Taking on the dark

Darkness. We’ve got alot of it right now in Scotland, about 16 hours a day of it to be precise. If you don’t go out in the dark or the rain during the winter in Scotland you might as well go full squirrel and hibernate. Darkness is hard to avoid but the experience of darkness is not the same for everyone.

The fears associated with being a woman in the darkness, alone, in both the built and natural environment was a theme running through an Urbanista event I attended this week and resonated with my own experience. Many women fear walking alone in their own neighbourhoods during the day, and it feels like this concern is endemic for women when it comes to walking, running or cycling in the darkness.

This fear is reinforced by others (see the charming example below to adventurer Jenny Tough), leading to men encouraging women to arm themselves for their own safety rather than addressing the real issue. Perhaps we should just all stay home and embroider things instead?

I’ve cycled home regularly from Edinburgh in the last year, mainly after work with a friend in tow. I’ve loved the last part of journey as the sun sets behind our quiet lanes; the opportunity to catch a glimpse of bats in the fading light and the owls a little later. Increasing my weekly mileage has made me feel stronger in every way, with the 30 miles slipping past with less effort each time. What felt like epic in March was enjoyably normal by November.

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Until this winter I’ve rarely cycled in the dark, away from street lights and peopled city streets. I avoid off road cycle paths, parks and quiet routes in the evening that I would always take in daylight. I choose the statistically more likely danger from people in cars and cycle on busy roads rather than the unlikely but emotionally compelling risk from people on foot in quieter places.

Infrastructure and urban design plays a part in how we assess risks, and a well lit, well used path with good sight lines in an open space is asking to be used and narrow, poorly lit canal side paths are deserted in the dark evenings. Or are they? Perhaps they are teeming with fearless cyclists, laughing in the darkness at those of us who are dicing with death on the roads. Am I at a greater risk as a woman, or do I just have the fear because I’ve been conditioned into being scared? Whatever the cause, we should all be able to travel without fear, and we need our urban environments to be designed in inclusive and creative ways to ensure that we all feel safe to walk, cycle and use public transport alone at any time.

 

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Last month I found myself at a dark crossroads, literally, as my cycling companion needed to get home a more direct route. Do I take the fast, unpleasant and busy road route in company or the quiet, dark road home alone? I pulled up my big girl pants, waved goodbye to my friend and cycled into the night.

In the absolute darkness of the country lanes my fear fought my exhilaration, a heady rush of emotion that fuelled the first few miles. I had 10 miles of complete darkness around me, with few houses and just my own breathing for company. The trees looked beautiful in their dark silhouette forms and my headlight created a small tunnel of brightness that kept me on the road.

As I relaxed and enjoyed the cold night air I felt sorrow that my fear had prevented me from experiencing this unique sense of solitude before. I resolved to have no new year resolutions this year, but I am going to take some advice from an Urbanista I met this week and ‘get off the path’ and go exploring in the dark some more. As the modern philosopher Lady Gaga says “All that ever holds somebody back, I think, is fear. For a minute I had fear. [Then] I went into the [dressing] room and shot my fear in the face..”

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What’s that yellow thing in the sky?

With Storm Ophelia still giving us a hard time I’ve battened down my hatches and got the summer photos out to remind myself of what the world looked like before it went grey and wet.

Ooh! The new station at Tweedbank!

Ah yes, I live in Scotland so the summer  isn’t all ice cream and sea bathing, unless you are one of those really hard people that wear shorts because ‘it’s summer’ rather than after a sensible assessment of the weather conditions. I am not one of those people and so carry a good supply of high quality merino wool clothing with me at all times of year, particularly when cycling. The carriage of said merino wool items occupied much of my ‘free time’ (time that I should be using to encourage my child to eat vegetables, read, be kind etc) over the summer in preparation for An Adult Microadventure. No, nothing weird, just an adventure where I don’t have to say ‘please sit on your bottom’ every minute at every meal time.

 

Gloriously released from all my domestic duties by my husband taking our son to Denmark for a few days, my friend Claire and I planned a weekend cycling adventure to try and keep my monthly tally on track. Claire looked at many maps and I procured a new Alpkit bag for the merino items. We were ready to pedal. But where?

We’ve both travelled, are quite adventurous, not too short of cash and love good food. So naturally we booked ourselves into the Kirk Yetholm youth hostel and jumped on a ScotRail train to the Scottish Borders. (NB For those of us that have lived through the will they/won’t they ever re-open the railway line between Edinburgh and the Borders saga the previous sentence is much more exciting than it initially appears).

Our plan was to ride the Four Abbeys cycle route clockwise and slowly, enjoying the views, the cake shops and take a peek at the Abbeys. This is what we found:

Seen one Abbey? You’ve seen them all (probably)..

Starting out in Melrose, we soon realised that we were simply too tight-fisted to pay the entrance fee and our money was much more likely to be spent in bookshops and cake shops. I’m sure someone is itching to point out that a Historic Scotland Explorer Pass is well worth the money, but now I’ve done it you don’t need to. Kelso Abbey is fee free, so we did have one full immersion abbey experience. I’m very glad I’m not a 12th century monk as the monk lifestyle seemed to contain very early mornings and very little cake.

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Bikes looking longingly through the gates at Melrose Abbey
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Croix de Fer parking where it wanted to at Kelso Abbey

The sun shines in Scotland (but please don’t tell anyone)

My parents sweetly phone or text after every weather event hits the UK, because somehow they think it will be so much worse in Scotland and we may have been swept away in a flood/hurricane/snowstorm. Okay, so the rain is much wetter here but I have mislaid my waterproof trousers due to infrequent use. However, in the interests of Keeping Scotland Beautiful (and free of more people) please don’t share the following two photographs widely.

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Claire in just one later of merino
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Shhh!

We may be at peak gin

I understand that gin is fashionable, which may or may not be related to my taking it up in later life, but I hadn’t quite realised that everywhere is now producing its own. We found this excellent local example at the superb Plough Hotel in Town Yetholm. Historic Scotland’s loss is the Kelso Gin Company’s gain as I spent all my excess money on gin. Just doing my bit for the rural economy.

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Does it get any better than Elephant Gin for someone that owns an Elephant Bike?

There is no-one here

Well that isn’t quite true, as both the hostel and pub in Yetholm were packed and there was an extensive selection of tourists and locals in each of the towns we passed through-  several of whom stopped me to admire my bike and its baggage. But there were also miles and miles of quiet roads, smaller towns – big shout out to gorgeous Morebattle and its lovely Teapot Street – and villages. The Four Abbeys route coincides at some points with St Cuthberts Way, a long distance walking route between Holy Island in Northumberland and Melrose in the Scottish Borders so you can expect to see some ramblers too.

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Cessford Castle, one of the sights on St Cuthberts Way
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Just one of the long and winding roads
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Someone needs to open a cycling cafe here immediately

You can have an adventure close to home (even if you aren’t five)

Claire has taught me many things in the few years that I’ve know her, but one of the most significant is that you can have a great adventure just a few miles from where you live. My eyebrows have raised slightly in the past as some of her holiday plans involved travelling no further than an hour on a train from Edinburgh. In my yearnings for exotic adventures I’ve overlooked the enjoyment to be found on my doorstep. Not any more.

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A home from home adventure, thanks to ScotRail

It’s a pedal bicycle!

As expected, it was hard to tell which of us was more excited as a little red Islabike was uncovered from its excessively large wrapping bag on Christmas morning. Half an hour later the residents of Epsom and Ewell were treated to a spectacular display of cycling skill, if they were quick enough to see it as our son sped by..

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Despite managing a pre-school cycling project, I hadn’t actually thought about how I was going to help our would be cyclist to move from his balance bike to his pedal bike. Thankfully I am a woman so I read the instructions that came with the Islabike; they suggested holding onto his jacket to provide some support, without interferring with his balance. This worked well and allowed me to encourage him to keep peddling, looking and steering until I was told to ‘be quiet Mummy!’ closely followed by ‘let go Mummy!’.

Then you just sort of ‘run and hover’, as demostrated here by my incredulous (and soon to be exhausted) father, to try and anticipate collisions and your child disappearing from view.

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So, there you have it – from balance bike to pedal bike in 2 months. If only we could manage the same feat with toilet training..

All I want for Christmas…

Dear MSPs

It’s around this time of year that millions of hopeful little people will be writing careful notes to a mystical being in the hope of a Christmas miracle. Thanks to Spokes there is a reasonable chance that you will be at the receiving end of some anguished letters in the next few days too.

Scotland is set to enjoy a small windfall (£213million – peanuts round our way..) thanks to the Barnet Consequentials. I would like that funding spent on something meaningful that will provide a legacy of wealth, health and happiness. Yes, dear MSPs, please spend it on Space for Cycling. If you don’t know what I’m talking about here is a rough guide.

I want to live in a Scotland that invests in our biggest asset: that’s the people of Scotland. Providing communities with the opportunity to travel actively will bring benefits to everyone – a reduction in congestion, better physical and mental health, reduced spending on chronic health conditions caused by inactivity and reduced carbon emissions. Oh yes – and it makes people happy. Just ask my three year old..

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So please bring some Christmas cheer to Scotland and ask for the funds to be spent on cycling. If you can’t think what exactly to spend the money on I understand that Sustrans will be able to help you shop around for something perfect to suit every area of Scotland.

You’ll be welcome here for mince pies and sherry if you make my festive wish come true.

Lots of love from a family in Dunbar

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Motor City is moving on..

There’s no denying Detroit has seen some hard times over the past few years. The world has seen plenty of photos like this; abandoned homes in a semi-urban wasteland.

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But there is another Detroit that is surfacing – vibrant, sustainable and ready to help move the Motor City into a thriving future.

News of my arrival in Detroit was greeted with complete silence so I couldn’t entice any local cycle activists to show me around. Undeterred, I rented a Detroit Bike company bike from Wheelhouse Detroit and peddled off along the Riverfront

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This accessible, family friendly space is a fantastic resource, providing a backdrop for arts outreach and conservation as well as a great view of Canada.

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Detroit does water features very well (check out the one at the airport) and the spurting shoots on the Riverfront did a great trade in entertaining small children.

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Just off the Riverfront I found the The Dequindre Cut, which is 1.5 miles of shared pathway, using the route of an old railway line to provide access to the communities off the path. Although it was curiously deserted on the Monday afternoon I was there I suspect it’s well used.

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Alas, like many cities, once you’re back out on the streets, the provision is pretty poor; painted lines that encourage ‘dooring’ and fading sharrows that made me feel rather exposed (The chap I spoke to at Wheelhouse didn’t think the lack of on-street infrastructure was problematic as there were so few cars..)

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Detroit has some powerful friends and local businessman Dan Gilbert is doing his bit to share the cycle love in the city by installing a Zagster bikes share for users and employees of his companies across Detroit. There were bikes in front of our hotel* in Greektown and in several other locations we saw on just a short stroll.

* provided by our amazing friends Rana and Randy, who are doing a superb job of making Michigan the most desirable place to holiday in the USA..

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The main attraction of the day was the Slow Roll – an initiative from Detroit Bike City. Slow Roll is attracting 2000 – 3000 people on bikes every Monday night through the summer months and is without doubt the most amazing spectacle of joyful cycling I have ever seen. Move over Copenhagen with your vacuum cleaner mentality, Detroit is showing the world what a beautiful, crazy, individual thing a bicycle can be.

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Slow Roll isn’t Critical Mass on tranquillisers. It’s well organised with a clear route and volunteers (#The Squad) to encourage courteous behaviour and maintain an upbeat, friendly atmosphere. No politics, no bike waving, no punching cab drivers..

The diversity of people (and pets) was incredible – nervous looking people in helmets, gorgeous people, hipsters, MAMILs, teenage girls, older groups of ladies, children in seats and on bikes, huge men on trikes laden with sound systems..

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We rode out of the brights lights of Greektown and we were soon on roads that wouldn’t be out of place in an apocalypse film. But the gaggles of waving, cheering children made the streets come alive, as did the streams of cyclists in their technicolor splendour.

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As a community worker I know that people find out who they are and what they want in the most difficult times. A city that can attract over 2000 people to a bike ride every week is a force to be reckoned with.

A T-shirt I saw on Monday night sums up this extraordinary city to me:

‘Detroit is being the change it wants to see’. Amen to that one sister.

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Badass cycling in New York City

As I looked out the cab window late last Tuesday night I wondered at the wisdom of my decision to arrange a ‘cycle infrastructure safari’ later in the week with a New York cycle activist. From what I could see there was no infrastructure, all the motorists were demented and it wasn’t entirely clear which side of the road I should be cycling on. You would need to be one badass* (can you tell I’ve never used this word before?) cyclist to get on these streets..

Enter Liz Patek – she is completely awesome*, volunteers with several sustainable transport advocacy organisations in New York and documents people on bikes in New York through her blog and Flickr.

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Liz had generously offered to show me the good, the bad and the ugly infrastructure of the city. After two exploding tyres and a long conversation with a man in the bike shop (who couldn’t quite believe that we intended to cycle in *gasp* dresses) we hit the streets (well, the Riverside cycle path).

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I confess I already knew there had to be some cycle infrastructure as I’d seen the Streetfilms coverage of the 9th Avenue on-street bike parking. And here it is, in all its glory – increasing local trade without increasing pollution or congestion

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Unlike the jerks* that had parked in the bike lane just past the cycle parking. They were causing pollution, congestion and danger to cyclists. I’m not sure they felt too slighted by us stopping, taking photos of them and loudly disapproving in their direction but one can only hope.

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Liz is an extraordinary source of knowledge about the development of the cycle infrastructure of NYC. I’m unable to do it credit due to my pea-sized brain so what follows is a mash-up of observation and conversation (with the caveat that all mistakes and moronic statements are mine):

Get out of the way, bitch!
I admit the ‘bitch’ addition was from a car driver, but the start of the comment was made several times by our fellow bicyclists*. Dutch inspired style cycle lanes don’t necessarily create Dutch style riding, it turns out. For me cycling is more than a method of getting somewhere quickly and conveniently. It’s an opportunity to chat to a companion, enjoy the scenery and sometimes stop and take a photo. Unfortunately it seems that quite a few New Yorkers aren’t of the same disposition and were somewhat frustrated by our pootling side by side. Some of this frustration is caused by the peculiarly narrow cycle lanes themselves; someone in the public works department needs to get their ruler checked before too many more of these get painted. Conflict between cyclists and pedestrians should be designed out and a thick white line just doesn’t do the job required here. Neither does the bidirectional path, which wasn’t working out well for the poor annoyed people held up by two chattering women standing around taking photos.

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Perhaps Meg Hillier may be onto something with designated pootle lanes – it could be what’s needed for tourists and the sweat adverse in all major cities and would relieve the frenzied natives that are thinking of their Strava segments.

Playing the political game

Cycle infrastructure doesn’t appear by magic. Love or loathe it, someone, usually a team of someones, has worked long and hard to get it there. From what I understand, the New York advocacy organisations are working towards a shared understanding with the planners to prioritise transport routes across the city. This requires negotiating with area committees that aren’t quite ready to embrace cycling in their neighbourhood and can be a frustrating long game that’s not wholly understood by everyone who has an interest in seeing the jigsaw of cycle provision put together.

Signage – just do it already!

I’m particularly poor at reading maps but I can manage a signpost just fine if it’s instructive enough. Perhaps it’s all part of a plan to maintain cycling at low levels but keeping fantastic paths secret seems perverse.. please New York: build it and people will come, but only if you tell them it’s there.

Citibikes – unleashing people on bikes into the wild, helmet less and free..

It’s glorious to see the Citibikes spread across the city, attracting people across age, gender and ethnicity with some groups taking to social media to demand the scheme is extended. The Guardian did a great ‘day in the life’ report recently which captures the varied users. 

It’s better by bike..

Last time I was in New York I explored by foot, and I didn’t exactly fall in love with the hot, dirty, congested streets. This time, on two wheels, everything was different. 

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My enormous thanks go to Liz for taking the time out of her busy schedule to show me the sights of this developing city landscape. 

 

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*see, been here a week and talking like a native already. Next week I’ll be all elevator, trunk, sidewalk and groceries.

 

 

 

 

 

From incubator to bike trailer

Part 1: Our son arrives early..

This is me in India, nearing the end of a two month cycle trip. At that time I couldn’t imagine not cycling for miles every day; touring, commuting, to the shops, the cinema. I was ‘a cyclist’; a cyclist that couldn’t understand why everyone else wasn’t. And I wasn’t sure why we needed cycle lanes either.

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Just over 3 years later I became pregnant, after 16 sad and painful months of not being pregnant. I was delighted and terrified in equal measure, knowing a fragile new life was inside me. I looked again with different eyes at the Edinburgh streets packed with cars and stopped cycling. I also didn’t drink alcohol, eat undercooked red meat, goats cheese or uncooked eggs. I ate more fruit and vegetables than was probably wise. I walked daily, in moderation, and even thought about pregnancy swimming and yoga (yes, I thought about it, I confess I didn’t actually do it). I could have been a cover girl for the NHS ‘Ready Steady Baby’ book. If there was a guideline, I followed it.

My pregnancy was perfectly normal and I felt fine, tired but ‘fine’. My husband and I did what lots of expectant parents do, we bought a house that needed extensive building work, where we knew no-one and had never even been before we viewed the house. I think the nesting instinct gets increasingly out of control the longer you leave parenthood.

My maternity leave was arranged, my cover sorted with a month handover. My boss and I were very pleased at how organised we were.

And then our son arrived 9 weeks early.

Everything explodes when you have a premature baby. If, like us, there is little or no warning, you are the exact definition of not prepared. No baby clothes, no birth plan, no nappies, no idea what has happened to you..

The NHS has my undying devotion for how it helped us through that night, and the weeks that followed.

The night he arrived was the most scared I have ever been. The fear that he’d not be ‘ready enough’ to live was almost overwhelming. Like many premature babies he was in a rush to arrive and he was born less than 6 hours after my waters broke. He weighed 3Ibs 10oz and was taken straight to the Neonatal Unit wrapped in a plastic bag. I read in our medical file later that he wasn’t breathing. Like most babies of his gestation he needed a CPAP machine to support his breathing and to be under a blue light to keep the (potentially dangerous) bilirubin levels under control. I wasn’t able to hold him until he was three days old.

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For the first few weeks we were only able to hold him for a short period of time each day as his body temperature had to be kept stable. We learnt to feed him a few millilitres of my milk with a syringe connected to a tube in his nose. Every gram he put on felt like a significant step.

He didn’t seem tiny to us then, he looked perfect in every way. We look at the photos now and can’t remember him being that small, or at least we only remember it in fragments or in a particular moment. Parenthood alters your perception in every way, so perhaps it alters your vision and memory too.

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A premature baby requires some complex coordination and planning: getting to and from the hospital, expressing and freezing breast milk every 4 hours, learning how to change miniature nappies inside a plastic box, learning not to become hysterical when the alarms and flashing lights attached to your child go off.

The Bliss booklet we were given was a great help, with lots of useful information to help us judge how our son was progressing. But the section ‘Saying goodbye to your baby’ made my stomach turn; how can any parent prepare for the death of their child?

The NHS was magnificent and provided us with the tools we needed to care for our tiny baby; the calm, professional, caring support gave us the balance between being prepared for challenges but hoping for the best.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOur son spent five weeks in hospital, first in a covered incubator then in an open cot as he grew and became more stable. Each night I had to leave him, fearing that he’d cry out in the night for me.

He wasn’t quite 5Ibs when we took him home – we turned up the heating in our partly built house and settled down.

We stayed in lock down mode at home for the recommended 6 months, for fear of coughs and colds or worse setting back our son’s progress. Only friends in the best of health were allowed to visit. I fled the greengrocers if someone sneezed.

When I became a parent I stopped being who I was, I became the parent of a premature baby. Everything was different for us, the ‘normal baby’ rules didn’t apply and I couldn’t imagine a time when I’d not say ‘but he was two months early’ every time someone asked how old he was. I washed my hands like a heart surgeon for months after we left hospital; contact dermatitis made my hands look like I felt.

A friend offered me a baby bike seat, which I rejected, horrified, as if she’d offered me a tiger. I couldn’t imagine ever cycling again.

Part 2: Back on my bike

It has taken well over a year for the fear and anxiety to start to lift. Our son has thrived and we’ve been incredibly lucky. My husband and I are not religious, but this experience has made us feel like someone/thing should be thanked for our good fortune. In a different time or place we might have experienced a very different outcome. We know that some babies leave a neonatal unit with many more months of hospital care ahead of them. And some don’t leave at all. Shortly after we came home with our son there was an outbreak of Pseudomonas aeruginosa bacterium in the neonatal unit in Belfast and three babies died.

At the start of this year I noticed some posters around town for the Dunbar Cycling Group, advertising family rides through the spring and summer. This was exactly what I needed to get me back on my bike, and cycling with my son.

We went out for our first ride in April and haven’t looked back. We’ve ridden regularly with the group, gaining confidence in the crowd of other families. I’ve learnt to handle a bike, bag and baby so that the baby doesn’t fall to the ground, although I still can’t get us on a train without asking for assistance. My son loves being on the bike (for an hour or so, he’s not keen to stay still for long..) and our baby seat is on the front so I can talk to him as we ride. Primarily he enjoys pointing out the animals on our rural rides around East Lothian, although at the moment he’s under the impression they all make a similar noise – a cross between a sheep and dinosaur – which can be quite startling if I haven’t spotted them first. He also seems to find the whole experience quite relaxing so he often has a nap..

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Becoming a parent has changed my view of cycling, and of the way I want to use the roads. I no longer want to fight for space with cars, I want my own cycle space away from the cars. I don’t want poor infrastructure that ends abruptly, spewing us out into the road. I  want to feel safe for the whole length of our journey, knowing that car drivers won’t be trying to squeeze by, brushing my son’s little feet.

We need to equalise the power on the roads by giving bikes, cars and pedestrians their own space. I’m no urbanist or infrastructure expert, but as a parent I know now you won’t get the cycling modal share that Amsterdam and Copenhagen have without their commitment to high quality infrastructure. There are lots of other barriers to cycling – confidence, health, culture, knowledge, money, the weather – but safety is the key.

Our family holiday to Denmark was a perfect lesson in how to create and maintain a cycle culture where everyone feels safe on a bike. The biggest threats I felt was from tourists who stumbled into the cycle lanes and from other cyclists who weren’t impressed by my leisurely pace.

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My son regards sitting still (and sleep) as the enemy so we’ve never covered more than 20 miles together in one go, but as I thought we’d never leave the house at one point, this is a huge achievement.

We’ve bought a bike trailer for longer rides in gruesome weather and a balance bike is wrapped ready for his birthday this week. Even my husband has been tempted out on his (neglected) bike with us. It might have taken me a while to get from incubator to bike trailer, but I’m delighted to finally be a #cyclingfamily.

Finally, in case I never get to give a Nobel speech..

Friends, colleagues and family have been been a huge support in the last two years, but I want to thank the following in particular:

The midwife who was with us throughout my labour, who was so kind to us in our terrified and traumatised state. I’m so sorry that I don’t remember her name.

All the neonatal nurses at Edinburgh Royal Infirmary, who cared for our son 24 hours a day. Their kindness and professionalism reassured us that he was getting the best possible care, which allowed us to go home at night and sleep.

Magda, our neonatal paediatrician and Hilary, our neonatal physiotherapist, have been a huge support over the last two years. They’ve always had time to discuss our concerns and have made us feel like people, not an NHS number. In January we will say goodbye to them, as we’ll be signed off from the prematurity service. We’ll never forget them.

Within days of our son’s birth we enrolled in a epigenetic study, lead by Dr Chinthika Piyasena, looking at the long-term health outcomes of premature children. Chinthika provided great help, advice and good fun, as well as giving us the opportunity to ‘give something back’ through her research.

Our local Lloyds pharmacy in Dunbar has helped us with every cough, cold and ear infection with genuine concern and care. Similarly, the Harbour Medical Centre staff have been superb, responding to our every phone call with calm compassion and sensible advice.

My friend Jane, who has walked with me through every joy and sorrow in my life since we were 8 years old. For everything you’ve done, ‘thank you’ is never enough.

My husband has been my steadfast support throughout. He took a 3 month share of our parental leave, allowing me to go back to work and start the process of becoming me again. A new me, as it turns out, but back on my bike with my new bike accessory, our beautiful toddler.