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Not so slow tour of Milan (part 2)

Not so slow tour of Milan (part 2)

I woke surprisingly early on my second day in Milan with Italia Slow Tour, looking forward to my visit to Idroscalo. The first day had been busy and this day was to be just as busy. The Idroscalo is an artificial lake constructed in the late 1920s as an airport for seaplanes, however, it is now a park used for recreational and sporting activities. Sometimes known as the “Sea of Milan”, in summer the beach area at Idroscalo is heaving with sunbathers and swimmers, however in November it looked more forlorn. But I wasn’t here to sunbathe.

The Idroscalo

First up was horse riding, and this was a first for me. While I had sat on a horse maybe once or twice, I had never actually ridden one so I was a wee bit apprehensive, but I needn’t have been. I was the guest of Giacche Verdi, which is a non-profit association of “Civil Protection and Environmentalists” who are “working in harmony with the horse, man and nature pursuing concrete objectives and benefits to society”, or at least that’s what their website tells me. I was initially riding along with the President of the Giacche Verdi, but as I don’t speak Italian he passed me on to his translator, who was very friendly and told me more about what they did. However, mostly I was trying to negotiate with my horse which way we were going and who was in charge. I finally came to an accommodation with her (the horse) and was able to give most of my attention to the conversation. Unfortunately this was just before we had to stop, and I was to move on the next part of the tour.

And this is your horse...

Having dismounted from the horse, who was now happily eating, I was introduced to Valeria Manfredda, a post graduate student in the Faculty of Sculpture at Brera Academy of Fine Arts, Milan, who was to show me round the outdoor sculpture park. We looked at a number of sculptures including her own work, Ed ero giovinetta (And I was a young girl), echoing memories of childhood, playing with a pair of tin cans on a length of string. She also showed me a number of other art works by other students and told me a wee bit about each one.

Discussing art with Valeria Manfredda

Following this arty interlude, I was pleased to be lent a bike to continue the tour of Idroscalo in the company of my guide Gianfranco of Italia Slow Tour. As bikes go, it was nothing special, just an eight speed hybrid, but for the purpose of seeing the area it was ideal. Next activity on the list was kayaking with the Idroscalo Club, here again was an activity which I hadn’t engaged in since I was at university. Getting kitted up I asked to have a spraydeck, half expecting to be told that that was something they wouldn’t give a beginner. The purpose of www.realrecipe.net the spraydeck is to stop water landing in your lap while paddling, but should you capsize, it can trap an inexperienced paddler upside down in the kayak. Experienced paddlers know how to release the spraydeck with their knees if they absolutely have to, although most would try to roll upright first or signal to be rescued by a buddy. So I was happy to be given a neoprene spraydeck, which kept me warm and dry.

Paddling at on the Idroscalo

Paddling away from the dock I was surprised by how quickly things came back to me, apparently it is rather like riding a bike, once learned you never forget how to paddle in a straight line. The senior coach from Idroscalo Club was accompanying me and telling me a about the lake and pointing out the concert stage on the west bank, I had been wondering what it was. It was notable how quiet the area was in late autumn compared with what it must be like in summer. We were the only ones out paddling, but there were a great number of water craft laid up on the shore.

Back on dry land, it was back on the bike to continue the circumnavigation of the lake. Part way along, I spotted a mountain bike pump track and, despite being on borrowed hybrid bikes, this was an opportunity not to be missed. So we turned off and took in a circuit of the track, which was great fun and just had to be done.

Hire bike

Then onwards to lunch, where I was the guest of the AS Rugby Milano rugby club. When we arrived there was an under 15’s match just starting. It was interesting to see that they were playing on an artificial pitch, so not the muddy extravaganza of the school boy rugby of my youth. Inside the club house the food was excellent, and so was the company, but I was surprised the wine was Australian rather than local. Apparently this was in honour of the Southern hemisphere clubs who were on tour in Europe just now. Somehow the conversation turned to politics and I was asked what I thought of Brexit. I explained that Scotland had voted to stay in the EU, but that England and Wales had voted to leave, and that the overall majority leaving had only been <2%. It was suggested that surely the UK didn’t really want to leave and that when it came to it, the UK Parliament would find a way of staying. I could see what they were saying made perfect sense if you were looking at the situation from the outside, and I now began to understand how my Italian friends in Edinburgh used to feel when we asked them about Silvio Berlusconi. So we changed the subject and went back talking about wine and food instead.

Lunch over, we continued our circumnavigation of the Idroscalo. On reaching the far end we stopped a while to watch some wake boarders. There is a lot to see and do at the Idroscalo, even in November. There was still time for some more sightseeing in the centre of Milan, highlights of which included ice cream (an absolute must when in Italy). Also a quick look at Castello Sforzesco from the 15th century, right in the centre of the city, and Sempione Park which is packed with art works, street hawkers, and people just having fun! Oh and it also has free public WiFi.

But as with all good things, my time in Milan had come to an end, and I had to catch a bus back to the airport for the flight home. Milan is somewhere I definitely want to return to, there is still so much more to see and do, and I’d like to take Ulli along too, as she would very much enjoy it. My thanks to my guide Gianfranco Nalin and Italia Slow Tour for organising a great weekend break.

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Not so slow tour of Milan (part 1)

Not so slow tour of Milan (part 1)

Looking out into the dusk as I arrived at Malpensa on a mid-November evening, I had moved the hands on my watch forward by an hour, but it looked like the seasons had turned back by about three weeks. On the morning I had left Edinburgh where the trees were bare of leaves and there had been a layer of frost on the roof tops. Yet here in Italy, the trees where still covered with leaves in full, glorious autumn colours, although as darkness fell and the temperature dropped I was aware that winter was coming.

I had arranged to meet friends for dinner at a traditional Italian pizzeria and was delighted to find that, just as in Scotland, the Italians have deep fried pizza: “pizza fritta” (although it is not quite the same as in Scotland). The other thing I learned from this evening was that Milan, like all cities, is not a good place for driving, it took half an hour to cover three Km – I can walk faster than that. Fortunately Milan has excellent public transport with an extensive tram and metro system. Not only that, in the central area there is a bike share scheme called BikeMi, more of which later.

Now Milan is not a small place, to quote Wikipedia “Milan, a metropolis in Italy’s northern Lombardy region, is a global capital of fashion and design”. But there is so much more to it than that, and I had only two days to see it. The hotel I was staying at has bicycles available for guests to borrow, which is great, except for the fact that they had been put away for winter and the only bike available was a single speed with rather strange gearing (rather too high for my high cadence style of riding). No matter, I set off to explore with my guide Gianfranco of Italia Slow Tour who had invited me to be one of their ambassadors.

Not far from the hotel is a cycle path alongside the Naviglio Martesana, a canal supposedly designed by Leonardo Da Vinci, which makes for a pleasant route through the city. However you can’t follow the canal all the away along its original route because in the 1930’s Mussolini covered over much of it to make way for cars (he had similar plans for Venice, but fortunately only managed a small area). However, there is now a plan to re-instate the Naviglio Martesana to its former glory, which will be a great asset to the city.

Cassina de' Pomm

As the canal disappeared underground, at the Cassina de’ Pomm, I took the opportunity to swap the hotel bike for a BikeMi bike at the first rental station we encountered. The hire process was very simple, swipe the card I was given at the info post, choose your language, select the type of bike (either classic or e-bike), and it then tells you the number of the bike to take. Over the course of the day I tried both types of bike, the yellow classic bikes www.garida.net have three gears and are fine for city riding. The red e-bikes are single speed and have an electric motor on the front hub which kicks in (and out) by itself. This can be a wee bit disconcerting, and I prefer the classic bike. We continued the tour using Milan’s network of cycle tracks, some of which were better than others, it’s not all like the photo below 😉

Cycle lanes of Milan

There are other signs that the City is looking to a greener future, such as the Bosco verticale (the Vertical Forest) which consists of two residential tower blocks that are home to 730 trees. Unfortunately there wasn’t time to get any closer, but it is something I would like to come back to see more of, one day.

Bosco verticale

Although much of the Naviglio Martesana is underground these days, there are still bits of it to see in places, such as at the Porte Vinciane where the lock gates, originally designed by Leonardo de Vinci, are forlornly stranded without water. If the canal were to be re-instated as planned, this could be a great asset to the area. Later in the day I was to meet Professor Flavio Boscacci from the Polytechnic of Milan who is planning to bring back the canals, not just as a nice water feature for the city, www.hayamix.com but as a functional means of transport. Rather in the same way as the Union Canal was restored in Scotland as a Millennium Project. Professor Boscacci is also a proponent of “slow tourism” and has helped to develop a cycle route along the Via Francigena pilgrims’ route from Canterbury to Rome – fuelled by the best rustic food and drink, according to the website. Following the cycle route into town shows Milan to be a fascinating mix of the old and the new. The bicycle is an ideal way to explore the city.

Porte Vinciane on the course of the old canal in Milan

Cycle lanes of Milan

One of the hidden gems of Milan which most tourists miss out on is the Brera Botanical Garden, tucked away behind the Brera Palace, which includes the Brera Pinacoteca, the Astronomical Observatory, the National Library and the Academy of Fine Arts of the University of Milan. The garden was founded in the 17th Century by the Jesuits as an orchard and a place for growing medicinal plants. With the suppression of the Jesuits by Pope Clemente XIV, the whole Brera complex became a property of the Austrian State and transferred to new cultural institutions, among them a new School of Botany run by a Vallombrosan monk Fulgezio Vitman. The current structure of the gardens is divided into three sections: two of them have narrow flower-beds and a water basin at the centre, the third is a plain lawn surrounded by trees, as laid out by Vitman. Also a greenhouse was built on the North side of the garden, facing South (now used by the School of Art). The main purpose of growing medicinal plants was for teaching medical students. However, in the 18th Century there came a fashion of exotic species and the gardens were first opened to the public as a “site of pleasure”, which they still are today.

Botanical Garden - Orto Botanico di Brera

Continuing on into the centre we had a quick meeting at the Milan Tourism Info Point in the Vittorio Emanuele Gallery. The people there, Francesca and Paolo, were very friendly and helpful, suggesting lots of other sites to see locally. The Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II is one of the oldest purpose-built shopping malls in the world, and probably one of the most stylish, so you won’t find anything as tacky as a McDonald’s in the Galleria (although apparently there is one nearby if you need a free toilet).

Should you visit the Galleria on a quiet day, you will find there are four mosaics portraying the coat of arms of Milan and the three capitals of the Kingdom of Italy (Turin, Florence and Rome). There is a tradition that says if you spin around three times with a heel on the testicles of the bull from Turin’s coat of arms, this will bring good luck. However, this practice has caused damage to the mosaic and a hole has developed on the place of the bull’s genitals. As the Galleries were very busy when I visited, I was unable to verify this, but continued on out to the square in front of Domm de Milan.

The Duomo di Milano (to give it its Italian name as apposed to the Lombardy name) is the fifth largest church in the world and the largest in Italy (the Papal Basilica of St. Peter is bigger, but it is also in the Vatican which is a separate country). It took 600 years to build and the Duomo is undoubtedly impressive, as is the queue for the ticket office which extended the whole way across the square, so we skipped that and went to see the nearby La Chiesa San Bernardino alle Ossa (the Church of St. Bernardino of the Bones) instead.

I wasn’t sure quite what to expect – it is rather an odd feeling to enter a large room where the walls are decorated with 100s (maybe more than a 1000?) human skulls and tibiae. What would the original owners of the bones have thought of me taking photos? Not that they had photography in the 13th Century, and then ossuaries were more common, a normal part of death. I still find it slightly unsettling, but it was worth the visit.

La Chiesa San Bernardino alle Ossa, or the Church of St. Bernardino of the Bones

After all this I was in need of a coffee. Fortunately in Italy it is easy to find good coffee, just look for anywhere that serves coffee but isn’t an American chain. Suitably refreshed, I looked around for another BikeMi station, in the centre of Milan you are never far from one. However, the station I found didn’t have any classic bikes available, only the e-bikes. I did consider looking for another rental station but then decided to give it a try, on the grounds that I could always change it later.

The next stop was the “Tree Experience” at Parco Avventura Corvetto. This turned out to be a bit further out of town than I had initially expected and there was no opportunity to swap the red bike for a yellow one, but no matter, we made it. I had not previously tried this sort of high-wire “tree top” course, but I had seen the Go Ape at Aberfoyle [https://goape.co.uk/days-out/aberfoyle] which is on a completely different scale (Aberfoyle is one of the highest and gnarliest tree high-wire courses in Europe). Needless to say, I was keen to have a go, given the choice between the low (blue) course and the high (red) course I went for the latter (if they had had a black course, I probably would tried that, but you need to go somewhere like Aberfoyle for that).

As I was putting on the climbing harness, I realised this was something I hadn’t done since I was at University 20 years ago. Next up was the safety briefing which was thorough but straightforward, after which I was let loose on the course. Having stormed my way up to the first platform and tackled a series of wire rope crossings between the trees, I was starting to feel tied. Advice from the ground suggested that I slow down and take it easier, so I took a breather and relaxed at the next platform. The second half of the course was even more fun, now that I was no longer trying to race around. The whole thing was thoroughly enjoyable and something I would highly recommend.

Walking in the air

By now it was past midday and I was looking forward to lunch, fortunately this was the next item on the agenda. Just a wee bit further out on the outskirts of the city, lunch was provided at the Nocetum Centre [http://www.nocetum.it]. The Nocetum Centre is a community project which organises educational visits and environmental education activities among other things. Included in those other things is job training in the hospitality industry for refugees, the food (which was excellent) was cooked and served by people who had found sanctuary there, having fled conflict in their own country. The hospitality was warm and friendly, although mostly in Italian and rather beyond my language skills, nevertheless I felt welcome.

Lunch over, we took a look at a wee church just by the entrance to the Nocetum Centre. It doesn’t look much from the outside, but once inside you notice the Medieval frescos by painters from the same school as Giotto, but it is unlikely that Giotto himself ever visited the site. These frescos have been dated to between 1350 and 1375. Other recent archaeological excavations found a surprisingly large number of burials below the floor of the church, suggesting that has been a community living around the site for a very long time.

After leaving the church, we crossed the road to the Cascina Nosedo, an abandoned farm on the urban fringe, to look at a new bicycle recycling project which aims to provide skills and training for unemployed young people. There are also plans for an arts centre.

The final location of the day was a guided visit to Vettabbia Park and Milan Nosedo Wastewater Treatment Plant, as you do. Again it was the sort of thing which I hadn’t done since University and I really enjoyed it. I was given a short presentation about the plant and its ambitious waste heat recovery systems, providing distributed heating to the local community. There is also a park beyond the main plant with reed beds for the final cleaning of the water before it returns to the river.

All of the places and organisations I had visited since arriving for lunch at the Nocetum Centre are part of the “Valle dei Monaci” (Valley of the Monks) [http://www.valledeimonaci.org]. This network of organizations is committed to patching up this strategic area of Milan – from the city centre south to Clairvaux and Melegnano – which today is seemingly disjointed, and to develop new cultural and economic opportunities in the process. Included in the plans for the Valle dei Monaci is a cycle route from the centre of Milan to Piacenza to link up with the Via Francigena, the ancient road and pilgrim route from Canterbury to Rome.

Prof Boscacci then guided me back to the city centre, which was an interesting experience, he is not a slow rider and I was on a red BikeMi e-bike. It wasn’t long before I found the speed at which the e-assistance dropped out. As I didn’t know where I was going, there was no way I was going to loose him, but without the e-assistance the bike was heavy and none too nimble. I thought he might notice that I was struggling to keep up, until he turned round and complimented me on my bike handling skills. It was a great way to finish a whistle stop tour of the city, and the following day promised to be another fun filled one! But that is for another post.

My thanks to Italia Slow Tour for arranging it.

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The politics of cycle clothing

The politics of cycle clothing

I was at the Cycling Scotland conference and tried to do a bit of live tweeting. Derek MacKay MSP stated in his speech that he prefers not to be photographed in hi-viz, to which I tweeted:

I was rather surprised by the reaction that this sparked off on twitter. Firstly, there was the comment that wearing nice clothes was not going to make the roads safer. But It was a comment that rather missed the point, as neither wearing hi-viz nor a helmet does. To make the roads safer we need to start with a danger reduction approach, which means reducing danger at source. The point of the tweet was to point out that we finally have a transport minster who is not following the Taliban approach to road safety and does not feel that he has to set an example by wearing hi-vis and a helmet to be photographed. Instead, for cycling occasions he is always photographed in normal clothes for press photo shoots, even when some around him choose to do otherwise.

More tweets followed from a number of people, suggesting that I was in some way “anti-Lycra”, and was in some way blaming people in lycra for putting off others. This is where trying to discuss issues on Twitter can get very confused, sometimes it can be very hard to make a nuanced point in 140 characters. My comment above was very much about the use of images and the message which such images can send. There were also comments from other about infrastructure being more important that clothing, but in many ways the two are interlinked.

Why is clothing important in normalising cycling? Ask anyone in the fashion industry and they will tell you that clothes speak volumes about who you are and how you feel. In places where cycling is a normal means of getting from A to B, people just ride in ordinary clothes. They don’t get dressed up to ride a bicycle, unless they are doing so to ride for sport (there is also a misunderstanding about Danish “cycle chic”, Copenhageners don’t dress up to ride a bike, that’s just normal dress for them). In the UK some people seem to believe that it is necessary to dress in a certain way in order to ride a bicycle, for what ever reason. Part of this is to do with something I refer to as the Taliban approach to road safety, the failed idea that making people dress in a particular way makes the roads safer – it doesn’t. Indeed, the promotion of hi-viz and helmets can create a barrier to cycling. Added to this, the motor lobby is always keen to promote the use of hi-viz and helmets, as a means of transferring blame to the victim, and to avoid liability.

Does this mean that we should all start to ride in ordinary clothes as a political statement? No, of course not. There are those who will do so, but for most people the choice of cycle clothing is more about comfort, or more correctly, comfort and fear. Before I moved to Aberdeen I had never felt the need to wear Hi-viz, but in Aberdeen I felt different, it was/is hostile to anyone cycling (or even walking). So I bought a yellow cycling jacket, which made me feel better, but made no real difference to the way I was treated. Drivers still treated me as if they couldn’t see me. Over time, I came to realise that in places like Aberdeen drivers simply don’t look for people cycling, as there are so few. Later I came to realise that bright lights were more effective for being seen in a hostile environment, but not a solution. Like bright clothing, they are a survival mechanism (the real solution is to change the road environment).

In places where there are more cyclists (and pedestrians), drivers are more likely to look out for those more vulnerable road users. However, that doesn’t automatically lead to greater safety or a feeling of safety, you only have to look at images from London to see that there is plenty of fear there. There is a flaw in the “safety in numbers” theory, the death rate on UK roads per Km walked or cycled is higher than in many other parts of Europe. In places where cycling is common, it is infrastructure and legal structure that make cycling (and walking) safe, and this is why you see people of all ages, wearing normal clothes, using bicycles as transport.

In the UK there is another thing going on, which has to do with group identity. This has led to the term MAMIL or “Middle Aged Men In Lycra”, and generally refers to male cyclists who treat travelling to work as an adventure sport. There are those who justify wearing Lycra for commuting on the grounds that they have to ride fast due to the distance of their commute. It is an interesting thing that the average cycle commuting distance in the UK is longer than on the Continent. This is probably because so many cycle commuters in the UK are keen cyclists and like to use their commutes as training rides. On the Continent, in places where cycling is seen as normal (something the 95% engage in, not just the 5%), the sort people who in the UK have 1-5 km journeys and would drive or take the bus, ride a bicycle instead. So there are a great deal more short journeys by bike. For longer distances, the Contintentals are more likely to travel by multimodal means, for example: cycling to the station to take a train, and then walking or using another bicycle at the other end, to get to their final destination. That is not to say that there aren’t people commuting distances of greater than 5 Km by bicycle in these countries, it is just that they are more likely to use an e-bike, so that they don’t arrive sweaty.

Is the MAMIL image a problem? I have been accused of being anti-Lycra or even anti-cycling for using the term MAMIL. Neither is true, there is a place for Lycra and it fine in its place. However, it can be a barrier to making cycling more inclusive, as it can put people off, especially those not currently cycling. No doubt there are some cyclists who will say that the sort of people who are put off by MAMILs wouldn’t cycle anyway. However, if you go to a Women’s Cycle Forum and listen, you will find women saying that the perceived need for lycra, hi-viz and helmets does put them off cycling. A case study: L. is a woman over the age of 40 who says she is put off by the MAMIL image of cycling. However, on a trip to Bruges, L. was persuaded to try riding a bicycle because people of all ages, shapes and sizes were cycling in normal clothes. She now occasionally rides a bicycle in Edinburgh, and although L. is not a regular cyclist, she now has greater understanding of cycling, which is useful, given that her current job is in transport policy.

Before going any further, I will return to the point I made above, people should be free to wear whatever they feel is comfortable for their cycling journey. Images are important here, and where everyday cycling is being promoted, images which show hi-viz and helmets should be avoided. It is always disappointing to see organisations which soak up large amounts of funding, using images of people on bicycles dressed up in hi-viz and helmets. Generally, the majority of people are less likely to engage in an activity that looks like a minority activity, where you need to dress up in specific clothes and that may be dangerous. This makes trying to increase funding for active travel much harder, as it is seen to only benefit the few rather than the many. If you make cyclists look like a small outgroup, it going to be far, far harder to get those with the power to take space from motor vehicles to act. The Dutch didn’t get their famous cycle infrastructure by campaigning for “cyclists”, they did it for the children. Now that those children have grown up, they are the most relaxed parents in Europe, as they don’t have to worry about the safety of their children outwith the home. If we want the same here, we have to make active travel attractive and desirable, and we also have to make it normal and inclusive.

Cycle chic inspires others
Remember images are important

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A small step forward

A small step forward

My idea of a Cargo Bike Club took a small step forward today, but first a wee bit of history:

Back in the autumn of 2010, Ulli and I were faced with the problem of getting a large pumpkin home from the allotment (not a problem that we have had since due to the poor summers). The solution I suggested then was to get a cargo bike, but at that time such bikes were very few and far between in Scotland, not that there are that many more now. This led me to come up with the idea of a Cargo Bike Club as a means of making cargo bikes available to the wider population (and a way of kick-starting the market for cargo bikes in Scotland).

When I first floated the idea of the Cargo Bike Club, it attracted a lot of positive comments. My initial idea was to use the City Car Club model, where the users would pay an annual fee to join the club and then have self service access to the bikes for a small hourly hire rate. There are, however, a few technical issues with security and self service access, which I have yet to overcome.

One person who thought he could over come these problems was Will Vaughan who took my idea (he did contact me and ask first) and started cargobikehire.com. However, he was planning on using a prototype technology from a small German startup called LOCK 8. I have seen the Kickstarter campaign raising funds to develop the locking system, but was sceptical about the level of security it would offer (the cable shown in the pictures is up to Solid Secure Gold level, as required by insurance companies). [Up date: I met Philipp Meyer-Scheling, the MD of Lock8 at EuroBike and am hoping to have another meeting with him in November] At the present time, it doesn’t appear he has managed to get the self service access up and running, but he does have a Bullitt available for hire in the Hereford area, so all credit to him.

The idea of the Cargo Bike Club has continued to gnaw away at me, and I have re-visited the idea a few times, but mostly I have gotten on with other projects like the Edinburgh Festival of Cycling. Where is all this rambling going, I hear you ask? Well, this year the Edinburgh Festival of Cycling Ltd has acquired an Urban Arrow cargo bike, and from today it is available to hire when not in use for company business.

Urban Arrow for hire

It is a small step, but it is a start, this is currently the only cargo bike available for hire in Edinburgh. Who knows, if this bike proves popular, there may yet be a Cargo Bike Club in Edinburgh. I am still working towards getting it off the ground one day.

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And finally…

And finally…

Following on from my last post after five years the on street cycle storage (Cycle-Works Streetstores since you ask) has finally arrived and so I have the first set of keys.

Cycle store in use

It was interesting standing in the street talking about the cycle storage with a council officer and seeing the number of people coming up and asking how they could get a key. Apparently there is already a waiting list of places, even though many of the people living in the street don’t even know what the cycle storage are as they have not seen them opened before. I get the distinct feeling there will soon be demand for more!

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