Campaign to Maintain Kennet & Avon Towpath

Here at Spokes, we’ve become increasingly concerned about the sustained lack of maintenance of the Kennet and Avon Towpath, particularly the rural stretches out towards Marsh Benham and to the east of Colthrop. Despite forming part of National Cycle Network Route 4, the path has been left to degrade to such an extent that we now consider it to be inherently unsafe.

When the path was originally constructed it was 1.5 – 2m wide for most of its length, even in the more rural areas. However, the grass has encroached to such an extent that it is now less than 0.3m wide in places, with a pronounced lip on either side. This makes it virtually unusable by anyone on a bike, since it is very easy for a wheel to catch the lip and unseat the rider. We have spoken to several people who indicated that they or a member of their party had fallen off on these sections.

The path also suffers from poor drainage. Given that it is nothing more than a rut in the grassy bank, it is not surprising that it fills with water whenever it rains. This conceals the true extent of the hazard and leaves a muddy, slippery mess as it dries, which makes it even more difficult to navigate on a bike. What’s more, there are several sections where large notches have been eroded in the bank and cut into the path.  If you are not looking for them, then it would be very easy to ride into one and fall straight into the canal.

This is completely unacceptable. If this was a road, it would not be allowed to fall into such disrepair. Cyclists should expect similar maintenance standards of maintenance to be applied to ensure their safety on these sections of the National Cycle Network, which is popular with leisure cyclists and families.

We are aware that developer contributions have just been made available from the Newbury Racecourse development to improve the section of the towpath between Newbury and Thatcham, which is very welcome and we look forward to these sections being repaired and upgraded.  However, this should not be allowed to distract from maintenance liabilities on the other sections of route.

We appreciate that funding and resources may be tight, but the Canal and River Trust still have a duty of care to the users of their towpath, including cyclists. We have contacted the Waterway Manager for the Kennet & Avon to highlight the problem and to ask that they take urgent action. We have also suggested that they could pool resources with Sustrans and West Berkshire Council. The Council has been very responsive with Cllr Ardagh-Walter inviting the Waterway Manager to the next meeting of the Cycle Forum in December and suggesting that we could undertake a more detailed audit of the route to help the Trust.

If you would like to add your voice to the campaign, we would suggest that you contact the Canal & River Trust directly by emailing: enquiries.kennetavon@canalrivertrust.org.uk

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Dr Bike – Free Bike Checks in Newbury on 28 October

two people fixing bikes

Are your brakes making funny noises? Are your gears a bit clunky and don’t change when you want to? Do you wish you could mend a puncture? Then bring your bike to Newbury Town Hall between 9.30am and 2.30pm on Saturday 28 October and we’ll check it over, make adjustments and teach you how to maintain your bike.

While most of us recognise the need to keep our cars maintained in order to keep them running efficiently and pass their MOTs, we are often not so good about keeping on top of our bike maintenance. We are always spotting people out on bikes that have a variety of maintenance issues from minor niggles to more serious problems that could be putting their safety at risk.

Thankfully, bikes (with a few notable exceptions) are fairly simple machines and the most common maintenance tasks can easily be carried out with a minimum of tools. Our Cytech accredited cycle mechanics will be available to show you how to check your bikes for faults, make adjustments where required and advise on any repairs that needs to be carried out.

Remember that all Spokes members get 10% off parts at several local bike shops, so if you do need any repairs, then you can be sure of getting good value for money while supporting a local business.

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Social bike rides for 2017

We have been busy over the winter months putting together our programme of led bike rides for 2017. Our fun, friendly, social rides take place on the first and third Saturdays of each month from March through to October. Led by volunteers, our rides take in some of the most beautiful scenery in West Berkshire, Hampshire and Wiltshire.

The routes on the first Saturday of each month are shorter (11 to 17 miles) and we tend to go at a gentle pace of 9-11 mph. As such, they are ideal for new / returning cyclists, or people who just want a more relaxed ride.

If you would like a longer, more challenging ride, then take a look at the second of our rides each month.  These have routes ranging from 27 to 38 miles and we generally go at a slightly faster pace of around 12-14 mph. These are intended for more regular riders who are reasonably fit and don’t mind a bit of the hilly stuff.  If you want a real challenge, then why not sign up for ‘William’s Big Wheel’ – a 57 mile epic into deepest, darkest Hampshire.

All rides start and finish in West Mills, Newbury. We meet by the war memorial between Lloyds bank and St Nicholas’ Church. Our start time is usually 9.30 am, with the exception of ‘William’s Big Wheel’ which sets off at 9 am sharp.

We try to ensure that everyone has an enjoyable time on our rides. For example, hills can be taken at your own pace and we don’t rush off once the last person reaches the summit. Unfortunately, punctures can and do happen, so we ask all riders to bring a spare inner tube. Don’t worry if you don’t know how to change a tyre – we can help / advise as necessary.

Please note that places are limited to 12 people on each ride, so we do ask that you book your place in advance at letsride.co.uk to avoid disappointment. It also helps us to know who to expect so we don’t set off without you. Also, any under 16s must be accompanied by an adult who is able to take responsibility for them.

If you want any further information about our rides, then please do get in touch. We look forward to seeing you and hope you enjoy the rides!

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The Spokes guide to electric bikes

Moustache Lundi Electric Bike

Would you like to cycle, but find that hills are a problem? Do you struggle to keep up with friends or family when out on a ride?  Or do you just hate cycling somewhere only to arrive at your destination all hot and sweaty?  If you answered “yes” to any of these, then an electric bike may be just what you’re looking for.

When one of our members asked us about electric bikes, we had to admit that we didn’t know too much about them. So in order to address this gap in our knowledge, we turned to expert Nick Williams, who runs local e-bike shop, Velospeed. Based in Aldworth, opposite the Bell Inn, Nick sells a range of bikes including:

  • practical bikes for everyday transport;
  • sporty urban bikes;
  • hybrids / trekking bikes;
  • mountain bikes (including hard-tails and full-suspension versions).

He even stocks a sturdy cargo bike that can transport payloads of up to 150kg!

So the first thing we wanted to know was, “how do they work?” E-bikes are powered by an intelligent electric motor, which is either built into the hub to drive the wheel directly, or else located around the bottom bracket to drive the cranks. Depending on the level of sophistication of the motor, it either has a motion sensor or a torque sensor, so it only provides power when you start pedalling.  Most e-bikes have a control on the handlebars that allows the rider to select the level of assistance they require, or even turn it off completely. Hub motors tend to be found on the cheaper bikes, while the more expensive ones have the more sophisticated bottom bracket motors.

We were also curious to know how fast they went. Nick explained that legally all electric bikes are required to stop providing assistance at 25 kilometres per hour (15.5 mph). You can, of course, keep pedalling and go faster, but the bike won’t be helping.

Our next question was, “what is the range of an electric bike?” This is a tough one to answer, since it depends on the bike, the battery, how much assistance you require and how many hills you encounter along the way. However, most people can expect to get 25 to 40 miles on a typical ride. If you are reasonably fit and use a low level of assistance, then you can eke this out to anything between 60 and 90 miles.

E-bikes mostly use lithium-ion batteries. These can be plugged into the mains and are charged like a laptop or mobile phone.  Depending on the model, they will take 3-6 hours to reach full charge from flat.  The cost is surprisingly reasonable at between 5 and 10 pence per charge.  Early electric bikes suffered with unsightly, bulky battery packs that spoiled the lines of the bike, but these days, they tend to be much sleeker and better integrated with the frame.

So how reliable are they? Nick reports that his customers have experienced very few problems with either the motors or the batteries and there is no additional day-to-day maintenance required. The batteries are swappable, but they are quite expensive.

With all our questions answered, it was time to give them a spin. One of the advantages of having a bike shop in Aldworth is that there are plenty of hills around. This allowed us to quickly assess the benefits of an e-bike.

The first bike we tried was a Momentum Upstart, which is a fairly traditional looking bike with an upright riding position. At £1,000 it is at the lower end of the e-bike market. This Chinese-made machine has a hub motor with a two-speed rear hub that changes gear automatically as your speed increases. The limited range of gears means that it is best suited as an urban commuter bike. However, even with relatively high gearing, it still made light work of the hills around Aldworth.

Next on the list was the Moustache Lundi. Moustache is the main brand that Velospeed stocks. All of their bikes are crank driven by a Bosch motor and battery pack, which is a highly reliable system that is used in many of the top electric bikes. As a dedicated e-bike brand, they design all of their bikes from scratch, and are happy to question traditional road bike design. Certainly, the Lundi looks unlike most other bikes on the road. It has a box-section frame with a step-through design, integral lighting and Y-shaped handlebars, which produces an upright riding position. On this model, the battery is nicely integrated into the rear luggage rack. The model we tested had the 8-speed Alfine hub gears which gave a nice spread of ratios and made for very smooth shifting. This certainly felt a step up from the Momentum that we tested earlier.  Everything about it felt reassuringly solid and well-considered, but then so it should, since the cost is just over £3,000 for this top-of-the-range version.

If the Lundi is a little bit ‘out-there’ in terms of its design, then there is a whole host of other models available, such as the sporty urban ‘Friday’ model (shouldn’t that be Vendredi?), the Samedi trekking / hybrid bikes and the Dimanche ‘performance bikes’. These come in a range of variants costing between £1,800 and £4,000.

The last bike that we tried was the Samedi full-suspension mountain bike. Gary Fisher (known in the industry as the inventor of the mountain bike) has been quoted as saying that electric mountain bikes will be “the next big thing”, so we were keen to give these a try. With big fat tyres running at ridiculously low pressures, this was surely a step too far. But no, it steamed up the hill, gliding over potholes as though they weren’t there.

Overall, we were really impressed with our first experiences of electric bikes. While they may be more expensive than their conventional counterparts, there is no doubting the sophistication of the technology that’s involved or the quality of the designs. If you have any lingering doubts, then a visit to Velospeed will quickly put put your mind at rest.

And to those of you who say that an electric bike is just cheating, we would say that any form of cycling is better for you than sitting in a car. And what’s more, studies show that e-cyclists use their bikes more than people with conventional bikes, and could therefore be more active as a result. So just think about that next time someone breezes past you up a hill!

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Give us your thoughts on ‘quick win’ schemes for cyclists

Cheap Street, Newbury - cyclists exempt from banned right turn

Often, little changes can make a big difference for cyclists – for example, exempting them from a banned right turn, or providing a contra-flow in a one-way street.  These schemes can create useful short-cuts and help to make cycling safer and more attractive for local journeys.

West Berkshire Council has told us that there is money available in this year’s budget for small schemes like these and has asked us for suggestions. Ideas so far include:

  1. In Newbury, allow cyclists to turn right into Cheap Street from Market Street.  This would help cyclists travelling from West Fields to Sainsbury’s and Hambridge Road.
  2. Formally designate Newbury Town Centre as a ‘Pedestrian and Cycle Zone’. Although cycling is already allowed in Bartholomew Street and Northbrook Street, existing signs are confusing.
  3. Where possible, exempt cyclists from one-way restrictions on roads in and around Newbury town centre.
  4. Put direction arrows in each lane on the St John’s Road approach to the Burger King roundabout in Newbury. This would reinforce that the middle lane is for straight ahead movements only. Increasingly, motorists are turning left from the middle lane, which goes against Rule 186 of the Highway Code. This results in cyclists being cut up when they are travelling from St Johns Road to Greenham Road.

If you can think of a small change that would make a big difference to your journey, then please let us know. We can’t promise that they will all see the light of day, since each scheme will be subject to a safety audit and appropriate consultation, but we’re happy to pass on ideas for consideration.

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