One of the reasons I was keen to move back up to my native north of England a few years ago was the chance to go riding out into the hills right from my door, without having to do battle with 20 miles of London sprawl first.
Little did I know when I put my bike on the Pendolino back then that there would come a day when I’d be nostalgic for cycling in London.
But that day came on Monday teatime, when I nearly came a cropper twice on my two-mile commute home to Old Trafford.
Manchester city centre is an absolute state right now. A huge sinkhole has closed much of the Mancunian Way, the key flyover; the city centre is paralysed by construction works for the second city crossing of the Metrolink; the university corridor of Oxford Road is closed while a footbridge is being demolished and roadworks have brought Trinity Way down to a single lane near Manchester Arena and Victoria station.
Normally when roadworks are at their worst I would encourage everyone to swap their car for a bike so that they can zip smugly through the queues, but Monday changed my mind. As things stand, I could only really recommend cycling in the city when the roads are closed, like on the Sky Ride earlier this month.
I left the Guardian’s office on Deansgate at 6pm to find the street in paralysis, the air thick with fumes and bad tempers. At the first lights I managed to inveigle my way into the tiny section of the advanced stop box that hadn’t been colonised by cars, buses and trucks, and turned to my neighbour and said: “Aren’t you glad you’re not in a car, eh?” To which he said: “I’ll just be glad if I get home alive tonight.”
He had a point. By the time I’d got half a mile down the road I had been almost hit twice. Once almost exactly at the spot where my friend Alex lost a chunk of her thigh a few years ago when an idiot pulled out without looking. At least in London, by the time I left in 2013 anyway, drivers no longer looked surprised to see you there on two wheels. And I’m sure there weren’t quite as many pot holes in the capital.
It got me thinking. Too many of my Mancunian friends have been knocked off their bikes of late. One of the most experienced women in my club, a skilled rider who has safely completed a 400km audax on her own, has been hit twice this year. A lovely lad from the Rapha shop in town ended up on the windscreen of a car driven by someone who wasn’t looking where they were going. In January Artur Piotr Ruszel, aged 45, was killed cycling along Upper Brook Street towards the junction with Brunswick Street. In August 2013 Jaye Bloomfield, 44, died instantly after being hit on her bike on a pedestrian crossing in Hulme, near the Mancunian Way.
There are bike lanes in Manchester, but they are mostly totally inadequate. Even the rare segregated ones — like the section of the A56 heading from Deansgate towards the ugly big roundabout — have been designed by numbskulls, merrily crossing sections of road where drivers have to pull in or out.
And don’t get me started on the one-way system. The other night I pedalled from work to the Northern Quarter, where I was hosting a discussion for Guardian Events about women and cycling. Try as I might I just could not figure out how to get to Edge Street without going up at least one street the wrong way on the one-mile journey. It also involved crossing tram tracks: one of the most terrifying experiences known to cyclists.
Rather than spending money properly re-thinking the city’s streets to be more bike friendly, Transport for Greater Manchester pours money into silly schemes like the Cycle Hub in Piccadilly Gardens, where cyclists are asked for £100 a year just to park their bike somewhere safe. We don’t have a proper cycle hire scheme either. Just the Brompton Dock at Piccadilly, which is the runtiest of minnows compared with London’s Boris Bikes or even Liverpool’s Bike N Go.
Add in woefully inadequate bike parking — at its worst outside Piccadilly Station on Fairfield street, where angry signs warn you that your bike will be removed if you dare to chain it to the railings by the taxi rank when the tiny handful of racks are already full — and you have a perfectly toxic combination which I’m sad to say currently makes Manchester, home to British Cycling, Team Sky and one of the world’s best velodromes, a terrible cycling city.