I’m a cyclist. I’m also disabled. Cycling has become the only way I can have some independence and freedom. I cycle to work each day. I can cycle the kids to school. I can cycle to visit friends. I even cycled most of the coast-to-coast this autumn. Walk? Not much, maybe a few 100m on a good day, barely at all on a bad one. Multiple sclerosis takes its toll and creeps up slowly. Cycling is an amazing release for me, as well as a practical way to get around and a way to keep fit. The issues that affect disabled cyclists are both different and the same from those affecting all cyclists but with some thought we can enable many more people to have some of the independence that I still cling onto. With this in mind – flushed with unwarranted confidence after my coast-to-coast outing – I decided that a conference about disabled cycling was something I had to make the effort to attend.
The conference was organised by the inspirational charity, Wheels for Wellbeing, who were celebrating their 10th birthday. Only problem was the conference was in central London, quite a trek from York where I live. No problem of course; as a confident disabled cyclist I would cycle to the station, get the train, and then cycle across London to the conference and back again. Wheels for Wellbeing had put together a fascinating conference and even invited me to be on a panel. I was going both to represent Empowered People, another amazing charity with whom I cycled the coast-to-coast, and the York Cycle Campaign, a local grassroots group representing cycling and cyclists in York.
It was an early start on a chilly November day but first leg was fine. Cycling to York station is easy and the staff were fantastic at getting me and my bike on to the train. Their curiosity at someone using the main line with disability assistance to help with a bike was only mildly disconcerting. The staff at London were equally helpful, though there was a certain irony at being wheelchaired the length of the platform to collect my bike. But before I knew it, I was outside Kings Cross waiting for my Wheels for Wellbeing support rider, Alex.
I lived in London for a few years, but that was the best part of two decades ago. Back then there was no MS, and also no cycling. Cycling in London was a no-go back then but I’d heard big changes have been happening recently, superhighways and the like. Back in 2000, when I lived in London, cars outnumbered bikes in Zone 1 by 10 to 1, but its now approaching 1 to 1 (source: Transport for London, page 9). This is in stark contrast to the rest of the country. London is doing something different, something bolder and people are returning to using bikes for utility (i.e. not needing Lycra). It really is setting the standards at the moment, but now it was time for me to put it to the test.
Alex soon arrived on his folding bike and we were ready to start our route following some of the superhighways and links that connected through quiet streets. The first shock was the sheer number of cyclists! They poured down the dedicated infrastructure, past all the stationary traffic on lanes that were mostly separated from the cars. We rattled our way over London Bridge, past Vauxhall and onwards to City Hall, the conference venue. A spectacular view over the Thames, Tower Bridge and HMS Belfast was my reward.
The conference was fascinating, with interesting talks both political and personal. I heard a lot about how London is increasingly taking cycling seriously as mode of transport. I heard how active transport (e.g. walking and cycling) is a crucial way to counter the growing epidemic of physical inactivity. Wheels for Wellbeing launched their guide for accessible cycling, aimed at local authorities, and how that same accessibility agenda is creating the conditions in London for more and more people to use bikes with trailers (for kids, shopping and pets!) and cargo bikes for work and deliveries. But most of all I met so many amazing people who are cycling as a way of escaping the confines imposed by their disabilities, be they obvious or unseen.
After a brief relax in the pub – I owed Alex a pint after all, probably more so after what was to come – it was back to catch the train. We left an hour and a half for the journey. Alas, it had been an early start and a long day, and I started to struggle. Too many uphill stop starts were taking their toll on my wobbly legs and as we neared Kings Cross they finally gave out. They would not turn the pedals anymore. Less than half an hour to get to the train and I was immobilised.
What happened next was astonishing and heart warming. Firstly we hailed a cab; the driver helped me in with Alex’s folding bike and, followed by Alex on mine, we dashed to the station. Alex went to find the assistance service whilst the driver, protesting that I shouldn’t pay the fare, helped me from the cab. The assistance service then scooped me up, bike and all, and calmly wheeled me to a later train alerting the guard on the way. So an hour after flopping in the street I was tucking into a hot dinner on the train whilst sipping a beer. The ticket inspector merely smiled and commented “I know all about you”. I kept quiet. The staff at York were equally helpful and by that time I had recovered sufficiently to cycle home without further incident.
Safely home again now I reflect on an exciting day out. Would I do it again? Yes, without a doubt. What would I change? Nothing: it was exhilarating, stimulating and a delight to feel nearly independent again. If I didn’t try these things then I would be giving in to my disability and I’m not ready for that. Have you cycled across London after taking the train? I’d recommend it.