An alternative cycle tour of Milan – celebrating the cycling activist’s view of a city

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This gallery contains 20 photos.

I am extremely fortunate that I get invited to all sorts of cities to talk about the development of cycling and cycling cultures. And I am even luckier that I get to ride around these cities with some of the … Continue reading

A cycling day in Helsinki

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This gallery contains 13 photos.

I made my first visit to Finland last week, spending a day in Helsinki and a day traveling cross country to see Herrmans, an innovative cycling company. I have no doubt this was just a taster because there are a … Continue reading

A trip down memory lane: The start of a special journey – Riding the Baltic Sea Cycle Route in Lithuania

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This gallery contains 3 photos.

Recently my colleagues who manage the wonderful international EuroVelo cycle route network asked us all in the ECF office if we had some EuroVelo memories or trips we could share as part of an occasional series on their web site. … Continue reading

Not despairing in Brussels – 22nd March 2016

Belgian National Day

I started to write this blog post last night, the evening of the terrorist attacks in Brussels.

I felt the need to write to share something of the feelings I had during the day. And most importantly I want to say my own small thank you to our worldwide cycling community who have been in touch all day to ask how the ECF team is doing.

But I was exhausted by the physical journey and perhaps by the emotional reaction to the day so I slumped into bed and slept deeply with these words half done. So tonight I share, perhaps with a slight bit more distance than there would have been last night.

These are not, as you might imagine, normal days in Brussels. The attacks on Brussels Airport and a metro station carrying hundreds of people into the EU district where I work have brought normality to a sharp halt.

Yesterday when I cycled to work it was a lovely spring morning, even cycling through the noisy suburbs of Brussels was quite comfortable. I had a shower and I was oblivious to the outside world when I got to our office and was told by a colleague that something had happened at the airport.

Over the next two hours the whole situation unfurled. By about 11am we had accounted for everyone and all but one of our team had come past the cordons to the office, mostly by bike of course. And then we determined to maintain an air of normality by working our way through the day.

But of course everyone in the team took time out to phone family and let them know that they were fine, especially some of our younger team members. But then the flow gradually turned to our many cycling friends who were picking up their newsfeeds and getting in touch.

By the time I cycled home I could feel the change outside our closed world and perhaps see what they were seeing. I wandered south for more than an hour seeking a way home that didn’t involve riding the whole way. But the stations were either blocked by the police or seemingly devoid of trains.  So eventually as it started to get dark I phoned home and my wife drove out to pick me up.

What I really wanted was to be home with my wife and to have the chance to confirm to family and friends that I really was alright and away from the city. But that extended ride gave me more time to reflect than I expected and it wasn’t necessarily a good thing, because at some point there can be just too much time to think.

That’s a very rare thing for me because a bike ride is normally where I sort out my thoughts.

I think there were really two competing thoughts that would not let me settle.

The first was overwhelmingly “when does this stop?” I felt horribly, horribly old when I think that I was in London in the 1970s when one of the IRA bombing rounds took place, waiting with friends to hear whether the rest of our group were ok.

I remember clearly where I was for 9,11, for 7,7 and the recent Paris attacks. I remember calls to Bali because a close colleague was on holiday there during the bombings. As an optimist I have a feeling that somewhere, somehow in my lifetime the human race could and should have developed an emotional intelligence that makes this sort of thing impossible. It is very easy to feel anger and indignation, and even more anger at the idiots who have already tried to exploit this situation for their own narrow political gains.

And by contrast I was uplifted. It wasn’t the speeches of politicians and the flags at half mast, although the images of the Belgian flag superimposed on the great landmarks of the world almost made me cry.

The simple messages of enquiry from all over the world a reflect an age when we can make contact by phone and text and skype and Facebook and Twitter, but I am just astonished by how many people from all over have just taken a few seconds to say “are you all ok?” and “our thoughts are with you”.

It is being part of a community that cares, that places decency and respect and compassion at its heart. And having family, friends and colleagues who I am proud of for the lives they lead and the work they do.

And I am very very happy here in Belgium, this odd country that the world’s media is questioning almost daily about its competences and its differences, but where we have chosen to set up home and make our way in the coming years. I have to believe that Belgium will win out, it will find peace, supported by its neighbours and supporters who have come here to form a remarkable international community.

For those things I am very lucky.

“When I despair, I remember that all through history the way of truth and love have always won. There have been tyrants and murderers, and for a time, they can seem invincible, but in the end, they always fall. Think of it–always.”
― Mahatma Gandhi

I do not despair. I will not despair.

Velo-city Taipei cycle parade – the gallery (And the wedding!)

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This gallery contains 10 photos.

A week of intensive discussion about the global future of cycling is coming to an end. Visionaries, technicians, academics, business leaders – they were all here. But of course what everybody loves is a good photo moment and the annual … Continue reading

Reasons to be cheerful 2016 – cycling in North Cyprus

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In the middle of gloomy news and predictions for 2016 two of the media organisations I follow carried very similar stories of a small ray of sunshine in Europe. 2016 might be the end of a 42 year old conflict … Continue reading

Ljubljana, capital of Slovenia. European Green Capital 2016, delightful city and cycling capital.

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I visited Ljubljana for the first time in December and I was absolutely charmed by the city and its environment. This means it is the perfect 2016 opening post for Idonotdespair.com because the city has been awarded the status of … Continue reading

To Burgas, Bulgaria for more cycling chat and exploration

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I do not despair’s exploration of the wide reaches of cycling continued in October with a trip to Burgas on Bulgaria’s Black Sea coast. I was there for a project meeting as part of ECF’s European Bike2work project. This meant … Continue reading

A president said it and 19 Ministers agreed “nothing compares to the simple pleasure of a bike ride”

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Those of my readers who also follow cycling politics in Europe should know by now that this was a huge week for the organisation I work for. On Wednesday we were in Luxembourg for the first ever EU Cycling Summit, … Continue reading

Dutch bicycles at home. A visit to the Royal Gazelle factory in Dieren, Netherlands

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This gallery contains 6 photos.

I recently published a short article on the ECF web site about my visit to the newly opened extension to the home of Royal Gazelle bikes in Dieren, Netherlands. Link by clicking the picture or here It was a thoroughly … Continue reading

Eating and cycling combined in Taiwan – put it on your culinary bucket list

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It is going to be very hard in the next few blog posts to not just turn this into”101 reasons why you should visit Taiwan in 2016.” We have our major international cycling conference there in March 2016 so there … Continue reading

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

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 Sofia, Bulgaria – positive observations from a short visit

Time for another “Idonotdespair” moment, trying to get a snapshot of the cycling culture in a new city through the eyes of local activists, a short ride and some general wandering about. I was in Sofia, capital city of Bulgaria for three days this week which included a guided cycle tour of the city centre and a similar walking excursion. I have broken my usual collection of photos and comments into two posts, this one about the cycling experience and then a few tourist notes in a few days’ time.

I think the cycling can certainly be summarized as “far better than expected” because the country hovers towards the bottom of most European cycling league tables and expectations had been set fairly low by our hosts. But I found a lot of positives and yes it was so much better moving about by bike than walking!

We were in Bulgaria with delegates from small and medium sized cycling organizations as part of a programme to support European groups that are trying to make the jump from smaller, informal structures to try and create a national impact. So I wasn’t there on my own and that helped keep the differences in perspective. Coming to Sofia from the low cycling countries like UK, Greece, Ireland, Czech Republic and Ukraine it really didn’t feel vastly different to home, so we of course were able to share our experiences as “kindred spirits”. On the other hand at least one person in the mid rank of cycling nations who joined us (Austria, Finland, and Sweden) said she certainly felt a bit better about her home city after cycling here.Photo by Kevin Mayne

First impressions were not great. In the taxi from the airport we were faced by nose-to-tail traffic queues and wide high speed boulevards that made me suspect that this was another east European city that had embraced the car with enthusiasm in the last 25 years. It was not until we reached our city centre hotel that I was delighted to notice a cyclist, inevitably a hipster on a fixie jumping a red light. There must be a factory somewhere in Taiwan that just creates them and sends the whole unit over to Europe as one item, person, bike, trendy beard and colour-blindness included.

Photo by Kevin Mayne

The start of our group bike tour the next day confirmed some of the poor impressions. We were cycling on multi-lane roads or encouraged to share the lumpy, poorly repaired pavements with pedestrians, neither of which was particularly appealing. The infrastructure gave no help knowing which route or what positioning on the road to take. Our guide did point out a few places where there were once cycle lanes and the paint had worn away and suggested the city really didn’t know what to do with cyclists now. I was very grateful that we did have a host to start with, it gave confidence that we were actually riding in an accepted manner. (Although more of that below)

Photo by Kevin Mayne

Throughout the trip I noticed that the city had the parking plague, every street, spare corner and open space seemed to be covered with parked cars and they were often double parked, pushing us out into the traffic. In that it reminded me of Kiev, Ukraine, because there was potentially a lot of space for cycling facilities but no space to install them without taking on the parking menace.

Photo by Kevin Mayne

Nice cobbled streets around the National Theatre offered the possibility of an attractive slow moving network of cycle friendly streets like I had seen in Madrid in September, but the parking was still intrusive and not well controlled. The road surfaces were pretty awful too but after three years of Belgium I hardly take that into account any more, I rather regard it as a form of traffic calming.

Photo by Kevin Mayne

Towards the end of our tour we turned back towards our hotel along Vitosha Boulevard, the main shopping street of the city that gets its name from the dramatic snow covered Vitosha Mountain that is visible on the skyline right along the street.

Photo by Kevin Mayne

By the time we did so I was in a thoroughly good mood from the cycling and beginning to quiz my colleagues about what I had seen and felt on the ride. Because I certainly wasn’t getting the impression that this was a frightening, anti-cycling city. That impression was reinforced the next day when some of us walked around other areas.

Most importantly of all I felt that the drivers of Sofia were some of the most patient and well behaved I have come across. Seriously! It seemed common to just to wander out into the street and face down the cars which proves to me that is far from a car dominated city centre. At no point was our large group honked at and passing distances were well respected. Whenever a pedestrian or another cyclist just wandered out into the carriageway or attempted a pedestrian crossing the motorists stopped almost instantly so we started doing it too.

Photo by Kevin Mayne

Turning at junctions the traffic didn’t race off, people were able to cross and in the small streets traffic speed was very sensible, especially in the numerous 30kmph speed limit zones.

The other thing that struck me was that the numbers of pedestrians and cars was incredibly quiet for the centre of a large European capital on a weekday. I kept thinking I must be missing something such as a public holiday, but apparently not. There were definitely traffic jams out on the peripheral roads and arterial corridors but it really was quiet and sedate to get around by bike in the city centre. I wonder if it is the traffic management that makes everybody so patient, the waits at traffic lights were never ending? However in most cities where cars queue at traffic lights it seems to make them impatient and grumpy, here I just didn’t get that impression. It may be that we were the beneficiaries of a significant police presence, especially at larger junctions where they still have these brilliant little control boxes that sit up above the street corner and manually intervene to control the traffic flows. How old school is that – brilliant!

Photo by Kevin Mayne

When we walked a bit beyond the city centre we came to some of the many parks that run around central Sofia.

Photo by Kevin Mayne

Here there were networks of quiet car free paths and alongside the canalized Perlovska river there were long cycle lanes looping around the south of the city centre. They too were not in wonderful condition, but they were there, and being used.

Photo by Kevin Mayne

Photo by Kevin Mayne

The last discovery of the trip turned out to be just near our hotel where we found a large, wide cycling and walking bridge linking the National Cultural Centre to the southern suburbs, allowing people to cross a really nasty main road into the city centre from their residential areas.

Photo by Kevin Mayne Photo by Kevin Mayne

This is the kind of infrastructure we desperately need to fill missing links in our networks in so many cities and here was a perfect example in a place that is supposedly really bad at infrastructure. How confusing.

It was a bit spoiled by the nasty collapsed drain cover on the down slope but most of the locals seemed to know it was there, the BMX riders jumped it and the oldsters went round.

Photo by Kevin Mayne

Because there were cyclists. Not in huge numbers but almost everywhere we went in the city there were just ones and twos pottering about on the streets and pavements. No it wasn’t a lot and I could see that they probably didn’t add up to more than the 1% mode share claimed in the published statistics. But they were there and it wasn’t just the cool dudes. We saw older people, mothers with children on child seats and younger women which also suggests that the environment was not totally hostile to all but the fearless.

What surprised some colleagues more was the bikes. They were 90% cheap mountain bikes, only occasionally did we see a more equipped city bike. Again those of us from low cycling countries were less surprised, a population that doesn’t cycle much and therefore doesn’t understand the need to pay more for mudguards, a rack and some city tyres is just what we experience all the time. We did conclude that fat tyres and suspension was probably a good idea when a lot of Sofia cycling seemed to involve bouncing up and down kerbs but we know that you have to build up the population’s knowledge quite a bit more before the better equipped bikes become more common.

Photo by Kevin Mayne

So I leave Bulgaria slightly puzzled by my cycling experiences in Sofia. In many ways this was like my experience of Berlin with its wide streets, quiet traffic and well enforced traffic laws. And in that context cycling could and should flourish because the traffic jams on the arterial roads were bad and there is only a two line metro service to fall back on.

I guess cycling really hasn’t set down new cultural roots in the city and it is going to take a slow steady campaign of promotion and a lot more commitment to cycling infrastructure before it takes off, if only to help people know where and how to ride.

Photo by Kevin Mayne

What this place needs more than anything else is more cyclists because a visible group on the streets riding around safely will do more than anything else to show what is possible.

Probably I got an artificial impression in the centre because the traffic did look more aggressive further out. But there was a huge maze of minor streets around the suburban apartment blocks which could be bike friendly. Of course what usually fails in those circumstances is crossing the big roads and I may be wildly over optimistic from what I saw, any bike route is only as good as its most challenging junction because that is the one people won’t cross. But I couldn’t help but feel the city centre is a good destination for cycling, there must be something to build on there and I would certainly ride there on my own on a return visit.

Now we will do what we can to help our passionate friends at the Bulgarian Cycling Association and their allies to take advantage of what they have because it will be a long road to build up a cycling culture from such low numbers.

Photo by Kevin Mayne

But it is possible that their underlying conditions are a lot more tolerant than in many other countries.

I do not despair.