i b i k e l o n d o n

Tour de France Stage 4: Citadelle de Namur, Belgium


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After riding in Antwerp and spending the day with the peloton, my tour of Le Tour continues, today bringing me to the Belgian city of Namur.  There was a huge gap between the break away and the main bunch, who crawled up the hot, dusty road to the summit of the Citadelle, where I captured this photo.

It was a hugely exciting stage on the cobbles and a dramatic win for Tony Martin.  Tomorrow I leave the pro-riders behind and return to the Netherlands to the host city of the Grand Depart, Utrecht, to find out what happens in a cycling city after the racing cyclists have gone.  Stay tuned!

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In the thick of it. Today I found out what it's like in the middle of the Tour de France...


The cyclists ride at breakneck speeds whilst all around them there is ordered chaos; mechanic’s cars, radio cars, official cars and of course the infamous publicity caravan.  Spectators waive their picnics from the roadside as the riders tear past.  Boozey kids run alongside, shouting and jumping up and down.  More than a few crowd members get perilously close in the quest for a perfect snapshot to share with friends.  I took a ride in the Tour de France, and here’s what it’s like to be right in the middle of the world’s most famous cycling race.

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The summers of my youth were always filled with the Tour de France, enjoyed by the whole family as much for the lingering shots of magnificent French scenery as for the riding itself.  We cheered on Greg Lemond and talked endlessly about Lance Armstrong as though he were some kind of cycling superman.  Looking back it seems like a cycling age of innocence, but I loved all the poetry and drama of a journey around a nation by bike. Not just a journey, but a race no less.

This was all before talk of drugs, “enabling” Doctors, self-administered transfusions and blood bags in the hotel room fridge.  Doping cast a deep stain on professional cycling, and it was a long time before I allowed myself to get back in to bike racing.  It’s all the fault of Mark Cavendish, really.  His technical prowess and sheer bravura meant I’d find myself tuning in for the sprints again. Then came Sir Bradley Wiggins.  A Brit winning the tour was the stuff of dreams when I was a kid, but then it actually happened.  Seeing young rider Simon Yates power to the top of Hay Tor during the Tour of Britain in 2013 meant I was roadside - along with about a million other people - to cheer him on when the Tour de France visited our shores last year.


So when official Tour partner Ibis Hotels got in touch asking if I’d be interested in spending the day right in the middle of the race, they didn’t have to ask twice.

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The route from Antwerp to Huy was one of the first ‘real’ stages after the ceremony of the Grand Depart in Utrecht (a time trial) and a flat spin across the green fields of Holland.  With Quintana, Contador, Nibali and of course Chris Froome all keen to prove their metal in the initial stages there was plenty of scope for pushing, shoving and hard racing from the off - and the first real uphill finish; the short and steep Mur de Huy.  Both Froome and Cavendish were out of the 2014 Tour within the initial 5 stages, so there was lots to prove.

Going to spectate at the Tour is a funny business.  You’ll stand on a dusty roadside for many hours, and the whole thing flashes past you in a matter of minutes.  The cyclists themselves pass in mere seconds.  Being stuck in the middle of it all gave me a totally different perspective.  The first thing you notice is the speed at which the entire convoy clips along.  These boys - all 198 of them - don’t hang around.  And somewhat paradoxically for cycling the centre of the convoy is a noisy place.  There’s no elysian wheeling through the countryside here - right behind the cyclists are roaring mechanic’s cars, powerful Police motorbikes with sirens, commissaires hurriedly jabbering on their radios, helicopters and not to mention the crowds.  Despite the tumult, they do a great job of cheering and shouting at the riders and its surprising how much of what they say is legible.  Chris Froome must hear people telling him to cheer up all of the time.


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Not all of the drama in the peloton takes place at the front of the bunch, either.  Domestiques - the worker bees of the Tour - are always falling back to pick up supplies from their team cars (themselves zipping along at a steady 40kph or so) and relaying it forward to their team mates.  Bidons are hung out of car windows and you watch as the riders grab hold, perhaps for a second more than is sportsmanlike.  The team crew and the cyclists amiably chat as though riding next to a tonne of car moving at speed with a man inside shouting at you is the most natural thing in the world.  No wonder Britain is doing so well in pro cycling these days.

And what of the Brits?  There’s Froome of course, and Cavendish who’ll be relishing the absence of young German sprinter Marcel Kittel this year.  There’s eight other British names - compared to last year’s four - and this when well-known names like Wiggins and David Millar are past their peloton prime and not in the Tour.  Ian Stannard will be working hard to pull Chris Froome safely across the cobbled sections tomorrow, whilst hour-record-grabbing rider Alex Dowsett will be looking for a good ride after fracturing his collarbone earlier this year.  Geraint Thomas, Luke Rowe and Peter Kennaugh will be riding for Team Sky under the tutorship of Sir David Brailsford, whilst the 22-year-old Yates twins - Simon and Adam - are racing with Australian team Orica-GreenEDGE and are the riders I’ll be watching most closely.  Steve Cummings, riding aged 34, will be in a lead support role in his team MTN-Qhubeka.  Surely a golden age of British pro cycling if ever there was one?


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Along the route, entire communities find themselves making the most of an enforced day off.  Their streets, no longer enthral to the motor car, are closed down and become occupied by people again.  Kids chalk drawings on to the tarmac.  Families put out picnic tables and share food with friends and neighbours. In Tienan we saw a Belgian oompah band keeping a whole village entertained.  There’s a certain holiday atmosphere which, coupled with sunshine, makes for a wonderful day out.

Today’s stage raced along at incredible speed.  With nerves in plentiful supply and lead riders keen to establish their position, a crash seemed almost inevitable.  When the crash came, with about 60km still to go, it was a big one, leading the race director to temporarily suspend the Tour whilst medical staff dealt with a multitude of serous injuries.  Yesterday’s Yellow Jersey winner, Fabian Cancellara, completed today’s stage but has now withdrawn from the Tour after it became apparent he’d broken pieces of his back.  White jersey-wearer and young hopeful Tom Dumoulin is also out of the rest of the Tour.  Cycling is a tough sport.


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The sheer scale of the entire Tour operation becomes apparent at the finish line when you finally see all those riders, all those support vehicles and all those bikes in the one place.  It’s like a happy cycling chaos, with riders being ushered in to trailers, pursued by journalists, fans, erstwhile bike bloggers and doping control.  Masseurs swing in to action, whilst stage host Mayors beam from the podium for the cameras.  I can understand why Ibis loves supporting the Tour de France - all those riders, team directors and hangers on (not to mention the spectators) have to stay somewhere. Indeed, some 1,500 hotel room beds are reserved every night of the Tour just for organisers and teams.


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Ibis, who have been putting me up in their super comfortable hotels here in Belgium (I love their specially designed Sweet Beds and have been sleeping like a baby throughout my trip) decided that it wasn’t enough for a cycle racing fan to be allowed in to the thick of the action and had one final surprise in store for me; a transfer to a helicopter about 20kms out from the finish line to watch the peloton from up on high.  Watching the bunch snake its way around corners and up hills through the spectacular, green countryside is a memory that will stay with me forever, and I feel exceptionally lucky to have had such an opportunity.  Thank you, Ibis, for your support of the Tour, for such a welcoming stay and for an incredible day of cycling I’ll never forget!


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Everyone cycles in Antwerp (who knew?!)


I'm in Antwerp, Belgium, which will host stage 3 of the 2015 Tour de France tomorrow.  I'm here for the Tour (follow my Twitter feed for live updates tomorrow) but hadn't appreciated what a great cycling city Antwerp is.

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Home to about a million people its Belgium's most populous city, blessed with a compact historic core which is criss-crossed by a web of tram lines and very good cycling infrastructure.  There's tonnes of Tour fans in town, and roadies were out in force riding the route ahead of tomorrow's stage, but I also saw lots of just about everybody else riding a bike as well.

As you'd expect, cyclists share with other traffic on small and quiet roads here, but where volumes or speeds of cars are high the bikes are given their own space.  And I was glad to see there was plenty of new cycling infrastructure in place and that it was well maintained; always a sure sign that a city cares for its cyclists.

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From the moment you step off the high speed train at Antwerp Centraal (and oh my goodness me, train fans, what a station it is) the fact that you're in a cycling city is apparent - deep in the bowels of the station there's acres of secure bicycle parking, a mechanic's workshop and a bike hire station. There's a suite of city bike share schemes - depending on how long you need a bike for - but if you're just visiting I recommend Fietshaven's Yellow Bike scheme, where you can rent a fantastic bike for a full 24 hours for just €13.

It was great to see the beautiful merchant's houses in the bike and pedestrian-friendly city centre.  Cyclists are exempt from having to follow most one-way streets here, and bike parking abounds. But it is not just in the old town that the city has been thinking about bikes.  There were acres of heavily-used bike parking outside the nearly-new Berchem Station, and smooth, wide brand-new bike tracks to get you there. 

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Beneath the river Scheldt, the 1933 Saint Anne's tunnel accommodates people on bike and foot, and allows you to take your bike down the original wooden escalators before a leisurely ride beneath the river with excellent acoustics!

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I found drivers to be courteous and interaction between riders and cars seemed friendly. What's more I saw cyclists of all ages out enjoying a summer's Sunday ride.  Indeed, the leisurely cycle track that follows the railway south out of the city is so popular it could well do with being made even wider - that's what we call in cycle planning circles "a nice problem to have".

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Antwerp had never been on my list of places to visit before. I knew it was here, of course, and that it was really just a short trip by train from London.  I had a vague idea that it was famous for diamonds, and shipping, but that was about it.  Well, more fool me.  Antwerp punches above its weight; both as a cycling city and as a destination in its own right.  I couldn't think of a nicer weekend away than riding around here by bike.


For more info on cycling in Antwerp go to Visit Antwerp.
Check LeTour.com for a profile of tomorrow's stage departing from Antwerp.
You can get to Antwerp via the Eurostar in about two hours, with tickets from £80.

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Utrecht welcomes the Tour de France but what's the legacy for a city that already cycles?

It's a year since the world's greatest cycle race kicked off in Britain and 'Tour fever' swept the country.  From the hills of the north York moors, to the streets of London, millions turned out hoping to catch a glimpse of their favourite Tour de France rider flash past.






Thousands of spectators packed the tiny Essex village of Finchingfield to watch Le Tour pass by in 2014.  With roads closed for miles around, most arrived by bicycle (including me!)

Everything has to have a "legacy" these days (thank you, London 2012) and the Grand Depart in Britain was no exception. Echoing last year's route, members of the public can now emulate their cycling heroes and ride Britain's hills alongside pro riders in the Tour de Yorkshire, encouraging more people to take to their bikes.  There was even a Knighthood for Grand Depart organiser Gary Verity.

This Saturday the Tour de France is heading north once more, this time starting in the Dutch city of Utrecht.  Home to canals, festivals and Miffy the bunny, it's a compact and charming university city stuffed with cycle tracks and people on bikes.  So, in a city that already has a mainstream cycling culture, will the Grand Depart be all of that big deal for the Dutch?

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'Cyclists' riding in Utrecht, where the Tour de France will begin this weekend.

I've heard cycle campaigners on both sides of the equation disparaging sports cycling in mass cycling countries.  On one hand, the argument goes that sports cycling is all well and good but it is not the "right kind" of journey by bike that cities so desire.  On the other, some dedicated roadies discredit cycling provision in case it detracts from their right to ride as quickly as they can.  I can see merits in both arguments, but on the ground in successful cycling cities the reality is very different.

Sports cycling is alive and well in the Netherlands (as multi-time world champion and Olympic gold medallist Marianne Vos and 2014 Tour de France stage winner Lars Boom attest) and there is no shortage of people pulling on their lycra on a Saturday morning to head out for a long spin in to the country.

The Dutch use bikes like we use cars and buses; it is an everyday and ordinary activity.  So it seems perfectly natural that their language makes a distinction between 'being a person who uses a bike' and 'being a cyclist'. A fietser is someone who uses a fiets (a bicycle) whereas someone with all the kit and the fancy sports bike is called wielrenner, literally a 'wheel runner'.  When the Dutch say cyclists don't wear helmets or special gear they mean it sincerely as 'fietser' is only ever a description of someone using a Dutch bike going about their day in a very ordinary way.  This is not to say sports cyclists don't exist in the Netherlands and people aren't out there in all their kit putting in the miles.



As this video by Mark from the always excellent BicycleDutch blog demonstrates, the cycle tracks of the Netherlands are home to plenty of wielrenner.  The reason you don't see them so much in bike blogs and photographs about the country is that they are somewhat obscured by the everyday and ordinary fietser all around them, much as Britain's sports cyclists are overwhelmed by the everyday and ordinary car journeys going on around them.

I can't help but feel that if we had the same linguistic distinction here in the UK, perhaps Transport for London wouldn't have dipped in to the cycling safety budget to the tune of £6million in order to host the Tour last year, instead of spending that money on making roads safer for bike riders of every hue.  (Rumours abound that TfL bosses, keen to spend the cycle budget on anything other than actual changes on the road, are keen to lure the Grand Depart to London again soon)  If we had the same linguistic distinction between cyclists and cyclists as the Dutch do, perhaps there might be a clearer understanding of what is needed to bring about those everyday and ordinary journeys by bike? 

Utrecht is a beautiful energetic cycling city and I have no doubt it will give Le Tour a fantastic send off this weekend, heralding a summer of brilliant cycle racing.  It would be interesting to see - once the professional wielrenner have wheeled out of town - how Utrecht carries on being an everyday and ordinary successful cycling city; it could be a 'legacy lesson' for us all.

London is changing, and it's all down to you. But what next for cycle campaigners?

I've been away from the blog for a few months travelling, moving house and standing back to watch as London begins to change in a way that was unthinkable just five years ago. As construction in the city centre begins of high quality cycle routes for the first time, it is worth taking a moment to assess how we got to this point, and to ask "what happens next"?





The North / South Cycle Superhighway is finally under construction.

My last article here was about the serious attempt by the Licensed Taxi Drivers Authority to have Mayor Boris Johnson's Cycle Superhighway plans stopped. In a classic filibuster they threatened to submit the entire scheme to Judicial Review in the High Court, which would have added months and innumerable expense to getting the routes built. In the end the LTDA slinked quietly away, and the Board of Transport for London gave construction the green light. (Though not until Board members, some with shocking conflicts of interest, had gone over the proposals in minuscule detail for some 90 minutes.)

Cycle campaigners - myself included - have been saying for many years that the pace of change in London has not been fast enough when considered against the annual death toll of people on bikes and the growth in numbers riding. And yet, in many ways the pace of change has now accelerated faster than anyone could have imagined even just a few years ago.





The upgraded Cycle Superhighway 2 in Whitechapel, which is opening in sections and where floating bus stops are working well. (Picture via Twitter with thanks)

In 2010 I demanded to know if the London Cycling Campaign and the Cyclists Touring Club were even prepared to push for decent cycling infrastructure or not. There was no consensus among cycle campaigners as to how best go about creating conditions for mass cycling, and even less agreement as to whether segregated cycle paths were even desirable. The integration / segregation conundrum sparked heated debates, both online and off. Respected cycling journalist and author Carlton Reid disparaged from the comments section of my blog;
"We ain't gonna get the sort of cycle infrastructure we'd all love. Ever.
In such a car-centric society as the UK it would be next to impossible to take meaningful space away from cars."
But here we are some 5 years later, and construction of high quality, segregated cycling infrastructure is already underway in London.  The plans are by no means perfect, but they will be revolutionary. When TfL's previous Cycle Superhighways were built - effectively little more than just blue paint - cycling levels on those routes leapt.  Imagine what the effect is going to be with safe new routes, separated from traffic and useable by all abilities?  We didn't just get the kind of cycle routes that people said were impossible, they're going to be game changers too.

Aldgate Gyratory is being largely rebuilt, due for completion in September 2016.  Segregated cycle tracks in Oval will arrive by next spring.  Construction is underway on the North / South Cycle Superhighways from Elephant and Castle to King's Cross, also due for completion by next spring.  The most contentious cycle route of them all, the East / West Cycle Superhighway along the Embankment, is currently causing a little light traffic chaos along the river and will be operational by May 2016, not withstanding gaps in the Royal Parks who continue to dig in their heels, and in so doing reveal their prejudices.




Welcome to the future! This segregated road space on terrifying Vauxhall Bridge will soon become a two-way cycle track. (via @AsEasyAsRiding with thanks)

Cycle campaigner's integration / segregation argument has largely gone away, with most (cough, Hackney, cough) now acknowledging that where traffic volumes and speeds are sufficiently high then separating cyclists is desirable.  As consensus emerged, much was made of the need for any new cycling infrastructure to be as fast and direct as the experience of riding in the road, and rightly so.  The internet brought us easily accessible examples of best practise from overseas, whilst popular protests in London rallied around dangerous junctions and the need for design rather than behaviour to provide safety.  This spawned the London Cycling Campaign's fabulous "Love London, Go Dutch" campaign and #space4cycling which, in turn, led to the Mayoral promise to build better routes.

Charting this progress is in itself an interesting exercise.  I am struck by just how far we have come; my talk at the 2012 National Conference on Urban Design detailed how design and conditions on the ground emerged as the campaigning issue of our time.  This consensus has in turn led to new routes being built on the ground.  Here's the audio and slides from that talk, if you fancy a lunchtime history lesson.

Design Led Cycle Safety; how the cycling community came to value urban design from ibikelondon on Vimeo.
My 2010 talk on Design-led Cycle Safety charts how campaigning has changed in London.

Once that consensus emerged, London's cycle campaigners became increasingly resilient. Lots of new faces got involved, the LCC's policy was hammered in to shape by brilliant contributors like Dr Rachel Aldred whilst activists became advisers, working as much behind the scenes as in front.  Brilliantly conceived activations were put together specifically with media impact in mind, and activist's work became targeted and with achievable aims.  The pop-up business campaign CyclingWorks.London was instrumental in helping the new Cycle Superhighways plans scrape through TfL Board approval, in the face of exceptionally powerful opposition from the likes of Canary Wharf and their corporate lobbyists.  Without the names of the 170 company CEOs pledging their support for the plans, I am not sure we would have made it.  In a recent speech the Mayor's Cycling Commissioner, Andrew Gilligan, highlighted just how tight the fight has been:
"It was at times nightmarishly difficult to manage this, and we saw some absolutely ferocious resistance, kicking and screaming, and we saw a lot more passive resistance, heel digging and foot dragging from whom Olympic cyclist Chris Boardman called Old Men in Limos; you've heard of the MAMILs, those were the OMILs. A lot of objections, which would nearly always start with the words 'Of course I support cycling..."
Gilligan went on to highlight how, with the helps of the likes of CyclingWorks, the OMILS were "comprehensively outfought in the PR and public support battle."
"You'll have to read our memoirs, if anyone wants to publish them, to find out how difficult it all was and how close it all came to not happening."
"I think we've made enormous progress - unprecedented progress - over the last couple of years, but I believe we're still in the foothills of making London a cycle friendly city and the task for Londoners is to make sure the progress we've made continues after May [2016, the next Mayoral election]."
I think this is an honest assessment and shows how hard campaigners have worked to date.  Gilligan has been a highly effective banger together of heads, but will he wish to continue as Cycling Commissioner when Boris Johnson steps down as Mayor next year? Furthermore, will the movers and shakers at Transport for London want to go back to playing just with buses and trains once the political drive for cycling moves on?


Work is underway on the Embankment for the East / West Cycle Superhighway (via @jonokenyon with thanks)

Despite the amount of work involved to date, campaigners cannot yet rest easy. In the short term we'll need to ensure the new segregated routes are fit for use and finished to a high quality. They'll also have to continue powerfully putting the case to the rest of London that the disruption they're currently experiencing will be worth it.  Transport for London will need to ensure their spanking new cycle routes are maintained, cleaned and enforced - a cycle track with a truck parked in it is no good to anyone. 

In the longer term efforts must now begin to focus on the Mayoral election in 2016.  Without political will for cycling in City Hall in the future it will be too easy for TfL to draw back from their cycling responsibilities.  'Love London, Go Dutch' and #space4cycling were aspirational campaigns which captured the wider public's imagination about how London could be.  As the results of those campaigns begin to take solid form, it's important to find a way to convince London that more of the same would be a good thing.


Brand spanking new cycle tracks in south London - look how smooth they are! (Pic via @AsEasyAsRiding with thanks)

Away from the cycle tracks, lethal lorries remain a chronic issue for vulnerable road users in our city, and much more can still be done on this issue to get the shocking and seemingly inevitable annual death toll down.  There is only so much campaigners can do, whereas Boris Johnson has the power to effect lasting change in the last 10 months of his Mayoralty.  To keep the pressure up on Transport for London he should appoint a cycling representative to their Board, an easy and much overdue move.  He should also push ahead with urgent reforms of lorry safety.  In doing so, he'd help to secure his long term cycling legacy and make it harder for future Mayors to unpick his good work.

For now, everyone who has attended a protest, written to the Mayor, tweeted, signed petitions and helped keep the momentum going should take a moment to reflect on how far London has come - both in terms of consensus and successes - and enjoy watching the new cycle routes being built.  But there's going to be more work to do to elevate London from "the foothills" of being a cycling city.  We need to get ready for what's next.

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