cycling chit chat

Cycling in Rome – a physical manifestation of Dante’s Inferno?

For a capital that is home to some incredible sights and is brimming with tourists year-round, it is hard to believe that Rome is so walking and cycling unfriendly. It may be the worst city I have ever visited with my “places are for people” glasses on.  I spent a week there, marveling at the city’s loveliness on the one hand, and despairing at the city’s ugliness on the other. The architecture, art and history of the place are spellbinding, but all of the high points are mired by the atrocious traffic and air quality.

Rome looks picturesque but don't be fooled by its beauty...

Rome looks picturesque but don’t be fooled by its beauty… It’s a monster for walking and cycling.

I’d need to drink several G&Ts to take the edge off before attempting to write about my walking experience, so rather than get drunk I’m going to write about my stresses of getting around Rome by bike instead.

Traumatised but defiant after a day cycling in Roma.

Traumatised but defiant after a day cycling in Roma.

Weathering the traffic storm

With a week spent mostly on foot, I was able to see the city in all its car-strangled glory. Only one day did I hazard exploration on a bicycle, and I am convinced the only way I lived to tell the tale is because I was too scared to cycle on any proper trafficked routes.

As a barometer on cycling awfulness, my refusal to cycle in Italian traffic points the needle to “hurricane force shitness”. As a seasoned utility cyclist in Edinburgh, I’m battle-hardened to riding through my home’s busiest and most congested streets without so much as a shrug. Occasionally, *whispers* I even enjoy it.

Rome was another kettle of fish. If you think driving in Scotland is bad, Roman driving has its rightful place in the seventh circle of hell. Italians’ love of their cars has completely smothered this beautiful city – its arteries are black from tarmac and traffic flow.

These cars are parked. In the middle of the road. Parking fuckwittery in this town is grade 1.

These cars are parked. In the middle of the road. FFFfffffffffffuck’s sake.

The sickness of Rome’s car obsession

The weird thing about this city of 3 million people is that it is much denser than London’s 9 million or so inhabitants and so cycling seems an obvious way to get about. The topography of the city would lend itself to cycling (the seven hills aren’t that bad and would easily be tamed by ebikes). The main roads are obscenely wide and the congestion of the place is so utterly pronounced I am flabbergasted that cycling provision has been given even less than lip service.

What's that? Oh yeah, just a five lane motorway in the middle of an ancient city.

What’s that? Oh yeah, just one of about a million five lane motorways in the middle of an ancient city.

Dad and daughter cycling. What's wrong with this picture? No traffic.

Dad and daughter cycling. But no space for cycling infrastructure, apparently.

In an attempt to combat the endless hours that Romans must spend stuck in traffic, the population has really gone above and beyond. Instead of investing in better forms of transport, they have just shrunk their cars… I can sort of see the logic in this madness – with roads the size of motorways wrapped around anything and everything, you can imagine why people might think smaller cars might get you places quicker. Except they OBVIOUSLY don’t.  Way to not solve the problem, guys.

Rome’s answer to traffic congestion – that tiny car from Muppets Most Wanted

Roaming Rome by bike

There is almost entirely no useful cycling infrastructure in Rome. What does exist is beyond terrible for getting from A to B. This is reflected in the woeful bicycle modal share of 1%. An incredible 54% of Romans use their cars to get around (London sits at 34%) – no wonder the city is gridlocked. Rome is car sick.

On my second day in the city, I was excited to discover a Bici Roma stall at the Piazza del Popolo and immediately spent 5 euro on their cycling map. Expecting to see an network of cycling routes around the city on a map of Spokes’ quality, upon unfolding it I discovered I had bought the world’s worst bike map because there is basically nowhere to cycle in Rome.

Over the course of my week in the city, I spotted a few shocking attempts at cycling infra, including one protected cycleway that spat you out into a gigantic junction of misery, some cursory cycles painted on the footway and what appeared to be its flagship route – the river Tiber.

I spent half a day enjoying the cycle path next to the Tiber river, but getting on and off in the city centre was deeply unpleasant. The infra was quite narrow, had cratered surfaces but was well used by folk on foot and bike. Whether it’s useful for utility trips will largely depend on whether you’re happy hefting a bike up and down 200 steps.

Oooh this is quite nice. Cycle path along the Tiber.

Oooh, this is nice. Cycle path along the Tiber.

Knew it was too good to be true.

No, wait. Knew it was too good to be true. The state of this.

I did manage to find one place in the entire city where cycling was the de-facto way to get about. Rome’s main park, the Villa Borghese, only has two massively stupid roads that slice it up, and cycle hire is available for exploring the islands of greenspace that float amidst the particulate matter.

It was a delight to see the park by cycle, although I did have a mid-level meltdown when attempting to park outside the world-fucking-famous Villa Borghese museum, only to discover that not a single scrap of bike parking existed. In a park full of bikes.

Cycling in the Villa Borghese

A snapshot of what cycling in Rome could be like. Except it isn’t.

I didn’t see any bike parking in Rome. I did mistake two guardrails for bike parking on my last day, and even took a photo of them as evidence to contradict my verdict of how shite Rome is for cycling. Except Rome is definitely shite for cycling, because they are bloody guardrails and not bike parking.

There is light at the end of the garbage-fire infested tunnel

In good news, I was pleased to see those who did cycle do so with typical Italian flair and style. Everyone looked fabulous. So it goes to show that even in a traffic cesspit, high-viz and victim-blaming safety gear haven’t crept into Italian mindsets quite yet.

While I feel your pain at trying to get anywhere, you do look lovely while doing it.

While I feel Roman cyclists’ pain at trying to get anywhere, they do look lovely while doing it.

Cycle chic in Roma.

My Roman experience has done a good job of putting things into perspective when it comes to cycling in Edinburgh. Although far from perfect, I am glad that the hill we have to climb in my fair city isn’t as tough as the Italian capital’s.

There must surely be a cycle campaign in Rome, but without a grasp of Italian I haven’t been able to find any meaningful information on any that might exist. I am sure campaigners do a beyond incredible job in a difficult situation, and my piecemeal cycling experience perhaps doesn’t reflect the reality of utility cycling. But for me, cycling in Rome was grim. I can only hope that my day in the saddle isn’t representative – except I have a sneaking feeling that it probably is.

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What to do when the world is imploding

Even people who have been living under rocks have heard about the steaming broth of self-inflected doom us Brits have ladled upon ourselves in the last few days.

It’s difficult for me to articulate the dismay and sadness I felt upon Brexit.  Along with 75% of Edinburgh’s residents, I voted to remain as part of the EU on Thursday and woke up first thing on Friday to news I did not want to hear.

So, in an attempt to remember that the world is still turning and that life is still good, I went cycling with friends in Dumfries and Galloway at the weekend.

Even on a dark day the sun shines and reminds us that life is good

On a dark day the sun shines and reminds us that everything will be ok when we’re on a bike ride.

And indeed, a bike ride with friends was the tonic I needed. It was Sally’s not-my-birthday ride and over the course of the day we explored some of the beautiful and chronically underappreciated cycling opportunities that Dumfries and Galloway offers.

Hill climbing is a good way to get EU despair out your system and replace it with clean and refreshing gulps of air.

I hadn’t appreciated the scale of Dumfries and Galloway. When you look at it on the map at the foot of Scotland, it doesn’t really register that this particular foot has the shoe size of Sasquatch. It’s very big, indeed. Fellow bike rider Rhian told me that the local authority is around the size of Northern Ireland.

Rural cycling at its best.

Rural cycling at its best.

Not surprisingly, D&G voted to remain part of the EU on Thursday. This was due in part, I’m sure, to the agricultural industry that is part and parcel of rural living. Us cyclists had the farmers to be thankful for, too. With so many small access roads and a network with practically no traffic, riding a bike in this area was an absolute delight.

Wide open spaces to explore on two wheels. What a delight.

Wide open spaces to explore on two wheels. A changing landscape from hilly moorland with lochs to patchwork fields, farmland and dense woods.

 

Woodland riding, with plenty chat thrown into the mix

Woodland riding, with plenty chat thrown into the mix.

I was tickled by Sally’s apologies for the weight of traffic on some of the “busier” roads. By Edinburgh’s choked car standards, the “busy” roads around Dumfries felt like idylls. I figure there needs to be a convertor for traffic levels from rural to urban areas 🙂

We did around 48 miles over the course of the day. We stopped for lunch, tea and cake and various photo opportunities to appreciate the landscape and nature. I’ve been getting more into birds recently, so Sally named some of the common ones for me so I’ll know for the future. We spotted wagtails, bullfinches, wrens, curlews, swallows, larks and an enormous buzzard that took a fright and ensuing flight right in front of us as we tootled past.

We also spotted a storybook hare with ears that looked like they’d been dipped in dark chocolate. There was a fair bit of accidental bug-eating, too. One kamikaze fly took to bullseyeing itself in poor Suzanne’s peeper and, when she extracted it, the blimmin’ thing was the size of a raisin.

Looking from the top to the bottom

Looking from the top of the hill to the bottom

My ride around Dumfries and Galloway made me feel very happy on a weekend where many people around the UK were feeling the exact opposite. A humble bike ride can cure many ills, as these smiling faces demonstrate. I had a wonderful time experiencing a part of Scotland I’d never visited before. I came away from my weekend knowing that life’s simple pleasures can refocus the mind. Even the sporadic and heavy rain showers felt positive and life affirming.

Bikes are happiness machines.

Bikes are happiness machines.

 

Joyful selfies

Joyful selfies. Thanks to Suzanne for this snap.

I will absolutely have to return to the area with my bike. It’s exciting to think of all the beautiful places I’ve still to find on two wheels.

We're just little things in a big world and there's still a lot to see. Thanks again to Suzanne for this amazing photo.

We’re just little things in a big world and there’s still a lot to see. Thanks to Suzanne for this amazing photo.

So, despite all the madness, it’s important to remember that we are alive and can choose to be happy. Get on your bike, go for a ride to a place you’ve never been before, eat cake and be with friends and remember that things can still be very good indeed 🙂

11 things I’ve noticed as a female bike commuter

I originally wrote this blog post for the Edinburgh Bike Coop blog 🙂 

Here’s to the daily cycle commute. Not only is it fast, cheap, healthy and efficient, but the more I’ve commuted the more I’ve noticed about my daily trip to and from work. Here’s a starter for ten. Or eleven…

1. Runny noses are rife

Short of shoving two tampons up yer schnoz, there’s no getting away from the runny nose. I’m not the only one that suffers from an overactive proboscis when on a bike, but unlike some other bicycle commuters it’s not the done thing to shoot a snot-goblin out an offending nostril on the way to work. Rather than playing bogie target practice, a classic three-ply tissue does the job of cleaning the old olfactory pipes upon reaching the final destination, thank you very much.

2. We commuters have fabulous pins

X5oc0LK

One time a pal of mine prodded my thigh in a non-sexy way and I was met with slightly horrified squeals when they discovered just how strong my legs are. I’m still not sure why they were a tiny bit repulsed that I have regularly-used muscles and as a consequence don’t feel like a human-shaped marshmallow. Contrary to popular belief, it is possible to be a woman and have physical strength without looking like the Hulk. I love my strong legs and I have my cycle commute to thank for them.

3. Eating is a championship sport

We cycle commuters have evolved into highly effective human dustbins. Colleagues provide me with leftover food and I unashamedly hoover it up, I’m the first in the kitchen when free scran is announced and I can put away pies like Desperate Dan. Conventional societal expectations around women and appetite can kiss my steely buns. Whilst I eat whatever’s in the fridge, obviously.

4. Your behind becomes bomb-proof

fRQ1k

I dread to think how guys get on with all that stuff wobbling around down below when it comes to saddle comfort. But for us women commuters, the lack of wibbly bits doesn’t make it any less trying to find a saddle that doesn’t feel like a cheese cutter wedged up your arse. Thankfully, my saddle and I were friends from the start, although it still takes a wee while to break your bum in and have a happy toosh-related commute.

5. Flexibility goes out the window

funny-yoga-460

The bike commute does wonders for physical health and mental wellbeing – it’s practically a miracle pill. But all that repetitive muscular motion means that without proper stretching I’ve become about as flexible as receptionist at a doctor’s surgery or a ticket on a Ryanair flight. Must. Stetch. More.

6. People don’t realise I ride a bike

I get this a lot. Folk are constantly surprised when I rock up on a bike but don’t look sporty. This is not just a commuter thing; it applies to work, meetings, events and social situations. Work and casual clothes perform perfectly well for cycling short journeys. It’s great to hop on a bike without looking like the world’s slowest and least aerodynamic Tour-De-France competitor.

7. Some guys play leapfrog

This is a common observation from women the world over and is definitely a guy thing (sorry, chaps). Some blokes take serious umbrage when a lady cyclist pootles past them of a morning. The testosterone-tinged red mist descends and soon a daft game of bicycle leapfrog ensues. I usually chuckle when a dude I overtook 15 seconds ago regails me with his bum crack while heaving himself back into another short-lived stretch in pole position.

8. The weather now poses no obstacle

Prior to the bike commute, mildly inclement weather was not a friend. A light dusting of rain would have been misery and umbrella-inducing. A stiff breeze would see moaning levels crank up to 11. Chilly temperatures were enough to turn me into the Michelin man. No longer. Aside from events like Hurricane Bawbag, most Scottish weather is now considered to be practically tropical.

9. Bike mechanics are no longer terrifying

ikea-fail-chair-girl

By bike mechanics, I don’t mean the people that toil away with spanners all day. The bike mechanics I know are hardly terrifying; they’re very lovely and like a natter and a cup of tea with a good biscuit and that’s about as scary as a box of kittens. By bike mechanics, I mean tinkering. Although I still have mostly no clue, after three years of cycle commuting I can fix a puncture, adjust brakes and re-align gears and that makes me feel epic.

10. I am independent and awesome

As well as epic basic bike mechanic skills, my daily bike commute is 40 minutes of self-powered freedom and independence. I can go wherever I want, whenever I want without getting irritated about bus timetables, spare change, petrol stops, traffic jams or that guy behind me in the queue who just sneezed on my hair. Much like a less grisled version of Bear Grylls, I am reliant on nobody and no thing. Except my awesome bike. And very occasionally a bike mechanic with previously mentioned nice cup of tea and biscuit.

11. There aren’t that many women that cycle to work

Despite the fact that cycling is cheap, quick and arguably better than a chip butty or crisp sandwich, the number of female bike commuters remains woefully low. Anecdotal counting on my morning commute usually brings up 3 or 4 guys to every woman, which reflects gender stats on UK cycling generally. Last I checked, there’s no requirement to have a set of tackle between your legs to take to two wheels, so the fact that 50% of the population is vastly under-represented when it comes to cycling is something to be, well, tackled.

Cycling around Loch Katrine

I’ve been working from home a lot these last few months as I manage the Edinburgh Cycle Challenge (remember to register and win prizes, hint hint). As a consequence my daily 14 mile bike commute has been suffering.

In an effort to combat my lack of miles I’ve been trying to squeeze in some more leisure rides. Last weekend I was fortunate to ride with Lothian Cyclists around Loch Katrine, and boy was I lucky. The weather was absolutely spectacular, company great and the bike ride one of the best I’ve enjoyed in Scotland to date.

Looking across Loch Arklet

Looking across Loch Arklet

The route was about 32 miles or so in total; I took my hybrid bike as I was a bit concerned about icy surfaces. Me and Kitt are buddies, but I’m still not 100% confident on the road bike so erred on the side of caution. The good thing about the hybrid is its love for hills – starting with a climb up the Duke’s Pass was no problem for the granny gears.

Climb up Duke's Pass

Climbing up Duke’s Pass

The Duke’s Pass (Sustrans NCN7) was a supremely enjoyable climb. Amazing views and a couple of hairpin bends but no desperately mean inclines meant I was happy as a clam as I pedalled up the hill. Of course, the downhill was great fun – it just kept going and eventually I rolled to a stop at the eastern shore of Loch Katrine. The Trossachs Pier is home to a wee coffee shop and the lovely Lady of the Lake steam boat.

Trusty hybrid at Trossachs Pier, Loch Katrine

Me and my trusty hybrid at Trossachs Pier, Loch Katrine

After a quick pit stop, we cycled on the private road around the north of the loch. The road has no traffic and is very beautiful…

Bike on north shore of Loch Katrine

Can’t complain about that view

Looking south to Ben Venue

Looking south to Ben Venue

The west side of Loch Katrine is home to Strontlachar Pier. This is where we took a wee break and enjoyed a bite to eat before resuming the cycle back to Aberfoyle, past Loch Arklet, Loch Chon and Loch Ard. The return leg was just as stunning.

On the return to Aberfoyle

On the return to Aberfoyle

The two piers on Loch Katrine

Decisions, decisions…

I was happily knackered after my 32 mile loop. I tended to sit at the back of the pack, partly due to the hybrid (everyone else was on road bikes), partly due to me gawking at all the incredible scenery, but mostly due to my lung-and-leg power. It was a clear indicator that my fitness is lacking after fewer commutes these last few months and a winter avoiding longer rides with mileage and hill climbs. There’s only one thing for it. I will need to cycle more…

For those interested, here is the Route on Strava. I highly recommend this loop. It’s a bit awkward without a car as there is no train station. Saying that, if you have the car or can hitch a lift you’ll be hard pressed for better bike riding within an hour and a bit of Edinburgh 🙂 My crappy iPhone photos can’t even get close to the scenic quality of this route. Srsly, IT WAS SO GOOD!

How much money I saved in 2015 by cycling

It’s pretty much the end of the year, so I’ve got my final figures for my Great Edinburgh Bike Experiment. I’ve been doing posts quarterly on this, and by my last estimates in August I was up £653.77 against the fictional car. I’ve now totted up the remaining year, give or take a few days as it’s the 27th today and there are a few journeys left in December.  But hey, what are a few days? Let’s tot up September, October, November and December…

Autumn and winter’s numbers

  • Total journeys: 101
  • Total distance: 855 miles
  • Total calories: 27,719 kcal
  • Total climb: 22,702 feet

Bike expenditure in last four months

As it turns out, riding the same bike almost every day over two and a half years means that things need replaced. And so it was over autumn and winter, when all the proverbial buses came at once and I had to replace both gear cables, both tyres, chain, cassette, two brake block sets, one brake cable, and the rear brake completely due to it being cheap to begin with and eventually falling off. Combine that with a service to get everything sorted and I was down £130. Ouch. That’s a big wedge out of my potential savings.

However, when cycling thousands of miles over bumpy, pockmarked Edinburgh roads you’re going to have to expect wear and tear. This is now my third chain and cassette and umpteenth brake block, so it goes with the territory.

As for bus fares, I have been spending a bit more on buses these last few months due to some rotten weather. So I am down £30 for this, too.

Total expenditure – £160

Public transport equivalent

  • I substituted £142.50 worth of bus fares in  September, October, November and December. It wouldn’t have been more economical for a Ridacard over these months, so let’s just go with the total.
  • Public transport cost = £142.50

Car equivalent

  • Monthly car running cost – £39.16
  • Petrol cost for 855 miles – £73.92. The majority of journeys I’ve been doing are in the city, so I’m going to round it up to £80 to account for congestion.
  • Total running cost = £230.56

Gym equivalent

  • Total cost – £122

Grand totals!

  • Public transport (£142.50) + gym (£122) – expenditure (£160) = £104.50 savings
  • Car (£230.56) + gym (£122) – expenditure (£160) = £192.56 savings

2015 grand totals

  • Bike vs Public Transport – £633 in pocket

  • Bike vs Car – £846.33 in pocket

  • Total miles cycled – 2,454

So that’s it, folks! Over the course of the year, I have managed to save almost £850 against my fictional car. I am pretty happy with that, especially as my fictional car has been perfect and required no repairs or anything on its fictional MOT.

In conclusion

I think I will write a bit more about this over the next week or two. It’s been incredibly interesting to tot up my cycling and compare it against potential spends on running a car. Of course, this crude experiment has done nothing to try and understand the other amazing benefits afforded by cycling. No mention of:

  • carbon savings
  • societal benefits by riding a bike (bike riding offers a wealth of plus points in this sense)
  • my physical health and fitness
  • my mental health
  • the “feelgood” factor

More on this soon.

 

 

Lanzarote’s attitude to cycling

Much to my other half’s despair, I just spent two weeks with him in Lanzarote taking photos and spraffing on about the island’s cycling provision and infrastructure. Never mind sun, sand and sangria, on my trip to the Canaries I was all about the segregated cycling provision, demographic breakdowns and the impact of presumed liability.

Cycling in Lanzarote has a lot of perks

Cycling in Lanzarote has a lot of perks

Lanzarote is not only sunny, warm and visually arresting, but is very appealing for cycling. I don’t just mean all-day road rides or epic mountain bike adventures; cycling is a viable form of everyday transport. I was really impressed by the island’s attitude towards bikes, and my trip there put some things into perspective when I think about Edinburgh.

Bike at El Golfo

Bike at El Golfo

Lanzarote is a small island with a population of around 120k. Even at the peak of the summer season with a a tourist influx, the island’s population swells to around 200k, less than half the population of Edinburgh. The island is well connected with beautifully tarmaced and well-maintained roads, and isn’t overly mountainous.

There was a considerable amount of segregated infrastructure available in the resorts of Lanzarote, used by all different kinds of people.

Segregated provision in Puerto del Carmen

Segregated provision in Puerto del Carmen

Visitors use hire bikes to get around in Puerto del Carmen

Visitors use hire bikes to get around on segregated infrastructure in Puerto del Carmen

In my two weeks on the island, I saw hardly any high visibility clothing and helmet wear. Visitors and locals alike used segregated infrastructure, as well as riding happily on the road. Cycling was accessible to all ages, and it warmed my cockles to see just about every kind of person out and about on a bike.

Older people cycled happily

Older people cycled happily

Family cycling provision

Family cycling provision – see how happy this family are!

I didn’t see a single painted bike lane on the streets of Lanzarote, but interestingly vehicles appeared to be extremely courteous of cycling all over the island, including roadies out for longer spins in the Timanfaya National Park. This will be partly due to presumed liability, which ensures that the most vulnerable road users are protected and facilitates mutual respect on the road (the UK is one of only five European countries that doesn’t operate in this fashion).

I saw a lot of mountain bikers as well as roadies as I travelled around the island on a couple of bus tours. The Lanzarote landscape is spectacular and would be pretty incredible to see via a bike. The roads are immaculate and there are some good climbs to keep everyone entertained.

MTB riders take a break at Haria

MTB riders take a break at Haria

This small island does have the weather on its side, but its resident population is less than a quarter of Edinburgh’s yet the investment in segregated infrastructure and presumed liability means that cycling is normalised, popular and not the preserve of the fit and the fast.

As illustrated time and time and time again, good quality cycling provision that is safe and separate from traffic is what encourages everyday cycling. It would be unfair to say my home town is ignorant of this fact, as the recently published Roseburn to Leith consultation demonstrates that Edinburgh understands what works. I would heartily recommend you respond to the council consultation positively – it’s brave and re-allocates space from traffic to pedestrians and cyclists so it’s imperative you show your support.

I hope our city takes a leaf out of Lanzarote’s book and we start to see more segregated provision (and a bit more sunshine wouldn’t go amiss, either!). Until that happens, maybe it’s not such a bad thing to pedal off into a Canary-coloured sunset…

My approach to bad weather is to just keep cycling

It’s been a bit dreich in Edinburgh these last few days. The weather has taken a big huff, and is currently gusting itself into exhaustion. Looks like we’ll have to wait until Wednesday for the watery sunshine of late autumn to reappear, so in the meantime it’s worth remembering that when you’re cycling there’s no such thing as bad weather – only bad kit.

My urban armour

How to combat crap weather – become a gore-texasaurus

To combat the wind and wet, I’ve finally cracked out the winter gear. You can still cycle through the worst of the year without turning into a MAMIL-esque wannabe.  My garment arsenal consists of gore-tex boots from Clarks, waterproof trews, fluffy buff, Vulpine winter storm cap, waterproof gloves and winter waterproof jacket. This keeps me snug as a bug in a warm and cosy rug and conveniently goes over whatever normal everyday clothing I’ve got on.

I was out today in double-dot rain and 45mph gusts and felt totally invincible in my urban armour. My other half ventured out with me in the appalling conditions too, and decked out in waterproofs head to toe he took to the jaunt like a duck to water, which was quite fitting really seeing as we were cycling through a deluge. Other than utterly slaying the weather, the best part was getting into the house and stripping off our outermost layers of proofing; underneath our gore-tex forcefields we were both bone dry.

It’s all about mentality and kit. So long as you know you are conquering Scotland’s hostile climes in your winter get up, it doesn’t matter how much of a hissy fit the weather takes. The elements literally roll off you.

So do your worst, winter. I am ready.