Posts Tagged ‘London’

Hostility on Kensington High Street

October 25, 2013

Rim brakes versus disc brakes. Electronic gears versus mechanical. Froome versus Wiggins. Sometimes, when the entrenched opinions and fierce debates of competitive cycling get too much, I long for a time when cycling was, for me, simply a means of getting about. Surely I would encounter fewer angry exchanges of deeply-held views if I went back to simply being a commuter. Then I disabuse myself of this notion by venturing into the realm of cycling advocacy and cycle safety. A spleen has not truly been vented, it seems, until it is tackling the merits of, say, a shared-use pathway.

Unusually, I found a cycling advocacy blog last week that actually made me laugh, albeit unintentionally. It goes by the wholly unbiased and open-minded title Two Wheels Good, Four Wheels Bad, and the post that gave me a chortle was about the proposed Cycle Superhighway.

It seems council officials are resisting Transport for London’s plan to build a two-lane segregated bike route along Kensington High Street because it would reduce traffic flow to one lane on part of the road and supposedly create an obstacle for pedestrians wanting to catch buses. These could be valid reasons, or they might be excuses from intransigent councillors, perhaps refusing to be ordered about by a much larger body. What’s interesting, though, is Two Wheels’ insistence that Kensington High Street is a “hostile” design for cyclists, and that the Superhighway is the best way to remedy it.

“Kensington High Street is a shopping street,” Two Wheels Good fumes, “not a distributor road, so why on earth should it have two lanes of motor traffic in each direction?!” Well, I’ve lived a few minutes away for almost 14 years, and I’ve found it one of the more pleasant main roads in Zone 1 to cycle on, partly because of its width and relatively low traffic levels. And isn’t it precisely because it is a shopping street with slower-moving traffic that makes a dedicated two-way cycle lane unnecessary?

What amused me is that as I was thinking this, Two Wheels made my point for me with a series of photographs.

kensington high street empty road

“It would be difficult to come up with something more hostile to cycling if you tried,” the blog states, even though the photos clearly show the opposite: the road is wide, there are lots of empty spaces, and cyclists are easily negotiating their way around parked vehicles.

kensington high street cab ahead

kensington high street passing cab

kensington high street walking bikes

“Also important to note is the two separate cases of Barclays Cycle Hire users that felt the road, in it’s [sic] current layout, was too dangerous to use and wheeled/cycled on the pavement instead.” It’s also important to note that he didn’t appear to actually ask them why. Maybe they just like cycling on the pavement. The trio walking their bikes may be tourists. They could’ve been lost. Or maybe they just got bored of cycling around.

Who knows? Certainly not Two Wheels Good. It seems to me that he just doesn’t like the road because it doesn’t have a segregated path and nothing will change his opinion. So yes, there is hostility on Kensington High Street. But its presence is behind the camera, not in front of it.

Cyclists in comic form

August 30, 2013

Here are two very different comic strips I’ve enjoyed recently, both of them featuring cycling. The first is how many of us would probably like to see ourselves – a glorious phalanx of wheels and whimsy enveloping an entire city – and the other is a chuckle at the grim reality.

I’ve been meaning to write about Bicycle by Ugo Gattoni since Jen gave it to me for my birthday a couple of months ago. Inspired by the 2012 Olympics, this dialogue-free strip is a lurching cityscape featuring a bike race, drawn in a rambunctious, surreal and heavily-detailed style. I guess you might call it Richard Scarry meets Hieronymus Bosch – or you might not if, unlike me, you have a thorough working knowledge of the visual arts.

It comes in a folder and opens out into a long, double-sided poster.

bicycle gattoni open

The sprawling journey is anchored around real landmarks – Big Ben, the London Eye, Regent Street and so on – while the smaller places appear to be made up (Gattoni, who is a Frenchman, has populated his version of Britain’s capital with fictional French shops). I can spot only two references that are the exception to this rule: Nobrow, the publisher of Bicycle, and Look Mum No Hands!, which has an advertisement in a version of the cafe’s distinctive cursive script stuck on the side of the Olympic Stadium.

bicycle gattoni look mum

That gave me a kick. It’s like when Pulp did a song about Bar Italia – you have an indication that a place has left some sort of a mark on the cultural consciousness when it’s referenced in a creative work. Or maybe the Look Mum fellas simply bunged Ugo a few Euros for a plug. Obviously, I prefer the former explanation.

The second strip I’ve come across is two pages in the latest issue of the peerless Viz. In Cockney Wanker, the eponymous cabbie flies into a panic after he runs over a female cyclist. “Is she orwight?” worried Wanker asks his mate Barstard…

viz cockney wanker crash

…before it’s revealed that the “she” he’s concerned about is his beloved black cab.

viz cockney wanker cab

This isn’t really satire or any serious attempt to make a social point. The joy of Viz is watching how the narratives push the already ridiculous characters into ever-more ludicrous extremes. In this case, Wanker gets the injured cyclist to pay for the damage to his vehicle by taking her card out of her handbag and running it through his PDQ.

viz cockney wanker pdq

Sorted.

The champion cyclist who made a pretty good record

December 24, 2012

You may have read Inner Ring’s piece on Bernard Hinault making, or at least lending his name to, a naff disco track released in 1980. It reminded me that there is another champion racing cyclist who made a record almost as obscure as Hinault’s, although it’s in an entirely different league.

24 Years Of Hunger is an album by a duo called Eg and Alice. Eg is Eg White, who went on to win an Ivor Novello award and write Chasing Pavements for Adele. Alice is Alice Temple, who became the first female to win the British and European BMX championships before becoming a singer. She sang on the track Bloodstain from Psyence Fiction, the first UNKLE album, and was also a model.

Released in 1991, 24 Years Of Hunger was the only album they made together. I was mildly obsessed by these songs back then and they’ve never let me down whenever I’ve revisited them. The album’s sound contains elements of Prince at his sparsest and most percussive, while Alice’s voice sounds vulnerable yet defiant. It has a very London feel, evoking a weariness beneath its poise, and there’s a truthfulness to these songs which I’ve not heard anywhere else.

The album has never been re-released on any format, which is why I’ve seen second-hand copies sell for up to £60 on Amazon. YouTube has the video for the first single Doesn’t Mean That Much To Me, although the clip has been taped off The Chart Show and only contains three-quarters of the song. But if you look closely, you might spot Alice and Eg riding bicycles.

I’ve never really followed BMX so I don’t know anything about Alice Temple’s brief cycling career, and I’ve no idea what she’s up to now. I don’t really need to know any more, though, because 24 Years says so much about her. That’s how good it is.

The Putney Experience

November 23, 2012

Putney. It’s a happening little suburb in south-west London. It’s got a cinema. It’s got a shopping centre. It’s got cafes and bars. It’s even got a Waitrose, where you can buy mince pies that smell like a Christmas tree. And at the top of the high street, on the corner of Putney Bridge and Lower Richmond Road, it has a neglected retail unit which, bafflingly given its prominence, has been unoccupied for at least a decade. But do not shed a tear for this lonely runt, because its façade has been spruced up to promote an amorphous concept which the burghers of SW15 have termed “the Putney experience”.

By studying this repurposed shop window, we can see what The Putney Experience amounts to: groups of rowers and competitive bicyclepeople, the latter apparently racing in flared trousers.

It’s a cause for rejoicing that cyclists now seem to be considered a vital part of Putney life, even though the representation of our clothing isn’t entirely accurate. But I’m not quite sure how Joe Public is meant to react. Maybe a visitor to the area will think to himself, “Well, I was going to watch a film, have a latte in the Caffè Nero down the road and then pick up a box of those Heston Blumenthal mince pies, but screw it – this is Putney, and I shall now experience its Putneyness to the full by becoming a competitive cyclist on this very day, even though I am not appropriately equipped in the trouser area.”

Maybe that will happen. I kind of doubt it, though. But if it does, I’ll be ready to welcome them into The Putney Experience.

Victory this way

August 8, 2012

There was a time when I would ride my bicycle into town, thinking that the portly physique I had in those days would never be able to convey me any further. Then one day I fell in with the right crowd (long story – I’ll tell you about it another time) and found myself doing 50-mile rides around Surrey. When you combine these two distinct parts of my life, you have, broadly speaking, the collective routes of the Olympic road races and time trials.

I witnessed parts of these races by the roadside. Jen and I walked from our flat to the mini-roundabout on Fulham Palace Road, where we cheered the men’s road race rolling towards Richmond Park like a procession of dignitaries. A few days later I watched the women’s time trial in Hampton Court. But it was seeing the roads I know well on TV that had the most impact on me.

Staple Lane’s steady ascent, the hairpins on Box Hill, the punchy little climb after Box that Gilbert was the first to tackle – they are only tarmac strips bordering fields, but these are the places that broadened my perspective on how far and how hard I am able to ride. They made me. It was like seeing your first kiss, your old friends, jobs you once had – or lost – gathered together behind the Perspex screen, depersonalised by the context of the race, and all the stranger and more moving for it.

On Monday, I did my usual 70-miler through the Surrey hills. I do the same ride regularly because, regardless of whether I’m planning to race or not, losing myself for five hours a week does my mind a bit of good. I have wondered over the years why more people don’t do the same. This time, I saw the messages that fans had painted on the roads before the pros raced by. One, on Box Hill, reads: “This way to… victory”. And I like to think this kind of graffiti is a victory in itself: a permanent reminder of cyclists’ presence on these roads, and invitation for others to join us and be changed.

A mysterious club

May 18, 2012

It seems incredible, but there really was a brief period in my life when I didn’t know what a flat white was. For two giddy months, I would make vague expressions of interest when cyclepeople of my acquaintance expressed their delight at this caffeine-based innovation, until one day my chum Phipsy mistook my proud boast of ignorance as a plea for help and tweeted a succinct description of how a flat white is constructed. So that was the end of that.

More recently, I stubbornly resisted learning the definition of the jazzy new word “soundslide”, but in that instance curiosity got the better of me after just a couple of weeks, because the soundslide in question featured none other than former Dynamo clubmate and all-round nice person Sam Humpheson of Look Mum No Hands! fame. When he was building my Merlin some years ago, Sam overruled a misguided decision I had made and, quite rightly, wrapped my handlebars in white bar tape. Not black, as I had foolishly requested, but white, the hue of speed and elegance. So when wise Sam speaks, I must listen – even if he happens to be speaking via the medium of (and I do so dislike the word) a soundslide. Ugh.

In principle, though, I stand by both of my short-lived campaigns of willful ignorance. New words should be an aid to your self-expression or help you engage more fully with the world; if they do neither, they’re simply clutter. And now, trying its best to clutter up my consciousness, comes another curious phrase: the “Car Club”.

I think this mysterious club must be the council’s doing, as its sole manifestation has appeared on an area of tarmac opposite the entrance to our building. So far, it has been quite easy to avoid discovering anything about the Secret Order Of The West London Car Club because no one has bothered to offer an explanation. I would like to think it involves men in thick, ornate moustaches and goggles sharing their love of vehicles that require a hand-crank to start them up, but at the moment there’s just a metal pole with a notice and the warning “CAR CLUB ONLY” painted imposingly in front of two parking spaces.

Very strange, I’m sure you’ll agree.

The specially designated car club area looked like this two days ago:

This is what it looked like yesterday:

And that, basically, is what it has looked like since it appeared.

I realise, of course, that any sort of club has to create an air of exclusivity to stand a chance of becoming a success. But the mysterious Car Club, judging by its perpetually empty area, doesn’t seem to have any members at all. And it has nabbed two of the best spots on a road that rarely has any free parking spaces. The ruddy cheek!

In other transport-related news, the management company that runs our flats has overturned a preservation order so they can hack down a tree that is impinging on a garage which a few residents are lucky enough to use. Well, I say they’re lucky, but I’ve never really envied them: the garage is only accessible from two adjacent roads and there are always parking spaces outside the main entrance anyway (see below) – which, to me, rather seems to defeat the point of the whole deal.

The garage only has a limited number of spaces for bicycles, so the management company installed bike parking stands along the pavement a few years ago to cope with the increase in cycle usage.

Sadly, a lot of the bikes are regularly vandalised or stolen – although the local ruffians seem to have overlooked one bike which is sporting an exclusive Harrods saddle cover, fashioned from the finest type of plastic bag the Knightsbridge emporium has to offer.

A classy piece of kit – but I digress. I was, you may remember, pondering the nature of the car club, and while I have no intention of uncovering its purpose, I strongly suspect it is some sort of vehicle-sharing scheme. It’s probably a well-meaning initiative, but like a flat white (translation: yet another combination of milk and bean juice) or a soundslide (an audio recording with photo slideshow), it’s just a phrase for a concept that has more or less existed in another form: everyone, after all, will either give someone a lift in their car or briefly lend it out at some point in their lives. New phrases and words emerge because we have a basic human desire for change; effecting actual change is much harder.
And what’s really needed in this case is some co-ordination between the council and the estate management company so that everyone benefits: turn the residents’ garage into a cycle park, thereby saving a tree, let motorists take up the spare parking capacity on the road and get rid of the unused Car Club. Oh, if only outcomes were as easy to create as phrases and slogans…

Thank you, Addison Lee

April 27, 2012

It’s been a week since John Griffin, the outspoken boss of Addison Lee, bravely issued his now-infamous call-to-arms against cyclists who have had the temerity to be knocked down by his own drivers and other assorted London motorfolk. So let’s take stock and ask ourselves: what, if anything, have we learned?

Well, for a start, I think we can all agree that those who sell bicycles must share the blame following the “tremendous upsurge in cycling and cycling shops”. Admittedly, I initially wondered why Griffin mentioned bicycle retailers. But then I realised that if there weren’t any shops selling bikes, there wouldn’t be any bikes either. And with no bikes, there wouldn’t be any cyclists legitimately using bus lanes (the same lanes which, incidentally, Griffin has encouraged his drivers to use illegally). As those of the car-for-hire fraternity might say: Q. E. bladdy D., sunshine. You can’t argue with that logic.

Another salient point – and again, I’m trying to follow the relentless course of Griffin’s argument as it powers away like a rude berk in a people carrier – is that it’s OK for drivers to hit a few OAPs now and again because, well, they just don’t see them. Cyclists, Griffin reckons, would be safer if they were trained, although if motorists are unable to spot a slow-moving adult human (not necessarily the case, but let’s follow Griffin’s logic here), then a trained cyclist probably stands as much chance as an untrained one.

Above all, I think we should conclude that John Griffin engaged in nothing less than a one-man festival of nonsensical, unfunny twuntfoolery that triggered a wave of anger that went far beyond our relatively small community of cyclepeople – and it was only when everyone judged him to be a magnificent, towering cockwit that he finally backtracked. He’s also been rewarded with a petition calling for the Department of Transport to revoke Addison Lee’s license. But I would like to thank him for speaking his mind because – and please don’t think I’m now suddenly morphing into a Rod Liddle-esque contrarian twerp – I honestly think his viewpoint needed to be expressed.

For as long as I can remember, most of the moans about the worst behaviour of cyclists (they ignore red lights, they weave in and out of lanes without looking, they ride on the pavement, et bleedin’ cetera) have been polished off with the same banal clincher: “And they don’t even pay road tax!” Setting aside the obvious counter-argument – “road tax” is actually a tax on cars linked to emissions, and we all pay for roads through general taxation – the notion seems to be that cyclists are mere guests, so it’s incumbent on them to behave better. But my instinct has always been that is not remotely what the angriest motorists believe, even though that’s what this small but vocal clan of drivers appears to be saying. What they really think is that cyclists shouldn’t be on the roads at all.

Now look at the resonant final sentence of Griffin’s clumsy tract: “It is time for us to say to cyclists, ‘You want to join our gang, get trained and pay up.’” The “gang” isn’t minicab drivers; it’s road users. The suggestion is clear: in Griffin’s bad new world, any cyclist who can’t or won’t pay for the associated costs their motorised counterparts already incur won’t be able to use London’s roads.

There’s a good reason why nobody with any clout had ever seriously argued for getting cyclists off the streets – as Griffin has now found out. But now, finally, this deeply restrictive view is in plain sight, and cycling advocacy can only profit from the authoritarian nastiness it has revealed itself to be.

Blackfriars Galactica: the hole saga

April 15, 2012

You know how it is with punctures: you go for ages without getting any articles on the blighters, then three come along at once. During the past seven days, the Inner Ring has considered a giddy, technology-led future of sealants and tubeless tyres, while London Cyclist kept it old school by revealing that he prefers the age-old method of patching his inner tube at the roadside. And now I, too, have had a visit from the Puncture Fairy – an occurrence which, like the activities of her kinder, more popular cousin the Tooth Fairy, took place in the middle of the night – so it is now my turn to muse on the activities of that mischievous little sprite.

The visitation took place late on Wednesday night when I flatted in the Blackfriars Underpass. This is notable for the simple reason that, thanks to my hardy Continentals, I hardly ever puncture going in to or coming back from town. But when I do, it’s invariably in the frigging Blackfriars Underpass. This has happened three times. Three! Why should this be? Well, the westbound section is sometimes closed at night for maintenance work, so I suspect a small amount of workmen’s detritus is responsible for turning it into my personal puncture blackspot – particularly as the previous flat I had was caused by a nail the size of my index finger which made a terrible CLANKCLANK-CLANKCLANK-CLANKCLANK sound as it spun against the stays.

Which is a shame, because the westbound tunnel is one of my favourite places to ride at night.

It reminds me of the landing bay in the old version of Battlestar Galactica – a coldly welcoming maw of white light waiting in the darkness – and once inside, you’re magically freed from the tyranny of air resistance. It’s an anti-wind tunnel, and no matter how knackered I am, I’m often unable to resist walloping the bike through the flat section with enough gusto to cruise up the short uphill exit.

But the unexpected outcome of the underpass periodically becoming a partial building site and puncture-attracting annoyance is that I’ve discovered an amazing little substitute which reroutes my journey by guiding me north to Queen Victoria Street. It’s called Skinners Lane, and you can find it by going up the wide, shared-use pavement opposite the approach to Southwark Bridge and turning left.

I’m sure there are plenty of narrow streets in London that look like they haven’t been resurfaced since the days when Penny Farthings roamed the land. But a cobbled road that is less likely to cause a puncture than the nearest stretch of tarmac? I think I’ve stumbled upon the Bizarro Paris-Roubaix…

South Kensington: a land of contrasts

March 19, 2012

This post is about a few things I see on my bicycle ride into town. No, no – wait! Come back! It won’t be that dull! Or at least I’ll do my best to make sure it isn’t.

Firstly, I would like to introduce you to a prime candidate for Trades Descriptions: Invisible Menders of Knightsbridge.

For a start, it’s in South Kensington, not Knightsbridge. And, as you may have noticed from the orange and brown frontage, the shop is not invisible. I mean, honestly – how could they have got away with this for so long? It’s a complete misnomer on every conceivable level.

In another sense, though, Invisible Menders is invisible, because after stopping hundreds of times at the traffic lights on the junction of Old Brompton Street and Gloucester Road, I have yet to see anyone startled by the façade or the yellowing signs with their jaunty, cursive typeface. It just sits there, unremarked-upon, a wonderful incongruity that must be around half-a-century old.

By contrast, just a few pedal-strokes away, Exhibition Road has begun making quite an exhibition of itself.

Look! No curbs! No tarmac! And no-one travelling at more than 20mph! Personally, I like the grand social statement it’s making: humans, regardless of whether they walk, cycle or use a motor vehicle, can all share the same space safely. And the chap on the left is so comfortable with these new surroundings he has squatted down to fondle his companion’s leg. An extraordinary scene, I’m sure you’ll agree.

The road planners of Kensington and Chelsea have also pedestrianised the junction of Old Brompton Road and Pelham Street, which is right outside the entrance to South Kensington station.

What you can see in that photo is a cab driver taking care not to hit two pedestrians. What you can’t see, because it happened about a minute before I took the picture, is me turning left into the junction with a big grin on my face because I no longer have to shout “WAKE UP” at someone walking blithely into my path without looking right. I’m not a psychologist, so I don’t know why removing a curb makes people more aware that they are stepping into traffic, but in my experience, it works.

So there you have it: one inconspicuous old novelty, and two conspicuous new ones. And I take hope from what the former could say about the latter: if you fulfill a purpose quietly, invisibly, then you’ll be around in 50 years, too.

Women and elephants

March 16, 2012

Here are some intriguing questions which I have been pondering this week: If a Strava user bags enough King Of The Mountain segments that aren’t actually mountains, does he become King Of The Hill? If you expose a fox to huge amounts of radiation, will its russet coat turn into “Vulpine Green” (“Don’t make Mr Fox angry. You wouldn’t want to see Mr Fox when he’s angry…”)? And what, exactly, are the local sights that pop star Alexandra Burke and her friends discovered while riding their bicycles?

That last question originally popped into my head when the Bad Boys chanteuse was promoting the Sky Rides initiative last summer. Then, like an X Factor winner, the thought vanished for months, forgotten and unmissed, only to reappear a few days ago after I heard her new single Elephant. The title of the song comes from the common phrase identifying an obvious yet previously unexpressed concern, “there’s an elephant in the room” – and in the case of a clip featuring the Hallelujah hitmaker talking about her love of cycling, the proverbial pachyderm in the immediate vicinity is that she may not actually ride a bike.

You can take a look at the clip above and decide for yourselves. What raised my eyebrow is the absence of any footage featuring Alexandra on a bike. Then my other eyebrow also went northwards when I heard her say, with all the sincerity of a practiced autocue reader: “When I can, I love to get out on my bike with my friends. It’s amazing how far we can go and see all the local sights that we never knew [weird pause] existed!” Like myself, Alexandra hails from London, the home of St Paul’s, Buckingham Palace and Tower Bridge. It is unclear which, if any, of these world-famous landmarks she never knew existed, or why she apparently had to ride a bike to discover them.

But let’s be fair. The recent boom in cycling has attracted disproportionately fewer young women compared to middle-aged men, so it made sense to employ a youthful, recognisable female celebrity to encourage more of them to cycle. Good on you, Sky! You tried, at least, to do a good thing. Now if you could just deliver a gentle nudge to the organisers of the London Nocturne – the event your team won last year – and ask them to make sure they run a women’s race again, you’d be doing a good deed for many young women who already ride bikes. Cheers!

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