This article was published in 2015, in Newsletter 120.
The annual bike ride to Reach Fair is the outcome of 20 years of organising events to celebrate ordinary, everyday cycling. Its origins lie in the leisurely rides that marked every other Sunday in the Campaign’s early years and the multitude of events worked on for each ‘Bike Week’.
The Campaign formed as a reaction to the extension of the daytime cycling restriction in the city centre to Fitzroy and Burleigh Streets, near the then newish Grafton Centre. Top priority was to grow the membership and get as many people involved as possible to stop the rot that was putting the future of cycling in the city in jeopardy. The threat was real and in the headlines, so volunteers were forthcoming and enthusiastic. The fortnightly leisurely rides on Sundays were key to helping the group get to know each other and were part of the healing process for putting this problem right.
Roll forward to the early noughties and the Campaign was working differently. By then the committee had learned how the political processes in the city worked and were engaging effectively in shaping the city’s transport policies. That was ultimately successful in lifting the original daytime cycling ban in Market and Sidney Streets. Maintaining membership levels was still a priority – but by then the threat to cycling was not so obvious and so recruitment had to change. Leisurely rides were only monthly and we found that it was only possible to get decent turn-outs if the events were well thought through and well promoted.
In 2007 we planned a longer bike ride to Ely and back on the May bank holiday, taking in the fair at Reach on the way. This was billed as the 20/50 – those being the return distances in miles if you went as far as Reach or on to Ely. We started on a wet morning from Reality Checkpoint, in the middle of Parker’s Piece, and it was horrible weather all the way to Bottisham. I remember thinking ‘why am I doing this?’ as I had to keep up the spirits of the 43 other riders whom we took with us into the type of conditions where wind blows water into your face for a whole hour. But at Reach it brightened up, and then we discovered that the place was full of city councillors who turn up as part of the mayor’s entourage. We’d spotted an excellent lobbying opportunity and resolved in future years to invite them to ride with us.
For several years after that we wrote each January to invite the mayor to cycle with us from the Guildhall to the event. We received polite but formal responses informing us dismissively that the mayor always travels by coach. Then, Councillor Sheila Stuart became mayor and willingly said she’d do it. Even better, she showed up wearing a bike-themed edition of a mayoral chain – made out of a sprocket! Every year since then the mayor has started the ride from the Guildhall, wearing this chain, and participant numbers have grown to well over 800 in recent years.