The curious case of the missing cyclists of Verona

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This gallery contains 5 photos.

Last week I made a return visit to the Italian city of Verona to work at Cosmobike, the largest bike exhibition in Italy. This was very interesting because I first came here in 2012 when I was just a few … Continue reading

Turning the commute into special time – a morning cycle tour to Brussels

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This gallery contains 25 photos.

It’s been a while. But welcome back. Welcome back to the feeling that today is that day. The day I just have to ride. The temperature is drifting up and forecast to clear 30 degrees for the first time this … Continue reading

If you own the bike company why not ride to work on a Tour de France ready superbike?

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One of the amusing diversions at our recent Bike2work event at Eurobike was guessing what bikes the company CEOs would ride. In theory it was a bit complicated. They all had to drag themselves out of hotels all over the … Continue reading

When I am warned that my bag is falling off my bicycle I do not despair for the future of the human race

When you live in a foreign country one of the subjects that often comes up is “how to break the ice with the locals”, especially where language is a barrier.

I have found an unexpected source of conversation that lets me meet someone new almost every week.

My briefcase.

I use an Altura Urban 17 bike briefcase, a design that suit me because it is a big baggy number that can absorb laptop, papers, lunch, waterproofs and even a change of clothes.

To allow for its size it has one particularly distinctive feature – it is mounted on the pannier rack at 45 degrees to horizontal to give heel clearance. That is a really sensible adaption.

Photo by Kevin Mayne

I think it must be my second or third version of the bag and until I came here the angle hadn’t really crossed my mind. But it seems to have a really unsettling effect on passing Belgians, whether they be cyclists, pedestrians or even car drivers.

Hardly a day goes by in Brussels without someone approaching me with a look of real concern on their face and saying “your bag is coming unhooked”.  This includes behaviour like chasing me down the road even when I am thrashing along in my lycra and pedestrians rushing off the pavement waving.

Perhaps most unnerving of all for me is to be shadowed by cars and vans who hover just off my back wheel until they can pull up beside me, wide down the widow and gesticulate furiously until I recognise the magic words “sac” and “décroche” over the noise and realise I have found another good Samaritan, not a nutter.

Initially I was really surprised and slightly thrown because I don’t recall a single comment in the many years I rode with a similar bag in the UK and I really do not expect to be approached when riding. Perhaps us Brits don’t do that sort of thing, there are legends of two Englishmen castaway on a desert island who didn’t speak to each other for forty years because they hadn’t been introduced.

Now I have got used to it I am really rather charmed by the concern of the Belgians for my safety, and even the fact that they could look at a passing stranger in enough detail to notice the angle of my bag. It is a nice feeling that they care enough to make a real effort to look out for my welfare.

My alternative title for this post “Invisible cyclist? Get yourself a wonky bicycle bag.”

“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

The moments you don’t get with any other form of commuting except cycling?

Photo Kevin MayneAbout 7.30 in the morning.

Suddenly I am just caught by a moment.

Morning sunlight on the soft gentle greens of newly opened beech leaves.

Birdsong.

Peace and reflection.

If I didn’t commute to work by bike how could I have had such a moment?

In case you think I am far too smug about my rural commute I can report that 20 minutes later I was in the snarl of Brussels traffic and the sunlight was replaced by rain. But what is important is that I can forget that, but I won’t forget the uplift I got from my moment of magic.

I hope you had a moment like that as part of your day. You are one of the lucky people.

Searching for cycling in Malta

Photo Kevin Mayne

At its heart this blog has a simple message. Seeing a cyclist is something to cheer, an uplifting feeling from HG Wells’ experiences of cycling in the 1890s right through to today.

So it was all a bit worrying in Malta this week when I took 89 hours from arrival to see a single sign of cycling life, other than our visiting group. My colleagues said they saw one cyclist on the second day, but I missed him or her and from that point onwards the search became a bit like a birdwatcher seeking an elusive rare species. I almost cheered when I saw my first rider on day four, he must have wondered why this passing rider had such a silly grin on his face as he passed. This is indeed the only cycling post on Idonotdespair so far where I don’t have a single picture of a local cyclist, except our host Roberta on our group ride.

Photo Kevin Mayne

I was in Malta for a workshop as part of an international project to boost cycle commuting which has a Maltese partner as part of a 12 nation consortium. While we were discussing the high potential for further growth by learning from countries like Denmark and the Netherlands we were all sensitive to the huge challenge face by our Maltese friends to get cycling going here, especially at our press conference on the final day.

Photo Kevin Mayne

All week the local paper was full of stories about congestion on the roads and that is hardly surprising given that Malta has the second highest level of regular car use in the EU, one of the lowest levels of public transport use and very definitely the lowest level of cycling, by a large margin. When it comes to cycling it is congested, hilly, hot and has inherited many of its attitudes to cycling from that well known cycling laggard and former colonial power, Britain. I understand that it was probably the Brits who advised the Maltese on their transport policies in more recent years, not a recommendation from cycling point of view.

Photo Kevin Mayne

In fact we seem to have left such a great legacy that our other Mediterranean colony Cyprus joins Malta at the bottom of the cycling league tables. Not a good trend is it. British heritage = rubbish at developing daily cycling, British transport heritage and driving on the left, even worse, a special club combining the UK, Australia, Malta and Cyprus.

But knowing that we just did what we always do. We went for one of our multi-national bike rides to explore the reality on the ground, 20 foreigners forming a sort of critical mass in the late afternoon gloom.  Then the following day I went for a solo ride despite a very stormy afternoon. So as usual I give you the I Do Not Despair snapshot of another country, with perhaps a bit less “adult on a bicycle” than the normal observations. The photography was even more challenging in the half light, wind and rain so apologies for the blurry edges.

Our group ride left our hotel at St George’s Bay to ride around the coast and inlets of St Julian’s Bay and Sliema, cutting across the steep headlands on the return. Only a few kilometres as the night closed in but a real taste of some of the challenges of Maltese roads. And doing it as a group we had a safety in numbers effect and lots of visibility. Lots of smiles

Photo Kevin Mayne Photo Kevin Mayne Photo Kevin Mayne Photo Kevin Mayne

There were some attractive vistas across the bays, especially the capital Valetta which was tantalisingly close across the harbour.

Photo Kevin Mayne Photo Kevin Mayne

Photo Kevin Mayne

Riding on my own to Valetta a day later I was less confident and spent a bit of time hiding on pavements and promenades which seemed more sensible, but the conditions that night were a bit extreme. (Post to follow)

What was it that led to this reticence? Yes there were no cycle paths and the roads were a bit hilly and narrow, but that is not exactly unusual in many of the places I ride, not least Brussels. No the main problem here was the cluelessness of the drivers. I wouldn’t call them super aggressive, it’s just that they had absolutely no idea how to drive around cyclists because clearly they hardly see any. In fact they weren’t particularly dangerous on the busy city and coast roads because their congestion and the narrow side streets acted as excellent traffic calming.

We got honked at a few times when we were actually doing nothing particularly obstructive or when it was absolutely clear that the street was only just about wide enough for a cyclist so there was no way a car would come past even if we pulled over to the side. When there was a gap the drivers didn’t hang back, they tended to pull up beside us which was disconcerting for our less experienced riders and pushed everyone in to the edge.

Photo Kevin Mayne

I tried to hang at the back of the group on the bigger roads a few times and take my preferred “primary position”, hanging out into the carriageway to try and deter their encroachment into the group but without much luck.

Photo Kevin Mayne

On my own in the dark and the wet I wasn’t trying the primary position but there was further evidence that motorists hadn’t much experience of cycling or walking when the roads got really wet. The dreaded bow wave, a wall of water sometimes over metre high when the cars accelerated into the puddles instead of recognising that there were people outside the car as well!

I don’t think the roads were so much worse or unforgiving than many other towns and cities with higher cycling levels. But as well as no cycle lanes there was very little other help from the authorities. For example the older areas were a wonderful maze of narrow streets, especially in the capital city Valetta. To cope with cars they have mostly been made into one way streets but that makes navigation around the city somewhat complicated. A simple adoption of universal contraflow cycling across the cities would open up huge networks of streets instantly.

Photo Kevin Mayne

And some parking restraint wouldn’t go amiss either, that could open up a hell of a lot of space and start changing an attitude that the car is king.

Photo Kevin Mayne Photo Kevin Mayne

Off season the wide promenades are also perfectly good shared use spaces too, we were advised to use them by our bike tour operator and that was definitely a good call. Great views too.

Photo Kevin Mayne

There are undoubtedly some seeds of change and as usual we met some really committed people who want cycling on the island to succeed. Above all the congestion is reaching a point where the citizens and public authorities know something has to happen. And we know from other countries that part of the human rebellion that set cycling going was a reaction to congestion, when cycling is so much quicker and easier than other transport. A chap from the ministry of transport that I met at our press conference also suggested that e-bikes could be part of the solution, probably not a bad move in a hot hilly country. (Our rainy days were far from usual.)

I also heard that local cycling events can get up to 5,000 participants which is great, the cyclists must be out there somewhere and there are groups of cyclists coming here on tour which must raise its status. But it is going to be a long haul, there has to be a critical mass of cyclists that emerges in at least one town or city somewhere on the island to give it some profile and start educating the local drivers. And despite everyone at our press conference agreeing that it wouldn’t be easy they all then went off into little groups discussing great ideas and places where perhaps it would be possible to get people cycling to work.

My thanks to our hosts who made it an excellent trip and a special thanks to Denis Debono from Bybike who provided possibly the friendliest bike hire service I have come across. He provided the bikes, guide and running commentary on Thursday, then he dashed halfway across the island to bring us bikes on Friday afternoon’s ride and made himself available for a call when the storm caused most of the group to give up our ride to Valetta. Highly recommended and a good reason to cycling in Malta.

Cycling in Madrid – great potential but major frustrations

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This gallery contains 19 photos.

My experience of Madrid cycling was one of complete contrasts. If I just spent my time in the trendy inner city districts I would have concluded that this was a cycle friendly city and the city’s hipsters were acting as … Continue reading

I do not despair re-visits Copenhagen. Where cycling has become traffic.

Copenhagen cyclist counter

Cycling Copenhagen

On Thursday I went to Copenhagen for a brief visit, whizzing in one night and then leaving just a day later. Back to back meetings, but even from this brief visit I was inescapably drawn onto the streets to get my fix of Copenhagen cycling. Let’s face it, I am a cycling geek. Who else would get up an hour earlier than needed so they can just go out into the dark and stand by the cycle lanes? My wife occasionally thinks I may be a bit creepy, standing by the road just sort of stalking the cyclists with my little camera. But I am sure the Danes are probably used to it, especially in Copenhagen.

Copenhagen

Amazingly since starting this blog this is my first visit to one of cycling’s great capitals and one of my favourite cities. I certainly don’t need to go there to support cycling or the cyclists’ movement, like many other visitors I go to learn and be inspired. In 2010 it was the host for one of the best Velo-city conferences when I had the enormous pleasure to be there with over a thousand delegates and then stayed on a for few days with my son to do some chilling and cycling. The instant I mentioned I was going to Copenhagen this week his immediate reaction was “I’m jealous” which pretty well sums up how we feel about the place. If HG Wells was truly uplifted by every cyclist he saw then Copenhagen would be like his wonder-drug.

It also seems a little low key for me to be blogging about Copenhagen when it is the home and inspiration for one of the most followed and influential cycling blogs Copenhagenize. Mikael Colville-Andersen is undoubtedly one of the sector’s most successful communicators and has done a great job with his evangelical work to take the success of cycling in Copenhagen to the rest of the world.

But here are a couple of thoughts that I have felt on previous visits to Copenhagen and which hammered themselves into my mind once again as I observed the amazing flows.

The first thing about Copenhagen cycling is the volume. Of Europe’s major cities its only competitor is Amsterdam where a similar 30% plus of daily trips are made by bike. But in Copenhagen it seems to me that the cycling traffic seems more concentrated leading to huge numbers being recorded on the roadside cycle counters. I was out at 7am and already several hundred had made their way along Hans Christian Andersen Boulevard. Then as I wandered the area around the City Hall and Tivoli Gardens and watched for nearly an hour the numbers just grew, hoards of Vikings looming out of the dark with their ubiquitous flashing white front lights. By 8am congestion is building up around the main junctions with cyclists tens deep waiting to move on. And this is cold, gloomy mid-winter.

Cyclists morning Copenhagen Cyclists queue Copenhagen Hans Christian Andersen and cyclists Copenhagen

The second thing I always see in Copenhagen is the speed of the cyclists, whether I am riding, walking or watching. To a Brit brought on almost cycle free streets the first terrifying experience you get on every trip to Copenhagen is the moment you absentmindedly wander onto or across a cycle lane and a Dane comes zooming out of nowhere tingling their bell at your stupidity.

But then I just stand and watch, realising that these people dressed in ordinary day clothes on sensible utility bikes are absolutely flying. A colleague told me he averages 20km per hour to work for every day despite numerous traffic light stops. He doesn’t regard himself as at all unusual and he certainly doesn’t require special clothes or a fancy bike. Even the macho male/sensible female split doesn’t apply here, the women seemingly ride just as far and fast and if my experience is anything to go by they are just as grumpy about idiot tourists in the cycle lane as the blokes.

IMG_3524They have even implemented a traffic management system in Copenhagen called the Green Wave which allow the 35,000 commuters on the Nørrebrogade to cruise through synchronised green traffic lights at exactly 19.3km per hour. How cool is that. But I bet anywhere else that would be less than 15kmph. But away from the green wave the frequent traffic lights mean that the cyclists look like they are hunting in packs as they jump between the lights in swarms.

Copenhagen cycling rush hour

I am sometimes asked about the difference between the Danes and the Dutch. There are many things one could say, but if I want a short answer I say “about 30 degrees”

Danish or Dutch? You work it out

Danish or Dutch? You work it out

Why 30 degrees? Because I reckon Dutch cycling style can be summed up by a gentle lean back in the saddle into a relaxed position about ten degrees from vertical, suitable for chatting, texting, eating, smoking or just about anything else, the bicycle itself is forgotten. That’s why they are sometimes called “wheeled pedestrians”.

Not the Danes. Danish cyclists lean forward, earnestly pumping the pedals, pulling the handlebars and zooming to the next junction. Maybe 20 degrees tilt forward, but rarely backwards. Look at this wave pulling from the traffic lights. One second they are resting and chatting then the young women are up out of their saddles heaving away like a pro peloton in case they get swamped from behind.

Copenhagen cyclists group Speedy cyclists in Copenhagen

Given their intolerance of bad cycling as well it seems that they behave …… just like car drivers! They even have their own version of trucks in the cycle lanes, the cargo bikes, just to complete the analogy. If we look to the future this could be it, bicycles as proper, full on traffic with speeding, congestion and road rage. Perhaps we should be careful what we wish for. I hope not, and even the Danes acknowledge that some of this behaviour is due to congestion and it is time to increase capacity on the bigger routes in the near future, their super-highway network.

I could blame their speed for the fact that this blog post also suffers from the curse of the camera. My camera is great for stuffing in my pocket and travelling but sadly it is useless in half light, especially with motion. So given streets full of flying Danes the poor thing struggled terribly during my pre-breakfast wandering. So my apologies for the blurry crowd effects this week!

Music for cycling – Queen providing the sound track to a stormy Belgian commute

I haven’t had a “Music to Ride Bikes By” post for ages, I don’t seem to have had the muse.

However this morning was my first ride to work for the year, an hour and a half through the dark and the wind to get me into the pattern for the year. As I have written before the ride to work is my meditation so I was actually quite looking forward to having the time to sort my thoughts and prepare for the week ahead.

However in that completely weird way that “Music to Ride Bikes to” always happens a piece of music came from nowhere, took over my brain and excluded all other thoughts.

But why? Why do Freddie Mercury and Queen sing “I want to break free” for a whole 90 minutes. And the video was there too, the completely barking mad video that was Freddie at his most over the top, so out there that a lot of US TV channels banned it at the time. There is no thought in the world that stands a chance of competing with that.

I am a big Queen fan but I haven’t heard that song for ages so no idea why. It is however a good thumping riff for pedaling so it did help me keep the wheels going round so it can take its place in the record list. However I do hope it is gone tomorrow.

For previous music and the background to “Music to Ride Bikes By” click here.

NB – I now understand that a lot of my email readers don’t get any embedded video links because they are removed by virus checkers or email software, if I put them in posts I’ll try to make it clear so you can link back to the Blog to see the originals. Like now!

Over to you Freddie.

Ten best things about being a cyclist in Belgium

Watchng the Fleche 2

A year ago we moved to Belgium. 

By way of an anniversary post and a thank you to my new country here are my musings about the best things about cycling here so far.  

Next week I might throw in a few pet hates, although the scales are overwhelmingly positive for the first year in this great cycling nation.

In no particular order this British cyclist’s “Ten best of cycling in Belgium” are

  • Belgian National DaySocial cycling
  • The Classics
  • Tracks and trails of Wallonia
  • Long summer evenings
  • Being strange
  • The ever changing Belgian countryside
  • Belgians like a lie in
  • Bike fans
  • Somewhere near to everywhere
  • My bike shed

1. Social cycling – you are not alone.

Recreational and sports cycling in Belgium is overwhelmingly a collective activity. At the weekend you can hear the groups of cyclists passing our house not by the tyre swoosh but by sounds of talking and laughing. I have commented that I love the sense of community in the small towns and villages of Belgium that carries over into the cycling, everywhere I go I see people riding together.

It’s not just the big pelotons of club cyclists in the touring and racing clubs.

Cycleottignies

It’s the scouts.

Belgian scout ride

It’s the youth clubs.

Chateau Solvay La Hulpe cyclisme

It’s the senior citizens on a Friday night near Ghent.

Friday night in Flanders

It’s just a couple of friends riding their mountain bikes.

Solvay park VTT

It’s the randonnée à vélo for families that every village and town puts on for its jour de fete.

Child cycling Solvay Park La Hulpe

2. The Classics

fans 5

The chance to experience the Tour of Flanders (Ronde van Vlaanderen), Fleche Wallonne and Liege-Bastogne-Liege are just fantastic days out for a bike fan.

All the legends – beer and frites, fan clubs, cobblestones and star riders come together in an atmosphere I have never experienced before after a lifetime of going to bike races.

Liege Bastogne Liege Sprimont 5

minor places Fleche Wallonne

And by pure chance this year I took the best cycle racing photo I will ever take on the Patterberg – Spartacus (Fabian Cancellara) making the winning move against Peter Sagan.Ronde Van Vlaanderen Paterberg

Hard to repeat that, but I’ll be back again this year for my next fix.

3. Tracks and trails of Wallonia

Brabant Wallon

For the mountain bikers this time. Every commune in our area has hundreds of kilometres of farm tracks, forest trails and cobbled roads that together make an amazing network of rides for mountain bikers. Where I live in Lasne the brilliant folks at Lasne Nature have signposted 250 kilometres of the trails into circular routes from 5-15km in length, all of which can be joined together to give great rides.

Beaumont Lasne

Belgium, Brabant Wallon

And this continues for village after village.

It isn’t rugged and mountainous, it isn’t the flowing singletrack of a purpose built trail centre but it is an endless source of riding. Add an unexpected and freak layer of snow for four months last year and it was plenty tough enough for hard riding too.

Brabant Wallon

4. Long summer evenings

Ben Mayne Chapelle St Lambert

An unexpected bonus. I didn’t think I would notice the time difference between Belgium and the UK. It seems a minor point but because Belgium is an hour ahead of the UK in clock time but geographically just a few minutes ahead this is like having a whole extra hour of daylight in the evening.

In the summer this means the evenings just seem to go on for ages. When I was a little boy I used to resent being sent to bed while it was still light in the summer. Now I can commute home in the light so much later or go ride my bike after work. We have had some just lovely riding evenings, even well into the autumn.

5. Being strange

IMG00779-20131126-0836When I had made a lycra-clad appearance in our office for the second or third time a colleague said to me “you are a bit strange”.

While I decided whether to be offended or not he quickly qualified himself. He said he had never met anyone in who worked in cycling who also enjoyed cycle racing and sport or was prepared to commute in from outside Brussels. I was a bit thrown, I had come to Belgium to be part of this glorious cycling heritage and I was being portrayed as a bit of freak.

In the UK I have always been around sports cyclists even when I was working in transport and tourism and many of my colleagues carried a passing interest or a background in the sports world.

ECF lunch rideBut in some areas of Belgium, especially Flanders and in the EU district of Brussels what I think of as the Dutch/Scandinavian sub-culture is really strong and it is daily transport cycling, in normal clothes on normal bikes that holds sway. It is really great to be part of this multi-national community in the mornings, taking their kids to school, going to the shops and generally giving cycling status as a proper transport mode in front of the EU political classes, unlike in much of the English speaking world where cyclists can still be distinguished as a sub-culture by sport or hipster dress codes.

Segregated cycle path Ghent

For me to be “the strange one” is a statement that cycling has healthy prospects in Belgium.

6. The ever changing Belgian countryside

Houtain le Val

Friday night bike ride Flanders

I have written many blog posts about the changing light and weather of Belgium over the past 12 months. I don’t know what I expected, but I don’t think it was steep-sided valleys covered in beech trees or ever changing farming landscapes. The differences across the country from West Flanders to the Ardennes pack a lot of scenery into a small country.

IMG_2822

Belgium farming and forestry practices have a big part to play in maintaining this landscape as does the maintenance of the historic buildings and villages despite it being the battleground of Europe.

Mist, trees and moon, evening in Belgium

There is a big push towards organic and pesticide free farming here which means that farmers have returned to traditional practices like crop rotation and green manures. In the fields just around our house we have seen wheat, barley, sugar beet, maize, potatoes, and parsnips just this year, all mixed up with fields of cows, sheep and horses and lots of coppices of deciduous trees. And in addition to the fields themselves this wide variety enables bird and animal species that are declining in other countries to flourish. Not the large monocultures of Britain or France or the horticultural factories of the Netherlands here.

Snowy ride Belgium

It means that even familiar roads can take on a new feel from month to month, the sense of being part of the rhythm of the land is palpable. More examples of posts here, here and here, or just chose the Belgium tab to the right.

7. Belgians like a lie in

Just 30 kilometres from the capital city, the heart of Europe. And a group of cyclists can ride for two hours on a Sunday morning and not see a car moving. 

Wallonia Cycle Touring

Or a public holiday in mid-summer when the parks and woods are empty for hours, making them a personal playground.

Brussels forest

Sundays especially are like a throwback to an earlier time. The shops are not supposed to open and tranquillity regulations ensure that mowing the lawn and noisy DIY are banned.

Thank you Belgium. Don’t bother getting up, I’m going out on my bike.

8. Belgian bike fans

Tour of Flanders IMG_0707 beer 1

Cycling matters here. Or more precisely cycle sport matters here. Especially in Flanders.

Every branch too, not just the impressive heritage of road racing. I mean, where else can cyclo-cross be on the TV every Saturday and Sunday all winter and Sven Nys be a national superstar. Do you even know the name of the national cyclo-cross champion in your country? I don’t. It is in the news, the television and even the gossip. Earlier this year I blogged about how the Prime Minister of Flanders got pulled into a dispute about cycling facilities while he was away on a trip to the Tour de France, everybody is sucked into the cycling world.

I loved my trip to the Tour of Flanders Museum in Oudenaarde to absorb the legends, to the classics to celebrate with beer, frites and people in birdie suits.

Centrum Ronde van Vlaanderen Ronde Van Vlaanderen Centrum

And amazingly this even carries over in to driving behaviour. Drivers have a remarkable tolerance for anyone in lycra out in the countryside, they seen to be prepared to wait for ages for individual riders or in groups. Maybe less so in the rush hour in Brussels, but I have certainly noticed that when I ride like a posing roadie I get a lot more space. If only they knew just how un-Belgian my riding actually is I might not get the same respect.

9. Somewhere near to everywhere

Ittre Walloon Brabant

Flanders Cycle route signs

While I was in Poland last week at the COP 19 Transport Day I met a very dour Belgian railways official. When I said I used the service every day politely he asked me “how do you find it?”

He was genuinely shocked when I said I thought it was a good network with cheap prices and how pleased I was that it carries bikes on almost every service. He turned to his companion from the European rail association and said “See, I have to come to Poland to find a satisfied customer.”

Wallonia

Yes some of the trains are old and tired. Yes the strikes are a pain. But I cannot be fed up in a compact country, covered masses of country lanes, varying terrain, varying history, even different languages, all seemingly within about an hour’s travel in any direction and the chance to let the trains do the work.

And beyond the borders more great cycling countries to sample, all within such easy reach. Luxembourg, Germany, France, the Netherlands……

Luxembourg Old town and Kirchberg

10. My bike shed

Ok, you can’t enjoy this with me. It’s my space.

Kevin Mayne's Bike Shed

All I wanted was a shed, or a garage. When we started looking at apartments in Brussels we quickly realised that space was going to be at an absolute premium so I started reluctantly selling off some of my old bikes and bits. But having decided against city life and headed for the countryside I raised my hopes slightly that the shed would be a bit bigger.

When I visited a former farm in Lasne that we had previously ignored off as too small, too remote and without any storage in the particulars it was a very long shot.

Ok the house was fine. But seconds after entering the former milking shed I just burst into a smile that has barely left my face ever since. And now it has been properly equipped with its new livestock it has a similar effect on visitors, although mainly they just bursting out laughing.

Mysteriously the bikes seem to like it here, for it appears their numbers are growing. When the rental finishes it is going to come as an almighty shock, but for now it’s in my top 10 reasons for loving being a Belgian cyclist.

Thank you Belgium.

A year ago I wondered what life might bring. The answer? I do not despair!

Writer’s block. More cycling needed?

Photo Tony Russell, CTC Twenty days since I last posted on the blog, the longest break since I started almost two years ago.

I could it put down to a lot of personal and professional disruptions that just consumed my time however I have to muse that there seems to have been something else going on. That is because the blog was not the only casualty in this period. We were in the middle of one of the voluntary sector’s moments of madness – “bid writing”.

I guess it is not an unfamiliar process to anyone who has been through writing professional tenders, teams of people put their best thoughts together in trying to not only second guess the purchaser’s real intentions but also beat an unknown opposition to the prize. And this is a prize that doesn’t just mean jobs, it means you can make real progress on something you are passionate about. For us it isn’t great architecture or an engineering marvel, it’s getting the resources to promote cycling so it matters hugely to us and the whole team is busting a gut for weeks to put together our submission.

Normally this is a process I relish. Call me odd, but I really like bid writing. I have a horrible suspicion that this is the closest I get to being a professional sportsman. Make this a competition, start the adrenaline flowing, mix in some team spirit and a big enough prize and I’m driven. And fortunately my bid writing for cycling is a hell of a lot better than my competitive cycling – which is just as well because my competitive cycling record was pretty woeful. A few tiny minor places in 20 years wouldn’t pay the bills then or now!

But something was horribly wrong with the writing this month, I think I actually experienced what authors call writer’s block. Hearing that some writers go through it for months or years I can imagine the agony, this is almost physical.

Photo Tony Russell, CTCI spent hours facing this very screen with page after page of notes that just wouldn’t translate into meaningful prose. I went back to my tried and tested handwritten formulae, writing by numbers…. Objectives, beginning, middle, end, only to abandon the notes on the page. Life crowded in and I found myself satisfying my need for progress with short term tasks instead of meaningful words.

Only finally as the deadlines loomed did I crank out my sections of the bid, fortunately carried there both other colleagues who delivered their sections and gave me some momentum. Some midnight shifts, a horribly long weekend a family with the patience of saints and we crawled over the line.

And now it all goes quiet for four months while the bid is assessed, a horrible waiting period. At least in the meantime we will hear how we did on a batch of applications we completed as long ago as last May, a ridiculously long wait but apparently a blink of the eye in EU decision-making.

Photo Tony Russell, CTC

In the meantime I have to do some reflection on where the writer’s block came from because it isn’t something I want to experience again.

One factor I am certainly considering is the role of my cycling. Back in February I wrote a post about the role cycle commuting plays in my mental state. I have long realised that a solo bike ride of around 1-2 hours on a familiar route that I can ride without a moment’s thought has enormous therapeutic value for me. Just as scientists have shown that certain forms of sleep are essential to well-being because they allow the mind to reorganise itself I find that only exercise of a certain type and duration enables me to process creative thought. Too short and the mind never gets beyond chaos. An unfamiliar route or riding with companions demands too much attention.

During the past month I have worked from home far more than usual. We had a stunning Indian Summer here in Belgium with a long spell of dry sunny days that would not have been out of place in high summer. But I was dashing out for a quick hour here and there for a ride or to walk the dog, not least because I was worried about my writing. Could it be a coincidence that when I took myself back to the office for the final days of the process I decided to cycle the full distance instead of getting the train and when I did so I was able to start unravelling the blocked thoughts and get them onto the page?

Maybe I overstate it, let’s not downplay the stimulation and support that comes from being back in the team environment. However if I could just prove that cycling makes me a better bid writer then I guess I might have a case for compulsory cycling sessions during bid processes. In fact I could start selling it as a consultancy service to other organisations and companies. You pay me to go cycling and your bid gets written. Now there is a business plan. Who can I pitch that to……..oh dear, here we go again.

Better that I start catching up on my blogging. I do not despair indeed ……

Do not despair’s daily bike back on the road

Mayne City Bike

After all the wonderful machines of two weeks ago at Eurobike I returned to the basics of my cycling life to replace my daily work bike.

I actually do more miles per year on this machine than any other, perhaps 3000 per year (4500km). Therefore there are rules. It must handle all weather conditions, be bounced on and off trains and yet it has to be so ugly that nobody could possibly contemplate stealing it. Weight completely immaterial, ability to carry significant loads essential. Puncture proof tyres.

I achieve this by getting old mountain bike frames or bikes and modifying them with recycled road parts from bikes I have had for up to forty years. The mountain bike setup lets me use fat tyres on very cheap steel frames and use of the parts is just common sense – and appeals to my more miserly side.

It has other benefits too. I have learned an enormous amount about creative bike building and repair as I have bashed and bodged various fits together over the years. I have also learned to curse the bike industry for lack of standardisation as I move from bike to bike discovering parts that don’t fit the latest incarnation.

The last bike was a Giant Granite that was left in a park in Reading, UK and picked up by a friend who recycles them. However after a several years and a Belgian winter it succumbed to a crack through the frame. Now it has been replaced by an unidentified silver machine with flaking paint and rusty spots for which the only evidence of origin is “Made in Taiwan” stamped on the bottom bracket.

Substitution of friction shift levers that I can mount somewhere on the frame is the issue I face every time so I can get rid of the mountain bike changers on the bars. Indexed shifters combined with the brakes are all very well if you have all the matching gear mechanisms and correctly spaced sprockets but that is never going to happen here. The rest usually works with a bit of fiddling and adapting.

I am quite happy with it on the first couple of rides to the station but I will probably need a longer/higher handlebar stem at some point. A 25km hilly cross country ride to work on Monday should confirm or remove any other niggles.

Total cost – €40 on E-bay for the run down MTB and a spare frame thrown in. That will undergo the same treatment to become my son’s student bike. Good value all round!

Hidden reasons why cycling in Germany is on a positive track

By river Main

I am in Schweinfurt, just about as close to the centre of Germany as it gets visiting the European education and product development centre for SRAM.

As it is my first time here I before I came briefly asked a couple of German friends about the place and took a quick look on line.

SRAM are here because this is the home of the Sachs bicycle parts business that they bought some years ago, and in turn Sachs is here because this is the absolute heart of German ball bearing manufacturing. A proud industrial heritage, a real engineering based city.

For those of us who are used to old industrial areas being indistinguishable from words like “grim”, “grimy” and “rust-belt” it comes as something of a delight to bike from the hotel to the SRAM site along beautiful water meadows beside the River Main, completely car free almost all the way including the access roads with good cycle paths.

Yes the factories are there, but commuters are mixing with groups of cycle tourists also passing through on longer excursions in a great environment.

There is much here to learn for the industrial towns of many other countries. It is little surprise that German cycling levels continue to rise year on year if even the most unexpected towns can be small slices of cycling delight.

Martians attack and wipe out cycling population of Netherlands town

Almere Cycle paths Almere cycling Almere bridge for cycling Almere cycling bridge Almere dedicated cycling bridge Almere cycle pathsAlmere access bridge

I am assured by ECF board member Frans who delivered a Brompton by trailor to Almere station for me to use today that things are “quiet” because the whole of the Netherlands is on holiday or celebrating to welcome the coronation of the new King.

But it is all a bit scary – I even saw empty cycle parking at a station.

Do not despair gentle reader – here is what we expect – Dutch people being exceptionally normal on bikes on fantastic infrastructure. Enjoy.

AlmereFrans Van Schoot