Un-American Cycling Part 1: Riding A Bike In Cambridge, England

I recently traveled to a foreign country (no, not Canada, that doesn’t really count) and I rode several different bikes there. I have lived to tell the tale. I visited two cities in England: Cambridge and London. First, let’s take a look at Cambridge.

Cambridge is the home of The University of Cambridge. It’s old – 13th century old. The University is made up of many different “colleges” including Darwin College, where Spouse was attending a conference and I was lucky enough to tag along for a ride. Un-American fact #1 about The University of Cambridge: Darwin College? Darwin? You think that shit would fly in God’s United States? I don’t think so.


This is the logo for the Darwin College Student Association. Not only does it reference a godless idea like evolution, it also implies that some students may want to “walk in their own direction!”

Along with godless logos, there were also tons of beautiful old buildings all over the place. I probably should have taken a bunch of pictures of old stuff while I was there, but I always feel a little odd doing that. So, take a moment and go to your favorite internet search engine; type “University of Cambridge” and search images. Now look at all the pretty buildings for a few minutes and then come back here.

Nice, right?

Instead, I take pictures of bike stuff – even then, I should have taken more so I could capture the state of the “bike culture” there. So I’ll have to describe the bike culture using boring old words. Bikes are big in Cambridge. Estimates vary, but Cambridge may have the highest bike mode share of any city in the UK. Depending on who you believe, bicycle commuters make up somewhere between 20-30% of the people getting to work on a regular basis. (For g-d’s sake, don’t quote me on this, go find something authoritative). All I know is that bikes were everywhere. And while Cambridge is certainly a college town, it’s definitely not just University students who are riding bikes. I saw many bakfietsen out on the streets of Cambridge, usually piloted by a woman between the ages of 25 – 40, often with a small child or children riding happily in the box. Here’s a bakfiets parked at Darwin College:

Bakfiets at Darwin College

Bakfiets at Darwin College

Even more popular than the bakfiets, I saw many tricycles that looked like a mashup between a bike and a jogging stroller. I’m pretty sure that I was looking at a Zigo Leader Bicycle. They all went by too fast for me to catch a picture, but once again, internet search engine image search comes in handy:


Parents riding around on bikes (or trikes, or whatever), carrying their kids – that’s definitely a sign of a healthy bike culture.

Aside from the abundance of dedicated child-portaging bikes, the bikes in use would not have looked out of place in an American city. That is to say, it was a collection of crappy old mountain bikes & hybrids with the occasional road bike, fixie bike, and BSO thrown in for good measure. The only difference is that the factories in China & Taiwan where these bikes were made put different names on the tubes depending on if they ship them to the US or the UK. Still, a BSO, is a BSO, even if you gussy it up with some fancy custom paint work.

Bicycle Shaped Object

This BSO sports a Rocky-inspired custom decal. APPROVED.

The streets are narrow in Cambridge. How narrow? Imagine that part of Benefit street that is really too narrow to be a two-way street with parking on one side. The part where cars have to pull to the side to let each other pass without hitting each other or the parked cars (but we’d never get rid of the free on-street parking, right?) The streets are even narrower than that.

There’s a fair amount of cycling infrastructure leading into the city center, but not much once you get there. Instead, cyclists navigate narrow streets along with buses and cars that pass very close. At first look, I was a little taken aback by how close the cars are when they pass cyclists. But, I wanted to try it for myself, so I rented (erm, hired) a bicycle for the day and set out.

Part of my bike from City Cycle Hire

Part of my bike from City Cycle Hire

I rented the bike from City Cycle Hire. It was a no-frills hybrid with a 3 by 6 drivetrain, but it had many features that are great for a hired bike in the city.

  • Fenders – important for a wet climate
  • Generator-operated lights – in case you want to get anywhere when the sun is not up
  • Chainguard – to protect your pants from getting grease stains
  • A rack – for carrying items that you might purchase
  • Integrated lock – so the bike doesn’t get stolen

Spouse was busy at a conference, so I had the whole day to explore the city. I had noticed a long, green bike path on the google map, so I set out in that general direction. It turned out to be a popular commuter route between Cambridge and the small village of St. Ives. The bike path went alongside a “guided busway” which is some sort of dedicated bus route where the buses seem to run automatically.

Cambridgeshire guided busway

Cambridgeshire guided busway

The buses zoom along on the special road in between towns with no cars to get in their way, and once they get into town, they drive on the streets like a regular bus. It seems like a smart system that combines some of the best of a commuter rail with the best of a local bus service.

It seems to have been built on a railroad right-of-way, so the path was very flat. Unfortunately, it was also rather boring. Where were the subtle, majestic vistas of the English countryside? Certainly not on the 15 mile stretch of bike path between Cambridge and St. Ives. But there was a free-range chicken farm…

chicken farm outside Cambridge.

chicken farm outside Cambridge.

… and I’m always happy to take pictures of chickens.

The bike path ended at the town of St. Ives. What can I say about St. Ives? I’ll just say that not every small English town is picturesque. I turned around and headed back, and that’s when I noticed that I’d had a slight tailwind on my way out, and now it was hitting my square in the face. I plowed into the wind as best I could, and made it back to the cycle hire store with a few minutes to spare before they closed.

City Cycle Hire was closed the next day, but I found another pleasant little cycle hire shop in the middle of Cambridge. This bike was not quite as nice as the one I had the day previous, but it was serviceable enough. It had finders, wide tires, and a simple 1 X 7 derailleur drivetrain. Before heading out, I stopped near the University to take a few pictures of how people lock their bikes in Cambridge, that is to say, barely.

bike locked in CambridgeMany of the bikes I saw were simply locked to themselves. An enterprising thief could just roll up in a van and pile all the bikes in there and cut the locks at his leisure. (We’re in England here, so be sure to pronounce “leisure” as “LEH-zhur.”) In many cases, the bikes were just propped up next to a wall with the lock casually stuck through a wheel. I thought I had seen some of the worst bike racks in the world, but in Cambridge, they have bike parking facilities that seem to come from the Middle Ages:

That's a bike rack?

That’s a bike rack?

I guess the ring in front of the wheel slot is for Ye Olde Bi-cycle Chaine Locke or something. Here’s how people use these today:

bike in the slotAghast at the state of bike locking in England’s Bike-friendliest City, I set out along the River Cam. I started out on a popular recreational bike path:

River CamPicturesque as all get out, right? How about this:

canal lock on River Cam

Because I was traveling in a foreign land, I only had access to the magic of google maps while I was in range of a friendly wi-fi signal. While I was out on the road, I used a map app I had downloaded to my smartphone. It seemed to indicate a bike route along much of the River Cam. However, the map made little distinction between a bike path and a foot path. After a few miles, the bike path ran out and I found myself on this:

not exactly paved

not exactly paved

Not that I’m complaining, it was actually kind of fun. I’ve always wanted to take a trip on England’s famous network of public footpaths, but that seems like a very slow way to travel. Now I’ve had just a little glimpse of the footpath network and it was pretty sweet. I do realize that they are called “footpaths,” but I didn’t see a sign that said “no bikes allowed” so I just kept going and figured I’d play the dumb foreign tourist card if anyone was upset. I did see this great sign:

free range chicken signUnfortunately, I didn’t see any chickens on this particular property. That’s the funny thing about the public footpath network in England. They are on private property, but the public has the right to access them. As we have learned from a recent US Supreme Court decision, that concept is downright UnAmerican.

Although the route was scenic, riding on the footpath is slow going. Each property has a fence with a complicated gate. It’s not too hard get through on foot, but fitting a bike through was rather difficult. There were also people using the footpath for walking. I would excuse myself as I passed them, apologizing for forcing them to move over on the path. The footpath ramblers would apologize right back at me. It was practically Canadian. Unfortunately, I got to a sign that said “no bikes allowed” and it was on private property, so I decided to turn back.

In the next installment of UnAmerican Cycling, I’ll tell you about the wonders of using a bike share scheme in London. That makes it sound so sinister.

One response to “Un-American Cycling Part 1: Riding A Bike In Cambridge, England

  1. You can be prosecuted for riding in a public footpath in the UK, and it’ll certainly raise the ire of many people who you meet along the way.

    People misunderstand Cambridge. There are very particular reasons for the relatively high cycling modal share of the city. Reasons that cannot be transferred to other cities. For instance, one third of the population are students and for historical reasons dating back to the beginning of car production, students in this city are banned from owning cars. Can you imagine transferring that policy to any other place ? It’s not a place that American cities can usefully learn from.

    I lived in Cambridge for nearly twenty years. Read The Truth about Cambridge and other blog posts about the city.

    Cambridge has the highest cycling modal share of any English speaking city but it’s still a failure. Why ? Because it’s one of the few places which has better demographics for cycling than Groningen (where only a quarter of the population are students), yet Cambridge has a third of the cycling modal share that Groningen has.

    Note that Groningen didn’t need to do something so “Un-American” as ban car ownership to achieve this, it has simply made cycling far more attractive by building proper cycling infrastructure. In fact, all Dutch cities have done this, including average Dutch cities without any student population or other demographic help to boost figures, and almost all of them have higher cycling modal shares than Cambridge.

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