Friday, 24 July 2015

Tiverton

A day of persistent heavy rain and 12 degrees Celsius welcomed us into the West Country. I am sure it was an utterly beautiful ride but its charms were lost on me. We stopped for lunch in a Sainsburys in Bridgewater and sat shaking with cold in the unheated cafe, eating soup and drinking hot chocolate and staring blankly at the rain pounding down outside. The cleaning lady asked us to tell her when we were leaving so she could mop up the muddy water under our chairs . Still, nothing a hot bath at journey's end can't fix.

The route we have been following is a 'safe' route that avoids main roads and makes extensive use of cycleways. It is my first experience of these really - in London I ride in the road, regarding my bike as another vehicle - and they give a completely different feel to the experience of cycling.

I wouldn't choose cycleways if I was in a hurry, but they are often really lovely. Many are on canal towpaths and abandoned railways, and not only are these guaranteed to be more or less level and traffic-free, they are also wonderful corridors of biodiversity through farmland and towns, which is ironic really given their original purpose as the arteries of industrial Britain. Cycling them is also more sociable than belting along head-down beside the traffic on the A38.You see fishermen, canal boaters, dog walkers, elderly couples, families - all human life is there. And everyone says hello (or regional variants).

The problem is that though the best are superb, some are truly atrocious. In towns they can lead you to busy junctions then simply stop, or require you to cross and recross busy roads, or be simply a narrow section of potholed, gritty tarmac delineated by a line that drivers simply ignore. And canal railway paths are hugely variable both as to their surface and the frequency and nature of the anti-motorbike barriers. Some are smoother tarmac than an A road, but others are impossibly rough, muddy, rutted, or even impassable even by mountain bike. The barriers can be such as can be simply rode through (carefully) or they may require you to get off and lift the bike over.

And the thing is, you simply can't tell. There is some (fairly minimalist) signage on cycleways nowadays and they are marked and rouetable on Google, but nowhere is there any sort of indication as to quality, or indeed rideability. So you can head down National Cycle Rout 63 (or whatever) and suddenly find yourself in ankle-deep mud or on a grass towpath with a single four-inch wide meandering smooth line that takes immense concentration and good bike-handling skills to follow.

It's a shame, because I reckon as a country we have made huge advances in encouraging cycling and we're 90% there. The problem is, the other 10% can turn a nice day out into a bit of a epic struggle.

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