Robert Hanks: The Cycling Column

Tall tales from a coast-to-coast marathon
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Indy Lifestyle Online

LAST WEEK, we were talking about collective demonstrations raising the profile of cycling, in the shape of the Critical Mass rides; this week, a more individual way of raising the profile: the Tall Bike Tour of Britain.

To recap: Will and Ed Stevens set out from London on 1 April on a pair of specially constructed tall bikes, named Manx Shearwater and Stormy Petrel, with the aim of riding clockwise along the whole coastline of mainland Britain. Tall bikes, which are exactly what they sound like, are primarily an American phenomenon - the legend is that their origins lie in the days of gas street lighting, and were designed for use by lamplighters in big cities. More recently, tall bikes have been revived as part of the "freak bike" scene that flourishes in a few American cities, including Montreal, where Will worked as a cycle courier for a while. (Freak bikes, again, are exactly what they sound like: mutant machines, often barely rideable, made by welding together bits of other bikes.)

Will and Ed's machines were constructed by Cyclemagic in Leicester, a not-for-profit community cycling enterprise, one of three charities for whom the ride aims to raise money. The rider's saddle is about seven feet off the ground; with Will and Ed being on the lofty side in any case, the whole ensemble is impressive.

When I spoke to Ed last week, they had just passed through Skegness on their way down the east coast: barring accident, they will be arriving in London on Saturday. The convolutions of the British coastline make it hard to pin down its length: as measured by tall bike, the stretch between Glasgow and Cape Wrath alone was 1,000 miles - rather more than Land's End to John O'Groats. By Skegness, the bikes had done more than 5,300 miles, and Ed estimated that there were 400 to go; but the wrinkliness of the Essex coast makes it hard to be precise.

Not surprisingly, Ed found it hard to pick out highlights of the tour, though he did say he had found the east coast more rewarding than the west - because they knew they were on the home stretch, because the terrain is flatter, and because there were more settlements: the evident natural beauty of Scotland's west coast became a little trying.

Among the things he talked about with most pleasure were eating Cullen skink - a thick soup of haddock and potatoes in the village of Cullen itself ("Really, really tasty"); the hospitality of a fire station in the middle of a barren landscape of marshes and chemical works near Stockton-on-Tees; and being shown round a plant near Grimsby where fish waste is reprocessed into animal feed and cod liver oil (they were given a tub of oil as a parting gift). "Seeing things like that, seeing all these varied sides of people's lives and hearing people's stories."

It helps that they've been lucky with the wind: tall bikes "have a lot more wind resistance - that's the main problem, more than the weight or the big tyres. It is a nightmare when it's against you."

There have been setbacks, the biggest being in Edinburgh when, in the centre of town in the middle of the Festival, a joyrider in a stolen taxi ran over a pedestrian and smashed into the parked bikes: the wheels were buckled, handlebars bent, and Ed had to have his front forks replaced. "Miraculously" though, the frames were undamaged, and mechanics at the The BIke Station - a bike recycling centre in Waverley station - got them back on the road in no time. A fall from a tall bike is no joke; Ed thinks the bigger risk was to the brothers' relationship. "We'd never spent so much time together when we're dependent on each other." They seem to have scraped through, though.

And so, after many adventures, our heroes are returning home. Friends on bicycles will be rallying round at Canary Wharf at 1pm on Saturday; a triumphant arrival in front of Buckingham Palace is timed for 2pm; all are welcome.

Read more about the trip at www.tallbiketourbritain.com

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