Instead of cycling the full Ride the Change route from London to Glasgow, Nicola Baird joined the first two days (135.4 miles). Here she relives the pedally sweat, while wondering how much of a metaphor this truncated journey could become – keen to meet targets, but just not managing because life gets in the way.
There are more than 170 people on Ride the Change’s first day (24 October), with 70 who plan to take the next seven days to cycle 475 miles from London to Scotland. Their aim is to inspire all sorts of people to take climate action before the crucial COP26 climate meeting in Glasgow. Some will be working in the meeting’s Green Zone. Most have jobs in addition to being climate activists… all also have super resilience, spare inner tubes and gadgets that make the navigating a little easier: totting up the miles ridden at the same time as counting down the miles left to go. Analytics will soon become as important as ideas about cutting carbon emissions.
Even amateur long-distance cyclists are watertight planners. Not just their super-technical kit – an ensemble of lycra and high viz suitable for any weather that is likely to be encountered during 70-mile days of pedalling – but also the detail about when to take a break, and what to eat and drink. On the Ride the Change cycle from London to Glasgow where the COP26 meeting is happening (a year late thanks to Covid-19), it’s like joining a group of Olympic athletes who prefer to talk the detail of climate campaigning rather than incremental fitness gains made so popular by Team Sky’s Bradley Wiggins.
Just like the participants of COP26 I started with big ambition. They want to save the world. I just want to do a big cycle ride with likeminded people.
But life gets in the way of the best intentions.
After two days I parked my bike – now with a flat front tyre – at Coventry train station’s cycle racks (which are not even covered!). I’d told friends I was going to Glasgow, but I also knew that there were more important tasks that I needed to do during the same time when I should be pedalling. My heart and legs were willing, but being human I also needed to prioritise a visit to my friend who’d been having a bad time and lives not so far from Coventry. And after that I hoped to visit my daughter who’d just moved to Edinburgh. So, yes, I will get to Scotland, but it will be the wrong city because I’m no longer following the ‘plan’.
This ability to be side-tracked (and put things off) is a massive problem for all us humans when it comes to climate change and COP26. We have the ambition to tackle the climate crisis but repeatedly take detours.
We will hear over the news how the Glasgow meeting goes in early November. We all hope that keeping the temperature below a 1.5C rise will be possible. We want country plans (the NDCs) for 2030, 2040 and even 2050 to be achievable. We must have climate justice and a rejig to our economy so fossil fuel energy comes to a stop. But it’s even easier to deviate and delay if you’re a world leader with competing pressures.
Ride the Change
Sometimes being in a group with a shared aim is truly energising, so long as you stay with the group. For me, the hard work of cycling a long, long way starts the moment we all pass the dramatic backdrops of Westminster Bridge, the Houses of Parliament and Buckingham Palace, because that’s where I lose everyone. I’m not sure I notice this at first as traffic is noisy along London’s busy Edgware Road. I’m concentrating on what’s to come: worrying about traffic, my ability to navigate in the dark and how my bike will cope with big hills and muddy off-road sections. Fortunately Brake the Cycle/Adventure Uncovered, who specialise in cycling holidays, have provided a route which mostly takes us on quieter or flatter directions.
I’m joining for just two days, which will see my very ordinary get-around Finsbury Park bike take me 135.4 miles. We’ll climb up over the Chiltern hills, drop into Oxfordshire and then network over cider and climate chat in the evenings. Some of the group are staying with friends or even camping, although many, like me, have booked into Premier Inns because they let you take your bike into the room. It’s turning into a pricey protest.
The cycling speed and distance is also well outside my comfort zone. I’m used to doing 10 miles max, rather slowly and always punctuated by traffic lights. What’s more I’m 57 years old. But I love being outside and I love talking with people who want to do something about tackling the climate crisis. So for the past two months I’ve been gradually upping my cycle abilities in a bid to have a go at getting to Glasgow. Aside from having to get fitter, it’s not too hard to organise a bike super-service (thank you Finsbury Park Cycles) or ask keen long-distance cyclists to explain the intricacies of Kamoot or Ride with GPS. I also have a few chats about battery life with Just Eat and Deliveroo drivers when we happen to stop at Highbury Corner’s traffic lights - their experience makes me decide that the only way of keeping my phone in juice is to borrow a battery pack.
I also sign up to Strava and discover that every journey can be recorded and analysed for speed and effort. I manage 200km of training in October (Strava has set me the target of 400km) and the generous people using Strava happily offer me “kudos” after every ride, even when it’s clear that I travel at a snail’s pace on my regular route down to Blackfriars Bridge and on to Elephant & Castle. I grow to love this App as it lets me ride freestyle and records the speed and distance in kilometres, which for anyone who thinks imperial (rather than metric) creates an impression that you’re going further and faster. In contrast Garmin and the other devices where you upload a GPX map, will then dictate your route through arrows, voice commands etc. Going off route is greeted with a blare of music and red arrows instructing you to turn back.
Anyone who drives a car will be very familiar with modern mapping systems. But I don’t have a vehicle and am a terrible navigator because I don’t like following a set route when there are distractions – a field of sheep to admire, blackberries to pick etc.
“You’ve got to plan everything,” insists super-cyclist Michael wearing shoes that click on to his bicycle pedals when he shows me how to use a Garmin. Now retired, Michael has cycled from London to Glasgow in just two days (two days!!) and does his best to arm me with technology. But really it’s his wife, Julia, who offers the best takeaway. “You’re sensible and fit, it’ll be fine. Enjoy it!”
Make a pledge
During the training weeks I admit that I begin to lose sight of the mission to encourage friends and family to make a pledge that helps them cut their personal carbon use. Hermione Taylor, who co-founded Do Nation wants the Ride the Change cyclists to collect 3,000 pledges which range from air drying washing (saving half a tonne of CO2e / driving 12,000 miles) to drinking tap water rather than bottled water (cutting out a lifetime of plastic waste). Thankfully some of the riders, especially from sponsor Arup’s team, are brilliant champions for cutting carbon – spurred on by a leader board where the current champion has garnered more than 400 pledges. By the end of Day 2’s gathering in Coventry, Hermione says there are now 3,500 new pledges to save carbon, that’s the equivalent of 1,500 flights to Glasgow. It would be great if readers of this article could have a look at what pledges are on offer, visit www.wearedonation.com/en-gb/do-act for the latest update.
Here’s how my ride went…
Day 1: London to Oxford by bike
London to Oxford is 70.3 miles (or more if you get lost). The map’s already shown that it’s up hill to lunch; downhill after. What I hadn’t realised is that after a gathering of all the cyclists at the Tea House Theatre in Vauxhall and some rousing cheers the group breaks up super fast. By 10am I’m cycling on my own. Deluded (and used to solo training) I assume there must be a group of slower riders behind me and pedal on steadily getting the hang of Ride with GPS as I cross and recross the M1 as we weave out of the suburbs, through a corner of Hertfordshire and into Bucks. The lanes through the wooded Chilterns are full of speeding cars and gated, well-maintained houses but the bonus is repeated views of magnificent red kites. No one seems to be around, though I do almost talk to one person, an elderly lady standing outside her house who congratulates me for being so “energetic”. Through the sweat (which for me collects on my upper lip and then pools in the hollow below my chin so I look as if I’m dribbling) I beam.
Around noon five cyclists shoot past me – at a speed that I absolutely can’t match. Apparently, they had a dramatic tyre blow out near Hendon and after an hour of failing to find the right spare part they manage to patch it with gaffer tape. Patrik Ewe, head of fundraising at the climate charity Possible (founded after the film the Age of Stupid came out), is itching to make up time so he can chat to people over lunch at Wendover Woods. This is why Ride the Change’s bike mechanic, Anna Hughes, who is lugging around two paniers of repair kit and had just helped sort out the blow out, is left behind to look after me. To be given such an experienced long distance cycling nursemaid is a total gift for me, definitely not so fun for Anna. However, as she doesn’t have navigation it’s up to me to shout directions towards her while she keeps the pace from the front. Almost immediately we are gifted by the sight of several red kites, and not long after that a muntjac crosses our route. But mostly we’re just trying to get to lunch…
After a steep and speedy downhill through Wendover beech woods which then have to be grimly climbed back up to reach the lunch point. We are definitely greeted by worried faces: I get the impression that the organisers wonder if they should bundle me and my bike into their van (lent by one of the sponsors Abel and Cole), but we’ve been told repeatedly that this is a “journey not a race” and so they don’t insist. I feel like it would take very little to make me sob. And I can see that Millennial Anna is h-angry, but thankfully two meals have been saved for us and fortunately, as Anna follows a plant based diet, it’s bean stew with vegan cheese and a vegan flapjack. Perfect, except it is getting cold and starting to rain…
In the end Anna and I cycle together for the rest of the day: we don’t make it into Oxford until 7pm just as the speeches are starting. But we get on well (although it must be infuriating for her that as I get more tired I keep reading the map upside down). When the rain starts she explains why she started her Flight Free campaign to encourage people to travel without using planes and racking up their carbon footprint. My family decided to use a plane every 10 years back in 2001, and have managed no problem so far – better in fact as we haven’t flown this year (which would have been the third flight in 20 years). We've also had fabulous staycations and taken the train to Europe. So it’s not a difficult decision to sign up to #flightfree2022 too, as I’m certain I’d have never made it through day one without her thoughtful companionship, which also included fixing my derailleur to make the very lowest gear work again.
We’re only 12 miles from Oxford when the journey starts to get proper tough – this is a 70-miler and I’ve never gone so far before. In fact I’d already done five or six miles that morning getting from home in Finsbury Park to where our ride headed out from the Tea House Theatre in south London. Even on the smooth surface of the national cycle signposted route (basically a main road) it’s hard to keep going. There’s one excitement when we have to dismount at a flood. The past couple of fields have been flooded and now there’s a ford that is out of control. This must happen often as there is also a raised footpath we can just wheel the bikes across, although it is tempting to go straight through. If I had waterproof Ortlieb panniers on either side of both wheels, then it’s possible my bike would have converted into a floating barge and let me drift to Oxford. Instead, we remount by the Old Fisherman pub (no going in) and continue through Shabbington. Over lunch Anna reckoned we could smash 35 miles within three hours so we should pedal until 5.30pm and then have a cup of tea. This target has kept me going, but of course it’s a Sunday and when the clock ticks up to 6pm she looks around and remarks that there’s nowhere to stop, so shall we just keep on after a banana for me and for her the last of her crisps? Agh. I’ve used psychological boosts enough on my family, and now it’s been used on me – strange how the person suggesting the plan (real or not) gives confidence to the others.
We may be in a group but everyone’s journey is inevitably different. Today I am very much a follower, grateful for Anna’s patient expertise and energetic speed setting.
For cyclists and walkers the outskirts of any big town involve complicated crossings of the ring road – but seeing the well-lit bus depot and then the Cowley car plant fills me with a strange joy of familiarity. We’ve nearly made it! Oxford is fortunately a city of cyclists which means we can follow a nifty off-road route that brings us to a hill overlooking the amber glow of the city. There are no obvious spires, and this time I don’t even hear a bell, but it’s as exciting as being in a Philip Pullman storybook looking down on to the city after this long day pedalling.
I keep following Anna’s rear light, slightly bemused by the amount of people and lights on Iffley Road. Back in the mid 1990s I used to work off one side of this road, and live on the other, and it was Sunday dead. Now it is buzzing with people as they wait for their mates picking up kebab and pizza from brightly-lit restaurants. At last we are crossing Magdalen Bridge – there’s no need to detour under the famous Bridge of Sighs - instead we go down High Street, which is definitely is longer than I remember, past students in gowns and stone doorways opening into college quads. A final stop to consult the map and we’re flashing over Folly Bridge towards the White Horse at Tap Social on the Abingdon Road where it seems we are the very last to check in. Oh dear.
Instead of feeling elated – I’ve bloody done it – this just makes me feel like crying. I know, I’m tired and hungry (and will be hungrier still as you can only order food through Deliveroo and I neither have the app nor the space on my phone to download it), but it’s weird to feel like a frustrated teenager ticked off on a list and then forgotten! I need the world to tell me I’ve got here, despite my ineptitude and lack of bike know-how. I’m another one of the great British amateurs who bumble over long distances with just a bit of fishing line (in the modern world this would be a USB rechargeable head torch) to make the world a little bit better for everyone by asking people to acknowledge my effort not with money by making easy-to-do lifestyle changes…
But right now, I just need a slug of water and my kind husband Pete to call me with a short pep talk in which he tells me to (basically) keep on keeping on and get some food. As a West Ham supporter he is no stranger to getting over feeling low. Wheeling my bike down to Oxford’s main station, on the way to the Premier Inn Botley where I’m booked to sleep, I even start to long to find a supermarket (places I normally avoid) so I can buy something to eat – the restaurants of Iffley Road seem like a distant dream now. Luckily, I spot a man with a tell-tale Ride the Change green wrist band eating from a giant plate. He’s inside a little Keralan restaurant serving delicious vegetarian Thali so I chain up my bike, go inside and order just what he’s got. Nev is from Cornwall and a reluctant chatterer but he mentions that his companion for a little while (until he went off without her), Anne is in a similar age group to us three. I’ve got a new target for tomorrow: I will find Anne and cycle with her.
Day 2: Oxford to Coventry by bike
At 6.40 am I’m in the Premier Inn restaurant getting black coffee when I spot a cheerful looking woman who might be Anne Dixon And it is: what a marvellous moment it is when she says she’d be happy to team up with me today – it seems like she also rode much of yesterday on her own.
The morning starts dramatically as within 10 minutes a Balliol student has fallen off his e-scooter and is lying on the cycle path on Banbury Road between me and Anne. For the next half hour, we keep his airway clear, stop the bleeding over his brow and keep him calm. An ambulance is called which gives us the opportunity to leave unlucky George. He probably tumbled off at 10mph, but a whack like that on your head is going to put you in A&E at the least. It’s unnerving and I dearly hope he’s recovering well.
There’s a lot of blood this morning – the busy A road out of Oxford which passes Blenheim Palace is littered with roadkill, mostly scattered bits of pheasants, but I also see a debrained rabbit and at one slight bend, two fallow deer are piled on top of each other on the verge, presumably dragged off the road after they were struck by vehicles. I’m very glad I opted for a bright yellow cycle jacket, as one momentary mistake has such serious consequences for anyone not in a vehicle.
Soon we join some quieter roads and have plenty of chances to chat. Anne, who has four grown up children, has been practising around the Isle of Thanet, in Kent, and is great company. She says that the Ride the Change group WhatsApp has concluded that the right amount of bikes for a keen cyclist is always one more than you have. Obviously, you want to be able to lend a bike to a friend, but there’s also the desire to have a road bike, and maybe an off-road bike, and a fold-up bike and perhaps even an e-bike. Four bikes! And then I realise that over the years I’ve bought all the bikes in my household so that each family member (Pete and our two daughters) can have their own wheels.
We keep being passed, and then passing, other groups on Ride The Change today as they stop for water, chats and repairs, which is a good morale boost. As well as overhearing all sorts of interesting ideas about carbon capture, carbon counting and cycle journeys that negate the need for a plane, Anne and I chat away the miles.
After veggie burritos at the hugely popular Lock 29 street eating stalls for lunch there’s a tough pedal up the long hill out of Banbury over hedge cuttings (which will lead to many punctures, although fortunately not for me until the day after this ride) and by estates of new housing. Eventually we’re rewarded with a stretch of broad road with 60 or 70 mile views to the east and west. On this bright autumn October day, it is a completely beautiful landscape. The cars keep whizzing past, but there aren’t too many and distractions include side noises of a fox hunt and then to my companion Anne’s delight the sighting of a campervan sales centre. She hops off to send selfies by their King Campervan sign to her family, which results in a flurry of excited WhatsApp back.
The afternoon pedal is a real joy. We’re into Warwickshire and the landscape and villages are just so perfect…. Until we hit the temporary road signs directing construction traffic for the HS2 railway. What a mess this is: infrastructure that will get travellers from London to the Midlands faster at a cost of at least £22 billion more than the original budget. HS2’s website is convinced the project will create the world’s most environmentally friendly station (see the virtual tour and signs outside Euston) and is tackling climate change… but that’s hard for me to understand. Where it’s being built across the countryside, the place looks an unfinished mess of mud. Near Leamington Spa there’s a plaque put up to the spot where the 300-year-old Hunningham oak was felled. At least 29 hectares of ancient woodland, around 80 football pitches, (though campaigners say this is an under-estimate) have been cleared and there are barriers everywhere behind which diggers stalk the skyline.
It’s also difficult to understand the scale of this project, but it brings home the need for anyone without a financial stake in it to be offering an alternative vision of sustainable green jobs. With so much focus on the world's rising temperature and the climate crisis there should be no projects that either continue to make use of fossil fuels (especially coal mines in Cumbria or Cambo oil in Shetland) or that destroy biodiversity (road and train track construction) allowed to go ahead. On this bike ride we do use quite a few national cycle routes, but most are repurposed train lines, invariably closed by Beeching in the 1950s, which is rather different to arrow-straight new built roads/rail that split up this bit of the countryside from that bit.
It’s 5pm and Anne, riding in front, points up and east towards a surprise rainbow. There’s no rain, it’s just an arch of colours dominating the valley as we come out of Stoneleigh. it's also where we are joined by Craig on his electric cargo bike. Craig is on a mission to get more people in the NHS using e-bikes. All too soon we’re on the edge of urban: there’s an airport, and an ensemble of newly-built roads taking us up the hill to Coventry. One of the road bridges has a line of healthy-looking reeds growing on it, probably by happenstance rather than an attempt to make a New York High-Line. Our destination is the Tin Theatre in Coventry’s canal basin where a curry dinner is promised, but first we have to do a loop past the famously bombed-out cathedral arriving just as the sun sets and turns the empty window arches into a perfect frame for conversation.
City centre Coventry has had a big pedestrian push, although cars are still flowing through it. There’s also good signage, a Medieval street to enjoy and in one of the open shopping centres a children’s playground is the central attraction. I’ll be stopping here – on a good note today. I'm feeling tired but satisfied, and proud of the porridge power that’s taken me so many miles. I don’t feel sweaty or too stiff either which just goes to show that maybe a short cycle ride from home or a tube station/bus stop to work might be pretty easy to do if you’ve never tried it before. Especially if you can use an e-bike.
What happens next?
My two days with these cyclists may have come to an end but like them I’ll keep talking about ways anyone can tackle their carbon emissions, just by making a pledge on the Do Nation site.
Not making the whole route has a strange parallel with the way the COP26 meeting is going. Governments want to do the right thing but are distracted by costs, political alignments and popularity. In the same way I’ve stopped for personal reasons: keen to save on hotel bills and then distracted by being so close to a friend who lives nearby and has been having a tough time. Climate change hasn’t gone away. But I’ve stepped away from it for a moment.
UPDATE: Or rather I stepped right into it as amber (danger to life) weather warnings for the north of England from the Met Office - and nine flood warnings and 15 flood alerts from the Environment Agency - meant that my attempt to take a pre-booked train on Thursday from the Midlands up to Edinburgh was stopped. For years people wouldn't link weather with the climate crisis, but now it is likely that as the temperature rises we will see more, and more intense storms. As a train user all I knew was that f]rom early morning on 28 October, Avanti had nothing running beyond Preston, or was it Carlisle? Information for train users not logged on to Twitter was unclear, other than the "service was in chaos" thanks to "landslides", "floods" and even "faults on the train" (I think the latter was a PR damage limitation sentence). All that time the intrepid all-the-way-to-Glasgow cyclists were battling through vast amounts of rain, and flooding to keep to their schedule and get to Kelvingrove Park for the Saturday morning marches on 30 October. Meanwhile I gave up going North at Crewe, found a train back to Coventry, unlocked my bike and then took another train South back to London. It is sobering that my 134.5 mile, two day route to Coventry can be done in just an hour on the train.
Regardless of our level of climate action (or activism) there will be times when we can’t keep up the pace. And that’s OK. But after we’ve taken that breather, we need to come back to the original plan and make more and better changes that will help us all tackle climate change.
The world will be judging how the COP26 meeting goes, just as it did for Copenhagen (fail) and Paris (success). We all hope that keeping the temperature below a 1.5C temperature will be possible. We want country plans (the NDCs) for 2030, 2040 and even 2050 to be achievable and are perhaps getting our heads around the way this will mean living life differently. We need our governments to commit in word and deed (cash!) to climate justice and intergenerational justice – and they may all manage that. But first we need to rejig our economy so fossil fuel energy comes to a stop. And that is probably the hardest of all future tasks because life is going to look very different in just a few years’ time whether we aim for zero carbon or keep on stalling on real action. Whatever route the COP26 takes us, good luck to us all.
A special thank you to Anna Hughes, Anne Dixon and Pete May as well as the Ride The Change group.
- Support Ride the Change: cycle to COP26 with a small eco action (or more) which cuts your carbon emissions. You have to make an account so that in two months time you can confirm that you did what you promised! Pledge here or make your own at www.wearedonation.com
- Ride the Change is a collaboration between Possible, Do Nation, Adventure Uncovered, Brake the Cycle and Arup with headline sponsor Abel & Cole, silver sponsor Symprove and bronze sponsors, Cayley Coughtrie and AECOM. This is the biggest ride that Do Nation and Adventure Uncovered have ever organised and people from the NHS, Arup, Unilever, AECOM, C-Capture, Leap Eco, CRA, Anthesis, Abel & Cole, Brompton and Lego joined legs of the journey as well.
- Pledge to be flight free (for 2020, for your holidays, for life) at https://flightfree.co.uk #flightfree2020