Time travelling in Yorkshire – biking back to 1998


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The working part of my short trip to the UK this week has been based around the East Yorkshire town of Beverley where a European Project has been holding meetings and workshops. The work part has been great, lots of … Continue reading

A new “join-the-dots” cycling network – (almost) great local resource in Brabant Wallon


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A series of new signs has been catching my eye on the way home from work in recent weeks. Numbers in circles accompanied by arrows means that the long awaited spread of the Dutch-style node point cycle navigation system (Knooppunt) … Continue reading

Five years of “I do not despair” – revisiting our favourite posts


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On January 1st 2012 I published the first, tentative post on Idonotdespair.com To celebrate my fifth anniversary I have gathered together a small collection of favourite posts. Firstly your top 5 – the posts that have gathered the most visitors,some … Continue reading

Yet another “what were they thinking” moment – a beautiful Belgian cycle route with a bonkers twist.

Cycle route to lasne

Close to where I live there is just one cross country cycle leisure route that mimics the best farmland routes that I found on my recent tour in Flanders.

Lasne cycle route signFrom the Ottignies suburb of Mousty there is a former farm track that has now been covered by a perfectly smooth surface to make a car free cycle route, signposted to our town of Lasne, seven kilometres away.

It runs up across the open farmland with wide open views that I thoroughly enjoy, especially on these late summer evenings when the sun is low and yellow.

Looking towards Mousty on the cycle path

And then.

After winding through a few cottages we come to a small valley.

Mousty Lasne cycle path

For some unimaginable reason the planners decided to go straight down, so steeply that they then had to insert barriers which theoretically might stop unsuspecting cyclists shooting out without warning onto a Route Nationale (main road) at the bottom.

Steep hill on the Lasne Mousty cycle route

However as there is no indication that the RN is there, why would you stop? Assuming that you can ride down at all. I will just about ride down it on a day when the path is clear and dry. Which isn’t very often, because it is tree lined and usually covered in leaves or damp, so I have to walk.

From the bottom looking up it is just possible to believe that the barriers are there to aid pedestrians in fixing their climbing ropes before tackling the ascent. It certainly isn’t rideable except for the most competent of mountain bikers.

Cycle path from Mousty to Lasne

So at some point, somewhere, somebody thought it was a good idea to make a cycle route from a slippery descent with tricky chicanes and a blind entrance onto a main road. Even when they had an alternative which could take about an additional kilometre and connect to the rest of their network, actually bypassing the valley completely.

Given that the commune of Ottignies Louvain-la-Neuve is actually one of the more cycle friendly municipalities round here I say it again “what were they thinking?”

Sighs deeply,

Cycling on freeways and major highways in Australia – Cycling for extremists?

M2 cycleway from above Sydney

This is the second of my “what were they thinking?” posts about cycling in Australia. In my last post I looked at cycling facilities that seemed to benefit absolutely nobody.

I have ridden on all sorts of roads and transport conditions over the years and I cannot say some of them were at all pleasant. But I have never seen cycle lanes for fanatics built into the cycling culture as they were here. So this is today’s subject.

I’ll start the post with some examples.

Sydney’s M2 Freeway cycle route

Look at the photo below. Perfectly normal picture in most countries of the world, the access to a major freeway. (motorway, autoroute etc.)

M2 Freeway Sydney

M2 freeway cycle path SydneyBut then as we were driving along an odd image caught my peripheral vision. I grabbed my camera because I couldn’t quite believe my eyes, apparently in the emergency lane was a cycle lane marker.

Not only that, further on there were signs clearly showing that this was an officially designated cycle route. I was stunned.

M2 Freeway crossing ramp sign

It wasn’t until the third or fourth time that I travelled that freeway I saw an even more unusual sight. Just in the distance I could see this tiny yellow dot.

M2 freeway Sydney with cyclist

And of course as we got closer it turned into a cyclist, the only one I saw on the route.

M2 freeway cyclist Sydney

On other train and cycling trips I crossed the M2 and I managed to capture some additional pictures of this remarkable cycle route along one of the busiest highways in Australia. I never did see another cyclist on it, yet later on I actually found it listed on the New South Wales cycle routes map and it is the very first listing on the Wikipedia page for Bike Paths in Sydney.

M2 cycleway at junction Sydney

I almost laughed out loud when I read the description of the M2 Hills Motorway route on that Wikipedia page. It said cyclists were “poorly served” by the route. That’s the kind of language Dutch cyclists use to describe a cycle lane that has a less than perfect surface. “Poorly served” does not mean “left exposed in conditions so frightening almost nobody dare use them”, except perhaps in the mind of this small group of Australian cyclists who just don’t see this as abnormal.

Melbourne’s magical mystery cycle lanes.

Sydney wasn’t alone in catering for cyclists on its major highways. Although the Victorian freeways were clearly cyclist free I did see similar “facilities” for cyclists on some of the other major multi-lane highways around Melbourne. Allied to this were some very odd cycle lanes on larger suburban multi-lane highways. I have absolutely no idea whatsoever what this marking is for, but it was relatively common on the sort of road where I would think no sensible cyclist would want to be.

Cycle lane marking Williamstown Melbourne

In one case the strange markings even existed in parallel to a segregated cycle way. Ok, “sporty” cyclists may have wanted to be on the smooth asphalt but why they needed a 2 metre occasional paint splash to tell them that I have no idea. So why?

Riding with the trucks on Sydney’s major highways

I was staying in the North Sydney suburb of Beecroft which gave me access to some great rides in the Sydney’s Ku-Ring-Gai Chase National Park.

The only problem was that these suburbs are traversed by some of the most hostile roads I have ridden in years, even if I stayed off the M2. However it appears that others in Sydney regard these roads as perfectly cycleable, in fact there are encouraging “facilities” to make this possible.

Beecroft Road SydneyMy first experience was the access from Beecroft Road onto the Pennant Hills Highway.  Beecroft Road itself was pretty horrible, but it was the only realistic way out of where I was staying so I gritted my teeth and rode up it.

I was more encouraged when I got to my first junction because there was a warning sign for vehicles to look out for cyclists and then a cycle lane. Hopefully that meant better cycling on the other side because clearly this had been planned?

Beecroft Road Pennant Hills road junction

How innocent I was. Sydney readers will have got a clue from the photograph itself. This was a junction with Pennant Hills Road, one of the most unpleasant and unwelcoming roads in Sydney, six lanes of nose-to-tail commercial traffic.

Beecroft Road Pennant Hills Road cycling facility

Once I crossed that junction there was just nowhere to go except a six lane highway which was just horrible. I stayed only a few hundred metres before I took the first available turning off and reconsidered my options. I had no choice but to follow Pennant Hills Road for a short distance on a number of my rides and on each occasion I used the sidewalk (pavement) to get between junctions even though I was on a quality skinny-tyred road bike.  I later spoke to quite a few people and was told that almost all cyclists used the pavement, including group rides from Beecroft.

So why anyone felt it was worth putting a cycle lane on any junction that joins Pennant Hills Road I have no idea, clearly what was needed was some realistic guidance and help to get across and away from this monstrosity, not an invitation to ride?

I also mentioned Mona Vale Road in my write up on three great rides in Sydney. As well as having to cross Pennant Hills Road this was my main access to the fantastic West Head Road in Ku-Ring-Gai Chase National Park. It is a bit different to the other examples because this was recommended to me as a “popular cycling road” because “you always see cyclists up there”.

Mona Vale Road cycle path Sydney

It was actually the “no choice whatsoever” route because getting from Beecroft to the national park or the nearby bays and coast offers no alternatives for cyclists, cars or commercial vehicles. So of course we all go together. That’s sort of ok when there is a big wide safety lane on the left, although it’s not exactly enjoyable.

But when the lane just disappears, the only protection is a small sign and traffic is doing 100kmph past your elbow.

Watch for cyclists sign Mona Vale Road Sydney

Cyclist on Mona Vale Road SydneyI saw some cyclists and I slipstreamed one chap for a short while. He stopped just before I turned off and said “I turn back now”. I now realise that his choice of bike ride was to thrash up and down Mona Vale Road and he actually turned back just before the opportunity to ride an attractive, quiet car free route. I couldn’t do it, I would lose the will to live if that was one of my regular rides. The second time I cycled in this direction I got a lift to the start of my ride.

My final example doesn’t have any photographs.

At around 6am on a Saturday morning we got our final lift from Beecroft to Sydney’s international airport. It was pitch dark and overcast, not a great day.

As we moved along the main dual carriageway towards the airport around 7am we pulled over to pass a slow moving vehicle driving with flashing lights. In front of it was a group of cyclists clearly out on a training ride. Just nearby was another group precariously stopped by the roadside, this time without support vehicle. I had heard that some racing cyclists in Australia go to extraordinary lengths to get some training before the roads get busy. Now I had seen them in action. Absolutely terrifying. Apparently 7 riders were hurt in a collision with a car on one of these rides recently. I hope last Saturday’s riders did have somewhere better to go, and that they got there and back safely.

So in the immortal words of Marvin Gaye “What’s goin’ on?”

I spoke to cyclists in Melbourne and Sydney including advocates and sports cyclists as well as leisure riders. Nobody at all said they used the roads where cycling is combined with high speed traffic. In particular the M2 Freeway attracted a “no way” response. I know elsewhere in Sydney and Melbourne they are gradually building high quality segregated cycle routes, even along the major highways. In particular the cycle route that follows Sydney’s M7 freeway gets rave reviews for being high quality, well designed and entirely protected from vehicles.

Interestingly most cyclists I spoke to in Sydney said they knew people who did use the unpleasant routes and there are even cycling advocates who regard the M2 Freeway cycle route as an essential part of their commute. This had once been a segregated parallel route to the motorway but the segregation had been lost during road widening and other changes leaving only the emergency access lane. Some cyclists fought to keep use of it because the motorway actually provides one of the only fast, direct and relatively flat routes into the centre of Sydney. The alternative is apparently much slower and in their eyes more dangerous, but is extraordinary to me that advocates will campaign for a facility that is usable by just a tiny rump of the cycling community.

I have to say a tiny minority because cycling is not a major means of transport in Australia. Mode share in Sydney reaches 3% in some suburbs but overall is just 1%. There is a bigger recreational community but it is still small compared to many European countries. But within this group majority of people who cycled that I spoke to were not going to use the high speed routes. So the number of major highway users must be very small indeed.

Every time I think about this I am drawn back to an excellent analysis of cycle users and potential cycle users that came originally from Portland in the US. It is now widely used because many people in the cycling world believe it is a very useful indicator of people’s attitudes to cycling on a much wider basis.

Image courtesy of Bikes Belong

Image courtesy of Bikes Belong

According the analysis about 1% of cyclists will cycle under almost any conditions. They include many sports cyclists but also include urban warriors who handle challenging traffic anywhere in the world. A further 5-6% are enthusiastic about cycling and have the confidence to tackle a lot of different riding conditions so they will cope with vehicular cycling but prefer some provision.

Then there are the vast bulk of the population who actually have a positive or at least passive view about cycling. They would ride if conditions are safe, but generally they have concerns that must be dealt with before they will ride.

Now in here in Melbourne and especially in Sydney I have found that the fearless cyclists group has at its head another even smaller minority. We have a comparison in mountain biking, they are the extreme downhillers, doing stuff even the brave decline. If they were a Tour de France mountain they would be “Hors category” – beyond measurement.

I am sure in Sydney some would argue “we have no choice” and from what I saw of suburban North Sydney I would have some sympathy with that view. After 10 days I could only conclude it was one of the most unwelcoming cycling environments I have ever experienced. However these cycle lanes made absolutely no difference to that impression, so I have no idea why they exist and even less understanding of my public authorities were convinced that these cycle lanes were worth spending money on.

I cannot help but feel that any effort to incorporate extreme cycling into the highway system undermines the possibility that cycling could ever be treated as “normal”. Surely it competes directly with the great efforts being made elsewhere to create high quality infrastructure that can be used by 60% of the population, not 0.01%. Ihope that all the work we did at Velo-city in Adelaide has encouraged and inspired the people who are making the new cycling facilities because they really are working against an extremist cycling heritage that will take a lot of unravelling before cycling can be an enjoyable activity for the majority of people.

But it can be done!

Melbourne CBD cycle path

The worst of Australia’s cycling infrastructure – “dooring zones” and part time cycle lanes

Useless cycle path in Sydney

I Do Not Despair is about being positive about cycling, travelling to places by bike and enjoying the company of cyclists.

But sometimes I just see things that make me ask “What were they thinking?” In Australia I had some great rides but I found many examples of cycling facilities that seemed spectacularly ill-conceived and designed.

In both Melbourne and Sydney the most common example was “dooring zones” and in Melbourne they were joined by “part time” cycle lanes.  They probably have some other official term in the minds of the people implementing them but these were my phrases, although I could have called them a lot worse.

I think they fail the test for cycling provision in the most important way of all. They are of absolutely no benefit to anyone – there is no “design user” and as far as I can see no road safety benefit at all. In fact even worse, these sorts of facilities create user conflict and badly educated cyclists which in the long run makes the cycling experience worse for everyone else.

Highly experienced vehicular cyclists don’t need them because they are confident riding on roads and should be riding out in the middle of a carriageway to protect themselves from close passing cars. New or less confident cyclists get absolutely no benefit whatsoever because they offer almost no psychological or real protection from busy traffic, leaving the cyclist exposed and afraid. And if that is the case they are a surely waste of public time and resources?

Dooring zones.


Let me take the “dooring zones” first. During side chats at Velo-city and even more in my reading of Australian cyclists social media and blogs I kept coming across lots of comments about “dooring”, the highly dangerous practice where a car user opens the door of a parked car into the path of a cyclist.

Most regular cyclists know about this one.  I have had it happen twice in fourty years of riding and got away with minor injuries but I know of some horror stories. And there is no doubt dooring plays on your psyche when you ride again, indeed many people never go back to riding, but after a near miss or two you learn to keep your distance.

Cycling AdelaideI saw one or two examples of bike lanes outside parked cars in Adelaide, but generally they were wide enough to allow the user to ride well outside any risk. I couldn’t really understand the high profile concern about the subject among the Aussies.

Then I got to Melbourne and I was astonished to see with “dooring zones” on my very first day and subsequently I saw them all over the place. Then on many of the roads I cycled in Sydney they were like a plague and of consistently dangerous designs.

Melbourne cycle lane - dooring lane on Chapel Street

In Sydney I didn’t only find a defined cycle lane outside the parked cars, in most cases the bike lane was just a parking lane, only slightly wider than usual. This means a great space some of the time but an unpleasant slalom course around the parked cars that are present most of the time, again risking the ire of motorists on the main lane who don’t know how to interpret my moves when I had to pull a bit wider round the vehicles (which was most of the time.) I got shouted and hooted at a couple of times. No pictures? Sorry, too busy surviving.

No wonder this is a major topic among Aussie advocates, these are appalling, almost to the point of being lethal. Why motorists and cyclists alike have not succeeded with legal cases against the councils involved for causing risk and harm to road users is beyond me.

Putting a bike lane right up against the side of parked cars, and indeed allowing it to be further narrowed by cars parking badly is an official signal to cyclists that this is where they are supposed to be, despite the fact that this is completely and utterly wrong practice in every sense.  And to compound the problem any sensible cyclist who avoids the risk of dooring by moving out into the main lane is seen by motorists as being “in the wrong place” invoking further antagonism between users. It could only be worse if this were somewhere like Belgium where the bike lanes are compulsory.

I even found one dooring zone retained on the roads when a reasonable quality separated lane cycle lane had been built adjacent, so somebody must think they a continued place in cycling. I don’t get it.

Parking lane cycle lane Williamstown Melbourne

Part time cycle lanes.

Tookak Road cycle lane

Crazy design number 2 is the part-time cycle lane. I first discovered these on Toorak Road in Melbourne. At first couldn’t work out what I was seeing, I could see a cycle lane but it was covered in parked cars. So naturally I assumed this was an old fashioned parking enforcement problem, a lack of political will to enforce the rules. Ok we all get those, but this looked particularly bad.

Then I saw a sign that said the parking was prohibited at rush hour, opening up a third lane on the inside of the road and enabling the cycle lane to appear. As if a magic rabbit has been drawn from a hat the cyclists are now welcome and indeed encouraged on this road, but only if they are prepared to take on two or three lanes of rush hour drivers who are the real and intended beneficiaries of the removed parking.Toorak Road Melbourne part time cycle lane

So in the eyes of the transport planners there must be two presumed states of cycling here. There is the 22 hours per day cyclist who needs no cycling facilities. And then for 2 hours per day these poor lambs suddenly are given a bit of paint and a metre of the lane. This is of course complete and utter nonsense, cyclists don’t just exist two hours per day and they don’t need bad protection in rush hour, they need good facilities, or continue with none at all. These stupid lanes were just no use to anyone.

As far as I could see they were sensibly being ignored by the few cyclists using these roads who were generally confident and took the whole lane to keep themselves safe from motorists trying to squeeze by.  I saw nobody who I could categorise as a less confident cyclist. The photo below is a perfect example.


I would regard the positioning of this cyclist as exemplary for this sort of multi-lane road. But look ahead and his lane disappears actually into nothing, while underneath the cars there is a paint line that supposedly will push him to the left during rush hour. Useless and dangerous.

In conclusion?

I know there are many out there in cycling advocacy who have become absolutist about cycling facilities and will condemn any and all cycling facilities without complete segregation as useless. I don’t share that view, I see that cycling is growing where the relationship between vehicle traffic and cyclists is managed through a mixture of measures such as car free areas, cycle lanes, speed control, traffic laws and in some cases just culture. For example in other Australian cities and in the last few days in New Zealand I have seen similar cycle lanes outside parked cars, but they had much greater width, the passing cars had wider lanes and they were travelling much more slowly. I found the cycle lanes a positive support and they were being used by much less experienced cyclists than the lycra types and occasional hipsters in the big Australian cities. example here:

Photo by Kevin Mayne

But I cannot see how anybody in Melbourne or Sydney could possibly better off with the dooring zones and part time cycle lanes I saw.

Sadly I believe they probably make the environment for most cyclists much worse. Some high quality facilities are being installed in the centre of both cities but it doesn’t take away the problem of what you have to ride through to get there, after all a safe cycling trip is only as good as its weakest link.

The question remains. “What were they thinking?” I do despair – sometimes.

Coming next “Cycling on Freeways”. Seriously.

Welcome to congestion week in Brussels. So bad we almost despair – unless we ride our bikes.

Rue de la Loi Brussels

It has been congestion week for me. A celebration of traffic management failure.

Last week I was inspired by the thought that Copenhagen has so many cyclists they suffer traffic jams and road rage.

Cyclists queue Copenhagen

I have spent much of the past two weeks discussing congestion too. The EU is currently accepting pitches for its research budgets and included in the offer is some substantial funding to address the congestion that is slowly paralysing many cities and roads throughout the union.

I am involved because one of the approaches that needs validating is the effect of more cycling and walking on congestion. We are working with some partners to prepare better evidence to stop politicians panicking every time a local lobby says cycling facilities and pedestrianized city centres cause congestion.

So we have been locked in rooms having some really interesting discussions with cities about their commitment to their transport problems and in general it has been quite refreshing, because of course the people we are sitting with are the enthusiastic partners.

However for those of us based in Brussels it has also been congestion week for another reason. Just a few days ago the trial of a “kilometre tax” was announced which will test the effect of charging 1200 drivers for the distance they travel in Brussels. Something is needed because the city and its surroundings regularly feature in the lists of Europe’s most congested cities and is getting steadily worse. I was watching an item from Brussels on the BBC News that just about sums it up. They have one of those back projections behind the reporter that supposedly shows a typical city skyline. The Brussels one always shows just a huge queue of traffic gridlocked around the EU district from morning till night.

Rue de la Loi congestion Brussels

However there has only been one noise louder than the traffic this week. That is the sound of politicians of all parties running as far as possible from the congestion charge. And in Belgium that is a hell of a lot of politicians. To start with there are at least 12 parties but they are then divided up into the Federal Government and the regional parliaments for Brussels, Flanders and Wallonia. Guess what, there are elections coming up so they are all dashing furiously for cover, much to the disappointment of anyone who hoped that this might be a start in the right direction. Apparently the possible trial was buried in the small print of a proposal to try and ease freight congestion, but now the politicians have left the Minister for Mobility in Brussels region to carry the can as they say “no we didn’t mean that”. Astonishingly even the Greens (Ecolo) (*see comments) have distanced themselves because “the measure might adversely affect people on low incomes”.  All this goes against a backdrop of every previous failed initiative such as sensible stuff like reducing parking or madness like the short-lived Flemish proposal to add more lanes to part the Ring motorway. They never head the expression “Building roads to ease congestion is like loosening your belt to cure obesity”. It is just madness.

So where does all this fit into my cycling blog?

Brussels cycling has apparently quadrupled from 1% of traffic to about 4%. City officials are patting themselves on the back because they have put in a very few cycle lanes and quite a bit of paint on the roads, but mainly they have been completely blocked by the politics of the region and the fiefdoms of 17 commune mayors who regard the loss of a single parking spot as an act of treachery from outside.

So why the growth? Because if you make everything else bad enough people will ride bikes. Despite the fact that the cars slow the bikes far more than the bikes block the cars and the white paint on the roads is frankly useless it is still quicker and easier to get around much of our part of Brussels by bike than anything else. And for people who have to make multiple stops like dropping off kids on the way to work the parking congestion makes the bike an even bigger winner.

Schumann cycle lanes Brussels

Cyclist facilities in Brussels Cycling Congestion in Brussels Brussels Ronde Point Schumann cyclistsSo here we all are in Brussels – the congestion busters. Up the outside of the parked cars, up the pavements and even occasionally squeezed into the cycle paths. Sadly  when we look at our research into congestion I am sure we will find once again that the number of people prepared to try cycling like this is limited to about 5% of the population, the rest are just too scared. So the Brussels cycling boom has just about reached its limit until somebody has the political clout to impose themselves on the driving congestion. Don’t hold your breath waiting for that to happen.

Copenhagen we are not. It really is not a solution. But those of us who are riding will not despair when the politicians fail us.

Brussels cyclists in congestion Brussels EU district congestion

The sequel – After “10 best things about being a cyclist in Belgium” the “5 worst”

Belgian cobbles

Thanks for all the positive feedback about my previous “Ten best things about being a cyclist in Belgium”.

If a visitor wanted to gently tease our Belgian hosts about some of the less attractive features of riding here you could line a reasonable consensus around at least four of the list below. And as an ex-pat Brit I am putting in a special plea for the cyclists’ café stop.

  • Ridiculously bad road surfaces
  • Compulsory cycle lanes
  • Unfathomable driving
  • So called touring routes that don’t exist
  • No tea stops

Ridiculously bad road surfaces

Cycling Wallonia

A road defect reporting tool like the wonderful www,FillThatHole.org.uk would be seen as some sort of joke here, overwhelming local authorities by the sheer volume of holes and degraded surfaces in Belgium.

Waterloo cobbles

I put it down to the starting point. If 200 year old cobbles are acceptable as road surfaces then it seems that anything else is a bonus. I come back from rides with the local club with my neck and shoulders aching from the battering despite the fact that the group leaders make big detours to avoid all the worst stretches of pavé in the area. And I have already had my first nasty crash on the holes, the only thing missing from my set is a bent rim or two, but I am sure it is to come.

Waterloo Belgium

And this carries over to unswept and unrideable cycle paths, pavements and road edges. Yet I hear almost no complaints and there does not seem to be a wave of litigation from crashed cyclists and motorcyclists to force the authorities into action. It is how it is, apparently.

I had sort of assumed that the cobbles themselves are somehow wired into the Belgian DNA and that by living here you gradually hone a riding technique that works for you and it all becomes rather straightforward, a bit like living in the mountains.

In reality it appears that while practice means local riders have less fear of the worst pave than tourists what they really develop is a sixth sense for avoiding it, either by taking another route or by riding anywhere except on the carriageway itself.

One of the most amazing racing sights I saw on TV last year was a mid-ranking professional event held between the spring classics called Flèche brabançonne – the Brabant Arrow/Brabantse Pijl. A full field of top riders, won by Peter Sagan, second Philippe Gilbert, so serious stuff. As they entered Overijse for the finish circuit the entire pro peloton bunny-hopped up onto the pavement led by the Belgians to climb a cobbled hill in what was clearly a planned move.

Impressive bike handling indeed. Wonder what the pedestrians think?

Compulsory cycle lanes

Brussels cycle lane

Going with the really bad road surfaces and some of the unrideable cycle lanes comes a parallel problem. The cycle paths, when present, are obligatory. Absolutely stupid, unenforceable rule.

No matter how badly surfaced, no matter how many pedestrians wander all over them, despite the fact that there is no provision for clearing them in snow we are supposed to use them. Fortunately most drivers don’t seem too bothered that cyclists don’t tend to use them much because they are frankly dangerous so I don’t bother much of the time.

Although I was shouted at by an angry cyclist not so long ago. Maybe he works for the municipality.

An old post on the subject here

Unfathomable driving


I refer you to my post on roundabouts. Still got no idea what they are doing. Interestingly some readers assumed my post was a general rant about how bad roundabouts are for cyclists around the world.

It wasn’t. I have cycled, walked and driven all over the world and there is something uniquely odd about a Belgian motorist faced by a roundabout. Incomprehensible.

So called touring routes that don’t exist


Just to say that in Wallonia the maps tell me that there is a whole network of cycle touring routes stretching across the province.

Boucle d'Ophain Braine l'Alleud BelgiumNo there isn’t. Except maybe in somebody’s head. The riding is fantastic, but out there on the roads there is just nothing to support you by way of signs or markings. I am on my third set of published maps and I haven’t found one yet that actually exists on the ground. Local circular routes around a single commune yes. Walking and MTB networks – brilliant. Fietspunt in Flanders – fine.

Personally I probably don’t need signed routes, I’ll just use my maps. But let’s not pretend OK? Because it us useless for everyone else.

No tea stops

The ceremonial process that transcends the cycling club ride or the cycle tour.

The place where legends are made and debated, seasons are digested, rides are planned and friendships made.

The coffee stop. The cyclists’ café. It is as much part of a British club cyclists’ DNA as the cobbles are to the Belgians. The Eureka, Tommy’s, the Dalesman, the Riverside, Top of the Town are part of our heritage. The bikes lined up from the multiple clubs are a symbol of our community.

Cyclists Cafe stop

Around 11am on a Sunday morning my body almost shuts down and I go a little lightheaded for lack of caffeine and cake. Then they don’t stop, except maybe for a quick pee behind a hedge.

The tea stop is a fine tradition Belgium – one worth investing in!

So that’s it. 10 great things about Belgium, and 5 moans. I hope that puts it all in balance, I am not despairing.

“You couldn’t make it up” cycling moment in Warsaw

Cyclist crossing Warsaw

On my way to today’s transport side meeting of the COP 19 climate negotiations I made a nice discovery.

After a shaky moment or two I discovered a whole network of segregated cycle lanes to the South of Warsaw city centre, eventually heading down towards some the embassies and grand houses on Belwederska. Even a few reasonable junction treatments. Nice to feel welcomed I always say.

segregated cycle lane Warsaw

And at the Hyatt Hotel a very nice security guard spotted me looking lost and guided me proudly to the hotel’s cycle parking. Hey, don’t knock it, this isn’t Amsterdam.

Hyatt Hotel Warsaw cycle parking

However the trip home gave me one of those stupid moments I always remember and will quote for years.

I was riding in the cycle lane when I spotted a van ahead. I grumbled internally and said “it would be ironic if it’s a police van guarding some Climate Summit VIPs”

12 of the buggers no less.

COP 19

I don’t know if they take too well to irony in the Polish Police service. One cop saw my camera and started to work his way down the line towards me so I scarpered.

Climate Ride tomorrow. Looking forward to it.

Meanwhile in a country far far away*. Driving school, Lesson 6. Roundabouts, rond punt, ronde-point

As imagined in a local driving school.



You have done really well in our previous lessons so today we are going to have a special lesson.  Today we are going to learn roundabouts.

Now there are two rules to roundabouts that you must never forget.

Rule one. There are no rules. In fact it is important that you adapt your behaviour to the circumstances so that in all situations you are able to do just what you want without other people messing up your driving rhythm.


That’s not a rule! Give me a proper rule that I can follow. What’s rule 2?


All driving at roundabouts is subject to the Laws for state secrecy. Under no circumstances should any citizen ever allow any other driver to know where you are going next.

Circulate rapidly always giving the impression that you are going to take the next exit, then just when they think you have made your choice carry on round another one or two exits just to be on the safe side.


What about the indicators?


NO. NO. NO. Indicators are used by foreigners only. Let anyone see you using an indicator and they will think you are English, then you will get no respect at all. It’s like the roundabouts with more than one lane. Don’t get in the habit of choosing the same one each time for each manoeuvre because people will expect us all to do the same and then where would we be, Germany?


Any special instructions if I see pedestrians and cyclists?


ronde point

Sigh. You are not following this are you? The crossings round the roundabout are part of a statistical study. Those people waiting are not really trying to cross, they are sampling the behaviour of motorists to see how many stop. Apparently the samples to date show that it is entirely random. Which is as it should be, or people like me wouldn’t be doing our jobs.

Although you do need to be careful if you ever drive North, the Dutch keep stopping for them and it messes everything up, the cyclists get a bit pushy and expect to be taken seriously. That needs stamping out.



I think so. Can we go and practice now?


Yes I think we should. If this goes well next time we can book you in for our special offer lesson. It lasts five hours and it is called “finding a parking space in Brussels”.

*May be Belgium

Ronde Point Albert Mayne

*Substitute Wallonia/Flanders at your peril.

PS: We have our own roundabout here – but that is another story!

We need a cycling hero – Bicycle Repair Man – Classic Monty Python

A small favour prompted me to revisit this classic Monty Python sketch.

I usually enjoy playing at Bicycle Repair Man, the opportunity to give someone back their cycling through a small tweak or adjustment or fitting a spare that I just happen to have in the shed. Last week it was a tweak to brakes and gears and my colleague was off.

However while I am happily tweaking other people’s bikes I am deeply in need of a bit of BRM magic myself. How would our hero have coped with the complexity and diversity of modern bikes? I have spent absolutely hours going nowhere in the last few weeks on just one bike while it holds up painful decisions on other machines.

Mountain bike converted to roadThe main problem is my clunker, the work bike that I actually do most of my miles on. It is a carefully crafted beast because it combines lots of thrown together parts that create a bike that looks really ugly but actually has exactly what I need. With a good layer of dirt and grease on top it is the machine nobody wants to steal, although I do get looks on the train that are almost as dirty as the bike. But it can do almost anything from the daily commute to low level mountain biking in all weathers.

Each incarnation has had a rigid MTB frame (currently a Giant Granite) and fat sturdy puncture-proof tyres from Schwalbe (Marathon Plus) which I ride until something falls apart. The main investment is the rear wheel where I use good quality, otherwise everything else is where I do my experiments, bodging together all sorts of combinations. I have learnt so much passing these bits from frame to frame over the years I reckon I can make most things work.

However this winter played hell with the machinery and in the last few weeks everything decided to pack up at once. The chain and sprockets finally got to the point where I was selecting about 3 gears from 24 and the bottom bracket was making ominous noises.

I spent hours in the shed trying to combine every set of chainrings and cranks I had into something that would work but there’s not a lot of point when the teeth barely exist.

Got that sorted eventually (spent money – hate that) but a week later the bottom bracket just seized with some suitably horrible crunching, fortunately just a short distance from home. I was about to start replacing that when I noticed a crack in the frame, so it has finally bit the dust, not bad for a machine of unknown history found abandoned in a Reading park several years ago.

New frame then.

Cyclo BrusselsOff to Cyclo, the well thought of bike recycler in Brussels that takes all the old bikes off the street and operates a social enterprise and community workshop in search of a frame.

What a treasure trove, buzzing with customers and atmosphere. Hundreds of bikes of all styles and vintages waiting to for buyers, most €100-€200. I would love to have had a few hours in there, I am sure there were some classics waiting to emerge.

Galaxy Sport TrekkingHowever it was a practical visit and I was treated to a trip down the basement where the recently arrived and unused bikes were stashed. It was actually pretty easy, within minutes we had found a scratched and battered MTB frame with a bottom bracket and headset that looked just the job.

Back to the office on the metro and then I entertained the office when I set off for the station with my burden. ECF facebook image

Nothing unusual about that in my mind, they obviously haven’t met enough bike bodgers here. Next stage of the chaos then ensued because SNCB had managed to cancel one train and tried to force two trainloads of passengers onto one half sized train. The bloke with two dirty bikes got lots of cautious looks from anyone wearing pale summer clothes although there was general good humour about my antics, climbing in and out at every stop with both machines to let people on and off.

But no matter how painful the process had been so far I now needed the satisfaction of getting the project moving properly to put the wasted hours behind me. So off to the shed.

I was actually making reasonable progress until I got to my final job of the night. Putting the wheels into the frame to set up the brakes..

I then stood back in amazement. I was going mad. The wheels had shrunk. Nothing would line up.

And slowly it dawned on me that the frame may have looked in every aspect like an MTB, but it was actually a typical continental trekking-bike set up, 700C touring wheels in a MTB set-up.

Arrggghhh – fallen into the incompatibility trap. And in this case one with a special Belgian twist. A check on the internet showed that indeed the Diamond Galaxy is a Belgian made trekker, not an MTB.

I spent last night and all my bike ride to work this morning stewing, cogitating and creating. Don’t have a plan yet – I need a sprinkle of some BRM magic.

Three types of brake possible but maybe not a full set of each, loads of wheels with umpteen gears, few of which are compatible with each other or maybe I can use it as the tourer for which it was designed and I’ll start again on a new work bike.

There is the common sense “take it back and try again” option, but that breaks just too many rules.

Thank goodness it doesn’t involve my other current maintenance hates – mainly hydraulic disk brakes. If you really want to annoy me just now put a post in a forum describing in detail a simple process that requires me to buy a kit, read about, understand and buy loads of different incompatible oils and widgets for two separate bikes and then enjoy fiddling with it for hours. Oh really? Please – wires and levers of single design – please!

Bicycle Repair Man you had it easy when bikes were black and the only thing involving pressures was a quick squeeze on the tyres. But you are still our hero and I’ll be reminded of you the next time I can tweak something that puts someone back on the road.

Meanwhile back to work…………………

Front page news – white stripes, wheeled terrorists, the Tour de France and the Prime Minister. Only in Flanders?

Last Friday I was taken to the front line of a full on cycling row that has erupted in Flanders, finally forcing the Prime Minister who was on a foreign trip on to the front pages of De Standaard to insist that he “would be looking in to it”

I have to share this storm in the tiniest of teacups because I don’t think we would see anything like this anywhere else except in the cycle sports mad world that exists around Ghent. And the story also has the dumbest punchline.

The background to the story is common enough. The community in Gavere, about 10km south of Ghent have complained that the “wheeled terrorists” have taken over their riverside and that they are constantly afraid. We have heard that before in many countries, most recently in the UK where there is a simmering row about the numbers of cyclists on canal towpaths or around the Olympic Road Race circuit at Box Hill.

However the difference here is the scale and the political fallout as the “terrorists” hit back.

Scheldt River path Gavere Flanders

The battleground is a long wide and perfectly smooth traffic free path that follows the Scheldt south from Ghent for miles making a perfect environment for cycling and walking.

But its strengths are its weakness.

The smooth asphalt is a beautiful temptation for roadies to fly along at speed and the width means that the sort of club groups that are common in Belgium can travel down it in big echelons, especially at the weekend. And we are talking big, I see groups of 30-50 riders where I live and round Ghent I guess numbers are huge.

And speeds are high, as we rode the three of us were doing close to 20mph at times and we were passed by faster groups.

So out of the blue a series of white “rumble strips” – the now notorious ribbelstroken have appeared across the path.ribbelstroken

The first row was apparently whether they were initiated by the municipality or by Waterwegen en Zeekanaal (waterway and sea canals) who manage the navigation. Had the mayor of Gavere exceeded his authority? Or does the fact that they are spread over a wider area implicate the navigation managers?

But regardless of the origins of the work the sports cyclists were soon up in arms that anybody would mess with their training route. With their influence it soon hit the pages of De Standard and ribbelstroken became a new hot topic. While we were out for a ride there was another newspaper photographer out for the evening getting background shots and pictures of the offending strips. His presence prompted a stop for a lively debate by the roadside.

By Monday it had got to the Prime Minister of Flanders Kris Peeters, far away in France on a visit to Le Tour. Another distinctly Flemish twist, when was the last time your Prime Minister nipped off to see the Tour in another country? Well it was all above board, he was there as a guest of DCM, the Flemish company that co-sponsors the Vacansoleil pro bike team in the tour, not a jolly of course.

He probably thought he was away from domestic concerns but in France he had the misfortune to be ambushed by Vancansoleil pro Thomas De Gendt who it turns out likes to use the offending route for his speed training.

I have to say that the prospect of one of the world’s top riders doing 50kmph down a riverside path probably confirms every local citizen’s worst prejudices about wheeled terrorists, but he certainly got the Prime Minister on the spot. So by Monday the ribbelstroken were right up there on the front page news of De Standaard right beside the pictures of Chris Froome and within the day the Mobility Minister was out there riding her bike up and down the towpath with the local cycling groups.

The punchline?

Well it looks like the Mobility Minister was discrete in her words when she said “It was not as dramatic as I had heard.”

Not dramatic? It was pathetic!

This is a country with some of the finest cobblestones on the planet. Cyclists go out of their way to race over the rumbly stuff. It is the world centre of cyclocross. And frankly Belgian road surfaces can at times be almost third world. Anybody who remotely considers himself to be a serious cyclist around Ghent should be laughing at the pathetic little ripples on the path.

In line skaters – yes, big disruption. Wheelchair users – definitely an issue. So yes the strips will be cut back to allow movement round the ends.

Ribbelstroken GevereBut the self-promoting hardest bike riders in Europe? Come on chaps, give us a break! Even the senior citizens ride didn’t bat an eyelid.

But the hard men of Ghent have spoken, apparently the experiment will not be continued.


Friday night Flanders ride

Kattenberg climb Flanders

Vlaamse Ardennen Route

Cycling out into Flanders

As a result of an invitation from Vincent Meershaert of Traject Mobility Management in Ghent I spent last Friday evening on a scenic ride out from Ghent into the Flemish Ardennes and some bits of the Tour of Flanders race route.

Only my second time there on a bike after my visit in spring to watch the Tour itself so I was very much looking forward to new discoveries, especially with hosts who were rightly proud of their cycling heritage. I got an invitation because like Vincent I am one of the “odd guys”, people who work in the field of cycling for transport and mobility but who also have a love for sports cycling. That may not seem too strange to an English speaking audience but in Europe it is actually quite rare, they are usually two different worlds. 

What a great way to start the weekend with a beautiful 80km route put together by Vincent’s colleague Kristof. And to see first-hand how big the Wielrenner (sports cyclist) culture is around Ghent, even though it was Friday after work there were lycra-clad riders all over the place, clearly enjoying a warm, if overcast evening.

However we were not the only ones out, we found this great group of “seniors” out by the Scheldt too.

Friday night in Flanders

The ride managed to throw in a whole mix of riding that seemed to capture the area extremely well. As we were returning from the ride Vincent and I were musing again on the fact that Belgium is so little known for cycle touring, a combination of lack of marketing and the competition from the surrounding countries I am sure.

The only people I know of who would consciously head for this area to ride bikes would all be like me, drawn by the legendary black and white images of mud covered racers battling across cobbles in the spring classics. (See earlier post about the Ronde Van Vlaanderen Museum on Oudenarde)

Flanders Cycle route signsWhat we actually got was almost car free country lanes, excellent cycle paths, a 4 metre wide car free route along the river Scheldt and outstanding signposting and route choice. The tidy flower-filled villages and towns reflected the fact that this is a more prosperous area of Belgium and that civic pride is alive and well. Above all else the Belgians I ride with and talk to in both Flanders and FlandersWallonia are genuinely surprised when I tell them the very best thing about being here is just how deserted the minor roads and lanes feel to a visitor and tonight was no exception.  OK, we crossed some major roads but away from them it was peaceful cycling with almost no need to ride single file at all. Our group were sports cyclists, so our route took us well into the Flemish Ardennes by design, but flat earth riders could easily have stuck to the valleys for a very leisurely and attractive tour.

None of the climbs we did was a monster, the low lying countryside allows only about 100 metres of ascent each time and the climbs we did were mostly

Flanders flower

well surfaced and no more than 5-8% grade with occasional steep corners. Not to downplay it, 100km of these coming back-to-back with some of the steeper cobbled beast climbs thrown in would be a really tough ride, anyone completing the Tour of Flanders sportive deserves respect.

Friday night bike ride Flanders

But that wasn’t why we were here, we were enjoying fun climbing to get lovely views over the countryside with its patchwork of fields, trees and church spires in every direction.  It was great to dip and roll with the landscape, both climbs and swooping descents. Some pave, but only one section was the full on experience of riding on a pneumatic drill for about a kilometre.

By the time we got back my legs knew they had been in a ride, but I was glowing with pleasure.

So once again I can issue the call to fellow cycling travellers. Come here. Get out of Brussels and Bruges, avoid the main industrial cities and try real rural Belgium, it is a great place to be a cyclist. More challenging perhaps to get the tourist authorities to market the area effectively to the outside world but I suspect that is part of a wider malaise in Belgium, it certainly seems to pride itself on “under-stated”!

The RouteThat way - map reading in Flanders

Kristof put our route up on line so you can follow the route and the profile which at this scale does look a bit like shark’s teeth, but it wasn’t quite so fierce, honest. http://ridewithgps.com/routes/2711551

The main Tour of Flanders climbs we did were:

Slijpstraat – Kortendries (Length 2200m, %max: 9, %average: 3);

Rekelberg  (Length 580m, %max: 10, %average: 5);

Kattenberg (cobbled, length 800m, %max: 12, %average: 6)

And the world didn’t end – more cycling lessons from Germany

Shared use bridge over Rhine CologneHaving a chat DomplatzShared use DomplatzKoln Germany

I have just had to kill an hour between trains in Cologne.

As it is a lovely day I wandered outside the Hauptbahnhof to the Cathedral Square (Domplatz), up onto the pedestrian cyclist bridge over the Rhine and looked back at the leafy path car free route along the river bank.

Disgrace. Unacceptable. Impossible. Out of control. Can’t be done. What do they think they are doing?

Cyclist on bridge over Rhine CologneDomplatz cyclist and pedestriansRhine bank cycle access KolnCyclists Domplatz Koln CologneRiverside cycling Cologne KolnGermany cycling

Yes hundreds of cyclists and pedestrians are inhabiting the same space. Politely. Without conflict. Without the world coming to an end. And its official – this is a major corridor across the river for all users.

Young ruffians on BMX bikes. Lycra louts. Parents setting a bad example. Old and young; male and female.

Oh, and you know what – that bridge rail isn’t specially raised to stop the lemmings with pedals throwing themselves off. So that bridge will have to be closed off immediately. The signs industry can celebrate as hundreds of “Cyclist Dismount” signs are ordered and the economy is saved.

Enough cynicism Englishman. Just because you come from a country that is frequently clueless about creating great cycling places doesn’t mean you have to infect the whole of Europe!

In fact it is a wonderful sight as the quiet German cycling revolution continues. Personally I am convinced that the large areas of car free permeable city and town centres that people actually want to walk and cycle in are as big a contributor to the growth in cycling here as many other measures. I must get round to posting the photos I took in Leipzig recently that showed just the same pattern as I have seen throughout the country.

In fact the more time I spend around Germany’s cycling stories the more I do not despair for the future of the human race. To my long suffering cycle campaigning friends in Britain can I just offer a suggestion that there is far more to creating a cycling culture than going Dutch, and there are fantastic examples right here.

PS Some things are however crimes against nature. I have saved them to last, to avoid upsetting the sensitive among you.

Segway Tour Cologne