30 November 2009

On the saddle of Solsbury Hill

The rain scuppered our cycling weekend in the Peaks. (We looked for a replacement activity which might benefit from the introduction of water. So instead we had a whisky tasting weekend in the Peaks.) Meanwhile we entertained ourselves by compiling our Top Entries for the British Songbook. (I've discussed bike-related pop songs, like Elton John's Sprocket Man, in a previous post.)

One of the suggestions was Peter Gabriel's Solsbury Hill. I was delighted to see on the YouTube video of his 2003 World Tour that he performs the song by cycling round stage on a folding bike. (I see that kimbofo, whose London cycling diary is still alive, had spotted the video before.)

It looks like a Moulton to me. That would make sense given that it comes from Gabriel's stomping ground of Wiltshire. Solsbury Hill itself is between Bath and Box, his home town. The lanes round its east side, easily accessed from the Kennet and Avon canal (on which you can cycle all the way to Reading), are lovely cycling country. When it's not cascading with rain.

Anyway, as Mr Gabriel is riding in his normal clothes, without a helmet, and is clearly enjoying the whole thing enormously, we're happy to elevate him to the status of Real Cyclist.

29 November 2009

Keep bike parking clear? Skip that

What's this skip doing chained to the bike rack by Lambeth North station? A mode of transport for revelling students? A handy recycling point for those seventy-quid self-assembly supermarket bikes? Actually, given the flimsiness of some bike parking units like this, maybe it's anchoring the rack.

28 November 2009

Parklife on the Waterlink

The Waterlink Way, which I enthused about yesterday, lets you get close to all sorts of primitive creatures and slimy pondlife. Sometimes ones you didn't expect.

The Sustrans guide to the route promises 'blocks of parkland', though this presumably wasn't what they had in mind.

Yet again, the number plate seems to follow a pattern.

27 November 2009

Trickle or treat: the Waterlink Way

The Waterlink Way, ambling six or so miles south from Greenwich to South Norwood, is one of south London's pleasantest leisure rides. For most of its length it runs through traffic-free parks alongside the Ravensbourne, a watercourse that can't decide if it wants to be a stream, a river, or clump of reeds. Yesterday was sunny and I had a couple of free years in my diary, so I cycled along it.

It also looks very promising for odd things to see en route. In Deptford you go past this van made of tinfoil emblazoned with the legend I ACCUSE THE OIL COMPANIES OF. Failing to plan ahead, perhaps?

A bit later, on Marsala Road, are the biggest painted on-road cycle symbols I've seen in London. Usually I complain that such symbols are too small and can be missed by drivers. This one must be visible from the International Space Station.

And finally, what was this Motorway Maintenance vehicle doing on a bridleway in South Norwood Park? The M25's miles away, mate...

It's an easy, family-friendly trip of an hour or so. In theory you can follow the fishtail-shaped Sustrans signs all the way to Gatwick airport. In practice you'll probably get bored in the steppes of South Norwood park, which is surprisingly austere, and even more surprisingly crossed by a tram at the southern end.

For your trip back to central London there are lots of train stations and a bewildering web of lines that never quite go to the terminus you expect. I accuse the train operating companies of.

26 November 2009

Lancet figures it out: less cars, more bikes, more eating out

The Lancet medical journal has just published a series of reports on climate change. One of them deals with the health benefits of reducing vehicle use, and a few newspapers (such as the Telegraph) have tried today to summarise their findings.

Don't believe figures you read in papers by pressurised journos speed-reading the report. They're rubbish at stats. Never get a journalist to work out the restaurant bill unless it's on their expenses. Because this report is crammed full of them, as well as tables, footnotes and caveats. It wisely gives no simple headline numbers. Wading through it is like trying to cycle up Kennington Road at rush hour with all those roadworks.

But the bottom line, unsurprisingly, is that many lives would be saved, and many more years of health enjoyed, if more people walked and cycled and fewer went by car, thanks to reductions in everything from respiratory problems to depression.

However, figures help focus the mind. And their best-case assumption, as far as I can make out, reckons on 500 premature deaths per year in London being avoided, and 7300 extra years of health per year per million population (in other words, I'm assuming, two and a half extra days of good health per person per year; I'll take it as a long weekend in July, thanks).

But don't trust my arithmetic. Read it for yourself, if you have little on at work today. (I once did a degree in maths, so I'm rubbish at numbers. I can only remember my x times table now. Never get a mathematician to work out the restaurant bill, unless the local currency happens to be pi.)

Anyway, their best-case assumes cycling increases eightfold to match that in Copenhagen, Delft, Freiburg etc. Um, right. That's a big if. Though as they point out, it's from a low start: 55% of London car journeys are under 8km, so there's plenty of scope for increasing bike trips. (They also imply that in this scenario, cycling and walking accidents might increase by up to 40%, though the rate of accidents would reduce.)

All of this, though, needs "prioritisation for people who walk and cycle, and restriction of car travel to ensure active travel is the safest and most convenient, pleasant, and quickest way to reach destinations. The reallocation of space to provide a high-quality streetscape that is designed to meet the needs of pedestrians and cyclists is of particular importance."

Oh no! If that happens we'll have nothing to blog about. And I'll end up spending more time trying to work out restaurant bills.

25 November 2009

Taxing problems

Two lung cancer sufferers are waiting for life-saving radiotherapy. One is a smoker and one a non-smoker. Which gets priority for treatment?

The right answer, of course, is 'neither: free health care is universal and non-prioritised (apologies to US readers), though if I was the doctor I'd be tempted to put the non-smoker first'. But what if the smoker claimed priority because the non-smoker 'doesn't pay hospital tax'?

Nonsense, you'd say: there's no such thing as 'hospital tax'. Oh yes there is, the smoker insists: all that tax I pay on cigarettes pays for the NHS, so the non-smoker has less claim to the treatment than me.

A smoker who claimed this would be held up for public ridicule and contempt. Yet it's exactly the same argument as the certain type of motorist who whinges that 'cyclists don't pay road tax so they should leave the roads to us'.

'Cyclists don't pay road tax' is an urban myth of astounding proportions. More widespread even than the notion that 1970s kids' TV programme Captain Pugwash had characters with very rude names (it didn't); that JFK mistakenly said 'I'm a jam doughnut' in Berlin (he didn't); or that Jeremy Clarkson once wrote something witty.

Now a site called ipayroadtax.com offers to sell you various bits of kit branded with a pretend logo saying that cyclists actually DO pay road tax, because most of us have cars. That's their logo on the right.

It was a wheeze that grew thanks to Twitter by the admirable cycling advocate and journo Carlton Reid (see his fine biking sites bikeforall.net and quickrelease.tv, and his Twitter feed).

Now, anything that might counter certain motorists' tedious and flatly untrue opinions about road funding and raise a bit of awareness is a good thing. If this promotes sensible media debate, and helps destroy this particular urban myth, then great.

But it's a wheeze I can't entirely participate in. I don't have a car, hardly earn enough to pay income tax, and get my T-shirts from East St market for a quid each branded 'Tomy Hifliger' and 'Docle & Gabanna'.

And in any case I'm not entirely clear what it's saying. That it's taxpayers who have the right to use the roads (which are paid for out of general taxation, and council tax, of course)? So not non-taxpayers, then? As a Southwark council-tax payer, do I have more right to use Southwark roads than Lambeth ones?

Maybe there's another answer - to charge cyclists a 'road tax' proportional to the wear and tear they produce compared to cars? The standard figure is that damage to roads is proportional to the fourth power of the axle weight. So a rough figure suggests that a car, which weighs about ten times as much as a cyclist (say 1000kg versus 100kg) should pay 10x10x10x10, or 10,000 times as much in 'road tax'. So if a car pays £100 a year, the cyclist pays 1p. I'd happily pay my next 50 years' 'road tax' now if it would shut up those certain motorists.

But we're getting dangerously close to the Smoker's Defence.


No, that'd be too big a T-shirt. Maybe, instead, one that says CAPTAIN PUGWASH IS INNOCENT. Or JFK WAS RIGHT. Hmm. A bit oblique, I'll grant you. Ah, got it: how about 'SOD OFF'?.

24 November 2009

Making light of pavement-cycling police blunders

This last week, the City Police have been clamping down on people cycling at night without lights. Offenders are fined £30. But, if they turn up to a safety demo at St Paul's on Thursday 26 with lights on their bike, they'll have the fine rescinded.

This is all fair enough and I don't have a problem with it. (Though I think there are better uses of police time; and the press release's statement that '28 cyclists were injured in collisions' in the dark, without evidence any of them were caused by lack of visibility, looks suspiciously like victim-blaming.)

I'm not quite so sure about trying to arrest people for cycling on cycle paths, though. That's what happened to a Southwark Cyclists member on Monday night shortly after he followed the sign pictured here and turned right.

He was stopped by the police for 'cycling on the pavement' - despite the fact that this 10m section of pavement is signed and marked as a cycle route (right). The markings are faded, sure, but not invisible.

(And cycling across the pedestrian crossing is perfectly legal, as it isn't a toucan crossing. [See update in comments below])

It's by Meadow Row, and is part of the Elephant and Castle by-pass - the same route which, unmodified except for a tin of blue paint, will be part of the forthcoming South Wimbledon-to-Bank Cycle Superhighway. It doesn't bode well...

Presumably the officer simply didn't see the pavement markings in the dark. Perhaps they were dazzled by the rider's lights. Honestly, some of these cyclists, swanning around floodlit with LEDs strobing everywhere like a Pink Floyd laser show. It's about time the police clamped down on them.

23 November 2009

Bikes on planes? Yeah, and bags might fly

Until a few years ago, you could take your bikes on planes. Now you can't. And nobody told me.

Because now it seems the rules have changed. You used to be able to check in your bike like normal baggage, having first done some cubist rearrangement: twisting the handlebars flat, removing the pedals, and deflating the tyres lest they explode mid-air (an improbability smiled at by physicists).

Then you simply took it off the carousel at the other end, reconstituted it, and pushed it to the nearest bike shop to get your squashed derailleur mended. I did this several times in the days before flying became like telling racist jokes.

Yes, yes, we know all about the CO2 footprint stuff. But don't worry, I have a few flights carbon-offset already: I've been breathing very shallowly for a few years.

Anyway, we needed to get a bike between London and Hamburg recently. Rail proved surprisingly difficult (more of this tomorrow) and we considered the plane. But now all the airlines seem to require a 'recognised bike box' to transport your machine.

Which is effectively a ban. Because, if you're going on a bike tour, how do you get the bike box to the airport?

A cursory Google search provides plenty of pages telling you how to disassemble your bike and box it up safely once you're at the airport. But that's the easy bit. None of them tell you how to get it there.

Over the weekend I picked up a bike box for free through Freecycle (thanks, Catherine). Getting it back two miles to the house wasn't easy - the picture shows the least worst solution. I had to push the bike all the way. You couldn't get that lot plus panniers to Heathrow or Stansted. And even if you pack up your bike at home, and lug the box-with-bike-plus-luggage all the way to the airport, what do you do then with the box at the other end?

We suggested that airlines hire out bike boxes, but none of them were interested.

Well, don't worry about the environment. The box proved too small for my bike anyway. I think I'll turn it into a planting tub.

[Update added Thu 26 Nov 2009: The CTC website has useful info for flying with a bike, and if you're a CTC member, you can buy a polythene bike bag light enough to pack up in your pannier for under £7 that most airlines should accept. The CTC even provide a special document for you to print out to convince airlines that the bag meets approved specs.]

22 November 2009

Sward of truth: Safety lessons for lawnmowers

Lawnmowers injure 6,500 people every year in Britain, according to an article today on the BBC website. So what can the lawnmowing community learn from cyclists? Here's the Real Cycling guide to safe mowing.

• Get message out that mowing is dangerous. Promote use of helmet, reflective gear, pollen mask etc
• Lobby councils to provide marked, separated mowing lanes in public parks
• Avoid wearing cleats unless proficient
• Give clear hand signals to other lawn users, especially grandchildren playing football
• Set up London Lawnmowing Campaign to raise awareness and improve standard of grass surfaces
• Beware of mower-couriers, who often take more risks
• Stay united - resist factional splits into scythe users, push-mowers, ride-ons, tourers etc
• Write blog with amusing daily reports of mowing experiences

21 November 2009

And was Jerusalem builded here? Yes, but without bike parking

The Jerusalem Tavern, right in central London, is a splendid place for a pint. If you're looking for an authentic, woody, cosy, 18th-century pub that hasn't changed since it was built... well, this isn't it. But it's the closest you'll get. (All London's pubs were refurbished in the late 1800s and no old interiors survive, but this one is a genuine imitation, in a former coffee shop built in 1720.)

It serves very nice cask ale and it's usually packed and full of atmosphere. In fact, it's one of only a handful of central London pubs with the maximum five-pint rating on fancyapint.com (there are 17 in London overall).

And bike is the best way to go there, of course. But if you're looking for somewhere to park it, the closest you'll get is a couple of hundred yards away down the side passage, by St John's Gate. Because the Tavern's street offers parking for at least a dozen cars and a dozen motorbikes, but no cycle racks. There are plenty of railings, but all are adorned with notices banning bikes. (The fancyapint picture shows an unlocked bike outside. It wasn't there on our visit. Lesson.)

Still, you have two other options. One is to stand outside with your bike, as most people were on this mild November night, some even in T shirts who didn't come from Newcastle, and some not even smoking.

The other is to go by folding bike and take it inside with you, like this chap. Not sure about the ethics of taking up a seat in such a small pub though.

Anyway, we had a very pleasant evening planning ambitious bike trips. After a pint or two of St Peter's, Lisbon to Istanbul seems no problem. Probably more chance with our other bright idea: a cycle tour of all the fancyapint five-pint-rated London pubs. I think I'll do it on a Brompton though.

20 November 2009

Bike hire cities 5: Hamburg

Had JFK ever come here, he'd've no doubt said 'ich bin ein Hamburger'. (The idea that he made a comical error in saying 'ich bin ein Berliner' is an urban myth; he was quite correct.)

Actually, Hamburg is a bit like a hamburger: flat, big, meaty, rather enjoyable. And recently reconstituted after being torn to shreds, because we bombed the hell out of the city in the war.

And Hamburg's new cycle hire scheme, StadtRad - it only started a couple of months ago - is probably the best model for London to watch as our own velorution approaches in May 2010. Hamburg's a similar geographical size to London. It's a lot more sprawling than you might guess. And it has a similar spread of places the A-to-B cyclist might want to get to. It also has a rather hit-and-miss system of cycle paths, mostly separated but abruptly disappearing or transforming into footpaths at junctions, and poorly lit. And there's loads of traffic. So the London cyclist feels pretty much at home.

The Hamburg system is the standard model: you register online, paying a nominal and one-off five-euro registration fee. The website has an English version (accessed via the easily-missed flag at the top left). To hire a bike from one of the 70-odd docking stations round the centre, you swipe that card at a hire station and follow some clear instructions (supplied in English if required) on the touchpad screen (right). Handy, free little pocket-sized maps have docking locations.

After a few seconds' typing in code numbers here, and onto a small electronic unit attached to the bike (right), you're off. (The instructions for using this small unit aren't entirely clear the first time - you spend five minutes looking for its screen and eventually realise it's under a metal flap.) The first half hour is free, then further periods rack up gradually in cost.

The bikes (top right) are really good, well-engineered, machines for town use: seven speed hub gears, saddle that adjusts from Hello-Kitty-sized Japanese exchange student to Dutchman height, wide comfy tyres, dynamo lights, and a mysterious rear rack that people mistake for a child seat, until the child keeps sliding off. The system seems popular - we always found a bike, but the half-empty racks suggested there were plenty in use.

Lessons for London: 1. Redistribution of bikes is a big deal. Commuter drifts wash lots of bikes one way in the morning and the other in the evening. A lot of people in Hamburg spend a lot of time in big vans shuttling bikes from crowded commuter foci back to near-deserted start points. London won't have docking stations quite as near train and tube stations as Hamburg, but with even stronger commuter tides, this is something we'll have to watch if we're not to end up with empty docking points.

2. There'll be teething problems. On our trip Hamburg was deluged by two days of rain. Something must have seeped into the wires, because the screens at the docking stations weren't working properly. You could check bikes out but not back in, and lots of anxious people were phoning the helpline worried that they'd be charged heftily for 'unreturned' bikes. We'll need to copy the Germans' friendliness, flexibility and generosity - and no I'm not being sarcastic: common sense prevailed and no unfair charges were levied on us. (When something like this happens in London, we'll just have to resign ourselves to the inevitable overreaction from the media.)

3. Make instructions crystal clear - Hamburg's are very good, except perhaps for that flap business mentioned above.

Hamburg's is the most successful of the five schemes I've tried recently. I'll be very happy if ours is as good. Hamburg has some fun cycling bits - the long-distance Elbe path, some parks, ferry hops round the heavily-watered landscape (above right), and a cool tunnel under the Elbe (right) that puts Greenwich's to shame - and offers you a polite, orderly, friendly and high-quality lifestyle.

But, ah, you find yourself missing that edge and dynamism of London, the free stuff, the cheap eats, the quirky history, the whatever-you're-into possibilities of things to do, the melting-pot whirl and the whoosh and the buzz... I may be from Yorkshire, but ich bin ein Londoner.

19 November 2009

Bike hire cities 4: Brussels

Brussels' bike hire scheme, Villo!, started a few months ago. It's the usual deal - register online, pay a fee, then use your credit card to take out a bike from one of the docking stations (right) and return it to that one or any another. The yearly sub is a bit steep compared to other schemes at 30 euros, but the first half-hour of rent is free. They claim 2500 bikes at 180 stands all over the 'Brussels region', which surely must be 'Belgium'?

The Villo! website looks good, and (are you listening, Krakow?) provides thorough versions in English, French and Dutch.

I had a brief encounter with Villo! during a six-hour wait between Eurolines coaches, shuttling between Brussels-Noord and the Grand Place. Not many people using it, but it seemed OK. (The layover was otherwise dismal, unpleasant and sinister, though: backstreet-city Brussels in the dark is not enjoyable cycling. The football hooligans down by the Grand Place were somehow reassuring by comparison.)

18 November 2009

Bike hire cities 3: Cardiff

Cardiff is the capital of Wales (a small country in the north-west of the EU, about the size of Wales). At the end of September this year it beat London to the status of bike-scheme-capital when hire company Oybike started running their custard-coloured bikes (right) round the city.

Well, kind of beat. Oybike had been running a similar scheme in Hammersmith for a few years; but that stopped in late October, made redundant by the forthcoming London scheme in May 2010. They're still running similar ventures in Reading and Farnborough, though.

It works in the standard way: you register online, paying a fee of say £18 a year, and then you can take out a bike from one of their stations for up to half an hour for free; there are increasing charges for longer periods.

In Cardiff this looks promising, because there's one obvious journey to do by bike. The centre is small enough to walk around all the important cultural things - for instance, it's only five minutes' stroll from the art gallery (which has arguably the world's greatest collection of Welsh paintings) to Cardiff Castle and then to the Millennium Stadium, which is right opposite Wetherspoon's.

But the hike down from the centre to the bistro-run at the Bay is just a bit too far and too boring to walk comfortably, a mile or two maybe. The road is no oil painting, not even by those Welsh impressionists. A bike is ideal, though, and there's a separated bike path all along the straight main road between the two.

Once at the Bay you can cycle around in front of the majestic Millennium Hall (right), and continue (right) down all the way to the barrage and across to the other side, before returning to enjoy a pleasant dinner in a chain restaurant overlooking the water whose price may come as a shock if you had lunch in Pontypridd.

And there are bike hire stations handily sited round Bay itself, and round the main rail station. The bikes (and the self-service hire machines) are, of course, bilingual, with English on one side and Welsh on the other ('Free to ride' / 'Seiclo am ddim', which means 'bike for nowt', below right).

So what's the lesson for London? Too early to say yet, but there's one point of interest to watch. The Oybikes are shaft-drive, meaning they're a bit more effort to ride but won't stain your trousers and don't suffer from chain problems. London's bikes will be standard chain-drives, so it'll be interesting to compare the two when both are in full swing. Though your views on the seriousness of stained trousers may depend on whether you buy them from Regent St and Bond St, or Matalan and TJ Hughes.

I'm tempted to finish with some jokes about Splott, but d'you know, I rather like Cardiff.

17 November 2009

Bike hire cities 2: Krakow

Hmm. Nice-looking bikes they've got here: good, sturdy, step-through frames, saddles that adjust for all sizes, smooth hub gears (?five), back rack, front basket and city map (below right), dynamo lights... and some handily located hire stations round the city, such as right outside the main rail and bus terminus (right).

Trouble is getting to use them. The pattern for modern city hire schemes seems to be this: you register online with your credit card details, paying either a one-off fee or some periodic rate, for a day or week or year; then you can take out a bike from the automated unit at the bike hire station, using that same credit card, and checking the bike back in at the same or some other station. Short periods of up to half an hour are free or very cheap, perhaps a pound or less; but the price jacks up so that a full day would be about the same as commercial bike hire, perhaps £15 or more.

Krakow's scheme is no exception, and that means going to the bikeone.pl website to register... which is in Polish. There are a couple of English language pages (you might find the 'ENG' link hidden down at the very bottom right) but not for the vital bits of registering. If you know someone who speaks Polish then maybe not too much of a problem (and if they can fix a chronically stiff bathroom tap, give me their number). Otherwise, you may find the information that, for example, three miesieczny is an okres waznosci of 90 dni and a cena of 50 pln, less than helpful. It hardly encourages you to start entering your credit card details into forms you don't understand.

So that's a lesson for London: make the booking process as easy as possible, make the website foolproof, and don't make it available only in the local language, or we'd end up with an Ess-charry Inglish site saying 'Ar long jer wonna rint it for?'.

And so I didn't manage to rent a bike in Krakow, but it doesn't really matter because everything you'd really want to see in the city is within walking distance anyway. There are a few bike lanes, and people do cycle around the vast and pleasant main square (right) where you can sit and sip a Tyskie or Zywiec and listen to the hourly trumpet call to the four points of the compass echo around the historic facades.

And actually there aren't too many promising bike tours from Krakow, though you might possibly cycle along Route 4. This roughly follows the Vistula river (above right) from the city centre, where it snakes round the iconic castle of Wawel, out west for 50km to the town of Oswieczim - known to most of us, more soberingly, as Auschwitz (right).

16 November 2009

Bike hire cities 1: Copenhagen

London's Bike Hire scheme is due to start in May 2010. It's coming a bit late to the citybike party: Barcelona and Paris have had popular, and generally successful, schemes running for a few years now.

And many other cities have them, each with some lessons for what London might want to copy - or avoid. So this week I'll be talking about some of the other European city hire schemes I've used recently, starting with Copenhagen's.

Uniquely, among the cities to be considered here, Copenhagen's scheme is free and requires no registering or booking. You look for one of 110 special bike racks round the city which hold the city bikes (top right). Though a range of colours, they're characteristic in appearance, with solid rear wheels, clear branding, and a metal map of the city centre (with rack locations) fixed on the handlebars (right).

To release the bike from its chain, you simply insert a 20 kroner coin - a bit more than two quid, so just about enough to buy a can of coke - into a slot (visible on the right), just as you would with a supermarket trolley.

In fact, the bike rides very much like a supermarket trolley too. The saddle goes no higher than four inches off the floor, meaning anyone over the age of seven will find their view of the road continually blocked by their knees.

There are no brakes on the handlebars: the only ways of stopping are either to engage the back-pedal brake, usually by accident; or to collide with a lamppost. This being cycle-friendly Denmark, the insurance company generally assumes the lamppost was responsible.

They make some interesting noises, too. This one sounds like a corncrake; that one, a distant car alarm; the other, a looming cloud of tsetse fly. The quality and variety is remarkable. I know musicians at Goldsmiths who've got PhDs in electronic music with less.

And there's the cobbles. They don't cope well with cobbles. If you try nipping out to the shops for a pint of milk on one, it'll be butter by the time you get home.

You're only supposed to use them in the couple of square miles of the city centre - there are big fines for taking them outside the boundary. (Your basket-mounted map shows you if you're near border country.) In practice, twenty minutes on a city hire bike is enough. They also don't have lights, and are only available from March to November.

If you're a local, of course, you don't need them: you have and frequently use a bike of your own, even going shopping with the kids (right).

Still, the scheme is popular: the racks are often empty at peak times, so you can't guarantee instant use. And they are handy if you're a visitor and just want to shuttle between the station, youth hostel, mermaid, and city-centre musts such as the Bog Museum. (That's 'book museum', sadly.) And they're free, in a city that feels about 50 per cent pricier than London. (There is 'normal' bike hire available from various places, for similar rates to Britain, about £15 per day or so.) And they are, indeed, enormous fun.

You might also use one to grind your way out to Christiania (right), the semi-legitimised hippy community on Christianshavn. Cars are not allowed there, along with other dangerous and immoral things such as hard drugs and photography. Soft drugs on the other hand are virtually compulsory. At the market stalls you see mighty blocks of cannabis resin on sale the size of breeze blocks. There are also several scruffy but atmospheric bars and restaurants.

So what are the lessons for London? Well, having a soft-drugs-tolerant enclave such as Christianshavn would obviously be a fantastic... oh, I see, the bike hire lessons for London. Only that free unregistered bikes wouldn't work, I suppose. After the first week, half would be in canals and the other half in Lithuania or somewhere. It may be shorter on pound shops, but in terms of social discipline, Copenhagen does rather put London in the shade.

Tomorrow: Krakow...

15 November 2009

Bike Monopoly index page

I've just created an index page (on the bike99 site) for the recent series of Bike Monopoly posts here.

I've also added a link to that page in this blog's navigation strip on the left.

Rain, what rain?

Westminster Bridge was packed this morning with people enjoying the sun after yesterday's downpour, as you can see.

14 November 2009

How to stay dry in the rain: stay in

It's lashing down with rain on the stormiest day of the year, and I have no intention of pedalling anything that isn't ark-shaped. The stat generally quoted is that you only get rained on every one out of a hundred trips. Well, all of today's trips will be that one in a hundred.

So sod that. Today is an inside day. A day for iPlayer, listening to Hull City lose again, working on that guitar transcription of the James Bond theme, and a bottom-tray freezer audit to see if I recognise anything.

This is the nearest I'll get to a bicycle today (right). It's a German-made toy I got in a early-Christmas-party cracker a week ago. You pull the toothed plastic ripcord to make the rear flywheel fizz, and place the bike on the floor. It goes like the clappers. Hours of fun. Thinking of buying one of those seventy-quid chainstore bikes? This is cheaper, better engineered, and longer-lasting.

13 November 2009

Safety first on Friday the 13th

Ooh, blimey. Friday the 13th today. Mind how you go. No cycling under ladders, no cycling on the cracks in the pavement, no cycling out through a different door from the one you came in.

I know they're only old superstitions, but better be safe, just in case, specially today. Perhaps we need a 93-page cycling manual, like the one produced for police bikers and widely ridiculed yesterday.

Instead, here's the Real Cycling round-up of the Top Ten Safety Tips for unlucky days.

• If you can't hear the traffic, it can't hurt you: turn the iPod to full volume
• Helmets prevent accidents, so if you wear one, you don't need to cycle as carefully
• Red lights may indicate areas of prostitution and low personal safety. Best cycle straight past them
• Make eye contact with drivers before changing lanes - it helps them identify the body afterwards
• When making hand signals at night, think from the driver's point of view: with dark gloves on, the number of fingers you're sticking up might not be clear
Never cycle onto a pavement from the road - the kerb can buckle your wheel. Get onto it via a dropped kerb, or dismount and remount
• Late at night, watch out for drunks and clubbers. They often know where the best parties are
• Cycle lanes are wide, safe, obstruction-free and continuous, so always use them
• Bus and taxi drivers are professionals, so you can rely on them to drive safely
• Pigs make excellent pilots

12 November 2009

Sneaking bikes into the new BL exhibition

The British Library's latest exhibition, Points of View, has just started to some excellent reviews. The fascinating collection of 19th-century photos at St Pancras is free, runs until 7 March, and is conveniently visitable by bike.

A small part of the exhibition is a series of twenty-odd pictures of London sights in the 1870s compared with the identical views today. It's on an easily missable black pillar with a video display, towards the end of the end of the exhibition on the left.

The two pictures on the right are an example: the celebrated (and bike-friendly) George Inn in Southwark.

All the series is being featured on the Points of View exhibition blog, starting with the George.

The 'now' pictures were all taken by me this summer. The ideal way to do it was by bike, of course. It was therefore a fine excuse for being paid for a few days' leisurely cycling round London in the sun, taking snaps, and stopping to research each location thoroughly. (This isn't typical of working at the British Library; it's not usually that hectic.)

The 1870s pictures, sadly, don't feature any velocipede or 'penny-farthing' riders. So I did my best to smuggle cyclists into the 'now' pictures wherever possible.

No doubt there was a debate in the 1870s between the 'real' cyclists (normal, everyday, comfy clothing such as frock coat, high collar and top hat; sensible luggage carrier such as a Gladstone bag) and the sports cyclists (lightweight penny-farthings weighing only a few stone; Devonshire serge jacket in hi-vis dark green, knickerbockers, Stanley helmet with small peaks and Cambridge grey stockings - the uniform specified for the founding members of the Cycle Touring Club).

As with the pictures, some things change, some things stay the same. As my mum says sagely, it's like everything else.

11 November 2009

Specialist subject: Spain's daft helmet laws

I finally caught up with last week's Watchdog on BBC's iPlayer last night (still available for viewing today and early tomorrow). One item, fronted by John Humphrys, investigated those self-assembly bicycle-flavour novelties sold by chainstores for under £100.

Dogwatch's unsurprising conclusion was that such cheap 'bikes' are not worth the cardboard boxes they come in. And even more potentially lethal than pop tarts.

I was pleased though to learn that Mr Humphrys, frontman of Mastermind and Radio 4's Today programme, is a Real Cyclist. When interviewed by the irritating Anne Robinson after the item (right), he revealed that uses a woman's pink shopping bike, and doesn't wear a helmet.

He said his own experience backed up recent research that not wearing a helmet was safer, because motorists give you a wider berth.

As you know, I put helmets on a pedestal. It's the best place for them. I certainly would never put one on my head.

Unless of course the law requires it, which it does in some dangerous countries with primitive road conditions: Australia, New Zealand, certain US states... and Spain.

But Spain's helmet laws are bizarre, as we found in our highly enjoyable cycle tour there last month. Lids are compulsory (right).

But not in built-up areas (right) such as nice quiet backstreets like this, or busy city centres, where presumably all that traffic makes you less likely to bang your head.

Or up hills (below right). Or if it's hot. I'm told that all this may be in honour of the similar motorbike helmet laws, whose similarly odd exceptions were put in to appease the bare-headed lobby when that legislation came in years ago.

Well, coming from Yorkshire, I think south London's hot, so imagine how Mallorca felt.

Does that mean I don't have to ever wear a helmet there, or would I get interrogated by the police?

Perhaps John Humphrys should try it out. He'd be better at the interrogation than me. Indeed, I wish in cycle-policy meetings I had his talent for asking fearless, succinct and incisive questions, instead of Evan Davis's.

10 November 2009

Turn those unwanted gifts into decoy bikes

Bike theft in London is booming. Over 18,000 were stolen in Westminster alone in the last year, up 1,000 on the previous 12 months. Now Boris Johnson is being asked to increase the use of 'bait bikes' to trap thieves, according to the Press Association yesterday. It's something our cycling mayor knows all about: he says he's had seven taken over the last decade.

He's not alone. Lance Armstrong and David Cameron (twice) suffered the same fate recently; and Muhammad Ali, the story goes, got into boxing by accident when his bike was nicked.

I had a bike thefted in 2005 in that hotbed of cycle larceny, Twickenham (I'm not joking - apparently it is). I came out from a convivial curry with friends to find an empty rack, and did that ten-minute wandering-in-disbelief thing. Had I locked it somewhere else? Had I come by bike at all? Did I ever have a bike in the first place? Do I actually exist, or am I someone else pretending to be me?

You feel that, at least, the removals team could leave you some sort of notification, perhaps a sticker or card on the rack, informing you the bike had been stolen, like when your car is towed away.

It had been double-locked. It was registered on immobilise.com. I reported it to the police, who were about as keen to see me again as they would an internet date whose profile photo had proved ten years old. I scoured second-hand bike shops, second-hand websites, Brick Lane. All to no avail: less then five per cent of 440,000 bikes reported stolen in Britain every year are returned to their owners.

Talk to many a lapsed cyclist and a saddening story often emerges: they used to cycle a bit until their machine was stolen, and they never got round to replacing it. (The average loss for an uninsured stolen bike is nearly £350, so it's understandable.)

Anyway, if the Met want decoy bikes for their scheme, I have a suggestion. Do a house-to-house run just after Christmas. Every other family house will have an eighty-quid thing with two wheels, bought as a present in the naive belief it was a bicycle, ridden twice, and chucked in the garage when it proved as rideable as a supermarket trolley.

It seemed a steal at the time - well, now perhaps it really can be. Bingo! Two problems solved at once!

09 November 2009

Ludicrous Daily Mail rant

There's another ludicrous anti-cyclist rant under the heading 'There's no stopping 'lycra lout' cyclists as prosecutions for running red lights plummets' in the Daily Mail today. Well, at least it's not in a newspaper.

Others will tear apart this nonsense better than me - no doubt Freewheeler's windows are steaming up as much as mine right now - but even by Mail standards this is dire stuff. Unrelated figures are linked (prosecutions for pavement cycling and number of journeys, for example): see the dimwit Lord Lipsey's claim about only 'two cyclists in a million' being caught and prosecuted.

It's the sort of rubbish that pompous middle-aged men write in green ink to local newspapers. Unchallenged assumptions are made, anecdote is paraded as evidence, and the Mail subs still don't know how to use 'fewer than / less than' properly.

I couldn't be arsed to register in order to post a comment, which they wouldn't publish anyway; I think they have house rules against publishing facts.

08 November 2009

Odd signs in Mallorca

Mallorca is a deservedly popular destination for cycling holidays. Huge mountains in the north offer some long gradual climbs with awesome views, while the flat plains of the south are criss-crossed with quiet lanes giving you endless opportunities to question the accuracy of Balearic mapmaking.

But what struck me when I was there on a very pleasant biking trip the other week was the signs. Some are unusual and useful, like this one clearly saying you need a mountain bike. (Actually I did lose a filling on the trip, but that was down to a nub of bone in a hamburger in Soller, not an unwise road-bike shortcut down a bumpy farm track.)

Others are more puzzling. This one, for example, on the mountain road to Orient. Cyclists, beware of miniature flying goats?

And this one in Palma - which presumably is signifying a two-way bike lane - must surely set a record for the sheer number of cycle symbols in one place. There were more bikes on this sign than we saw using the lane all evening.