Nov 30, 2013

Why is it acceptable for a Time columnist to blame British cyclists killed by trucks?

Time magazine on #bloodycyclists

Re the above column, I’ve sent this letter to

Would it be acceptable for Time to apportion blame to the victims of indiscriminate shelling by Assad’s forces in Syria? Of course not. So why is it acceptable for a Time columnist to apportion some blame to cyclists in Britain killed by trucks?

Matt McAllester may wish to reflect on why many cyclists “get too close to trucks.” When such a truck overtakes a cyclist, the cyclist is automatically “on the inside” of this truck. Cyclists are often put at extreme risk when trucks come from behind, and then cut in front to turn.

Instead of blaming victims, a Time columnist ought to be asking why so many of London’s citizens (pedestrians as well as cyclists) are killed by a certain type of construction vehicle, the so-called tipper truck? Might it be because of the piece-work pay structure of the drivers of these trucks? Tipper truck drivers are under enormous financial pressure to get through London as fast as possible. Sadly, squishy humans often get in the way and it’s almost always not their fault when they’re maimed or killed.

Carlton Reid
Executive editor

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Nov 08, 2013

Traffic professionals need to understand why cyclists don’t use “cycle routes”

That’s the view of Chris Parker, a Fellow of the Institution of Civil Engineers, in a letter in the New Civil Engineer, responding to a (thankfully retired) traffic engineer who wrote that it’s “alarming to see so many cyclists…ignoring their protected cycle path and needlessly holding up traffic.”

'Alarming to see cyclists ignoring protected cycle paths & needlessly holding up traffic'

There are usually very good reasons why cyclists don’t use bike paths, ‘protected’ or otherwise. Too many are crap: narrow, strewn with glass, blocked with lamp-posts and other street furniture. And those “pedestrian pinch points” Mr Barker mentions are some of the worst examples of how seemingly “safe” infrastructure is actually dangerous: motorists often rush to get past at such pinch points and the cycle access sometimes provided at the side of them is often incredibly narrow and invariably stuffed with leaves, glass and other detritus.

Cyclists are not “holding up traffic”, they’re part of traffic. Traffic isn’t just motor vehicles. Roads were not built for cars.

If bike paths were wide, direct, well-maintained, continuous and gave priority at junctions and crossings, cyclists would use them.

It’s therefore good to see a forthright response to Mr Barker in this week’s New Civil Engineer:

NCE 7 Nove 2013 1

NCE 7 Nov 2013 2

And given Mr Barker’s use of the word “Lycra” perhaps he might like to draw on some of the following points for his next letter to the Not Quite So Civil Engineer? William Bowie certainly has!

Cyclists Hate Checklist (& bingo card)


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Oct 26, 2013

#space4cycling is a clever slogan; could it be run along with #space4people?

London Cycling Campaign’s current rallying cry - #space4cycling - is very clever, and on a national level, not just for London. No cyclist could possibly disagree with the slogan because the words can mean different things to different people. Those in favour of protected infrastructure can take it to mean ‘provision of dedicated separated bike paths’; those in favour of Hackney-style filtered permeability can take it to mean ‘installation of bollards to cut-out rat-runs’; and so-called ‘vehicular cyclists’ (a largely American term, its inventor, surprisingly, still getting mainstream media airtime) can take it to mean ’sharing the road with motor vehicles is easier when motorists treat cyclists as drivers of vehicles and give them space when overtaking’.

I’m a mix of all the above, and even more. (Vehicular cyclist? Yes, in the sense that, in the here and now, and probably long into the future, I’ll be cycling on roads with motor vehicles on them. This is not a desire, more a statement of the bleedin’ obvious. However, I dislike the term ‘driving a bicycle’ even though, historically, it isn’t motoring-specific: driving means herding cattle).

There’s currently a fascinating debate on Twitter about the different meanings of #space4cycling, with some commentators believing #space4cycling means, by definition, taking space away from motorists to give to cyclists; and others believing no such land grab is necessary.

What’s not been mentioned yet, but can be sometimes spotted in comments on tweets and blogs where wide footways are pictured, is that some cycle campaigners wouldn’t be opposed to space being taken away from pedestrians and given to cyclists.

Some past, existing and future public highway designs give a lot of space to pedestrians, funnelling cyclists and motorists into narrow carriageways that are sometimes frustrating for all road users, but cities should give over lots of space to pedestrians.

Cycling campaigners and pedestrians ought to be on the same side here and that’s why #space4cycling might have been more inclusive, more powerful - and, eventually, more successful - if, instead, it had been billed as #space4people.

It still could be. There’s no reason why #space4people couldn’t run alongside #space4cycling. (BTW, I’m very much NOT proposing more shared footways-cum-cyclepaths).

Going back to the twitter debate above, can #space4cycling (or #space4people) be achieved without taking space from motorised vehicles? Without removing car parking spaces? And, if not, shouldn’t this be made explicit by campaigners?

Naturally, it wouldn’t go down well with the motorised majority and it’s something that you could imagine would make Eric Pickles froth at the mouth, but can ‘reallocation of roadspace’ and other forms of #space4cycling really be done without some winners and some losers?

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Oct 19, 2013

On Your Bike: the 1990s “magazine for new & born again cyclists”

On Your Bike magazine, issue 2, Spring 1998

On Your Bike was a short-lived family cycling magazine I published in 1998 and 1999. Within seven issues it had grown too big for me and my small team to handle, so I sold it. I sold it to EMAP of Peterborough, the publisher of Country Walking and a load of fishing titles. The person in charge of the purchase was a family cyclist. She ‘got’ what the magazine was all about. However, in a management tussle, she was replaced and the replacement turned the magazine into a mountain bike title. I was a paid consultant for the magazine. I told EMAP they were making a big mistake: the gap in the market was for a magazine for everyday cyclists. Within a year, the mountain bike version of the magazine folded.

What a waste.

Below are some of the magazine covers and some of the magazine articles. Contributors included Richard Ballantine; Glenda Jackson; and a youthful-looking Edmund King, then with the RAC not the AA.

I can see my current obsession with pavement parking was alive and kicking even in 1998. There’s praise for separated bike lanes in the magazine and a ‘Go Dutch’ article from Groningen’s Kirsten Oosterhof. Kirsten was one of the people I was employing at the time and she also worked on Cycle Industry, the trade magazine my business produced on a contract-publishing basis before I founded Bicycle Business (which I later sold to Intent Media and it became Bike Biz).

On Your Bike always had a very low Lycra content and there was a policy to use photographs of people riding with and without cycle helmets.

The magazine clearly struck a chord with many people: a call for families to send in details of their riding resulted in a huge influx of pix.

I was proud of On Your Bike. Still am. Issue seven - the last under my full control - featured a photograph of toddler Josh, my son (my twin girls had yet to be born). Pleasingly, Josh has grown up to be a mad keen cyclist, which was always one of the goals of the magazine: to create and encourage new cyclists.





On Your Bike magazine






On Your Bike magazine

On Your Bike magazine







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Oct 15, 2013

Can you spot the difference between the twinned cities of Groningen and Newcastle?

Groningen in the Netherlands and my hometown of Newcastle became twin cities just after the Second World War. This twinning was ratified in 1988.

Apart from both cities having lots of students there are not too many similarities between Newcastle and Groningen. In fact, the differences between the two cities are startling, especially where transport is concerned. Where Newcastle is in thrall to the car, Groningen is in thrall to the bicycle. (And to the bus).

57 percent of the journeys within Groningen are made by bicycle, something that didn’t happen by chance. As the Streetfilms video below shows, there were radical transport decisions made in the 1970s by left-leaning city politicians (albeit with 70 years of pro-cycling culture on their side). Car journeys were made longer, more difficult; bicycle journeys were made shorter and easier.

In contrast, just a few years before Groningen curbed car use Newcastle’s corrupt city politicians wanted to make their city hyper friendly to the private motor car, creating what they wanted to the “Brasilia of the North”, a reference to the brutally Modernist and car-dependent capital of Brazil.

Newcycling 16

Newcastle’s double-decker central motorway is awful enough but there were plans for even more motorways. Can Newcastle ‘Go Dutch’? The Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands is staging the ‘Love Cycling Go Dutch’ conference on November 5th. Expect fireworks.

The Streetfilms video is inspiring. Do watch it all the way through.

Groningen: The World’s Cycling City from Streetfilms on Vimeo.

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Oct 11, 2013

Robocars are coming. Will they be good or bad for cycling?

Cars of the future will be fitted with Shocka-seats™ that give drivers jacksie jolts every time they shout at cyclists “oi, you don’t pay road tax”. Actually, cars won’t need to be so equipped because the most dangerous component on the car - the loose nut behind the steering wheel - could soon be eradicated. Manually driving a car may become a quaint, how-we-used-to-live museum piece, with an animatronic Jeremy Clarkson explaining what a clutch was.

The day is near when we’ll wonder how we ever let humans pilot heavy and fast machines on the public highway next to unprotected humans. (In fact, I wonder that now). When all cars are self-driving, equipped with Light Detecting and Ranging LIDAR and 360-degree cameras, there will be no more ’sorry, mate I didn’t see you’, or SMIDSYs. And the autonomous car will also know when it’s unsafe for the ‘driver’ to exit: dooring of cyclists will be history.

With cars that don’t kill, taxis without cabbies, and HGVs driven by computers not blindspot-afflicted drivers, there will less need for hard infrastructure. Many bicycle advocates believe we’ve started on a Dutch-style 40-year trajectory to getting segregated cycle paths almost everywhere but driverless cars will be here long before the end of that. Why build bike lanes when robocars and driverless trucks will be programmed to know all about space4cycling?

That’s one vision of the future. A more dystopian one involves platoons of speeding robocars making roads even more deeply unpleasant and motor-centric than they often are today. Pedestrians and cyclists may have to be restricted “for their own safety.” After all, if you knew the tipper truck barrelling towards you will automatically brake if you wobbled out in front of it, you’d have little incentive to stay in the gutter and every incentive to play one-sided chicken. Claiming the lane would take on a whole new meaning as cyclists blithely blocked robovehicles. The authorities would be put under immense pressure to stamp out jaywalking - and jaycycling. With cars able to speed through junctions, electronically interacting with each other, and with no need for traffic lights, it would be harder for humans outside of driverless cars to use the roads.

If you think all of this is science fiction, think again. A report from KPMG and America’s Centre for Automotive Research concludes that driverless cars will be with us “sooner than you think”. Google has been working on the tech for nearly five years and its test cars have driven 500,000 miles on the public roads of California. Google co-founder Sergey Brin said last year “you can count on one hand the number of years until ordinary people can experience [driverless cars].” An Oxford University research team is developing retrofittable driverless car tech said to be much cheaper and simpler than Google’s LIDAR-based system. Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn gushed at this year’s Frankfurt Motor Show “in 2020 all the problems that we have in allowing autonomous driving will be solved.” The talk of the show was the autonomous journey of an S-Class Mercedes which auto-drove 65 miles, from Mannheim to Pforzhei in Germany, recreating the world’s first long-distance automobile journey, naughtily undertaken by Bertha Benz in 1888. And in China, First Auto Works, a civilian automobile manufacturer, is working with the military’s National University of Defense Technology to produce a driverless car.

Semi-driverless cars have actually been with us for a while. Adaptive cruise control - which uses radar or lasers to measure the distance to the car in front, slowing or accelerating the car depending on the gap - has been evolving since the late 1990s.

Volvo has had pedestrian detection tech since 2010 and, in March this year, at the Geneva motor show, Volvo executive Doug Speck entered, stage left, on a wooden bicycle to introduce cars that avoid cyclists, too. Volvo’s tech - snappily titled ‘Pedestrian and Cyclist Detection with full auto brake’ and promoted with anti-SMIDSY adverts - kicks in when on-board radar and cameras spot a cyclist about to be squashed. The Volvo takes over from the driver and, even at speeds of up to 80kmh, jams on the brakes. Inspired by Sweden’s wonderful Vision Zero road safety policy, which aims for no road deaths whatsoever, Volvo’s “driver support” package with collision avoidance technology, and adaptive cruise control, puts an extra £2400 on the price of the car and is “very popular”, says Dr Andrew Backhouse, one of Volvo’s Senior Function Developers.

Dr Backhouse is British but based in Sweden and works on Volvo’s pedestrian and cyclist detection software. He told me:

“The system continuously calculates what avoidance manoeuvres are required in order to avoid a collision. If the only braking manoeuvre that will avoid a collision is by slamming on the brakes, then the system goes in and triggers the brakes.”

‘Pedestrian and Cyclist Detection with full auto brake’ is part of Volvo’s journey towards a fully autonomous car. The company is beta testing cars that drive off by themselves to find parking spaces.

On-street parking clogging up the roads? Soon to be a thing of the past. Driverless cars will drop the passenger off at the shops and scuttle away to a hidey-hole, returning to pick up the rider at just the right time.

City planners are licking their lips: they think they’ll be able to get rid of street clutter and, without spending a penny on new infrastructure, squeeze ever more motor vehicles through the existing roads.

Driverless car consultant Brad Templeton, who worked with Google on its autonomous car project for two years, told me:

“Most people pushing driverless cars are doing so on the basis it will allow a higher volume of traffic on the roads because cars will be able to travel closer together. If this is the case, the only way this works is if you remove pedestrians and cyclists from the equation. As long as someone can still step out in traffic who is not controlled electronically, then you really can’t increase speeds and volume much beyond what they are now.”

(Cyclists and pedestrians controlled electronically? Don’t tell Eric Pickles). However, Templeton also sees a future where some form of cycling prospers:

“Cycling could be great for commute times. Many commuters might be happy to get a ride to the outskirts of the [central business district], but as they enter the congested zone, have their car drop them off next to a bike for a quick ride to work.”

While an advocate for robocars, he reckons street clutter will be with us for a while yet: “It’s a fair bit of time before [robocars] dominate the road and much longer until there are no human drivers out on the roads. So we still need the signs and the kerbs for a while. [But] as more and more cars become less of a danger, the road becomes more safe.”

While a recent AA/Populus survey found 65 percent of respondents “enjoyed driving too much to ever want a driverless car”, that means 35 percent are already willing to hand control of their driving to microprocessors. “The marketplace will not merely accept self-driving vehicles,” asserts the KPMG/Centre for Automotive Research report, “it will be the engine pulling the industry forward.”

Autonomous cars are coming whether we think we want them or not. As Volvo executive Toscan Bennett explains, “Who wouldn’t want a car which drops you at your doorstep and then goes off and parks itself?”

This driver benefit could be a benefit, too, for those in favour of liveable streets. Many of our roads are clogged with this private property storage on the public highway and if driverless cars scuttled away and hid until needed (VW Beetle, indeed) there would be a lot more space for cyclists and pedestrians.

However, there would also be greater road-space for ramming in more and more fast moving cars. Where congestion is concerned, history shows us that technological fixes promise much but never deliver. London’s tube trains were meant to remove above-ground traffic. In fact, the underground increased surface congestion. Replacing the Victorian horse with cars was meant to double the capacity of London’s roads. It didn’t.

Similarly, the sweating-the-assets promise of driverless cars won’t cure congestion. Instead, it’s highly likely more journeys will be made, quickly negating any benefit.

And more and more journeys will mean the clogged roads of today will be remembered as comparatively empty. There will be pressures to speed up the traffic using more and more tech, and perhaps pressure to restrict the freedom of cyclists and pedestrians. (Robocars will be fitted with car-cams and will capture video evidence of law-breaking cyclists, who will be called out on YouTube, using their registration numbers…)

Or - spinning the futurology dice again - there could be more space for cyclists because the accurately-driven robocars and semi-robocars of the future will be able to stick to very narrow virtual lanes, freeing up space for active travel modes.

CTC’s Roger Geffen said:

“It is hard to tell what driverless car technology would do for cycling.

“It might lead to vast improvements in cyclists’ safety, eliminating the risks from those who drive aggressively, irresponsibly or just without paying attention.

“Then again, if pedestrians and cyclists can run or swerve out in front of cars knowing they will stop, some people will doubtless take advantage of this. That would infuriate drivers, leading to calls for jay-walking and on-road cycling to be banned altogether.

“Cycling’s very survival would then be wholly dependent on getting comprehensive, high-quality segregated cycle networks built.

“Either way, we need to start thinking through the implications of driverless cars.”

And we’d better start thinking about this soon. Driverless cars will be tested on the public roads of Britain by the end of this year, says the Government.

The Department for Transport’s new £28bn plan for Britain’s roads confirms that driverless car technology is on the Government’s LIDAR: “Vehicles that can autonomously manage actions that are currently reserved for the driver…could, in the future, be able to carry out all of the driver tasks. Semi-autonomous and autonomous vehicles…have the potential to make our roads work better for everyone.”

Everyone? That’s not yet a given. For sure it would be good to eliminate human error, by far the main cause of crashes, and driverless cars would definitely be good for blind/young/old/distractable/angry/disabled/drunk riders but even though we may own less cars in the future - just rent a robocar via the cloud - we run the very real risk of making our incredibly car-dependent society even more car-dependent.

One fix could be road-pricing. This is unpalatable right now but connected cars will allow for easier and easier micro-tolling. Naturally, this favours the rich, who will be the first to use robocars. No doubt the UK Government will also subsidise these rich motorists, in the same way the Government today offers £5000 bribes to multi-car families so they can add electric cars to their fleets. Robocars, called for and sent away with smartphone apps, promise stress-free mobility for elites and you can imagine a future where insurance restrictions, and legislation, allows access to some roads in robocars only.

It may take 30 to 40 years before the roads of Britain are fully populated with driverless cars. In the meantime, legislators could lean on the EU’s New Car Assessment Programme to make sure every new car is equipped with Volvo-style cyclist and pedestrian auto brake technology. (We may be waiting a while. Dr Backhouse said: “Euro NCAP is planning to introduce ratings for collision avoidance systems. 2014 will see the first ratings. There is a lot of talk about testing the system on pedestrians. Nothing is planned for cyclists though.)”

If cars no longer kill us we will be able to use the roads again, without fear. Bike paths? Where we’re going we won’t need bike paths, as Dr Emmett Brown might have said.

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Sep 04, 2013

Victim-blaming barrister needs a new insect analogy

Last October I was knocked from my cargo-bike in the centre of Newcastle by an aggressive, impatient young motorist who, it has been revealed, has previous, a drink driving offence. Today I was in court as the main witness, and the main victim. But I didn’t feel like a victim, I felt as though it was me in the dock. The crown prosecutor had told me to expect aggressive questioning by the barrister for the defence but I hadn’t expected it to be so aggressive and so anti-cyclist.

I know that our courts use the adversarial system and that the grilling is nothing personal, but it’s tough to remain cool and detached when facing such questioning. It’s far more likely for such a system to work to the advantage of an established culture, such as the norm of driving. Outlier activities, such as transport cycling, are easier to attack. If the type of questioning I was subject to today, and the unfair conclusions in the summing up by the defence barrister, are common in other cases involving motorists and cyclists it’s not surprising so many motorists walk free from court.

Rewind to October…

[UPDATE] Boy Racer 'punishment tap' - In court on 4th Sept. driver was found guilty of 'driving without care and attention'

I was riding a heavy Xtracycle-equipped cargo bicycle and doing everything by the book (that book being Cyclecraft, of course), claiming my lane, looking to see what was behind me and taking my place in a queue of traffic, waiting at traffic lights in a right filter lane, with one car ahead of me (which was inching into the advanced stop line box) and one behind me, a white Fiat Punto.

The motorist behind me had, seconds before, honked his horn as a request to get me out of his way and was shouting something out of his window, perhaps letting me know which of the two users sharing the road at that moment he felt had priority.

I ignored his bellicosity and inched forward when the car in front of me started moving when the light went green. The next thing I knew I was no longer on my bike, I had leg pain and I was facing the white car which had, clearly but surprisingly, deliberately bumped into the rear of my machine.

If you’re going to get shunted by an impatient Boy Racer probably the best bike to be riding is one equipped with an Xtracycle attachment. I was shocked by the rear nudge, but not terribly injured. Somebody on a standard bike would have fared far worse.

I was thrown over the handlebars and I landed on the road. I was bruised and suffered a twisted hip, but there was no blood spilt. The driver got out and accused me of riding erratically and not getting out of his way. I had known he was behind me: I had heard his revving engine and had turned round to give him a shoulder shrug, kind of asking him what his problem was. I certainly wasn’t expecting a punishment tap.

(The tap was so strong the car’s airbag was activated, the motorist, dimly, revealed in court today).

After the shunt I was in shock, but managed to take the pic above on my phone. The driver also took a pic and he called the police, which I welcomed. Five minutes later a police officer arrived.

The young motorist told the attending PC I had been riding erratically and then he had been blinded by the sun at the traffic lights and had accidentally driven into the back of me.

Today in court I was accused of deliberately putting myself in the way of the car in order to cause a confrontation. I was accused of being an aggressive cyclist, weaving in and out of traffic (on an Xtracycle!), going to the right of the defendant’s car window and shouting that I wanted a fight. “You want road rage? I’ll give you road rage,” I was meant to have said. I was then accused of speeding past the Fiat Punto in order to make a point. It was I, not the motorist, who was in the wrong, spat the barrister.

Politely but firmly I told him his claims were fanciful and defied logic. I was greatly helped by the fact the barrister made repeated factual mistakes, including not remembering the accusations he had made just seconds earlier, calling my rear tyre “the car’s bumper” and quizzing why my brake lights didn’t come on after the shunt. I poked holes in his claim that I gave “inconsistent, inaccurate evidence” and said I was defending myself so robustly because he was accusing me of inconsistent inaccuracy.

When he asked what I thought the defendant’s motive had been in giving me a shunt I explained it was very possibly “use of a car as a weapon.”

The barrister audibly laughed at this. I was surprised at his reaction but carried on. Later in the session I reminded the barrister he had laughed at the suggestion the car might have been used as a weapon. The barrister flatly denied he had done so. I asked for the legal secretary to go back to her notes. She did so, told the barrister what had been said, and had been seen by the three magistrates, and he sheepishly backed down. (These guys earn how much?)

The barrister in question was called to the bar in 1990 and is “exclusively defence based”, working for clients accused of murder, rape and fraud. Privately, he also advises clients on the Road Traffic Act, says his online biography. Yet his grasp of what cyclists are allowed to do on the road as part of traffic was shaky to the point of non-existence.

He wanted the magistrates to find for his client because I had placed my bicycle in front of the Fiat Punto and behind the car in front “when Mr Reid should have placed himself in front of the car in front and not ’sandwiched’ between two cars.”

Remember, the car in front was already ahead of the Advanced Stop Line. It was trapped in the box because a bus had taken longer than expected to turn right. According to the barrister I should not have taken my place in a queue of traffic but should have pushed in front of the car ahead and placed myself ahead of the white line at the lights, away from his client. By being in front of his client I was setting out to entrap him, he claimed, and slammed on my brakes in order to be hit. Bizarre logic. (I said so, asking why a vulnerable road user would take such a huge risk).

The case was won, I think, because of an impartial witness who had seen everything that had happened from his car and came over to see if I was OK. In court, this witness (a retired bus driver) described how the defendant, after the shunt, was shouting at me, effing and blinding.

The defendant also had a witness, a female passenger. She had the same story as the defendant, claiming I had been riding erratically, weaving in and out of traffic.

During cross examination it became plain there hadn’t been much traffic on the road for me to weave in and out of. I had been riding in a ‘no car lane’ on Newcastle’s John Dobson Street and then steered into the right hand lane to take a right hand turn. The witness for the prosecution confirmed that I was standing still just before the collision, had briefly looked over my shoulder to check what was behind, and had moved when the light turned green. The barrister claimed the glance over my shoulder was “an obvious look to see when to jump clear of the bicycle and entrap [my client].”

The barrister also tried to make much of the fact I was in the middle of the lane. Quoting from memory from both from the Highway Code and Cyclecraft (I made a point of stressing this book is official literature, published by Her Majesty’s Stationery Office), I was able to steer him away from the claim that I was deliberately trying to obstruct his client merely by being in front of him on a bicycle.

The court case lasted three and a half hours, with a break for lunch. The defence barrister had originally tried to free his client with a technicality over minor inconsistencies between the witness statements and evidence given in court (including mine, I had said I had fallen to the ground upon being ejected from the saddle whereas my witness statement said I had landed on my feet; the retired bus driver said I had fallen to the ground; the driver said I merely stepped from my bike). The magistrates left the court room to deliberate on the point of law but were soon back, asking for the case to proceed.

The barrister then had to call his client. Big mistake. With only the gentlest of questioning from the prosecuting barrister the young motorist agreed he had shunted me, confirmed his claim that the sun had blinded him, and when asked whether he’d now give cyclists more room in the future, he said, yes, yes, he would. In which case, asked the prosecutor, why didn’t you leave space for this cyclist who, it has been claimed, was riding erratically? Shouldn’t you leave more space for such a cyclist, somebody who had been weaving about and shouting aggressively into an open car window? The driver agreed he should have left more space for such an erratic and aggressive cyclist. (I didn’t like the fictional picture this painted of me but could see where the barrister was going with the line of questioning).

If the defending barrister, because of the admissions from his client, thought the case was now lost, he didn’t show it. His summing-up painted the motorist as an innocent angel while I was a raging cyclist, deliberately trying to trick the defendant into smashing into my bicycle “setting a tripwire for [the defendent] for a later civil compensation case”.

The shunt was “an error anybody could make,” said the defence barrister, playing the there-but-for-the Grace-of-God-Go-I card.

His final statement must have bemused the magistrates as much as it bemused me: road “accidents” happen all over the world, all the time, and are the fault of nobody, asserted the defence barrister. Just as a caterpillar and a butterfly are two very different things, yet also the same thing, so his client ought to be found not guilty. This animal-world analogy went on for three or more mind-befuddling sentences and, no, I have no idea what it all meant either. I suspect he rolls out the same Chewbacca-defense in many of his cases and sometimes it must work. In this particular case the insect imagery was lost on the magistrates and they found his client guilty.

In their verdict, the magistrates, sweetly, said my evidence had been “cogent and credible” and that my road positioning was not in any way at fault. The motorist was found guilty of driving without due care and attention and will have to pay court costs of £600. The magistrates left the court room to decide on the motorist’s sentence. I didn’t wait but the police officer who had attended the scene said the motorist would likely get a fine of £600 and three to six points on his driving licence. A previous conviction for drink driving wouldn’t be reflected in the sentence. [UPDATE: an email from 'Criminal Justice System' tells me the driver got an awful lot less than expected: his licence was endorsed with just three points and the total of his fine and costs was £352.]

Earlier, as we were waiting for the court to reconvene after lunch, I had heard the young driver’s witness complaining she’d have to “pay a fortune” in car park charges after being in court for longer than she had planned. He’d pay her back, he promised, adding to the costs the case had cost him (he’d got a parking fine back in October after parking on double yellows to wait for the police). I had no parking charges to pay. I had ridden to court on my cargo bike. And not erratically.

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Jul 04, 2013

Car culture is grown by the Department for Motorised Road Transport

The UK’s Department for Transport has a good minister for cycling, albeit one shackled by having little real power, and a small number of committed civil servants with cycling’s best interests at heart. However, it’s inescapable that - aside from the officials involved with the vanity project that is HS2 - the Department for Transport is, in fact, the Department for Motorised Road Transport.

In his 1981 book, Transport Planning Vision and practice John Adams said roughly the same:

“Some of the organizations that like [pro-motoring MPs'] policy implications are fairly obvious: those who make cars, those who build roads, those who sell petrol, and so on. But the most important of the organ­izations that can be presumed to like both the forecasts and their policy implications is the Department of Transport. It is primarily a department of road transport and contains within its ranks large numbers of people whose working lives have been devoted to planning the expansion of the country’s road network. Despite the fact that civil servants are supposed to be the servants of their political masters it would clearly be unreasonable to expect of them an overnight conversion to policies that called a halt to this expansion or, even worse, that implied that it had been mis­guided.”

We’re waiting on tenterhooks for the announcement of which cities get to share £42m to spend on cycling (the announcement is late, postponed because of the Woolwich murder). In the meantime, the Office of Active Travel has been quietly killed off and last week’s Comprehensive Spending Review gave billions to road building and did not mention walking or cycling, even in passing.

A PDF poster featuring of all the main MPs and officials at the Department for Transport has the strap line:

“Our vision is for a transport system that is an engine for economic growth, but one that is also greener, safer and improves quality of life in our communities.”

Greener? With road building at its core, the DfT can never be truly green. Car culture is deeply embedded in Britain and the Department for Motorised Road Transport has zero desire to change this culture. That’s what we’re up against.

Your comments are welcome (

Jun 15, 2013

Build It And They Will Come: the case for US-style baseball facilities in the UK

I am renaming this blog. It will be called Build It And They Will Come and will become a one-stop shop for why and how we have a moral duty to install US-style baseball facilities in every village, town and city in the UK.

We can learn from the Americans. If they can install baseball facilities all over the USA, we can do it too! I am going to use this blog to show Brits it can be done. I’ll post photographs of the very best baseball facilities in the US and aim to get our policy makers to wake up and see the sense of installing such facilities in the UK. It’s going to cost billions of pounds but the health benefits of getting more people playing baseball will quickly pay for itself in reduced costs to the NHS. Baseball facilities should be for everybody, not just fit young men in strange uniforms and helmets. I’d like to see the day when children and older people can enjoy baseball, in safety, and taking part in their ordinary clothes.

The appalling lack of baseball infrastructure in this country is a sad indictment of how we’ve allowed football to dominate our green spaces. Yet we gave baseball to the Americans! It’s true:

The earliest known reference to baseball is in a 1744 British publication, A Little Pretty Pocket-Book, by John Newbery. It contains a rhymed description of “base-ball” and a woodcut that shows a field set-up somewhat similar to the modern game—though in a triangular rather than diamond configuration, and with posts instead of ground-level bases. William Bray, an English lawyer, recorded a game of baseball on Easter Monday 1755 in Guildford, Surrey.This early form of the game was brought to North America by English immigrants.

Despite the fact baseball originated in Britain, the Americans quickly took the sport to heart. Writing in 1919, philosopher Morris Raphael Cohen described baseball as America’s national religion. We should reclaim baseball as ours! It ought to be our national religion, too.

Now, there will be plenty of people who will oppose the creation of US-style baseball infrastructure all over the UK. They will say we can’t afford it. But there’s plenty of money sloshing around in football so it’s a case of reallocating funds so baseball gets a fair share of the available cash. People will say there’s no room for baseball facilities. Again, this isn’t true. Just look at the amount of space given over to football pitches.

But don’t think I’m anti-football. I’m not. I’d like to see football flourish and there’s no reason why having world-class baseball infrastructure should impact on football at all. In fact, I think footballers will be happy to see Britain’s baseball players get out of their way.

To those who say baseball infrastructure will be provided only when there are many more baseball players in the UK I say poppycock! There’s a huge latent demand for baseball in this country. Survey after survey shows that British people want to play baseball but they don’t have the well-designed, well-lit, well-maintained facilities to do what they swear, hand-on-heart, they tell campaigners they’d like to do. By providing US-style baseball facilities all over the UK it will quickly become plain that the only thing stopping mass baseball playing in this country was the lack of somewhere safe to play.

Baseball is something that’s enjoyed by all parts of American society: from bank managers in suits to school children and their Little Leagues. Baseball is an intrinsic part of American culture and has been for more than 120 years. We lost our love for baseball but by building subjectively safe baseball facilities all over the UK we will be able to make baseball a societal norm, just as it is a societal norm in the US.

Providing world-class baseball facilities in Britain makes economic and social sense. By showing planners and politicians how it’s done in America we can stop the piecemeal provision of crap baseball facilities that have been installed in the UK to date.

We should copy world-class American baseball facilities not try to squeeze in a few poorly designed facilities here and there.

Right now, the playing of baseball in the UK is seen as a bit odd, something ‘other people’ do. We can change that. OK, it’s not just about infrastructure, there are plenty of other measures that will be required too but without baseball infrastructure we won’t get Brits playing baseball. British people may prefer the convenience and mass-appeal of football but that’s mainly because of all the football infrastructure that was provided from the 1950s onwards.

By providing baseball infrastructure we can change the habits of the nation! Build It And They Will Come!

And that’s a baseball phrase, of course, made famous by ‘Field of Dreams’,  that brilliant 1989 film about an Iowa corn farmer who hears a voice telling him: “If you build it, he will come.” The ‘he’ being the dead baseball player Shoeless Joe Jackson. There’s this other great quote from the film: “If you believe the impossible, the incredible can come true.”

As always, Kevin Costner was right: the future is shaped by dreamers, those who believe the impossible. To reach this future, a future where baseball is played by all, not just young men in strange clothes and funny headgear, we must stop accepting crumbs from the top table. For too long that has been the defeatist attitude of Britain’s baseball organisation, the BTC.

The BTC hasn’t even asked for brilliant baseball facilities so, of course, we haven’t been provided with them. If only they had started asking for world-class baseball facilities back in the 1970s, we’d have them by now. By not asking, the BTC are collaborationists, working to keep baseball as a minority, odd pursuit. It’s not football that has held back baseball, it has been the BTC and their 150-year championing of what they think is right for baseball. It’s time to ditch that 150 years of history. Look what it’s got us: virtually no baseball facilities at all. It’s time to campaign for US-style baseball facilities, and only US-style ones will do.

Don’t think the baseball facilities in Japan have anything to teach us here in the UK. Tokyoize may say Japan has great baseball facilities but he’s wrong. Only America has the right sort of baseball facilities.

Bookmark Build It And They Will Come; pass it around your baseball friends; send it planners and politicians. Together we can make Britain into a nation of everyday baseball players!


This is a parody.

Don’t get the idea that I don’t think we should push for cycle infrastructure. And don’t think I’m mocking world-class cycle infrastructure. In both cases I’m not. I, too, want Dutch- or Danish-style cycle infrastructure. However, as a historian (the BBC says so, so it must be true) I’m not so sure we will be able to Go Dutch in the way that so many people imagine and campaign for. Cycling is a societal norm in the Netherlands and has been since the early 1900s. Americans and Brits popularised cycling in the 1880s and 1890s but it was the Dutch who really took cycling to heart. Cycling became part of the Dutch national psyche, an important part of self-image and it’s well worth reading about this very long Dutch cultural identification with cycling. It helps explain why so much cycle infrastructure was installed in the Netherlands from the 1970s on.

In the 1920s and 1930s, cycle use was extremely high in the Netherlands (far higher than in the UK) and there was some cycle-specific infrastructure. In the UK, there were grand plans for separated cycle infrastructure, with some cycle paths installed in the 1930s, but the Second World War intervened and the plans were not carried forward.

One of the designers of this 1930s infrastructure went on to create Dutch-style cycle infrastructure in the New Town of Stevenage in the 1960s and 70s. The infrastructure provision (it’s still there, although faded and truncated in parts) didn’t lead to an explosion in cycle usage.

‘Build It And They Will Come’ seems persuasive as a concept and, in some places, hard infrastructure is most definitely needed but pushing too hard for infrastructure can divert attention from softer measures that can work too (measures also used in the Netherlands).

The creation of baseball facilities up and down the land would lead to some uptick in the playing of baseball but it would be fighting against a societal norm. In the same way, infrastructure alone will not turn Britain into a nation of ‘people on bikes’.

There are many cultural, social and historical reasons why there are beautiful, world-class examples of joined-up cycle infrastructure in the Netherlands.

Your comments are welcome (

Feb 11, 2013

The first ever MTB world championships & the mystery of a banner, thought lost

Last summer, mountain bike royalty gathered in the French ski resort of Villard de Lans to celebrate the staging of the 1987 Championnat Du Monde VTT. This was the first ever mountain bike world championships. Gary Fisher, Joe Breeze, Hans Rey, Scot Nicol, Jacquie Phelan, and Ned Overend joined French riders from back-in-the-day, such as Jacques Devi, to ride the original course (a tough, high-level route long since closed to mountain bikers) and to attend a gala dinner. I was there for this reunion; I was there in 1987. Along with Peter Darke, a Sunderland bike shop owner, I had created the British Mountain Bike Team. Naturally, I picked myself to ride (I DNF’ed) but there were also real riders in the team, such as Jamie Carr and Orange founder Lester Noble. Here’s the story of the reunion, the 1987 event and the disappearance of the lovingly hand-made 1990 World Championship banner, thought to be long lost. It made a mysterious reappearance at the reunion. Who had shimmied up a pole, in a Durango storm, to cut down the banner? And where has it been for 22 years?


Pushing up the daisies

A touch to the left. Up a bit. Bit more. FTHWHACK!

I’ve done many stupid things in my life but quite why I stuck my fat head beneath an electrified fence to get a better shot of a bunch of riders will always be a mystery to me. It’s not as though I didn’t know the fence was electrified. Minutes before I had gingerly touched it to see if it was live. It was. I got a buzz, a quick tingle. When you flick an electric fence you’re expecting the buzz and, if you’re at all normal, you limit the exposure.

When you’re not expecting the shock, and it’s to the back of your head and you don’t know to flinch, things are a lot different. While crouching down low, and sticking my head and camera under the wire, I got a whomping whack of a shock. For a second I thought I’d been hit with a plank, assailant unknown.

I jumped, instinctively holding on to my camera with one hand, impulsively gripping the back of my head with the other.

Hank looked at me and, non-plussed, said: “I was waiting for that to happen.”

Thanks for the warning, Hank.

Rambler's guard of honour for MTBers

Hank is Hank Barlow. The Hank Barlow who, in 1984, founded Mountain Bike, the first glossy US mountain bike magazine. He now lives in France but he’s an American. (Despite living in France for 17 years his impeccable French is murdered by the most amazingly bad accent).

He was not being my guardian angel in a farmer’s field above the town of Villard de Lans, in the Vercors region of France. He, and I, were by a dirt track, taking photos. Sensibly, Hank had positioned himself well away from the electric fence.

I had been able to fire off a few low angle shots before the whack to the head. The shots were of a group of old French guys, with spectacular ‘taches, clad in bulging day-glo Lycra, riding 1980s mountain bikes and sporting facial daubs of fluoro sunscreen.

Jacques Devi Serge Barnel behind


The jolt had given me a fright, it hadn’t summoned a flashback, this wasn’t my memory playing tricks with me. The garish Lycra, the ancient bikes, the neon face paint, it was all part of an anniversary weekend organised by Génération Mountain Bike, an MTB history organisation run by four enthusiastic French guys, still at school in the 1980s and who lusted after the high-end bikes of the day but couldn’t afford them. The 25 ans du 1er championnat du monde de VTT was Génération Mountain Bike’s celebration of the first ever mountain bike world championships. 26 years ago the ski town of Villard de Lans hosted hundreds of riders, on machines with cantilever brakes, no suspension forks, riding a severely technical course that involved almost as much carrying as riding.

VTT World Championships reunion sign

The 1987 event was organised by Winning magazine. This was before the UCI got its sticky mitts on mountain biking. This was when there were still fag breaks during races, for some of the riders at least. Others were clearly starting to take it very seriously.

Mountain biking was growing up. But it was not yet professional, the sport was still in flux. In 1987 it was still possible to go on a bike holiday with your mates, call yourself the British Mountain Bike Team, and get away with it. And not just get away with it but blag loads of sponsorship, too. The team was headline sponsored by SunTour, with Rohan providing travel togs. Team jerseys were flock printed by Been Bag.

Gary Fisher

I was in Villard de Lans, partaking of impromptu electrotherapy to my scalp, because, back in the day, I had been the chief blagger. As the co-manager of the British Mountain Bike Team - the first such outfit - I had been able to pick myself to race alongside some of the top riders of the day. I also seeded the team with friends.

British Mountain Bike Team, 1987

To my shame, I can’t remember the names of all on the team so don’t expect a full who’s who. Vince Edwards, I remember. He was the first placed bike rider in the 1987 Man v Horse v Bike races in Wales. Chris Hosking was a university mate of mine from Newcastle. He’s now the MTB trails specialist for the City of Prescott in Arizona and prior to that had worked on Mammoth Mountain in California, when the Kamikaze event was still being staged. Rob Orr was a baker. We’d met in Jesmond Dene, an urban woodland in Newcastle, surprising each other by seeing somebody else on a mountain bike: instant mates. Peter Darke was co-founder of the team. He had a bike shop in Sunderland; he still does, Darke Cycles. Shaun Rafferty was a mate of Peter’s. Jamie Carr was our youngest rider, and the most fearless, too. He now runs Ride the Alps, a mountain bike holiday company. Our best placed finisher (33rd or thereabouts) was Lester Noble. Yes, the Tushingham-riding windsurf champion who created the O-range of mountain bikes. Leaving his marque on the world he later ditched the hyphen.

Jacquie phelan

MTB history

In 1987 I was ostensibly at university but a religious studies degree wasn’t terribly taxing so I was also a full-time journalist, one of two people working on one of the three UK bicycle magazines then in existence, none of which specialised in mountain bikes. Bicycle Times was a tinpot title produced on Tyneside but it was available nationally in WH Smith’s. Publisher Peter Lumley introduced the world to Off Road Reid, my mountain bike stream of consciousness, a page that would be later transplanted into Bicycle Action, the mag owned by Muddy Fox (the original, market-shaping Muddy Fox), the mag that came before Mountain Biking UK.

MTB history

(Off Road Reid’s bike testing reports were so bad they prompted John Stevenson, then working in Two Wheels Good of Leeds, to think “I could do better than that.” He could and he did. John was the tech editor of Tym Manley and Chris Turner’s MBUK, a magazine I feared would quickly flounder. Good at market predictions, me).

MTB history

Off Road Reid in Bicycle Action had a cartoon strip by Jo Burt. Mint Sauce, the mountain biking sheep, had first appeared in the newsletter of the Mountain Bike Club. (Jo Burt’s name was on my page elsewhere too. The page had a list of mountain bike contacts, folks you could ring up to arrange a ride. Jo Burt, who I didn’t know for Adam, lived in the Norwich house recently vacated by my sister. Small world). The Mountain Bike Club was a NORBA-esque outfit run by journalist Max Glaskin and frame builder Jeremy Torr. In 1987 Torr hitched a ride in the Muddy Fox van and was one of the support crew at the first mountain bike world championships.

He remembers Villard de Lans, but wasn’t at the reunion (he now lives in Singapore). I didn’t remember the town, but was at the reunion. No amount of electrical stimulation could trigger recollections of Villard de Lans. Yet the course was memorable. So those that rode it second time around told me. I could only remember fragments of the 1987 trip.

Jamie Carr, 1987, Villard de Lans

Apparently, the British Mountain Bike Team flew to Geneva and hired a van. We rented a chalet. Don’t remember any of that. One evening Jamie Carr rode his bike down the concrete bobsleigh run. I took pictures of this feat, but have no memory of it.

Hans Ned Gary Joe

In the race, I punctured. I had a flat before the race started and - I’ve since been told - it was a mad dash to get me ready for the off. I can imagine that - I fluster easily - but don’t remember it. I partially remember shredding a tyre on a downhill section and DNFing.

Julia King

Ned Overend, first MTB world champion, 1987

Thanks to my slide collection (kids, get your mum or dad, or grandparents even, to explain what transparencies are) I can see that I photographed Ned Overend as he held his trophy aloft. I don’t remember the Muddy Fox team being there. From photos displayed in the pop-up MTB museum at the 25 year reunion I could see that Andy Pegg and Julia King were at the event, racing for Muddy Fox. Records show they were the best placed Brits, beating all in the ‘official’ team.

Stolen 1990 MTB World Championships banner

I can remember plenty of stuff from the 1980s but the first world champs remains, largely, a blur. This is therefore a tale of loss. Memory loss. But it’s also a tale of recovery. A banner was found, and a long lost racer was tracked down.

You’d think it would be pretty hard to lose a 12-metre wide race banner. But the organisers of the 1990 MTB World Championships, held on Purgatory Mountain, above Durango, Colorado, managed it. With the help of a fierce storm, that is. A prankster stayed on the mountain while others fled, and cut down the start banner. It was strung between 15-metre high poles. Designed by local artist Metja Swift, the banner was hand-stitched and proudly proclaimed the event to be the first ever mountain bike world championships sanctioned by the UCI.

This retrospectively made the Villard de Lans 1987 event into an unofficial world championships, ditto for the events held elsewhere in the world in 1988 and 1989 (there were World Championships staged in both Europe and the US in these two years).

Ed Zink, owner of Mountain Bike Specialists, a Durango bike shop, and chairman of the race committee, was gutted about the theft, and kept alive hopes that the banner might one day reappear. Many attempts, over the years, were made to track down the thief and the banner, to no avail. The colourful, and historic, banner was, to all intents and purposes, lost.

Which is why its appearance in Villard de Lans in June 2012 was such a surprise. Gary Fisher, in town at the invitation of Génération Mountain Bike, tweeted that the 22 year mystery had been solved, the famous banner had reappeared.

Hans Rey & Ned Overend

The banner may have resurfaced, but the identity of the thief remained a mystery. Only Hans Rey could solve that. It was he who erected the banner at the reunion weekend, he who later spirited it away again as a gift, and he who knows the identity of the thief.

Hans wasn’t at the original event, but like Gary, he was a guest of Génération Mountain Bike. The retro loving French foursome also shipped in Joe Breeze, Scot Nichols, Ned Overend and Jacquie Phelan. Only Ned and Jacquie had been at the original event.

Hans knew Durango native Ned was on the invite list and he figured that the reunion for the first world championships would be an appropriate venue for the lost banner to reappear. It was presented to Ned by Hans at the reunion’s ceremonial dinner. Hans said the banner had been stored, under lock and key, in Southern California, close to his Los Angeles home. He knew the identity of the prankster who had shimmied up the poles to cut down the banner, in a snowstorm, but, in public, would name no names.

Later that night, as Ned and Hans folded the banner into its storage bag, out of earshot of all others, I asked Hans if the thief was well known. He had a twinkle in his eye, but kept schtum.

Serge Barnel Organiser 1987 WorldChamps

The other rediscovery at the reunion weekend was MaryLee Atkins. Like the banner she, too, had been lost for more than 20 years. Lost to mountain biking, that is. She rode on the Schwinn team in the mid 1980s, the same team as Ned Overend (before he switched to Specialized, his current sponsor). She was the winner of the women’s race at the 1987 event. She then dropped out of the scene, retiring on a high. Nothing more was heard of her until Jacquie Phelan tracked her down.

Jacquie Phelan glove

Jacquie is one of the key characters of early mountain biking, founder of WOMBATS (the Women’s Mountain Bike and Tea Society) and also, under her nom-de-plume of Alice B. Toeclips, a prolific writer. She’s married to Charlie Cunningham, the pioneering bike designer who championed aluminium long before the mainstream bike industry thought to do likewise. Charlie - co-founder of Wilderness Trail Bikes, WTB - also designed the iconic Roller Cam Brake and co-designed Specialized’s famous Ground Control MTB tyre. Jacquie used her hubby-designed bike and components to race as an equal with men. And horses: she was the first winner of the Man v Horse v Bike event of Llanwrtyd Wells.

Jacquie was second woman at the 1987 world championships. When Génération Mountain Bike invited her to the reunion she promised to track down MaryLee Atkins, the winner of the woman’s title in ’87.

Turning sleuth, she used old contacts books to track down friends of friends, before, finally, finding MaryLee’s bolt hole, in Eagle River, a small town in Alaska. She had been hard to track down because she had remarried and is now MaryLee Stiehrs. She and her carpenter husband run a bespoke wooden kitchen design business. For many years she didn’t ride. When girlfriends recently persuaded her to join them on a town loop on a borrowed beat up machine they couldn’t quite figure how she was so good and so fast. The first ever woman’s world champion mountain biker had kept her past to herself.
She’s now back in the saddle. She brought her original race-winning Schwinn to the reunion but for Alaskan trail riding she has a modern machine.

Durango has its banner back; MaryLee is riding again. I have my Kodachromes but I’m still waiting for my memories to kick in.


Jacquie Phelan

“I was not in perfect shape [at the first world championships]. The doctor checked me out the day before and told me not to race. But I entered anyhow. And came third. My friend MaryLee Atkins won. It was her very last race ever. She was a woodworker and wanted to return to a normal life. Her first husband, Jeff Norman, got her into racing. He said ‘you don’t wanna just watch me race. Get some sponsorship.’ She immediately began winning.

“For me it was a time of not being at the top of my game and that’s when I created the Woman’s Mountain Bike and Tea Society so I could enjoy riding with people who weren’t hammers, and introduce women to a really fun and safe thing to do in the woods. There are no cars. You can get off and walk if you want to.

“I re-framed mountain biking for women, with the usual lace, flowers, cheap perfume, and pearls.”

MaryLee Atkins


I was riding for Schwinn back [in 1987]. I was 33 and I was on the team that had Ned Overend in it. I remember parts of the course, especially the scary bit where it’s a cliff. I don’t remember it being so technical but it’s the same course. We were younger then, invincible. It was my last event. I had other interests to pursue. Mountain biking wasn’t a big pull for me at that time. I was a reluctant racer. Although I did well, and I enjoyed it, I didn’t like being forced to train. I didn’t want to take the fun out of mountain biking by continuing to race. Ned used to give me a hard time about not training. I didn’t want to take anything away from the sport that they’re so into so I went off in a different direction. I got a divorce and boogied out of the country, and got a job in Antarctica. It was there that I met the love of my life. He was a carpenter too. I’ve been a carpenter all my life. It’s what I was doing in Antarctica: helping set up the bases for the National Science Foundation. We would make the camps all warm and cosy before the scientists got there, fixing things up for them. When they were done for the season we’d go back in and either tear the camp down or winterise it. It was a real fun experience.

“I ended up moving to Alaska, where my husband lived.

“I was born and raised in Durango, Colorado. I like it in Alaska now. My husband and I have our own business. We do kitchens, kitchen cabinets, curved stairs. I ride my mountain bike maybe once a week, for fun, on the weekend, with my girlfriends. They don’t know about my mountain bike history. I haven’t shared that with them. When I started riding with them I showed up on an old clunker bike. They were on couple of thousand dollar high-tech bikes. They looked at my bike and weren’t sure I’d be able to ride these trails they wanted to go on. I said ‘let’s take off, I’ll do what I can.’ They were surprised I could keep up. It’s kind of fun to be anonymous.

“Back in the day I bought a mountain bike because it looked like fun and I met my husband of that day [Jeff Norman, a racer on the Schwinn team]. I would travel to races with Jeff and I started racing too. Jeff got me some sponsorship with Schwinn. My history before that was as a cross country skier. I had a pretty solid base for training. I raced mountain bikes for maybe three or four years. I started riding in 1983 and raced for Schwinn in 1985, 1986 and 1987.

“I had quit racing before the [Villard de Lans world championship] race. I was no longer officially riding for Schwinn, but Winning magazine paid for me to come. Cindy Whitehead was their first choice but she didn’t want to travel so they asked me. I don’t think they realised I wasn’t racing at the time. But when they called I said ‘sure, I’ll go to France.’

“I think the reason I won was because I wasn’t real serious about it. I trained for the event but I wasn’t nervous, I did it for fun.”

Ned Overend

“We started on a football field. There were two hundred men in the open category. I remember it was a mad dash because everyone was on the front line. I remember the trails were rocky.

“The course was one big loop, with long stretches of narrow, single track. I remember one exposed single track section had netting rigged up below the trail to keep riders from falling down a cliff, if they should happen to ride off the trail on the downhill side. I won the race, Joe Murray was second and Jacques Devi was third. I think the winning margin was only a minute and a half. I had to be careful on the last descent, I didn’t want to puncture. In those days I rode with high tyre pressures, 48 pounds. The course was super technical.

“But they wouldn’t have that much pushing in events today. The riders would rebel against it. But in the early days it was the vision of promotors to make the events real hard. Riders always wanted the courses to be more rideable. I don’t remember pushing all that much [at the 1987 event] but that’s probably because it was just so common in those days.

“Back in the day it was common to have long laps and long climbs. That played to my strengths. Now races are an hour and a half long and courses are mandated to five or six kilometres so there tend to be shorter, punchier climbs, more like cyclo-cross courses. Scarier courses were good for me.
During today’s ride I rode toe clips and straps for the first eight kilometres and I was in danger of falling over because you’re used to getting out [of the pedals] so much faster. I started out on an 1988 bike and then switched to a modern one. 26 inch wheel bikes are going to become very rare, for cross country.

“I was impressed with the guys who rode the whole course on the old bikes. But they were struggling on their 26 inch bikes. Absolutely. It was way easier rolling over the technical rocks on 29 wheels. And with suspension I wasn’t being punished on the descents; I had more control. We may have been riding the same speed at times but those guys definitely had less control. And the longer they rode the less control they had as they got tired. It’s now a much more enjoyable experience, and faster.”

Hank Barlow

“I live near Grenoble. I’m here because I married a French woman, the counsel for San Merino; she has been for 32 years. We met when I came to do a story on the Roc d’Azur mountain bike event 20 years ago.

“In 1984 I started Mountain Bike magazine. It wasn’t the first mountain biking magazine. Charlie Kelly had his Fat Tire Flyer. My background was skiing. I worked as a ski instructor, I owned a ski shop and I used to write for ski magazines. I started doing bike articles for Cycling magazine and with almost zero background in it whatsoever I decided to publish a magazine. The first issue was built around Moab. No-one even know Moab existed. There were no mountain bikers in Moab. Visually, I knew Moab would be stunning. You’ve got red rocks, blue sky, and the biking is just crazy on the slick rock.

“We were so underfunded it was ridiculous. We were always scrambling. We later got a cash injection but there were strings attached, the magazine had to be developed to sell. Bicycling wanted to buy it. I was in a fix. I still managed to sell it to ‘em for way more than they could have bought it for. People said it was never the same afterwards. My magazine was all about photos and going to places to ride. Finding cool places and great trails. Racing was never my thing. For me, mountain biking was all about riding in beautiful places. It still is.”

Peter Darke

“We came [to Villard de Lans] as the only national team. We turned up as a bunch of people on holiday and called ourselves the British team. We weren’t the best riders in the world, but we were the best dressed.”


This article first appeared in Privateer magazine. More pix can be found on Flickr.

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