I don’t often reblog, but just occasionally I see a post that is so in the spirit of I do not despair that it has to be shared. Many thanks to Carlton Reid and Tim Gill who brought it to my attention through Twitter. More musings on this to come perhaps.

Child's Play Music

I wish I had had my camera with me, because just the other day I saw something extraordinary. Something so rare that I thought it was almost extinct. I was, frankly, both shocked and excited!

What was this rarity, this amazing vision? Picture this: I’m walking back from my local cafe/shopping strip on Main St in Osborne Park. An  inner-city suburb in Perth, Western Australia. I’m walking down Hutton St, a very busy main suburban feeder road that leads directly to the Mitchell Freeway entries a kilometre away. It’s around 4.30pm, so the rush hour has started and Hutton St is packed with cars, heading for the Freeway and home.

And then I saw it! Or should I say saw him. A young boy on a dazzling chrome and electric blue BMX bike came whizzing down Hutton St. He’s keeping up with the packed traffic, but he’s pumping hard…

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The unprepared tourist – an afternoon cycling in Berlin

Brandenburg Gate Deutschebahn call bike

Last week I paid my first visit to Berlin. Fortunately around my schedule of meetings I had a few free hours to myself for an afternoon and the freezing rain relented just enough to make sightseeing a realistic opportunity.

I was horribly unprepared to be a tourist having done almost no prior reading. When I checked my usual source on such matters Tripadvisor’s main recommendations were all places that needed at least an hour each to do them justice. Given that my knowledge of Berlin is entirely made of fragments from spy movies and occasional news footage, not the soundest of starts.

Solitary woman cyclist Berlin

So it should come as no surprise to any reader of this blog that I hired a bike and pottered about with my camera just trying to get some impressions of the city.

I was able to top up my knowledge by chatting to colleagues the following day so I was at least able to answer some of my immediate questions, but here is a brief snapshot of thoughts and feelings from a first afternoon cycling and sightseeing in central Berlin.

First orientation issue – am I in East or West Berlin? I am starting from the middle (Mitte), but checking the map tells me I am in the former East because the Berlin Wall actually encircled the old centre like a bump in its alignment. Not obvious to my eye which was which or that the East had been the poor half because my walk down Friedrichstrasse to hire a bike passed parades of shops and offices indistinguishable from any modern city.

Once a bike was obtained from one of Deutsche Bahn’s many bike hire stations I realised that the layout was very compact and it was a matter of minutes to turn down the main street of East Berlin Unter den Linden and head for the must see monument, the Brandenburg Gate. (above)

Not only an impressive monument but important for my orientation because this was one of the symbols of divided Berlin and I could follow the former line of the Berlin Wall from here, especially as so many tourism landmarks appeared to be along its route.

It turned out to be quite an odd ride, as if the city doesn’t quite know what to do with its legacy, or indeed it’s cycling. Heading south from the Brandenburg Gate towards Potsdamer Platz the road was obvious but almost all suggestions of the wall’s existence were gone. Instead the first landmark was the Holocaust Memorial, a sombre grey feature of large blocks laid out in a grid, completed in 2004. A moody place in the overcast sky and slushy snow.Holocaust Memorial Berlin

At PotsdamerPlatz I encountered my first evidence of the wall with some retained segments placed on the square covered with interpretation materials about the wall and its legacy. This explained more about what I was, or indeed was not seeing. In the transition after the wall came down many sections were demolished leaving the wide open spaces that used to be the former killing zone, the space left for the guards to see anybody trying to cross. Some are still undeveloped over 20 years later and appear as waste land, some quickly got developed or incorporated into road schemes and a few make the site of memorials and museums.

As I left Potsdamer Platz the cycle lane on the pavement disappeared, the road narrowed and I appeared to be on a very ordinary city street with no indication of history. My map said I was following the wall and should take the first left into another very nondescript small side street heading for the famous Checkpoint Charlie and a site called “Topography of Terror”.  It was all very quiet, few cars, few tourist trappings and not unpleasant cycling at all.

I quickly knew I was on the right road because a much longer section of original wall came up beside me. Behind it was a flat plain containing a low grey modern building and some open building foundations. No signs, no obvious clues as to what was going on until I found that “Topography of Terror”  was the site of the core of former Nazi control in Berlin, the seat of the Gestapo and the Propaganda Ministry and the building footings I could see were Hitler’s Bunker and Gestapo rooms. I found out later that the surface buildings had been demolished by Allied bombing during the war and its proximity to the wall meant it was just left as open space for over 40 years. Another uncomfortable memory to be incorporated into the city and the museum was perhaps suitably understated.Berlin wall NiederkirchnerstrasseDisplay Board Topography of Terrors Berlin

Its neighbour across the street could hardly be more of a contrast!Berlin

Shortly beyond was Checkpoint Charlie, the main gateway between the American and Russian sectors which had appeared in many iconic Cold War images and is certainly more of a tourist hot spot now.  visiting Berlin by bike

The motif of the wall was used well to provide photographic displays on the approaching streets which gave the history of divided Berlin in news photographs and information boards.Berlin wall displays

But yet again nearby was one of those ambiguous memorials that really set me thinking – this time the museum of the infamous STASI, the East German secret police.Berlin

I spoke to a colleague later about these many memorials to difficult subjects. He said that because Berlin had stagnated for so long after the war there had been no systematic attempt to “move on” and certainly no civic regeneration programme to remove evidence of difficult subjects. And then after reunification it became recognised that Berlin should not be allowed this past so the city had begun to establish them as part of education and reconciliation. I had the feeling it was a sort of pact – you can become the capital city again but you cannot be allowed to forget.

There is certainly no avoiding the subject of the wall. I had assumed that when I left the central area some of the references would go diminish but later that evening on the S-bahn railway I learned about the ghost stations where North-South trains ran under East Berlin from two sectors of the West but didn’t stop at the pre-war stations. And the sections of that line that ran almost along the wall with platforms only open on the West side.

Back to my ride. Having passed Checkpoint Charlie I had my fill of wall sites so I swung North East to see more of the older city. First I followed a relatively large road across to Alexanderplatz which was a pretty nondescript public space in the growing gloom but I was then able to pick up the banks of the River Spree and circle around the hugely impressive Museum Island. What actually caught the eye here too was the amount of building going on, this looks like a city going though a construction boom.Museumsinsel BerlinRiver scene Berlin

I then used the river bank to retrace my steps back to a building I wanted to see, the Reichstag.  The historic parliament building became the seat of German government again when its modern dome designed by British architect Norman Foster was finally built into the older frame. Reichstag Berlin

Around it I discovered a huge modern civil service quarter built on the river bank and a series of waterways and parkland which looked really nice environment. If I had been organised I would like to have booked a visit to see the inside of the Reichstag because everything I have heard about it looks amazing. But for now the space in front of the Reichstag was vast, open and increasingly cold so I didn’t linger, I needed to keep moving.

From the Reichstag it was a quick trip through the Tiergarten park back to the Brandenburg Gate and the return of the bike to its hire station as the gloom came in.

Fascinating place – so many questions about the attitude to history, to culture, to monuments and a potentially days to spend. That is without touching the arts, culture, nightlife and even some of the suburbs – so many other things form which the city is known.

And what about the cycling?

Well I found as many oddities about cycling in Berlin as I did about the city itself.

I had been told that about 13% of trips in Berlin are made by bike. That’s in line with the German average which means well above the rest of Europe and especially the places I usually ride. But I have convinced myself I am getting the hang of this mode share business, I am beginning to be able to see what the differing levels look like.

empty cycle parking - February in BerlinBut in Berlin I couldn’t. Whether on my ride or looking at the rush hours I couldn’t see the significant flows I was expecting. Cyclists visible on most streets, yes, but not huge numbers. There were lots of bikes parked round the city but in fact much of the cycle parking was empty. So maybe the weather meant that cycling was quite seasonal I asked? Apparently not, but perhaps I was in the wrong place because the levels of cycling are highly dependent on the routes in from certain suburbs.

Fixie rider Checkpoint Charlie Berlin

Just like everywhere else in Europe it is the middle classes and intellectuals who cycle the most and in Berlin it is the areas where the alternative cultural movement established itself in the sixties that cycling levels are highest. If this is the case then it might explain why cyclists in the city centre really did feel quite isolated.

However in the city centre what I could see was that other indicator of cycling health. Women on bikes are universally recognised as a sign that the population thinks cycling is safe. However maybe they think they are not quite safe enough because I did notice that nearly all the women wore the dreaded cycle helmets – but none of the men!Friedrichstrasse Cycling Berlin

Cyclist Berlin 1The other thing that will be a bit confusing for many cycling advocates was the lack of segregated cycle routes. The vast majority of cycling I did was on the carriageway – I could have been in Brussels or London. That certainly contradicts the message that you need a big segregated network to get cycling levels above 10%. However I rarely felt worried, the drivers were largely respectful of the cyclist and the cycle lane – now that is a big difference. Possibly my view was distorted by the time of day, I was just before the afternoon rush hour, but even the following morning I felt general traffic volumes in the city were really low compared to most large cities in Europe. Maybe Berlin drivers are less stressed than their equivalents stuck in traffic across the world? I still instinctively believe that cycle lanes are just one way of changing the relationship between rider and driver and Berlin seemed to support the notion that respectful driving is a valuable way to create a cycling environment too.

So Berlin by bike?

Flat, compact, interesting, well behaved drivers, loads of bikes on hire. Something I definitely want to do again. But better prepared and able to use the Call Bike system properly, jumping on and off to visit the main attractions properly!

My best day’s photography ever? The light of Venice

My old camera died last week, probably battered to death by the constant bashing in and out of pockets when cycling. A sad end to a regular companion of nearly eight years, but I can never say that I didn’t get value from it. Birthday coming up, so the present is decided.

It seems amazing to me that I have only been blogging for less than a year and already I can see a change in my photography, thinking of more interesting approaches and images than I did before so I can describe my travels. I feel quite embarrassed when someone asks about how I took a shot or what camera I use because I really cannot compare to the work that I see on the web and I am using a small eight year old camera. But there are shots from earlier years that I am quite pleased with and I thought I might put together a self-indulgent set that deserve to join more recent ones in the blog to close the door on that camera.

However when I was looking I came across just one set of shots that stood out above the rest and deserved a post of their own. So indulge me – RIP Fujifilm Finepix E550.

Spring three years ago I went to Venice for the first time.

We arrived on a horrible wet day and stayed in a hotel on the mainland. In the evening we took the train over to the island city. I must admit I was completely underwhelmed as our hosts dragged us through a maze of dark, rainy and graffiti strewn alleys to a restaurant and then back in the evening. Clearly a place that was over-rated and ruined by its own reputation.

However I went back on the Saturday morning with a free day and the most extraordinary light burst from a cloudless sky, especially out on the ferries from the Grand Canal into the surrounding lagoon. From a photographic point of view the best opportunities I have ever seen, and a small chance to capture why Venice is “Serenissima, Queen of the Adriatic”. Possibly my best day with a camera. So far?

VeniceVenice Grand CanalVenice

Is this the most soul destroying debate in cycling?

I haven’t tweeted or blogged since last Wednesday despite having  a whole stack of photos and reflections from the Olympic road cycling races and the amazing performance of the British. I have felt dragged down and fed up by what I regard as the most depressing subject in cycling. For me it’s the subject that almost puts “despair” into “I do not despair”.

As a cyclist interested in sport I have lived through endless drug scandals that dragged the sport into the gutter – and the idiots that still think this is the way forward despite all the evidence that the net is closing. And I can sadly live with the need of some of our advocates to rubbish anyone who doesn’t agree with their approach.

But the discussion of cycle helmets is the cycling subject that drags me down like no other.

I feel the need to put some of this down somewhere – and perhaps to share one small ray of light I discovered in British Columbia – a place with a compulsory helmet law. So back to the blog – and of course the views here are entirely my own.

I was all fired up to blog on Thursday morning but on Wednesday evening the news broke that a cyclist had been killed by an Olympic bus, then in an interview Brad Wiggins was asked about the incident and said that cyclists should look after themselves, including wearing helmets.

It’s the evening after he has achieved something remarkable. It’s not his subject road safety. But of course the BBC has to go major on “Bradley Wiggins calls for compulsory helmets” because they have umpteen hours of news channels to fill.

By Thursday morning London Cycling Campaign and CTC are in full defence mode and even the President of British Cycling has to tackle it when he is speaking about the fantastic system for developing talent that BC has put in place. To be fair, they all did a great job. (More here)

The twittersphere, bloggers, discussion boards were full of fire and fury swamping any pleasure that could be taken from Wiggins and Froomes’s feats and the later victories of the track team. Wiggins was slagged off by the community that just hours before worshipped him.

Somehow I lost interest in the on line cycling world for a few days, I have just treated myself to enjoyment of the sport on TV and the pure pleasure of riding.

It’s not just the UK. Campaigning groups in Spain have been stunned by an out of the blue announcement by a minister to say he wanted to introduce a compulsory helmet bill causing them to have to mobilise both national and international support against the proposal.

And at Velo-city Global 2012 in Vancouver the existence of a compulsory helmet law in British Columbia and the presence of so many advocates from helmet free Europe was just the combination needed to stir the debate endlessly.

Cards on the table. I am 100% against compulsory helmets. I despise the victim blaming that characterises so much reporting about cyclists’ deaths. I have despaired with families because a defence lawyer tries to suggest that not wearing a helmet was a form of negligence by the victim.

But I also wear a helmet – for mountain biking and when I used to race.

When I came to work in cycling back in 1998 I had no idea that this would be one of the discussions that would claim far too big a chunk of my life for the next 15 years – and no doubt will be around for the next 15. And that’s the problem – it just isn’t a subject that anybody outside a very narrow community can understand or engage with, least of all the cycle racing and MTB communities because the helmets are actually made for them – so why would people in lycra understand the issues of helmets for daily cycling?

And as a result it pits cyclist against cyclist, cycling advocate against road safety advocate, it gives free reign to the online trolls who attack cyclists and it heaps guilt on to people who have the most to give to cycling. The UK’s BBC are absolutely awful – they put all of their presenters at every level into helmets for any cycling story because they are so keen to “do the right thing” and they are part of the mindset that bullies politicians into helmets for the same reason.

http://cyberboris.wordpress.com/2011/05/10/woo-hooboris-brings-cycling-revolution-to-outer-london/

Boris in helmet – Image from CYBERBORISJohnson

Even Boris Johnson was dragged into it for a brief time when he became Mayor of London, but Boris is self-confident enough to say “no” – unlike most others. I remember doing an interview on BBC Radio London at the London Cycle Show with the otherwise estimable Sandy Toksvig. Being the BBC they had to have “balance” so they got a senior industry manager from a major multi-national bike company whose company sell a lot of helmets to make the case for lids. When he totally agreed with me that compulsory helmets was a bad thing for cycling the presenters decided that this wasn’t on and started to argue with us themselves.

And perhaps worse of all is the pressure on parents and cycling supporters who feel they cannot let children cycle without the dreaded plastic lid unless they become labelled “bad parents” or “negligent”.

But I am just deeply saddened by the debate itself, the resources it consumes and the time and energy we have lost as a community on a debate we just are not winning and can hardly win without risking damage to ourselves during the fight. Because if society was based on intellect and analysis nobody would speed, everyone would ride bikes, climate change would be resolved and nobody would smoke. And despite the efforts of some researchers who are bashing away some poor studies from years ago offers the pro campaigners their academic fig leaf, along with the comparisons they make with other undoubted road safety successes like seat belts.

www.Cyclehelmets.org is an amazing resource and I am in deep admiration for the team of volunteers and professionals that contribute to it, it would be foolish of me to try and replicate any of those resources here.

But I did amazingly discover one small antidote in Canada, despite the compulsory helmets. Whistler is an interesting case study for all sorts of cycling issues and I will be blogging about it more.

But this community of hardened mountain bikers showed how life really could and should be in relation to helmets. Riders who actually understand cycling risk better than anyone behave in ways that just make sense.

Downhilling?

High speeds, high risk of falling? Big impact if you get it wrong? Then it is full face helmets and even body armour. Even the designs take their lead from skiing and snowboarding as can occasionally be seen when the two take place together.

What to wear for downhillYoung cyclists at bike park

Whistler Bike ParkOffroad cross country – roots and rocks creating a falling hazard?

Kevin MayneWithout the high speeds and the jumps of the downhill tracks the risk is lower and the impact speed is within the spec of the usual cycle helmet. The modern cycle helmet evolved from this world and it is entirely reasonable that it was designed for exactly this use.

The ride to town, or to and from the slopes?

Despite the compulsory helmet law this community knows that the good network of cycling facilities, traffic free town centre and the general understanding that motorists know cyclists are around means that the helmets are irrelevant to their safety.

And no sign that the local police feel any need to do anything about to enforce a law that was dreamed up by remote politicos in Vancouver, they recognise that cycling visitors are an engine of the local economy – so why should they hassle them?Whistler Village

Whistler – common sense helmet use. If only the rest of the debate was this easy.

Great response to “On Sunday I shall Wear Yellow” by Onyerbicycle

Onyerbicycle's Blog

Read this great blog On Sunday I shall wear yellow. and thought I’d have a go. Dusted off my poetry skills, realised my kit was of pretty poor quality but thought I’d give it a go anyway.

Please comment on ideas for any alterations and amendments that might improve my rhetorical performance.

Here’s my Thursday tea-time effort.

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Late Winter in Norway

I was going to post about spring today because I have had a really good week on the bike and yesterday was Milan San Remo day on the TV – La Primavera.

However Morten Kerr beat me to it this week when he sent round these stunning photos from Norway which I must share. 

But of course in Norway it is still “late winter” – recent heavy snow fall as well as signs of spring.

Subject: Late winter greetings

Cycling on a Norway fiord in late winter - Credit Morten Kerr

Cycling on a Norway fiord by M. Kerr

Good friends,

Winter has been mild and ”good” to us. Fortunately we managed to take a short bike trip on the ice covered fjord – and during our trip in the same area earlier today we saw the first blue anemone. In between we also saw the first sun rays on our mantel piece: from here on the sun will flood our living room.

Norway - first anemone of the year (M. Kerr)

Norway - first anemone of the year (M. Kerr)

Hope all is well with you all – and despite the heavy snow fall earlier in the week we know that spring is just around the corner (as we speak March 11).

Morten

To see more of Morten’s photos and travel writing go to his Facebook page