I'm an active member of the Cambridge Cycling Campaign. Clare Macrae, the coordinator, mentioned that there was going to be a cycling campaigners' conference (organized by CycleWight) May 5 in Ryde (the biggest city on the Isle of Wight), and that the following day the Isle of Wight Randonee would be held. I thought, why not? I've never been to the Isle of Wight and I hear it's nice. So I signed up and bought my train ticket, which I amusingly noted was a ticket to Ryde.
The journey to the Isle of Wight (for a map of most of the Isle of Wight, see here) was fairly involved: train from Cambridge to Kings Cross station in London, Tube (aka London Underground) to Walterloo Station, still in London, then train to Portsmouth Harbour, then ferry to Ryde Pier, then train from the pier to the main bit of the island. Now you can't take bikes on the Tube during rush hour, and I'd be getting to London smack dab in the middle of rush hour, 5pm on a Friday. I would have to cycle from Kings Cross to Waterloo. Also I was told that most cyclists avoid the train from Ryde Pier to Ryde by riding on the little bridge beside the train tracks.
The bike I chose for the trip is in fact not my bike: it's my boyfriend Simon's bike, a Moulton Land Rover. I wanted a bike that's good to ride and has lots of gears for the Randonee on Sunday, but wanted it to be easily transportable for the train journeys. I've often found that a normal bike fits awkwardly into spaces on trains, and I thought that because of its smaller wheels the Moulton would be shorter and would fit better. And if I needed to fit it in even smaller spaces (say a luggage rack) I could take it apart.
I met Clare at the train station and we took the train to Kings Cross. Clare headed for the Tube and I hopped on my bike after one final look at the London A-Z to try to memorize my route. Despite my trepidations, the trip was fast and easy! It seems that my years of cycling in Philadelphia and Cambridge have prepared me well for cycling in heavy London traffic. I arrived at Waterloo well before Clare, and watched one train head out to Portsmouth Harbour. Then Clare arrived and we got the next train. This was a bit of a nightmare. There were quite a few cyclists trying to get on the train, but the first luggage space we came to was locked. We had to go almost to the other end of the train (and it was a long train!) to find a place to put our bikes. Meanwhile, Clare had saved a seat for me back at the other end of the train, so I fought my way through all the cars to get to her. The trip to Portsmouth Harbour was uneventful, and we caught the Ferry to Ryde without a problem. Clare hopped on the little train to get into town, while I rode along the bridge.
A CycleWight member was going to be putting me up for the weekend, so I phoned her to tell her I was in town. No answer. Hmmmm. So I headed to the Vine pub in St. Helens, a little village a few miles from Ryde, where the conference attendees would be hanging out. I walked around the pub looking for Clare, whom I thought would have arrived by then, as she was coming by taxi, but didn't see anyone familiar. The bar lady asked if I was looking for the cycling people (I was swinging a bike helmet and was obviously looking for someone, so this was a good guess) and was pointed to the restaurant bit in the back.
I still didn't see Clare, but I introduced myself to a couple people, got a beer, and ordered dinner (tuna baguette). Soon Clare showed up and we chatted to the others. Eventually I headed off, confident that the lady who was putting me up must have gotten home by now. I found the house without too much difficulty (thanks to good mapreading and a bit of luck) and soon felt at home. My hostess, Ann, was easy to get along with, and was quite interested in bikes. Her husband is even more so, and she showed me his mountain bikes. He even had one (an old rigid Kona Explosif) in the attic room where I slept to keep me company.
By the time I'd gotten out of bed and had a shower, Ann had already set out for a walk with her dogs, so I was on my own for breakfast.
The day was bright and sunny, and the conference didn't start until 10:30, so I had a look around before going to Ryde High School where the talks were being held. The most interesting thing I saw were a couple guys with big kites and surfboards setting up their gear on the beach. When they finally got going, they were zipping back and forth over the water, pulled by the kites. Pretty cool.
The cycle parking for the conference was in an enclosed courtyard. There were quite a variety of bikes, including a brace of Bromptons in the corner. There was one Moulton besides mine, and a bunch of hybrids, touring bikes, and mountain bikes.
The talks during the day were interesting, and it struck me how many of the problems we're having in Cambridge are problems faced by campaigners all over the country. These problems include the popularity of buildouts and central islands as traffic calming (which form pinch points and make life more difficult for cyclists in the presence of impatient drivers who want to be able to overtake at all times), and the closure of city center roads to cyclists when they are pedestrianised. Of course there were a range of views on things (Don Mathew, policy advisor to the CTC, advocated reallocating roadspace to give more of it to cycles; but John Franklin noted that often there isn't enough space on British roads for general vehicle lanes along with good quality bike facilities, so the drive for reallocation can result in poor quality cycle provision) but I got a good idea of what people were thinking and what the issues were.
One of the things I thought about again were the conflicts between the needs and desires of trained cyclists and the desires of new cyclists. As a competent road cyclist, all I want are safe roads. In other words, I don't want councils to put in pedestrian buildouts and central islands as traffic calming, and I don't like left-turn-only lanes or other schemes that put bikes in conflict with cars. But many new cyclists prefer off-road paths, which basically go along the pavement (sidewalk). I hate these. If I used these I'd have to slow way down to have any hope of avoiding uppredictable pedestrains, dogs, and wobbly cyclists. Also, I'd have to give way to traffic coming from all directions at every single junction and drive, which makes the journey even more slow and more hazardous. In fact, study after study has shown that these sorts of cycle paths lead to more accidents than simply riding on the road. Despite this, many new cyclists insist that they are safer. When I try to explain to them why they are not safer, they disagree vehemently, seeming to think that their powers of observation are so keen that they can avoid all the hazards from pedestrians, dogs, lamp posts, and cars (at junction and drives) and be safer on the paths. I find it frustrating to no end, and yet many of these facilities are backed up by cycle campaigners, who say that the fact that some people feel safer (even if they aren't safer) when using them is a big win.
The talks were over at 5pm, and Clare headed back to Cambridge, as she wasn't doing the Randonee. Dinner was at another pub (the Wishing Well just outside Nettlestone), but wasn't until 7:30, so I entertained myself by exploring the town and the beach area. Then I headed off to the pub, and sat with the guys I'd sat with the previous evening. I noticed that a local brewery, Goddards, had quite a few different beers on the taps. I chose one called "Fuggle-Dee-Dum" which has "spreading a little hoppiness" on the sign on the pump. Sounded good, so I got a pint. And it was very good indeed. As time goes by I'm developing a real taste for the different sorts of English beers, and this one had a strong, real beer taste. If I hadn't been about to go on a long bike ride the next day, I would have sampled more of them. With my beer I had some scampi and chips, which was pretty good. At about 10pm I headed off to Ann's place to sleep. Before this I'd made arrangements with the guys at my table to meet at one of the checkpoints to ride the randonee together.
More ride stories
I slept well in my attic room and woke up full of energy. Unfortunately, it was cloudy, but that had some advantages too: it wouldn't get too hot, and I wouldn't get a sunburn. After breakfast I packed everything up and cycled over to the house of Malcolm, one of the organizers of the conference, to drop off my backpack. I didn't want to take it with me on the ride, and as his house is very near the checkpoint I'd be starting the ride at, he'd volunteered to look after it for me.
I went to the Havenstreet checkpoint and met up with the other guys. I asked them thier names, which I hadn't gotten around to doing the previous evening despite spending a couple of hours sitting at their table! There was Jim riding a hybrid, Dougal on a rigid mountain bike with fat slick tires and mudguards, Richard on a 3-speed Brompton, and me on Simon's Moulton.
We headed out together. Richard was having difficulties with the hills: his bike lacked low gears, so he'd have to charge up the hills to have any chance of getting to the top on the bike. Sometimes, for the longer hills, he'd have to stop and walk up. Still, he managed to catch up with us soon after the hill. He must be really fit!
We went through the East Cowes checkpoint, then crossed the River Medina on the floating bridge. This is a flat boat pulled across the river by chains. There were loads of cyclists waiting when we got there, so there was far more area taken up by bikes than cars on the trip over. Soon after we got on the other side, we found ourselves at a T-junction. The Round-the-Island cycle route sign pointed left up a steep hill, but there was a sign across the road saying road closed. All the cyclists were going right, which lead to a flat road along the seafront. Jim and Dougal blithely headed up the hill, while Richard, wanting to avoid big hills on the Brompton, headed along the seafront. I didn't feel like going up unnecessary hills, so I stuck with Richard. We rode along the seafront, then rejoined the cycle route, having no idea whether the others were in front or behind us.
The randonee works like this: there are seven checkpoints along the route. All of them are open 9am to 6pm, and you're supposed to go around them in the counter-clockwise direction (generally keeping the sea to your right). At the beginning of your ride you sign up at any of the checkpoints (this is free) and get a check card. You get your card stamped at each checkpoint as you go around. When you get back to your start checkpoint you are issued a certificate and get the opportunity to buy an enamal badge. At two of the checkpoints, Bembridge (the easternmost checkpoint) and Yarmouth (the westernmost), they have food you can buy (sandwiches, soup, chocolate bars, cakes, tea) and there are various stores and tea shops along the route to get additional food.
Yarmouth was about 20 miles from where we started, but I was getting hungry with still about 5 miles to go. I mentioned this, and Richard suggested we stop for a snack. I said I could probably wait until the checkpoint, but then I began to realize that he was wanting a break and saw this as a good excuse for one. So we pulled up onto a grassy area and I got out my one and only cereal bar (bad planning on my part, I usually bring much more food on rides than this) and started eating. I had almost finished when Dougal and Jim rolled up. We were reunited! I packed away the wrapper and we were on our way.
Finally reaching Yarmouth we got our cards stamped and settled down to a light meal. I had a tuna sandwich, cup of soup, roll, tea, and a couple of pieces of cake. I also bought some chocolate bars (Mars and Kit Kat) to make sure I'd have food with me in case I got hungry before Bembridge, which was a long distance away.
After Yarmouth Richard was having an even harder time keeping up, the earlier hills having worn him out. He dropped back. Eventually Dougal, noticing he was missing, dropped back to stay with him. I stayed with Jim, who was chatting to a guy who turned out to be Peter Davenport, one of the speakers from the previous day.
We went through the Brook checkpoint and were now on the south coast of the island. After awhile the group noticed that we were going in the wrong direction. I didn't think we'd missed any signs, but they felt sure we were going back the way we'd come. So we took a left turn, heading for the sea. When we reached a T-junction we turned left, keeping the sea on our right. Eventually we passed some cycle route signs, so we were now back on track. Talking to people later, it seemed that there was someone along the road pointing out an unsigned turn, and we had not noticed.
I noticed that my front brake was acting up: it was rubbing against the rim. I wasn't sure why it was, but I felt I should adjust it. So we stopped and I got out my Allen keys and loosened the brake cable. Just as I was putting my tools away, Richard and Dougal came by. Together again. Briefly.
Jim took off, figuring that we'd soon follow, but Richard was having troubles with his back tire. Evidently Brompton wheels are a nightmare to remove and replace, so a soft rear tire spelled trouble. He borrowed my pump (Zefal HP-X) to inflate it, but in less than a minute it was soft again. Luckily Peter's car was nearby, and Peter was planning on packing it in because his front tire had gone soft as well. So Peter offered Richard a lift, and Dougal and I went on our way.
Not long after that we passed a sign for home made ice cream. Mmmmm, ice cream... We went to the farm shop to get some and ate it while chatting to the lady in the shop. Then back on our way. Coming to the top of a long hill we saw Jim waiting for us, and I immediately felt guilty. I should have known he'd wait for us; we shouldn't have stopped for the ice cream. Oh, well...
We were now at the southern tip of the island, and we proceeded on. Jim got a puncture in his rear tire which he fixed efficiently (his bike having plain derailleur gears), and we continued on through the Whitwell checkpoint without incident. But then I started feeling very hungry. I vowed that at the Alverstone checkpoint I'd indulge in some chocolate. I thought I'd eat half my Mars bar. I really don't like Mars bars; I'd bought it just to make sure I had some calories with me. At the Alverstone checkpoint I unwrapped the Mars bar as I stood in the queue for the loo. By the time it was my turn, it had disappeared. I must have really needed the food. The sun started to shine for the first time that day as we set out again. Five miles later we were in Bembridge. Because of all the delays (punctures, getting separated, etc) it was nearly 5pm, and we still had 8 miles to go. But we needed food, and we thought it prudent to take some time at the checkpoint to eat. So we steadily ate our way through more sandwiches, soup, rolls, and cakes, and it was about 5:10 when we set out again.
Jim took the lead. Ever since we got back together Dougal and I had let him lead. He was setting a good, steady pace, so we just followed him, not close enough to draft, but keeping a fixed distance between us. I was very conscious of time, and having eaten and rested was full of energy. I had to hold back to stay behind Jim. It is a good thing I did, because I'm sure if I had gone off at the pace I felt like keeping, I'd have burnt out pretty quickly. We chugged on, passing riders left and right. As it was very close to the deadline, most of the poeple still out on the road were dead tired and had little to no energy left. We on the other hand had not been working as hard as we could have and had some energy to spare. As we got closer and closer to Havenstreet Jim slowly picked up the pace. I dropped off a bit, Dougal dropped back even further. I held back a bit so Dougal wouldn't lose touch with us completely. Jim was out of sight up the last rise, and Dougal and I slowly chugged up. Finally, we were there. I looked at my watch. 5:53, 7 minutes before closing time! We'd made it, but not by much... We congratulated ourselves, took pictures, chatted a bit, then headed out.
I returned to Malcolm's place and picked up my bag, then proceeded to the pier, resenting the heavy pack on my back and thinking about what I could leave behind for next time. I met Jim at the ferry terminal, then remembered that he lived in Stevenage, which is between London and Cambridge, so I realized that we'd be going most of the way back together. We took the ferry, then sat with a couple of other conference delegates on the train ride from Portsmouth to Waterloo. Going from Waterloo to Kings Cross stations in London I followed Jim, which was much easier than plotting my own route. We checked the arrivals and departures board in Kings Cross and discovered that there was a Cambridge Cruiser train (one that goes directly from London to Cambridge with no stops in between) leaving in about 4 minutes. I ran to the platform, tossed the bike on the train, then settled down for a pleasant (except for the incessant ringing of mobile phones) ride back to Cambridge.