  • The surface of any road works must be within 5mm of the adjacent road surface, measured six weeks after the repair was carried out to let it settle.
  • The edges of any road works must be sealed with a liquid tar to make it waterproof.
  • The practice of smearing tar and stones over a road surface without it having been properly mended first must end.
  • There needs to be a national standard of road repair, not a council-by-council patchwork of varying quality.
  • Whatever the minimum size hole currently is (bigger than which they have to repair it) needs to be reassessed so that it reflects the needs of cyclists.

And so on and so on and so on. As it is, a depressingly high proportion of those responsible for digging up/mending the roads are trashing the national infrastructure and getting away with it.

It’s not an argument about cycling that has to happen. This could be about the health of the nation. If that’s not good enough, then focus instead on the need to safeguard future generations by reducing greenhouse gasses. If that doesn’t ring your bell, then try the cost-savings to industry by reducing congestion by dint of having more cyclists and fewer cars. Or reducing costs to industry by having healthier workers. Or reducing the costs of local government by having more cyclists and fewer vehicles on the road and thus less wear-and-tear on the roads themselves. And so on and so on and so on.

For funding all this, the lesson from HS1* should be applied to HS2** and the plug pulled on the latter now – before the pockets of any more lawyers, consultants or other leeches are lined. Everything else aside, more people would benefit from diverting the money to decent national road surfaces than will ever gain from the HS2 new rail link, even if the forecasting isn’t blindly optimistic.

Roads. Ugh. How boring. It’s all so worthy and dull. What’s daft is that if a big league politician took up that fight for real and delivered on it, they and their party would win more votes than they can possibly imagine. They’d also be doing real good for real people.

But as we all know, politicians with brains, bottle or vision are in horribly short supply. Politicians in the pockets of the road transport lobby or the oil industry or any other of the big hitters in the current status quo … they’re two a penny.

Please, someone, prove me wrong.


The same problem in the road, mended four times.

This is the same problem mended (at least) four times. The joins aren’t sealed so it will be a falling apart again shortly. You might as well just burn a few hundred quid – perhaps have a ceremony on market days in town centres: “Look, this is how much we’re wasting this week”. Whoever’s doing the mending must struggle to not laugh all the way to the bank.

A fresh hole in a road at the site of an old problem

A new hole appearing along the line of a previous mend. The sun comes up. The sun goes down. The previous mend wasn’t sealed so water gets in. A new hole appears. Heaven forfend that someone might do a job properly.

Smearing tar and gravel on a road achieves nothing for any road user

Take a road in need of repair. Don’t bother to repair it, just waste a load of public money smearing tar and gravel over it. It won’t last a few months. It will be difficult to cycle on and it will mask problem holes, thus making it dangerous too. It won’t even be safe for motorists as that sort of surface offers poor traction. Never mind, some quota’s been filled, some box ticked, some bonus earned somewhere.

A Golden Age

A decent length ride looping around Binfield to the south and Henley to the north. From near Billingbear, it struck me just how flat a large part of Berkshire is; I’m not sure I’ve ever thought of it in those terms before. I think it’s not that far off to call it a flat county riven by a river valley.

The Plains of Berkshire

The Plains of Berkshire

What was notable was that for ALL the non-main road stretches, out of urban areas like Reading and Henley, there were more cyclists than cars. This is between about 11 am and 1pm. It has to be a golden age for riding to some degree; the question is, whether this peak can be capitalised on.

I can think of a number of reasons for the growth in riding – there’s a recession and it’s affordable, we’re getting more health conscious, we have a charismatic World Champion in Mark Cavendish and, of course, British success in the Tour de France this year has to be a contributing factor too.

There are plenty of far more knowledgeable commentators about cycle racing than me; all I’ll say is that two things strike me about this year’s Tour winners above everything else.

  • Firstly, the true team work in Team Sky, involving everyone in the organisation, seems stunning, and that combined with the incredible individual talents has made it a pleasure to witness.
  • Secondly, it has to be that the success of the British is also a reflection of the cleaning-up of the sport in recent years and the subsequent levelling of the playing field: it’s given opportunities for ‘non cycling nations’ (without the doping culture).

If there’s one ground-level thing I’m sure of, it’s that the entrenched, established cycling culture in England – and presumably Britain – needs to change.

I think it’s been weakened considerably – brands like Boardman being in shops like Halfords have made buying a decent bike far more accessible than having to brave what can be the intimidating ‘LBS’ (local bike shop), much as they are wonderful institutions for initiates. And I was pleased to read a review a while back that said even the really quite cheap bikes sold by Decathlon are good to ride, unlike the often unfit-for-purpose rubbish sold by people like Tesco.

No, not all local bikes shops are intimidating – I think my local one, AW Cycles, is friendly to all-comers – but many are. (And maybe I’m no judge – I’m a cyclist so perhaps I’m not that sensitive to it). Either way, if there’s going to be a surge in interest in cycling, they’d all do well to think hard about how they come across to someone coming in the door with no cycling experience at all.

As for cycling clubs, if today’s club riders are typical then they remain poor ambassadors – as they’ve been for as long as I’ve been aware of them. There were any number of visibly new cyclists in the lanes today and it’s always the club riders who’ll go by them without so much as a glance, all macho and trying to pose as intimidatingly good on a bike. More often than not they’ll also ride badly in terms of basic road-rules and simple politeness too. It’s daft and it’s short-sighted. All riders would benefit from an increase in cycling’s popularity. New riders need to be encouraged. And all riders need to think of themselves as ‘proper’ road users, obeying the rules, if they want to be respected and treated as ‘proper’ road users themselves.

Go West …

Go west, and on the way you can see:

Colour appearing on the verges

Colour appearing on the verges

  • Blackbirds with beaks full of food; second broods, presumably.
  • An old, sparrow-thin lady, looking disproportionately worried as road works are set up near her home.
  • An idiot cyclist getting the turnings muddled up in Tidmarsh. That’ll be me then. Sorry about that, Ford Ka driver, and thanks for cutting me slack.
  • Relatively few cars and even fewer pedestrians; again prompting thoughts of this as a ‘golden age’ for cycling.
  • Friendly people when and where you do come in contact with them.
  • Colour on the verges: not in overwhelming amounts and not everywhere, but in many places the monopoly of purely shades of green is being broken up.
  • Red Kites galore, as far west as Aldworth at least.
  • Crop spraying tractors; having seen the drivers in the cabs of these things wearing air filter masks in the past, these days I always try to hurry by without breathing in. It can be a test.
  • Several examples of well-mended roads. West Berkshire seem to do the job pretty well. South Oxfordshire should come and take lessons.
  • An old and sweaty fat man on a bike, heaving himself up hills. That’ll be me then.
  • And rain clouds gathering further off to the west, engendering a sense of satisfaction in getting a decent length ride in, in time.

Care Counts

After all the exceptional warmth of the last few days, today was a shock to the system as it returned to a more-normal-for-the-time-of-year fairly cold and resolutely grey.

Riding a route that took in Chinnor, Watlington and across to Wallingford, I realised I’d forgotten how rural a lot of South Oxfordshire is. That’s somehow surprising. I guess I think of it as ‘home counties’ and thus over-crowded and over-developed. It wasn’t overly attractive in the dull light of the day but its potential appeal was obvious. Didcot power station on the horizon would always be hard to ignore but whether it merits ignoring is a moot point anyway.

Presumably because of its more rural nature, there wasn’t anywhere near the same amount of litter on the verges that you get on the roads I ride more often. That said, in a few places today, on roads closer to Reading, I saw there’d been a concerted litter-picking effort recently – whether by Councils or individuals I can’t say. It’s grim and depressing that it’s necessary; that it’s done is very much appreciated.

And no, that’s not just some selfish middle-aged, middle-class desire to have ‘nice scenery’ to ride through. There have been enough academic studies that demonstrate a visibly neglected environment will spiral downwards. A downward spiral benefits no-one, of any age, class, affluence, background, race, creed … Care counts.

It’s interesting that I feel I have to say that. I’m not quite sure why I do feel that caring for a locale has to be justified; it shouldn’t need to be. I’m not sure what vested interests would lie behind attacking that attitude. There would be some.

Another striking aspect of the route between Chinnor and Wallingford was that there were probably more cyclists about than cars. If not, it was a close-run thing. I guess, too, that I’d forgotten how big a ‘cycling city’ Oxford is, and the territory I was in is in easy reach for anyone looking for a decent route out of the city, and good to ride. Add in high petrol prices and a government / media inspired frenzy about potential fuel shortages combining to make motorists less inclined to take to the roads, and bike riding’s golden age continues.

For all the general lack of traffic, Wallingford looked busy enough, healthy enough, as I went through the centre. The market seemed busy and there were plenty of shoppers about. In recent years I’ve been to many market towns that have seemed to be faring a lot worse.

Ill Wind

Out for a decent length ride today,  in part on roads that you could reasonably expect to be busy – the A4 between Reading and Maidenhead for example – and the striking thing was how quiet it was. Of course there was traffic but there was far less of it than I’d ever have predicted.

I know,  I know – I’ve said about it before, and obviously there’s a trend here. A not at all surprising trend given the price of petrol.

What it made me realise is how true it is that it’s an ill wind that blows nobody any good.

The recession, the depression, the ludicrous petrol costs – they’re all hurting a lot of people. I’m by no means immune, though I’m aware there are plenty of others who are struggling with it more than me. But it’s also, possibly, a bit of a golden age for cycling. Fewer vehicles and more people on bikes is all to the good for cyclists.

I passed two teams of people out litter-picking today.  It struck me as being so wrong that that’s a low paid job. The value that their work has is infinitely greater than any number of all those mis-sold ‘financial products’. We’ve been lied to and ripped off by the financial sector to such an extent it beggars belief. And it’s not just paper money; it’s real and it’s screwing up real lives.

We’re told pay reflects scarcity. It seems to me there an endless supply of dishonest scumbags willing to rip people off, and they’re being paid handsomely for it. Why they should be paid anything at all just underlines how collectively stupid we all are. That there are so many of them rather disproves the pay reflects scarcity argument too. Besides, surely it would be better to have pay that reflected an individual’s value to society.