Borders and Boundaries: thoughts and musings of an overly long bike ride.
By Frank Morgan, November 2021
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Frank Morgan rode from Gretna Green to Brighton in one go. 662km in 30 hours. Plenty of time for reflection, amongst other things. Here are his thoughts on this epic challenge.
Route name: Gretna Green to Brighton
Ride time: 29h:25m
Total time: 34h:5m
Average speed: 22.5kph/12.1mph
Counties crossed (18): Cumbria, Westmorland, Yorkshire, Lancashire, Greater Manchester, Merseyside, Cheshire, Shropshire, Staffordshire, West Midlands, Worcestershire, Warwickshire, Gloucestershire, Oxfordshire, Berkshire, Surrey, West Sussex and East Sussex.
Rivers crossed: Lune, Ribble, Mersey, Trent, Avon and Thames
Motorways crossed: M6, M5, M4, M3
Things to think about: the very poor cycling infrastructure in the UK
The initial idea for a big day out on the bike came from reading Chris Sidwells ‘The Call of the Road’ book about just that, the call of the road and road cycle racings origins. Within it he talks about the now abandoned monument ‘Bordeaux to Paris’, a race of 600km first run in 1891, won by names such as Jacques Anqetueil, Tommy Simpson and other illustrious riders from history. It got me thinking, I have ridden 300km, I have ridden cobbles, I have ridden pretty much every sort of bicycle but I haven’t ridden a 24 hour solo effort. Covid and other personal circumstances curtailed my 2020 plan and then 2021 proved to be as challenging to achieve as 2020. So an alternative was needed, training had been ongoing since Jan 2021 and I was running out of good weather. I was shown a comparable ride from Berwick to London, thought OK I can make this work but don’t want to ride the last 70km into central London. I wanted something more meaningful as an end to the ride.
Borders and Boundaries was born, a quick ‘Ride with GPS’ check showed I could get from the Scottish border to Brighton without going through a major City and come in at just over 600km. I mean 60km over, but what’s an extra 60km when you can finish at the seaside? I didn’t set out for glory, recognition or adulation. I have had a hard time of it over the past four years and cycling has given me the head space I have needed. So essentially I just wanted to see if I could do it, 660km in one go, no sleep and self-supported.
Oh and the name, stolen from a Less Than Jake album from the early noughties but also highly appropriate as the ride started on the Scottish Border and finished on the Southern Boundary of England.
Observations and Thoughts
Driver behaviour; the majority of the route was on small roads, quiet roads or National Cycleways and as such the traffic was limited. I had also planned the route and timings so that I would be passing through large population areas at off-peak times allowing me the time and space to move slowly along my way.
The behaviour of drivers towards those cycling is improving and certainly along roads where cyclists are expected (National Cycle Network routes) the traffic drives at a pace appropriate to an enjoyable scenic drive and cyclists are given the opportunity to move out of the way on small narrow lanes or are passed with a wide berth at slow speeds on wider roads. But these routes are quiet because they are away from the main roads, away from the traffic and usually take a more undulating and occasionally steep route to get from A - B via D. I encourage these routes and enjoy riding on them but they are not all suitable for all leisure cyclists, those who don’t enjoy riding up a hill or those who need to get somewhere
So what about where my route deviated from the cycle ways and joined up with the other road users on routes that were flatter, more direct or just were the only option?
My first observation is that our roads do not give enough space for their users; be that car, bike, horse or pedestrian. You are constantly squeezed and twisted and turned to the point of frustration leading to users competing for the same scrap of tarmac. In large urban areas or densely populated counties such as Berkshire and Surrey this was intensified by the day, time and weather conditions. Friday, 5pm and the sun is shining equals everyone wants to be where they want to go so they can enjoy it and anything that hinders them, even by the smallest amount of time is a source of anger.
It’s no surprise then that of all the 18 counties I cycled through Berkshire and Surrey were the worst for driver behaviour and the worst for cycle infrastructure that either didn’t exist or didn't go where I was going. In short Wokingham to Guildford and out the other side towards Cranleigh was elbows out and dominate the road if only to ensure my survival when the inevitable close pass occurred. A quick check on Sustrans reveals that this is an area even they don’t go. CYCLISTS ENTER AT YOUR OWN RISK!
By contrast my other peak time experience was from Lancaster to Preston along the A6, the main alternative to the M6 as a direct route between the two cities. A fast road with the national speed limit in place for most of it. But a wide road with a painted solid white line to segregate cars and cyclists. Now I’m not saying that a painted white line gives any suitable protection or makes the cyclists feel safer. But it did change driver perception and treatment towards me. Most passed at speed but always with a wide berth. The only time conflict came was at points where the road narrowed for traffic calming purposes or pedestrian refuge crossing points. At these the cycle lane was removed and you were put in the path of cars doing approx 60mph.
Other types of cycling infrastructure experienced included fully segregated cycle ways such as the Runcorn Bridge, canal and river tow paths (not a solution as they are lethal in the wet, especially at Bridges where the surface is usually cobbled and with sharp turns, see Paris Roubaix 2021 for what happens to a cyclists on that sort of surface in the wet!), pop up Covid-19 cycle lanes and cities where cycling is the norm and dominant form of transport (Oxford). These all had their advantages and disadvantages with them either starting or stopping in dangerous locations or being frustratingly short.
However my personal favourite of all the types experienced was a cycle lane painted onto a not quite dual carriageway outside of Widnes (Kingsway B5419) . It was in the middle of the inside lane, painted as a hatched white line, and separated from the curb to allow for double yellow lines to be added. I went through this delight close to midnight but can only imagine what it would have been like if I had gone through at 8am or 5pm and tried to cycle in the lane designated for me!
Cycling the length of the country was (evidently) possible, it was an effort both mentally and physically, 30+ hours in the saddle caused a lot of damage and it has taken time to recover from that.
The UK's cycling infrastructure is poor, inconsistent, badly maintained and constantly puts cyclists in conflict with other road users, usually at the point where car speed is high or your attention is easily distracted (at roundabouts). Driver behaviour is changing but they are disadvantaged by the size and design of our roads.
For too long we have allowed motorised transport to be the dominant aspect in our road design allowing cars to travel further, faster and more smoothly between towns and cities and also within towns and cities. If we want to enable more people to actively choose alternative transport methods then we must address the design of our infrastructure. The Netherlands and other cycling 'utopias' chose to be that way. They still have the same challenges we do with traffic jams and people driving greater distances. But if you want to have children cycling to school and adults going to work or the shops by alternative transport then we have to choose to invest in the infrastructure that enables and allows this choice to be viable for all.
People drive because it’s the safest and easiest way to get from A - B. In some places it would be hard to get rid of cars, but not in all places. Really, I just want people to be able to cycle from A - B without having to go via D. Oh and the question that every transport planner, road engineer, National Highways employee, County Councillor, and Local Authority member should ask is, ‘would you allow a child to cycle in that bike lane?’, if the answer is no then it should not be installed. Let's not waste time, money and resources on infrastructure that is not usable by all.
Credits:: Frank Morgan, 2021