Thursday, 23 May 2019

My life in bikes


My life in 10 bikes:
  1. Saxon
  2. Muddy Fox
  3. Specialised Hard Rock
  4. Specialised Rockhopper
  5. GT Avalanche
  6. Grolsch Dutch Cruiser
  7. Yung Steel Frame road bike
  8. Surly Cross Check
  9. Brompton 
  10. Swapfiets

I learnt to ride a bike in South Warnborough in the mid-80’s in the layby by the never despair garage. My Saxon ‘BMX’ took me up Gaston Lane, around the block, over to Upon Grey or Long Sutton, round to the River Whitewater, and on longer rides for my little legs to King John's Castle along the Canal. Parks, woods, fields and friends were all brought closer by the simple act of peddling.

My first Mountain Bike was in the early 90’s. Ostensibly better suited to the terrain of tracks and bridleways, while following the trend of the times and radical day-glo adventures. This more robust ‘big boy bike’ was an extension of my world as I grew to seek further flung places, over county boundaries to unexplored hills.

I feel I should know better the chronology and types of bikes in the interim. But then, as now, they were tools for travel and adventure rather than objects to be fetishised. The rockhopper of my late teens was a statement that I rode a mountain bike. Or a bike at least. Twenty-one gears was what was important to prospective bike buyer (or more accurately, present receiver) Ben then. This is the era where I started to actively identify as a person on a bike. Staunch that I could get myself where i needed (and back) by bike. Jobs, school, parties & pubs (many of these often in the same places). Whilst relying heavily on lifts in Golf’s, Uno’s. Polo’s and Peugots of my peers to get around the rural hinterlands I was staunch that, when needed, my steed could get me where I needed to go when I needed to.

Concurrently the dedicated exploration of muddier tracks, still further hills and remoter pubs continued apace. With a mini-disc and backpack of sausage rolls and bananas. Hampshire Explorations. Solo cycling through the South Downs through all seasons, the end of each journey brought me to the same point from where I started, but the joy was in the journey. Before mobile phones there was a sense of adventure just to be in an unknown village not 20 miles from home. That could feel a long way with only road signs to follow home hopefully along meandering lanes. It was space, such space and freedom to explore, escape and adventure.

Approaching 21 I floundered for a meaning to my adulthood. Surely joining up to a sponsored bike ride to the Grand Canyon would give meaning. It would be a springboard to my adult life of cycling all over the world for a good cause. It was irrefutably a brilliant adventure for me to see in the new millennium. Raising money for a good cause, meeting some great people and experiencing properly awesome places. The bikes we were supplied with then were not top grade, but that wasn’t of concern to me then. I was fit enough and unconcerned about bells and whistles or features that I didn't yet have on my own bike. It was the act of taking part that was important. I don’t recall much of the actual riding, I recall the incidentals of where we stayed, seeing the Grand Canyon, celebrating each day and the iconic road trip after. That trip didn’t springboard the the life I could have taken for myself in the saddle. But is was a great formative memory of how to celebrate ones 21st birthday and solidified my identity in the minds of others that I was ‘Ben on a bike’.

In 2003 a need for further, more heroic, exploration led to a credit card splurge on a Specialised Rockhopper and KE Adventure Travel trip to Nepal. Hydraulic disc brakes, fresh front suspension, thick tyres and heading toward 30 gears. That was the gear in 2003. I took training for this seriously, pushing a young, fit body to be ready for ‘proper mountain biking’. Aside from the trails of Pokhara to Kathmandu that rockhopper scaled much of the South Downs and became a battle bike on the streets of Brighton; the first city I lived in. Up and down the hills, back and forth along the seafront. Up Elm Grove to the pub and home and round the odd muddy track. It came on holiday to France and provided solace, exploration and identity. I was Ben with the bike in Brighton.

Arriving in Sydney in February 2006 the first point of order was a new steed for my antipodean adventures. The logistics of bringing a bike by flight rather than riding was too much to countenance then. Besides, it’s always nice getting a new bike isn’t it. After exploration and interrogation of every bike shop on the Northern Beaches from Palm Beach to North Head I went with a GT Avalanche from Favourite Cycles in Manly. Another disc brake hard-tail. Suitable for my daily needs with the potential for my planned off-roading and multi-country touring. We explored Sydney and had some good times. Though I wasn’t so defined by my bike in Sydney with all the harbour traversal required and some dodgy knee complaints. But there were city battles and joyful hauls round nearby National Parks, linking up with like minded mountain bike aficionados. 

Arriving in Melbourne by train and unpacking the bike was significant. From my first steps out of Southern Cross Station my whole understanding and relationship with Melbourne was from the saddle. Immediately gathering maps, riding all and any available cycle routes. Negotiating tram tracks and revelling in discovering this beautiful city beyond the limitations of foot and tram. Though still unskilled in the way of the wheelie, my bunny hopping and track stand game came on strong. Skipping across the tracks in the road and lots of leisurely dicking about.

That GT was even more a statement of identity. This was going to be my full-on adventure bike. I was cycling places. My first solo cycle tour was on the relatively safe and surprisingly familiar terrain of Tasmania. Top to tail via the East Coast through the middle of January.  Here was where I coined the phrase “Adventure is not adventure without adversity”. So a puncture or two, some poor navigational choices and a suspected snake attack were all experienced and exaggerated for future anecdotes. Now my bike really was taking me somewhere else and I was intrinsically defined by my act of propulsion by bike. I was a cycle tourer, a bike packer, and international adventure cyclist. But a week or two later I was back where I started only to take a new adventure to a new start.

From an inauspicious start commuting the cruddy roads of Parnell to New Lynn in Auckland, my biggest adventures, and indeed all my time in New Zealand, was even more defined by the bike. From Auckland to Wanaka through a pedalling paradise. That was a time. I am quick to dismiss it now as a piffling part of my life in my 20’s. It doesn't measure up to the grand cycle touring so many books are written about, which helped inspire me. But it did on those days. I really was cycling toward a destination. Even if that was sometimes the same place. If I am so concerned about a ride not taking you anywhere then why was I such a keen proponent of the round the bays ride in Wellington? Well I guess, because it's beautiful, accessible, and a wonderful way to explore the outer parts of that wonderful city.


I rode through a slice of those islands. Revisited some, and I still maintain that riding the Queen Charlotte Track in November is one of life's particularly special experiences. I took gratification from the fact that I was out and adventuring with no particular place to go, other than where I was going. Like the rides of my teens where I’d flip a coin to decide the route at each junction; I could choose my own adventure. A bike and tent, some cash and water. The open road or treacherous but dutifully maintained tracks. The whole of EnZed was open to me and my bike.

I returned home to Hampshire, via a quick hot jaunt round the Blue Mountains at the start of 2009. Introducing the GT to the lanes I thought I’d left behind. That’s when I started efforts to combine cycling and work. Barrelling toward 30 with ‘what am i doing with my life’ angst buffeting against the certainty that one wholesome way I was happy to identify was as a person on a bike. No discernible pride in my nationality as a fate of birth, confusion over class and belonging, dubious of academia, stringently without religion and not ready to lean on alcohol and drugs as a personality. Being a person on a bike, was something I could live with and would like to be paid for.

A few dead ends and educational explorations brought Ben and his bike to Bristol. Town planning was the way forward and I was going to figure out how to make the world a better place. With bikes. In 2010 my stable was augmented by a ‘Dutch style’ bike won in a text competition on the side of a box of Grolsch. Me being awarded a free bike for drinking beer is possibly one of the most on-brand stories of my life thus far. It had evidently been built for style over functionality. Though pretty with the wicker basket full of books, it didn’t last longer than a winter and a half slogging up to Frenchay and back, darting round the hills of Bristol, along the Bristol to Bath bike path, perched waiting for me after various bar shifts or library learnings. Useful in its time as I explored what had been dubbed ‘The UK’s first cycling city’ but ultimately had to be donated for parts when it started falling apart. Maybe blame my heavy feet and big brain for its swift decline.

For narrative purposes I could do more with the tale of how I brought my Dad’s old steel frame Yung back into service after rescuing it from the shed in the clear out. Riding on a wave of deferring grief and hipster imitation I had his bike somewhat lovelessly converted to a single speed. Too small and probably more valuable as an artefact than mode of transportation or sport, but after scrapping the Grolsch the Yung was nippier and more compact for flat-share purposes. The crossbar still had the scars of chipped paint where a child's seat had been affixed in my infancy. This would have been the first journey I took by bike. Protected by my father up above. Now he was gone I could at least take his bike and recreate one suspected reason for my affinity with this mode of transport.

In 2012 I moved to London with the GT and the Yung. Although consistently contentious in shared flat hallways the need for a new bike presented itself. Olympic buzz, expanding cycle superhighways, MAMILs in the news and a pan-continental bike ride pushed me toward a road bike. I settled on the Surly. Another bike to take me places, and boy, did it ever, and it continues to do so. Across America by bike was where it took me most significantly in that first year, which is well documented elsewhere. On that journey I was identified within a cohort of people on bikes by my heavier frame and sturdy attitude. We rolled in and out of towns and cities, over mountains and searched out cycle paths and sharrows, learning from locals. And fellow Surly riders always showed appreciation for my choice, even if the other bikes in the pack got more coos and ahhhs. 


My bandying about the term ‘utilitarian cyclist’ was solidified by the surly in shorter cross country traverses after our return home. By the time we were done on P2P a 50 mile journey was nothing to me, there and the same again back. Beers in Hampshire, or a jaunt to the sea, and back, was staunchly making sure my bike could always get me to my tea. Even a ‘micro-adventure’ riding every borough in London in a day didn’t stop me continuing into the evening in Hootenanny's.
A Brompton for a days work in 2015 is probably the best labour exchange I have been involved in. I was welcomed into the Brompton fold the weekend of Cycle London and the Brompton Urban Challenge. I hobnobbed with the Brompton stars of track and town beside the Mall with more on-brand complimentary gin and beer. Perfectly suited to my life in London I was a proud Bromptoneer, but increasingly aghast at the actions of other Bromptoners. 


Placing as a runner up in the 2016 London Nocturne Concours d'elegance provides a neat illustration of where I sit in the cycling hierarchy. Against all others, identifying a s a Brompton rider was such a transferrable label, in particular when one chooses to take that folded bike everywhere one goes. The train, the tube, to the bar or gallery. Sliding it under the hot-desk or deftly flicking the back wheel out front of a coffee shop. God those Brompton wankers are insufferable. And I revelled in Brompton wankery. Into town, and on the train, out to Eltham every week, popping across the North Sea, sticking it on the Eurostar in an Ikea dimpa with a 4 pack of M&S IPA. It opened everywhere up without the need for a uniform or lycra and alliteratively melded more to my identity. From Ben on a bike to Ben on a Brompton.

Now I’m sitting within the sound of the bells of the peace palace in the Hague, resting my crossed leg on the fender of my 4th or 5th Swapfiets. It’s a product/service well suited to its surroundings. Simple and worry free in getting where I need to go. Slightly anonymous, with connotations of transience. If my identity is so intertwined with being a person on a bike, then shouldn’t I be riding something that shows that more emphatically? The Surly and Brompton have had scant outings since I started to settle here. The last time I saw the GT or Yung where when I carelessly abandoned them in parts chained to a fire escape in SE24. The specialiseds were handed off and handed down to be someone else's responsibility to leave in a shed to disintegrate. What may have happened to the Saxon and any forgotten other intermediary bicycles is long forgotten. If I were to choose one of my historical rides to redux it’d have to be the Muddy Fox, an original of that in pristine condition is probably what I’d covet the most. Partly because the 30 year fashion cycle means the artefacts of the early 90’s are in prime right now. But more personally because it is loaded with the memories of freedom and tentative exploration and boundary testing. But all in all it would just be pretty rad rocking up on a 90’s mountain bike. 


So if I identify as a person who rides a bike in a country where everyone rides a bike, what is the point of me? What is my identity? What are the chances of getting paid to be a person who rides a bike here? But I’m not just a person who rides a bike; it's just because I’m at the end of a short story exploring how my story is told through my bikes, forgetting even about all the hires, borrows, tests and swappers in between these core few.

All these bikes brought me here. I went around in circles a little bit. But there’s nowt wrong with heading out just for the sake of getting a bit of fresh air once in a while. I’ll jump on my swapfiets and ride around for a bit, then go home. Again.  Does living somewhere that cycling is so (comparatively) easy represent my utopia? Yeah, kind of, so the problem is with utopia that it immediatly has to change. No-place can’t be a place. The problem with attaining utopia is the boredom of nothing needing to change. So just riding around utopia on this perfectly serviceable steed won’t quite cut it for much longer. I understand policy. Slightly less so engineering. I know a fair bit about politics and people. How do I combine all those to share my story for good? Through the phases of learning I have in turn been convinced that a life of dedication to the furthering and normalisation of cycling would be the thing to do. Then realise that it is such a small factor in urban planning, energy policy, commercially, politically it is too insignificant in the face of methane burps, global political meltdown car dominance and selfish individualistic motivations. Maybe, but then maybe isn't everything? Is it just because being a person on a bike is too personal to me. Memories of that childhood freedom, wanting to keep that memory and feeling knowing that incessant interrogation of policy and plans can rip the romance out of any act. Sure, I’ll still be able to enjoy a ride, but do i fetishise the bike too much. Not as an item or artefact, but the association with my own freedom?

----
As a postscript to these notes I wrote a few months ago, it is quite gratifying that I am becoming known as 'Ben on the bike' even in the land of the bicycle riders thanks to my community minded veg delivery on behalf of Lekkernassรปh. Carting 100's of kilo's of veg around on a Wednesday on a big ol' e-assist bike & trailer. 


x

Wednesday, 3 October 2018

Twitter thread of London to Den Haag trip




Monday, 16 January 2017

Observations on Cycling in Morocco

Hey, I had another holiday, lucky me. Again.

Yet again it was another holiday that didn't involve any cycling for me, but my cycley-senses were tingling and I found myself taking pics of bikes and noting cycling infrastructure and culture.  I wasn't walking around with a clipboard checking off against Gehl's four C's, but figure may as well keep at least one post a year up on here.

A photo posted by Ben Hockman (@bahockman) on



I always find it a little sad not to be cycling in new cities.  But I'm not David Byrne so just observe and toe the tourist trail.  But I found it a little more acute in Morocco as I have always associated Morocco, and particularly the Atlas Mountains with the possibility of amazing riding ever since it was recommended by the brain surgeon from Idaho on my Nepalese mountain biking adventure back in 2003.  I noted a few tourers out in the more sparsely populated areas, and while sitting up in a minibus over the mountains to the desert was quite taken by the potential of riding some of those routes.  Sure they'd have been hairy, but would have been more engaging than an 8 hour bumpy minibus journey.

Bikes in Morocco
Bikes in Morocco

We were staying quite well within the Medina; the windy disorientating mesh of streets and souks that constitute the old city.  It seems a crash bang mix of sustainable street scenes, allowing interactions and interactivity with your surroundings whilst also being claustrophobic, overwhelmingly fume-y, authentically Moroccan and massively touristy.  Streets less than two meters wide carry pedestrians, bikes, scooters - so many scooters- donkeys, carts, taxi's and all other manner of street hawkers and sellers.  I'm not sure if there are any hard and fast rules, but everyone is keen to point out the preference that you "walk on the right".  Having watched Jim Henson's Labyrinth over Christmas a couple of days before I arrived couldn't have been better preparation.  It feels like the city is purposely trying to get you lost.

Bikes in Morocco
Bikes in Morocco

So it does seem a bit full on mixing all those transportation modes.  Then when exploring further than the Medina on a walk down to the station (which is a wonderful building) the larger roads around the city are so hectic.  Didn't seem appealing to me in the slightest to give them a go on a bike.  But at the same time there was minimal sign of excessive protective equipment; hi-viz and helmets and such.  The general carnage and hecticness of the roads seems, from my on the hoof observations at least, to have a self-corrective element and all road users seem to know the rules, which seem mainly to keep your wits about you.  I didn't see any aggressive confrontations, sure some robust vocal warnings, but nothing beyond self corrective, and no indication of entitlement from any road user.

Bikes in Morocco
Marrakech busyness

I took interest in the local bike hire scheme: Medina Bike  which from a quick google search is heralded as Africa's first bike share.  I didn't partake, but damn, it would take a pretty assured visitor to take to those streets unaided on a hire bike.  they come with helmets attached, even though it is quite evident that helmets are not compulsory, or they are and NO ONE adheres to that rule.  Now after skimming over this Guardian article  I realise that i could have done a little more background reading and that there is clearly a history of heavy bike use and the desire to recreate that in the city, but hey these are just my observations.  Nevertheless will be interesting to see how the Medina bike takes off.  It certainly is quite a hostile cycling environment for the uninitiated, but as with any initially offensive environment anything to build up to a critical mass is going to help.

Medina Bike
Medina Bike

Medina BikeMedina Bike

Most of the bikes that I noticed looked like they had had a lot of riding.  A variety of old city bikes and what i assumed to be second hand mountain bikes.  Sure a little research could unveil where from but I made the assumption that probably lots are probably those that are cast off from richer cities as too out of shape and found to be perfectly functional for the purpose they are meant for.  Or is this just me being a first world snob assuming that poor little Morocco can't afford fancy new bikes.  I don't mean to be rude, but either way it is good to see bikes being used efficiently.  Many with well loaded racks to carry shopping and goods.  There were also quite a few little repair places I noticed around the way, which aren't completly foreign to the small workshops I've frequented in Brighton and London, but a fun observation in situ in the Moroccan sun.
The topography isn't too taxing (if you're keeping in and around the city) and the temperature doesn't seem to be particularly ice prone so I imagine as long as the chainset and brakes are functional multi-gears and disc-brakes are superflous to getting around the city efficiently and most repairs will just be keeping the clunkers running.

Bikes in Morocco
Bikes in Morocco

What I found uplifting was that bikes are evidently being used for what they're great at: an efficient way to get around town.  No fancy pants aero bars or excessive kit (Though I think i did see a few roadies on the coach out to Essouaria).  This was even more evident out in the sticks.  Schools out in rural areas were swamped by bikes outside.  More useful than the camels now sidelined to tourist duties.  In comparing to other cycling cities and places I've adventured through there is a hint that cycling is, or was, more ingrained, and that there are more practical reasons such as space and cost that bikes are popular.

Bikes in Morocco
Bikes in Morocco

So what did I learn in my trip?  Well I would love to return and do some proper mountain bike touring, get out of the main city and actually engage with the country, take part rather than be a full on tourist.  Bikes are cool.  Marrakesh has some very groovy little nooks and crannys. Oh and I need to get a clipboard and brush up on my urban analysis.

Bikes in Morocco
Bikes in Morocco





Tuesday, 2 February 2016

Observations on Cycling in Japan

Because I am:
a planner
an international urban researcher
a lifelong cyclist
someone who recently returned from time in Japan
the owner of a poorly maintained blog
reflecting on the points above,
 I will make a few notes on my observations on cycling in Japan.

I was there for a holiday, like a proper holiday.  No research, no meetings, no homework, no obligations.  Just for fun and leisure and exploration, well I'm sure you know what a holiday is.  The only things I aimed  to achieve, specifically, while there were: to spend a day or more exploring Tokyo by bike; and find some super cool unknown top quality cocktail bar in a tower somewhere that's not in any guidebooks and serves sublime cocktails.  I technically 'failed' on both those counts, but I did get to explore plenty of Tokyo on foot and subway, and if I were you, shouldn't worry about me not getting to sample enough cocktails in trendy bars, as in Takayama I had one of the top 5 bar experiences of my life (a list for another time).

In my ventures around and about I was picking out little bits of cycle infrastructure or culture or activity that caught my eye.  Mindful that I am just a passing tourist, and without having really got to chat with many locals, or planners, these really are just some pictures for prosperity, memories of my adventures in Japan and impressions of cycling in cities there.

Tokyo
Tokyo

On the first day, suffering with jet lag, or more, riding the elation & floatiness of jet-lag in a new and exciting city we took a walk from our air BnB in Shibuya up to Tomigaya, and into Yoyogi Park.  The first cycling infrastructure of note was a nice little leisure circuit in the park, which lifted my spirits, even without a bike.  Although only in so much as it's nice to have a nice place to cycle safely round in a sunny park in winter time when you're a nipper on wheels, or uneasy grown-up.  Oh and the sun helped too.


No bicycles parking

Wondering round Harajuku and Sendagaya that afternoon I was just soaking the city in.  But noticed that there did seem to be plenty of bikes about, with parking solutions for apartment blocks.  The bikes I notice were mostly quite functional, practical models, with slightly smaller wheels than I'm used to that can happily be parked up on a stand outside the block, or shops, rather than an array of swish mean machines.

Tokyo
Tokyo

Even though I was up with the larks (hmmm, not sure there were any larks, well of course there were larks, it was a holiday after all. I'm not a natural, or trained ornithologist, but I was up early because of the time difference ...) I didn't really notice any rush hour hordes of cycle commuters battling with traffic to get to work in the morning.  There isn't a whole load of infrastructure to speak of, I saw a fair bit of shared space, and generally bikes are treated closer to a pedestrian on wheels than to a vehicle.

Tokyo
Cycling "Infrastructure"
Tokyo
Cycling "Infrastructure"
Tokyo
Signs of Japan

By and large my impression was that cycling isn't fetishised or marginalised, for those that want to use it it is a handy practical way to get around.  There is plentiful, but oversubscribed parking in the kinds of places you would need to park your bike like near stations or shopping centers.   Most the people I noticed cycling were older, so away from the image there is in London of cycling being predominately young men caning it into work and back.

Tokyo
Tokyo
Shimokitazawa Station

On our trip out of Tokyo there was a nifty little bike share scheme in Kanazawa, but due to snow and a very limited time in the city I didn't get a bike, though it was as straight forward as having a credit card and a few simple details to get access to a bike on a similar fare structure as the London cycle hire scheme.

Cycling facilities in Kanazawa
Cycling facilities in Kanazawa

Of course there were a few of the cool fixies flying about and I saw a few roadies out on a Sunday, but their kit wasn't all that streamlined, even if it was January it wasn't super cold.  However, the prospect of trying to escape the city on a bike seems even more of a task there than London.  I bemoan my hour or two on the saddle before I breach the M25 and am making it towards countryside, but in a city where it takes over an hour on the bullet train to get out of the city, there must be little chance except to the most hardened rider to cycle to 'the country'.




Takayama
Bromptoning in Daikanyama

Taking in the whole experience of Japan for the first, amazing, time was a bit much, and I found the whole trip very exhilarating and eye-opening.  The positive feelings about the country, like the food, drink, hospitality, seamless transportation.  oh, and the fact that I was on holiday and free to enjoy it all as a goggle eyed, beer filled tourist with too many cameras and no research base, meant that I saw all the good and none of the bad.  In terms of cycling, as with other aspects of infrastructure, I'm sure there is lots that could be done better, especially in Tokyo.  But when you have such an effective metro and public transportation system (from my experience) then why bother?  The 'culture' of cycling seems to be that it's there if you want it.  Nothing flash, no need to really try too hard.  But then this was one of the best aspects from my point of view, there wasn't a fight or any flash about riding, it is reasonably incorporated into the urban fabric, in a city that, in movement terms seems to work pretty well from a casual observers POV.

I for one would love the chance, and lets hope I can one day, to go back and ride around, maybe meet a few people involved in planning and cycling get a better idea of the wider scene and cycling cultures there.  Overall I'm giving it a big thumbs up on the Hockman cycling cities experiences, even though I didn't cycle there. But there's a lot more to say about broader urbanisation and city making and the general experience of Japan more widely, so let me sit with those ideas for a while and I'll get back to ya.

Japan 2016

Wednesday, 3 June 2015

Windmills and Wheels: Cycling in the Netherlands with the AoU

Who? Me? Cycling across a country with a motley collection of built environment professionals investigating cycling culture, infrastructure and planning and architectural observations?  Again?  Yes actually.

Again, inspired by the 1000 miles travelled is as good as 1000 books read adage, and the idea that if interested in planning and cities the best way to learn about them is to visit them, preferably by bike, I signed up to the Academy of Urbanism Young Urbanists Windmills & Wheels expedition.

I see this as a kind of continuation, or addendum to the P2P adventure, but much shorter, much closer, and unsurprisingly, much more inviting an environment for a cyclists than cycling across the states.

We arrived in Hook of Holland from Harwich on Friday morning, and set off for some breakfast and coffee.  Nine of us from different areas of expertise, planners, surveyors, engineers, public, private, academic, a pretty broad range with different travel and cycling experience all round. Some having cycled little more than pootling around a park and some, a little more than that, but all interested in experiencing the cycling mecca of the lowlands.

A photo posted by Ben Hockman (@bahockman) on



We easily navigated our way along the shipping canal, flanked by wind turbines and industry, following the bike paths into Rotterdam, where we had a quick geek out at the new central station parking facilities and enjoyed the gastronomic delights of the Rotterdam Markethaal.  Yum, Stroop Waffles (not sure is that's the spelling, but damn they were good).

A photo posted by Ben Hockman (@bahockman) on





We cycled past the cubus houses, and glimpsed parts of Rotterdam and I reflected on my previous trip there in 2010 and longed to have more time to hang out, but I always do.  Even a few short days later the route I forget, but the navigation was a breeze, we cycled on into Gouda through some very pleasant rural towns and villages, taking in the sights, sounds and smells of the country.  Riding on a variety of tracks, roads and cycleways.  All well signed and as easy as could be to follow.  One of the stand out factors of the trip emerged that first few hours in that with the variety of landscapes and architecture we were passing all the different urban predilections were becoming evident from the Young Urbanists; stopping for a picture of some drainage, or a dam, or a church, or some houses and infrastructure, it's a very nice melting pot to travel with like minded, but not exactly minded people with similar professional, and personal interests, which I think was even more evident with the variety of opportunities to indulge those various predilections.

Windmills & Wheels
Windmills & Wheels
Windmills & Wheels
Windmills & Wheels
A photo posted by Ben Hockman (@bahockman) on





After lunch in Gouda (not quite enough cheese for my liking) we headed on to Utrecht, again a pretty seamless ride into the centre of a major urban centre.  We were met by Anita Dirix & Frank van der Zanden who gave a great insight to the redevelopment of Utrecht Central station and surrounds. We started off down in the new cycle parking facility. As with any construction in the pre-existing urban fabric there were lots of battles and negotiations and cajoling to get such a prime facility into the space.  It's kind of heartening to hear that the fight is tough even in an environment where cycling has such a modal share, but the difference is this got built, and is already well over capacity.  It is a bit of a trial run in some ways, with the issue of how to get it to pay still outstanding, but very impressive nevertheless.  We were then given an enlightening, and entertaining (for self confessed planning geeks) look into the way it fits into the wider regeneration efforts, which linked into a little of the history of Utrecht and how it is attracting and dealing with rapid growth.




After our tour we headed down to our very well appointed hotel a little out of town.  It was a shame to be heading out of town on a Friday night.  But we had a wonderful fish dinner, and a few of us headed to sample the local nightlife (being a backie up to the closest pub and a few fine ales).  It was quite evident that there is a lot of pride in Utrecht.  Apparently this is a growing thing, it seems to be a city not so much emerging form the shadow of its larger, higher profile neighbours, but becoming more self assured in its history, central strategic location and other many assets (one of which I notice is that Utrecht remains in a steady third place in the 2015 Copenhagenize Index).

On Saturday morning we made our way into Central Utrecht to meet Herbert Tiemens & daughter who very kindly gave up their Saturday morning to give us a tour of the city, anchored in cycling, but also tracing the wider development of the city from Roman times through to now and the future.  Herbert is a planner for the province of Utrecht and his enthusiasm and understanding of the city shone through.

A photo posted by Ben Hockman (@bahockman) on


Windmills & Wheels
Windmills & Wheels
Windmills & Wheels
Windmills & Wheels

After the tour, ending up on the roof of one of the University buildings in a temporary garden cafe we then collected baggage from the hotel and made our way to a lunch stop at Fort aan de Klop.  I was very sleepy at this point, but we engaged in some traditional bitterballen and other such Dutch delicacies.  fighting through the post-lunch lull we saddled up and headed off down the canal.

Again, we had a smooth ride in fair weather up towards Amsterdam.  Taking in canals and windmills, open fields and well kempt towns and villages, courteous drivers and the other pleasant occurrences of a Saturday afternoon cycling through the Netherlands countryside.

There was an ice cream stop for beer, and the journey continued.  Throughout the whole trip the pace was very gentle, being overtaken by businessmen, couples holding hands, parents laden by multiple offspring, old gents chatting away and cheeky schoolboys.  People were just going about their journeys around us and we kept dawdling the kilometres by, edging closer and closer to Amsterdam with a pace suitable to the challenge and surroundings.

Windmills & Wheels
Windmills & Wheels
Windmills & Wheels
Windmills & Wheels

There was more quite inspiring Infrastructure to enjoy in the bridges approaching Amsterdam.  We arrived at the hostel around 6ish, or maybe later, as the sun was sinking over the horizon.  With time to freshen up and head into the city.

Windmills & Wheels

No time to take in all the legendary delights of Amsterdam, this is the Academy of Urbanism, not Academy of 'erb-anism! (I thank you *bows*).  We were up an' attem early on Sunday after a hostel breakfast (I'm a big fan of those sweet sprinkles things the Dutch have introduced me to).  We were off to meet Pete Jordan, an american who moved to Amsterdam in 2002 who gave a history of the City of Bikes.  We started our tour outside Central Station, where he started to point out that there wasn't really an interest locally in tracing the history of how Amsterdam, and indeed the Netherlands generally came to be so defined by bikes.  Bikes are seen as a utility, so why would there be an interest in a tool like a vacuum cleaner, beyond the odd obsessive maybe.






We cycled as a group around the centre of Amsterdam, tracing different parts of the history of the evolution of Amsterdam as a true cycling city, the impact of wars, economics, trams, political wangling, radical protest and urban planning, all posited around Pete's personal discovery of the city and history of cycling as an interested and passionate outsider, someone coming from cosmopolitan San Francisco who initially couldn't comprehend the level of bike integration.  It is a great way to understand the city as an outsider form someone who arrived as such and follow the story along.  I was taken enough to grab a copy of his book, City of Bikes, to add to my ever increasing library of urban cycling literature, there may be more inspiration in there yet.

Windmills & Wheels
Windmills & Wheels
Windmills & Wheels

Unfortunately as the tour was ending the weather took a turn for the worse.  I took refuge in the  Rijksmuseum having read an article the day before leaving about it winning an award as the best museum in Europe.  I hung out in surrounded by stunning Dutch art and many tourists, and at points with the kind of droopy eyelids I get after a long day of being a tourist in a packed museum taking in too much at once.  The rain curtailed my hoped for exploration of this new city, new to me at least.  I rolled around for a while before settling for my second underwhelming kebab of the journey after having seen such a magnificent example in Rotterdam and passing it by.  Then I went and caught up with Simon at a cool little bar with live Jazz and good beer.  Sheltering from the rain, coulda stayed there all night, but we made our way back for a brilliant Indonesian meal near the hostel as a group and back for a night not as early as it should have been before another 9am depart.

Our Monday mission was only to make it back to Hook of Holland for our 10pm ferry.  A journey of some 85km with a weary contingent after a packed itinerary all weekend, with headwinds promised it seemed a little unnecessary and I kept carping on about investigating the truly multi-modal nature of Dutch public transport by slinging my bike on a train and meeting the gang back at the ferry.  This isn't how teamwork works however, and I'm sure I can sample the fine train system of the Netherlands sometime soon.

Windmills & Wheels

As it happens, funnily enough, the ride was smooth and gentle with no noticeable adversity at all beyond the requisite group faff factor.  The route was clear and George's guidance, as it had been all through the trip was impeccable.  It helps that the routes are very forgiving, and any minor route error is swiftly corrected at the next turn, but it is an incredibly relaxing and freeing experience being able to follow your compatriots through a foreign land in such a care free manner, distanced from the road traffic so that any grouping to assess the route can be done safely, barely even eliciting a tut from passing bikers whose path is briefly blocked.

Windmills & Wheels
Windmills & Wheels
Windmills & Wheels
Windmills & Wheels


There was a mild headwind, but nothing to severely impinge the day.  We made good progress with a few brief stops, tracing the routes of canals and waterways stopping for a lovely lunch break overlooking a boating lake.  The afternoon rolled by leaving enough time for a celebratory Heineken, and some Dutch delicacies from the local supermarket before embarking to return to London, work and maybe a few days out of the saddle.

Windmills & Wheels
Windmills & Wheels
Windmills & Wheels

So in summary then:
Order & architecture
Symmetry
The influence of water on the landscape and need for planning
Wind power all over
Good sized windows
Self build - variety and order at the same time
Smartphones - WhatsApp, Google Maps & internet make these kind of trips almost too easy
'normal' cycling - no tribes, no fetishisation
Gutted we didn't go to Delft

I don't think any of my broader findings are revelatory in anyway.  As I've heard mentioned so many times; planners and politicians from the UK are taking trips, study visits and jollies to the Netherlands and other successfully planned cities and regions around northern Europe, return enthused and enlightened, but then there is a massive gap between this new knowledge and understanding how to implement it.

Overall from what I saw and the visits we paid, in terms of cycling, there were a number of factors that contributed, not least of these being strong political will.  Of course the geography is a big contributing factor, the fact that the country has to be so well planned around just keeping it's land above water.  Cycling infrastructure has been an integral part of any new development, particularly in the last 40 years, means that it isn't an option not to include it which creates the sense of connectivity.

The Comfort is spot on, paths are smooth and clear. Even with members of the group who are trepidatious cycling in a city (London specifically, so fair enough) the comfort of the ride all along was spot on. I didn't spot a single pot hole, and the drains are kept off the cycle way! what a revelation, compared to my swervey ride to work avoiding bumps lumps, drains and cracks. Apart from the long hours in the saddle taking their toll as they would, the day to day riding conditions were very comfortable. This is even more evident in the way that facilities are improving, such as the cycle parking improvements at rail stations and other significant interchanges.

Consistency is also very strong, signage, surfaces, routes and intersections are very good indeed. Certainly not perfect, and as ever there is room for improvement, but taking into account the whole ride, which would have been in the region of 300km around, there was never a point when we felt that we should be somewhere else or in unfamiliar territory. There is variety between cities and rural, but as expected. A few parkland paths on the way to the ferry were a little lumpy, but these were in very rural places. The countryside roads were as consistently smooth and easy to navigate as the segregated cycleways in the modern urban developments.

Connectivity, again, is notably superior to almost anything I've previously experienced, certainly in terms of long distance riding on clearly signposted routes. It made navigation very forgiving indeed, in that a group of strangers in a strange land could tootle around from one city to the next and not once find ourselves in a dead end, motorway slipway, canal lock or grimy crack den. From end to end each trip was a dream, and so void of adversity I don't think the trip can be referred to as an adventure, rather an enlightening, relaxing study trip.

Culture is the thing I probably dig the most. It makes me realise I need to revisit my draft post on the fetishisation of cycling, expand the current form into more of a rigorous essay. But it is so evident that the cycling culture isn't even a culture. cycling is just a way to get around. Efficiently, smoothly, almost effortlessly, I'd take it over a ride on the Northern line at rush hour any day. There is no armour, no high viz, no clipless pedals and lycra, no leggings so worn that knickers are clearly visible through them in the morning sun, no decathalon jackets or aggressive strava jockeys, no cycling culture. Saying that, there clearly are the cycling sub-cultures of weekend warriors and a few hipster fixies about. But by and large a bike is a tool to get you there, and it mixes into whatever your style is, some people look effortlessly cool, some look effortfully cool, most look like regular people going about their day, and a few look like scruffy sods going about their day. That cycling in the Netherlands is so ubiquitous means that you aren't defined by your means of transport. Undoubtedly there are still passionate advocates and people fighting to improve facilities and infrastructure within the many battles for space in the urban fabric, but a certain amount of the fighting is weighted in your favour when just using the term 'cyclist' doesn't ellicit the type of hackle raising response so often seen in the letters pages of the Standard.

It was interesting riding as part of a group again.  Unlike with P2P, our apartness was more from clearly being tourists, with some high viz and cycling specific clothing it was clear we weren't from round 'ere.  But being on a bike isn't a novelty like in the States.  We didn't have waitresses cooing at our cool accents or insane adventure, more an understated Dutch pride that these brits are coming over to check out their cool country.

I am still a little in the dark about the Cash situation.  It seems that funding will be apportioned
more to cycling as it has such a big modal share.  But, as always there are battles.  We heard of the battle to get funding for the swanky station parking in Utrecht, and coming in at 2,200 euro a space (i think that was the figure) there will be someone trying to do a decent cost benefit analysis on that.  Pete Jordan told of how the funding for cycling advocacy groups from the city has been slashed,  in relation to the spiralling costs of a new, long delayed metro system, it seems almost spiteful to cut the funding for advocacy of a huge group of commuters, when the value they add seems to have been well established.  You will still need to fight for funding, whatever it is you're doing 'in the public good'.

Interestingly enough the Copenhaganize index of bicycle friendly cities was released the day we got back, with Amsterdam at #2 & Utrecht at #3.  Another excuse for me to try and get back to Copenhagen again, and Strasbourg, Malmo, Berlin, Eindhoven...etc etc. And I can't say I disagree with the analysis of Amsterdam, even in my short trip, there is a feel that being where they are, they could go further in making new steps to improving the bikability of the city.  But it is still a dream compared to anything in London.  We'll see, maybe these roadworks over Vauxhall Bridge will be a first step in the right direction, but there are so many more steps.

Right, that's too much prattling on.  A great, enlightening trip, my only gripes would be, as always, it would be great to have had an extra day or 20 in the cities exploring, better weather, and more central accommodation.  That said, as with my findings of general planning and cycling infrastructure, finding points to improve in the trip seems churlish when everything works so well.