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A to B 36 Blog, June 2003, Bike Show

FIRST PUBLISHED June 2003: Bike Show, Round*Up 2003

In April the Mole braved one of Virgin’s new ‘compact’ Crosscountry trains to visit the Bike Show at Birmingham’s ‘International’ Exhibition Centre. According to the positive spin from Cycling Plus magazine, this formerly youth-orientated shindig was to be transformed into a mainstream (ie, CYCLE-style) show for 2003 and was thus worth a visit by those over 20. Approaching the hall with a crowd of sub-12 year old boys, one began to suspect that the hype might have got slightly ahead of the actualité.

For any elderly folk who might – reasonably enough – be drawn by the ‘Bike Show’ title in future years, the Mole can confirm that the event consists largely of noisy BMX displays, with a side order of mountain-style machines for the twenty-plus old-timers. In other words, it’s a dead waste of fifteen quid.

Leisure cycling is big business in the UK. According to the current What Mountain Bike? advertising rate card, the print run for this single title now exceeds 50,000, and the overwhelmingly male readership (94%), has an average age of 32, and annual income of £22,905.

A to B magazine, Bike Show, Ebryo ScooterAt the Bike Show, a selection of nefarious stall-holders were hard at work pocketing wads of cash from young men of this kind. One such outfit was Ebryo Scooters, purveyor of a monstrous electric scooter known in its country of origin as the Flying Dragon, but repackaged as the ‘Street Runner’ for the UK where dragons have less relevance in marketing terms.

The Mole took great delight – as one does when the opportunity arises – in informing the sales girls that this £500 machine (show special £400) was illegal on streets, pavements, cycle paths, or indeed, anywhere other than private land. And a little market research might have revealed this, saving a great deal of embarrassment.

Elsewhere, the Comfort Saddle company was busily steering bottoms onto its product.This ludicrous device looks rather like a leatherette bench seat, of the kind that made a brief appearance in early 1950s motor cars. Gentlemen of a certain age may recall that these softly-sprung wonders provided an unrivalled means of getting intimate with one’s passengers, but gave little in the way of support, should one not wish to slide rapidly across the car. This characteristic is all the more pronounced on a bicycle, where such and annual income of £22,905. At the Bike Show, a selection of subtleties as road positioning and hand gestures are accomplished – without putting too fine a point on it – by gripping the saddle with one’s nether regions.The Comfort is further hampered by a strange spring device that allows the saddle to flex, yaw and roll to angles that bottoms are rarely taken.

When the Mole expresses some mild scepticism, the Comfort apparatchiks claim that the saddle has been widely tested both on and off road, with no apparent tendency for riders to slip from their steeds.Thus, should any readers with flat non-slip bottoms wish to lighten their wallets to the tune of £39.95 plus postage, the means is now available.

Growing weary of bicycling in England, the Mole trekked 3,000 miles in search of enlightenment to Trophy Bike’s Round*Up 2003 folding bike show in Philadelphia, USA.

For those unfamiliar with foreign parts, America is very large, with many busy freeways and a considerable volume of traffic, all going the wrong way. Arriving a little late in the evening at Newark’s rather depressing airport (not unlike landing in a scrapyard), one rapidly establishes base camp at the North Elizabeth Econolodge, pausing only to look right rather than left whilst crossing the adjacent highway, which causes much cheerful honking from home-bound commuters. Incidentally, the Econolodge offers complimentary ‘donuts’ and coffee in place of breakfast, and a half-hourly courtesy coach from the airport, for those lacking the nerve to tackle US highway one by bicycle.

With bicycles now something of a novelty in the United States, a folding bicycle is akin to the sort of novelty that might fall from a McDonald’s Happy Meal.

Folding bicycles are not yet part of the American Dream, although the day of enlightenment might come, just as soon as the population is able to work out what they are for.Thus, the visitor tally at the Round*Up show proves something of a disappointment, particularly as many of the visitors turn out, on closer inspection, to be A to B readers, rather than folding newbies.

A to B magazine, Round*Up 2003Without exception, the select band of US A to B readers (literally one in million on the statistical evidence) prove to be a delightfully charming and urbane bunch. This is fortunate, for at Round*Up they find themselves face to face with a group of equally pleasant, but distinctly potty foreigners, who mostly appear to be intent on selling them folding bicycle trailers.

At around lunchtime on Day One, we make a soggy procession up Market Street, pausing only to retrieve bits of folding trailer sucked into the paths of taxicabs by the fearsome jetstreams of rain.

US mayors are made of strong stuff, but the Philadelphian incumbent takes refuge amongst his aides as our strange caravan files into a marquee on the steps of City Hall. There follow a number of the usual speeches – grateful thanks, shame about the weather, new era in transportation, etc – during which it slowly dawns that this is Philadelphia’s primary Bike to Work Week event, and our small group of potty foreigners is the primary exhibit. “…this is the primary Bike to Work event… and our small group of potty foreigners is the primary exhibit

Of local bicyclists we see none, although a number of advocacy groups have turned out, and they are all busily advocating this and that to the potty foreigners, who are trying to sell them trailers. Meanwhile, at the other end of the tent, the official stuffed shirts are calling for tolerance, in grim tones.

It appears that bicycle/auto relations have plumbed new lows in the city, although one doubts whether the average citizen would be able to recall the last time they saw a bicycle, let alone engaged in kerbside argy-bargy.

A number of bemused TV crews dutifully film the folding bikes folding and unfolding, and the trailers doing whatever it is that folding trailers do, before the mayor paints a small section of the rather optimistically-inclined bicycle mural, then legs it back to City Hall, leaving the foreign bicyclists to trudge gloomily out into the rain.

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‘Wandering’ Hanz Scholtz and Lynette Chiang of Bike Friday

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The mayor of Philadelphia works on the cycling mural

Days Two and Three prove equally entertaining, with talks from Bike Friday’s roving ambassador ‘Wandering’ Hanz Scholtz  and marketing sidekick Lynette Chiang,  who will need no introduction to long- term A to B readers.The following day,  Airframe designer Grahame Herbert arrives, accompanied by his delightfully unflappable wife Lorraine.The pair have ridden for several hundred miles up the coast – a great success as proving runs go, but rather spoilt by unfavourable road conditions.

Cycling in the USA varies, just as it does in overcrowded Britain, although minor roads are generally quieter and less frenetic, if you can find them. Bulky Sports Utility Vehicles are more common of course, as are stretched limousines and other More colour images at oddities.The latest cult urban attack vehicle is the military Humvee, and its almost unimaginably daft cousin, the stretched Humvee. Yes, for a trifling sum, you can hire one of these monsters and terrify your friends. Or join the mercenary business. Stretched Humvees make an entertaining sight, provided you don’t intend to cross the road.

Urban coup d’état chic is nothing new, but where Brits cheerfully make do with a pair of battle fatigues and an artfully arranged scarf, the Yanks go in for more serious hardware. Love it or hate it, there’s a certain style there.

As US vehicles grow ever larger, so do their occupants. This appears to be an uneven process, for the majority (including 100% of A to B subscribers, naturally) are pleasantly, or at least reasonably slim, but some 20% of the population is now reckoned to be clinically obese, against a piffling 12% in 1991. In a recent US government survey, 27% of recipients admitted that they ‘did not engage in any physical activity’, beyond (one assumes) keeping blood flowing around their vital organs. At the risk of being terribly obvious, perhaps the US should rediscover the bicycle in a hurry?

SS United StatesShould one have time to kill in Philadelphia, the SS United States is well worth a visit. Built in the 1950s, just a decade before the horrors of air travel destroyed the elegant liner trade, the vessel is a rare survivor.Withdrawn from the Southampton to New York run in 1969, she changed hands a number of times, circling the world from shipyard to scrapyard and back, as each project foundered. Finally, stripped to the bones internally, the great liner came home and has been moored on Philadelphia’s Delaware River ever since, awaiting restoration… or the scrapyard. One hopes that one of the various projects will eventually succeed.

…the yanks go in for serious hardware. Love it or hate it, there’s a certain style there…

For liner-geeks, the United States had turbines of 240,000 horse power, offering an unmatched power to weight ratio, and a top speed of 43 knots, or 50mph. She was, however, a tiny bit shorter than the France (now, rather confusingly, called the Norway), or our own dear Queen Mary or Queen Elizabeth, but we shall not dwell on such trifles.

Would today’s jaded air travellers be willing to swap jet lag and deep vein thrombosis for more relaxed travel, one wonders? The market for cruise liners is growing rapidly, but it’s hard to imagine today’s business traveller swapping a six-hour flight for three or more days at sea. Perhaps the liners could be marketed as enforced health camps, offering their captives three days of unrelenting pain in exchange for a few glasses of carrot juice.

cycling-scotlandBut enough of what might be, for we must journey to Scotland, which is visibly pulling clear of our increasingly dis-United Kingdom in transport terms.The latest innovation from north of the Border is a pro-cycling advertisement:Thirty seconds long, the film makes a mockery of those annoying car ads where square-jawed young fellows get the crumpet by driving much too fast on remarkably empty roads. In this memorable example, our hero takes to commuting by bicycle, arriving faster and very obviously getting the crumpet in the shape of a pair – no less – of voluptuous cycle courierettes. Cycle commuting has been on the rise for some years in urban Scotland – up 38% in Glasgow and 65% in Edinburgh during the 1991-2001 census period. Just watch it accelerate now.

It’s hard to imagine anti-car advertisements in a totalitarian state such as England, of course. But in those provincial pockets where the grateful citizenry has cast off the New Labour yoke – London, for example – things are going a little better: A combination of central zone Congestion Charging and widely distributed cycle maps has increased cycle use in central London by 16% in a matter of weeks. Mayor Livingstone, bless his heart, is now enthusiastically pushing for the Charge zone to be extended westwards, with 20mph limits on most residential streets.

Yet even in the capital, research by Transport for London has found that 38% of non- cyclists are ‘worried that friends will laugh at them’ should they try cycling. A case for TV advertising, surely?

But we shouldn’t believe everything the authorities tell us. Readers may recall the graph in A to B 30 drawn from Department for Transport statistics, showing cycle use plummeting by more than 10% in seven years. Following a mysterious hiatus, the figures have been reissued as a 10% rise in the same period.Well, fancy that! But wait…. in the same bulletin, provisional results for early 2003 are indicating a renewed and even more catastrophic fall of 11%. Sometimes you just wish Tony would make up his mind!