Cycling In Cities, Tim Dawson (1996)
first published in Cycling Plus around December 1996
Cycle touring has an image problem. So set is our view of what bikes are good for, that we are missing out on their most exciting possibilities.
Since the first hearty wheelers emerged into the countryside from Britain’s industrial towns and cities more than a century ago, they and their successors have been the pass-time’s living embodiment. So much so, that it is impossible to say ‘cycle touring’ without thinking of hairy-legged, cord-shorted, beardy-weirdies who only stop peddling up hill and down dale to quaff flagons of foaming real ale.
But why is this a problem?
Its simple. The saddle of a bike is a great place from which to see the countryside. It is probably the best way to see the countryside, but it is not the only way. Even a die-hard velocipede would be hard-pressed to deny the pleasures of viewing our open spaces on foot. And, loath though they might be to admit it, there are parts of rural Britain best seen at speed.
The Settle-Carlisle and West Highland Lines both bring a magic to the mountains unsurpassed by other means of transport. And it would be churlish to deny the pleasures of crossing Shap on the M6.
Cities, however – the great engines of human development – are quite a different story.
A bike is the only satisfactory way to explore, and discover a metropolis. By bike you can criss-cross a city, meandering where it interests you, flying though where it does not: seeing its sights, as well as uncovering its underside.
Let me give you a taster.
I spent a fortnight this summer seeing Barcelona by bike. One of Europe’s most exciting cities, it has been an important port since Roman times. And each subsequent generation has left its marks on the cityscape.
Early one morning I rode out into the city’s southern suburbs beyond Montjuic, the hill that towers over the city. By chance, between two buildings, I caught sight of a huge complex of modern buildings on the side of the hill that faces away from the city.
I thought by this time that I knew Barcelona – I had visited before, I had read all the books. So, as I picked out a route, I raked my mind trying to recall any mention of this city on the hill.
I took it to be a new university, perhaps modelled on Warwick or Bath. From my vantage point on a suburban road, I could see dozen of small regular windows in the sides of the blocks. Student residences, perhaps, or a large administrative centre?
With some difficulty I steered a course though industrial areas and run down housing schemes until I started climbing towards the concrete campus above. Only as I overtook a long black car did I realise my mistake.
Montjuic cemetery is immense. The Spanish place their dead, embalmed in coffins, into custom-built blocks. Each body merits a slot into which the coffin is pushed like a peg and then plugged with a grave stone and glassed over. Wreaths, now dried in the hot sun decorated the windows from which I had seen students waving.
The huge white concrete blocks at Montjuic were built in the 1950s. Rising over 30 feet, each is ten courses of coffins high, 30 wide. On the side of the hill, arranged in avenues, streets and parades there are more than 100 blocks, some almost enveloped in a dense, moist, foliage. A handful of old women, wrapped in thick black head scalves and cloaks, climbed precariously-high step ladders to commune with their loved ones. And as the morning’s heat rose, the air grew heavy with the sweet smell of decaying flowers.
Had I been travelling by any other means I would have never discovered this astonishing place, nor a hundred others in the many other cities I have explored by bike over the years.
Consider first the facts. For the last 200 years cities have been the theatres in which all important human drama has taken place. In them are built the great monuments of our civilisation – churches, factories, offices and houses. And around those, the detritus of past centuries is wove in an elaborate tapestry. The number of us who choose to live in cities increases each year and, in their confines the important events of human existence are enacted a million times each day.
So why are bicycles, that most enduring invention of the modern age, the only way to discover them?
The physical scale of cities makes them inaccessible by foot. One can traipse around an assortment of tourist attractions but to really see any but the smallest cities, walking is just too slow. Spot something that looks interesting at the end of a street, and the pedestrian faces a dilemma. Is it worth the walk just to have a look? It does not take many blind alleys to dull your curisoity
With two-wheeled transport, you can afford to take a chance. The scale of cities is perfectly suited to the bicycle. In a few hours you can cover the main streets and roads of cities like Norwich and Bristol. The mighty connurbations of Manchester, Birmingham and Glasgow are within the scope of the modestly fit. And even London, although perhaps best taken in parts, is better seen by bike than by any other means of transport.
By bike you can get pleasantly lost, safe in the knowledge that it will not be unduly taxing to retrace you path. Set off in one direction, double back, dodge down a narrow passage and if it comes to nothing you can be back where you started without losing your breath.
Cars by cotrast are too fast. Driving takes such concentration. Unlike the great outdoors, in the city the sights fly by. A gap between buildings visible for only a few seconds might give unique view or open up a completely new vista. But travel by car and you’ve missed it. Even if, from the corner of your eye, something catches your attention its usually impossible to stop.
Traffic planning makes car travel in cities a nightmare. Unfamiliar with the roads, no sooner have you set off in one direction than a one-way sign forces you in another. By bike the world is open around you, you can stop, get off, slip down a pavement, or chat with a passer-by.
But bikes can be fast when you need them to be. On foot in New York, I was more interested to see the neighbourhoods I knew from films than the Midtown shops. But as I wandered from the main streets in Harlem, I was repeatedly accosted by more and more threatening young men. By the time I dived back into the subway I was soaking with sweat and shaking with fear.
By contrast, when the residents of a housing estate outside Seville, charmingly named Six Thousand Habitations, appeared unwelcoming, I simply dropped onto my bottom cog and made hastily away. On another occasion, a guard dog took chase in the wilderness of Liverpool’s waterfront. Fearing a mauling, I summoned up such a burst of speed that I would have left even Cipollini in the jaws of the hound.
The coutryside is not even that assecible to cycle tourists. Most of us live in cities. Travel by air, rail or road typically starts and ends in cities. But try escaping them by bike. Ribbon development beside roads makes a ride out of even our smaller connurbations a long slog past an endless dreary parade of shops and houses.
And see how much of the countryside you can take in if you set off on a day’s circular trip from the centre of Paris or London. Even if you start by train in the south-east of England, it is impossible to escape the car. The roads in Kent, Hertforshire and Buckinghamshire are every bit as car-clogged as the city centre. The only difference is that in the country cars travel faster.
Recent projections of the increase in car travel our rural areas suggest that in the next two decades this can only get worse.
It is an illusion to think that one can escape the rush of every day life in the country – better by far to accept this, and enjoy yourself in the city centre. You’ll find far fewer cars in the City of London on a Sunday morning than you will anywhere in the Home Counties.
Whichever city you choose, you will see more of it by bike. Only on two wheels can you quickly understand how a city fits together and get a sense of how its inhabitants lead their daily lives.
But why with so much to see, is cycle touring in cities not more popular? Our bookshops are groaning with tomes detailing rural rides. If you can’t find any about seeing cities this way, perhaps it is because of the image problem.
For so long as cyclists head for the hills, they will miss their bike’s greatest potential. It is time to reclaim cycle touring from the saddlebag and cape brigade and discover the frontier on our own doorsteps.
Most of us can start city centre touring outside our own front doors, but getting the most out of it requires a little planning.
1 Arterial routes are invariably clogged with cars and, although they are inescapable for some journeys, they are never going to be much fun. Locally produced cycle route maps show designated cycle paths which usually trace routes though quiet streets that are inaccessible to traffic. Even in a city you know, making a familiar journey by a different route can be quite a surprise. If you wonder what London’s docklands were like before the developers arrived, for example, take a ride out to the Royal Docks, where it is easy to believe gangland disputes are still resolved.
If you can’t get hold of a cycle map, try a street plan. Look for the lines of blocked off roads, designed to stop rat runs. A nightmare for motorists – a warren of quiet, undiscovered roads for cycle touring.
2 Waterways are also the source of endless reclaimable routes though cities. In both Birmingham and Leeds tow paths will take you into canal basins that have, until recently lain undiscovered. Beside the lesser river banks and tow paths in Glasgow and London you can still see sides of both cities with which few of their natives are familiar. Tow paths can be overgrown and do sometimes end without warning, however, so be prepared to double back, or haul your bike over a fence or two.
3 The lines of old railways provide another set of routes accessible only by bike. Edinburgh closed down a network of suburban railways in the 1950s leaving behind a maze of bridges, junctions and branch lines. They allow access to almost anywhere in the city, but lie unseen from the roads and pavement. Some of these have now been properly converted into cycle paths. But elsewhere you will find the lines of old railways marked on maps. They are occasionally impassable, but more often than not provide unique routes for cyclists.
CITY TOURING TIPS
Any bike will do, but a mountain bike with slick tyres is best – city streets are full of craters. If you are riding a polished titanium frame equipped with this year’s groupset borrow a trick from the couriers: cover your frame with insulating tape to disguise it from would-be thieves.
Wear flat soled shoes. You are bound to want to get off fairly frequently – to buy a coffee, get a better view or look around a building.
Avoid too much lycra unless you are supremely self confident. A Banesto team strip is an invitation for those you pass by to call out unfavourable comparisons with Miguel as pedal past.
Attach your map to your handlebars with either on a bar bag or a clip. In an unfamiliar city you will often need to check that you taken the right turn.
Always carry a lock and the necessities of puncture repair – a long unnecessary walk is just as dispiriting in the city as it is in the middle of nowhere.