Cycling culture – a tale of 2 cities


I enjoyed a recent holiday down to the Cotswolds full of intentions of cycling as a way to see local towns and villages.

Unfortunately I didn’t get the chance to go cycling myself, but on a day trip out to Oxford I did experience a whole new cycling culture that I had previously only heard of through the joys of the internet.

I don’t know what Oxford was like previously but on the way into the town there were a lot of road works going on which were apparently to make the approach and busy roads and roundabout much more cycle friendly. I discovered that there has been quite a lot of work going on to make Oxford a more cycle friendly place and it did show. All the way in there were separate off-road routes for cycling which were really busy.

However it was when we were walking around sightseeing that I was first struck by how different things were, the huge amount of bikes and cyclists was the first thing. There were masses of bikes parked outside all the major buildings and there was never more than 20 seconds between seeing one cyclist on the road and then another coming along. It was all quite magical.

It took me a few hours of watching this go on as I played tourist before the next thing struck me. I rarely saw any helmets, hi-viz and didn’t see any lycra while I was in town. Every cyclist I saw was on some form of commuter bike and dressed in their daily work/life clothes.

Another thing which was strange, I don’t remember seeing cycle lanes painted on the roads.

This did strike me as very different as it’s chalk and cheese from my daily cycling experiences and I drove my wife nuts all day commenting on and talking about what we were seeing. Commenting on how the ratio of cars and bikes looked like bikes were winning about 60/40 and how everyone seemed to be getting on, no squabbles, no rude gestures and no motorists cutting up cyclists (unfortunately I did see some cyclists who didn’t feel that road safety was their concern but that’s another story).

Where were the lycra clad speedsters on the road being cut off by cars? Where were the commuters with pannier bags and hi-viz water proofs?

I was really having a blast, I felt like a proper tourist staring at all these strange cyclists and their bikes. Most of which looked completely abused, ancient and in need of a serious bike mechanic and no one seemed to be carrying anything bigger than a standard rucksack.

It was all very strange and meant that for the rest of the day I was on high alert watching for cyclists and cycling.

On the way back out of the city in the late afternoon was when the second revelation struck. Those off-road cycle paths I had spoken about, I now realised were full of the cyclists I’m used to seeing, the hi-viz, the helmets and the pannier bags. What was going on?

As soon as we were home I had to hit the internet to find out more and I spoke to my friend who is passionate about bringing this type of Dutch bike culture to the UK and what I discovered was that Oxford very cleverly caters for both types of cyclists. There are routes with busier roads and cycle lanes and off-road routes running around the city catering for the cyclists that maybe have a longer commute, want to go faster or are more confident. Then there is the culture of cycling I saw in the centre where most of the cyclists are only doing short journeys and the roads are quieter and slower. This is all possible because Oxford City Council made the deliberate decision to make their town a much more cycle friendly place in the effort to encourage more people to cycle. They even set aside £400,000 to make this possible.

All of this not only shows up the very different needs of different cyclists, but has also encouraged a lot more people to make those short journeys by bike rather than be afraid.

It really was a fantastic introduction to different cycle cultures and inspiring see what can be done.

Lastly, I didn’t manage to take any photos when I was out and about so I want to acknowledge Tejvan Pettinger who has these fab photos and many more available for use on his flickr account.


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