Monday, 13 June 2011

The Vole visits the Naked Bike Ride and the Nocturne

After the rants in recent posts over the frustrating elephant-in-room denial inherent in so much UK "cycle promotion" that doesn't recognise the key role that the environment plays in determining whether or not people cycle, something more light-hearted: some (fairly) tasteful photos of Saturday's London World Naked Bike Ride, as it assembled in Hyde Park on a warm June afternoon. "The ride demonstrates the vulnerability of cyclists on the road and is a protest against car culture". Participants can wear as much or as little as they like, and much of the the colour is provided by ridiculous wigs, headgear and paint. I saw many witty captions and slogans painted on bodies: one I remember: "One less car? No, one fewer!" (I'm not convinced about the grammatical rectitude of this, however.)

3:30pm: hundreds of cyclists on the Broad Walk, looking one way, in all states of dress and undress

And hundreds more looking the other way

Good slogan

One man seems overdressed: I think it is his wedding day

Off they go, but very slowly
I have not been to this before, but according to the event's Wiki site around 1000 people participated in each of the last two years. It looked to me as if there were rather more riders than that this time, but I doubt if anybody counted. The thing was certainly a huge magnet for snapping and gawping tourists, who pressed in to the path in Hyde Park and made progress difficult. It was certainly a good-natured and fun event, but the progress through the totally traffic-choked streets of Central London was frustratingly snail-paced, and this, and sitting for long periods stationary behind immovable buses and other vehicles in very high levels of pollution somewhat "took the top off it" for me in the end. The basic problem was that the scale of the event is now so great that the streets need to be closed for it, as they are for the Mayor of London's London Skyride. (For a nicely jaundiced view of one of last year's London Skyrides see this blogpost by Charlotte.) But they were not, so often, the ride of thousands of people was trying to filter through gaps between heavy stationary traffic where only one rider could get through at a time. This caused it to spread out over a great distance and must have diminished its impact as a protest or indeed a celebration.

I think it was a problem that there was too much going on in this part of London on this day. There had already been the Trooping of the Colour (Queen's Official Birthday), which the new Duke of Cambs doing his thing, whatever that is (I am not a royalist) and the flypast and all that stuff, and, in addition, there was a very similar alternative protest event on that day, the Slutwalk (excellent slogan: "However I dress/Wherever I go/Yes means yes/And no means no."). The Slutwalk is basically similar in its campaigning principle to the Naked Bike Ride, in that it is another satirical reaction to socially-mainstream "victim blaming". It is campaigners reacting to an unreasonable demand for women to dress "un-provocatively" by dressing as provocatively as possible, to make the point that the women are the victims, not the cause of the rape problem. Exactly as the Naked Bike Ride is a sartorial, satirical reaction to the victim-blaming "road safety" culture that tries to make cyclists wear helmets, high-vis vests and all the other rubbish that makes cycling seem weird and distracts from the fact that the cyclists are the victims, and the motor vehicles the source of the danger. This reaction is to wear nothing, to emphasise the vulnerability of the unprotected human on the road. But I couldn't help thinking that it was unfortunate from a publicity perspective that these two worthy protests were coincident in time and place.

Anyway, the vole was not naked, as he has fur. I slipped off from the ride less than half way round, and, attempting to get home via the Thameslink line, which, as usual, was not working at the weekend (due to building work associated with Crossrail), but which the national rail website did not seem to know was not working, I came upon the Smithfield Nocturne. This, in the meat market and surrounding roads converted for the day, is a series of conventional and unconventional bike races that lasts one day and night. Cycle sport is of little interest to me – I view it as a problem and a source of endless confusion over the promotion of utility cycling that in the English language we only have the one word – "cycling" – that covers both the mode of transport and the sporting activity, which I regard as totally unrelated to one another, just as the car commute is unrelated to Formula 1. Nevertheless I could appreciate the genial "day out" atmosphere surrounding this event, with its eccentricities such as Penny Farthing race and folding bike race, and it was an opportunity for LCC to try to recruit, with its strange new blobby red and grey logo (the old one was far better). The event seems to attract the "fixie"(fixed-gear and single-speed bike) community, and most of the shiny, minimalistically-elegant bikes around were not what I regard as "practical". Still, each to their own.
At Smithfield, a bike stand in the shape of a car, with the inscription "10 bikes take up the space of 1 car", though there are more than 10 attempting to use it

Smithfield: fixie festival
Stymied by the railway, I cycled home through Camden. I was horrified to see that the legendary Royal College Street cycle track (legendary because it is the only properly-built piece of cycle infrastructure in London, with priority for 500m over everything else) which should look like this:

Looks like this:

The careless treatment of our cycle facilities and routes when street works are being done is a touchstone of our failure to take cycling seriously in the UK. This would not happen in The Netherlands. As David Henbrow says:
If people are put off cycling, even temporarily, they may not return. For this reason [in The Netherlands] much effort is expended to make sure that cyclists are not endangered or inconvenienced by road works.
To recover from this horror, and to refuel on the climb over Hampstead Hill, I stopped off at the excellent Hampstead Crèperie to have a banana and white chocolate crèpe. The only inconvenience of the Crèperie is that there is no-where to sit down. The pub there explicitly forbids you to sit at its pavement table eating the crèpes. But since the créperie is on the pub's curtilage, its land, surely there is a relationship between the two?

All went smoothly for the rest of the journey, until, on reaching the border of the fabled Biking Borough of Brent, and needing to turn right from a minor road on to the A5, a woman in a car lost patience with waiting behind a cyclist at a junction (as they do) and tried that classic dumb manoeuvre where they pull forward and try to turn right from your left, while you are moving forwards, trying to turn into the same gap in the traffic that they are trying to, trying to get ahead of you, but to your left, and hence on a curved path that is longer than yours. When they do this, you look at them, and they always know they are in the wrong, but carry on. I shouted at her, accelerated ahead, and forced her to break. I later spoke (shouted through her closed window at her) at the next traffic lights. She knew she was in the wrong.
But, this is the kind of routine, causal, thoughtless, endangering-of-a-cyclist's-life-type encounter that must make thousands of people in the UK give up cycling every year. Trying to accommodate cycling in the same space as is dedicated to ignorantly, inconsiderately and aggressively-driven motor vehicles just doesn't work. This is the reason we need the Royal College Street cycle track unblocked, and thousands more miles of high-quality, high-priority cycle tracks like it built.

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