“You are not going out dressed like that”

I strongly appreciate the fact that in Brussels there is a sense that cycling is something that you do in your day clothes, on your way to work, shopping, leisure or wherever your local trips take you.

ECF riding in Brussels

It is a strong contrast to places like the UK or Australia where to my eyes the majority of riders still seem to be in some sort of uniform, be it hipster/fixie or sports clothing. 

However I was reminded today that I must work harder on my appreciation of other people’s “normal”.

As I cycled the last few kilometres of a wonderful ride through the sunny countryside I came up behind a women cycling gently along in a smart dress towards the EU district. But my expert eye told me there was something odd about her bike, because there were some strange attachments to her pedals that kept flashing in the sunlight, even from a distance.

It was only as I went to pass her that I realised that I was seeing the most enormous pair of silver stiletto heels, on a scale that suggested she might be coming home from a night club rather than heading to any office I could imagine.

I am so glad I never had a daughter, I fear I would have been the sort of dreadful dad that barricades the door and shouts “you are not going out dressed like that”.

However after I had passed I spotted my reflection in a shop window and reminded myself exactly what I was wearing. Possibly the brightest, most explosively coloured piece of lycra I possess, paired with bright purple cycling gloves and a mismatched cycling cap.

If I had a daughter she would have said “You are not going out looking like that”

FLCA cycling top

Christmas, cooking and cycling – combined. “It doesn’t get any better than that!”

Photo Kevin Mayne

My colleagues came up absolutely trumps for the ECF Christmas party this year.

We set off in convoy under the Christmas lights of Brussels for a group bike ride to a mystery destination, known only to a select few.

After about twenty minutes we ended up at the brilliant Mmmmh! in Chaussée de Charleroi where we were ushered in to a large professional kitchen and handed aprons.

Photo ECF

Oh yes, it is an episode of Masterchef and in our teams we have an hour to invent and cook three dishes.

What a laugh. Even the self-confessed non-cooks chopped and stirred with vigour, perhaps encouraged by the free flowing wine.

Photo Kevin Mayne

And due respect, we found out that we have some superb cooks on the team, there wasn’t a failed dish on the table.

Given that a group of cyclists can often resemble a plague of locusts, devouring its own body-weight in food in a day this could be the perfect cycling outing.

In the British version of the TV show Masterchef there are two lead presenters who regularly shout lines at each other like “Cooking doesn’t get tougher than this!” I can only say “Christmas, cooking and cycling – combined. It doesn’t get any better than that!”

Photo Kevin Mayne

The perfect song for cycling and singing out loud – thanks to the BBC and the Beach Boys

I do not despair is currently distracted from blogging.

It is bid-writing season again – the process of developing a sales pitch to funders that part exam revision, part interview, part dissertation, part speech writing and a lot of hours locked away with the laptop. There is sadly little capacity left for the blog for another few days yet.

My saving grace is the bike ride to work, an hour or more of tranquility to reorganise my thoughts.

And there is music. This isn’t just while writing. As my regular readers know “Music to Ride bikes by” celebrates the songs that come into my head while riding and just won’t go away.

Today I just have to celebrate the work of the BBC Music department that has just produced a brilliant version of “God only Knows” to celebrate the joy of music. In time to a pedalling rhythm it is even better.

The original was already 3 minutes of pop perfection, but listening to this video has joyously uplifted my morning ride for three days now. My apologies to anybody in the woods near Brussels who has been terrified by a tuneless English cyclist singing out loud to the trees.

Special Olympics Europe 2014 Opening Ceremony – a celebration of inclusion

Photo Kevin Mayne

On Saturday my wife and I had the pleasure of being guests at the Opening Ceremony of the European Summer Special Olympics which are taking place this week in Belgium.

It was an enjoyable and at times moving experience, the Special Olympics is a really distinctive movement that is well worth celebrating and Belgium did a great job with the launch.

The Special Olympics are the separate movement for people with Intellectual Disabilities which keeps the games separate from the much bigger and more extensively funded Olympics and Paralympics.

It began in the 1950s and 1960s when Eunice Kennedy Shriver (the fifth of the nine Kennedys from the renowned US political family) began working to introduce sports and physical activities in to summer camps for children with Intellectual Disabilities. In 1968 they became the Special Olympics which formed a part of her much wider work in the field.

There are now Special Olympics for continents as well as world summer and winter games. This year’s event in Belgium was for the Eurasia region so it included not only most European countries but also many participants from the central Asian countries that used to be part of the Soviet Union.

The Paralympics have grown in profile and stature since they were linked to the Olympic Games but the Special Olympics are by far the smaller player in the sport scene and they are much less well known internationally. I was delighted to discover that Belgium has one of the best established national Special Olympics programmes in Europe which meant it was a very proud host of the games. The city of Antwerp is actually the host city however because of their support the European Union and the national Belgian supporters were invited to celebrate the opening of the games in the national capital with the Belgian Queen, Prime Minister, outgoing President of the European Council Hermann van Rompuy and a range of other guests and supporters.

So that is how we ended up on a lovely summer afternoon at Heysel, the part of Brussels that hosts the national stadium, national Expo Centre and our old friend the Atomium which was glistening brightly in the sunshine.

Photo Kevin Mayne Photo Kevin Mayne

Our ceremony took place in one of the indoor halls which gave it a nice intimate feeling suitable for the “inclusive games” and enabled the show to be all about light and music. Unfortunately my little camera is really not up to the job of indoor photography in this environment so you can see some of my blurry impressions here but I have also linked to the very excellent 7 minute highlights film of the ceremony below and some of the official photographs can be found on the official web site here.

We were treated to an extended dance and acrobatic show that threaded its way through the two hour event and kept the whole thing bouncing along.

Photo Kevin Mayne Photo Kevin Mayne Photo Kevin Mayne

A Belgian flavour was given by the giants and puppets which are a feature of the celebrated Belgian carnivals and parades of Mardi Gras.

Photo Kevin Mayne

But my far the most impactful moments were perhaps the simplest, the ones that were most about the people the games are celebrating.

The teams were accompanied into the room by lively music, applause and cheering that never stopped. You could see the teams just burst with enjoyment at the welcome, dancing and waving their way to their seats. There was a huge welcome for all Belgium’s neighbours like Luxembourg and the Netherlands and of course a massive welcome for the home team, biggest of the whole event.

The raising of the games flags and the EU flag were accompanied by the EU Hymn, “Ode to Joy” but instead of the full orchestra the music was played by a young German man with an Intellectual Disability who played the tune on a harmonica to barely a dry eye in the house. You can see him in the video.

And finally there was just a ticker tape snowstorm over the heads of the athletes who were up and applauding their welcome. Joyful and celebratory.

Photo Kevin Mayne

Please enjoy the video of the event, it was a special occasion. (If the link to a video does not appear here please read the original post in your browser.)

During this week one of the 10 sports taking place will be the cycling events in Antwerp including time trials and road races with the rules allowing for tandems and trikes as well as modified bikes.

I am really delighted by that, both personally and professionally. When I worked at the national cyclists’ charity in the UK one of my proudest achievements was raising money to launch an inclusion programme for cycling which meant we could run development activities at centres right across the country. Almost every time I found myself visiting one of our special sessions for people with Intellectual or physical disabilities I was moved by the enormous sense of achievement that the simple bike ride many of us take for granted can bring to so many lives. This could be a life transforming change as participants found mobility or health through cycling.

There is a brilliant gallery of the cycling at the Belgian Special Olympics pre-event held last September that just brings out the best of that spirit. There is something special in almost every image. Many similar programmes exist all over the world, almost all run by volunteers, they should all be applauded and supported.

I have no doubt whatsoever of the transformative work that the whole Special Olympics movement does. The games themselves are the pinnacle and it was a pleasure to celebrate them with everybody here in the country we now call home.

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

Another unique Belgian cycling experience – Diegem Superprestige Cyclo-cross – the nightcross

Gallery

This gallery contains 22 photos.

Ever since I moved to Belgium I have loved the fact that almost nothing stops the cycle sport calendar with the cyclo-cross season kicking off almost as soon as the road season finishes. However one of my frustrations was that … Continue reading