Leeds is one of the UK cities sharing a £94m to boost cycling. But how will this money be spent and what difference will it make? Caroline Mortimer reports.
THE first wobble is always the most frightening. The constant fear of tipping sideways when you lift your hand from its death grip on the handlebars to indicate is palpable.
But when you get moving, and start pushing the pedals round and round, you realise the skills you used so readily when you were a youngster, were just lying dormant and hadn’t disappeared for good.
My first time in the saddle after a 12 year hiatus was inspired by my participation in the London Freecycle - the largest amateur cycling event Great Britain has ever seen - earlier this month.
And I am not the only one who has been bitten by the cyling bug. It seems as though cycling fever has been sweeping the nation following the success of the British Olympic team last year. Team GB stormed to victory, winning eight gold medals on the track and on the road. A month earlier, Bradley Wiggins became the first British man to ever win the Tour de France - a feat repeated this year by his Team Sky colleague Chris Froome.
Next summer Froome will lead out the Tour when it comes to Yorkshire – as cycling’s rise arrives in its grandest form on the region’s roads. The fact that Yorkshire is hosting the Grand Depart has only added to the growing popularity of cycling in this country.
Leeds cyclist Leslie Harding says she and her colleagues at PR firm Search Laboratory were inspired by the Tour coming to Yorkshire to organise a charity bike ride.
The route follows the first 180 mile stage and is in aid of Candlelighters- a Yorkshire based charity providing emotionally and financial support for children diagnosed with cancer and their families.
“Basically a few of my friends decided we wanted to do something big so we talked to our office manager and she thought a bike ride was a good idea,” she said. “Then we thought with the Tour de France coming here next year we thought we’d tie it all in and do the first stage of it. I’m sort of excited and dreading at the same time,” says the 24 year-old.
Leslie has now started using her bicycle for her daily commute into work in central Leeds from her home in Headingley, but admits that cycling in the city can be dangerous for those on two wheels - especially at junctions and roundabouts.
“The routes are not too bad until you get to the roundabout which I tend to take a different route and try to avoid. But you get a bit of hostility when you are not going fast enough up a hill. And in traffic it can be quite scary.
“The roads definitely need sorting out because there are not enough cycle routes for us. It’s quite dodgy cycling into Leeds and it definitely needs improving.”
Now that more people are getting on their bikes, the government is hoping to get the policy peddles turning with the promise of £77m towards improving cycling routes in Leeds and seven other cities around the country.
Leeds and West Yorkshire will receive £18.1m from the Department of Transport, along with an additional £11.2m from local councils, to create new cycling schemes – these will include a cycling superhighway from Leeds to Bradford and new connections in Leeds city centre, along with an upgrade of the Leeds-Liverpool tow path.
But according to cycling campaigner Lizzie Reather, who commutes daily to her job at the University of Leeds, the money does not go far enough towards protecting cyclists on their day to day commute. “The problem is the design of Leeds as a city,” she says.
“Because it’s so road heavy, we do have a lot of traffic not just in and out but through the city going to other places as well. So coming in as a cycling commuter you almost always find yourself coming up against a massive junction where people can get put off by the level of traffic.
“Roundabouts are particularly a problem for cyclists. We often compare ourselves to countries where a lot of people cycle. For example in the Netherlands, Belgium and Germany don’t use roundabouts like we do.”
She points out there are also problems with drivers being careless on the roads and not expecting to see cyclists or, sometimes, being aggressive towards them.
“A lot of our members have problems with hostility from drivers. It can be quite frightening because of course a driver can do you a lot of harm. I think people do feel quite vulnerable on their bikes,” she says.
“Driver behaviour varies quite a lot place to place. Where people cycle a lot, like in Cambridge, drivers are more aware and look for them more. It is the same on the continent where drivers expect to see cyclists.”
Sanne Velthius, is a 27 year-old data verifier for debt charity Step Change and originally comes from Lelystad, a small city in Holland. She agrees with Reather and feels the cycling culture in Leeds and the UK is miles away from cycling back in her homeland where in cities like Amsterdam and The Hague up to 70 per cent of all journeys are made by bike.
“It is especially dangerous at roundabouts. Especially because in England, unlike Holland, not a lot of people do cycle, so cars aren’t as used to looking out for cyclists. So quite often they will go without checking to see if there are any cyclists coming.
“I think if we get more people to cycle and there is increased awareness about cycling, things may improve and car drivers will be a bit more aware of it. Ultimately if more people cycle rather than taking the car this is going to be beneficial to the car users as well,” she says.
“People say they get annoyed with cyclists making them wait or having to check for them but what would they rather? A hundred more cars on the road? Isn’t it better that there are more cyclists to ease congestion?”
Justine Holmes, 25, another Leeds commuter, she says it’s not just cars that can be a problem. “I commute between the train station and work and a few times a week between Leeds and Shipley. I mainly have trouble with taxi drivers who cut me up and hog lanes. Pedestrians are also really bad, they often walk out into the road without looking and they are unaware of the cycle lanes.
“I also find that many cars park in the cycle lanes in Shipley and I have had a few heated conversations with them about this. However some people are great, they give you room and are respectful of you. You definitely have to have your wits about you and road sense to be able to handle cycling around the city.”
But despite all the problems cyclists face, a growing number of people are prepared to get on their bikes in a way that didn’t happen even just a decade ago.
Terry Geldard, who has worked at the Evans Cycles in the city centre since it opened three years ago, says buisness has definitely picked up. “The first year we had here was very quiet then second year it went crazy with everyone wanting to buy a bike. With the recent heatwave it’s been busy again,” he says.
“It’s a good thing that the Tour is coming through Yorkshire but the general populous of Leeds and the surrounding area I don’t think they are aware of how big it is, but hopefully it will get more people on bikes.”
So regardless of whether the new money promised to Leeds will create the kinds of cycle superhighways being dreamed up in Whitehall, a cycling revolution is seemingly underway.
There are challenges ahead, however, with cycling deaths and injuries across the country on a five year high, road cycling in Leeds is not for the faint hearted. But this hasn’t stopped the rising tide of commuters braving the bad drivers, bad junctions potholes, not to mention the weather, to reclaim at least part of the road for two wheels.
With this new burst of funding from the government and enthusiasm from the Tour next year, as more people are encouraged to give cycling a go, the hope is that the roads will start to become safer and better.