Last weekend was the virtual Cycle Touring Festival. I was planning on writing a few words about the event myself, perhaps along the lines of this post from last year – 10 Things I Learnt At The Cycle Touring Festival 2019 – but then a chap called Graham Johnson from Derbyshire got in touch. He had never previously attended the (non-virtual) Cycle Touring Festival but had signed up for a few of the online webinars – including the one delivered by yours truly – at this year’s virtual event and was planning on writing something for his local CTC / Cycling UK group newsletter. Could he use some of my photos to illustrate his text? he asked. Yes, of course! Could I publish your article about the festival on CyclingEurope.org? I asked. Yes, of course! Mutual happiness all round. And here is what he wrote, illustrated by the photographs he chose to use. I think it’s all rather entertaining. He is clearly a man with a book inside him. Over to you Graham.
Well, we haven’t been away since last September so I can’t drone on about our last holiday and the one we were going to take in May has had to be cancelled, even the one at the end of June is looking dodgy, so I’ll have to make do with this, a description of a virtual cycling festival, which is a bit of a novelty if nothing else.
I can’t remember how I stumbled across this, but apparently for the past five years there has been a cycle touring festival held at the end of May at Waddow Hall, Clitheroe, a sort of Cheltenham Festival for cycling tourers. Here’s a photo to give you a flavour (obviously I’ve no photos of my own so I’ll be sprinkling other people’s to distract your attention from time to time – the first is taken from the event website, the rest, uniformly excellent – any of them would win the Derby Xmas competition – were taken by one of the speakers, Andrew P. Sykes, who has kindly given me permission. They are not necessarily reflective of the subject-matter amidst which they appear, but you won’t mind that).
For obvious reasons, this year’s actual event had to be cancelled so the organisers took the enterprising decision to bring proceedings forward to the end of April and hold the festival online.
We’ve all had to get used to a new vocabulary these past couple of months such as ‘social distancing’ and ‘self-isolation’, and before the onset of the coronavirus crisis, most people would, when the word ‘Zoom’ was mentioned, have thought of an ice lolly (well, I would anyway), but in the past few weeks even a dinosaur like me has conducted and taken part in virtual quizzes and spoken with groups of friends and family using this method of communication. The festival organisers chose to use Zoom as a means of supplying a series of webinars (an ugly word if ever there was one, but until they think of a better….) to an audience sitting at home.
The website is still operating (www.cyclingtouringfestival.co.uk) and the programme of events consisted of a series of talks scattered over the course of a weekend plus discussions conducted via Twitter (so that ruled me out). Unfortunately from the organisers’ point of view, the new date coincided with an unusually warm and sunny spell of weather, exactly the sort of conditions that any self-respecting cyclist would rather spend on the road than in front of a computer. Had the sort of weather that characterised the beginning of the year continued, I’d’ve probably spent longer staring at the screen but, as it was, we limited our time to two late afternoon sessions and one in the evening.
Jettisoned were such topics as ‘Bikerafting in Greenland’ (can’t see me doing that), ‘Top Tips for Cycling Touring Kit’ (I’m more interested in reducing kit than acquiring it) and Bizarre Britain (as a member of the Thursday group, I’ve seen enough bizarre sights to last a lifetime, and that’s before we’ve left the morning café).
Registration for each event was necessary, giving you a Zoom link to log into just before the talk began. We duly complied and waited in eager anticipation for the result. I confess that I was genuinely excited by the prospect, it felt like we were taking part in something, if not momentous, then certainly ground-breaking.
We were presented with a screen in which the speaker, remotely speaking from home, was confined to a small window in the top-right hand corner, the majority of the space being taken up with either a photo or video illustrating part of a tour or journey for which the speaker gave commentary. At the bottom were a ‘chat’ facility and a means of leaving questions for answering later.
The overall effect was a bit distracting, trying to concentrate on what the speaker was saying in his window, what the film was showing and what the audience was typing. I quickly resolved the problem by ignoring this last so-called ‘chat’ which it seemed to me offered little to complement the contribution of the main speaker. By the time I’d read the twentieth ‘Hi’ from a complete stranger, I was ready to scream.
There follows a description of the three sessions we witnessed and what I thought of them. I will be going on at greater length about the third one because it threw up a number of issues which are dear to my heart; you have been warned.
Spain and Portugal on a Bike called Wanda – Andrew P. Sykes
I’d never heard of Andrew P. Sykes before but he has written three books, which is three more than me. All are concerned with long tours he’s undertaken in Europe: England to Southern Italy, Greece to Portugal and Spain to Norway. Inspired by his talk (and the fact that two books could be bought for 99p plus an NHS donation), I have downloaded the second one and am enjoying it. He has an easy and readable style and I prefer it to, say, Tim Moore who I think often tries too hard.
Andrew is a Yorkshire-based supply teacher which allows him to spend time travelling by bike instead of working, a philosophy to which we can all relate. I was particularly interested in what he had to say because we are planning a trip across Spain next year (although the way things are going we may just end up doing next year what we were going to do this). I hoped to get a few cross-country ideas but in fact the route which Andrew followed covered mainly the north-west corner of the peninsula.
Landing in Santander by ferry last August, his ultimate destination was Coimbra (where his cousin lives), a third of the way down Portugal. He mentioned wanting to go to Santiago because he’s never been but didn’t actually arrive there, choosing instead to head inland in a south-westerly direction rather than west. Although we are not likely to follow in Andrew’s tracks, having already ‘done’ the Pilgrim’s Trail, we nevertheless sat back and enjoyed his commentary and the accompanying footage, highlighting the scenery he rode through, the sights he saw and the experiences he enjoyed. It was an informative and entertaining hour.
From this narration emerged practical information about travelling on trains in Spain and Portugal, road conditions and camping which will be of use in the future. After the session ended, I went on Andrew’s website (www.cyclingeurope.org), which is truly impressive. Not only does it feature the three long trips I mentioned earlier, each of the days he spent riding is broken down with details of routes and even GPX files. The site also carries links to various podcasts that Andrew has put together, describes other trips both in this country and abroad as well providing practical help for cycling-tourers of all description. I heartily recommend it.
Although this event was not what I was exactly expecting, it was probably the one I enjoyed the most. Andrew P. Sykes is not a Mark Beaumont-type, superhumanly pushing himself beyond the physical boundaries of ordinary mortals to achieve feats none of us can even dream of, he comes over as an ordinary bloke, ‘one of us’, undertaking challenges which sometimes are not easy but are all attainable, encountering and resolving along the way problems which befall all cyclists who choose to spend the holidays with nothing more than their bicycles and such belongings as they can manage to carry with them.
The Great North Trail – Duncan Dollimore and Sophie Gordon
This was never going to be of any practical use to us because the Great North Trail is almost entirely off-road and fit for mountain/gravel bikes, neither of which we possess. We looked in because firstly it was a talk put together (as indeed was the GNT itself) by Duncan and Sophie who comprise the UK Cycling Campaigns team and because Sophie is the daughter of Zoe Gordon, erstwhile Thursday group rider and long-time friend.
Most of the explanatory work fell to Duncan with Sophie responsible for integrating the visuals. Both were conducting duties from presumably home (or in Duncan’s case, outside it) in separate places, which was quite ambitious even in the circumstances. The interplay was not always smooth but nobody cared.
The GNT starts at Middleton Top and works its way north through the Peak District, Dales, Kielder Forest before joining up with more established routes in Scotland where their attitude to public access makes a refreshing change to the antediluvian and short-sighted practices south of the border. The trail ends either at Cape Wrath or John O’Groats depending on your fancy.
It was put together on a shoe-string and is far from one homogenous entity – for example, there is a section interrupted by a bridge where a two-mile detour is necessary or, failing that, a descent and ascent carrying the bike. The talk was illustrated throughout by film of often Sophie riding sections herself and included a description of a similar forthcoming project, the King Alfred Way, a circular route linking many other (off-road) routes in the South.
Although I have no desire to ride 800 miles off-road to the north of Scotland, I could still take pleasure at watching other people do so, especially given the appalling weather conditions characteristic of the Scottish Highlands.
Flight Free Bicycle Adventures – Debs Butler
We didn’t know quite what to expect of this section; the title was a bit vague, but flight-free touring is what we do, certainly in Europe, so up we signed.
The session started in a novel fashion with an on-line survey of the audience as to their expectations of a touring holiday. I never actually grasped the practicals of this and, fearful of displeasing the internet gods and crashing the connection, an unfortunate feature of life in Chevin Road, I left well alone. Although there was no personal contribution, the results were not unexpected:
- 7 days was the most popular length of trip. I would have opted for ‘more than 14 days’ myself but recognise that I am privileged, being able to contemplate being away this long. I was still surprised that 7-14 days was not most popular choice but I suppose most cyclists take 7-day trips in this country rather than longer trips abroad.
- Most people thought that sight-seeing was more important than the cycling itself. No actual explanation was given for these terms but I took it to mean that most people weren’t interested in cycling for 100 km+, day after day, without stopping to take in the surroundings or visit some of the local sights and attractions.
- Most people tended towards organising a tour in advance rather than ‘winging it’. I am definitely in this camp and spend a long time getting through the dark and dreary winter months planning tours and routes for better days in the summer. Although I never book campsites in advance, even abroad, I always have at least one in mind as an evening resting place.
There then followed an account of various trips undertaken by Debs from her base in Leicester, in this country and abroad.
Debs evidently fell into the ‘winging it’ approach to touring so that she told us that she usually does not book her bicycle on to a train in advance, but frequently tweets the rail company on the day of travel. This is anathema to me. I would never ever leave booking my bike to chance like this. For a start, this must mean that Debs doesn’t buy her ticket till close to or on the day of travel thereby ensuring that she buys the most expensive tickets. I wait until the cheap seats come online around 2 months before travel and book the bikes on at the same time. It is not uncommon for us to meet ‘Ultra-Wingers’ who leap onto a train not having bothered to check for vacancies in advance, and I take great and unashamed delight in telling them to sling their hook because we’ve had the foresight to gazump them first (I tend to put it a bit more politely than this, particularly if they are younger, bigger and heavier than me).
By the way, booking in advance generally means telephoning the rail company, but recently I found that Scotrail allows you to book online concurrently with buying your ticket (no charge), thereby ensuring there is no risk of your committing to a ticket without knowing whether your bike will be able to accompany you. This was for a Scotrail route so I don’t know whether it would apply to, say, a Cross-Country route booked through the Scotrail site. Either way, it is a great step forward.
The second half of the talk was devoted to European travel, both short and long trips. I’ve mentioned before the trials and tribulations of carrying bikes in bike bags, but Debs, by and large, avoids these problems by shunning Eurostar and travelling by ferry, and avoids the faster trains which insist on bags, using the slower, more local ones. On one occasion when a cycle bag was unexpectedly required, she improvised with a tarpaulin. This is fine, but our preference is to get to our start point and get cycling as quickly as possible, even if it means carting a bike bag round with us like an albatross.
Once again, Debs adopted the same approach to advance planning as in the UK, i.e. very little. This is a perfectly valid approach, but you’ll invariably end up paying more if you leave booking to the last minute, unless it’s a campsite or maybe a hostel. The downside to my micro-managed approach is that when we travel in September, when open campsites are few and far between and extensive advance booking of hotels/hostels is required, it only takes something unforeseeable to occur, wrecking the whole schedule, for the pre-planned edifice to collapse around us. Thankfully it has never before occurred except on one occasion which I may relate some time.
Debs described various trips in Europe, particularly in the Netherlands, and an especially long tour travelling through Scandinavia and the Baltic states. Setting aside the minor fact that she has cycled round the world, it occurred to me that actually we’d got at least as much experience of as she has of cycling in places like France and Italy. Debs maintains a website (www.brakesandcakes.org), but I’d say it is less well-organised than Andrew P. Sykes’, and curiously hasn’t been updated since 2018.
All of these sessions were interesting, useful, and enjoyable in their own way and more than justified the three hours of time devoted to them. As an experiment, I’d say the Virtual Festival was an overwhelming success; I understand that most of the sessions were recorded with a view to putting them on the website in due course. One trend that has emerged during the Lockdown is for art galleries and institutions like the National Theatre to put material online that enables everyone to enjoy it rather than just those with easy access to the capital. One change I hope to is for this trend to continue; this is nothing to do with cycling, but I have never understood why, when a sold-out theatre run comes to an end, the theatre doesn’t seek to generate much-needed capital by charging for a streaming of the production instead of just closing it down.
I don’t know how many people the Virtual Festival attracted compared with the number who would have otherwise attended the Actual Festival. The only indication of numbers was given by Andrew P. Sykes who said at one point there were 260 watchers. Assuming everything is back to the New Normal, whatever that is, next year, the Festival will revert to its Clitheroe home, and Val and I have discussed the possibility of cycling to Lancashire for it, depending on other attractions at this busy time of year. However I hope the organisers – a husband and wife team – give thought to continuing to offer online access to those unable to make the trip.
© Graham Johnson