I was recently asked by the Calderdale branch of the Cyclists’ Touring Club, or CTC (or indeed ‘Cycling UK’) to give a speech at their annual prize-giving evening. As I had previously spoken to the group about my most recent journey (and book) from Spain to Norway, it was back to the drawing board to come up with something more bespoke, more reflective about my life as a cyclist and my thoughts contrasting the life of a cyclists in many places on the continent with that of being a cyclist here in this corner of rural West Yorkshire. Below is the text of that speech. It’s a longer read than normal so you might want to grad a cup of tea before you dive in…
Many thanks for inviting me to speak this evening.
When I was contacted by Lucy back in January asking whether I would be interested in giving this talk tonight I have to admit that I had mixed feelings. My initial reaction was along the lines of ‘can’t they remember that I spoke to them at the club night back in November?’ so I contacted Anne who reassured me that, yes, Lucy had been aware of this when she had invited me. It seemed that my talk about cycling from Spain to Norway back in 2015 had gone down well and you actually did want to hear me again.
At this point you might think I was reassured and yes, I was but my main concern remained; you heard all my best lines back in November!
But anyway, it is good to be back.
In fact, the last couple of years of my life have been all about to coming back to where I started.
I was born in the summer of 1969 at Halifax General Hospital – as no doubt were many of you, although not perhaps in summer 1969… – and spent my childhood here in Calderdale. My first bicycle was not a bicycle; it was a light blue tricycle but in the late 1970s I have clear memories of being taken into the fields behind the house in Blackley Road where I lived to learn how to ride a two-wheeled bike. I have even clearer memories of, within seconds, falling off, my father losing patience with me and giving the whole thing up as a bad job. But somehow, I did learn to ride a bike and in the early 1980s can remember recieving a dark red bicycle for my birthday; it was my first proper bicycle.
For a child growing up in the 1980s – and, frankly, every decade before the 1980s – the bicycle was the mobile phone of its day. Nowadays, kids can communicate with each other at the speed of light through texting or Twitter or Instagram or Whatsapp or Facebook etc… but before the invention of all that, we had the bike. If you wanted to see your mates you had to cycle to their front door, knock on it and ask that immortal question: “Is so-and-so coming out to play?”.
However, when I was 17 I passed my driving test. Some of my friends in the Sixth Form at Brooksbank School in Elland had cars, but I never did and when I went to University in York I never had the money to buy a car. Anyway, who needed a car in a place like York? In my 20s I went to work in London for a couple of years – a place where almost everyone uses public transport – and then went to France to teach English. I lived in the centre of the city where I was working and didn’t need a car so I never thought of buying one.
I think this period from passing my driving test when I was 17 to returning to live in the UK in 1999 when I 30 was instrumental in my attitude towards the car. I had never become dependant upon one and as a consequence have always considered cars as an option rather than a necessity. I did buy a car when I started teaching in Berkshire but sold it after just a couple of years. I bought another car when I changed my job to start teaching in Oxfordshire but again, after a couple of years I sold it and returned to just using two legs and two wheels.
Commuting by bicycle from Reading to Henley-on-Thames almost every day for about 5 years certainly made me a fitter person but it was only really a reflection of what my attitude towards driving had been for the previous two decades. I became the resident ‘cyclist’ of the school much to the bemusement of many.
That attitude was perhaps summed up best by the caretaker who one day asked me: “Are you still cycling to work?”. The manner in which he said it implied that it was something that he considered that I would one day grow out of. I’ve often thought about what he said to me that day. He wasn’t being rude he just couldn’t understand why anyone in their right mind would choose to cycle to work every day. I’m a French teacher and there’s a great French expression – l’esprit d’escalier – literally the spirit of the staircase. It describes those times when you only come up with the perfect response when it’s just too late to give it. The perfect response to the caretaker upon being asked “Are you still cycling?” should have been “Yes. Are you still driving?”.
However, the reason I’m standing here tonight is not because I commuted by bike from Reading to Henley-on-Thames for 5 years. I am here because I decided to go off cycling across Europe and write several books about my experiences.
The commuting had given me a certain level of fitness but that, I think, was secondary. The most important thing was confidence.
The idea came to me on a very specific morning; the 10th August 2008. It was the school summer holidays and by August 10th, boredom had kicked in big time. I did, however, have the Beijing Olympics to keep me occupied and I was watching the women’s road race. It was taking place on a course that took the riders beside the Great Wall of China on a very wet day in China. Nicole Cooke won the race becoming the first British athlete at the Beijing Games to win a medal.
It was all so far off and exotic but it got me thinking; where could I go on my bike that would also be a bit of an adventure?
In 2010, after two years of planning, I set off to cycle to southern Italy. Through southern England, across the channel, northern France, Luxembourg, back into France, Switzerland, over the Alps and then down through the length of Italy itself. I somehow managed to choose a month in which to cycle – August 2010 – that has since gone down in the record books as the wettest August ever in western Europe. The sun didn’t really shine until I was south of Rome but it had certainly been an adventure.
The first book was an afterthought. The journey had never been made with the intention of writing a book but, encouraged by a couple of friends who had followed my progress online over that summer, I started writing and in summer 2011 I self-published ‘Crossing Europe on a Bike Called Reggie’.
I could write a book itself about writing books, first as a self-published author and then more recently as a published author. I tried to dress up that first book to make it look as professional as possible and this included a quotation at the front. The one I chose was the famous line of H.G. Wells:
“When I see an adult on a bicycle I do not despair for the future of the human race.”
It was, perhaps, the influence of that caretaker who had inadvertently mocked me for cycling and not driving to work. I was an adult, I am still an adult and in no way do I consider cycling to be the preserve of the young. Neither did H.G. Wells. But, alas, a lot of our fellow countrymen and women still think that way.
The second journey and second book were slightly different. I had not only bitten the bug for long-distance cycling but also for writing. I wondered what it would be like to head off on my now semi famous bicycle with the intention of writing a book from the outset. Would the journey be fundamentally changed?
I think it was and this is reflected in the quotation I chose for that second book – Along The Med… – from that great traveller Ernest Hemingway:
“It’s by riding a bicycle that you learn the contours of a country best…”
Those first two journeys were squeezed into the summer holidays of a secondary school teacher, the second being slightly extended by a couple of weeks of unpaid leave. In the back on my mind was a ticking clock that kept reminding me that I needed to be back at work on the 1st of September and there were times when I just needed to stop procrastinating and get on with the cycling. Towards the end of the Mediterranean ride, cycling under the relentless rays of the Andalucian sun, I was as exhausted as I’ve ever been on a bike and relieved to arrive at my final destination in Portugal. It took the edge of what had otherwise been an unforgettable 5000 km ride.
That would be the next challenge; giving myself the time to complete a journey with no ticking clock. A journey that would be dictated by my curiosity rather than the impending start of the next academic year. It was at this point that I decided to quit my job, up sticks, move back to Yorkshire and spend much of 2015 not just cycling but properly travelling.
I found the quote that would be at the front of the third book – Spain to Norway – the journey that I spoke to you about back in November – graffitied on a wall in Salamanca, Spain. It summed up perfectly how I wanted to approach this third crossing of Europe and the words were those of J.R.R. Tolkien:
“Not all those who wander are lost.”
I did a lot of wandering that summer and never once got lost. In fact I was asked earlier this week if I ever did get lost on that journey from Europe’s southernmost to northernmost point. The question was posed by a pupil at, of all places, Brooksbank School.
My professional life is now split into three; I continue to teach, albeit as a supply teacher or, as most pupils call me: ‘just a supply teacher’ and, with Brooksbank being my local secondary, I spend quite a lot of time back at my old school in Elland.
I also have a very different job at Square Chapel Arts Centre. I started volunteering there shortly after returning to Calderdale in the late summer of 2015. Last autumn I started working at the arts centre every Monday and Friday as the volunteer coordinator. It’s a job that contrasts sharply with working in a busy secondary school and I think for the first time in my life I no longer sit at home on a Sunday evening dreading going back to work on a Monday morning. I actually look forward to it! If you happen to be in the café on a Monday or Friday, please feel free to find me for a chat.
My third job is being Andrew P. Sykes, the cycling author. It’s the job that is the most enjoyable, most fun, most interesting… I get to do things like this for example; but, alas, it’s also the one that is the least well paid, hence the need to continue with jobs 1 and 2.
Occasionally, however, my three careers overlap. The children at Brooksbank are aware of my cycling exploits; some believe me, some don’t. Some think I’m mad… Sorry. They all think I’m mad. Some are curious – like the boy who asked me on Wednesday if I ever got lost. I try not to think about how many of them never cycle to their friends house and ask: “Is so-and-so coming out to play?”.
Even at Square Chapel, we have, occasionally, a cycling-related event. Some of you may have attended the play Ventoux that we hosted last May in the run up to the arrival of the Tour de Yorkshire. This year we are showing a film called MAMIL at 7:30pm on Saturday 28th April, the weekend before the Tour de Yorkshire comes to The Piece Hall. It’s a light-hearted documentary about middle-aged men in Lycra and for some inexplicable reason, the film programmer said he thought I would make the perfect host.
The inquisitive student at Brooksbank also asked another question: “How many countries have you cycled through in Europe?” I had to think for a few moments but I counted 22. Across those 22 countries, I’ve been fortunate to experience some wonderful examples of cycling infrastructure:
- The seamless urban cycling network of Copenhagen
- The Vias Verdes – greenways – of Spain (and elsewhere)
- The world’s only cycle lift up a hill in Trondheim in Norway
- The hundreds of kilometres of off-road cycle path that form the Vélodyssée in western France
- The wonderfully sign-posted integrated cycling, walking and rollerblading network that fans out across Switzerland
- The spiralling bicycle-only concrete access ramps that connect the banks of the Rhine to bridges high above the water
- And, of course, the whole of The Netherlands
Which brings me back to Calderdale and specifically, the Calderdale Cycling Strategy.
Having seen some truly memorable facilities elsewhere in Europe, is it too much to hope that my own little corner of the world might one day join the list of places that can honestly call themselves ‘cycle-friendly’?
The Calderdale Cycling Strategy is a laudable document and if you haven’t yet done so, I would encourage you to read it. That said, it’s not written for the benefit of the likes of you and me.
We will continue to brave it up Salterhebble Hill if we have to. We won’t be frightened off cycling along Burnley Road simply because most of the drivers pass us too quickly and too closely. We see Cragg Vale as a sporting challenge and we cycle up it for the same reason than mountaineers climb Everest; because it’s there.
The Calderdale Cycling Strategy is actually written for the benefit of the people who don’t currently cycle. The people who think it’s just too much of a hassle – or too dangerous – to get on their bikes and cycle to work or to school or into Halifax to do a bit of shopping.
I’d like to think that in 10 years time, we can look back at the publication of the cycling strategy in the autumn of 2017 as a turning point. Now I’m not a sceptical person; I try to look at evidence rather than always going with my gut feeling but I am worried.
I’m worried when it takes 6 months of complaining for a dangerous wide ditch on the Hebble Trail to be repaired.
I’m worried when plans to upgrade the towpaths along the canal are, apparently, abandoned.
I’m worried when I attend an exhibition by town planners at Halifax Town Hall and see that cycling doesn’t seem to factor much in their otherwise commendable plans for the upgrade of Halifax town centre.
I’m also worried when I hear that the consultation on the Ryburn Valley Greenway has been put on hold because of the objections of one local resident with deep pockets and a legal team behind him.
I’d heard about the proposed Ryburn Valley Greenway while still living down south but had always struggled to visualise where the old railway line might be. When I returned to live in Calderdale, not far from the Ryburn Valley, I continued to be incapable of imagining the route it once followed. Then, one day last summer, I was walking from Barkisland to Sowerby Bridge and I stumbled upon a rather magical railway cutting. Not just a bank of earth that had been shovelled away but a great 19th century scar in the landscape that must surely have been created by dynamiting the rock that once stood there.
I wandered along the deep cutting and found abandoned railway signage, Victorian railway bridges and the remnants of what had once been railway platforms…
I quickly realised that I must have stumbled upon the route of the proposed Ryburn Valley Greenway.
Having seen such greenways in many places across Europe – in Spain, in France, in Germany and most recently in Ireland on a visit to cycle along the wonderful Waterford Greenway, I had only one question: why had this nearly complete branch line, never been converted for use by walkers and cyclists?
Inevitably it comes down to money and politics.
Only this week I read the following comment on the leaflet from one of the main political parties about the Bradford to Leeds cycling superhighway:
“The multi-million pound folly on Bradford Road is dangerous in our view; money that could have been spent on much needed road repairs and safety measures has been used to produce a cycle-way that is little used, and costs a fortune to maintain. Residents are rightly angry that the cycle-way gets gritted in periods of bad weather while pedestrians are left to struggle on icy footpaths; quite scandalous!”
I’m sure the Bradford to Leeds route isn’t perfect. But the comments from these politicians would imply that it was fundamentally wrong to build such a thing in the first place.
The Netherlands isn’t the cycling paradise that it is today because the country happens to be flat. It is because politicians in the 60s and 70s recognised that they needed to start planning a better way to move people around their country. 40 years later it is a great place to be a cyclist and it’s not a minority activity restricted to an often maligned portion of the population. It’s the norm. Almost everyone cycles and almost everyone benefits.
It required political will just as much as money. If politicians want something to happen, money will usually be found; a billion pounds was recently diverted towards Northern Ireland in order to give the current government a fighting chance of staying in power. Money isn’t really the issue; political determination is.
Will Calderdale live up to the future envisaged by the Calderdale Cycling Strategy?
Will the council start taking better care of the cycling facilities it already has?
Will the new Halifax town centre become a ‘little Holland’ cycling paradise?
Will the legal threats of one wealthy resident have frightened off the council from creating the Ryburn Valley Greenway?
The Europeans – the ones who live on the continent – are fundamentally no different to us. Yet many of them do live in places where cycling is the norm and I’ve had the pleasure of travelling as a cyclist through many of their countries. I’d like to think that at some point in the not-too-distant future cycling might be the norm here too. Not for our benefit but for all those people out there who don’t yet cycle and for the next generation of children who, like me, grow up in the Calder Valley and realise that a life lived on two wheels can be so much more invigorating, healthy and, quite simply, fun.