Pedal don’t push – Lichwheeld 2013/2014

End of the year so a chance to review the last few months and look forward to next year. I’ve spent some time getting my head around what makes up the cycling culture locally and whether writing about it would help it to develop. At the same time I’ve been doing a lot more cycling, the majority of miles being with others at a social pace. The impetus to do this was my kids learning to ride and together we have been on the Cycle Rides For All, organised by Lichfield District Council with the support of Freedom Cycles and a group of trained volunteers. These monthly family friendly rides of between 3 and 23 miles are a great opportunity to cycle in a group on the roads. There are rumours that despite the success of the rides the council are still to make up their minds about whether they are going to support them again. Hopefully some good news will come in the new year.

There are other rides going on too. Gary from Freedom has been organising regular rides on a Tuesday evening and a Sunday afternoon that have been popular. These rides are quicker and further and bridge the gap for those who can’t or don’t want to ride the lanes with the Zipviters of Lichfield City Cycling Club. And don’t forget the Alternative Sheriff’s ride in September and, partly due to the superstitions of one correspondent, a Captain Smith centenary ride at the end of July next year.

To this lot I would like to add one more regular cycle event. In August I cycled to Birmingham to take part in the Critical Mass, held on the first Friday of each month in Brum. I’ve always been intrigued by this ride, first hearing of the direct action tactic in the nineties with its underlying critique of car culture. The ride in Brum was fun but in a city that size the 100 or so on it was not nearly enough to call it critical. For the little city I was thinking of something a little more anarchic and playful. Meeting at Speakers Corner on the last Friday of the month when the weather gets a bit better, the Lichfield Dérive will cruise the streets in a leaderless, routeless fashion until it fizzles out, hopefully in a beer garden or similar social spot.

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Most cycling miles are done by people on their own, to get to work, school, town, the allotment and any other place your bike can take you. Cycling is hugely important to many peoples health and wellbeing. Something else I would like to kick start in 2014 is a project that enables people to learn the basic skills required to maintain their own bike. Also I hope to celebrate those unsung cyclists on their way to the factories at Fradley, taking their kids to school, going to the market for a pannier full of stuff, to the library to use the computers or just round the block because they fancy it. On the road, on the pavement, in the backyard it doesn’t matter – they are all part of the same culture. I just hope somehow these posts can help play a part in making it even better.

All I want for Christmas

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At this time of year when the nights are longest, a common sight while out and about after dark round here are the number of cyclists without lights. Often they are on the pavement and you don’t see them until they are upon you. The first indication is often the squeaking of their suspension or other bike parts. The lights and batteries in the photo above cost me £3 from Poundland in town. I got them for my new bike as a temporary measure until I can sort out some decent ones. With fresh batteries in they do a fine job, making me visible to other road users and pedestrians. I read an excellent article recently by a former RAf pilot about being safe on the roads. In it he wrote:

“High contrast clothing and lights help. In particular, flashing LED’s (front and rear) are especially effective for cyclists as they create contrast and the on-off flashing attracts the peripheral vision in the same manner that movement does. There’s nothing wrong with leaving these on during the day.”

I have seen how effective flashing lights are on other cyclists and now often have mine on during the day in all but the brightest of hours. When it comes to helmets, hi-viz clothing, lycra, even bells, my opinion is that to use them or not is up to you. More important than any of those for our safety are the lights that make us visible in the dark from a distance and noticeable to pedestrians crossing the road. I mentioned the other day about a bike reuse/repair project I was going to try and start in the new year. Maybe three quids worth of lights would be an essential bit of kit to have on any bikes given away or sold?

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Re-cycle: reclaim, reuse and share skills

For a while I’ve been mulling over the possibility of starting a bike reuse/repair project in Lichfield. In the summer I went to see the Wolverhampton Bike Shed to see how they do it and was really impressed. There are various ways but often a group sets up in a shop or unit and takes in unwanted bikes to do them up to sell for a modest sum. Or maybe they offer a bike repair service. There are a few examples around in Birmingham and Back 2 Bikes in Stafford. These projects can work alongside existing bike shops as they tend to cater for people in the market for a second hand bike. The best projects do repairs in a way that enables the owner to learn how to make simple adjustments or repairs themselves.

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I took the photo above a couple of weeks ago. I first saw this bike outside Lichfield Methodist Church on Tamworth Street in May this year sporting the tell tale sign of being abandoned, a flat tyre. There are many reasons why someone may not return to pick up a bike, but whatever they are it seems a waste to leave them to rot when they could be removed and with a fair wind given a second life (or third or fourth) as a mode of transport for somebody else. This particular bike is showing the effects of all that time alone chained to the stand. Also it’s occupying space that could be used by someone else.

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In this relatively affluent city I believe that access to modestly priced but functional bikes would be a service that people in Lichfield would use. Maintenance and basic repair skills are the key to prolonging the life and use of a bike and preventing them being abandoned at the first sign of a problem. Skill sharing is the way to show people how to do simple tasks with their bikes. I have learned so much in the last few months by watching others do it and just having a go.

So, here is a proposal. No expensive and time consuming premises are required. Lets bring together some people who are able to show others how to maintain and repair a bike. Lets collect some donations of reusable bikes and spare parts and store them in sheds and garages for future use. Once a month lets meet up on somebodys driveway or street corner, touring to different parts of Lichfield if possible. We set up with a tool kit and bike stand, maybe with a bike or two for sale for a few quid and some spares. We offer free bike repairs. We put on demonstrations – fixing a puncture, adjusting brakes, changing a freewheel. We help each other out and try to pass our new skills on to others.

This is a call out to those who may have a bike or two in the shed that they no longer need. Maybe they are in a bit of a state but there could be parts that can be cannibalised for another bike. It is also a request for people who enjoy working with bikes to come forward to volunteer their time. Plus anybody who fancies hosting these gatherings and providing a few cups of tea and maybe a garage to shelter in if it pours with rain. If so, contact details are above.

Fixie My Life part 3 – no turning back?

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One last spin out on the free wheel. Back up to the Sittles Farm area again, pausing at the Sittles Airfield for a photo. When I wrote the other day that it should be an area of natural cycling beauty I was only half joking. I remembered the recently proposed Brookhay Villages and Twin Parks scheme that would squat over most of the area in the photo and beyond. A development of thousands of houses, a business park and erm, an Olympic standard rowing venue. Maybe they are going to take advantage of the fact the area has an old gravel quarry and the river Tame nearby and often floods. All to be accessed by cars and the back lanes that are excellent cycling will be lost to the rat runners. I had a look at the viability report mentioned above and scanned down to where cyclists were mentioned:

3.4 Pedestrians and cyclists
In and around the proposed new development, existing routes for pedestrians will be enhanced where possible and diverted where necessary.

So that’s diverted then. I assume they mean the bit that links to National Cycle Network 54 running down Fine Lane into Fradley village from the Arboretum? No plans to provide segregated cycling infrastructure in the report so they must be assuming we will be put off by the increase in car traffic.

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Later on I turned the wheel round so now it’s a proper fixie. As one wag pointed out, the real ale of the bike world. As I don’t drink I think of it as the brown rice bike. Good for you, but would you choose it over a pile of basmati? I took it for a spin round the block returning with pain in muscles I didn’t know existed before and pleased that there are two working brakes on it. No turning back now.

Soundtrack for the Sittles…

Fixie My Life part 2 – starting to make sense

I was kind of relieved to get out of taking the new bike for a ride last Sunday, still a bit nervous. I’ve been riding it round town breaking it in but today was the perfect chance to enjoy the nearly winters day and take it up the lanes to try it out proper. First of all a few chores around town to be completed and I stopped to view the site of the new skate park the skaters don’t want in Beacon Park, as far away from houses as possible, tucked up in the corner next to the A51 and the woods.

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Leaving the park by Bunkers Hill I spotted this, free to a good home, near the kerb in Lower Sandford Street.

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No more putting it off, so I took the Netherstowe Lane cycle route with Fradley Junction as my destination. I thought of the email I got yesterday from Kevin, who sold me the bike. In it he gave me some wonderful advice and specifically mentioned the importance of maintaining cadence on climbs. So I chanted to myself ‘cadence, cadence’ as I approached the first hillock on the lane and surprisingly with hardly any effort I was at the top enjoying the roll down. Same with the other little hills further on. With the narrow, slick road tyres and my lower position on the bike I felt like I was slicing through the air. Less than twenty minutes later I pulled up at the canalside café slightly bewildered. I’ve never got here so quick and so, well, satisfyingly.

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I’d also never got out of breath so much on a bike, but I was able to recover quite quickly. My concerns about not making it were replaced with the feeling that I could not only make it but with ease and at a higher cruising speed than I am used to. Just in case I took a slice of anti bonk bakewell and some liquid on board.

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I made a slightly longer return journey via Fradley and the Sittles and decided that it should be declared an AONC (area of natural cycling beauty) into the lowering sun, the wind and the crispy leaves. By the time I returned I felt the bike was starting to make sense. I was toying with the idea of putting flat bars on it as the narrow bullhorn bars were awkward on my journeys around town. But travelling down the lanes at speed, munching the miles, they seemed perfectly logical. Maybe it’s time to turn the wheel over start again from the beginning.

Cadenza, cadenza…

Let the train take the strain – Lichfield to Tamworth

I didn’t go out on my new single speed bike yesterday, riding partner couldn’t get a pass out, so I took up another offer to go and have a look at something that has intrigued me for a while instead. We cycled out of Lichfield to look at a potential new cycle route to Tamworth. I’ve cycled to there via Fisherwick and Elford before and also via the A51, Jerrys Lane and then the old Roman Road (A5) into Fazeley. Both nice routes but not the most direct. The quickest route would be straight down the A51 but there is a poor surface on that road and the traffic can hurtle past. Somebody suggested the service road that runs along the north side of the West Coast mainline. It’s something I’ve seen from the window of the London bound train but never looked at riding down until now.

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Looking on Google the road started by Huddlesford and it looked like we could take it most of the way to Tamworth. You can see the curved line of the train track on the photo above, from the train symbol at Lichfield Trent Valley in the top left hand corner. Turning right at The Plough we then turned left at the farm entrance and followed the track through a tunnel under the railway. We found a four or five metre wide road that followed the track towards Tamworth. I assume the road was built to allow bulding materials to be brought alongside while the line was upgraded just a few years ago and is now used mainly by farm traffic and dog walkers. We didn’t come across any other cyclists.

Continuing on the track we crossed Burton Road and on towards Fisherwick, joining Fisherwick Road then a private road towards Tamhorn. We dropped back onto the track alongside the railway line and pressed on. “Trust me” I said, “i’ve seen a bridge on the Google satellite images” to my wary colleagues, (a dog walker had just told us the road went nowhere). “If we can’t get through the tea and cakes are on me”, I tried to assure with confidence. And here is what I had seen, a road over the River Tame.

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On closer inspection on Google it appears that there was a road that led to a depot just over on the Tamworth side of the Tame and a road out to the A513. But not any more as the track come to and end in a pungent slurry where the local farmer brings his cattle, on the Lichfield side just short of the Tame.

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Our quest for an easy passage to Tamworth was faltering. Pity the road was not kept as a cycle only track perhaps. Even now a small bridge over the river would enable an almost traffic free route to be created. We turned back and crossed over the railway at Fisherwick and tried to find a route on the other side. We got to the canal and were just a short hop down to Hopwas but the towpath was poor and we called the search off. Anyway, there were three hungry riders who were on the sniff for free tea and cakes so we zipped off to Fradley Junction to honour the bet.

If there is to be little direct benefit to communities along the route of major railway lines, bypassing settlements for quicker journey times, could we not see some of the infrastructure left behind from such projects used for the benefit of local cyclists and walkers? HS2 is due to come through this way at some point. If roads are to be built to allow construction could they not be left and converted for non motorised transport routes? We travelled down around three miles of such a road yesterday, generally flat, smooth terrain reminiscent of segregated cycling in other countries. It would be a shame for it to lie there relatively unused.