There’s plenty of roadspace at night

Open Road motorway at night

Mike Penning, the portly roads minister, needs to be bound and gagged and dumped on the M6, at 3am, just north of Carlisle. I’m not advocating the death of a minister of the Crown; Penning would be perfectly safe for quite some time because this massively wide motorway is pretty much empty at 3am. Maybe after surviving unscathed Penning would come to understand there’s plenty of roadspace to go around, it’s how we use it in peak times that’s the problem.

At a transport select committee hearing two weeks ago Penning – and his LibDem partner in crime, Norman Baker – said there could be no national funding for cycle paths because this is a “local issue” but Penning is more than happy to pour money down the drain for “strategically important national roads”. One such road scheme to get the green light is just a few miles from where I live. Tons of extra motorised traffic has been generated thanks to the building of the second Tyne tunnel; the Silverlink junction where the A19 meets Newcastle’s Coast road is at gridlock at peak times of the day.

At night, like the M6 and like much of the UK’s road network, it’s empty.

The width of the road is plenty wide enough for maybe 18 hours out of the day; the bottlenecks occur sporadically, and at wholly expected times. Instead of managing this bottleneck with traffic mitigation measures, national Government will be spending £170m of taxpayers’ cash (that’s our money they’re wasting) on widening this junction for a few people for just a few hours per day. This is lunacy. The expected “congestion easing” won’t happen. As is extremely well known, extra road capacity leads to induced demand and any improvement in “traffic flow”, in peak times, will be soon swallowed up.

Even if an increased number of cars are speeded through this junction for a few weeks (and that’s all that £170m buys you) there will then be a crush somewhere else on the network. More and wider roads will be needed elsewhere on the network. But there’s precious little space for this, and there could never be enough cash to satisfy the unthinking demands from drivers for fast, empty arterial roads during the so-called “rush hour.”

The private motorcar is damn useful, but only when there’s just a few of them dotting around. When there are millions of the things, they’re not so convenient. And the Department for Transport projects that millions more private cars will join the swell over the next 25 years. Not learning from past mistakes, and somehow hoping failed solutions will work “this time”, is madness. Yet it’s a shared madness, a group hallucination that’s costly, wasteful and, quite quickly, ineffective.

Check out the crazed comments from local politicians and business leaders who believe spending £170m on one road junction – just one road junction – is money well spent:

North Tyneside elected mayor Linda Arkley said she was “absolutely delighted” at the multi-million-pound ‘investment package’.

“I have been on at them for this for long time, it’s good to see Mike got the message,” she told my local newspaper, which champions more roads as a central part of its editorial focus.

Ms Arkley added: “We have so many opportunities for growing this area…we need to know that congestion is not going to be an obstacle to that.”

The North East Chamber of Commerce has also campaigned hard for “upgrade” cash. Chief Executive, James Ramsbotham, said the £170m-for-one-road-junction news was “a real victory for us and our partners who campaigned alongside us.”

He added: “It is great news for the region as it will ease congestion and complement the recent Tyne Tunnel upgrade on this important strategic route for both commuters and businesses. If the Government is serious about rebalancing the economy, future investment should be prioritised for schemes just like this to enable the North East to increase its contribution to UK Plc.

Ramsbotham then said:

“Hopefully, other regional infrastructure priorities such as the essential upgrade of the Western Bypass will receive similar appraisal in the future.”

This should set off alarm bells. The Western Bypass was built just a few years ago to “ease congestion”. It did. For a few days. After that it became stupidly congested during peak hours. “Upgrading” a relatively new road that was meant to ease congestion but that didn’t is sheer unadulterated lunacy.

The Western Bypass is quiet at 3am. We don’t need more roads, we need less motorised vehicles using them. Road pricing would quickly remove unnecessary journeys, but would be an unpopular move. Waving a chequebook and throwing good money after bad is what politicians do best. Here’s Penning in vote-for-me fantasy-land:

“We are committed to tackling congestion, keeping traffic moving and supporting the UK economy, putting in money where it’s most needed and where the public will get a good return on investment.”

This is the same minister who won’t fund cycle paths, and who won’t listen to the growing number of organisations who tell him that concreting Britain is not a long-term answer to congestion. Penning wants a good return on investment? He should talk to his colleagues in the Department for Health. They’re looking at a future where health costs associated with inactivity are set to sky-rocket. Get people out of their cars and moving their fat arses. Scrap the multi-billion pound roads programme and spend it on mitigation measures instead.

1st MTB World Championships, 1987

IMG_0275 - Version 2

I was in two minds whether to load this particular clip to YouTube. Not because of worries about copyright, I don’t think the BBC will mind too much, but more because (a) I’m wearing yellow shorts (b) I make a right fool of myself and (c) see (a) and (b).

The news clip is from BBC Look North, aired on 3rd August 1987. I was a cub editor on long-gone ‘Bicycle Times’ (there were no mountain bike mags at this time) and Peter Darke had only recently started his bike shop in Sunderland (it’s still going strong).

We had started the first British mountain bike team. Because we could. And nobody else had. There was a British Muddy Fox squad and all the other teams at the first MTB World Championships, held later in August in that balmy summer of 1987, were trade teams too.

We had snazzy white jerseys, made by Been Bag, and flock printed with logos. Sublimation printing wasn’t widely used at that point. SunTour was the team’s major sponsor and Rohan provided the official team clothing. I still have the team jersey; the Rohan ‘Bags’ (with large, vinyl letters down the side) are long gone.

Check out the video for gory close-ups of Shimano Biopace chainrings (oh, gullible us), chainstay-mounted u-brakes and my Pink Thing. This was an all-steel touring mountain bike made for me by frame builder Dave Yates. It had steel, integrated racks, front and rear. It was my touring MTB, heaven knows why I was riding it in this TV clip. I can’t remember what I rode on at the world championships but I do know I punctured and Did Not Finish. I rode for the British Mountain Bike Team? Yup. As co-manager it was a tough selection process but I managed to find space on the team for myself.

Our best finisher came 33rd. Helmets off to Lester Noble, who later went on to found Orange Mountain Bikes. Talking about helmets, we wore them at the World Championships, but dunno if it was compulsory back then. The pic below shows what we used. I probably secured provision of them, I certainly scammed a load of other kit so must have bagged a helmet deal too. Maybe they hadn’t turned up in time for the TV news appearance?

I’m dredging up all this MTB history because next month there’s to be a 25th anniversary weekend celebrating the first ever MTB world championships. I shall be attending.

Also attending will be MTB legends Gary Fisher and Joe Breeze. I know these guys now. Back then I was 22 and still wet behind the ears when it came to publicity (as the video attests). Listening to my claims that the Brits would wipe the floor with the rest of the world is pretty groan worthy.

The winner on the day was Ned Overend. He’s planning to attend the reunion, too. Should be a scream.

Part of the British MTB team 1987

“speedo cyclists in country lanes”

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On Sat, Mar 31, 2012 at 2:43 PM, ******* < *******> wrote:

From: ****** < ******>
Subject: speedo cyclists in country lanes

Message Body:
Hi the village lanes around kingston seymour are flat – we are furious at the silent speed these cyclists go – today we were confronted by a know it all lycra cyclist who said its not law to have a bell on the bike – as he shouted obsenities to me and my sheep dog – as we shouted sense to him – am i breaking the law or is he ?


To: ****** < ******>

Subject: re speedo cyclists in country lanes

Message Body:

Hi ******

From the sound of it neither of you are breaking any laws (although swearing can be, in some circumstances, considered a breach of the peace).

New bicycles are required to have bells fitted *at the point of sale* but are not required to have them fitted once outside of the shop.

If you’re having problems with speeding cyclists perhaps you could request your local police station operate a ‘community speedwatch’ service? You and other concerned members of the local community could then measure the speed of all vehicles passing through Kingston Seymour. Bicycles are considered vehicles in law and cyclists have to adhere to the same speed limits as motorists.*

Count the number of motorists and cyclists breaking the speed limit and once you have collated the results approach your local authority to introduce speed reduction measures. You may also wish to broach the subject of “silent speeding”. Cyclists don’t have engines so are silent by default; electric cars are also extremely quiet.

Narrowing the roads through Kingston Seymour could be a good way to make all vehicles – silent or otherwise – go more slowly.


Carlton Reid

* Chris Gerhard points out that only motor vehicles have to adhere to speed limits. However, cyclists could be done for riding dangerously or carelessly. I will add to ‘Cycling and the law’ on BikeHub.

Will UK politicians ever seek to restrain the motorised majority?


I signed up to the cycle safe campaign by The Times. There has been some fine reporting on the real and rightly worrying danger posed by motorised traffic but, as today’s paper exemplifies, there’s a risk of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. There are some good bits in today’s newspaper, there are some awful bits in today’s newspaper.

Which will people most remember? The bad bits. Cycling, the paper’s reporting would have us believe, is so incredibly dangerous it’s best to stick to riding around a velodrome (Rebecca Romero’s piece); it’s best to ride on cycle lanes (even though, as we all know, the current crop are currently underused because they’re not up to Dutch standards; we need to cough up for a licence fee to pay for segregated tracks (Jon Snow’s piece, but here’s why licensing is not the right answer); and we need to don protective equipment for popping down to the shops (“In Britain, going out to cycle is a little like preparing for battle.There is body armour and helmets to consider, Lycra and face masks to squeeze into,” is from an otherwise positive piece headlined ‘Reasons to take to your bike’).


Political parties are said to have welcomed The Times campaign, and Labour is even calling for a Cycling Summit.

All well and good but if politicians think cycling is so incredibly dangerous will they clamp down on the source of the danger, or will they “protect” vulnerable road users by forcing them to wear helmets, making it compulsory to sport hi-viz jackets and restrict the use of bicycles to cycle paths that, largely, don’t exist and when they do exist are usually as about much use as chocolate tea-pots?

Naturally, the easy option, the option that would be supported by the majority of voters, is the latter.


The best commentary I’ve seen on The Times campaign has been that from Andrew Davis, the director of the Environmental Transport Association. He said he welcomes the campaign because it “raises the debate to a wider public” but – and I agree with him here – “it fails to address the bigger question – why do we allow cars and trucks to dominate our townscapes?”

This is the absolute crux of the matter. The cyclesafe campaign is potentially divisive. It’s not just cyclists that need protecting from speeding traffic, it’s pedestrians and all other road users, too, including motorists.

If MPs want to do something for cyclists, brilliant. But if that thing doesn’t involve a massive clamping down on motorised traffic it will come to naught. And if MPs say they’ve seen the light on the Cyclepath to Damascus, that’s fantastic, but I won’t be convinced until I see the colour of their money.

Big bucks needs to be thrown around to protect vulnerable road users. Some tough decisions need to be made on how we want our cities to look in 20 years time. And the race tracks that are our rural roads need to be changed, too. Naturally, it will be far easier for MPs to lobby for things like helmet compulsion for cyclists rather than place draconian restrictions on the “freedoms” enjoyed – and exploited – by Mondeo-man.

And we’ve been here before. In the mid-1990s both Labour and the Conservatives seemed to be fighting over who could be the most cycle-friendly. But bugger all got done. All the promises, all the pledges, they all got broken. Beware politicians who promise they’ll make conditions in this country better for cyclists. I’d love to be proved wrong, but I can’t see anything being put in place any time soon that would make a genuine difference.

Soon The Times will tire of the cyclesafe campaign and move on to something else. In the meantime, many people will have been scared off their bikes. Now, thundering trucks passing within inches also scares people off bikes, but will UK politicians take a long-term view on the transport problems we face and do what really needs to be done and that’s restrict motorised traffic?

If cycle tracks are built (and built to standard) will space be taken from cars and trucks or taken from pedestrians? At the moment, it’s the latter but for any real progress to be made it needs to be the former.

As Andrew Davis asks “Why aren’t the centre of towns designed for people first? Why do we, in this country, aspire to so little?”

He continues: “We have got so used to living in places made dangerous by speeding cars and out-of-control trucks – and we just accept it. It doesn’t have to be this way. Our towns and cities can be made fit for pedestrians, cyclists, children and the infirm rather than trucks and cars.

“We have the money. We need the imagination. We need the will.”

And here’s the rub: when it comes to cyclists and pedestrians – and anybody else not in a car or truck – we don’t have the money, we don’t have the imagination and we certainly don’t have the will.

Some have suggested that the cyclesafe campaign by The Times could be the UK equivalent of ‘Stop the Child Murder’, the 1970s campaign in the Netherlands that helped make a cycle and pedestrian friendly country even more cycle and pedestrian friendly.

Maybe. But the British love affair with their cars (and the trucks that aimlessly circle ring roads, calling in at supermarkets when product shortages are flagged by computers) runs incredibly deep and it would take politicians with balls of steel to go against the wishes of the motorised majority. And by dangerising cycling – and walking – we run the risk of making more people take to cars.

Most of the coverage in today’s edition of The Times will do little to encourage cycling. It will do the exact opposite. The Times wants to protect cyclists by highlighting the dangers, and forcing legislators to “do something”, but that “something” will likely not be a joined-up network of protected cycle lanes on every stretch of busy road in the UK. I wish that it was but I shan’t be holding my breath – I’ve been to far too many ‘cycle strategy’ meetings with politicians.

Nevertheless, like Andrew Davis, I welcome the debate and genuinely hope something positive comes out of it.

Rooting through some back issues of Cycle Industry (the mag I used to own and edit before BikeBiz) the other day I came across a couple of issues from May and July 1996, the last time we had politicians saying they were going to do lots of exciting stuff for cyclists.

As I said in the editorial at the time (‘Cycling needs cash not soundbites’), if no cash was forthcoming to back up the fine words it was all just hot air.

If The Times can get politicians to agree to spending big chunks of cash on cyclists and on pedestrians, and less on infrastructure for cars and trucks, I’ll happily eat all of the cynical words above.

For now, read the words on the mag scans below (click to make bigger), and weep.





Shy bairns get nowt


If you follow me on Twitter you may have seen that I had issues with a Stagecoach bus driver on Tuesday. I reported him to Stagecoach and to the police. By Thursday evening Stagecoach had written to me saying they had conducted an investigation, the driver would be disciplined and the company would be “issuing a reminder to all drivers of the importance of observing designated areas for cyclists.”

I didn’t want to press charges on the driver, but I wanted it officially noted that he felt it was OK to use his bus as a shaking fist. A work-based warning shot across his bows may make him a more careful driver in the future.

He had used his bus to cut me up on John Dobson Street in Newcastle. When I tackled him about this and suggested he might have had deficient eyesight – his bus twice encroached in a cycle reservoir – he got shirty and shouty. Fearing further aggression, perhaps with an accelerator pedal, I took a photograph of the driver.

He had a bus full of passengers but he got out of his vehicle and had a go at me. Another cyclist was in the green cycle box beside me and volunteered to be a witness, should I wish to lodge a complaint.

I’ve never complained to a bus company so had no idea whether the matter would be ignored or investigated. It was investigated, and promptly. I read on the Twittervine that not all bus companies take such matters as seriously as Stagecoach but if you’ve been on the receiving end of some dodgy “professional” driving it’s definitely worth reporting it to the driver’s employer.

Here’s the email I got from the managing director of Stagecoach North East:

Further to your correspondence on Tuesday 6 December, I can confirm that we have now carried out an investigation into the issue you raised. This included viewing CCTV footage taken from the vehicle involved.

We expect extremely high standards of our driving team. If we have evidence of poor driving we will put in place re-training or, in serious cases, take disciplinary action.

Following our investigation into this matter, we can confirm that the driver on this occasion did not meet the high standards we expect of our staff.  I would like to apologise for this. As a result, I can assure you that the driver will now be dealt with through our disciplinary procedure.

In addition, we are also in the process of issuing a reminder to all drivers of the importance of observing designated areas for cyclists.

I would like to reassure you that the safety of our employees, passengers and other road users is our absolutely priority. We have a comprehensive training programme for our professional driving team that is amongst the best in the bus industry. This includes extensive training before any driver gets behind the wheel as well as on-going training. This includes specific guidance on ensuring the safety of pedestrians, cyclists and other road traffic.

Our 8,000 buses in the UK cover millions of miles every week and the vast majority of journeys run smoothly. However, with such a high volume of journeys there can be incidents involving our services. While some of these are caused by the actions of our drivers, it is fair to say that some incidents can also be due to the actions of other road users.

I hope we have demonstrated by our swift response and investigation that we are a responsible company, and that where cases such as this are brought to our attention, we take them extremely seriously.

Roads Were Not Built for Cars

I’m writing a book about roads history and will be focussing on the period 1880-1905, which saw the Bicycling Boom and then – pop – the start of Motoring Mania.

You can learn more about this free e-book in this pitch:

The book will be free to download online. I chose this publication model in order to get the book seen by as many eyes as possible. You may know that Victorian cyclists did an awful lot to rehabilitate the use of roads – and helped to get them sealed, too – but this isn’t terribly well known outside of cycling. I’d like to change that. Producing a print book would make me more money but it restricts readership.

The book sprang from the ‘history of the Road Fund’ research I did for I then happened upon characters such as William Rees Jeffreys, an official with the CTC who started his 50 year career in getting better roads in Britain as a cyclist and who never forgot his roots.

In a 1949 book he wrote: “Cyclists were the class first to take a national interest in the conditions of the roads.”

Researching deeper and I found Rees Jeffreys wasn’t the only cyclist to have made a lasting impression on highways. In the US, the Good Roads movement was a nationally significant political force and without 30 years of campaigning it’s fair to say motoring wouldn’t have hit the ground running when it came to infrastructure.

If I can rehabilitate some of this history, and turn just a few peoples’ heads, I’ll be happy.

Mass motoring was soooo last century

Mass motoring was soooo last century

You don’t have to be a statistics boffin to see the flaws in this projection. Clearly, the UK’s love affair with motoring is tailing off. It has reached its peak and it now appears to be on the classic downward bell slope.

However, the RAC Foundation which uses the graph in its new report ‘Keep The Nation Moving’ – has ignored the downward slope and plotted a weird v-shape to make the graph go sky-wards. Why? To lobby for the building of more roads (and for road pricing to pay for some of it).

The graph was based on this similar graph from the Department for Transport:

Dft Motor Vehicle mileage graph

It was the RAC Foundation which added the weird v-shape projection.

On either graph, look at the early 1970s. Traffic demand flattened out, and this was in a major league global oil crisis. The latest figures don’t show a flattening out of demand, they clearly show a reduction in demand, and the drop started before the recession.

If the graph continues on that bell slope (we probably need another two or three years to be absolutely sure) we won’t need more and more roads. Roads are incredibly expensive to build and – long-term – even more expensive to maintain. If it’s likely we won’t need them, why build them?

Why can’t the DfT – and RAC Foundation – see what’s starting to become apparent in this graph? Mass motoring was soooo last century. We’ve reached ‘Peak Car’ and ‘Peak Asphalt’; ‘Peak Oil’ has either been and gone or is just around the corner. We shouldn’t build yet more roads, we should be investing in ways to get even more people out of cars, on top of the ones who have already decided bumper-to-bumper congestion isn’t for them.

Government transport departments are notoriously bad at predicting the future. In the 1820s, the stagecoach ruled, no Government department predicted the rise and rise of the railways. In the early 1900s, no transport minister said the future would belong to the motorcar. Trains were the future and that’s where the majority of spending was placed. Motorists had to fight tooth and nail to get funding for roads (a fight made easier by 30 years of work by cyclists, of course) and, as I document on, motorists paid for some road improvements via road tax and the Road Fund. This ended in 1937 and from then on everybody – most of whom were not motorists – started paying for roads, via national and local taxation (bit of a coup for motorists, hey?)

Today, the DfT and Government ministers – again – can’t see the writing on the wall. They assume the Car will be King for ever. History says this will not be the case: stagecoaches were replaced by trains; trains were replaced by cars. Wise transport planners and politicians would be planning for ‘what next’? Instead, as the graph shows, there are very few wise folks in charge of transport planning.

The policy wonks at the RAC Foundation are not dolts, they do see some of the writing on the wall. In the latest report, ‘Peak Car’ is introduced as a concept but rapidly dismissed:

“Intuitively [Peak Car] is plausible. It is impossible to envisage a time where all an individual’s waking hours are spent behind the wheel of a car. The thirst for more travel will be quenched long before that. This is an area which requires much more study.

But, significantly, ‘peak car’ does not remove the impact of ten million more people – who between them will drive four million more cars – in the UK in little more than two decades’ time. Whichever way you look at it, the result will be: more congestion.”

The RAC Foundation even realises there are transport options which don’t involve privately-owned metal boxes taking up public space, but it’s “other people” who need to get out of their cars, not “us”:

“Of course if a sizeable number of us found an alternative to using our cars, then our worries about the jams and their consequences – including the impact on our collective carbon footprint – would evaporate. We could spend our time, trouble and money addressing other issues. It is crucial that we encourage people to substitute their car use with something else where possible, but the evidence suggests that while such measures can reduce demand for personal motorised travel, they are not enough to stem the tide of congestion.

“Realistically, it is difficult to envisage many trips longer than five miles being transferred away from the car to walking or cycling.”

Subsidy for driving

And the RAC Foundation – like other parts of the roads lobby and like (former) Transport ministers – always stresses that railways are “subsidised” while spending on roads is “investment”, and motorists “pay for the roads”.

“Railways and buses – on average – cost the taxpayer money in subsidy: 15p per passenger mile travelled on the train;67 6p per mile per passenger on the bus. By contrast, drivers of cars and lorries contribute a net 7p per mile to the Exchequer in fuel duty and vehicle excise duty alone (excluding VAT). Even if public transport were an answer, would it be one we could afford?”

Costs of driving

The RAC Foundation also appears to be in favour of taxation opt-outs. All motoring taxes should be spent on motorists:

“There is no sign of government accepting the logic of ring-fencing a higher proportion of road tax revenue, particularly in the present economic circumstances. In part, the continued inability of 34 million drivers to get a fairer deal is a symptom of the lack of both a single, coherent consumer voice for motorists and a regulator to ensure that motorists get the service from the road network that they have paid for. There continues to be no formal recognition that road users are paying a great deal in return for the use of an asset – and, in contrast to the situation with our other utilities, far more than it costs to provide that asset.”

Why do Government’s oppose such ring-fencing? Because if motoring taxation was ring-fenced, all hell would break loose. Interest groups of all creeds and colours would start demanding “their” tax contributions should only go to fund “their” projects. Society does not work that way; cannot work that way.

There are no taxation opt-outs: married couples without kids cannot strike out the amount of tax that pays for schools; pacifists cannot strike out the amount of tax that goes on defence spending. And motorists can’t successfully demand that the money they give to the Government is given straight back to them in the shape of smoother, less congested roads, or more of them.

Smoother, less congested roads would be wonderful for all road users, not just motorists, and such infrastructure – a shared national resource – is paid for by all taxpayers, not just motorists. The public highway is, by definition, for the benefit of the public, not a sub-set of the public.


I’m interested in this stuff because I’m writing a book on the history of roads (and the forgotten contribution cyclists made to the roads of the UK and the USA). In the UK, only 1 percent of roads were specifically built for motorised vehicles. Add motorway-style trunk roads into the mix and you get 13 percent of UK roads which are mainly motorised vehicles only.

The majority of roads were not built for cars.

In the 1880s, cycling bodies in the UK and USA were the first bodies to push for road surface improvements. In the UK, the Roads Improvements Association paid for road trials of surface treatments, including asphalt and organised the first conferences on roads. The RIA was started as part of the Cyclists’ Touring Club. In the US, cyclists were even more influential. US presidents used to attend the AGM of the League of American Wheelmen.

Motorists clamour for the blackstuff but they need to thank cyclists for its adoption.

I’d like to teach the world to cycle in perfect harmony

I’d like to build to world a home, and furnish it with love
Grow apple trees and honey bees and snow white turtle doves
I’d like to teach the world to cycle in perfect harmony
I’d like to buy to world a bike, and keep it company

I’d like to teach the world to cycle in perfect harmony
I’d like to buy to world a bike, and keep it company

It’s the real thing[bike], what the world wants today[bicycling]

It’s the real thing[bike], what the world wants today[bicycling]

It’s the real thing…!

Lyrics above were lightly edited from a song produced for a TV advert promoting sugared water , 1971

Speed sells


Mark Cavendish’s victory in yesterday’s world road race championships put him – partially – on the front covers of the Guardian, the Telegraph and the Times. And the BBC asked Could cycling become the UK’s second-favourite sport, after football. Were he to follow up his Copenhagen sprint with a similar burst of speed at the London Olympics his place in the pantheon of British mainstream sporting greats will be for ever secure.

In 1893, an American sprinter was lauded for the same talent: A.A. ‘Zimmy’ Zimmerman had an explosive kick that saw off his rivals for most of his short career (1889-1896). He won the first ever ‘official’ road world championships and did so upon a Raleigh bicycle.

Zimmerman was one of the earliest professional sports stars. When he started riding for Raleigh, he wasn’t a pro, as – technically – this wasn’t allowed; he was a “maker’s amateur”, which amounted to the same thing. Raleigh owner Frank Bowden paid Zimmerman in diamonds, complained the National Cyclists’ Union, a racing organisation opposed to the payment of riders. Zimmerman had a huge following in the US and Europe. By 1894 he was openly a professional for Raleigh, was paid a fortune and made even more money from prizes and appearance fees. He also became one of the first athletes to license his name: there were Zimmy cycling shoes, Zimmy toe-clips and Zimmy clothes.

Raleigh sponsored him because speed sells. A famous poster of Zimmerman shows him astride his bike, in front of a sign listing his career wins to date, and watched by two cyclists in the touring garb of the day.


Frank Bowden – like Pope Manufacturing’s Colonel Albert A. Pope in the US – recognised that to sell bicycles to the masses, you have to stress speed.

Raleigh was still stressing speed in 1932, even when selling utility bikes to women.

Raleigh bicycle poster 1932

Speed is still important. But not in the sweat-fest sort of way, all head down and Lycra. One of cycling’s key advertised advantages, from the 1890s to today, is the ability to go door to door, swiftly. Cycle routes which steer away from the fastest A to B routes may direct cyclists away from busy, motorised traffic but it’s not just sport cyclists who want to follow ‘desire lines’, the shortest and more desirable routes.

In the UK, dedicated cycle routes are often circuitous, interrupted by junctions where cyclists do not have priority. They can add precious time to journeys. For cycle paths to be effective, they must be not only made safe for hesitant cyclists, they must be made fast. By fast, read direct.

Copenhagen does this well. Traffic lights propel cyclists on a ‘Green wave’: pedal at 20kmh and you hit green for much of your journey. The green wave is set to work best towards the city centre in the morning rush hour; and away from the city centre at 12 to 6pm.


Those who use their bikes to get to work want to arrive in the least time possible. If bike paths are provided, they need to be very wide, and well designed. In 1996, the Proceedings of the Institution of Civil Engineers, writing about bike paths, said:

“The fast cycle commuter must not be driven off the highway onto a route that is designed for a 12-year-old or a novice on a leisure trip, because if that happens, the whole attempt to enlarge the use of the bicycle will have failed.”

The ‘fast cycle commuter’ does not just mean a sports cyclist on a carbon road bike. Dutch roadsters can be pedalled fast, and so can Boris Bikes. Any well serviced bike with correctly inflated tyres – even dual-suss Bicycle Shaped Objects – can reach giddy speeds, especially downhill. For some people, bicycles may be ‘aids to walking’ but if bikes travelled no faster than pedestrians, why cycle at all?

Joe Breeze with Breezer #1 (built 1977)

At Interbike, I met up with Joe Breeze, one of the founding fathers of mountain biking. We talked about cycling and speed. He may have built the first designed-for-the-job clunker (it was Gary Fisher who helped popularise the name ‘mountain bike’) but Breeze got into the bike biz to spread his love of utility cycling, cycling from town to town. His father built race cars in California, but rode to work on a bicycle. Breeze Jnr started racing bikes to prove what Bowden, Pope, Zimmerman and others had been promoting: that bicycles are fast.

“In the 1970s, I saw road racing as a stepping stone. Bicycles in America were seen as a children’s sidewalk toy, for riding round your neighbourhood only. I saw cycling, through my father, as a way to get somewhere. And through racing you could show people how quickly you can get from A to B. Maybe there’d be a little squib in the newspaper about it the next day and people would go ‘oh, you can get from A to B in a short amount of time.'”

In ‘The Art and Pastime of Cycling’ of 1893, journalists R.J. Mecredy and A.J. Wilson wrote:

“The faculty for enjoying rapid locomotion is one which is implanted in the human breast from earliest childhood, and the fact of one’s unaided efforts being the active cause of this locomotion enhances the pleasures derived from it.”

In 1878, Gerard Cobb, president of the Bicycle Union and a Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, wrote that cycling was “primarily of commercial importance” but was also of practical benefit:

“…the ease with which a bicycle can be driven, the distance it enables its riders to cover, its speed…added to its durability and comparative cheapness, render it by far the best form of road-locomotion for all to whom economy, whether of time or money, is object. As such its use is daily extending among professional men of all classes [and] working men are getting more and more to use them for their daily transit to and from work.”

Speed – to and from work – remains important. A survey of Copenhagen bicycle users found that the number one reason people ride is because it’s faster than any other mode of transport. Fifty-five percent of Copenhagen riders said they bike because it’s fast. Only 9 percent of Copenhagen bicycle users ride because it’s deemed good for the environment.

So, when pushing for dedicated bicycle infrastructure we must always bear in mind that today, and in the past, speed has always gone hand in hand with convenience. Make cycling slow and it loses a big part of its appeal.

I have certainly borne this in mind with the latest version of the Bike To Work Book (112 pages of bicycling goodness, available below or for iPads, free). This has lots of advice on why cycling doesn’t have to be a sweaty affair and to beat cars in major cities you don’t have to get hot under the collar: cars often crawl along, whereas bikes sail past the jams. The section on commuter challenges points out you don’t have to stress out to beat cars in town. Speediness does not equate to excessive perspiration (sweating is cited by many people as a reason not to cycle).

But I beefed up the cover lines, adding: “You can get around town QUICKER by bike.”


Click on the page to read in full-screen, and hit left or right arrows to navigate through the book.



Some of the historical background to this posting was taken from the new book Quest for Speed: A History of Early Bicycle Racing, 1868-1903, by Andrew Ritchie.