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Page last updated at 11:16 GMT, Thursday, 19 June 2008 12:16 UK

Cycling in England's Amsterdam (with hills)

Tom Geoghegan on a bike in Bristol

Bristol has just been named England's first cycling city. Novice Tom Geoghegan saddles up and takes to some of the city's infamous inclines.

Cyclists have always seemed to be part of an exclusive club.

They have all the gear, the moral high ground and the well-developed calves. Or so I thought.

I've never cycled in London, unless you count tearing around on a Raleigh Tomahawk in the suburbs in the late 70s.

So it was with some trepidation that I got on the saddle in England's first official cycling city, Bristol.

On Thursday the two-wheeled faithful were pulling metaphorical wheelies at the news that Cycling England has picked Bristol to get the rather grand title and 11m of government cash.

Andrew Whitehead and John Roy of Bristol Council
There's no shortage of cycle lanes in the city centre
With the city throwing in an equal sum, it amounts to 10 for every person in Bristol - nearly the level of spending in that spiritual home of cycling, Amsterdam.

And setting off on my hire bike (4 for half-a-day) from the ferry station in the centre of the city, it feels like the Dutch capital.

As the scene unfolds - the cobbled towpath then over a small bridge - relaxation overcomes nerves, especially on the other side of the Avon, where walkers and cyclists mingle amicably in Anchor Square. Very Netherlands. But the route comes to an abrupt halt at a busy road and further on a low-slung chain fence forces me to dismount.

These are the kind of "missing links" that the new cash can eliminate, by putting in a crossing or a cycle lane.

It's not about being anti-car, it's about the 45,000 car journeys each day in the city that are under three miles
Andrew Whitehead
Bristol's cycling officer

Later this year, a disused bridge designed by Brunel is to be gloriously resurrected as a cycle bridge, which will bring north Somerset that bit closer.

But all the money in the world won't help unless people can be persuaded about the benefits of change, says my guide Andrew Whitehead, cycling officer at Bristol City Council. And with rising fuel prices and growing congestion, he believes the time is ripe to make the case.

As well as filling the gaps in the cycling network, the cash will go on the UK's first major street bike rental network modelled on Paris.

And a huge promotion campaign is aimed at doubling the number of bike journeys in three years.


Commuter Stephanie Wardle shares her experience of cycling in Bristol

'No huff and puff'

"We need to make cycling attractive to females and young people," says Mr Whitehead. "But it's not about being anti-car, it's about the 45,000 car journeys each day in the city that are under three miles."

The message is that there's money and time to be saved by cycling, and council officials will go door to door in low-income areas evangelising about the benefits, and that it's less effort than people think - no fancy gear, no huff and puff.

A network of rental hubs in the city, initially only 60 bikes
Rapid response team to maintain routes
'Cycling buddies' assigned to help novices
Web-based journey planner
Door-to-door, one-on-one advice in some areas
Filling missing links of cycle network
Scotland is following suit

...except when it comes to crawling up one of the city's many steep hills.

About 15,000 people are injured every year in cycling accidents and about 150 are killed. So, at the traffic lights outside the Hippodrome Theatre, my heart races a little when they turn green and I briefly consider how many tonnes of metal are impatiently accelerating towards the back of me.

Such nerves would diminish in time. And nothing beats the feeling of sailing up Prince Street, catching sight of that blue sign that says "buses and bikes only" and following it smugly towards Broad Quay.

This area is bike heaven - lots of secure areas to lock up and a generous allocation of lanes, shared spaces or advanced stopping lines.

'No regrets'

And it's noticeable that pedestrians seem to fully tolerate having bikes weaving around them in squares where they are allowed to do so. Even the road in front of Bristol Cathedral has been paved over to make a cycle and pedestrian path at College Green.

So what do cyclists make of all this new funding?

Bikes at Templemeads
Bikes populate the city
Part-time teacher Kate, 39, is surprised her home town was picked - saying poor public transport means Bristol's eco credentials aren't as strong as one might think. Having sold her car six weeks ago to take to the saddle, partly because of cost, she would like the money spent on more bike lanes and better advice on maintenance.

Pleased with completing what would have been a 40-minute car journey in less than 15 minutes on the bike, she says: "It's easier, it flows and I don't have to sit in traffic. Once you get past the not-very-fit stage it's fun, it's less stress and you feel virtuous."

Puffing on a cigarette while having a chat with his mate - and with every drag neatly destroying the perception that all cyclists are lycra-clad fitness fascists - Sean Kenny says he doesn't own a car because cycling is cheaper and quicker. The 44-year-old IT support worker spends two to three hours a day on his bike, going between clients.

There are also 11 new cycling towns chosen by Cycling England:

In his 20 years of cycling in Bristol, he has seen an increase in cycle paths but also in cars.

"I deliberately ride a bike that's not worth any money because I've had many bikes stolen down the years, but nowadays it does seem there are more and more places to lock my bike.

"With the level of commitment that the council has shown to cycling, I would say I'm surprised at this but maybe it's an opportunity."

Improved policing, better lighting and more cycle lanes on unpopular routes figure on other wish-lists.

Strolling through the city on foot is one of the people the council hopes to get on a bike.

Sean Kenny
Amsterdam? No, Bristol

Student Matt Doherty, 17, says: "I have one but I don't use it for getting around as much as I should, due to the hilly landscape being quite tough and the safety issue.

"You hear about people having accidents because they have to cycle on tough roads so more cycle lanes would help. A lot of my friends are considering it because it's quicker and cheaper and eco-friendly."

Other non-cyclists say helping people on bikes is fine, as long as they don't jump red lights or use the footpath. So while town hall officials want drivers to see the benefits of pedal power, cyclists themselves will have to compromise their behaviour if they are to be loved by everyone.

A selection of comments appears below.

I cycle to work every day through the city centre of Bristol and there is simply not enough space for dedicated cycle lanes. Rather than wasting the money on the classic 50 meters of cycle lane where its not required. Work should be done to improve junctions and give cyclist the right of way. Maybe the centre of Bristol should be made a cycle priority zone, where cyclist have priority over the car. I agree cycle lanes are required for busy roads with higher speed limits.
Simon, Bristol

Cycling is a winner every way - obesity - heart disease - reducing depression - climate change. Every Local Authority, not just 11 cycling towns, must be supported by the Government to increase facilities.
Evan, London

Ban cycle lanes! Roads would be much safer without them. They only encourage road users to adopt an unhelpful mindset of "a lane for bicycles and a lane for cars"; this leads drivers to conduct inappropriate overtaking manoeuvres around cyclists, typically leaving far too little room - it should be as much clearance as for overtaking a car, according to the Highway Code. PS I'm both a (non-militant) cyclist and car-owner.
Tim, Oxford

Try riding through a busy city centre and you will understand why cyclists jump red lights, even responsible politicians! It may be against the highway code, it may be frowned upon by motorists but it gets you in front of lorries who want to turn left and haven't seen you and it gets you across the narrow junction into a place of safety before the rush of cars. Many new city cyclists start with the aim of not jumping lights and after a week safety prevails. Just ask Boris and dave.
Brian Browne, london

Cycling must be encouraged. I cycled daily all year round in sun, rain, snow and in the dark for work (10 mile round trip) in Trowbridge. Now lift share (4 in car) as job moved too far away to cycle. Cycling can be very cheap, just look around the 2nd hand market and e bay. On your bike fully kitted with lights and brights for under 100. Whilst traffic can be scary, I think drivers are getting better as bike numbers increase.
David in Wiltshire, West Wiltshire

I don't get it - I have cycled around Bristol all my life, but go to university in Oxford, and the latter has far more of a cycling culture. Is this a case of picking a city that needs a lot of improvement instead of a city that is actually up to speed with cyclists?
Rowan , Bristol, UK

I'd like to see funding aimed exclusively at infrastructure rather than actual bikes. Anyone can get hold of a serviceable bike, it does not have to be flash and you don't have to wear trendy gear!

There is a desperate need for more cycle lanes, preferably off the road, to keep cyclists and motorists apart - better for everyone. In the mean time - PLEASE both cyclists and motorists consider each other, calm down and we'll all get there!
Chris, Blewbury, Oxon

We live in bike heaven, in northern Germany, it is flat, there are cycle paths along many main roads outside town and nearly all roads in the cities. So good in fact that for 10 years we had no car and did everything by bike, daily work commute, shopping and going out in the evenings. Even now I cycle the 10 km round trip to nursery school at least twice a week, with the children in a special trailer on the back, which they love.
Nicci, Braunschweig, Germany

As a cyclist I'm happy for the residents of Bristol who'll get some extra cycle paths... That's where my praise end as this is just another waste-of-money "initiative" from the wasteful government. Cycling "buddies"?! "one-on-one advice"... pathetic (and expensive).

Oh, and by the way, I do jump red lights & cycle on the pavement. It's the only way to avoid being "taken down" by idiotic drivers who can't be bothered to wait three milliseconds to safely over-take... so there!
Jonathan, Birmingham

I and my colleagues are driven mad by the shared cycle/pedestrian areas - both official and unofficial -- around Vauxhall and Lambeth bridge. Many cyclists using these areas seem to treat pedestrians as slalom bollards and I am regularly startled and frightened by cyclists appearing out of nowhere and clipping tightly round me -- heaven forbid they should use anything as uncool as a bell. I used to cycle to work myself, and know the hassles involved, but these shared areas are a menace and should not exist.
Elaine, London, England

I haven't visited Bristol in years, and wish them all the best. There are two sides to every coin and it was interesting to see the words 'high moral ground' in the article. Unfortunately in London this has given rise to a God complex in cyclists who on the whole tend to think that red traffic lights only apply to lesser mortals (drivers) and that pedestrianised zones are an easy cut-through despite no cycling signs.

Dave Burbidge, London

I am a Bristol cyclist. If the new cycle paths are anything like the token efforts we have at the moment then it'll be money poorly spent. I believe continuing to spend more and more money trying to separate bicycles from other traffic is not the right way to go about it; cyclists should be encouraged onto the road using traffic calming measures. All city roads should have 30mph or 20mph speed limits and should nurture the concept of shared space in both drivers and cyclists, using street design techniques tried and tested elsewhere alongside education and cultural change. The more we separate bikes from cars the more dangerous our roads will become for everyone, including pedestrians.
Ed, Bristol

Businesses could do more to aid the numbers of those cycling by having at least a shower room and change area. I cycle three miles to my local station each day and change in the bogs. Not ideal. Also Train stations should do more by having secure lockup areas for bikes.
Richard, Stourbridge

Chris said: "There is a desperate need for more cycle lanes, preferably off the road, to keep cyclists and motorists apart - better for everyone" Which further helps to perpetuate the myth amongst aggressive drivers that cyclists shouldn't be on the road, and therefore giving them the right to try and knock me off with several tons of speeding metal. And what of cyclists who regularly go over 20mph ? Advice is that at those speeds, you should be on the road rather than on a cycle path... What we need is a better campaign of road and cyclist education, so that we can co-exist peacefully and safely on the roads in the UK.
Leith Cyclist, Leith, Edinburgh

As a cyclist and car owner I appreciate both transport groups concerns however I'm convinced that in certain towns there exists a very negative attitude towards sharing roads. Take my home town, Windsor, where after 4pm you can drive a 30-ton lorry through the main shopping area yet it remains a "No Cycling" zone 24 hours a day!
John Mealor, Windsor

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