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The Long Read: Britain, Cycling And Pillory By German Seven-Year-Olds

It’s always nice to be contacted about the cycling, the books, the podcasts etc… and this week I received an email from a student in Stuttgart, Germany. But before we get to that – and this is a post that requires your help so keep reading – let’s start with a German-themed quote from my latest tome, Spain to Norway on a Bike Called Reggie. In the story of my journey from Europe’s southernmost point to its northernmost point, I had arrived in the outskirts of Cologne;

“Through hard work, dedication, patience and perseverance, from a nation that lay in ruins after the war, the Germans have recreated a country that is envied by many, including me. When I think of cities that have been destroyed beyond recognition in my own lifetime – Beirut, Sarajevo, Kabul and, more recently, Aleppo in Syria – I take crumbs of comfort from places such as Berlin and Hamburg, which have rebuilt themselves from the rubble. And not just rebuilt themselves as second-rate versions of what they used to be; the German cities of today may lack the historical vistas of Paris or Rome, but they have been reborn as vibrant examples of economic success and cultural diversity equal to any other European city of the twenty-first century.”

Spain to Norway on a Bike Called Reggie (Summersdale / Hachette 2017)

There was, however, a, err… ‘however’… Here it comes:

“However… from the perspective of a touring cyclist, Germany was suffering from not being either Belgium or the Netherlands. I had become accustomed to good quality segregated cycling paths and signage that was so easy to follow it could have been designed by cyclists themselves (and probably was). Germany was a lurch back towards how cycling could often be back in Britain. Only a moderate lurch, but discernible nevertheless. There was lots of segregated cycling but in urban areas this was often along pavements where all of the obstacles that weren’t really obstacles when walking – signs, flowerpots, curbs, as well as the pedestrians – became so when cycling. In the countryside, although many roads had an adjacent cycle path, this was frequently of low quality and ravaged by tree roots or simply by time. If I chose not to use the facilities on offer, this would incite some motorists (older men in Mercedes usually) to point out my ‘mistake’ in no uncertain Teutonic terms.

As for the Rhine Cycle Route signage, it was sporadic and confusing. When it appeared, it was a marvel to behold, with small blue squares clearly pointing in the direction of the Rheinradweg 15, but then it wouldn’t appear for several kilometres and I was left with just the occasional red arrow. Was that my cycle path or one of the many others? My love of all things Germanic was being severely tested. In the kilometres north of Cologne I had to contend with large building developments requiring complicated detours, two long flights of steps, poor quality cycling paths and, to cap it all off, a group of mocking primary school kids. You know you are at a low ebb when you have become the victim of pillory by seven-year-olds.”

Spain to Norway on a Bike Called Reggie (Summersdale / Hachette 2017)

Now before I go any further, just for clarity, can I emphasise that I am a fully paid-up member of the German Appreciation Society. Some of the reasons why are set out in the first paragraph of that extract from Spain to Norway… I was having a bad day near Cologne and hence my grumpy comments as set out in the second part of the extract. Germany is one of the good places of Europe in which to cycle and, in the great scheme of things, perhaps I should have taken that into consideration when I was just having a miserable morning on the bike.

But how does this all link in with an email from Germany? Well clearly Germany is the connection but so is cycling. Despite being a fluent speaker of French and a very limited speaker of German, I actually have more friends in Germany than I do in France. One of those friends is a fellow teacher and his name is Claus. Indeed Claus gets a mention in my first book about cycling across Europe (Crossing Europe on a Bike Called Reggie) as I met up with him when I passing through Strasbourg. He was born and brought up in Stuttgart but I first bumped into him when we were both studying to become modern languages teachers here in the UK about 20 years ago. Several years later, Claus returned to his beautiful home city of Stuttgart to teach in the German secondary school system and I’ve had the great pleasure of visiting him a couple of times in the intervening two decades. He also does a bit of mountain biking…

…but it’s not Claus who has emailed me about cycling; it’s one of his students, a young guy called Hannes. Here’s what Hannes said in his message:

“I’m now in the last year of school and we need to do a little presentation about a topic suitable for English lessons. In the past few years I got really excited about cycling, either in professional cycling to watch on TV or to cycle on my own, also doing little bike-packing trips. So decided to do my presentation about cycling in the UK / the importance of cycling in UK. As soon as I mentioned this topic, Mr. Blanz [that’s Claus to me and you] brought up your name and offered to make the contact, which I was very happy about.”

Hannes has now sent me some questions about cycling in the UK and cycling from the perspective of British person… and this is where you come in. I’m going to write answers to Hannes’ questions below but, as most of you are British and live in the UK, I think it would be nice for you to add your comments into the mix. (Even if you aren’t British and / or don’t live in the UK you may have valid points to make.) You may or may not agree with what I write and it would be good for Hannes to have more than just the one opinion. So here goes…

Hannes (H): In Germany cycling is getting very popular in recent years (of course boosted by Corona). Is it the same in GB?

Andrew(A): Yes, the profile of cycling is much greater now than it was just a few years ago and that’s also reflected in the number of people who cycle. From the late 1940’s to the 1970’s there was a steady decline in the number of kilometres cycled in Britain and then, for about 20 years, it didn’t really change. In the 21st century, however, the trend has been reversed and there has been a 40% increase in the amount of cycle traffic. That said, as a proportion of the number of vehicles on the roads in the UK, bicycles amount to just 1%. If you are interested in cycling statistics, have a read of this document on the Cycling UK website.

That said, to answer your question, yes, cycling has become more popular but I think it depends upon who you are and where you live. London has seen a significant rise in cycling and it is now considered as one of the main ways in which people commute to work. There are are other places where cycling has traditionally been popular, often student cities such as Oxford and Cambridge but also York and Bristol. In most places, however, if you cycle to work, you are still seen as a bit of an oddity. A few years ago I was asked by a colleague at the school where I was working if I was “still cycling to work“. The way he asked the question implied that it was something I would one day grow out of and ‘graduate’ to driving a car again.

The Coronavirus has, as you mention, had an impact but whether this will be long-term, I’m not sure. I think a lot of people in Britain simply see cycling as a strange thing to do. It has yet to become a ‘normal’ activity as it is in places like The Netherlands. We have a long way to go.

H: You’re doing a lot of bike trips. What renders the experience so unique? / What do you love the most about it?

A: Cycling is a ‘Goldilocks’ way of travelling; not too fast, not too slow. I can’t think of any method of transport that matches it in terms of chronic enjoyment. In a car, it’s difficult to stop every hundred metres and admire the view. On a bicycle that’s something you can do even when moving and should you wish to stop and stare, it’s easily done. But there’s little chance of getting bored as, especially here in Europe, the scenery changes at least once or twice every hour. I enjoy walking but you invariably see the same view for much of your walk; that rarely happens on a bicycle. Riding a bicycle also makes you a little bit more interesting, especially if you are travelling with pannier bags and a tent. “Where are you going?” “Where have you come from?” tend to be the most commonly asked questions but conversations with strangers are seldom difficult if you are on a bike. Looking back I’ve had some fascinating chats with people across Europe; chats that would never have started had I not been on a bicycle. And then, of course, it’s good exercise and we all know that one sure fire way to cheer yourself up is by doing a bit of that.

H: During cycling you are alone with yourself for many hours. Is that a problem or an appeal for you?

A: I quite like cycling by myself but I know that it is a hurdle for lots of people who suspect they might be very lonely if travelling alone. When I set off on my first long-distance cycle in 2009 along a route in England called the Pennine Cycleway (from Berwick-upon-Tweed to Derby) I was fully expecting to be quite lonely. But, for the reasons set out in the answer to the previous question, that was never the case. Indeed there were times when I was craving solitude; leave me alone! When you are actually cycling, you can’t really do anything else; it’s difficult to fiddle with your mobile phone, for example. So cycling alone puts you in a position where it’s just you and your own thoughts. Often these thoughts are nothing, but often they are profound. What other activity gives you the time and space to just think?

H:Your bikes got names (Reggie, Wanda). What [kind of] relationship do you have with your bike?

A: Ha! I don’t. I think the people who have read the books have a closer relationship with Reggie (and now Wanda) than I do. I do like both of the bikes but I like them because they are good to ride and I have fond memories of travelling with them. But ultimately, they are pieces of metal and I don’t get too sentimental about them. Yes, I’d be disappointed if I were to be deprived of them but only in the same way that I’d be mightily pissed off if someone stole my computer. That said, I accept that both Reggie and Wanda have become characters in their own right and when writing the books or when posting here on CyclingEurope.org, it’s useful to have those characters to exploit. I recently made a film (see below) about cycling in the Yorkshire Dales and I can’t deny that using the name of the bike helps on the marketing side of things, even if people – especially the children I teach – think I am a bit strange…

H: Every time you’re doing a bike trip you report on it, after a tough day on the bike you have to write down everything, date up you’re website, maybe recording another podcast – isn’t that annoying at some time?

A: Good question. It can be, yes. Despite it being liberating and nowhere near as much of a problem as people imagine, one challenge of cycling alone (see comments above) can be that sometimes you have nothing to do. If you decide to take a notebook and pen with you on your travels, however, you always have something to do whether it be writing or perhaps even drawing. I first did this when I travelled around Europe on a train about 15 years ago. Today, of course, it’s very easy to do this electronically by either blogging or vlogging or even podcasting but essentially it’s the same as taking a notebook and pen and it’s good to put down your thoughts at the end of the day. The one big difference with writing in a notebook and with posting things on a website, however, is that the former is private whereas the latter is usually public. When I write for CyclingEurope.org am I being as honest as I could be? Probably not. Am I playing to the audience? Probably yes. Perhaps a good thing would be to do both at the same time although this might be a step too far in terms of the time it takes up. It can, occasionally, be annoying and there have been numerous times when I have fallen asleep in the tent mid-sentence and completed my account the following day. And then there are the times when, for whatever reason, you don’t write up what has happened for two or three days. When this has happened you have to make the conscious decision to stop cycling, find a café, order a coffee and spend a couple of hours catching up. This is usually after having stayed in people’s houses; it would be rude to not engage with the hosts and decide to go off for an hour to write up your account of the day (although this is what Maximilian J. St. George did on a regular basis, excusing himself to go off and write his diary). I have only once abandoned the writing up of a daily account and this was towards the end of the 2015 cycle from Tarifa to Nordkapp. In northern Norway I was becoming increasingly tired so I decided to make audio recordings instead. When I was writing the book, I had to listen back to what I had said and it was strange; I did sound very, very weary. They would not have made a good podcast. Podcasting while travelling is something that I have begun to attempt but it’s not easy and the editing has to be done when you have access to a computer. For me, this is when I return home. Here’s a podcast that I made about a trip to Spain and Portugal in the summer of 2019:

H: While travelling through England, GB and throughout the continent you must meet up with so many people and have so exciting encounters. Could you tell one?

A: Yes, this is one of the nicest things about travelling by bicycle and camping; you meet lots of people, as mentioned above. I’m not sure whether I’ve had an ‘exciting’ encounter, although meeting Herr Blanz in Strasbourg back in 2010 was obviously very exciting!!

Aside from Claus… one encounter that particularly stands out was my meeting with another two Germans – father and daughter – called Hans and Veronica. They were from Munich but I met them in northern Norway, shortly after crossing the Arctic Circle. During the last week of the long cycle from Tarifa in Spain to Nordkapp in Norway in 2015, I met them on numerous occasions; on the road…

…as well as on campsites and in shops. There was only one road to Nordkapp so it was inevitable we would keep bumping into each other. They became good friends during that final part of the journey and it was nice to have someone with whom I could celebrate when we all arrived at Nordkapp – the northernmost point of the continent – on July 28th 2015.

Hans and Veronica at Nordkapp, Norway

H: You’ve seen so many villages, river, roads, cities, countries… How is it to get to know a country from the bike-perspective? Can you see distinctions between the different parts of the country / different countries?

A: There is a famous line from Ernest Hemingway. He said “It’s by riding a bicycle that you learn the contours of a country best“. And it’s so true! I used this quote at the start of my second book* about the journey I made from southern Greece to southern Portugal in 2013 (Along The Med on a Bike Called Reggie). As I mentioned above, because you are travelling at the perfect speed – not too fast, not too slow – you can really appreciate your surroundings. And yes, when you travel from one region or one country to the next, it can be fascinating seeing the changes. Listen to what I have to say in this video from 2019 about crossing the border from Spain into Portugal (my comments are at 3’30”):

*The quote for my first book, Crossing Europe on a Bike Called Reggie was from H.G. Wells: “When I see an adult on a bicycle, I do not fear for the future of the human race” and for my third book, Spain to Norway on a Bike Called Reggie, I was inspired by some graffiti on a wall in Salamanca – beautiful city, see below – which quoted J.R.R Tolkien: “Not all those who wander are lost“.

H: Cycling has become your profession, you wrote three amazing books, what is ultimately your basic motivation behind it?

A: Mmm… This is a common misconception! Yes, I earn money from having written the books and a small amount from other cycling-related activities (this website, speaking…) but I have never been in a position to stop working in a ‘proper job’. I continue to work in schools as a substitute teacher and also have a second, part-time role in a local arts centre. These jobs pay the bills. What the cycling has done is help me re-configure my life. Ten years ago I worked full-time in one school and I was ruled just as much by the school timetable as the students. My working life is now much more flexible; I can, more or less, choose when to work (with the caveat that I still need to work just as many hours in the week as before…) and that’s nice. When I headed off into the Yorkshire Dales to make the film I mentioned above, for example, it wasn’t difficult for me to take three days out of my working schedule. Ultimately the money is not the motivation. If it were, I would probably have abandoned everything many years ago. What does motivate me is having something creative to do – the writing, podcasting, photography, films and now even sketching(!) – and an audience with whom I can share all that creative endeavour. Perhaps money not being the motivating factor is the reason why I still have to do other things. There’s a point for discussion…

H: In the last decade (and before too) Great Britain has been very successful – Chris Froome, Marc Cavendish, Geraint Thomas, Tao Geoghegan Hart: just to name a few – and the Tour of Britain gets more and more renowned. In 2019 the World Championships were in Harrogate, Yorkshire – what importance, what value does cycling as a sport have to whole GB, to the society?

A: Again, an interesting question. It’s true that professional cycling in Britain has had a good decade and everything you mention in your question has had the effect of elevating the sport of cycling to a new level. Other factors to add to your list are the London 2012 Olympics, the Grand Départ of the Tour de France that took place in Yorkshire in 2014 (and the spin off Tour de Yorkshire that is now a regular event on the pro-cycling circuit), the visit of the Giro d’Italia to Northern Ireland a few years ago as well as the cycling knights Sir Chris Hoy and Sir Bradley Wiggins. But like any sport, some people are fanatical about it, some people – probably more people – are not fanatical about it. Just like football. The thing with cycling is that it’s not just a sport. It’s also a very good method of transport and I’m not sure it’s possible to conflate the two. Are more people likely to ride their bicycle to work because they see Chris Froome standing on the podium at the Tour de France? A few, perhaps. But I’m not convinced that all these sporting endeavours – which are excellent and make for good entertainment – have a real, lasting impact on cycling becoming more popular as a means of transport for large swathes of the population. On the contrary; many people now associate ‘cycling’ in any form as an activity that requires expensive bikes, tight lycra and a body to match. It doesn’t. What will make the real difference to cycling becoming an activity that is embraced by large numbers of people when they are travelling to work, to the shops, to visit friends etc… is infrastructure. At the moment, Britain’s cycling infrastructure is lamentable. Successive British governments have been very good at spending billions of pounds on transport schemes for car drivers – here’s a good example from this week

…but far less enthusiastic about investing serious amounts of money in providing proper cycling infrastructure. There is one place in the country where this has happened – London – and the number of people cycling has rocketed. But elsewhere in the country it is very hit and miss. Roads are regularly rebuilt with only a cursory thought given towards the needs of non-motorised road users. It is very, very frustrating. But this is a country that doesn’t seem to excel when it comes to long-term strategic thinking; after all, 52% of those who voted thought it would be a good idea to leave the European Union despite the fact that the EU is the organisation that has been instrumental in keeping the peace in Europe since 1945. Lots of people don’t appreciate that long-term benefit. They want tax cuts instead… It leaves people like me screaming. ‘Society’ is often a dirty word in the UK; many people see things from a very individualistic point of view. If it doesn’t benefit them personally, it’s not worth doing. Most people don’t cycle, so cycling infrastructure is not a priority despite the fact that it is widely recognised that cycling is an overwhelming force for good on so many levels. I feel that those of us who do believe in society are often, to use a popular if rather vulgar phrase, pissing in the wind.

H: What importance does it have to you personally?

A: Well, as you can see from my answer to the previous question, it is something that I care deeply about. It’s just worth reiterating that I see cycling as a sport very different from cycling as an activity per se. It will be interesting to see if anyone has anything to add in the comments below.

H: Is it possible to draw any general distinction between the north and the south in terms of cycling?

A: I’m not sure. You might think that the geography of southern Britain – generally quite flat – would lend itself to being more amenable for everyday cycling compared to the north of Britain – which tends to be a bit hillier – but there are plenty of exceptions that would confound that logic. Scotland is a place where I think there is a much more positive long-term commitment to cycling from the devolved government than other parts of the UK. In Germany you have a federal system of government. The only part of the UK which is remotely comparable to a German Länder is Scotland and I think that is a key factor in why Scotland wants to invest in cycling. The government in Edinburgh is much more in touch with the people of Scotland and it has the financial resources to improve things like cycling. In most of the rest of the UK, we have poorly funded local councils which, although close to the populations they serve, don’t have the financial clout. Central government in London is far too busy thinking about where the next tax cut can come from and, dare I suggest, improving the lives of those in the capital? In 2018-19, the government spent £903 per person on transport in London whereas in the north of England it was just £376 per person. For my region – Yorkshire – it was just £276 per person. (Read this BBC report for full details.)

Every time I visit another country in northern Europe – and increasingly most of southern and eastern Europe – I could weep when I see the extent to which high quality public transport and high quality cycling infrastructure has become the norm. While much of the world is investing in modern, efficient transport infrastructure, Britain is a country and has only this year – yes, 2020 – stopped using what are known as ‘Pacer Trains’ that were built 40 years ago and based upon cheap designs for buses. If you don’t believe me, read this report from February 2020 from CNN. You will then understand why I weep…


So those are my answers to Hannes’ questions. I’m sure many of you agree with much of what I have said, but there will be others who disagree strongly. That’s democracy. Even if Mr Trump isn’t keen on the idea, we in Europe remain fans. Please add your thoughts below. I’m sure Hannes would be fascinated to know what you think. And so would I…

12 years of cycle touring: 2009 v. 2020

Categories: Adventure, Cycling, Travel

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8 replies »

  1. Great questions Hannes. You are really lucky to live in Germany and have an education system which allows you to do interesting projects. Your English is fabulous. Keep up the good work and asking questions.

  2. I‘m really really thankful for all thoughts and comments!! It‘s great to see the positive response and feedback. Doing and preparing the presentation is now getting much more interesting than I thought – Thank all of you!
    Hannes

    • Hi Hannes. I’m glad you have read the comments that have so far been posted. They make some interesting points. Hope the presentation goes well 🙂 Stay safe! Andrew

  3. For Hannes – I am an almost 70 year old woman and have cycled here in the UK for a good part of my life. I love to cycle camp . We took out children cycle camping back in the 70’s and 80’s and that was very unusual.
    We bought pedelecs 2 years ago and this has helped us to continue. We have cycled throughout the UK and also in northern Europe. The cycle infrastructure is better in most European countries than the UK. Cycling the North Sea Cycle Route in 2006 was the most wonderful experience and we made a really good friend in Norway who we have visited a number of times and have hosted him and his wife.
    Occasionally, I go off cycle camping on my own – again regarded as odd by a lot of people but I like it.
    I have zero interest in the sport side of cycling.
    Cycling and kayaking also helped me to develop being able to speak some German being a total failure at school.
    I do hope this helps your research

    • Thanks for taking the time to write this Brenda. Much appreciated. I’ll make sure Hannes is aware that you have added your thoughts. Stay safe 🙂

  4. Great questions Claus and great answers Andrew! I’ll add some of my own comments, happy to expand on any, please ask.

    I live in Bristol, one of the UK’s “cycling cities” and in spite of its hills, cycling is big here. Bristol is also the HQ of Sustrans which has done wonderful things to promote cycling via the signposted network of routes. Generally in the UK there are more and better cycle paths and cycle lanes and the advance stop boxes at traffic lights are great but plenty more to do. If we had rail companies which encouraged us to take bikes on trains as in Germany and France we could go further more easily.

    I go touring once or twice a year both solo and with a group, but for a week or so, nothing in comparison to Andrew’s epic trips. I love both solo and group cycling, they’re totally different, in a group you’re more insular ie spending more time together and not relating so much to others and there’s the constant debate about where to go and where to stop. Solo is different, you’re completely in charge of your days and I always manage to find people to talk to if I want to. In many cases they’ll approach you for a natter.
    Whether solo or in a group we always write notes and I’ve written them all up and self published. It’s great rereading to remind what happened, it’s easy to forget stuff.

    Although travelling slowly, yes you can see the country but more importantly meet people. Why would you want to complete lands end to John o groats in a week and see nothing? Three weeks for me when I get round to it I think.

    Personally I hit 60 in 2017 and stopped being a project manager after many years. I’m now a bikeability instructor, working in schools teaching kids how to ride safely on road, I also work on a 121 basis, lead rides for older riders and those with mental health issues and work with tandem riders taking people with sight issues out on bikes. I make a little money but the rewards I get from working with these people is huge. There has been a big spike in my work post lockdown 1 as people ventured out onto quiet streets.

    Cycling as a sport in the UK is important, many know the household names ie Wiggins, Froome, Kenny and I’m sure it’s tempted more out on bikes.

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