29 May 2010

What is a 'cyclist'?

"Woman dies as bus avoids cyclist in Manchester".  This is the BBC's damning headline today.  The police are looking for this 'cyclist', we hear - and therefore, in the eye of the community at large, any of us could be the monster who appears to have caused this tragedy.

But of course, look at the image the BBC has released and what you see is not a 'cyclist' - not if by this we mean a person who takes cycling seriously as a sport, a mode of transport or a passtime.  This is a youngster in a BMX - the kind who you often see jump pedestrain traffic lights, ride dangerously on pavements,  or indeed harass other cyclists, as it happened to me a couple of years back. 

Of course, I know nothing about this particular 'cyclist' - apart from his photo and the fact that GMP are looking for him.  He may be inocent, a scapegoat.  I don't know, and shouldn't assume that riding a BMX makes him automatically guilty.  My point is more about how loaded the term 'cyclist' can be, and whether perhaps the BBC and the media in general should mind these nuances, lest they stoke negative attitudes towards us, the cyclists.

27 May 2010

In the Low Countries

Originally uploaded by cocosolis
First of all, apologies to the couple in this picture. Neither of them is me, I'm afraid: I'm the one behind the camera, taking a subreptitious shot as I shared this stretch of the road, just out of Norwijk.

But I say road: I mean cycle path. One of thousands of wonderful, dedicated cycle paths, veritable highways for pedal powered vehicles (and a few scooters, but more on this later).

I won't bore you with the details: suffice to say my two friends and I had a wonderful time cycling from Bruges to Amsterdam in three days. This was our itinerary:

21 May: travel to start line - Manchester, Schipol, Antwerp, Bruges
22 May: Bruges - Goereedere (70miles)
23 May: Goereedere - Norwijk (60miles)
24 May: Norwijk - Amsterdam (30miles)
25 May: tourism in Amsterdam, fly back to Manchester

The accommodation was good in all cases, with similar prices:
Bruges: Botaniek hotel
Goedereede: De Gouden Leeuw
Norwijk and Amsterdam: Stayok (Dutch youth hostels)

We were very lucky with the weather, which may have influenced my perception of the experience of cycling in Belgium and the Netherlands, but I really felt this was cycling's paradise on earth. For those who follow David Henbrow's informative blog, you'll understand if I say I feared I'd be disappointed - but I was not. The cycling infrastructure is genuinely superb, and the cycling culture is really widespread. What the initial spark was for this revolution, nobody seems able to say. But I was bowled over by the sight of cycling by old and young, male and female, with or without dogs, bbqs, babies, etc. 

I saw people cycling to work, to a party, cycling for pleasure or for sport.  I saw 'normal' bikes, recumbent bikes, trikes, 'bakfiets', tandems and even one (only one) Sinner 'mango'.  We, the 'brits' could be easily recognised, not so much because of our helmets, which many a racing cyclist did wear, but because of our 'hybrid' status - riding hybrid bikes, hybrid clothing and a speed that was faster than your normal commuter but slower than the colourful lycra-clad racing lot. 

I also saw a couple of crashes, or their aftermath - in the more congested cycle roads arounds towns - and I can say that in Amsterdam cycling is no fun - it's just like driving a car in a big, busy city, such is the high proportion of cycling in relation to cars.  I reckon that's a price worth paying for living in a country where people 'get' cycling and just get on with it.  Only in Sheveningen (the Dutch Blackpool?) did I feel cycling was a bit like in the UK - in conflict with car traffic and with carefree pedestrians along a busy waterfront.

Now my bike awaits to be re-assembled after being packed for the return flight.  I will then hit the British roads and relish the challenge - but in my mind there will always be the thought that there is somewhere where things are different, where cycling is not a 2nd class use of the highway.