Saturday, September 01, 2007

The Anti-carist

'Why did that car just throw coffee at Dad?' asks one of the Carboncopies as we head out of Bridgwater. Carbonlite wipes coffee off his face and jersey as we crunch over the now empty styrene coffee cup lobbed from the window of a Ford Fiesta boom-box. If he had the energy to sprint and catch the youths, I think he'd find a new use for his penknife, slicing tyres and scratching go-faster stripes."Maybe they thought we were thirsty?" I tell my son lightly, but inside I'm sighing. Now Carbonlite has a new platform for one of his rants.

Two weeks in to our cycle tour 'holiday' of Britain, he's quickly become the anti-carist; a motor-hating bicycle vigilante. And the worst thing about it is, I can see he has a point. I pedal on, knowing he is fuming away to himself. Not just at yobs who think it's a laugh to chuck coffee at cyclists, but at all the cars, lorries, campervans and caravans that cut us up, stare-eye us, beep at us or joke 'Can't you go any faster?' as they pass us on the hills. OK, I admit not everyone has been so negative; the long distance lorry drivers have obviously had training and give us a wide berth. Campervans carrying bikes wave as they overtake, and everyone stops for a chat when we stop to refuel at the supermarket or campsite.

On our way into Bristol, four drug-eyed teenagers even put their spliffs out to lend a hand and get us around some difficult gates, but most motorists prefer to watch the show from the safety of their tin cocoon. Traffic is not only choking up Carbonlite but it's choking this country.

South of Bristol, we stop briefly in the pretty village of Chew Magna. The volume of cars speeding down single track lanes to get quickly to the village traffic jam is unbelievable; and parked cars, vans and traffic queues make it hard to negotiate our way through the village. It's sad to see once quiet rural environments strangled like this. And cyclists are second class citizens: given cycle routes and facilities that never match those given over to the car. In the Tesco car park in Taunton we struggle to find a place to park our bikes to do the weekly shop. Give them their due there is a signposted cycle path, but there are only spaces for twenty cycles while the car park must have spaces for five hundred plus cars. Once we've parked our bikes, they are obviously something of an inconvenience to those trying to get their trolleys back to their cars.

In the twenty years I've been cycling, I've never classed myself as a cyclist, more a lass on a bike. A fair-weather biker who scuttles back to her car when the heavens open, but even I can see we've given too much of our country to the car. Just look at the swathes of roads, eating into the countryside with each improvement and widening scheme, the acres and acres of car parks in towns, cities and shopping centres. And all so we can be free to travel wherever we want whenever we want. Does no-one see the price of this freedom?

We follow the cycle path on the M5 road bridge across the River Avon, just yards from the deafening noise of thousands and thousands of vehicles going nowhere on important business, while we try to pick our way along a cycle route littered with shards of broken indicators, glass, straps and debris from traffic accidents. That's the price we pay.

But sometimes we 'anti-carists' and 'lasses on bikes' get our own back on the motorists. On the way to Chepstow, we ascend a steep narrow hill on a B road. We have no idea the local A road is closed for the day. All we can hear is chugg chugg behind us, as two tractors crawl up the hill in our wake. At the top of the hill we pause and pour ourselves a coffee from our flask as the tractors slowly overtake. Then we count the cars that follow. "One, two three" shout the Carboncopies as they help themselves to a biscuit. "Seventy one, seventy two, seventy three" completes Carbonlite with a smile, counting the last of the cars through ten minutes later. Each car waves enthusiastically at us, thinking we are the hold up, unaware that they are now behind two slow-moving John Deeres each pulling a huge trailer. "Shall we invite them to join us for coffee?" says Carbonlite, smiling at a motorist for the first time since the trip began.