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Bike City

Cycling Capital of the UK

This modest metropolis has the highest cycling rates of any large UK city at around three and a half times the national average.

My gears complain and crunch as I change down once again. I’m not even half way up Park Street but my legs are wind-milling, my lungs are pumping like a pair of bellows, and I can feel my heartbeat in my temples. The Wills Memorial Building taunts me from its perch at the top of the hill, looming into the sky like a Neo-Gothic Saturn V. My pace slows further as I wobble past a fellow cyclist who has already given up. She walks, red-faced, hair stuck to her cheeks under her helmet. I keep pedalling stubbornly, grimacing at the burning in my thighs. As cities go, I conclude grumpily, Bristol makes for an unlikely choice as Cycling Capital of Britain.

Nestled in the rolling, green hills of England’s fertile south west, this gentle and creative city of half a million people spreads itself photogenically over a dozen hills. It boasts a smorgasbord of inclines designed to torture even the most enthusiastic amateur cyclist. The curving paths of Brandon Hill Park loop beneath Cabot Tower, the city’s highest point. It looks like something dreamt up by Bram Stoker and is lofty enough to warrant a flashing red beacon to warn low flying aircraft. The wide lanes of the Ashton Court Estate offer impressive views – and an opportunity to stop and catch your breath. Jacob’s Wells Road climbs from the riverbank opposite the SS Great Britain, linking Hotwells to the Clifton Triangle, while Bridge Valley Road curves in a snail’s shell spiral from under the pylons of Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s suspension bridge to the top of the Avon Gorge. On the other side of the gorge, Nightingale Valley cuts a mud spattered rocky incline that leaves even walkers in need of extra oxygen. Beyond the walls of the medieval Old City and up Christmas Steps, St Michael’s hill is so steep that the pavements are terraced, while Constitution Hill tests the nerve of anyone brave enough to drive up it.

Despite such fearsome contours, Bristol has cycling in its blood. The official story began in 2008 when Bristol was successful in its bid to be named the UK’s first Cycling City. The accolade attracted around 23m GBP in investment and plans included public bike hire schemes, free repairs, changing and showering facilities for two-wheeled commuters, and free bikes for those in the city’s numerous deprived areas. Six years on, not every scheme has materialised, but the Cycling City project continues unabated. Even in straitened times, funding flows in, and Bristol could well be the first place in the UK to get fully segregated Dutch style cycle lanes – 100 miles’ worth if plans go ahead. 2015 is a new chapter for Bristol, and it is going to be a very big year. The city follows in the tracks of Stockholm, Hamburg, Vitoria-Gasteiz, Nantes and Copenhagen to become Europe’s sixth Green Capital. With all eyes on the West Country, an enormous 400m GBP will be spent on encouraging Bristolians out of their cars and – among other things – onto their bikes.

Bristol’s love of cycling goes deeper than a raft of national and EU funding measures, and a nifty moniker from the council’s marketing department, however. Two would appear to be the perfect number of wheels to bear the psyche of this independent minded leftist city, with its proliferation of health food cooperatives, Buddhist centres, and yoga schools. This modest metropolis has the highest cycling rates of any large UK city at around three and a half times the national average. There are parked bikes attached to every lamp post and railing, they crowd outside schools, university buildings, offices, and pubs. The occasional carcass stripped of wheels and cables, or worse, a lone lock no longer attached to anything, is enough to send a chill into the heart of many an onlooker. It is no coincidence that the city is the home of Sustrans, a charity championing the cause of the bicycle UK-wide, and founded by cyclists and environmentalists two and a half decades before cycling capitals were even thought of. The organisation has its roots in the 1970s, and aims for four out of every five local journeys to be pedal-powered by 2020. In spite of (or perhaps because of) the congestion on Bristol’s narrow and winding streets, the bicycle seems to fit in better with the city’s idea of itself than the motor car. From fixed gear marvels of fashion and engineering tethered tightly outside the coffee shops on Small Street, and the ultra light framed sports bike coated with mud from the trails through Leigh Woods, to the family vehicle complete with school-run trailer, and the ancient rattling jalopy painted with mantras and decked out with plastic flowers, just about everyone in this city seems able to imagine themselves in the saddle.

It’s the last Friday of the month at 5.30pm. I join a growing crowd of cyclists on the plaza next to the fountains in the centre of town. At six, we set off, filling the carriageway from pavement to pavement, quietly reclaiming the streets. Cars crawl behind us, but no horns blare. Respite from the endless hum and buzz of traffic spreads out before us, carried on a wave of tinkling bike bells. This is Bristol’s version of Critical Mass, a movement founded in San Francisco in the late 1990s that quickly spread to cycling communities across the globe. It’s certainly not be the biggest example of its kind in the world, but it is patient and persistent, striving for safer streets and cleaner air. The evening breeze is fresh on my face, and as we hit our first uphill climb, the chatter dies down, replaced by rhythmic breathing. As we reach the peak, one by one, our spines straighten and we lift our eyes to the horizon. Wheels spin as we sail past shops and passers by, and I am eloquently reminded that every uphill struggle is rewarded with the flight back down.

Bike City
Bike City
Bike City

Further reading