Tour de West Midlands part 5 – Back to Lichfield and some conclusions

By the time the Critical Mass was finished I had done over 52 miles, way more than ever before in a day. I had been out ten hours by this point and wanted to get home to try and catch the kids before bed. I skipped the pub and headed straight for New Street and the train.

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As I mentioned in part 1, change is in the air for us and it was good to fit in an adventure while I had the chance. Visiting Wolverhampton brought back some good memories and seeing the Bike Shed was a treat. A project like that could and should be up and running in all towns and cities in the country and if people put their hands up I would be happy to be involved in one in Lichfield.

Going to Birmingham reminded me of some of the things I was glad to leave behind when I stopped living there. It is such a huge and fast paced city it is easy to be anonymous and not be seen. The Critical Mass is one attempt to come together as a community with a shared interest, but it is quite small gathering for a city of that size.

When I started this blog, as well wanting to explore the possibility of a cycle reuse scheme I wanted to do something along the lines of a critical mass. I have got something in mind that I will try and write up soon. Keep the last Friday of the month free.

The train back was busy with bikes so I stood all the way by the door. On the platform at City I stopped to snap this bike.

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Haven’t seen it around town before and it’s not your typical commuter bike. From the raised platform I could see the Rocket lolly sky in the distance and the lightning over Rugeley way. I managed a snap of it from the top of Beacon Street before the last bit of the journey home.

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Tour de West Midlands part 4 – A Critical Mass in Birmingham?

A couple of months ago I attempted to attend the monthly Critical Mass gathering and ride in Birmingham. It wasn’t that successful for me as I only made it as far as Aston before being stopped by mechanical failure.

I first heard of Critical Mass in the mid nineties, an import from America and its use as a direct action tactic to close down streets at demonstrations. The broader aims of the mass seemed to be about reclaiming space and a critique of car use and its destructive impact on the environment.

Normally on the last Friday of the month around the world, the Brum CM has always been contrary and on the first Friday. Meeting at Pigeon Park between the back of Rackhams and the Cathedral the ride leads off without any fanfare at 6:30 for an hour, ending up at a pub for a social afterwards. The ride is accompanied by a small sound system on a trailer, a nice gimmick that gives the ride a different dimension, turning the normally quiet pursuit into something more attention grabbing.

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The turn out last Friday was somewhere near a hundred cyclists, a high water mark for the Brum CM I believe. As a ride without leaders the more experienced massers and those familiar with the normal route anticipate the junctions, dodgy side roads and roundabouts and block where necessary to stop cars interrupting the flow of the mass. This helps reinforce the fact that the group of cyclists is the biggest thing on the road and if the lights turn to red once the front of the ride has passed, the rest can keep going.

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On big roundabouts such as Five Ways this involves several people on bikes side by side to make sure a multi lane entrance to the roundabout is safely blocked off. It felt very natural and organic, there were those who were happy to be buzzing up and down doing this role but it seemed like anybody could step up and do it if they wanted. No experts required and a demonstration of the vital act of looking out for all in the group.

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I recently came across the term ‘flashride’ and wondered what the difference between one and a CM would be. Although an act of protest a flashride seems to be exclusively about cycling safety and infrastructure. A demand limited to the improvement in those conditions. That’s fine in itself but ultimately limiting. The vision of Critical Mass is a more broad set of demands challenging the dominance of car culture in our urban areas.

Where I live we can be in a rural setting in a matter of minutes and despite being a city, Lichfield is fairly small and quiet. We cycle with our three young daughters on the road, there isn’t a road I wouldn’t go down with them here. I often wonder if we were still living in a suburb of Birmingham would we do the same or would we just be sticking to the cycle paths and parks? Communal cycling in this way is fun, can be exhilarating and empowering. As it only takes place for an hour a month, the CM is hardly a disruption to the usual free run of the cars, vans and buses.

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After I read a discussion on the Brum CM Facebook page about an incident towards the end of the ride on Digbeth High Street. I didn’t have any problem at the time, we occupied all three lanes and I remember hearing horns being blown by vehicles behind us as we dragged through the lights away from town. I thought it was fine to delay the traffic for a couple of minutes but some people afterwards expressed their opinion that it was too antagonistic and confrontational for them and that we could have just used one lane and let the traffic flow around us. There is a very real fear about what an angry driver is capable of doing.

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Two days later I was on a family ride with kids as young as six years old. We blocked a bridge over the canal near Fradley to allow our riders to get over safely. The van driver at the front of the queue started revving his engine and gesticulating for us to move over quickly. When he started tooting his horn he had lost any goodwill there was. I dropped back to be in front of him and when I judged the riders were comfortably moving I brought him through at a safe, slow speed. On the CM there is space for people who are confident in holding the traffic up to drop to the back on the roads where this was most likely to happen, and for those who are not to move forward, we weren’t travelling fast at this point.

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More problematic for me was where we rode the pedestrianised section along High Street turning right into New Street as we dodged between people on foot competing for space and I was glad to get back onto the road again.

I like the thought of the mass as an idea, an experiment and an attitude. What’s holding it back in my opinion is that it is not big enough. Imagine 500 people in a group and the debate about lanes in Digbeth wouldn’t need to be had. The challenge should be to try and increase the numbers while keeping people with diverse views as part of the mass.

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There were a couple of points where the mass seemed a bit chaotic and unsure of where to go. I thought that this chaos could be embraced. Once in the Jewellery Quarter there was uncertainty at a roundabout and I wondered if we were circling it as some sort of pirouettic gesture. Again at the end down Digbeth the leading participants carried on when the person who must have known a predetermined route did a u turn. The group split and luckily enough people in each group knew that the intended pub rendezvous was just around the corner. It’s not an organised ride but something more free spirited and that for me is its strength.

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Despite being tired and sore I enjoyed the ride. It seemed really positive and inclusive and the mature debate afterwards will hopefully ensure that those put off by the experience down Digbeth return. A more significant turn out for the rides can be built, but only if people with opposing views feel welcome. A challenge, but there is fun to be had on the way.

Tour de West Midlands part 3 – Wolverhampton to Birmingham along the cut

Leaving Wolverhampton Bike Shed my aim was to find the towpath on the canal for the trip to Birmingham. I had asked on Twitter what would be the best way and got a mixed response, someone suggesting the towpath as part of National Cycle Network Route 5 and one wag suggesting he would rather shoplift from Poundland than take that route.

It was mid afternoon and I wanted to be in Brum by teatime for the Critical Mass ride so thought I would explore the cut. Not the most informative of photos but this one proves to me I got to the top of Goldthorn Hill.

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Continuing on towards Ettingshall this unloved road marked my departure from the fairly consistent road surface to the many headed monster that is the towpath from here to Birmingham.

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First major obstacle is the Coseley Tunnel, a long and cobbled path through the dark, dripping tunnel.

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I couldn’t quite manage to ride all the way as it was like going down Green Lane with your eyes closed. This photo does not do the gloominess justice.

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It’s a nice challenging ride on this route. The surface changes regularly and to every known one to man. In the rural parts of Staffordshire we tend to cross the canal at bridges over locks. As there are very few locks around here the bridges are these brick affairs. They can be treacherous with muddy wet tyres and at the bottom often end abruptly with a small drop. Perfect for a mountain bike, but that wasn’t what I was on.

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The water in the canal here is murky and grimy, though it can’t be that bad as I spotted this heron on the bank before it flew upstream as a mountain biker approached from the other direction. I was on the look out for the black country hippo, but no luck today. This rarely seen submerged metal creature is the bane of the canal boater as it makes them rise from the water as they pass over its sleeping form.

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The first canal boat I had seen, at Ash & Lacy in West Bromwich.

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Probably the worst time of the year but the trees and buddleia meant you have to watch above as well as in front and to the side.

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Under the Smethwick railway bridges.

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Before catching up with the same heron, surely, further on.

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Into Brum I left the cut at Rotten Park Street.

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Taking my splattered legs in the direction of Harborne.

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Minutes earlier I had passed an encampment of Eastern Europeans living in tents on the side of the canal, now I was passing enormous and grotesquely oversized dwellings. Another celebratory photo at the top of the hill on Harborne Road.

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After leaving Wolverhampton we ended up at this flat on Vicarage Road. Back then the shop below us was a florist and they did their best to keep the stock fresh by making the shop as cold as possible. Added to the fact that it was a draughty underinsulated flat, it made for the coldest winter we have spent anywhere. I remember going to bed wearing two sets of clothes, hat and gloves and every duvet and blanket we had.

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One winter was enough and we were determined to leave for something better. We ended up with a council flat in a tower block overlooking Cannon Hill Park in Edgbaston that not many people seemed keen to live in. For us it was perfect. A large, spacious and warm flat. No spiders seventeen floors up and tomatoes grow well on the balcony. Once we had evicted the pigeon tenants and cleared years of mess. Streets in the sky is a perfect description for a tower block. Of course you have to share one entrance and a couple of lifts that can be hairy at times, but it was fine by us.

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Starting to tire by now as I had done more miles in one day than ever before, I scooted up the Pershore Road and into town to be at Pigeon Park by 6 o’clock.

To be continued…

Tour de West Midlands part 2 – Wolverhampton Bike Shed: Repair, Recycle, Relate

(If you missed part one from yesterday you can find it here.)

Rolling up to the gate at St Philip’s Church at Bradmore I was confronted by heavy security. The playscheme was in full swing. With my access all areas visitors badge pinned on I found Joe, co-founder of the Bike Shed. He told me the background to the project and I was to be shown around the shed by the other co-founder Simon.

The Bike Shed started as a faith based project through the church and an appeal to the congregation got them started with their first lot of bikes. Four years ago there was some funding available from the CTC for fixing bikes and learning to ride in the community. When that small pot ran out they ended up with a tiny useless tool kit but with the desire to do more.

St Philip’s Church is next to Bradmore Recreation Ground. Working with the Friends of Bradmore Rec, the church is helping to turn around the rec and restore it to its intended use. Apparently a few years ago the park had a reputation as a place to find drugs and there were regularly fires and break ins. At the moment the Bike Shed have the use of the old changing rooms, an L shaped building next to the bowling green.

On the day I went there were families picnicking on the park and playing in the playground, there were football pitches and courts for tennis, basketball and football.

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The Bike Shed is open every other Saturday offering free bike repairs (next one 10th August). Or they will help you to fix your own bike, using their tools if needed. Better to learn as maybe you could do it yourself next time. They also do short courses on bike maintenance and sell second hand bikes.
They have around fourteen volunteers on their books, many of whom have gone through a MIAS level one and level two qualification with them. Now a registered company they are trying to become a CIC (Community Interest Company).

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I was shown around the shed by Simon who is passionate about fixing and repairing bikes and heads the team of volunteers who do the work on Saturdays. Simon told me how his father had told him that when he could swim a mile, he could have a bike. He has been riding, repairing and making bikes ever since. As well as free repairs they renovate and sell the bikes that are donated to them. Every bike they sell comes with a lifetime guarantee, they do trade ups and loans and bikes are generally sold for between £10 and £60 with the money being ploughed back in to new parts. They don’t throw anything away. There is order amongst the chaos and Simon told me that they often have the part for a job when the customer has failed to find it elsewhere.

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They showed me some of their bike polo equipment. If the kids are interested in playing they will help them build up a bike to play with, apparently playing polo is very hard wearing on your rear wheel.

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They have been that busy with customers this summer they have hardly had chance to play much. Simon told me how the game is such a good way for people to learn skills and confidence on a bike.

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Simon gave me a couple of examples of the people they have met at the Bike Shed.

First, a young lad who was spending £30 a week on a pass getting to Willenhall on two buses for work, equivalent to a days wages for him. They got him sorted with a bike and he effectively got a pay rise in one fell swoop.

Also the story of a single mother who used to go to her father for repairs, but he is no longer around for her to go to. Her son has a bike as a reward for good behaviour and when the bike needed major repairs she could not afford to take it to a bike shop. Using spare parts the project fixed her bike for nothing. She was so grateful that the next week she made and brought two huge cakes for the volunteers to share and has brought more since. Goodwill is extremely important and word of mouth the most vital of advertising tools.

I was told money was not a motivation. They have seen a need in their community and are meeting it. Their success is leading them to be asked to do a similar thing outside of Bradmore. A charity over in the All Saints area has invited them and they have secured a grant to cover the rent of a storage container there – part office, part storeroom. When this gets of the ground there will be somewhere in Wolverhampton every Saturday to go to get your bike repaired for free.

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Hopefully they will take their good practice and make sure the new project is on a sound and viable footing from the beginning. Their aim is to inspire the community to step up to the mark and to build up from within. For a project to succeed, it is easier if it is rooted in the community it is in and not parachuted in.

When I started this blog one of the things I was interested in exploring was a project involving reuse and affordable bikes. I have been to Back 2 Bikes in Stafford to buy a bike for one of my kids. I paid over £50 but the bike came with problems. The experience was as intimidating to me as going into any bike shop. What a difference though to be able to go to the local park and speak with enthusiastic volunteers who are happy to do a perfect job and for free.

For a project of this sort I was advised it would be best to find people who are interested in bikes and bring along others with the skills to do other things that need doing, like admin and putting in a funding application where required. Try and get a balance of genders and be approachable and friendly, a chat can be just as important as a repair. The Bike Shed got themselves some logo’d t-shirts and aprons so they would look the part.

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The sustainable, roots up community model appeals to me. In this era of cuts to services from local authorites, when the funding runs dry the project is vulnerable. Just look at Jigsaw in North Lichfield. Better to have a model that builds sustainably and could cope with losing volunteers along the way and is not reliant on grant funding, but might take advantage of it if it comes along. Maybe you won’t have flashy premises and paid staff but you will probably be more valued by the community you are part of.

Regardless of faith or none, the story here is about a strong community looking outwards and trying to control it’s own destiny in the face of neglect by authority. The Bike Shed is a catalyst for the upkeep and renewal of the rec and there are plans in store to improve the rec even further. I hope that maybe one day the community could maintain the park instead of the council. Who knows they may even do a better job.

Thanks to Joe, Simon, Bob, Mark, Dave, Pops and Jeremy for making me so welcome and sharing their passion and time with me.

I shall be back again to see how they are getting on and if we ever get a bike polo team off the ground in Lichfield I know who will be our first opponents.

Wolverhampton Bike Shed website.

They also have Facebook and Twitter pages.

Tour de West Midlands part 1 – Lichfield to Wolverhampton via Brownhills, Bloxwich and Bentley Bridge.

There’s change in the air at Lichwheeld Towers so it got me thinking about my time in the Midlands. I realised I have lived longer down south now than in the town where I was born and raised in the North East. It’s been nearly twenty years since I had to alter my broad accent to be understood. I’ve become soft without the wind off the North Sea. I’ve learned to love chips with batter on them.

Thumbing my worn and battered Birmingham A to Z I formulated a plan to try and visit all the places I have lived in the West Midlands, taking in a few other things along the way. With a whole day spare I set off early with the intention of meeting up with a bike reuse project in Wolverhampton and a whistle stop tour of all my previous abodes for a quick photo.

Leaving town on the Walsall Road I turned towards Burntwood, heading for Hammerwich.

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Through the village I took Meerash Lane, pausing at the top for breath at the abandoned Meerash Farm, dwelling on the chance of some flatter towpath riding later in the day.

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Crossing the toll road and the A5, my aim was to pick up the Lichfield Road for most of the journey. Another drag and I was up into Brownhills and it’s wonderful stainless steel sculpture on the roundabout commemorating the mining tradition in the town. An appropriate piece of public art and better than the elitist civic tosh we have in Lichfield.

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The road to Wolves was familiar as we had traversed it many times when we were visiting family in Lichfield. You know you are getting closer to Walsall when you see the signs for the TMO’s. If you love social housing like I do, it’s hard not to get excited about a Tenant Management Organisation.

The road surface is just as wrinkled and stretched as it was and worst in the cycling zone in the margins. Back then the journey by car took until the first or second track on the second side of a TDK90, but it’s not much slower by bike with all the traffic lights and volume of traffic.

Last time I passed, this building near Bloxwich was an abandoned garage I think.

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Reaching the city limits at New Invention I dropped down onto the canal for the last four miles or so.

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This section of canal is flanked with houses and used as a thoroughfare by pedestrians and bikers. The water is clear and you can see the roots of the lily pads and the entangled plastic bags.

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If this is what travelling on the cut is like in the Black Country I could get used to it, a really pleasant ride away from the noise of the traffic and with time to say hello to passing riders and walkers. Passing by Bentley Bridge, I came past another steel sculpture at Heath Town.

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And signs that I was closing in on the city proper.

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The old and the new side by side in the centre just before the train station.

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Rising from the canal at the Wednesfield Road I skipped the ring road and found the first place I laid my head on foreign soil at the University halls of residence.

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Through Whitmore Reans I found my next place on Newhampton Road West.

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Then just round the corner to Allen Road.

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One day the landlord told us he had sold the house and we had to move out in a couple of days. No problem he said, I have another house on the same road.

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We didn’t last long there. The snail trails on the wallpaper of the downstairs rooms should have given us a clue as to the condition of the house, and after a few weeks we fled. I paused in the beautiful West Park for a quick snack at the bandstand.

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Across the Tettenhall Road (with a cycle path now!) to my final home on Lea Road.

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I really enjoyed my time in Wolverhampton, the freedom and autonomy from leaving home and the seemingly endless possibilities before the responsibility of parenthood. I heard a statistic once that said 40% of graduates end up living in the town they went to university in. The reason we left was due to wanting to get a more secure place to live, not to be at the mercy of rogue or absent landlords. Also we fancied moving to the big city, Birmingham.

Just round the corner at Bradmore was my destination for the day, the Bike Shed project on the recreation ground. I had arranged to meet the people running the scheme to see what it was all about.

More about that next time…

Park Life part two

Another trip to the park on our bikes following last weeks ride to Darnford and Roman Way. Stop en route at Waitrose for provisions.

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Found another abandoned toy in the car park.

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Work is progressing on the Saxon Penny.

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We followed this buzzard soaring up Falkland Road.

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Down Fosseway to the park off Shortbutts Lane.

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Great park set within large field next to new housing estate so unfortunately no toilets for visitors.

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Good quality play equipment situated on sand and bark amidst trees.

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Even the de rigeur boulders were comfortable to sit or lie on.

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Seriously impressed with the sports play equipment. Why is a MUGA normally enclosed in a cage? This was great, even had cricket stumps.

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Beacon Park was on the way back so we stopped to see the mutant swans.

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Still the best, but Shortbutts got ten out of ten from the kids and we will be back again.

Cycle Rides For All – Lichfield to Fradley and back this Sunday

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Join us on Sunday for the free Cycle Rides For All ride to Fradley Junction and back. Meet at Freedom Cycles by the bus station at 10am for a 10:30 start. Get your bike checked over for free before we start on the 12 mile return journey. Bring water and something to eat, we will be stopping at Fradley for at least an hour for lunch at one of the cafes there. As this is a family friendly assisted ride the pace will be slow and steady, perfect for those who have been energised by the Tour de France but fancy a leisurely ride out through the countryside.

Debby Whiting from Freedom cycles said: “Going on a group ride is a healthy way to meet other people and to have fun. We make sure the pace is suitable for all riders and that there are breaks on the way round.” Children under 16 years of age must be accompanied by an adult.

More details here.

It’s all for charidee mate

Following on from the St Giles charity ride I spotted a couple of months ago, i’ve seen some more posters in town advertising bike fundraisers. In Acorns Hospice shop window was this one:

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In the window of British Heart Foundation were two more:

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There must be a ratio of how much it costs to do events like these and how much the charity will make in donations above that cost. Do they raise more the further or more exotic the ride?