Thursday, 30 June 2011

Lodes of Fun

Cycling blogs can often be a bit grumbly, including mine. Well its time to even up the score. I have been having a fabulous time on my bikes recently!

First there was my one week cycle camping around Normandie, France. It may have rained, but only on one of our parades that week. Brilliant scenery, well behaved drivers and endless pattiseries and boulangeries. I'll tell that story in a future post.

Last Sunday was a week since I returned from France and I had not been on any longer rides.  England was sweltering in 30 Celsius heat that weekend and the whole village was out enjoying the excellent Fen Edge Festival. After my volunteering slot on the Bart Golf and a spot of lunch, it was time for my cycle.

I choose to take out my bargain second hand road bike on one of my standard loops, 49km via Upware, joining the Lodes Way, and skirting the edge of Cambridge.  The route is below, or view in BikeRouteToaster.

A 49km road loop via part of the Lodes Way.
click to view in BikeRouteToaster

The start of the route runs north out of Cottenham up to Wilburton along the B1049.  I started to pass cyclist after cyclist after cyclist - how unusual and pleasant.   I later found out that these riders were on the Sportive Flat Out in the Fens on a 112 mile or 154 mile route.  I was dehydrated after 31 miles and two bottles (bidons) of water so I hope they managed to finish and get plenty of fluids.

Side note: I keep meaning to do a Sportive or Audax ride but it always seems like hassle to get there.  This one started in Peterborough, but if they had an alternative start point nearer to home I would have given it a shot.

After about 30mins I get to turn off the A1123 and truly relax into the scenery of the Fenland back roads.

It was in Upware, I passed a cyclist stopped at the side of the road. He was on a familiar looking hybrid bike with rack top bag. I turned around and then saw he was wearing sandals, ah ha, another clue, and yes it turned out to be Jamie, author of Keep Pushing Those Pedals. Jamie has the skill of putting together some superb photos of the local area and look like how I remember the views, but I can never get the same effect from my own compact camera.  We had a good chin wag and watched so many cyclists pass by on this glorious day.

I also exchanged a few words with a retired couple cycle touring from Berlin in Germany. It is rare to see cycle tourists, even more so in this age range. It made me wonder where I would camp in the local area.  There are actually a couple of campsites. One is the Cherry Hinton Caravan Club site - they do not normally take tents but this one does, and being a member I can tell you they are extremely clean and well run.  Second is the Caravan and Camping Club between Trumpington and Great Shelford. I visited a relative here once and this one looks good too.

I continued on my way, pushing hard and enjoying the view and managing to average 29km/h (18mph).

I enjoyed my ride so much, I decided to do it again on the way into work in Cambridge in perfect sunny and 16C weather.  Just before Upware, I was overtaken by a tractor while I was doing 20mph and then it held me up for the next mile doing 12mph on thin roads. This is a traffic jam Fenland style. Being held up like this in town would be met with such frustration, but being completely in the middle of nowhere with no other vehicles around I had to chuckle at the situation.

I arrived at work, dealt with the parking problem - carrying the bike up the stairs to my office - and was feeling so full of energy and bounce. Another superb ride, with sunshine and endorphins still flowing through my body.

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Attitudes towards cyclists: UK vs France

On a group ride I am always the first to grumble about close passing. I spent most of my life avoiding road riding by off-road cycling instead. Most people cite the reason for not cycling is fear, so it seems I am not alone, except that most people avoid cycling apart from their holidays to Centre Parcs. It is only in recent years that I have needed to cycle commute and take to the road on a regular basis.

I keep cycling by telling myself that: most people are good people and are not out to intentionally harm me; statistically I am very unlikely to be involved in an accident; and that I can increase my chances of survival by following tips from John Franklin's CycleCraft.

Having just returned from a 250m/400km cycle tour across Normandie, France, it has given me the chance to reflect on the differences between cycling in the UK and France.

In the UK, a passing motorist will typically overtake between the cyclist and the centre white line which quite often leaves about three feet. This is the minimum I feel safe at, and it really depends on the speed of the overtake, 20mph is fine, but a 60mph overtake at three feet is a scary experience. (Using tips from CycleCraft you can have an effect on the space given by cycling away from the gutter).

In France, given an open road, the difference is stark. The default overtake for drivers is to pass completely in the oncoming lane, to the point where their wheels are at the very edge of the road, leaving as much space as possible. The space given whilst overtaking was a reliable indicator of the nationality of the car. I don't recall any UK driver crossing completely to the opposite lane to overtake.

When the traffic gets busier, and waiting for a gap would be futile, a French driver would go between the oncoming car and cyclist (me), but would squeeze the oncoming car rather than the vulnerable cyclist. Even when the passes were close like they were in the UK, I felt that the French drivers were looking out for my safety. I must say at this point that we did get a couple of hoots for riding two-abreast on empty roads, but there were not long blasts like in the uk, more 'I am here' pips.

Why is there a difference ? I can only imagine it is mostly down to the enthusiasm for cycling in France. Of course, there is Le Tour de France - a race which somehow captures the hearts of the world - and how proud it must make a Frenchman.  It is not just the race. I tackled a TdF climb last year, the Port de Pailheres, some 1800 meters of climbing and I was encouraged along by a shout of Allez Allez from a stopped motorist. Whilst touring we saw so many older riders on road bikes, and even motorcyclists were giving us a friendly wave.  In addition, a tour guide told me that the police were now cracking down hard on motoring offences.

So we finished the riding in France, started our travels back and got back to Cottenham. A too-close pass happened, no oncoming traffic, so I did my usual thing of gesturing my arm to the right - I normally do this to cause following traffic to pass wider but there was none. The driver saw me in his mirror, did the same gesture, then practically skidded to a halt.

I never enter into a heated conversation or swearing, it never changes peoples minds and will probably make them hate cyclists more.

The driver had his window down when I arrived alongside and immediately said "you should be on the cycle path". I've had this a few times now, its a common misconception that Cottenham has a cycle path - it doesn't, it starts on the southern edge of the village, not helped by fearful cyclists using the footpath in question. All I managed to calmly say was "that's a footpath not a cyclepath" before he drove off.

I don't like be driven at or intimidated on purpose so I report people like this to the Police. Without an independent witness the police will not follow up, but at least it records the fact that there is a problem - as the police say, if you don't report crime they can't solve it - and should that car be involved in another more serious incedent it might form part of the case.

One question I was asked by the police was "did they threaten you?". Well, not in a face to face way. I consider the motorcar to be a viable weapon, the police do not. If I was to say he waved a knife near me I am sure they would be round with blues and twos blazing.

I am always left a little puzzled at what would cause a driver to go out of their way to purposely risk the life of a stranger. I can only draw parallels with racism where the driver thinks I am not entitled to equal access to the roads and that perhaps they fear my transport choice. 

Meanwhile, on goes the cycle renaissance in Britain, and long may it continue, for one day I will not be seen as a minority.