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 ……

Not despairing in Budapest

Eurovelo 6 Danube Hungary

Eurovelo Danube Hungary

cannot believe two weeks have gone by since I was enjoying the sunshine of Budapest – it has a sort of “last summer” feel already with the mini-winter that has hit Belgium.

I realised that while I was musing on the Danube and food I didn’t finish my post about the cycling, which is somewhat of an oversight for a cycling blog. I thought I should complete the process because Budapest is such an important milestone in the Danube Cycle Route and a major part of Eurovelo6, the rivers route linking the Loire, the Rhine and the Danube so it may be of interest to fellow travellers. And I want to thank the campaigners at the Hungarian Cycling Club (Magyar Kerekparosklub) for their hospitality.

Whenever a league table of European cycling levels is published many people are surprised to see Hungary competing with Denmark in second or third place. In fact when I showed the graph to some Hungarians in Budapest they were surprised too.

This is because there are still really high levels of cycling in the rural areas of Hungary, largely driven by economic circumstances. But Budapest itself followed the trajectory of most of the Eastern European capitals after the Iron Curtain came down by embracing the car with enthusiasm. Not long later they had the joys of congestion and cars had overwhelmed residual levels of cycling. Unfortunately this rush to the car was also supported by the economic engine of the EU which financed a whole load of so called improvements in the form of new roads.

When I was first in Budapest in the winter of 2008 with the ECF board we were taken on several bike rides around the city which showed the first signs of a counter-revolution. There were lots of plans to improve the infrastructure and particularly to create attractive riverside routes for the Danube Cycle Route.

Eurovelo 6 Hungary

However back then it was very hard to imagine because what was in place was disconnected and dysfunctional.

Five years later you can see the benefits of that investment. It’s not a wholesale transformation of the whole city but it is clear that there is a really big change, especially along the river. OK, there is a heck of a difference between freezing December and sunny March too but there were also a lot more cyclists everywhere I walked and cycled. The confidence of the bike industry seems to be up too, the cycle show Bringaexpo which was hosting my visit has just moved to a bigger venue.

Eurovelo 6 HungaryAnd credit to the EU funding programme too, from previous spending on “roads to nowhere” a significant proportion of the EU infrastructure subsidy to Hungary has now started going on cycling facilities, especially where it can boost tourism. It means the job can be done properly, for example the Margit Bridge is a protected heritage structure so this tunnel through the bridge footings cost around 3 million Euros so the EU share meant it could be done safely and in keeping the integrity of the structure. There were also wide paths across other bridges, cyclists shared with pedestrians but with plenty of space for both.

HungaryIn the city areas there were fewer segregated facilities but the on-carriageway routes were wide, direct and seemed to be respected by the drivers.

Once we got further east towards the exhibition centre there was a nice ride through parkland which is symbolically important to the advocacy community here because it is the final point of the Budapest Critical Mass. This amazing gathering is not the underground movement of other cities, at its peak it had over 80,000 participants and was joined by significant politicians. Interestingly 2013 will see the last ever CM here because the leaders feel it has achieved as much as it can as a protest movement and it is now joining forces and trying to bring its energy to the broader cyclists groups. It was great to be at a meeting with them and see the injection of passion that comes from that direct action side of campaigning. Diary date 20th April if you happen to be able to get to Budapest – should be a good party.

HungaryAs a visitor who really appreciates the Danube and as someone who has always loved cycling and walking by water I can perhaps permit myself one moan. Like so many countries and cities the waterway is a corridor for other modes of transport.

Hungary Eurovelo 6 In the really bold cities like Paris we see city administrations trying to claim that space back for people. I think the authorities here have bottled it in places, for example south of Margit Bridge they have let fast roads keep the river bank and pushed

Hungary Eurovelo 6pedestrians and cyclists up onto a raised embankment. This means the views are nice enough but distanced from the calm of the water. Just look at these two photos. Stunning view of the Parliament building – then pull back the lens to see what the actual view shows.

t isn’t like this all the way along, but I can’t help but feel that was an opportunity lost.

However if you are planning a ride down Eurovelo 6 or even just a short stretch of the Danube Cycle Route can I recommend you include the Budapest stretch and do take a few diversions across the bridges and out to areas like Hero Square, it is becoming a good place to ride a bike again. See my earlier post for just  taste of the architecture and history in Budapest and from what I heard the ride round Lake Balaton is a treat for future occasions..

And credit to the cyclists organisations and their friends and supporters. The movement is relatively small and underfunded compared to many in Western Europe however they have lots of creativity, bags of energy and a real willingness to work together to go forward. And they do some rather amusing campaigning, always good to see advocacy with a smile.

I look forward to more chances to visit them too, it really feels that I am among friends