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Cycling to Cambridge conference was like floating on air

King's Cross Station - waiting for the Hogwarts Express to Cambridge.

I am a regular cycle-to-work kind of guy. I started the Cycle Scheme at work to help everyone there get their hands on a good quality bike for a knock-down price (all legal – its a scheme promoted by the Government). For me, that meant buying a Brompton. That was over a year ago now – wow time flies!

Well, this week I took my first expenses-paid business trip by train and bicycle -I can claim 20 pence per mile for bicycle travel (cars get 40 pence per mile – outrageous! Cyclists should be rewarded more!).

WEIGHTLESS BUSINESS TRIP

The reason for the trip was to get up to Cambridge, UK for a conference all about the next generation of wireless communication called Weightless. The conference was put on by Cambridge Wireless and pretty much run by the guys at a local startup there called Neul. I decided to go up a day early so that I could meet with some customers alongside our sales engineer and marketing engineer who flew in from Munich HQ.

Cycle and pedestrian bridge over the tracks at Cambridge station, UK

I packed my overnight things and a couple cameras (one big, one small) into my Brompton’s front, detachable travel bag. I also tossed in a first-aid kit and a puncture repair kit — thankfully, neither were needed.

LONDON CYCLING

On Thursday, I caught the first off-peak train into London after cycling up to my local station here in Whitchurch, Hampshire. In London, I hopped on my (unfolded) Brompton and started the short cycle ride up to King’s Cross to catch my next train. People at work had asked if I had my insurance all paid up what with travelling in London traffic and all. I was actually more concerned that the car drivers who dare to put a scratch on my bike might not have insurance! 🙂

Mind the cows on Cambridge's cycle paths alongside the River Cam!

Boy has London changed for the better in the year since the Barclay’s Bike scheme (aka ‘Boris Bikes’ – named after the mayor) started. There are cycle routes, shared lanes with buses, marked paths, bicycle route signage and HUNDREDS OF CYCLISTS. It is true what I’ve read then: more cyclists make the roads feel safer. And according to the CTC, they are safer!

DING! DING!

Being London, it was a free for all. But one which worked – cyclists and motorists looked out for wayward pedestrians (one ran up behind me and around my front as I was just about to set off from a pedestrian cross walk – he survived me and the revving taxi beside me). Cars and buses accepted (they had no choice really) the half-dozen bicycles around them at any one time; and pedestrians generally kept out of the bike lane – ones that didn’t quickly learned what a loud bell sounds like. Ding! Ding!

Another person commuting to work in Cambridge - mind the swans!

There are some amazing routes in the short distance – mostly backroads and through some nice parks. Beats the Tube in time and beauty. Never has London looked so good. It helped, too, that we are in the midst of a record breaking heat-wave complete with bright shiny object in sky that some have started to call “The Sun” (it is rarely seen and so the name is often forgotten).

King’s Cross station is of course the place to go to run into walls with your luggage trolley. Many people try to recreate the scenes from Harry Potter books, and amazingly fail every time. Does make for an entertaining show, though. 🙂

PLATFORM ZERO

Anyway, it was onto the express train up to Cambridge. What platform? ZERO. Well, it was a Weightless conference I was going to (joke at the conference was that the technology isn’t cellular 1G, 2G, 3G or even 4G, it was ZERO G).

Cycle route signs are all about - but sometimes you can still get lost (that's all part of the fun, right?)

The First Capital Connect train was packed and I actually had to fold my Brompton to store it out of the way. Not much hassle to do so, but I still try to be lazy whenever possible (I’ve discovered various nooks and crannies on the South West trains where I can lean it during my daily commute to work).

CAMBRIDGE COWS

Once in Cambridge, I discovered a town that knows how to spoil cyclists! Bridges with cycle paths! Parks with cycle paths! Roads with cycle paths! And riverside paths with cycle routes…and cows! No kidding.

An easy cycle ride along quiet roads to the east of the railway line, and then alongside the River Cam, and before I knew it, I had found my way up to a company for my first pre-conference customer meeting. A quick change of shirt in their reception’s toilet and I was set to meet the engineers for a chat in their spacious offices (there were no chairs or tables in the conference room!).

Cyclists and pedestrians share the road in front of King's College - both mindful of tourists with cameras!

Meetings done, and it was time to head off around Cambridge for more cycling, plus a reconnaissance trip to find the Conference Centre for the meeting on Friday. The Møller Centre was located to the west of town, and so I weaved my way along the river into town – passing King’s College and witnessing my very first cycle collision.

CRASH!

The collision was between two cyclists: one was a woman on a dutch-style bicycle carrying groceries in her basket, the other a street racer complete with lycra and helmet. Guess which one rammed the other? Yup.

Do not enter - except cycles! My kind of sign!

The lady called out “Watch out!” as lycra man darted out of the pedestrian friendly area (open to cyclists too) and onto the main road where our basket lady was gently cycling home (I presume).

The carnage was spectacular: basket lady tipped slowly sideways and her fruit went rolling out of the basket. Lycra man circled back (he wobbled on after knocking her over) and asked if she was okay – she was, but boy were there going to be some nasty bruises on those apples. Her melons appeared to be unscathed.

They both continued on their way, and the cars hardly noticed the brief pause in their rush-hour commute.

WRONG TURN TURNS RIGHT

Meanwhile, behind me while composing this shot...CRASH!

Anyway, I continued on – along what I believed was the route west towards the conference centre. There was a lovely marked cycle route – It was super: well marked and alongside, rather than on, the road. Trouble was, I wasn’t on the right path!

So, turning around, I switched on my TomTom while parked beside the Welcome-To-Cambridge sign in order to figure out just where I had ended up. South-West. I needed to be more North-West. No probs – I was enjoying the cycle ride in the warmth – I doubled back a short bit and headed north. One more wrong turn (I had deliberately turned off my TomTom because sometimes it’s fun to discover things when you get lost) and before long I was at the Centre.

Now I know what the western welcome to Cambridge looks like. Time to turn around!

Reconnaissance done, it was time to head back into town and check into my hotel, the De Vere Group’s “University Arms”.

I cannot recommend the place highly enough: Friendly staff, lovely interior and exterior (except for the 1970s frontage on one side but I’ll forgive them for that late addition). Delicious British Breakfast too – best sausages and bacon I’ve had in a long time (sorry dear).

The hotel is right beside Parker’s Piece – a park that is a gathering place for students (presumably) out enjoying a summer’s autumn evening. All fine during the day, but there can be a bit of whooping going on – by the girls mainly – after dark. Nothing unsightly (that I could see from my window – damn it) but just youth enjoying themselves.

Local real ale on tap at the Weatherspoon's pub in Cambridge.

In the end, the happy sounds didn’t bother me much – I had popped across the street earlier to the Weatherspoons pub for dinner and a tasty Dickens real ale before relaxing with a couple of whiskys at a nearby bar. Good whisky and you’re good to go (to sleep) no matter what.

CONFERENCE THEN BACK TO LONDONTOWN

Filled up with food and coffee, I checked out, and hopped on my Brompton for the short cycle across town and up to the conference (I only had a minor wrong turn, quickly corrected). My Munich colleague didn’t fly over with his bicycle, so he took a cab up.

The Møller Centre in Cambridge - complete with cycle parking!

My folded Brompton fitted neatly into a luggage storage area near the Centre’s reception area. After the day’s entertainment (for a geek like me, it really was entertainment), it was time to head back to the train station for the return journey. “The Sun” was still shining and the temperature had hit a record of 29.2C. Perfect for cycling. Even better – I got to pass all the people stuck in their cars going nowhere.

I had hoped to join the Critical Mass London cycling outing at 6pm down at Waterloo Bridge, but unfortunately, the 4:45pm train decided to apply its emergency brakes just outside London – 90mph to 0 in just a few meters – and sulk like that for 15 minutes.

Secret cycle path gets you the best view of Kings College and punters on the River Cam in Cambridge!

Eventually, the driver figured out how to reboot the train’s computer (cut power to entire train then switch on again) and we were off albeit at 30mph for a few miles to ensure the train wouldn’t act up again. Anyway, all this meant that I didn’t get back to King’s Cross until after 6pm.

The University Arms hotel is a site to behold in a location overlooking a (sometimes noisy) park.

LOST IN LONDON

As it was, I got lost on the streets of London again. No big deal – every cyclist I met was very friendly and helpful (the ones with cycling helmets went whizzing past on their quest to break a world record, or their heads, so they weren’t evaluated – it must be true what I’ve heard: wearing a helmet makes you think you are safer and so tend to take more risks).

One lovely lady, Debbie, was able to get me going in the right direction because she was heading into the West End which is near to Waterloo station. At each traffic light we had a short chat. Turns out she is a dresser for actors in Les Miserables and was also stuck on that same train as me coming down from Cambridge. Good thing the train got going or else the French would have looked awfully English in the performance that night (how does one transform into a French person?).

Spacious room 215 at The University Arms - complete with creaking floor and super view of sunrise.

(I remember seeing Les Miz for the first time way back in the late 80s – or was it early 90s? – in Toronto. I’ve seen it in London since, but that was probably 10 years ago. Time to go again!)

LIGHTS ON

At last, Waterloo was in my sight and onto the train I got. Pretty packed but it was a Friday night – and not everyone has tickets to a show or a dinner engagement. I got out my Kindle (which now I cannot find) and continued my reading of Stairlift to Heaven by Terry Ravenscroft. Tip: be prepared to laugh out load and attract attention to yourself – it is a funny book! You’ve been warned.

Sunrise over Parker's Piece park in Cambridge as seen from room 215 of The University Arms

At last, several hours after leaving Cambridge, I was back in Whitchurch and had to turn on my lights and cycle home in the dark for the first time this year. All told, a fantastic business trip. More like that please!

1 comment to Cycling to Cambridge conference was like floating on air

  • John

    Andrew, what a well written article. You’re right, cyclists should get a higher re-reimbursement.
    The story, and photos have made me want to move back to Europe…. looks like you had a great time.

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