Now that is what I call a weekend – cycling, Le Tour, British Lions and Murray

  • Stunning weather.
  • Great bike ride.
  • The British and Irish Lions beat the Aussies comprehensively at rugby.
  • Despite all my best intentions I am totally addicted to the Tour de France all over again. Incredible stage today, impossible not to watch.
  • There is a Brit in yellow at the Tour.
  • And some bloke called Murray won Wimbledon ending 77 years of famine.

How good is that?

To be honest I am almost as pleased by the bike ride as anything else. I had a 60 mile day with the Belgian club I have started riding with and I the brilliant weather it was outstanding. I avoided the calamities of my last ride and we saw our all the best of our local countryside. And once again it was almost car free! (Club Cyclotouriste d’Ottignies Louvain-la-Neuve)

Cycling Ottignies Brabant Wallon

The first few kilometres took us out of the dips and valleys of Walloon Brabant and then we rolled through the flatlands to the south with just a few ripples in the landscape. The villages were looking great, not least the beautiful chateau at Sombreffe which could have been almost anywhere in more celebrated landscapes in France.Wallonia Cycle Touring

On the way back we followed a similar pattern, to the point where one of the riders muttered that everything was a bit easy today. It looked awfully like we were going to get back about 30 minutes early, until the ride leader threw in about 40 minutes of climbing on a lot of the short, sharp climbs of in the area around Ottignies – we seemed to go up and down a lot of times and by the end my legs were hanging. But it was the sort of satisfied pain that comes with a good day out.

Cycle Ottignies

Cycle touring revolutions – Cycling in Lower Franconia

Franconia Germany

River Main cycle route Germany

I was in Schweinfurt visiting the German training and development centre for SRAM recently.

My main reason for being there was to talk about cycling advocacy to SRAM’s urban cycling event. However at the end of the two day event we had a few hours before I had to get my train back to Belgium so we were offered a social test ride for a couple of hours. As the weather was delightful and spring-like it would be rude not to, wouldn’t it? So this was an opportunity to take in another region I knew nothing about – Lower Franconia, almost in the centre of Germany.Franconia Germany

My recent cycle touring in Germany has been limited to a few sessions around the Bodensee (Lake Constance) where I had seen the evidence of the boom in leisure cycling in Germany. But here I saw other dimensions of that boom that had been less apparent in the summer holiday throngs in the south.

We were taken a short distance out of Schweinfurt into the countryside to a delightful area around Gerolzhofen and the popular rural area of the Steigerwald which has attractive villages and delightful countryside.

Germany cycling

Gerolzhofen Germany

Cycle touring Germany

Lower Franconia Germany

Cycling Franconia GermanyFrom there we were able to sample the impressive network of  segregated cycle tracks and minor roads for a couple of hours until we ended up crossing the River Main by ferry and enjoying a snack in a terrace café overlooking the river and its busy cycle route in Obereisenheim.

I was hugely impressed by the number of cycle tourists I saw and the facilities we used but on a working day the people who were out were almost universally older (let’s say seniors to be polite). I had heard about Germany’s grey cycling revolution but I had never seen it personified, it was extraordinary that a busy cycle route could be 90% one demographic.Germany cyclingGerman cyclists in Volkach 2Cycle touring Germany

And the next revolution was what they were riding. I have blogged before about the way E-bikes have taken over at the German trade shows and I know that in the last couple of years they have taken a huge slice of the market, but I hadn’t seen where they were being used. Now I could see it writ large – nearly 50% of the bikes we saw were E-bikes, often in pairs. And the lovely little town of Volkach had adopted it so much they had put an ugly E-bike charging station in the middle of their attractive town square.Cycling bikes Franconia Germany

Franconia Germany

It seemed a bit incongruous, a glorified luggage locker in a medieval square, but it further reinforced the point that if you want elderly German cycle tourists that means catering for the new E-bike phenomenon.

Cycling Franconia Germany

Volkach Franconia Cycling

In fact the café we ended up at down on the River Main only had one customer type the whole time we were there. Cyclists. I know numerous studies have been done showing the economic value of cycle tourists in rural areas but if we could count the percentage of turnover for the Gasthof zum Schiff in Obereisenheim it would indeed be impressive.Cycling Franconia

All in all an excellent afternoon out, great scenery, nice company and the chance to see a number of cycling trends all brought to life in one place. There is little wonder that cycling is growing solidly in Germany, they really have so many positive things happening they all seem to complement each other.SRAM Urban days cycling group

In praise of a good hedge.

Hawthorn Hedge

Cycle touring BelgiumWhen I am beating my head against a headwind on the open fields of Wallonia what I really want is a good hedge. A nice embankment and a proper bank of thick bushes to break up the monotony. A couple of weeks ago I rode nearly 50km into head winds and it was a pretty painful experience, I would have been happy to hide behind a single tree towards the end.

Belgian farmers seem to have adopted the trend that British farmers got into from the 1970s onwards when every hedge had to be removed to allow the plough to get as close to the edge of the field as possible, regardless on the impact on landscape or wildlife, partly encouraged by EU subsidies that used to pay subsidies to farmers by the productive metre.Belgium cycle touring

Later we learned just what that was doing to biodiversity and erosion and some farmers started restoring them but here the message doesn’t seem to have got through.

And of course when they need the hedge to keep in animals the cheap response is to put up a wire fence with an electric charge round it which isn’t a lot of fun for any human or animal that happens to bump into them. Poor Murphy found that out in the last two weeks since livestock got introduced to the field next door. He spent two days in the house refusing to come out after the fence bit him.

http://static.royalacademy.org.uk/files/hockney-press-image-sheet-1088.pdf

Royal Academy Press Release. The Big Hawthorne, 2008. Courtesy of the Artist. © David Hockney. Photo: Richard Schmidt

And the loss of those hedges is just such a shame right now when the blossom is out and there are wildflowers everywhere. Last year the highlight of my visit to the David Hockney exhibition “A bigger picture” was his series of paintings of hawthorn hedges in East Yorkshire throughout the spring. There is a man who really understands the power of the hedge in the English landscape.

One of the best talks I went to when I was a member of the Chilterns Conservation Board was a great presentation by our farming officer who explained “what makes a first class hedge.” Sounds like something for gardening geeks but it turned into a fascinating presentation about the role of hedges as “wildlife freeways” allowing certain plant species, wild birds and small mammals to survive and to move about between communities in shelter and protected from predators.

They make a wonderful feature of some areas of traditional English countryside and help create that patchwork quilt effect so beloved of artists and painters but photography of the landscape during the 20th Century shows just how much they have disappeared.

A good hedge for a cyclist also has many other uses:

Austria

Tour of Flanders

The perfect hedge is just right.

Thick enough to provide a windbreak and a shelter.

John Morley, Dumfries 2006

And exactly shoulder height for a cyclist, which means it is far too high for a motorist to see over, but low enough that we can enjoy secret views everywhere we go.

When we come back from a ride we can wax lyrical about something they have never seen and will never see. That’s a perfect hedge and Belgium needs a lot more of them.

“Who is going to push the Englishman?” – Embarrassment on a Belgian cycling club ride

“Qui va pousser l’anglais?”

The call went out across the clubrun today as the group had to slow up to wait for me again as I grovelled up the road behind them.

I wrote about cyclingclubaphobia several weeks ago, that irrational fear of being embarrassed on your first cycling club ride – being left behind, the bike falling apart, falling off – all that good stuff which never really happens.

It did today. A couple of weeks ago it happened to everyone else, this week it happened to me. Last time it was Cyclottignies medium speed group that supplied all the novelties I associate with club cycling, not least managing to lose the ride leader completely halfway through.

Where did he go?

Where did he go?

This week the problem was unfortunately entirely of my own making. About 40 people were gathered at the station where we meet but there was considerable discussion about the fact that they didn’t have a leader for Group 2, the ride I was aiming for. Then Francois arrived and after some boisterous negotiation in French he was press-ganged into action. Within minutes he was off and I pulled away with about a dozen riders.

However after about five minutes reality dawned. This group was just a bit too organised, a bit too lean and oh heck I have joined the fast group by mistake and I am going to look pretty silly if I turn back now.  Two weeks ago I rode with group 2 and the pace was actually pretty civilised (around 15mph) so if maybe they were a mile or so faster per hour I could just about hang on?

Apparently Francois had been bullied into leading Group 1 so someone else could lead Group 2. I really do have to improve my French if I am going to do this regularly.

The plan worked well for almost an hour and a half. I was hanging on quite well and definitely not embarrassed, so I started to relax. Then I rode straight into the back of the man in front when we made a sudden stop because I decided to absent my brain for a moment. The imprint of my brake lever on his backside wasn’t entirely well received. They know I don’t speak much French but I do know “murder” for some strange reason.

However after that stop the guys in the front decided that it was time the pace went up some more and for the next hour I was grovelling and yo-yoing off the back. They were awfully nice about it and Francois kept telling me I should come back to Group 1 next week because I’d soon get used to it. These are the “cracks” he said, the fast men.

The chap I had hit did get his own back with the call for someone to push me home. I hung on for another 20 minutes to make it up to about three hours and then as soon as I saw a road sign that I recognised I made my apologies and left them to it while I sneaked off to make my way home in a very tired manner. I’m not surprised I was a bit knackered, it was only my third ride with the club and according to my computer I had added 3mph to my usual speed.

I will be back again but I think this time Group 2 should be Group 2. I have no intention of being pushed home and I think I need to hide up for a few weeks to overcome my embarrassment.

Cycling across Wallonia shows that Belgium isn’t just a low country, it is an upside down country.

Wallonia

A few weeks ago I took a day off work to ride much of the way across my newly adopted home region of Wallonia – the French speaking bit of Belgium. I was headed south to Huy to watch the Fleche Wallonne cycle race (post here) but what I also wanted was to stretch my cycling boundaries and explore. And in doing so I was able to unravel a previous confusion about the cycling landscape and prove to myself that cycling in Wallonia is indeed upside down.

I also found brilliant riding. I don’t think I have never met anyone who has told me about touring round Belgium so I had no idea what to expect when I came here. A few people had done trips to the WW1 battlefields over in Flanders and I know the odd person who has made the pilgrimage to the big bike races but I just don’t recall “cycle touring in Belgium” being a common discussion point amongst my UK cycling community.

People seeking flat and cyclist friendly riding go to the Netherlands. And to our south France is the biggest cycle touring market in Europe, possibly the world. But as in so many other things dear Belgium gets, well a little bit lost.

On this particular day I experienced two, maybe three very distinctive landscapes which in their own right would provide part of a brilliant tour, both of which show off some of the distinctive elements of Wallonia. It isn’t perfect, cyclists don’t get anywhere near as much help with routes as in Flanders, the Netherlands or France and some of the road surfaces are abominable, but there is no reason for southern Belgium not to be a great cycle touring destination.

Above all else it is completely deserted. Again I have say it, come here fellow cyclists, it is so quiet. A normal Wednesday, a weekday when people are going about their business, the commuter routes into Brussels were as congested as ever and yet I rode for hours and hours on apparently empty roads, hardly seeing a car except when I crossed busier main roads. Belgium cycle touring

Farmers were busy, but apparently nobody else.

And there is a tolerance for cyclists that far exceeds any experience I have had in the UK, and is a complete contrast to Brussels. Maybe it is the lycra, as if lby ooking like a sporty cyclist you seem to spark a certain recognition in the Walloons, but whatever it is I love being treated like a valuable property not an inconvenience.

Upside down country?

I knew that I was heading for the hilly bit of Belgium. Not massive climbs but clearly from descriptions of the Ardennes and the profiles of the bike races it was going to be an area of steep sided hills. Not so different from Brabant Wallon where I live, but probably steeper and bigger. As I like hilly country for cycling I was looking forward to it.

But what I didn’t know much about was the terrain in between, a 50-60km section between the main towns of Wavre and Namur. My previous excursions had touched on flatter terrain and open farmland, but the maps didn’t show any transition to the Ardennes which was a bit odd, I assumed it must start to climb somewhere.

That was almost how it turned out. I had half a ride on gently rolling but exposed farmland. And then I hit the valleys at the very edge of the Ardennes and I was suddenly plunged into steep sided gorges with rock walls and dark stone cottages that could have been plucked out of the English Peak District or the French Perigord Nord.

But the key to understanding the Walloon landscape revealed itself to me as I made that transition. I hit valleys, not hills.

When that realisation dawned suddenly I could make sense of a whole lot of landscapes, not only on that day, but around where I live south of Brussels. I appear to have got this whole region upside down.

I haven’t studied the geology in a text book, so go with me here, it might make sense to a cyclist.

Through Northern France and into Belgium is a wide coastal plan that gradually rises as it heads inland. There are ripples and lumps and bumps, but this is largely flat country. Further north in the “Low Countries” it stays close to sea level however further inland from the coast this plain rises to 100, maybe 150 metres above sea level. In the East in what is now the Ardennes the plain must have been pushed up by geological forces higher and forms a plateau around 700 metres high, but still these are not really mountains thrust up into the landscape, it’s geology was pretty flat when it was laid down.

So there should be no real hills.

Except that there are rivers, which have cut downwards into the soft soils and rocks over thousands of years. So instead of ups, there are downs. Instead of peaks we have flats, when you complete a big climb you end up back on the flat land. It is like the reverse of everywhere I have ever cycled, when you come off a flat section you go down, then you climb back up. That is a right pain if you feel like a bit of freewheeling after a long hill climb!

Where I live in there are many small rivers like La Lasne, Smohain, l’Argentine and La Mazerine, each of which has carved out one of our steep valleys 50-70 metres deep. This makes it feel like constant climbing if you have to travel north to south as I do every time I ride to Brussels.

On my cycle tour across Wallonia I started with a few of these dips and climbs of Brabant Wallon however I was quickly into the an area without significant streams or rivers, so when I climbed out of the last valley to Mont St Guibert there was nearly 50km of gently rolling flat farmland in front of me which will appeal to any lover of cycle tourism on tiny agricultural roads between old farms and sleepy historic villages. Think the Netherlands, think East Anglia, think the Vendee depending on your previous cycling experiences. Dramatic it isn’t, delightful it is. Walloon villageThe little towns and villages like Chastre, Walhain, Grand Leez,  Waret-la-Chausée just slipped by with the spires of their churches and manor houses making attractive punctuation points on the horizon. Wallonia Manor house

However it is pretty exposed and a nagging headwind really took the edge of my pace, I would really rather have had some variety at times.Cycle touring Belgium

I only really understood how this fitted together with the Ardennes this when I reached the valley of the Meuse just east of Namur and a great vista opened out in front of me. But instead of looking up as I had expected to the forthcoming hills I looked across?

Ahead of me the plain could have continued climbing gently and eventually reach the 600 metres of Belgium’s highest point. But it was deeply cut by the many rivers and streams feeding into the Meuse and what I could see from my vantage point was not a series of hills but a tumbling mass of valleys.Belgium cycle touring

The hills of the Ardennes are hills of sorts, but their main shape comes from crossing the valleys, not climbing hills. They do end up a lot bigger than around Brussels because the plain has been rising all the way so the valleys can cut deeper over time, but the much of the landscape is still just open and flat, just that it is 200-300 metres above sea level. This became even clearer when later in my ride I kept climbing out of the valleys and discovering more wide open farming land at the top instead of the peaks of hills I had expected. But the depth of the valleys makes them like another place. The houses are built of stone not brick, the sides are heavily wooded and the villages are just cute as anything, especially as spring blossom was just appearing.

The exception to the cuteness was the valley of the Meuse which forms the boundary of this new area. Initially I dropped very fast and steeply down a lovely side valley alongside a stream, passing mills and cottages in dark stone which reminded immediately of the English Peak District.Cycle touring Wallonia

At the end it was almost a shock to burst out onto the side of the Meuse. This is a big river, one of the workhorses of Europe and it suffers from its heritage as an industrial canal with big cement works, railways, boat moorings, main roads and a railway line all exploiting its history as transport corridor, especially on the northern bank where the main towns in this section are. The south bank looked a lot pleasanter thank goodness..Cycle touring Belgium

Ravel  WalllonnieI only rode a few kilometres along the only busy road of my day until I could get to the first bridge and across into the quiet countryside again. However I had noticed on the maps that there is a Meuse cycle route and when I rode over the bridge at I could see a flat riverside path winding away into the distance which clearly was the sort of long distance car free route that crosses Europe by the great rivers. So even a third sort of cycle touring was on offer had I wanted just to nip along the river to Huy on flat car free trails.

But I had come for the Ardennes, or at least the edge of the Ardennes, so I had planned a further30km route south of the Meuse and the route of Fleche Wallonne, circling round and come back to Huy from the south, arriving at the top of the Muy de Huy with about 100km under my wheels. I had expected constant climbing and descending but the reality was quite different.

As with the earlier section of the ride I was quickly into a network of minor roads with hardly any traffic on them. South from Namèche I was able to wind my way gradually up a lovely valley past Faulx les Tombes for several kilometres.Ardennes stone cottages

Cycle touring Belgium

I didn’t gain much height but then I turned east and climbed fairly vigorously up Gesves which it turns out is very much a plateau town, looking across high open farmland. I was getting pretty tired at this point and as I was at the top of one of my main climbs of the day I really rather hoped for a nice sweeping decent.

In fact I then had another flattish ride of about 15km northeast on plateau landscape, not what I had expected at all. However I was rewarded when I approached Modave because there was a great decent down and I made my first encounter with the Fleche Wallonne route. A relatively short steep climb out the other side took me back onto the plateau and I was finally working my way in towards Huy. Once again it was deceptive, I appeared to be riding towards a village on a low hill above the farmland. When I encountered the race publicity caravan just south of Huy it seems impossible to imagine they had just come up one of the most famous climbs in cycle racing.Fleche Wallonne caravan

Only when I got to the very top of Mur de Huy could I see that the road effectively “fell off a cliff” falling steeply down through the suburbs and then at the bottom the town is a bustling place by the Meuse. You can get a good impression of the Mur de Huy from here just by looking up at the hill behind the town.Huy

The distinction between the plateau and the valleys is so contrasting it is almost like two worlds, even the architecture and the building materials are different between high and low, as are the farming patterns and woodlands.

Cycling BelgiumThose low traffic volumes, driver respect and contrasting terrains should make Wallonia one of cycle touring’s undiscovered gems instead of something just for the Belgians and a few bike race fans. Maybe it suffers from the fact that it does offer “a bit of everything” because someone describing just one part of my ride on this sunny spring day would had told a completely different story to the next person. The downside is certainly that it isn’t easy to navigate, the theoretical Randonnee á Velo shown on some of my maps have no signposting whatsoever so you need to be confident with a map and reasonably well organised to decide if you wanted to stick to a hilly scenic ride or a meander through the lanes. And Belgiumthe Belgians have an extremely relaxed attitude to what constitutes a road for cyclists, in some cases we are talking almost cart track. However that is always preferable to a kilometre of cobbles, that really does knock back your energy and your speed, however it is so much part of the infrastructure there is just no way of knowing until you get there what you are going to be offered. Cycle lanes are almost redundant except by the main roads but they were generally reasonable quality and occasionally real gems.

All in all a brilliant day’s exploration, topped off with beer, frites and bike racing. It doesn’t get much better than that does it? Do come a visit Wallonia, there is something for every sort of cyclist here, even if it is upside down.

@30daysofbiking – how was it for you?

I last posted on 30 days of biking back on the 14th of April.

That doesn’t mean I stopped riding, it just means I ran out of steam on the blogging. It’s a great concept and it probably lends itself to the 140 characters of Twitter but I assumed my readers will probably run out of patience if I write “went to the station again” for the 15th time in a month. And it’s not as if I haven’t ridden a bike almost every day since too.

The bigger problem however was that I completely ran out of time to blog, I have had some pretty good content but I haven’t had time to do it justice. So while I am catching up with those posts I have looked back at the second half of the month and pulled out just a few highlights to close out the sequence, even if it is late. Almere and Paris were the travel highlights, but I have already blogged about those.

What was really great was being forced to note as I went along why even daily cycling is so uplifting, especially when you live out in the countryside and spring brings changes almost every day. This has been especially true this year, the late cold winter has compressed spring into a ferocious burst of energy and all of that broke during the 30 days of April.

So glory number one from the end of the month is blossom, bursting out all over.Genval Belgium Lasne Belgium

And number two is the rediscovery of touring. At last the weather has been good enough to do proper touring rides and I managed three or four of those, both local explorations, another club ride with Cyclottignies and my big trip across Wallonia. I ended April a lot fitter than I started it!Cyclottignies Club ride Brabant Wallon Lasne Houtain le Val

Finally there was one other big beneficiary of my determination to ride every day. He is a lot fitter too. When I might have just nipped out for a walk instead Murphy got lots of great cross country rides even after work and we explored a some great new local lanes off the Lasne Nature maps although not without a few barriers.

Belgium

Anyway I managed to ride every day except one in April, probably more than I would have done without the incentive of the challenge. So Murphy and I thank the 30daysofbiking guys in Minneapolis, great idea. We’ll be back next year.

To see how the rest of the world fared click here

Cycle touring in the Flemish Ardennes, home of the Tour of Flanders

Geoff Mayne

One can have too much of a good thing so I’ll stop banging on about the Tour of Flanders after today. I promise to post something about daily cycling and the “30 rides in April” Challenge at the end of the week, but be warned that I am hoping to go for a complete fix of race watching in the next few weeks with visits to Paris Roubaix, Fleche Wallonne and Liege-Bastogne-Liege.

What I am really looking forward to alongside the race experiences is an excuse to cycle in parts of Belgium and northern France a bit further than I can reach on day rides from Lasne and perhaps a bit off normal tourist routes.

Actually I have to confess that I don’t know what a normal tourist route is in Belgium. Ever since I got here I have felt horribly unprepared to become a Belgian resident because I knew so little about the country. I know I am not alone because so many people I have spoken to had experienced holidays or business trips to the more celebrated European countries or tourism areas such as France, Spain and Italy or they have visited popular capital cities such as Amsterdam and Copenhagen. Those that have been to Belgium mostly visited Brussels or Bruges in search of beer or a statue of a peeing boy and experience almost nothing outside the cities.

As cyclists we experience countries in a different and more intimate way than other visitors. This may be seeing cities above the dark tunnels of metros and free from the congestion of surface transport or seeking out the most rural routes and tiny villages away from the hot spots. Wherever I have lived I even find myself driving non-cycling visitors round the routes I have cycled because I feel I can explain them better and I know where I have stopped, looked and felt the terrain.

So I feel embarrassed that I knew nothing of what Belgium had to offer the visitor or the touring cyclist just a few months ago and my learning curve is enormously steep. Cycling really helps however and this weekend was typical of that sensation. The only images I had of riding in Belgium before I moved here came from those classic races on television but I could not put them in to context without riding the area a bit and tasting the countryside. I know my local area better now but I should know more.

The area where the Tour of Flanders finishes is known as “The Flemish Ardennes”, presumably because it is the lumpy bit of Flanders which is generally the flatter part of Belgium. I am sure the naming has nothing to do with the first rule of Belgian politics which is “if they have we one, we want one” in the battles between the Dutch and French speaking communities. So if the higher hills of Wallonia get more widely recognised as the Ardennes then the Flemish need to steal a bit of the branding too? Of course not, cynical me.

BelgiumHowever it was a really nice place to ride a bike. We started our ride from the neat market town of Frasnes, just over the border in French speaking Wallonia and set off north to ride across a range of hills to Ronse, one of the towns on the Ronde route. Then we had been pre-warned that we would have a hard climb out of Ronse to get up to the route of De Ronde.

The most important thing to say was that the countryside was absolutely deserted. It may have been Easter Sunday, freezing cold and the cycling was on but I can rarely remember a ride with so little traffic. It was absolutely great to drift through small hamlets and farmsteads feeling we were the only people around. And once we started climbing up through the small forests the world was silent except for the gusty breeze in the trees.

Even when we dropped into Ronse it was hard to imagine that this was a town about to experience one of the world’s major sporting events this weekend, the town was like a ghost town. It would have been hard to improve on those first 12 km but actually we did.

First we had to find our way out of town without getting blocked by the race. Vincent had plotted me a route that bisected the various loops of the race perfectly. It was also great to see that the route was part of a permanent Ronde Van Vlaanderen route, obviously a tribute to the race.

Flemish Ardennes

Firstly a chance to channel your inner Cancellara by climbing the Kappellestraat out of town, up a steep climb through the houses and out onto a high wooded ridge where we wound our way through some beautiful houses and gardens overlooking the town. Steep though, as you can probably see from Geoff’s grimace!Geoff climbing Flemish Ardennes

At the top we were able to cross the course of the race and then set off into a network of narrow lanes. My confidence was boosted by a sign that said this was the Eddie Merckx cycle route but other than that it seemed to be another deserted road.

BelgiumJust a kilometre down the road we reached a crossroads which produced further surprise because Vincent’s recommended route took us down a dirt track which wound past a farm and then up a draggy climb. It all seemed as if we might be going down a completely wrong direction but the views from the top were great.Belgium

Tour of FlandersAfter that we switched around what seemed to be a few cars parked in country lanes and suddenly emerged at the top of the Paterberg.Flemish Ardennes

If I combine the routes we rode with the all the possibilities shown by the route of the race it is pretty clear that this will be a superb place to ride a bike for the occasional touring ride and cycle tour too. Strongly recommended by our guide Vincent was the Route do Collines which looks as if it will be a fantastic ride.

I quite fancy the idea of the some of the sportives that criss-cross the area too. Ultimately I really hope one day I might be fit enough again to take on the Tour of Flanders Sportive itself but that is a whole different story.

Cycle touring in Belgium – clearly one of Europe’s undiscovered secrets.

Cycling in Taipei 2013: a roundup of the “I Do Not Despair” experience

Taiwantaipei taiwanThis post rounds up some of my experiences from a week in Taipei and it gives me the chance to bring together the thoughts of people I met and my own observations. I wrote about this a bit last year but this time there are three key differences.

Most importantly I rode a bike myself – the basis for the “Not despairing in…” series of posts on this blog. I also know that the experience of combining walking, writing and talking to activists in 12 countries in 12 months has improved my cycling observation. It is much like when I used to benchmark factories in my previous career, if you do it often enough you develop a more finely tuned sense about what is happening and you have much better references to use for judgements. The third element is that I got to do a lot more talking to people in the cycling industry and advocacy this time which gave my views better balance, on my first visit I was almost a tourist by comparison.

Taipei cycle Show taiwanI was formally in Taiwan to attend the Taipei Cycle Show and to speak at the International Bicycle Design Forum which gave itself the title “Forging Taiwan to be a Bicycling Island”. (News report here.)

After hearing the words from the conference and having my discussions with the cycling community my personal observations reinforce what the cycling world here is saying. The underlying commitment to cycling here is huge. It already had a massively successful and world leading bike industry which has been strategically planned as a key national economic interest for years.

However this was largely built on the back of a static or declining local cycling market.

The first stage of trying to address that has been largely leisure and tourism focussed. This approach that would be widely recognised in the English speaking world – something you do in your sporty clothes at the weekend or in your spare time.

This has been improving vigorously with the influence of the industry and the support of academics in tourism and economic development like Associate Professor Hsin-Wen Chang who is working in association with eight counties on their cycle tourism product.

TaiwanI really must try to get out and try some of their rural routes another time because Lonely Planet and CNN have listed Taiwanese experiences in their top ten in the world and I saw some stunning pictures. Cycle tourism holidays are growing and there are lots of “round the island” promotions and charity rides which are being used to try and build cycling lifestyles. I sampled this ambition Tern Social Taiwanjust by trying some of the extensive and well-engineered riverside cycle tracks in Taipei which now reach over 100km virtually traffic free. I was really delighted to be invited on the “Social ride” promoted by the local staff and friends of Korean folding bike specialists Tern who took a big group of us along the paths after dark. That was great fun as social rides usually are and it was complemented by the fact that the routes through the parks and the river bridges are brilliantly well lit at night.

So leisure is going in the right direction. That leaves transport.

The relative affluence and successful economy of Taiwan means that they have high levels of car use and recent massive investment in motorways and road capacity sitting alongside successful high speed rail and a mass rapid transit (MRT) in Taipei.

Taipei Scooters 1Most of the writes and bloggers online agree with the people I met.  (Example here by Carlton Reid) Transport cycling in Taipei has been neglected, there is a lack of cycling infrastructure except cycling on the pavements and there is almost universal concern about the swarming buzzing scooters anywhere on the island. They are about 30% of traffic in Taipei, a huge proportion. The main perceived threat to cyclists is that they fly around in swarms at what seem very high speeds, all across the roads and swerving around the cars, a combined deterrence of speed and noise. The cars themselves are very scooter aware but that doesn’t stop the average driver from getting the foot to the floor on all the roads around the city, and from what I could see out in Hsin Chu and Taoyuan they are just as fast.

And this is where the contradictions start.

These road conditions and driver speed easily put Taipei on a level with somewhere like Kiev as a really cycling unfriendly city. The Invisible Visible Man did an excellent recent post about his discovery of Staten Island in New York describing similar challenges and the lack of cyclists as a result.

Therefore I would expect to see almost no cyclists whatsoever on the roads and last year I didn’t. However this year I felt I saw more riders, perhaps because I was out a bit more in daylight but I think there is a change going on.

Taiwan cycling

This was confirmed by King Liu, founder of Giant and his daughter Vicky Yang who is CEO of advocacy and promotional NGO the Cycling Lifestyle Foundation.

I can confidently say that if the driving conditions were like this in any European city I cannot imagine seeing any but the fiercest cyclists out on the streets, the fore-runners, the fixies, the messengers. However as I have already posted the

Cycling Taiwancyclists I kept seeing out on the highways were women of all ages, from the young and trendy to the “mature”. (here and here) Yes there were men but

Cyclists Taipei 5as often as not they were often the ones on the pavements.This was an unexpected result and I think it hints that there is a supressed cycling culture just waiting to burst out. King Liu said that the ambitious Youbike bicycle rental scheme had recorded a record 25,000 trips on a single day the previous week, even before they had expanded the scheme from its current base of 2,000 bikes up to the expected 5,000. Vicky confirmed my observation that a big proportion of the users were young professional women who are seeing cycling and Youbike as a lifestyle choice.

Cyclists Taipei 1

Taipei has the space to copy New York and start taking space on the streets for segregated cycle lanes and I have no doubt that this is the big political choice now facing the city. They are putting in lanes on the pavements on some streets but I cannot imagine it will be enough if the demand really takes off and it is a political soft option, not a proper solution. I said as much in my presentation, highlighting the need for a proper joined up network that is accessible to all. The quality of the riverside routes shows that the engineering knowledge is there. Giant and the China Lifestyle Foundation are equally confident that Youbike is meeting a suppressed demand that will enable Taipei to follow Paris and London by getting cycling numbers up in the urban heart while the battles for urban space continue with the city authorities.

In my comments to the press I focussed on speed because I felt so uncomfortable with my own experience on the roads and because it is a “right now” opportunity which will complement Youbike.  However in my speech to the Forum I emphasised that the city could and should see cycle lanes move from the pavements to the streets if the city and the country really wanted to forge a cycling island.

I think it will happen, cycling is too important to be neglected here and the right people are probably in position to make a difference. You can add the names of Tony Lo, Chief Executive of Giant and Robert Wu, Chairman of KMC to the mix of key players involved in the Forum. With that sort of influence from big companies working with the academics and advocates governments tend to listen. It won’t become the Netherlands overnight, no other country has even got close in forty years but there will be significant strides if they can get true political will.

I expect this will become an annual series of posts, I am quite excited about observing the changes, not least because the Taiwanese I met are such open and welcoming hosts who could talk cycling forever. What finer praise can there be for a nation?

Some personal highlights:

Riverside cycle paths by day and by night.

TaiwanRiverside Cycle Path TaipeiMap of Taipei Cycle paths Taiwan

Cycling in Taiwan

With thanks to Tern for the night ride and the very nice bike!

Tern Bicycles Social Ride Taiwan

Photo Credit Tern

 

Cyclists bridge taipei Riverside

Cyclists' bridge Taipei

What I call a Grimshaw bridge. Any high quality cycling bridge I see anywhere around the world I subconsciously attribute to John for his passion about cycling bridges and design.

The cyclists of Taipei: their Youbikes and bikesTaipei Cyclist 10

Cyclist Taipei 8 Taipei Taiwan Cyclist Taipei 7Taiwan

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

 

Not cycling – need some inspiration

Oreti Beach, Invercargill, New ZealandBeen a bit unwell, not riding my bike much except to the station.

Weather grey and horrible.

Maybe a bit of inspiration on line? No, the twittersphere and blog world are full of Lance Armstrong and his forthcoming appearance on Oprah.

I just need a couple of memories to cheer me up.

Number one above is for the bucket list I am slowly compiling. Something everyone must do is ride your bike on a remote beach. Even better let it be Oreti Beach near Invercargill, New Zealand. Ride some of the singletrack trails on nearby Sandy Point (world’s most southerly singletrack?) and then roll onto the hardpacked beach when there is a wind whipping up the whitecaps from the Southern Ocean.

Number 2 – mountain biking in Spain. Just because I love this photo and remember being there.

Near Amer, Girona, Spain

A cyclists view of Stockholm in autumn

Gallery

This gallery contains 16 photos.

I went to Stockholm a few times in my business career. I can honestly say I don’t remember anything except an amazing boozy harbour cruise at mid-summer. But charging into meetings and dashing around in cabs left me with no sense … Continue reading

Padua is a great place to be a cyclist – and with added Cycle Chic

Padua cycle rideAlthough it is much less well known than some of its more famous neighbours Venice and Verona I think Padua is a great place to ride a bike and should make a good stopping point for any passing cycle tourists or advocates interested in seeing a fully traffic calmed city in Italy. (Thinks out loud “Padua for my English readers or Padova out of respect for its proper name? No idea – use a bit of both.”)

Last week in Verona I was lucky enough to be guided and helped by the cycle tours organised by local volunteers but here in Padua the local FIAB volunteers were flat out proving cycling fun for children visiting the Padova Expobici cycling show so I was a bit more on my own.

However they did provide the equipment, a mountain bike that was a reasonable steed for the cobbled streets throughout the city centre. Unfortunately when I first collected it from the hotel baggage room it had a flat which did lead to one of the most entertaining misunderstandings of my ventures into Italian.

My hosts asked me to bring the bike to the children’s try out area at the show where the volunteers had said they would stick in a new tube. So of course along I pop pushing the bike and wander up to the desk. Unfortunately the chap on the desk was the one person not in the know and he was convinced I was a 50 year old juvenile who wanted to play on the kids track! I was sent off to play with the big kids despite all my attempted explanations.  It was all resolved with considerable amusement a bit later by the rest of FIAB Padova.

Arch in PadovaAnyway back to my trips into the city.

The photos here come from two excursions into the town which I fitted around my work at the Expobici. On Saturday morning when the flat tyre was discovered I walked the city which led to my early discovery of the great contrast with Verona that I blogged about last week.

I keep mentioning in my posts how much  I like mornings, there is something quite different about a city waking up, especially when the dominant noise is the rattling of bicycles and the shouts of the market traders , not to mention the fact that you can actually smell pastries and coffee everywhere.Padua cobbles

On Saturday evening I also had a ride into town but unfortunately no time for photos as I was off to dinner with my hosts. This gave me a ride through the city from north to south and a great chance to zig zag around the narrow alleys and short cuts. However I was stopped in my tracks when I emerged into Piazza Prato della Valle. It is the most enormous open square that I have ever seen in a city of this size. I was immediately reminded of Plaza de Espana in Seville but this seemed even bigger.

This gave me the itinerary for my Sunday morning ride because I really wanted to see the Piazza in daylight, even if the morning was a bit gloomy. But this time because I had a bike I was able to take a slightly longer route and I decided to circle around the branch of a river which serves as a historic moat around the inner city. Riding along waterways you often see bits of architecture and heritage that survive from different eras and the water itself can be great. Turned out that Padova was no exception, the western branch of the river took me along quiet streets with some gorgeous old bridges, buildings and perspectives on the city.Padua cycle ride by river

padua architecturePadua housesPaduapadua by bikeWith time running out I swung back towards the centre of the city along the ample cycle lanes and came to Piazza Prato della Valle again. The translation is “Meadow of the Valley” so I can only imagine that at one time this was a vast open space leading to the river. Today it is a formal square with a ring of water features, statutes and seats in the middle and a vast open expanse of walking and cycling space. At one end Abbazia di Santa Giustina is a huge church and abbey but even it seems lost in the corner of the open space.Padua

The cyclists mooching through the square just showed the scale, they looked tiny and even a club group of 20 road riders turned out in immaculately matching club colours could not make it look busy.Cycling Club group Padua

A check on Wikipedia after returning tells me this is indeed the largest square in Italy, some claim when you consider something like St Peter’s in Rome.

Great place to ride a bike. And on a human level some final thoughts. When Venice was a city state Padua was its university town, a tradition it keeps up today. So the first thing I noticed about the cyclists and pedestrians was the large numbers of young people, something cycling shares with other great university centres, surely something we must keep building on throughout the world. Padua

And also in keeping with the great cycling centres of Amsterdam and Copenhagen I am sure that a significant majority of the cyclists I saw were women. Padua

PaduaAs advocates we are always told that when you make your cycling cities female friendly you are on the right path, Padua cycling culture must be a great example because it is young, female and wearing ordinary clothes.. The Cycle Chic movement writ large, excellent.

Now if only the cycling shows could understand that ….. But that is another story.

Verona cyclists – thanks for the hospitality

BikeI have been pretty rude about the politics of transport in Verona in my previous post, especially when compared to Padua which has taken a completely different path.

However in typical contrary style the negative conditions for cycling have resulted in a strong cyclists’ movement with the Verona branch of Federation Italiana Amici della Bici (FIAB) having its largest branch in the city, over 2000 members.

It also has a really strong sports cycling tradition too having hosted the world cycling championship twice in modern times. (2004, 1999)

I was there to work at the EICA trade fair and to have meetings with some of the national leadership of FIAB but the local members were such excellent hosts I have to give them a write up, especially as they gave me a great insight into their city, warts and all.

Bike VeronaFirst up was Giorgio, president of the branch who turned up at my hotel first thing on Saturday to provide me with a bike for the weekend and set me off to the show. As I have written many times, it’s not about the bike and the fact that he gave me his careworn town bike with its rattles and pannier meant that I wasn’t too worried about where it got locked up or how I rode it.

In the afternoon I was invited down to the city centre to meet the local branch who were launching the first weekend of European Mobility Week by holding a series of guided rides. No prospect of a Car Free Day here so this was an exercise in grabbing the city’s attention. I could soon see why this group was well established in the city. The agenda for the day was to invite different professional groups to come for a guided ride at a set time in the day, either professions that were supportive of the group or some groups of friends. Simple, but so effective because it encourages existing networks to encourage their friends and contacts to come along.

I went out with the teachers and thirty minutes later our tour was followed by the bio-architects, which apparently translates organic architects, a new trend in the profession. (Means nothing to me either!)

The ride itself was a tourist tour but it was also to boldly go through the streets in bunch and be proud to be cyclists whether it was on the one or two pedestrianized streets or out into the busier roads. That was made clear by the bibs with slogans we were asked to wear, and because Paulo our guide had a PA rigged up to his bike. I assumed this was because he was going to give us a tour. Oh no, he was using the PA to shout to the crowds, not just us. My Italian is non-existent but it doesn’t take much to hear the word “bici” repeated with great enthusiasm and to get warm smiles from the pedestrians to see that the man is a natural entertainer.FIAB

A nice ride, repeating some of the areas I had walked the previous day, but great fun from the saddle and with company. Oh and here’s a thing (not one for my wife). I had to ask why the group of teachers were all women? I was astonished to be told that all teachers in Italy are women. I checked that this didn’t just mean primary schools like many countries but I assured that almost all teachers in Italy are female without really being able to understand why.

The professional groups idea was certainly a success, a group of up to 20 every half an hour meant that there was a steady flow of people through the day learning about cycling in Verona.

There were also quite a lot of cyclists around in the town and I was just generally snapping a few as a backdrop to for a blog post. I was just snapping this chap when I realised a group of sports cyclists were passing by in the background – none other than the bike show test ride coming back from their spin with Mario Cipollini who as if to order had popped into the corner of the frame. The test circuit let show visitors take a huge range of road, electric and mountain bikes out for a spin of up to 15km around Verona returning through the main square.

Mario Cippollini

Who’s this just passing by on his bike?

As well as the group rides I was also told I had been invited out to a concert in the evening by one of our local hosts. “Concert” I ask, “what sort of concert?” Nobody actually knew, other than it was going to be at a building called Lazzaretto outside the city. From what I could briefly glean on my smart phone I thought it was some sort of restored stately home. About the music, no idea.

So that’s how I ended up at a sort of modern jazz outdoor concert for the Italian National Trust to promote the fact that they had acquired the grounds and ruin of a former isolation  hospital and military base that had been partly blown up by anarchists. “Concerto in Bronze” had a celebrated percussionist beating out music on the bronze statues of Gino Bogoni while a dancer and narrator telling the story of the sculptor’s life. I had the introductory speech by the National Trust translated so I learned a bit about the rotunda that had been at the heart of the old hospital. But I didn’t understand a word of the narration and I have to admit that a grown man lying on a bronze statue shaped like a melted bar of chocolate hitting it with his fists stretches my definition of music.

Verona

But how can I top sitting in open parkland with a slight chill in the air surrounded by people who really cared about the place we were in and the city they live in, listening to tawny owls hooting in the trees around us. Magical.

And on the way home I was treated to a trip up to the terraces of an old castle which sat above the Roman theatre I had been on earlier in the day. Fantastic views of the city from above.

On Sunday the lure of the test ride circuit and the views from the castle drew me and I couldn’t wait to get out in the early evening and do a proper tourist ride. Even better I was told that the circuit was actually part of the world road race circuit used twice in the past. I was soon zigzagging up the hairpins on a good climb out of the city, bit of a challenge on the single chainwheel of Giorgio’s bike but certainly rideable.

Before long I was up to a good height and able to look over to the valley beyond as well as great views back over the city itself. On one side the old city with its mediaeval roofs and Roman origins, but it was easy to see on the other valley why this is also a strong industrial area too.

The road itself kept the higher ground and looped round above the city until I came down to the Santuario Madonna Di Lourdes, a domed church set high above the city and one of the most distinctive sights on the city horizon.

View from Santuario Madonna Di LourdesVeronaIt was a stunning spot and I got some great views from its terraces, including a nice view back across to the previous climb. But even here I could not resist a mental rant that they just could not keep cars out of what should have been an oasis of silence.

However the café behind the Stantuario did offer a very tasty espresso and tiramisu, a classy step up on the coffee and cake at home.

Then a great descent into town at 50kmph before rolling back through the old streets.

In fact, I enjoyed it so much I went back again in the early morning for an final spin, a bit cloudier than the previous day but still a lovely ride.

Thanks to all the FIAB members in Verona, your hospitality made it a very special visit. I wish you every success in your frustrating battle to create a cycle friendly city.

No better way to see a new city than #cycling

Thank you FIAB Verona – great fun, great hosts.

Kevin Mayne partecipa a Inbicianch’io – Oggi tra le 16 alle 17 in via Roma a Verona

Kevin Mayne, responsabile Sviluppo di ECF, European Cyclists’ Federation, organizzazione che riunisce le associazioni dei ciclisti urbani europee cui aderisce anche la Fiab, parteciperà oggi alla bici-staffetta Inbicianch’io organizzata in via Roma dagli Amici della Bicicletta di Verona. La gara a squadre toccherà il suo clou tra le 16 e le 17 quando sfileranno i gruppi dei medici, degli architetti, degli insegnanti e dei soci Fiab cui si unirà anche Mayne. Il dirigente ECF è a Verona per la Fiera della bicicletta Eica, alla quale interverrà domenica mattina alle 11 con un discorso pubblico a VeronaFiere.

Ufficio Stampa Amici della Bicicletta-Fiab Verona