I’ve bought the pedometer (20,070 steps yesterday), the bicycle monitor, the bathroom scales (15st this morning). Once again I’ve started walking almost everywhere, instead of using the bus. I’ve restricted my diet to properly sized portions. I’m working towards eating fruit again (the last time was a couple of months ago). This morning I’m off on my first cycle ride of the year, in less than pleasant conditions. Clearly, my New Year’s Resolutions are still intact.
I’ll be riding with an old pal this morning. He’ll be riding the same type of bike as me, a basic point and go number. He’s likely to sartorially similar too. We’re not the sort of people who cover ourselves in a figure hugging suit and ride at the speed of les peletons on a Sunday morning rather than lying in bed with our wives. What is wrong with those guys? You know the ones I’m talking about: the middle-aged men in lycra or mamils for short. You don’t need to be a psychotherapist to know that they’ve got issues. Any man who shaves his legs for anything other than sexual reasons has got some pretty serious problems. Who cares if you can ride at 39mph or 40mph? What difference does it make.
Call it pedal envy but I think these cyclists, who always ride in a tight pack as if they are on television, give the rest of us a bad name. They hog a road in much the same that an articulated lorry does. They look every bit the wanker that anyone driver a 4×4 in an large urban area does. If they really cared about aerodynamics that much, they would ride a recumbent bicycle. I used to have one of these and boy, could it zip along. It was a pleasure to ride too. Trouble was it wasn’t so great in traffic.
The best way to cope with lots of traffic is the safety derived from numbers. Once you’ve got a critical mass, bright colours and lights aresn’t so critical. Much as though I enjoy riding, the idea of going out on a mass ride with lots of super fit people makes me reach for the bucket. One or two riders is a good number, for conviviliality perhaps three or four. Five or six is doable but once you get above that, it has turned into a club. Whether cycling, walking or swimming, I don’t want to feel the need for safety in numbers. I want to feel the freedom that my able body gives me, the road underneath spinning by, the muddy path or the splash of water. Not competing with anyone. I will never, repeat never, wear lycra.
In years gone by you could purchase special train tickets in and around London which were designed to encourage cycling. The cyclist could buy a ticket out of London to one station in the countryside (the same stations are now inside suburbia), set off on the open road and arrive at another station, from where they could return to their inner city home, freshly invigorated from the country air. An advertising campaign accompanied this scheme, which was very popular. I couldn’t find one of the posters this morning but they were classics of their type, typically with a beautiful young couple enjoying a healthy hobby and some railway stuff going on in the background, birds singing and corn bobbing in the wind.
Modern trains from Brighton lack even a carriage which cyclists can store their vehicles in. Trains are carrying more passengers than ever before and need the space for pedestrians, argue the train companies. There is some mileage in this justification. Adding more carriages to each train is not a simple fix because too many stations already platforms which are too short for some trains.
However, it seems clear that many train companies and, in particular, our local biggie, Southern Rail, actively discourage cyclists. The first signs of this emerged a few years ago when they implemented a whole day ban on cyclists returning from Brighton to London, after the London to Brighton bicycle ride. If any single policy appears geared to increasing carbon emissions through road traffic, this must surely be it.
Southern Rail’s cycling policy rams home its total lack of comprehension about even the simplest cycling related issues. Essentially, there’s a three hour slot during the busy commuting periods when the company will only allow folding bicycles on trains. Bicycles are heavy and expensive. Folding bicycles are often much heavier than regular bikes. Nevertheless, the company policy is that they are folded and carried, not wheeled, through the ticket barrier. This envisages carrying them far further than many people would ever be strong enough to manage. The policy itself is very short on detail but is supplemented with an FAQ.
Southern Rail’s Cycle FAQ makes a serious of ridiculous statements. It starts off with the bold claim that the company has done as much as possible to communicate its policy to its customers. That turns out to mean that it has put posters up at stations, made oral announcements at stations and included the FAQ online. It hasn’t attempted to contact a single cycling organisation, lobby group, club or anyone else. Most absurdly perhaps, it states that a folding bicycle must be capable of being reduced to the size of a briefcase. I dare say that you could get a suitcase which is of roughly proportionate size to a Brompton but there isn’t an adult-sized folding bicycle in the world which could be reduced to brief case size. This size restriction is impossible to comply with. It even advises people considering combining train and and bicycle for their transport plan to re-think their journeys.
There’s a complicated colour coded system to describe which routes regular bicycles cannot come onto trains on, which doesn’t match up with the actual policy. For example, uncoloured areas on the presented map, such as between Shoreham and Hove, actually do have restrictions. Furthermore, for reasons that aren’t entirely clear, engineering works can cause additional restrictions. There are trains which unexpectedly refuse cyclists because they have insufficient carriages. Booking a journey would cure that problem but cyclists are not allowed to book their bicycles onto a train.
Cyclists may be asked to vacate a train in the interests of safety and comfort. Have you ever seen anyone with a monstrous bag, far bigger than a folding bicycle, being kicked off a train? When the rail service is suspended and we’re all given a free bus ride, cyclists are pointed to the open road because the bus will not take our bicycles.
Perhaps Southern Rail should bring out a modern set of posters to advertise its attitude to cyclists? Instead of an appeal to enjoy a country ride, a commute to work or the benefits of exercise, it could just simply ask us two wheelers whether we were going give up our popular hobby and get in line instead. Perhaps if they won’t, we will. Spoof poster competition? Send your entries to me and I’ll publish them here.
Brightonians get to be fitter by default than people from flatlands. We live on many, little, steep hills. Some people escape their advantages by mastering bus routes leaving them only ever needing to walk downhill. Many more enjoy the views around every corner. As with many other hilly places, cycling is very popular. Although that might seem counter intuitive, the reason lies in the road layout also inhibiting cars, thus slowing them down and leaving more time for the less brave cyclists.
We’ve all enjoyed watching the brave riders of the favela downhill races. Watching one got me thinking. Wouldn’t it be great to have a Hills of Brighton cycle race? We could fix a route around and out of town which takes in all the steepest hills. With the streets free of cars and other traffic we could finally enjoy those spaces which normally are so tough for the two wheeling fantasy merchants. Starting on the London Road, we could sieve the endurance riders away from the truly hardy with the first hill being The Drove.
With cars on the road, cyclists need to be hearts of metal to take this hill on
With the normal traffic rules suspended, cyclists could ride their hearts out on the way up here.
After here, the racers could ride back down a neighbouring road and follow that by another attack on this particular hill, up a gruesomely steep route. When one hill was exhausted the race could move on to another. You get the idea. With all the hills in and around Brighton, it might not be necessary to go out of town at all. If they proved insufficient, there is always the steep side of Ditchling Beacon and one or two other Downland classics.
We might not get to the edgy favela drop offs or the narrowness of those lanes but I reckon we could persuade people to hit the streets for the day of the race and cheer the riders on, especially on some of the steep hills. Myself, I’d be out riding tomorrow, if only I could find that puncture kit…
The first London to Brighton Bike Ride was partly organised in 1976 by Friends of the Earth. Click to enlarge.
Clearly, although I am no athlete, I like cycling. I hope soon to restart my cycling video channel – Old School Cycling – which was one of the original motivations for this blog. I’m no athlete and I don’t have a fancy bicycle but I really enjoy a long distance ride on my own. I’m also fond of riding around with a small bunch of pals. For me, the idea of riding in a throng many thousands strong is an appalling prospect. That’s why I’ve never joined the official London to Brighton bicycle ride. Except once and that was an accident. I was riding across town from West to East, when I suddenly realised that the bottom of the Ditchling Road, by The Level, was a fast flowing tightly packed river of riders which I had to cross. This obstacle obliged me to join it in order to work my way across to the other side. When I made it across its width, I turned my handlebars to peel off to the left and a complete stranger grabbed my arm, saying, “Don’t give up now, mate, you’ve only half a mile to go. It’s worth finishing now!” As he said these words he tried to pull me back into the throng. He damn nearly pulled me off my bike. Correcting my balance, I swung back into him and we narrowly avoided skittling his riding companions.
Paul Bonett of Bonett’s Estate Agents took part in the first ride which took place on May Day 1976. He said:
“We went up to London and stayed in a squat in Kentish Town the night before. The ride started from Speaker’s Corner in Hyde Park with 60 riders.
We crossed the Thames at Westminster, headed east down to and along the Old Kent Road, on to Biggin Hill and Crowborough, before finally splitting into two groups: a few mad ones like me, going via Underhill Lane and Ditchling Beacon, the others along to Lewes and the old Lewes Road, and on to the seafront at the Palace Pier. It took us most of the day!! It was about 95 miles in total, a bit too far, but a great day. 37 finished, I remember. All the Brighton riders did because we had to get home!! Most of those who stopped, did so before we got far down the Old Kent Road – they were the wise ones!
The following year, it went from the same spot but took the more direct route similar to today, including the Beacon of course, and was about 64 miles and 100 riders. Year 3 which I also did, had about 1,000 riders then it leapt up. I did not do it again until 1989 when it had the numbers it has today and went from Clapham Common.”
Just below Ditchling Beacon, heading South. Click to enlarge.
From its earliest days, the route cruelly obliged the participants to climb the North side of Ditchling Beacon. Most of the 27,000 riders who took part this year have never cycled anything like the 54 miles of the route in one go. By the time they reach Ditchling Beacon, they are in a bad way. Saddle soreness is the least of their problems. The road up to the Beacon began its life as a horse and cart track, which winds very steeply up to a high point on the downland. Previously, there were sections of it which levelled off or almost levelled off. These short sections were originally placed there to allow horses to rest up from pulling their heavy carts. They were a godsend for cyclists. They also made the road dangerous (especially in winter) for those motorists who live to drive up and down it too fast. Frankly, that seems to be almost all drivers. Instead of introducing traffic calming measures, the opposite approach was taken. The nearly level sections (which quickly iced up in the winter, to be fair), were removed. Consequently, the climb is significantly harder for the cyclist.
After climbing Ditchling Beacon, the cyclists are definitely on the final leg into Brighton. In the old days they rode downhill to the junction with Coldean Lane, crossed over it and then downhill again and only had one very brief and rather easy uphill section to get to the top of Hollingbury Hill. From there it was downhill the entire way to the finish line. I’ve done that ride many times and it is a complete joy, even after a short local ride. For the weary travellers with 50 miles behind them and, in many cases, their underwear meshed into their red raw upper inner thighs, this descent to the finishing line must have been a truly glorious reward. No wonder that someone hurtling along at the bottom of the Ditchling Road would try to prevent another rider from peeling away. With no traffic in the way, it is (just) possible to travel from the top of Hollingbury Hill to the finish line on the sea front without pedalling! That’s about three and a half miles.
A few years ago, that part of the final route was abandoned. I’ve never heard a convincing explanation as to why this decision was made. The current route sees the cyclists turn left at the top of Coldean Lane and lose almost all of their height above sea level very quickly by descending to the Lewes Road. If you’re not sure which junction I’m talking about, here’s someone’s helpful GPS tracking video showing them missing the right turn back onto the Ditchling Road (at 8:35) and instead flying down Coldean Lane.
This means that (a) they have to pedal all the way to the finish line; (b) they lose the stunning panoramic views as they ride past Hollingbury; and (c) they block up an arterial road which much local traffic depends on. In yesterday’s event, the local traffic network ground to a halt in many places (according to a local taxi driver who took me to Lewes in the evening yesterday).
Although it’s not for me, the ride is an excellent event. It raises money and awareness for the British Heart Foundation. It gets thousands of people out on the roads on bicycles. The whole thing is positive in every way. Here’s my simple plea to the organisers – can we have the old route back please? The riders deserve that glorious long downhill reward!
Despite saying that I would not publish my new year’s resolutions, I’ve changed my mind. Making resolutions at the end of one year for the next appears to be terribly old unpopular these days. That’s a shame. Deciding to better yourself by goal setting can only be a good thing. Making them public makes them real. Private resolutions are much harder to obtain results from. Here are my goals for 2012.
I will quit smoking & drinking and alcohol
I will quit the company of alcoholics and smokers
I’ll publish 500,000 words here or elsewhere
I’ll build a woodshed
I’ll raise 5 new beds in my garden
I’ll cycle 20 miles per day or take an equivalent amount of exercise until I weigh 12½ stone.
Unfortunately I recently started smoking again. Occupy London seemed to be full of smokers. It fitted neatly with the romantic revolutionary air the Occupationists were bent on creating. I found myself constantly in the company of smokers and myself smoking again.
By our society’s standards I don’t have an alcohol problem but clearly I drink too much. I do not seem to be one of these people who can take it in moderation, though I believe they do exist. Once I’ve got a pint in my hand, the cigarette comes next. I didn’t drink at all until I was 26 so I’ve a fair bit of experience of enjoying myself without it at all.
It’s easy to quit the company of smokers, thanks to the smoking ban in public places. They have to go elsewhere. Their numbers are decreasing. I’ve one or two friends who can properly be described as alcoholic. I’ve retained their friendship despite them frequently being destructive of that friendship. This declaration to avoid them is bound to prove controversial. Recognising that hanging out with addicts impresses bad behaviours as the norm is an important step for me to recover my physical, spiritual and mental health.
For many years, I declared I would write this many hundred thousand words or that many and never got close. After many years of blogging in private, on 28th February 2011, I started this blog. Now I’ve written over 330,000 words on it. My self-discipline of publishing a post every day has obliged me to write large. The act of daily composition has improved my writing, I believe. No-one every writes their best to begin with, it has to be worked at. If I’m heading towards the one million word mark by the end of 2012, I should be a much improved writer!
I’ve never built a woodshed before. My garden is full of fallen trees which need a home. Nestled inside a woodshed, the logs can season in their own time. This is a wholesome project which I’m really looking forward to. Expect photographs of progress here.
With the logs cleared out of my garden, there’ll be space for five new raised beds. They will only technically be raised beds. In fact they will be planks raised around areas of double dug earth. It’s a fair bit of physical work, especially with the ground still full of leylandii roots. Completing all five within a year will be quite a challenge.
The last challenge has been set down for me by my lovely wife. After losing three stone this year, I regained much excess weight in my recent time in London. On the year, I’m still down. Dieting is a disaster. As regular readers will know, in 2011 I joined weightwatchers and attained gold membership, which means that I can turn up for free. I only went once more after that achievement. The fact is I never followed their bizarre food value counting system – I just walked or cycled to my heart’s content and ate healthily. Whatever I weigh now, by this time next year I intend to weigh in at 12½ stone, which would be a very healthy weight for a man of my size. I am a big man.
Without a doubt, the best bicycle wheel builder in Brighton is Richard of Baker Street Bikes. Those of you who are new in town (ie, you moved here in the last decade), Baker Street Bikes is no longer in Baker Street. It’s here on the London Road.
There’s an art to building wheels. When he’s not playing chess, Richard pumps out perfectly built wheels. I like Baker Street Bikes but I am not sponsored by them. In fact, they are a bit pricey for my tastes. I find myself gazing longingly at the lovely kit in their window and then shuffling off.
I will be posting more on cycling in the future. In fact that was the original purpose of this blog but you know how it is: life, tech, politics, cooking, chess and other random stuff has been getting in the way!
It is wide and gently rolling, with soft ground regularly turned up by football boots. Go to the top end, by the Clock Tower, sit on the saddle and roll down. By half way down you’ll be pedalling fearlessly. I learnt to ride there and recently taught a pal too. It is notoriously tricky to learn to ride a bicycle as an adult but it only took him 15 minutes in Preston Park.
I grew up in Preston and campaigned for the Labour Party there in the 1980s, when they still spoke up for the ordinary citizen, instead of big business. The voters of Preston took a radical step by electing Amy Kennedy of the Green Party in 2007. I’m sure that their trust in her has been rewarded. She contributed enormously to the successful campaign surrounding the debacle of Anston House, which included persuading our local council to launch its first ever prosecution for the felling of protected trees on that site.
I hope Preston backs the Green Party by electing three councillors this May. The candidates are: Amy Kennedy (contrary to recently propagated rumours that she wasn’t going to stand), Leo Littman (lecturer) and Mike Jones (an NHS health adviser). I’ve been friends with Leo for several years. He is a very capable fellow and a real Brightonian – one of the precious few!