Monday, 7 June 2010

On the roads in Britain, thoughts

One the relatively frequent questions people have asked me is "did I find the roundabouts scary?" The answer is no. In fact, I found them a damn sight more bike-friendly than the equivalent North American large stoplight intersections. Roundabouts have the singular advantage for bikes as they rarely require bikes to come to a complete stop as it was almost invariably possible to coast into a suitable slot in traffic. By this, I mean that you could slow down while watching for a gap and then speed up in order to take it. It was rarely necessary for me to stop, and most of the times that I did stop at roundabouts, it was to double check my navigation, rather because of the traffic. The relative narrowness of bikes, means that it easier for a North American to use a roundabout on a bike than in a car. At least, that was my feeling about them and I do have a high tolerance for traffic.

On the subject of British drivers, I found them very well behaved and exceptionally tolerant of bicycles. Or at least of me, as I think drivers generally accord greater respect to laden tourers than to, say, teenagers on mountain bikes! Drivers frequently pulled right out into the oncoming lane in order to pass me. Given the narrowness and often winding nature of British roads, at times I was afraid that I might indirectly end up being responsible for an accident. One of my mental road games was to think what I would say to the police in such an eventuality.

This fear was accentuated by the relative lack of visibility on roads lined with either hedges or stone walls. In some instances, I could the tops of approaching cars but not their drivers and therefore I knew that while I could see them, they could not see me. In others, the hedges or walls blocked even my sight. However, these obstacles were very much appreciated windbreaks much of the time. As the reader of this blog knows, there was often a cold, contrary wind for me to face.

While paved shoulders were relatively rare in Britain, the generally good quality road surfaces easily balanced out the relative lack of shoulders. While there were some rough spots, British roads are far superior than Quebec ones.

One spot where Britain could learn from Quebec would be with regard to bike maps. While Sustrans does publish good maps of its routes, it doesn't publish (at least Stamford's didn't have any) anything equivalent to Vélo-Québec's Guide de la Route Verte. By this I mean that while Sustrans publishes maps of individual routes in the National Cycle Network, it has yet to publish a single compendium of all the routes. I believe part of the problem lies in that the maps that Sustrans publishes are a bit too detailed to be compiled into one book. A bit less detail would translate into more coverage and thus greater suitability for the long-distance cyclist, such as myself. I have rather a mind to mail them one of my older Guide de la Route Verte's with a note explaining how such a format might to be useful.

The quality of the paths of the National Cycle Network, like that of the Route Verte, varied significantly. The signage was sometimes weak, particularly in suburban areas. However, I usually managed it, having learned to check behind me when in doubt as there were sometimes signs pointing in the direction from which I had come that gave clues as which way I should go. It sounds warped, but it worked. One thing I didn't appreciate was as I was nearing Edinburgh, the NCN took me up a ramp with steps to cross a railway. It was the end of my longest day and to lift a laden Leonardo over the steps was a chore. Curiously enough, at the other side of the railway, there was a small group of Sustrans volunteers putting up new signage. Knowing that it wasn't their fault, I indicated my disapproval of the route in the gentlest terms possible. At least, I tried to and I know I phrased it along the lines of "Generally your routes are very good, but this bit (i.e. the bridge over the railway) leaves much to be desired." The volunteers acknowledged the bridge wasn't a particularly good bike route, but that was what they had to work with. I don't think I offended them by voicing my opinion as it was a legitimate complaint. However, my fatigue may have coloured my language.

The day I got to Campbeltown, I passed a pair flaxen-haired kids running alongside of the road. Aged about 5 and 7, their long pale hair made quite a sight, as was the charming, innocent happiness with which they ran. This was a little before Glenbarr. When I mentioned this incident to John and Helen, Helen commented, "Oh, that must have been so-and-so's boys." It is things like this that make me want to live in Campbeltown.

Another pleasure of biking on British roads was the smells. One of the distinct advantages of cycling is that you get a much clearer olfactory sense of the places you visit. (Yes, this can be a disadvantage.) Some of smells of Britain that stay with me are the smell of burning coal (in smaller settlements), wild garlic and a distinctive sweetish smell that I associate with the coast of Scotland.

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