Tuesday, 18 October 2011


I've become a zealot for cycling as I have discovered that it convenient, enjoyable and manageable by even the unfittest of people, i.e. me. What continues to amaze me is the apartheid which exists on our roads which forces cyclists to brave potholes, idiots and zero provision to participate in a healthy activity which could benefit everyone - yes, everyone, from car drivers with more space to pollute to future generations with a healthier population relying on less of their tax money.

I recently undertook a fundraising cycle ride, aiming to get from my part of Oxfordshire to Stoke-on-Trent for the recent - and ever excellent - beer festival there. As I cycle around 20 miles a few times a week to and from work I thought it would be a reasonable scaling up and if I gave myself enough time it would be possible to do in a day.

The journey itself was fantastic and filled with fabulous pleasures like the countryside of Warwickshire, Gloucestershire and Oxfordshire, the overwhelming friendliness of Birmingham and its environs and the boyish delight of a Vulcan bomber flying so low over me that I waved to the pilot. I got as far as Walsall, where time and my tired legs forced me to jump on a train for the last part of the journey, which allowed me to contrast the delights of cycling with the misery of an overcrowded Virgin Train - which I managed to board with my bike even though I was told I could not reserve one of the four places for bikes, putting the trip into doubt even though I had paid. Idiocy. The only pleasure on the train ride was the shared experience of others as we all protested in the English way, by sighing and raising our eyes to Heaven.

The ride gave me ample time to ponder the vagaries of cycle provision and to compare what is available around the country. For much of my journey I was able to enjoy country lanes, with few cars beyond the occasional oaf in an overlarge car offended by my presence. However, these country lanes tend to meander and thus to take longer. I was running behind schedule at one point so I turned onto the A3400 below Henley in Arden. For about twenty minutes I covered far more ground than I could have by more circuitous routes and the first realisation struck me: that cars have to go by 'route one' yet bikes are expected to go round the houses. I was fortunate that the road in question was quite lightly used and the journey wasn't too bad and, in consequence, I made up some time.

I then tried a canal path outside Stratford on Avon and this started well, with a good, flat path which was lovely. Then, about five miles outside Stratford, this 'national cycle route' (seriously) became a thin muddy strip next to the canal, good only for mountain bikes. Imagine if the M6 became a muddy track just beyond Coventry.

When I reached Birmingham I was in for a shock. I'm a former London cyclist so I'm comfortable in city traffic but apparently Birmingham hates bikes. Now Brummies, I rediscovered, tend to be extremely friendly and generally I was left alone on my bike by all but the occasional dunderhead. The problems I had were the traffic - fair play, it was approaching rush hour and there was an accident - and the complete lack of any cycle paths. I spent much of my time in Birmingham either walking to get around solid traffic or haring along dual carriageways, which were the only option available to me - not an enjoyable experience.

What I did discover was that the area does seem to have a lot of wide pavements and pedestrians and cycles do seem to share them quite happily but as a commuter route, for those times when you want to motor a bit, this would not do and would be dangerous for walkers.

I came across a new development below Birmingham with shiny new houses, shiny street furniture, a nwly manufactured village centre and lots of roundabouts in strange shaps with brick roads to slow cars down - and, of course, to make cycling that bit more uncomfortable. Not a hint of a cycle path anywhere.

I started to tire around Smethwick and decided to get a train a little further on but even this far outside Birmingham the only choices of roads for me were busy ones, including one major roundabout with roadworks with zero provision for pedestrians or cycles. That one was fun...

Cycling remains a wonderful pleasure for me and I would do the journey again - when I can feel my thighs again - but I would have to make different plans, such as steeling myself for main roads and hassle from cars, vans and lorries or I would need to give myself a couple of days to meander down lanes an along canal paths, which would be nice but not when you need to get somewhere.

It's almost laughable that the provision for cycling across the country is so woeful. What would be wrong with a few main routes to connect the main cities and towns? Sustrans is doing its best and I love to look at the pretty blue signs next to throbbing roads before I turn off to a more sensible route but seriously, is this the answer?

It would not be rocket science to start the process of adding cycle routes to new roads now or, to use some of the billions which are going to be paid to some lousy contractor to botch the HS2 over decades and charge the taxpayer many billions more than it should have cost, to install a path next to this new route.

The qustion forming in my mind is, what would the Lib Dems do and what plans has the coalition got to encourage cycling and make it a real, practical option for most people. Would any government dare, for example, to close some roads to make it safe for people to ride? Would any government promise to invest what would be a relatively small amount when compared to cost of the rescue of the banking system or the questionable cost of HS2, which will at least double by the time it is completed?

It wouldn't take much to change things and the benefits could be huge. It could also mean that I get to the beer festival in Stoke earlier. And that's got to be a reason to do it, surely.

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