Sunday, 3 October 2010

A Journey

The bike has spent the last couple of weeks in the shed while we travelled almost 3,000 miles across Europe. We visited six different countries, but spent most time in parts of Poland, Germany and France. It's been a few years since we did anything like this, and it was a fascinating trip. 

In the process we saw a of different cycling infrastructure, and a variety of bikes and cyclists. However I've been viewing it all from inside the car or as a pedestrian, rather than from the saddle. Of course we only sampled tiny parts of huge countries.  

One of the surprises was in Poland. To put it mildly, the transport infrastructure in Poland is a bit varied. The new motorways are among the best we travelled on, and we saw a lot of other construction under way, but elsewhere heavy Trans-European traffic has been causing a lot of damage to some relatively minor roads. Hours of bumping along some very ropey surfaces have given me a different perspective on the standard of UK roads, and I won't be complaining about potholes and patchy repairs in Berkshire (for  a while anyway). 

What surprised me was that alongside some of the rougher Polish roads they were busy laying miles of beautiful new cycle lanes. At first glance this seemed an odd priority. We spent some time in Gdansk, which has taken a lead as a cycling city, and I understand that in Eastern Poland there are moves to encourage cycle touring as a contribution to economic development. We were mainly in central and western Poland though, and I suspect that the rationale for investing in cycling infrastructure there is more to do with improving road safety and access for scattered communities rather than either promoting tourism, or encouraging environmentally sustainable transport.

In Germany, by contrast, the quality of the transport infrastructure is notoriously good, and it was no surprise to find an extensive cycle network in the towns and region where we spent most time. Here the investment seems to be much more oriented towards encouraging utility cycling in the towns, and tourism in the rural areas - and in both cases the facilities were being well used.

By contrast, the evidence for the famous French passion for cycling was mostly in the wide choice of cycling magazines in the racks. We didn't visit the most famous cycling areas, but investment in cycling infrastructure in the places we visited was mostly limited to painting lines and symbols onto footpaths. As a temporary pedestrian, it wasn't  particularly helpful.  

For better or worse, the stereotypes that I'm left with are that cycling in Poland is mostly utilitarian. A wide range of different people apparently ride basic hybrid bikes, mainly as a convenient form of transport.  In Germany what we observed was mostly cycling as a pastime. Most cyclists were middle-aged, and leisurely riding extremely well-equipped trekking bikes, along relatively flat dedicated cycle routes. Whatever French cyclists are doing, they are doing it somewhere else. In the areas we visited keen cyclists must mostly spend their time reading magazines that cover cycling as a sport.

I'm left wondering what superficial impressions a visitor from abroad would form of cycling in the Thames valley.

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