Saturday, 30 April 2016

Hanging on to the “Staffordshire Engine”

Phil Bayton, the “Staffordshire Engine” was one of the top home-based pros of the 1970s and 80s.

He gave me a pasting in a 2-up GP Des Gentlemen hilly tt at Harrogate, over the Yorkshire Moors, during the Harrogate Cycling Week in the mid 1970s.

When the event organiser told me he had paired me with Bayton, I thought, no, he’s pulling my leg.

He wasn’t. I was to ride with a guy who a few years before had finished 4th in the 1972 Munich Olympic  Games road race.  He was a Star Trophy winner (the season-long competition based on the leading UK road races); had placed 3rd and 4th on Milk Race stages and turned pro for Raleigh in 1973.

Bayton and his Raleigh team-mate Dave Lloyd are remembered for their famous 100 mile long breakaway together in the opening Spring Classic of the Continental season, the famous Milan to San Remo.

That they would eventually be caught was beside the point – their huge effort earned Raleigh a lot of publicity. And it led to invitations to other events, in which  the pair shone. They were third in famous two-up Baracchi Trophy won by Italy’s Felice Gimondi and Colombia’s Martin Rodriguez.

In 1982, Bayton won the British criterium title.

He was one of most exciting riders of his era.  He would go from the gun in criteriums, hence the nickname,  “Staffordshire Engine”. His sheer aggression at the head of a race was a delight to behold – for spectators!

But not when hanging on to his back wheel by the skin of your teeth in that Gentleman’s TT at Harrogate!

They’re meant to be light-hearted races, Gentlemen TT’s, where a younger rider paces an older one – usually a veteran. In this case, members of the cycle trade and cycling press.

The rule is you are not allowed to overtake the rider doing the pacing. No trouble there, then!

It was the hardest hardest 24 minutes of my life, or whatever our time was for the 10 hilly miles.

Although I still rode long distances, I hadn’t raced for two years….I was only a third category amateur!

Bayton had already ridden a 60-mile pro road race in the morning but that merely served to warm him up for our encounter.

Colin Lewis, another legend from those days – he twice won the British road race title and rode the Tour de France - spied us in the first mile. He could see from my body language that I was already in difficulty. I glimpsed him coming down the opposite way. He plainly considered Phil to be going far too fast.  He wasn’t wrong!

“What’s Phil playing at,” Lewis said to himself.

A spectator awaited us further up the climb. This was Hampshire’s Chris Davies (CCP) who called out encouragement.

CCP is a proud member of the 300,000 miles club.  By 2010 he had ridden three times that figure – 900,000 miles!

He was still some way off that back in the 1970s when I spied him at the roadside watching Bayton pulverise me on the long slope.

“Up, up, Keith. Up, up, Phil,” CCP called out in those polite tones of his,  which would not have been out of place at the Henley Regatta.

Perfect diction.  Every word pronounced clearly, in that dark brown radio voice of his. He was a regular on local radio with his cycling news.

Bayton, who didn’t know CCP, clearly thought he was a toff and turned his head to me and called out:

“Who the …. was that.”

If it was possible to laugh at the same time as dying the death, I proved it then.
But to answer was impossible.  Gasping for air, legs burning, it was all I could do to hold the Engine’s back wheel.  By contrast, Bayton was riding on the tops, gazing at the wide and beautiful expanse of moorland.

In the downhill finish I was revving my legs off on 52 x 14 which was far too low.

“For God’s sake, Phil, ease up.!”

He looked back and  grinned.

As I recovered, bent over the handlebars, he laughed and joked:  “That was for that report you wrote in so and so, and then there was that race report in…..….”

Well, I think he was joking!

Saturday, 23 April 2016


Easter weekend training epic in Ireland 

400 miles in four days.

This story puts a quite different and altogether more laid back approach to the 21st Century  art of “The aggregation of marginal gains”,  as perfected by the Sky Pro cycling team.  For the boys in black that means, among other things, a strictly controlled nutritional diet and taking their own mattresses with them into hotels on stage races.

On the 1969 training weekend in Ireland recalled here, our “marginal gains” were achieved/hampered by getting no sleep on the overnight ferry before the 100-mile ride on the first day; followed by three more days of 100 mile each followed each night, after dinner, by sinking a few jars in a jolly local hostelry.

And after the return overnight ferry crossing four days later, dropping the bike at home at 6am, grabbing a bite, and going straight into the office.

In this way, I went from third to second cat. Say  no more.

I was a two-pints a night man, one night a week, max.  Usually on a Sunday evening down the folk or jazz club, relaxing after that day’s racing. 

Don’t know where the six-to-eight pints brigade put it.

Mind you, I did try to find out – once. 

Five pints of Newcastle Brown in a pub in Hannover Street Liverpool.

That was a watershed moment.

Terrible repercussions.

Knew there would be trouble from the moment of leaving the bar, when getting through three sets of doors to the street proved confusing. There’d had been only one door when we came in.

The blast of fresh air followed by the fuggy crowded bus did the rest.  What a disgrace.

Throwing up into a hanky on the back seat. The aghs and groans of other passengers turning away.

My pal Dave forced into making a public apology on my behalf.

Then on the club run the following morning, taking the 8.30 ferry from the Pier Head landing stage to Birkenhead Woodside, Davis regaled the other club members about my shame.

The hammers of Hell were knocking six bells out of my temples.

Two aspirins taken in the boat’s cafeteria did their work.  And more!

Can’t be sure, but I wonder to this day if it was these little helpers kicked which in with a vengeance 14 miles later on the Ewloe,  the 1.5mile climb from Queensferry into North Wales? That’s when I attacked and split the club run,  left everyone standing.

It didn’t last. The aspirins (it said on the pack ) were good for about 500 metres. (Only joking,  but someone has since told me they were the favourite choice among sprinters!). Anyway, my marginal gains gave out and I blew before the summit. Everyone came past. 

Five Pints man struggled on to the cafe two miles further on feeling like death.

So, back to our “tour” of Ireland.

All hail the Irish beer,   the Draught Phoenix and the Guinness.

Who were we? We were members of the Merseyside Wheelers.

The six: Willi, Eddie,  Tony – who earned the moniker T-Bone during this holiday -  Dave “Dickhead” who was given his moniker by Eddie for continually winding him up;  Steve Six-guns and  yours truly, who back then went by the name of Fringe, on account of his Beatles haircut.

Thursday overnight ferry from Liverpool to Dublin.


Come on!

We lay in loungers all night long. It was a long night, too, because whenever someone dared to nod off, he would be gently shaken awake by a club mate with the words, “Wake up, wake up. You can’t sleep like that”.

No one was to have the slightest advantage come the rolling start out of Dublin at the crack of dawn.

Breakfast in a dockside café.

Then on the road, south, direction Waterford.

At the first town boundary sign, the first sprint.

Willi won. He was, after all, only three years away from winning an Olympic bronze medal

at the 1972 Munich Olympic Games team pursuit.

We  couldn’t hold a candle to Willi.

Except by the last day when he was more tired than the rest. It was a rare moment to be taken full advantage of, by sticking half-wheels on him and watching him wince on the ride back into Dublin for the overnight boat.

But that first day was far too competitive.

Another sprint. Another victory for Willi, surging ahead with a monopoly of the marginal gains.

It was time to rethink our strategy, to get some marginal gains of our own. It couldn’t go on like this – not all weekend.

So when Willi took off for the third sprint a few miles out from the next town, the five counter-attacked as before.  He saw this, redoubled his efforts and was away.

At which point the five shipped oars, eased off, but remained in the drops.  Every time he looked back he would his five club mates lined out, bent double, heads to one side, apparently striving to catch up. And Willi would push on.

Except the “chasers” were doing 15mph!

But Willi couldn’t gauge that, as he pulled further away. 

Soon he was out of sight and the five would sit up and resume chatting.

Around about 11am a silence descended on the countryside. It was the Holy Hour, this bunch of heathens later learned. This was Good Friday, after all.  Not a soul was to be seen. Old roadsters were left abandoned in ditches.  Doors of houses, shops, were half open. Cars parked any old way.

It was as if the population had made a run for it, or been abducted.  The Merseysiders rode peacefully on through the calm until midday when people started to remerge, give their cheery greetings as only the Irish can, as the bike riders passed by.

And there, up ahead, was  Willi.  T-Bone spotted him first, pootling along waiting for his mates to catch up and probably wondering what kept them. 

Ahead lay a large town, which meant “sprint”.

Eddie said, right, let’s catch him unawares. The word went down the line …silent running.  Conversation ceased. Up went the gears.

Then Willi sat up, stretched and looked back.  Spotting the line-out in full flight bearing down, we heard as his gears being crashed into top. Naturally, he was first across the bridge into town.

But that was the end of the sprinting masterclass. 

After some 50 miles, lunch stop in a busy town. Can’t recall which. But Waterford would be the overnight stop.

Fella on the crowded pavement walking with his family, keeping pace as the group eased through at 3mph in congested traffic:

Hullo, there, he called out cheerily, as if he was expecting us.


Nice bikes.


And where you all from?


Liverpool? And where you going?


Waterford? You’ll be needing somewhere to eat.


Keep on straight, turn left at the lights – café on your right. They’ll fill yer up.


Good luck to yers.

All that without stopping.

Next day, another lunch time encounter.

Pub lunch stop.

Six locals in the bar fell silent as six bike riders clicked, clicked, in.

Six pints of Phoenix.

A voice breaks the ice.

And which part of Liverpool are yer all from?

Easter Sunday evening, our last night out, in a pub in Thurles.

Ah.Youse’ll be the bike riders who have ridden into town?

The very same.

Let these boys through, they’ve a mighty thirst on.

What are you having?”

This is a nice pub.

It is, too. One of 78 on the square.

Friday, 15 April 2016

No, Prime Minister

A new Whitehall cycling farce written by Downing Street’s embedded Cycle Blogger.

Curtain rises on a dimly lit back room café off Parliament Square, frequented by ministers.


Blogger: Hi, PrimeMinister,  I understand you think that the Get Britain Cycling Report and the Department for Transport’s Cycling and Walking Strategy are both excellent.

PM: Yes, I do. As you know I am a cyclist – or was until my security team

forbid me to cycle to work since becoming Prime Minister.  Couldn’t risk going under a lorry.”

Blogger: Yes, that’s pity. Er, no, that sounds bad.  I mean, it’s bad you not being allowed to cycle anymore.

The good news, PM, is that the Get Britain Cycling Report, in conjunction with the Walking and Cycling Strategy, promises to bring about road improvements to help make cycling and walking safer. And it will attract millions more people to cycle more often, instead of them always driving. So cutting congestion and pollution which is killing thousands of people a year.

PM: You’re right. Sounds excellent.

Blogger: So, tell me, PM, what do you think of the  recommendations made in both the Report and the Strategy?  

PM: ….Well, if we do as they say and spend more on improving the roads for cycling, we would save the NHS £billions because we would have a healthier nation, less time off work, fat people would be thin, we would reduce pollution and congestion.

It’s a win, win, win situation – to borrow a saying from a well-respected transport journalist, cycling and railway expert – his name escapes me -  who had hoped to win Labour’s nomination to run for Mayor of London.

Blogger: Glad you agree, so refreshing for the PM to say that, a first for your office in the history of cycle campaigning.  What must be done to bring this about?

PM:  Well, we are told that in the Netherlands 27 or 28 per cent of all journeys are made by bike and that should be something to aim for here in the UK. The report is calling for an increase in cycle use from less than the current 2 per cent to 10 per cent of all journeys in 2025 and 25 per cent by 2050.

Blogger: Does the Report say how this should be accomplished?

PM: Yes it does. It wants us to increase the level of funding for cycling from £2 per head of population to £10 per head immediately (that’s about £500m per year), and to increase it further, to £20, more or less in line with what they spend in Holland.

Blogger. And how is this extra money to be spent?

PM: It is recommended we redesign roads, streets and communities; it calls for safe driving and safe speed limits; for training and education of all road users, and for, ahem,  political leadership.

Blogger: Wow, that’s impressive. When it says POLITICAL leadership, that means YOU, the PM, giving the Get Britain Cycling Report Cabinet backing. When will you announce this?

PM: Ho, ho, hold on there. Never. We can’t do that! We can’t give it proper funding.

Blogger: Really!  Why ever not?

PM: Well, first off there’s the Daily Mail,  the Middle England backlash, we would lose voters if we are seen to back what many would see as a working class transport revolution.

We couldn’t be seen to giving £500m a year for 12 years, even though this is piss all from the transport budget swimming in £billions.

Blogger: But you do say you support the Report and the DfT’s strategy and all  they recommend?

PM: Oh, yes.  They’re both excellent. 

Blogger: So what is to be done?

PM:  I think it’s best left the to Local Authorities.

Blogger:  The same LA’s who have done fuck all. The same LA’s who have, over four decades, only ever built short cycle lanes with posts and telephone boxes in them, cycle lanes that don’t go anywhere.

PM: I wouldn’t be so hard on the LA’s as all that. Afterall, they are the very embodiment of what underpins our “Can’t do” mentality of government in the UK.

Blogger: Surely, the benefits to be had from making walking and cycling more pleasant, safer, will reap huge cost benefits?

PM: Look – between you and me and that fly on the wall - the snag is, it’s all a bit political.  You see, we’ve been told by our unelected advisors that  it would be political suicide to throw all that money at cycling.

These advisors have done their own Costing the benefits of increased cycle use. And it’s not a pretty picture. It’s all very well having a nation of fit thin people but the downside of  this is that cars will never ever be used again, or not much anyway. Think of the petrol sales lost, car sales lost, the huge loss in taxes to the Treasury.

Blogger: That’s a bit of twisted logic, Dave.

Dave:  I agree with you.  Absolutely  right. If only cycling could become an election issue. That will swing it.  Then we’ll do everything they want. Because above all else, our main aim is to say in power.

Curtain. End of scene act one.


Success and failure -

the great cycling enigma

Concluding the story of how British politics has failed cycling.

Britain is in the midst of a huge cycling revival.  More than a million more people have taken up cycling over the last few years as a direct result of the success of Britain’s racing cyclists.

The sport has zoomed to the top of sports charts with British riders dominating the Olympic Games, the World track championships, winning the Tour de France. Yorkshire’s Lizzie Armitstead is the current world road race champion. Each weekend thousands more ride the semi-competitive Sportives over challenging terrain.

And yet successive governments have failed to make the roads safer for cycling.

The recently announced funding for the walking and cycling strategy represents a cut in the already derisory £2 per head of population (England) to £1.39, compared to the £24 per head spent in Holland!

In the UK, roads are designed to process traffic speedily, roundabouts are race tracks, while corners into side roads have been shaved to enable turning traffic to do so quickly, with hardly a flicker of brake lights.

The roads have become hostile, traffic moving at high tempo, and it is the inappropriate speed which is the greatest  deterrent to a many people who otherwise might take  up cycling.

But here’s a nice irony. For even as the government prepared to reduce the paltry funding for cycling, even though it was taking no notice of the cycling campaigners it was decided to reward one of our top planners in June 2016.

In the Queen’s Birthday Honours,  Roger Geffen, the CTC’s excelleng planning and campaigns chief,  was awarded the MBE for his campaigning work to improve conditions for cycling.

Or, as I would put it,  for his persistence in banging his head against government brick  walls.

And then to dampen Roger’s high spirits, that very same week Her Majesty’s government slashed funding for improving cycling conditions.

You couldn’t make it up.

What of The Times Cities fit for Cyclists campaign, launched in 2012?   This, the biggest, most effective cycling campaign ever, has surely now run its course, is washed up, drained of purpose?

It surely died after giving birth to the impressive Get Britain Cycling Report, which spelled out exactly what needed to be done to make the roads safer and why.

Parliament sang its praises. Prime Minister David Cameron who as opposition leader would cycle to the Commons – although his briefcase followed in an official car – he praised the report.

And then, inexplicably, when asked to give the report Cabinet backing, Cameron declined. He said he considered it best for Local Authorities to take it forward!

Which is rubbish!

The same mostly feckless local authorities who, with few exceptions, either because of lack of money or an abundance of stupidity, continue to make sub-standard cycle lanes while those who do good works do so in a small scale as makes no damn difference.

So it is that the recent national census reveals that in 10 years the percentage of trips made by cycle compared to other modes remains at a lowly 2 per cent – compared to Holland at 28 per cent.

Say no more.

David Cameron the first PM, I am sure, to be directly approached and asked to give government backing for cycling, has refused.

A word for the champions who stand out from the crowd. We can celebrate the likes of Mayors of London Ken Livingstone for dreaming and talking up Cycling Superhighways and his successor Boris Johnson who, for all his comic ways and not really doing much to slow down the traffic,  attempted to fulfil his predecessor’s dream;   albiet there is a nightmare element to them.

The champions of champions among MPs are those who gave us the Get Britain Cycling Report - Ian  Austin and  Julian Huppert. Also Lord Berkeley and Lord Odonis. 

But they, too, like the cycling campaigners, can only do so much.

And the Superhighways are not super at all.

They can be quite dangerous at big junctions, where lives have been lost. 

But because they were on major roads and going direct from A to B, they were expected to be an improvement on the still to be completed London Cycle Network.

This, too, was a ground-breaking project when begun decades ago, but it is a  back roads network weaving here and there and to this day sections remain severed  by major arteries.

However,  Boris, as enthusiastic as he is about cycling, and not withstanding his introduction of the hugely successful Bike Hire scheme putting over 6000 bikes at our disposal, has not been able to bring himself to ban killer HGVs from entering into London.

In the sporting cyclists’ eyes, though, he can do no wrong. For it was Boris, following on from the success of the London Olympic road races,  who gave us Ride London. This annual and unique weekend of cycling in August on closed roads features the 100-mile charity sportive around the Olympic road race course through the Surrey Hills. And it is followed by the big pro race over a lengthier version of the same route.

Britain doesn’t do “strategy”

And so the question remains, why  has no British government ever provided the financial package necessary to make cycling safer on the roads?

One reason I am sure is, that to do so would  require a strategy. And no British government has ever had a transport strategy for any form of transport, from the canal age through road, rail and air. They were all rather adhoc developments with canals built to different widths, rail routes duplicated, but allowed because there was money to be made! It was all a bit manic, and fortunes were lost as well as made.

The so-called National Cycling Strategy announced in 1996 made news because it was the first national transport strategy in history – well, since the Roman occupation 2000 years before, at  any rate. When they quit Britain their marvellous road system fell into ruin.

Nothing of the like would be seen again until Thomas Telford came along in the 19th century.

The National Cycling Strategy was launched in 1996 by then Local Transport Minister Stephen Norris, a vocal supporter for the cause, and it promised much.  But it was a red herring,  a false dawn, and Norris must have felt pretty let down.

Over 400 people and tons of press, TV, radio, newspapers, filled the banqueting suite of Whitbread Brewery in the City to hear the announcement.

I remember the press interviews with the new Secretary of State for Transport,  the Right Honorable Sir George Young, who incidentally was – still is for all I know – a member of the Cyclists’ Touring Club (now Cycling UK).

After the announcement, the MPs and officials were available for press interviews. Everyone wanted a piece of Sir George, of course.

The pecking order worked like this. TV got a crack first, then it was radio’s turn before finally, the poor relations of the media world, the hacks, notebooks and recorders in hands and growing impatient by the minute, got in there.

I recall transport journalist Christian Wolmar bowling first.  It was a fast spinner which ought to have had theThe Right Honourable caught in the slips.

“Hi,” said Wolmar casually, as if he knew Sir George personally.

“Hi,” batted back the Right Hon as if he knew Wolmar.

“OK,” said Wolmar. “Where is it?”

“Where’s what,” – Right Hon.

“Where’s the money?” hit back Wolmar.

Sir George, without turning a hair,  smacked it for six.

The National Cycling  Strategy didn’t need a budget as such, he said, because it will be included in the overall transport budget.

“What?” Wolmar!

This was all well and good except that cycling was in dire need of urgent funding immediately in order to start changing road design which had ignored the needs of cyclists for decades.

We were incredulous as the brass neck of Right Hon.

Surely, Wolmar continued to press him, you will have something to show people,  some scheme to show what you can do for cycling.  What about demonstration cycling towns, where cycling safe roads would be  built, for example, to form a benchmark of how to proceed elsewhere?

The interview ended with no satisfactory explanation as to how the National Cycling Strategy was to work.

And of course, it didn’t work. Like the 2016 Walking and Cycling Strategy, the 1996 National Cycling Strategy 20 years before was not worth the paper it was written on.

It was nine years before a few pennies were thrown at the Nat Strat. It was brought to life in 2005, when the Labour government put the National Cycling Strategy on a drip feed of £5m worth of peanuts.  But to their great credit, they created Cycling England and invited some top cycling people to run it and they did so very well indeed. Grimshaw and Wolmar were on the board. It was chaired by Philip Darnton, ex-Raleigh boss and president of the Bicycle Association.

Cycling England did a great job with the little money they were given, to such an extent that the government increased funding to £70m per annum – still some £430m short of the basic needs to kick start a roads redesign programme.

Nevertheless, Cycling England invited towns to bid for a share of the money.  They had to show how they could best increase cycling.  It led to the creation of the first six cycling demonstration towns, and later this expanded to over two dozen.

Each one proved that small but effective schemes to promote increased levels of cycling worked. But it was very low key – perhaps a cycle route into town, or linking a school, or through a park, or the provision of cycle parking -  and although it was a template upon which to base a national plan,  that was as good as it got.

Cycling England proved beyond doubt that if you invest in cycling more people will cycle.

Cycling England was the light shining in the campaign darkness.  And then, a few years ago, the Conservatives closed it down, snuffed the life out Cycling England.
And for good measure, they set back cycling development a good 50 years by reducing funding from £2 per head of population (England) to £1.39.

The End.

Sunday, 10 April 2016

blog spot april 10

London’s false dawn – the Cycling ‘Superhighways’

Continuing the story of the UK’s failure to invest in safer roads for cycling.

London was considered to have set the benchmark by which other UK cities are judged for encouraging cycling when, in 2008, they introduced “Cycling Superhighways”!

Super? Latin for ‘over’, ‘above’, ‘beyond’, says my 1935 edition of the Daily Herald New Illustrated Dictionary, a marvellous tome.

“Super is often prefixed to nouns to indicate excess, as in superior distinction….”  So the definition goes.  

In fact, it was a lie. A great lie and we were almost taken in. The Superhighways were nothing more than ribbons of blue paint, subtly conveying a false sense of security.

And now, in 2016,  London is putting down segregated cross city cycling routes.

Sounds good. But our experience of the so-called Superhighways means we are right to be skeptical.  It remains to be seen if the segregated routes will be any better than the so called “Superhighway” ,  a  fancy name for bog-standard cycle lane painted a vivid blue. Safer?

Cyclists have been killed on them!

They were – remain – a fantasy.

They were the idea of Mayor of London Ken Livingstone. He had been under pressure from the tireless London Cycling Campaign to improve road conditions for cyclists. And Livingstone came up with the vision of “Cycling Superhighways”. But he was not to remain in office long enough to fulfill his dream.

But his successor,  Boris Johnson did it for him.

Johnson  had street cred as a cyclist. He rides to appointments across London, and we had hopes cycling conditions would improve under his rule.

Boris set about turning Livingstone’s dream into reality, going over the top, in true Boris fashion laying it on thick by vowing to turn London into a cycling city the rival of Copenhagen.

However, he did launch the Barclay’s Bike Hire scheme – now Santander -  which has proved a huge success.

We all thought cycling conditions were improving at last, although we remained  curious and not a little suspicious about what a Cycling Superhighway would be like. Talk is one thing, doing quite another.

What exactly is a Cycling Superhighway.

It was all a bit vague.

The first one cost some £10million – a  blue superhighway from Merton into the City.    It will go down in history as probably one of the most expensive cycling safety confidence trick ever perpetuated. 

And yet, perhaps these “tricksters” actually thought they were doing the right thing. Think about the number of man hours involved in painting miles and miles of highway, of making the stencils to imprint the image of bikes and Superhighway  motifs on the roads.

The various heads of departments responsible spoke with conviction about their creation. I am left with the impression that they believed. And that is telling. For it tells us that they really didn’t have a clue!

My first sight of a Cycling Superhighway

In my mind’s eye I  imagined  the Superhighway was so named because cars would be banned from using streets given over solely to cyclists. Clearly that couldn’t happen. But the tag “Superhighway” must mean something special, or so I thought.

Something different from the bog-standard gutter-hugging narrow cycle lane which has a habit of disappearing under parking bays, and often just ends with a sign ordering “Cyclists’ Dismount”.

So being “Super” must mean they will be wider, and perhaps segregated at busy junctions.

Of course, there would also be traffic lights with  a cycling phase, to get riders across ahead of other traffic.

Actually, NOT!

All of this was pure fantasy. Cycling Superhighway turned out to be nothing more than a bog standard cycle lane, just a little bit wider than the norm, but given a lick of bright blue paint.

And there were no cycling traffic lights. And vehicles could  drive into them and park on them!

The funny thing is, that blue paint did something to our mental processes. It did  look super in a way, special, even.  I recall my first ride down the first Superhighway to be opened. I joined it at 7am at Merton, and rode it the seven or so miles to Clapham Common, to the official opening launch by Mayor Boris, who, good on him, had ridden in down the Superhighway from the city.

The Superhighway stood out. They might not really be that super, but drivers noticed this electric flash of blue, like a magic carpet,  striding down the dark grey tarmac.

Snag was, still is,  TFL traffic engineers seemed to believe that this blue lane would have the same magic effect on drivers as the Zebra Crossings. They hoped that drivers would give way to cyclists riding in the blue lane across junctions, just as they give way to pedestrians on the black and white strip of a Zebra crossing.


And yet when the first Superhighway from Merton to Bank came into use, declared open by Boris in that marquee at Clapham Common that sunny morning – with all the flair of a stand-up comic – it was hailed as major breakthrough in cycling provision in Britain.

Well, it was certainly a good deal for blue paint manufacturers.

But we soon cottoned on to the simple fact that this blue line offered cyclists a false sense of security, especially at major junctions were cyclists remained as vulnerable as before in the starting grid alongside motors.

And so it proved, for cyclists were killed on the Superhighway at the unprotected crossing of the Bow junction.

The not so cycling superhighways had been created to cater for the sudden rise in pedal power in the capital. Which Transport for London wanted everyone think was down to them when in fact it had more to do with the indefatigable London Cycling Campaign (London CC).

When the controversial Congestion Charge was introduced to London in 2003 in a bid to dissuade people from making unnecessary driving trips in the central area,  it was the LCC who took the initiative and mounted a campaign which persuaded huge numbers of people to cycle into London instead of driving.

After the London bomb attacks on public transport in 2005 many more people  switched to using bikes!

This is what kick-started the huge rise in numbers of cyclists on the capital’s hostile roads, that and the high cost of public transport.  Mayor of London Ken Livingstone cottoned on.  Soon Transport for London, to their credit, adopted cycling as a viable transport mode to be promoted as a way of easing pressure on the crowded  buses, tubes and trains. And they produced stylish ads giving the impression that cycling was lovely on London’s roads.

LCC thought, OK, you bastards, if that’s the way you want to play with PR, how about doing something really worthwhile. And they wasted no time in increasing the pressure on TfL about the need to calm the traffic, to lay down cycle lanes. 

Do something about the lamentable lack of cycling provision on the main arteries. Improve the crossing places for both cyclists and pedestrians, the latter corralled on pavement and refuge, waiting for the green man to show for those few seconds they are allowed to hurry across. 

The back-street London Cycle Network,  a work in progress for decades aiming to top 900 kilometres – and incidentally the only city wide network in the UK  -was an ambitious  concept involving 33 London boroughs.

Decades after it was begun it remained incomplete, severed by major roads across which no secure path has yet been provided. Major roads remain a physical barrier usually heralded by the ubiquitous “Cyclists Dismount” signs. 

And it takes  time to learn the network which although well signposted, ducks and dives around the back streets. The good maps produced by TfL are a must. Even so it may not be taking you where you want to go. It has always needed a big brother running down all the main roads.

Cue the introduction of the not so super cycling highways back in 2008.

Now, eight years on, we have the latest incarnation, the segregated cross London cycle route. What will we make of them?
To be continued...

Saturday, 2 April 2016

What is holding Cycling back?

Continuing the blog “The Marriage of Success to failure”.

The tale so far.  We have established that our celebrated Olympic and Tour de France champions have become the toast of Britain, while at the same time, next to nothing is done to improve the safety of ordinary cyclists using the roads.

Proof of this came recently, with that latest fuck up – par for the course - the government’s dismal level of funding for their own Cycling and Walking Strategy announced at the end of March.

To recap on last week’s news.

Here’s what the CTC’s  Policy Director Roger Geffen and British Cycling  Policy Advisor Chris Boardman said of this debacle.

Geffen “Despite its laudable aim to normalise cycling and walking by 2040, this strategy’s draft targets suggest that, outside London, English cycle use would eventually reach Dutch levels by the start of the 23rd century…”

Are they having a laugh? As Ricky Gervais would say!

That’s 200 years to reach today’s Dutch cycling levels – which are 27 per cent of all journeys made by bike -  compared to under two per cent in the UK.

At the government’s new rate, cycling levels would only reach 3.5 per cent by 2025!

The brilliant and much admired “Get Britain Cycling Report” called for cycling levels to increase to 10 per cent by 2025 and to 25 per cent by 2050.

Here’s what Boardman said: “The Department for Transport has done some good work on cycling and walking, including developing processes to make it easier for local authorities to create infrastructure plans and identifying funding pots that could be used. But these are just baby steps. Far more ambition is needed if we have any hope of creating a cycling and walking culture to rival countries like Denmark and the Netherlands, let alone the government’s own modest targets.

“The truth is that without sustained funding, this strategy won’t be worth the paper it’s written on. We know that when faced with other priorities like road maintenance, saving bus routes and new housing developments, cycling and walking will be put at the bottom of most councils’ to-do lists.”

So that’s where we are.  Nowhere. Again.

From  my many talks with Roger Geffen and his predecessors when I was in harness at Cycling Weekly, I understood that tireless campaigning had eventually succeeded in winning the minds of the government, if not entirely the minds of Local Authorities! 

One of the major turning points came when the CTC had the  Department for Transport hauled before the Parliamentary Select Committee on Transport, oh it must be over two decades ago. The DfT were charged with doing nothing to improve cycling conditions, and they were mercilessly challenged by the committee about this.  As a result they were obliged to mend their ways, and they did mend their ways.

A DfT cycling team actually began working with the CTC, and some good work would emerge over the years, benchmark ideas. Of course, they never did get very far because they were never given adequate funding.

By far the greatest success of recent years was the Get Britain Cycling Report identifying precisely how to improve cycling conditions as part of an integrated transport system. The Report was debated by a decent sized House of Commons and applauded by all parties.

Even the Prime Minister gave his support, whispering sweet nothings. For he declined to give it Cabinet backing!  He - and the other puppets in his government – stick to the mantra “it is for the Local Authorities to implement the Get Britain Cycling Report”.

It isn’t, never has been, never will be. Because they have no money,  no political will, no special expertise at all.

So there we are, bang up todate, banging on the walls of the Cabinet Office and Treasury. Are these the last two walls to be scaled before finally, we do “Get Britain Cycling”?

We need to understand our past if we are to understand the present, if we are ever to have a future.

This is my take on the many false dawns these past 50 years, my take on all the political  shit that has held cycling back, half a century of political indifference to making the roads safe for cycling.

John Grimshaw, the cycling visionary who gave us hope

The car takeover crept up on us at snail’s pace from the 1960s onwards, and we failed to notice.  Over the years, we hardly noticed how children’s play grounds - the side roads serving housing estates- began filling  up, first by cars going up and down, then by parking on either side, or on the pavements. I used to play footie with my mates in front of our house.

Now, many vehicles have invaded the pavement for parking space, denying even this to the kids, making life difficult for those with prams. 

But there was one engineer who 50 years ago didn’t like what he saw happening. His name is John Grimshaw, who wanted to include cycling and pedestrian’s needs into road plans. But he might as well have tried swimming against the tide. Other planners didn’t understand! His experience led directly to the creation of Bristol based CycleBag in 1977, and they built the Bristol to Bath cycling and walking path, the first such path along a disused railway. CycleBag became the charity Sustrans (Sustainable Transport) with Grimshaw as CEO.

They began turning those disused rail routes across the country into linear and leafy traffic free paths for cyclists and walkers.

Some of them became incorporated into Grimshaw’s far grander development, unique in Britain, the remarkable National Cycling Network (NCN). This now covers 14,500 miles in the British Isles, a mixture of bridleways, canal and river tow paths, and quiet traffic-light lanes, linking villages, towns and cities.

An estimated 3.1 million people used the NCN in 2012.

This was a dream which became reality. And Grimshaw was made an MBE in recognition of his enterprise.

Sadly, he was in the hands of local authorities who have in some places been unable to avoid routing the NCN along main roads, mostly where it enters towns. But in the main, this is a cycle path safe from traffic.

He has a yet unfulfilled dream.  He’d hoped that the NCN would be a catalyst for the introduction of cycle networks in the towns it passed through.

Instead, Highways Agency planners,by their own admittance, have little knowledge of how to plan for cyclists. They work to make roads ever more efficient – for motor traffic.

They turned their attention to smoothing out corners, speeding up traffic accessing side roads, once considered peaceful havens where children would play.

Kerbs have been  shaved to allow traffic to enter them from the main road without losing much speed, so as not to hold up the bumper to bumper stream hard up their arse.

It’s a higher tempo here than in Sweden, that’s for sure. I recall how my Swedish nephew on a visit to the UK becoming quite alarmed at the speed of our taxi drive to Gatwick Airport.

Funny thing is, I thought our speed was acceptable! No speed limit was broken!

Which perhaps suggests that even the speed limits are set too high!

Anyhow, back to cycle networks. There is another big network of cycle routes of note, the National Byway, another charity.  This covers 3,300 miles around England, parts of Scotland and Wales.

It’s aim is to provide a scenic route along rural lanes linking villages and market towns, specifically keeping to roads with as little as 2 per cent of motor traffic.

The routes connect 1000 places of interest, including eight World Heritage sites.

And it was routed by Michael Breckon, a former racing cyclist, Canadian Olympic  cycling team manager in 1972, involved at the highest level of the sport all of his life and more recently devoted to creating quiet byway routes for cycle touring.
Not without having to overcome political indifference in some quarters, leading him to say to me once that in Britain there prevails a "can't do" mentality. 
However, much of the British main road system to the cyclist and walker can often appear to them as a vision of the corridors of Hell itself. Instead of fire there is the stench of pollution and the noise of engines, often nose to tail, all of a rush.

Cycling campaigners trying to bring some balance to this one-sided development, can be likened to missionaries working among the heathen.

The roads remain motor roads. A few of them in the cities, very few, have a cycle lane, marked with a white line and the symbol of bike stenciled on the surface, providing some breathing space for the bike to take its rightful place.

Now and again, newspaper headlines tell of a new cycle route connecting a school – a one-kilometre length of path!

In Hove, the authorities removed one cycle lane after complaints that motorists were being held up!

The battle has been long and hard and shows no signs of abating. Meanwhile across Europe good progress has been made these past 60 years, a balance struck to allow cycling to play its part as transport.  There is great understanding in many towns and cities, respect on all sides.

An A&E doctor in the Midlands, sickened at having to deal with the weekly carnage from motoring collisions, once called for cars to be made of plywood and for a six-inch steel tungsten spike to be mounted in the dashboard of each and every motor vehicle.

That would concentrate minds, he said. He was being sarcastic.

But the fact of the matter is, if traffic was to be slowed down, if steam was made to give way to sail so to speak, cyclists could share the roads without fear and there would be no need for special facilities anywhere but at big junctions.

So the push continues, for engineers to rip out the road network and to completely redesign it. It will cost £billions.

We need cycle lanes the equal of traffic lanes in size, along all major routes, or beside them.

All enquiries to Pipe Dreams Incorporated.
Next week: Exposing the lie of London's cycling "Superhighways"