Sunday, 16 June 2013

Manchester bike month

I was recently commissioned to write an article about cycling for the North West edition of the Skinny, to coincide with the first Manchester bike month. Read the June issue of the Skinny online:
Manchester cycle city

Despite widely-acknowledged benefits to health and the environment, not to mention the wallet, the prospect of navigating confusing cycle lanes, traffic and potholes is often enough to make would-be bikers think twice about venturing onto city roads. “Most current measures are designed to get bikes out of the way of cars, not the other way around,” says cyclist Mike Armstrong, who uses his aptly-named blog Mad Cycle Lanes of Manchester to raise awareness of cycling and call for better provision for cyclists in the city. “It is no good shoving bikes onto pavements in some places only to prosecute people for cycling on the pavement in others.”

But things could be changing. In a culture where many motorists currently see cyclists as a nuisance, Greater Manchester transport chiefs have finally recognised the need for a change in attitudes towards cycling. Plans are afoot to get three times as many Mancunians onto their bikes over the next twelve years as part of the VĂ©locity 2025 bid, which aims to tap into national funding to create a much-needed new network of cycle routes linking homes, jobs and leisure venues, and consultations about transforming Manchester's busiest cycle route, Oxford Road, with segregated cycle lanes, are currently underway. For transport chiefs, backing cycling makes sense. “Cycling is good for you, good for your wallet and good for the world”, explains Councillor Andrew Fender, Chair of the Transport for Greater Manchester Committee. “It’s cheaper than running a vehicle, there is no need to set off early to beat the traffic, and you’ll be fitter and healthier. What’s not to like about having the fitness level of someone 10 years younger?”

Already, there are a growing number of initiatives in the Northwest to support cyclists into the saddle and raise confidence amongst those on the roads. BikeRight! offers free bike training in Manchester, Merseyside and Warrington for cyclists at all levels, from group classes for complete beginners to sessions practising all-important skills such as signalling, turning and positioning, and one-on-one sessions for more experienced riders who want to practice particular routes. Voluntary groups and small enterprises share bike maintenance skills and, last year social entrepreneur Dipak Patel realised there was a need for secure, low-cost bicycle storage in Manchester. Patel set up his unique enterprise Popup Bikes in a railway arch on Corporation Street which, as well as being a safe place to keep bikes, offers affordable repairs and incorporates a coffee shop hosting events such as bike jumble sales and film screenings. Popup Bikes is fast becoming, says Patel, “the social glue for the cycling community, a place where people can meet and exchange stories and talk about cycling and non-cycling issues”.

As well as being a way of simply getting from A to B, sociability is often an important part of the cycling experience, and organised groups of cyclists provide safety in numbers for those who might otherwise feel discouraged from taking to two wheels. One such group is TeamGlow, which was set up in 2011 to provide a supportive network for female cyclists across Manchester and the Northwest, who often lack visibility and find it hard to feel included in the male-dominated cycling community. As well as providing advice, from buying a decent bike to cycle maintenance, and building up technique and skills, there is at least one organised ride a weekend, from short rides to long distance tours, and members are encouraged to challenge themselves to venture further on a bike. “I went from feeling like an isolated woman on a bike to being part of a group of women,” explains TeamGlow founder Glynis Francis. “I wanted to leave cycling for women in a better place than I found it and see other women have the pleasure of a social cycle ride and fresh air.”

Manchester Bike Month, which takes place this month, offers ample opportunities to team up with other likeminded cyclists, whether united around a love of real ale (Manchester cycle pub crawl, 21 June) or taking on a long distance challenge such as Manchester to Chester (June 23). Other highlights include a cyclists' float in the Manchester Day Parade (Sunday 2 June), a film night (Saturday 15 June), a unicycle taster session (Thursday 13 June) and even a bike naked ride (Friday 14 June). 

Greater Manchester still has some way to go before it reaches Amsterdam-levels of bike friendliness, but attitudes towards cycling are starting to change. The more cyclists who take to the city's roads and add their support to initiatives such as VĂ©locity 2025 and the national Get Britain Cycling campaign, the greater visibility there is and potential to push cycling into the mainstream. In the words of Mike Armstrong: “Provision for cycling should be direct, quicker and more convenient than driving.”

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