Friday, 13 September 2013

Superhighway to Hell or Superhighway to Heaven?

The Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, proudly launched the Barclays Cycle Superhighway scheme in 2010. Armed with £50 million of corporate cash over 8 years to deliver a radial (sadly not radical!) network of cycle routes into central London, he must have thought he was on to a winner. With a modest aim to increase cycling in London by 400% and the equally modest ambition that 5% of all journeys in London would be by bike by 2026, he must have thought that he had a quicker win than kicking an ageing Ken Livingstone's mayoral ambitions into the long grass would be just two years later.

But just how transformative have the cycle superhighways been? So far four out of the planned 12 routes have been opened. Transport for London (TFL) claim that there are more cyclists as a result. They say that cycling has increased by 46% along my local route, CS7, three quarters of whom are commuters. They also claim that the average journey time has been reduced by 5%, and that 80% feel safer by using the Cycle Superhighway.

I am a daily user of CS7, which runs from Merton to the City, although I leave the 'highway' at the so-called 'Stockwell Gyratory System'. I have to say that whilst cycling has certainly transformed my life and my daily commute, and that having the Superhighway there certainly encouraged me to cycle to work, I am left somewhat disappointed by the route. 

I don't want to completely rain on the Mayor's parade. Don't get me wrong I think he has done much to promote cycling as a serious travel option, and the recent Ride London initiative was clearly a huge success. The Cycle Superhighways were a bold initiative and present London as a city that supports cycling for green and health reasons. But if I were the teacher marking Boris Johnson's school report, I would probably make the comment 'could do better.'

So why am I disappointed? 

The sponsorship by Barclays presented a great opportunity to do something really good for cycling. We are all used to corporate sponsorship for public initiatives and most of us can completely see the benefit of funding public projects in this way. But given that £80 million was never going to change the world, why stop at Barclays? Why not look at other corporate sponsors to do something really good. After all, in the depth of the recession, if Barclays could afford such large sums, why could not others be persuaded?

At the end of the day, the Cycle Superhighways are just a bit of blue paint on the road. If a car, bus, taxi or truck is going to cut me up it will do. Apart from awareness raising and perception changing, the majority of non-cycling road users do not understand cyclists and their behaviour, good or bad. I have to suffer the daily dangers of drivers trying to beat me to a left turn, pulling over for emergency vehicles without a glance in their side mirrors or pulling out from the kerb without checking to their right. Cycle Superhighways will never change this.

Secondly there seems to be no attempt to maintain the routes. On our ever potholed roads, every time a pothole is filled on the Cycle Superhighway, a bit of the Barclays blue seems to die. In one section near Clapham the blue has all but worn away. One wonders whether sustainability was ever built into the plans. Or was that left to local authorities without any advance warning.

Thirdly, I don't believe we will ever see truly safe cycling until cyclists are separated from motorised road users. Even motor-cyclists (yes I used to be one!) are an absolute danger to cyclists, especially when they use the Cycle Superhighway to get past static traffic.

Fourthly I do wonder whether the much-heralded growth in cycling in London (and elsewhere) is a result of the massive successes achieved by Team GB in the Olympics and Wiggins and Froome in the Tour de France, as well as a genuine desire on the part of the british people to be more active and green, combined with an ever-growing despondency with our failing public transport infrastructure. 

Fifthly (and somewhat more flippantly) @MayorofLondon has never once responded to my Tweets on this subject! I'll try once more when I publish this blog!

So in answer to the question posed in the title of this blog: riding down CS7 through Tooting, it sometimes does feel like AC/DC's proverbial Highway to Hell, as I am forced to skid to yet another halt by another crap driver not seeing me. Yet at the same time I feel glad to be able to be a cyclist, glad to have that option to get to work, glad that I live in a city that is commutable by bike. So yes, sometimes, just sometimes, CS7 does seem a more 'heavenly' option than the alternative, which for me is the northern Line.

Friday, 30 August 2013

Flip, Flop & Fly; Don't Care if I Die

When The Blues Brothers recorded Flip, Flop & Fly for the movie of the same name they probably did not have in mind the fact that this would be used as a catchy headline for a blog on cycling some decades later. See the YouTube link if you have not got a clue what I am talking about!

Cycling home from work towards Merton on Cycle Superhighway 7 (don't get me started, that's another blog!) through Tooting, I was struck by the idiocy of two cyclists (not together) both wearing flip flops as their chosen cycling footwear. One was a bearded guy in his thirties on an old school city bike (he had no helmet on) and the other was a young woman (maybe 28ish) on a hybrid - she did have a helmet on, but there may have been a basket on the front of her bike. I lost track of beardyman somewhere in the rush hour peleton, but the woman went straight to the front of the cycle box at a set of traffic lights, which she is perfectly entitled to do......

The traffic light turned green, she tried to take off like a bat out of hell, which was never going to be a good idea as she was always going to be caught within a few metres by others on speedier mounts including me. But that was not the problem. Suddenly from nowhere a flip flop caught in her chain or the spokes of her back wheel and she flew in the air landing on the road in front of the following group.  Her flip flops literally flew from her feet and landed several yards away. Fortunately she appeared to be not seriously injured and she was helped to her feet by several guys, probably hoping to get her telephone number to check if she was OK later. It could have been worse; if she had been followed by a van, bus or truck, she may have found herself underneath. It does not bear thinking about. I continued on my way thinking that surely anyone riding a bike anywhere other than along the promenade at a seaside resort should really be wearing shoes.

So, I suppose what I am saying is don't call a foul-up in your flip flops, don't cause a balls up in your Birkenstocks, or hell in your Havaianas just put some proper shoes on; it's safer for you and everyone else! You don't have to go the whole hog with roadbike cleats but just some flipping shoes! Flip flops are not compatible with cycling!

What do you think?

Friday, 23 August 2013

Five reasons to be proud to wear lycra

There is a division amongst the cycling community about many issues, the most controversial of which is whether to wear a helmet. (Don't get me started on that one! Another blog maybe?) But the second one is about wearing proper cycling clothing AKA lycra. Never has a sport been so ridiculed as is cycling for its correct apparel. Why is this, I wondered?

Now a hipster cycling along Stoke Newington High Street in their skinny jeans, one leg rolled up chain-side, does probably not need to wear lycra even if they had the remotest desire to do so. A quick hop between a bar and a cafe just does not require a change of clothes. Nor the commuter cycling between Brixton and the City on the Cycle Superhighway, or the middle class shopper popping to the shops with a basket on the front of their Pashley.

But I would argue that for the serious cyclist, and I don't just mean roadies, wearing the 'proper' clothing is pretty much essential. And for me a pair of trendy jeans with roll up reflective parts or a suit jacket with reversible reflective lapels just does not do the job!  They may look cool but they must be really uncomfortable, at least for a serious distance (say an 8-10 mile commute or a recreational ride of a similar or longer distance).

So let's work on the basis here that I am talking about padded shorts or bib shorts and a proper cycling jersey (either merino wool or most probably lycra). What is so wrong about these items of clothing that cause so much mirth amongst non-cyclist office workers and so much hatred from white van drivers? (BTW I am the first to admit that I chuckle every time I put on a pair of bib shorts and see myself in the mirror looking like a 1970s wrestler!) Why should I not be allowed to wear the correct clothing for my sport of choice? Why do cycling trendies hate lycra so much? Well I don't know the answer to these questions, but here's why you should wear lycra and be proud!

Once you have done the walk of shame from the loo/ changing room to your desk, collected your possessions and walked out to the bike rack, once you get on your bike this clothing is the most comfortable and practical for the task at hand. No seams to chafe, no lumps or bumps, no flys, no buttons, just smooth lycra! Nothing loose to flap in the wind, nothing to get caught in your chain. What's not to like?

Technical fabrics
Cycling clothing is made to cycle in, just like running clothing is made to run in. They are ergonomically designed, e.g. long at the back, and made of technical fabrics. When you sweat the sweat comes to the surface and dries, keeping you warm. If it rains the fabric dries quickly. If you do get soaked on the way to work they are easier to dry before your commute home. I see too many people cycling in a sopping wet cotton tee shirt and wonder how they ever get that dry. It is so much more hygienic and as long as you are clean and so is your clothing you will not smell.

Now padded shorts take a while (like 5 minutes!) to get used to. When you first put them on it feels a bit like a nappy. But when you sit on your saddle and ride it just makes sense. All of your vital areas are protected. I personally cannot see how people cannot wear them for cycling any real distance, no matter how good their saddle. And no, padded shorts don't have to mean camel toe!

You can wash your lycra overnight and it will be dry for the morning. Because it is so lightweight, you can easily carry a spare set of clothing if you are going to get wet and won't have the chance to dry out.

Makes you go faster
Wearing lycra makes you go faster. Now I can't prove this but I know it! Not only are you more aerodynamic, but there is something psychological about it! Because you are wearing sporty clothing you cycle faster. After all you would not want the hipster, the shopper or the commuter in a suit to overtake you would you!!

Friday, 16 August 2013

Why three bikes are better than one!

I suppose as a relative newcomer to the world of cycling (I have only been seriously cycling since May 2011) you could put my enthusiasm for riding bikes down to novelty. Whenever you take on a new hobby, it is easy to come a bit obsessed and I suppose I have done that with golf in the past. There was a time when nothing would get in the way of a round of golf, nor from constantly searching ebay and golf shops for the next item of equipment! I still love golf but I am not playing as often as I was, I almost never buy new equipment and I don't like playing in bad weather.

Is this down to my new obsession for cycling? Well possibly but I don't think so. There is time in my life for both interests as well as my need to spend quality time with my wife, family and friends. But there is something different about cycling. I am beyond the stage of wanting to constantly buy new clothing and equipment. I simply don't have any more drawer space for cycle jerseys, bib shorts or waterproofs. I normally delete the daily emails from Wiggle, Evans, Edinburgh Bicycles, Planet X and all the rest as I have neither the time nor money to look at them. I even read my Cycling Active magazine with less eagerness than I used to, because apart from upgrading my lights in the autumn, there is not really anything I need.

But nothing will stop me being excited every time I open my bike shed and seeing my three bikes safely locked up and ready to ride! I use my bikes mainly for commuting these days, although I do have the occasional weekend or weekday pleasure ride if I have the time. I have no plans to take up cycle racing (too old!), no plans to join a cycle club (don't like cliques!) or to do anything but the occasional sportive (Note to self: see if I can get a place on Ride London 2014) but I just love the flexibility I have with three different types of bike. I always joke to my wife about getting a fourth, as I don't own a proper off-road bike, but I am only half joking. There is room in my shed!

But why do I need three bikes? Or to re-ask the question at the top of this blog, why are three bikes better than one? The simple answer to the first question is I don't need three bikes, I have three bikes because I can. But the answer to the second question is more straightforward. Having three different bikes gives me flexibility, even if I use them all for commuting. It is ideal to have a choice of bikes for different uses and conditions and if one bike needs fixing I will aways have an alternative.

Bike 1 is a Specialized Sirrus hybrid. It is the basic model, and it was my first 'born again cyclist' bike. I bought it when I had no idea that this was going to become a passion and obsession. It is black, has mudguards and a bell. It is not exciting. But it is great for wet days when I need more grip on the roads, if I want to ride through the park on my way to work and it is comfortable and sturdy without being too heavy. It is a triple speed so I have a range of gears, so if I do want to go up some hills or get some speed on the downhill I can. It is great for winter riding, but I don't use it in the summer.

Bike 2 is my road bike. It is a Ridley EOS upper-entry level model that cost me about £900 two years ago. It is the bike I used to do my London to Paris ride last year and I use it it for longer rides and to commute to work when I want to go fast or when it is windy and I need to be lower. It has an alloy frame with carbon forks, and I have upgraded the wheels to Mavic OpenPro with 105 hubs. I have no intention of buying a carbon frame bike at the moment, and I love this bike. It is light and nimble, and the frame is great quality, and the full Tiagra gear and brake set does the job.

Bike 3 is a single speed/ fixie although I never use it on fixed gear. I bought it new on ebay and it is a limited edition Chrome-Moly Specialized Langster in a chrome finish. I have taken off the track-style drops and fitted flat bars, which give me a far more comfortable riding position. I changed the saddle initially for a Selle Rolls vintage style mount, but it was too hard so I have instead fitted a Charge Spoon saddle which I also have on my Ridley road bike. It is super-comfortable. I love this bike because it looks great (even with raceblade mudguards which I take off when it's dry), and I do not have to worry about gears or maintenance. A single speed for commuting is ideal and it keeps me fitter, because I have to stay in the same gear for hills! I bought this bike initially as a bit of a fashion thing (at my age!!), but it is now my favourite bike for commuting and popping to the shops. It is a just a great bike. I love overtaking the roadies on it too, as it has great acceleration. It makes me feel young!

So that is why I have three bikes. I am not a show-off nor particularly materialistic. It just makes sense!

Let me know what you think!

Friday, 2 August 2013

The Blogging Cyclist's Ten Top Tips for Cycling to Work

I have been cycling the twenty mile return journey from Sutton, Surrey to Vauxhall, London SW8 for over two years. When I first bought my hybrid bike back in May 2011, it was with the intention of doing the odd few miles here and there at evenings and weekends. But as I got used to the feeling of cycling, something I had not really done properly or consistently for the past 20 years other than the odd off road couple of miles with the kids as they were growing up, I got the cycling bug. No doubt about it cycling is addictive! Now, unless it is icy (yes, I made that mistake this past winter!) or ridiculously wet or windy, or I have a meeting FIrst thing or last thing that is not at my office, I cycle to work every day. 

If you are planning to commute to work on a regular basis like I do, I have put together  what I hope are some handy tips:

1. Cycle wear
Invest in decent cycle wear. You don't have to go the full Lycra look if you don't want to, but you should at least wear clothing that is made for cycling. You should also have a decent waterproofs and plenty of hi vis wear, especially for the winter. When I first started cycling I invested in cheap stuff from Sports Direct and this was fine for a while. But then I went on to buying better quality gear from my local bike shop Pearson's, who have great customer service but can be a little on the pricy side, and now I get most stuff from Wiggle, who have a great range at great prices (and send you a free mini pack of Haribo with every order!) My tip is, if you can afford it, go for mid-range clothing like Altura or Endura. It will last and be comfortable. Personally I cannot imagine why anyone would not wear padded shorts but that's just me!

2. Plan your route
It is nice to have a variety of routes to work just to mix it up a bit. Plan these in advance as there is nothing worse than getting lost on your way to work. Having got lost during my early cycling days trying to find my way across Wandsworth Common I do a trial run when I fancy something new. Transport for London Journey Planner has a route planner especially for cyclists.

3. Safety
Cycling in urban areas can be dangerous. Never forget you are a vulnerable road user. There are some other tips below related to this, but only you can make sure you don't get into any horrible scrapes. No one else will look after you so you have to. Never listen to music on headphones. 

4. Lights
Invest in decent lights. You need to be seen so a £1.99 light from Asda is unlikely to do the job. Be prepared to pay for decent lights. I use Knog Boomer lights that are lightweight and bright. I also like the Lezyne Mini-Drive rechargeable front light I have. You don't need to spend a fortune but do expect to pay around £30 to £50 for a reasonable set.

5. Assume every other road user is an idiot
It's sad but unless you obey this simple tip you will come a cropper. You have to assume that no one has seen you, and slow down if you think you are in danger. You will get to know the vehicles and types of driver you don't trust!

6. Nutrition
You may be cycling to help you lose weight and that's great, but you do not need to starve yourself! My journey to work burns up at least 300 calories, so I figure that's 300 calories more I can eat! I have a bagel and coffee before I leave for work and a bowl of Oatso Simple when I get to work after my shower. If you don't eat enough you will be fatigued on your way home and you will snack on unhealthy things during the day.

7. Bike maintenance
Look after your bike. Clean it regularly. De-grease and oil the chain and gears every few weeks, especially if you ride off road. Check and adjust your brakes regularly, CHeck your type pressure (see below) every few days. Have your bike serviced regularly. It is dangerous riding a bike in poor condition, and you are putting your safety at risk by doing so.

8. Tyres
If you are cycling regularly your tyres will need looking after. Part of this is making sure you have the right tyres for the job. For commuting I recommend puncture proof tyres like Specialized Armadillo or Continental Gatorskin. They are a bit more expensive than normal tyres but will save you the heartache of punctures on the way to work. And while we are on the subject of tyres you ned to inflate them to the right pressure. You can only really do this with a track pump, also known as a floor pump. Portable pumps will rarely do the job.

9. Know your local bike shops
Things will go wrong with your bike from time to time, normally at the most inconvenient time! For that reason it is good to look out for bike shops on your route and also near your work place so that you can pop your bike in for those unplanned repairs.

10. Personal hygiene
I'm lucky. I have a shower at work so I can wash properly when I get to work. I carry clean clothes in my back pack every day and I keep suits and spare clothes at work. If you are unable to shower when you get in you will almost certainly need to improvise. Some people use baby wipes. Make sure you have a wash bag at work with everything you need. Unless you are doing the shortest of journey you will get sweaty. You owe it to your work colleagues to make sure you look after your personal hygiene!

Well that's it for now. I've probably missed out quite a lot,  but I hope my top tips are helpful. Let me know what you think!

Saturday, 20 July 2013

How do raise over £2000 for a charity cycle ride with the minimum of effort

Yes I admit it! I am a MAMIL! A middle aged man in lycra who rides an expensive road bike (one of three bikes I own!) mainly for commuting, but also on the occasional longer foray out into the Surrey hills. In fact I have been known to ride up Box Hill on the odd occasion- yes that's the one that thousands of other like me regularly hold up the traffic on a Sunday morning in a vein attempt to emulate their hero Sir Bradley Wiggins. But I don't do this because I think I look good in unfeasibly tight clothing (not possible unless you have the physique of an Olympian!) or because I am going through some middle age crisis (I did that when I bought a motor bike some years ago, now the proud property of some other middle aged geezer I am sure!). I do it because I love cycling, I love the freedom it gives me on my commute. I can now get to work (10 miles ride) in well under an hour and be sitting at my desk by 8.15, having had a shower, and with a nice coffee and a bowl of Oatso Simple in front of me. I also do it because it keeps me fit; I have lost two inches from my waistline and a couple of stone over the past two years. Can't complain about that can I!

That's enough self indulgence, but I hope you can tell I am passionate about cycling! In fact apart from moving to the charity sector over 20 years ago and meeting my wife just before that, cycling is by far the best thing I have ever done! What I really wanted to do in this blog is tell you about how I successfully fundraised for a London to Paris cycle ride I completed last August in aid of ChildHope, the children's charity I am a trustee of (soon to be Chair). I like to think I did this efficiently, effectively with the minimum of effort, but in a way that respected and valued my supporters.

I have been a trustee of ChildHope for almost three years. Whilst I make a monthly donation via payroll giving and the occasional one off donation, buy Christmas cards, sponsor people occasionally, etc. I thought I was not doing enough. As I had just taken up cycling, I signed up for an open challenge event with Discover Adventure, almost a year before the event itself. I figured this would give me plenty of time to get fit (cycling 300 miles over 4 days was something I had never dreamt I could have achieved!) and to start fundraising (I thought this might be a challenge). I knew I did not have the time or the patience to be doing cake bakes, boot sales, street collections or selling my body (that might have raised 10p!), but I did want to raise a reasonable amount of money. I thought £2,000 would be reasonable and achievable.

So how did I go about this, given that I have no rich friends or family members, and wanted to spend more time on getting fit than raising money?The getting fit bit was the easy one. I enjoy cycling, so I cycled into work as often as I could (the 2011/12 winter was appalling if you remember, so this was not as often as I would have liked), I bought a rowing machine that now sits proudly in the spare bedroom, and I took part in two sportive events. I ate carefully and tried not to drink much alcohol. I did not stick to my training plan but I knew I had the fitness to complete the ride. The fundraising bit was the thing that scared me more. Even though I have raised millions as a professional fundraiser over the years, this was different and I knew it would require careful planning.

I drew up a table of gifts. I know this sounds ridiculous for two thousand quid, but it really helped. I knew my maximum level donations were going to be probably £100 and I knew the minimum might be a fiver or a tenner. I worked out how many gifts at each level I would need to reach my £2000 target. In fact I set my target at £1600 on my JustGiving page so that I knew could beat it!

I then drew up a list of everyone I know, family, friends, neighbours, contacts and everyone I have worked with in the past, including two chairs of committees I have worked with in previous jobs with whom I am still in touch. I figured they might be at the top of my gift table! I emailed all of these contacts asking for their support for me and ChildHope. I posted the fact that I was doing the ride on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. I put a footer at the bottom of my work email. I talked about the ride with everyone I came into contact with.

At Christmas I sold ChildHope christmas cards at work and pledged to match the value of the cards with a donation to my fund. I sold things on ebay that I did not want and that I would not miss. This generated a couple of hundred pounds. But by far the majority of my money came in by my email campaign.

What was interesting was the way the money came in. As I have already said, my 'major gift' amounts were £50 and £100. I was surprised and delighted by the number of these I got from people who I really do not know that well! By far the bulk of my income came from the £10 and £20 donations but it was the bigger donations that were the ones that made the difference! 20 £50 donations are a far quicker way of generating £1000! I was also surprised by those who do not give! This included friends and colleagues I thought I could count on. I did not take this personally; I think many people just forget to give, even though they have every intention of doing so.

Every donation I received I wrote a personalised email. I did not think that the automated email generated by JustGiving was sufficient. I wanted my donors to feel really good about supporting me. And I actually got feedback from several that they really liked getting the personalised email!

When I had completed the ride (different blog, different time) I wrote to all my donors with a detailed description of the ride and reiterated the difference their donation would make to the children ChildHope work with. Of course I also sent them a copy of the picture of me standing in front of the Eiffel Tower, biker aloft! Again I got good feedback on this letter.

All in all I raised £2500 for ChildHope. I was proud of what I had achieved and the difference this will make to our beneficiaries. I was proud that, as a trustee, I had done something that many of my peers had not yet done.

NB: This blog also appears in my other blog: