There’s a scene in the Matrix where Keanu Reeves’ character Neo is in a crowd of people pushing and shoving, when suddenly a beautiful woman in a red dress walks past, catching his eye.
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Before we dive in, I’d like to set the scene to where I was a couple of years ago and how I came to fall in love with riding and roaming around Cardiff By Bike – see what I did there? 😉
A few years ago I was returning to riding after nearly a decade off bikes, for various reasons and rediscovering why I spent so much of my childhood on two wheels. I’d been riding a road bike for little over a year for both the odd adventure up a hill to get fitter and my daily commute of a couple of miles. However, the realisation was setting in that really I needed a separate bike for commuting on.
Maintaining a “one bike does it all” was taking its toll on my entry-level road bike, but getting a hybrid didn’t really appeal to me and I fancied something different to the mountain bikes I’d spent my childhood on. Talking to a colleague and friend one afternoon he said “I’ve got a singlespeed I’m not using, if you fancy borrowing/buying it?”. I thought “Aye, go on ‘en. I’ve not tried riding fixed before!” A quick Google seemed to confirm my assumption that the lack of a front & rear derailleur and corresponding cables meant less maintenance: the perfect winter/commuter bike I thought.
Forewarned by my buddy that the bike needed a bit of tender loving care I started reading and watching videos on basic bike maintenance and started a building ideas in my head about not just how I could improve the bike’s ride but also customise it and “make it mine”. The bike has a flip/flop hub, a freewheel on one side, a fixed gear on the other, so I could pick & choose between riding singlespeed or fixed. It didn’t take long too long to get used to riding fixed and after a few days commuting a short distance into work I was pretty comfortable with it. I even started track standing at the traffic lights!
After a few months commuting in this configuration I’d started to get an idea of just where that aforementioned TLC needed to be spent. The brakes worked, but they weren’t great. I replaced the pads, rear caliper and cables in one go and that made a world of difference and was well within my abilities, even for my lowly mechanical ‘skillz’. The wheels turned but didn’t really feel free when they did so. After watching GCN’s Maintenance Monday videos for a while I felt like having a go at re-greasing the wheel hub bearings. A few dirty finger tips later and I’d managed that without losing any ball bearings. The next morning’s ride was a lot more fluent and took less effort to turn the cranks. Success!
With the weather getting better into spring I also decided to replace the worn bar tape with something more colourful. “Why not match that lovely red on the wheels?” I thought. I went for Fizik Microtex stuff as it’s basically weatherproof, but I’ve heard Lizardskin’s bar tape is very similar too.
I still had more to do though. I often found myself going to the shops to pick a few odds & ends up on the way home and whilst most of the time I could wiggle packages and boxes into my work bag it was rarely comfortable and left me longing for a better way of getting things from A to B. I knew cargo bikes existed but in no way could I justify the price; trailers looked fiddly to me; and panniers to me were just another awkward bag to struggle with.
I did a bit of research and eventually discovered a French word: porteur, which can be an adjective describing the act of carrying or a noun meaning “the one who carries”. I found this word on an interesting blog post, The Porteurs of Paris, and in a simplified summary these were bike lovers who raced their machines delivering the news hot from the presses straight to newsstands all over Paris. They did it like this:
Many porteurs were amateur or semi-professional racers who used their jobs for training, so it was natural to organize a race of the porteurs every year. The course started in the newspaper quarter of Paris, went around the Boulevards Extérieurs before climbing the hill of Montmartre. Riders had to carry 15 kg (33 lb) of newspapers. At the half-way point, they had to exchange their load for another pack of newspapers. Much of the course went over cobblestones, and not all were as smooth as the ones in the photo above.
I saw these images and I loved them. I loved the raw simplicity and perfect mix of form and function. The riders can get aero, ride fast, and get rewarded for delivering the news fast by bike. There are more details of how these porteurs did their jobs, and races, in the post linked to above and I definitely recommend checking it out.
So I started looking for a porteur bike rack. Turns out this was quite hard! This niche doesn’t have many options and those I did find were either extortionate hipster-level expensive or looked flimsy enough to fold under load. Eventually I found a company called Basil who make exactly what I was looking for in two options: with and without “borders”. With borders means it comes with walls, like a basket and without is, er, without ‘em.
I’d spent some time searching for and ogling at old porteur bikes online and saw that many were small wooden crates to them so I picked a few up from a local home store, spray painted them red (I really like the colour red by the way) and grabbed some bungee cord. Lush. I had exactly what I needed. With two big red crates and tidy size flat porteur rack on the front I could use whichever box suited my needs on any given day. I started doing my weekly shop by bike and found I could get about a 1 and a half basket’s load in without too much effort.
I’m not the only one who has adopted this idea however. On Wood Street recently I saw a nice retro looking old steel frame bike with a porteur rack and old wooden crate on the front. A few days later I saw it again on Queen street. Whomever you are, my fellow porteur: chapeau!
I still found on the odd occasion where I was shopping for a trolley load of things, or where I picked up packages from the sorting office of awkward sizes, that I could do better. Still being pannier-averse I looked at other options for mounting something to the back of the bike. I found Topeak make a seatpost mounted flat rack would extend over the rear wheel and hold a reasonable load. So I ordered one and it does exactly as it says on the tin. The bonus is that has a mount for a rear light and rubber straps for helping mount things to it. Perfect!
I now do 99% of my shopping like this. I pop the smaller crate on the front rack with the larger one on the rear seatpost mounted rack and ride down the Taff Trail to the shops and home again. A couple of more recent additions are some clip on/off mudguards and a more comfortable saddle. I can even now say that I actually look forward going food shopping! I get a few quizzical looks when people see me riding in full utilitarian setup but most people smile and admire the continental approach to transport. The nice thing is that I can scale things up or down depending on my needs on any particular day. When commuting I ride with the front rack on, but no crates, and keep some straps with me just in case I do end up grabbing something I need to attach to the front.
The other morning I was passed on Llandaff Bridge by a roadie on a flash carbon frame and deep section wheels who commented “Nice bike mate, good way to get about!”
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Some interesting things are happening with cycling in Valencia, Spain’s third largest city. Can we learn from them?
Imagine a city where every week you come across a new stretch of cycle infrastructure – and not just red paint but quality segregated bike lanes – well that’s Valencia at the moment.
I moved here with my bike last September and soon became aware of plans to create an “Anillo Ciclista” (Anell Ciclista in Valenciano), a Cycling Ring around the inner city centre. I’m used to hearing about plans for new cycle routes that will happen at some point in the future but this time I saw the construction work start and the entire route completed within five months. The Ring is almost entirely on road but separated from traffic by rows of concrete bumps (armadillos) and in many places also by parking spaces. It’s 2.5 metres wide allowing comfortable two-way riding and has been delivered as a complete 4.7 km circuit of the city in one project, not 500 metres of cycle lane with a year-long wait before it connects to anything else.
Valencia has lots of potential for cycling: it’s flat, sunny and quite compact. It also suffers greatly from traffic congestion and increasing worries about air quality. Much of the existing provision of cycling routes is on space stolen from pedestrians, there is also an impressive green route in the old river bed which forms a semicircle around the north and east of the city (the river was diverted after a catastrophic flood in the 1950s). The routes seem to have been primarily a concession to fitness cycling, they are very popular with leisure cyclists, but they don’t really get you anywhere. .
The city elections in 2015 saw the removal of the right of centre party that had been in power for twenty-four years and the arrival of a left/green/regionalist alliance. The new regime in the council is now clearly promoting cycling as a means of transport. The Ring has made a powerful statement that the project is about displacing cars by taking its space from them. There is also a strong message in the roads at the side of the Ring being one way whilst cyclists can travel in both directions. It is difficult to overstate just how radical a change this is. Valencia has a very strong car culture and has had for some time. One part of the cycle Ring takes out one of the six lanes of traffic that ran through the heart of the city dividing the central square from the railway station. Simply crossing the road here was an ordeal that demonstrated that cars came before people.
Whilst the construction of the route was quick it first emerged as a concept twenty-three years ago. Outline plans were finally drawn up by the previous city council but it was the arrival of the new coalition run council and in particular the new Sustainable Mobility lead member Giuseppe Grezzi that really started to make things happen. They dramatically improved the plans, widening the whole Ring to 2.5 metres and made it two-way. They also made it happen. Seeing the construction work progress was amazing and not without its problems. Some of the most car congested streets in the city were suddenly partially blocked to provide space for bikes. This did not go without protest from drivers and one of the two regional newspapers laid into the council and, in particular, Grezzi for the “chaos” that was being caused. A spoof Twitter account @las_colonias ran regular stories of how the Ring was responsible for all the ills of modern man! Of course any traffic jams in the city centre will now be blamed on the one lane devoted to cycles, not the three lanes of cars in the jam.
There are issues with the Ring mainly arising from the access points to buildings, underground car parks and side streets, but if you are going to retrofit a cycling circuit to an existing city road system such problems are pretty much inevitable. Valencia also suffers from a lack of clear design guidance for cycle infrastructure.
Interestingly, the local cycling campaign, València en Bici, has taken a very politically savvy approach and rather than launching a full-blooded attack on the council for using the wrong shade of white for the road markings, it has provided support for Grezzi, particularly when he came under attack in the press and social media. That of course does not mean that they will not or should not continue to press for further improvements and changes in the light of experience from the use of the Ring.
The extent to which the Ring will be used is of course the acid test for the whole project and whilst the early indications are positive, it is still too soon to tell. The council is certainly putting some effort into promoting the new route, something that is all too often absent following the construction of a new cycle route.
It’s also making important connections, the Ring has the potential to work well with two other Valencian sustainable transport initiatives, good public transport and a successful municipal bike hire system. This means that people can travel into the city centre by metro, bus or train and use the Ring to get around the city on a hired Valenbici.
So does this have any relevance to Cardiff? Well I think there are some points that are useful for any cycle campaign. Firstly the importance of political will. Having politicians in key roles who really ‘get’ cycling has been key to Valencia’s success. Equally, having a well-developed plan in place that the politicians can implement is vital. Politicians inevitably have a limited lifespan and if, when you finally have some that are committed to cycling, they need to spend their time designing a plan rather than implementing it you could find another change of regime happens before any useful infrastructure is in place. See the excellent blog posts elsewhere on this site for information on how you can get involved in developing a plan for Cardiff. Having comprehensive design guidance in place is also important.
The role of cycling campaigners is crucial. València en Bici have spent many years working on a practical plan and campaigning for it. They have engaged positively with politicians and successfully focussed on the big picture rather than being bogged down in criticising detail (at least in public).
The other key message from Valencia is that complete routes can be delivered as one project. The council took a lot of flak building the route but at least it is now being used; all too often infrastructure is delivered piecemeal in unusable chunks giving rise to accusations that cycle lanes are a waste of money because nobody uses them.
For me the most impressive thing is that the work hasn’t stopped with the construction of the Ring. One week after the inauguration of the Ring, the council completed the 1.6 km route that connects Benimaclet, my part of the city, to the central Ring. I now have a segregated cycle route from practically outside my flat into and around the city centre and all delivered in less than six months. The sun, palm trees and the alternative route to the shores of the Mediterranean are just a bonus!
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