Thursday 4 April 2024

Women's Freedom Ride - Report

 We were incredibly lucky with the weather for the Women's Freedom Ride
on March 3rd;  after a succession of rainy days Sunday dawned bright and
sunny, even if it was still a little cold!

It had been arranged for the 'feeder ride' heading into Central London
from Kingston to pick up the Merton contingent as it passed through our
borough, and the meeting place was the corner of Garfield Recreation
Ground, just across the river from the Wandle Nature Park.  A couple of
people had registered interest via the website ahead of time, and a few
more had originally planned to go in to New Malden to travel with the
Kingston ride, but changed their plans once the official pick-up point
was arranged - so we were expecting maybe four or five riders in total
to turn up.

But to general surprise, in the morning sunshine more and more people
kept arriving.  By the time the Kingston contingent finally swept in,
about fifteen minutes late, we were beginning to wonder if we would
actually outnumber them!  But there was no chance of that; as they filed
into the park, we couldn't believe that they just kept coming and kept
coming....  I didn't do a head count, but I would guess that including
the marshals our combined groups must have consisted of about forty or
fifty people, which made for a very impressive convoy.

I soon lost track of the route we were following as we left the Wandle
and headed off towards Central London, although at one point we did
pause on Clapham Common for a photo stop - having some difficulty
getting everybody into shot!  Eventually we headed north over
Blackfriars Bridge and into the City of London proper.  Since it was a
Sunday the streets were pleasantly clear of traffic.

On arrival at the rendezvous point for the Women's Ride at Lincoln's Inn
Fields, a square that at least one of our members recognised due to the
headquarters of her profession being located there, the ride leaders
opted to refresh themselves at a nearby pub.  We arranged to meet them
outside the London School of Economics building for the return journey
once the main protest ride - a relatively short distance compared to the
distance everyone had cycled already to get there - was over, then the
rest of us entered Lincoln's Inn Fields itself to join up with the vast
number of other cyclists who were assembling there.  The London Brompton
Club were present in strong numbers with their bicycles all folded in a
row, and there were a number of other unusual machines, including
longtail bikes, various child-carrying vehicles with their young
occupants remarkably well-behaved, and a selection of hand-cycles,
disabled trikes, and other specially adapted bicycles.  It was also nice
for once not to be the only rider with a U-tube frame, or to be the only
one actually wearing a skirt!

Brief but rousing speeches were made from in front of the central
bandstand, applauded by the ringing of massed bicycle bells, and Will
Norman accepted a petition of five thousand signatures on behalf of the
Mayor of London.  In his speech he warned us that much cycle provision
in practice is out of the hands of Transport for London, and urged us to
go home after the ride and help put pressure on our local councils to
show that there is a huge amount of suppressed demand.  Then we set out
on the protest itself - very slowly.

It took a vast amount of time for a thousand or so cyclists to exit the
square through a relatively narrow gate and to form up all around the
outside.  Halfway round we discovered a convenient public toilet, but of
course everyone else had discovered it too, so it was touch and go as to
whether it was possible to nip in before the 'queue' moved on without
you; in fact it was going so slowly that this was just about

We had been told before the start of the ride that 'this time' the
protest would be observing red lights, but in practice this meant that
only a small number of riders were able to exit the side-street during
the brief timed period allowed, where the traffic light timings had of
course been planned to accommodate two or three cars rather than a huge
mass of cyclists with correspondingly slow acceleration. As a result, an
excited ritual developed where, every time the lights began to go green,
a great chorus of "Go! Go! Go!" went up from behind, while the lucky few
at the front started off as fast as they could to the accompaniment of

This did at least mean that when we hit the next set of lights (which
tended to be only about fifty yards down the road) it was in relatively
small bunches, but it also meant that the ride wasn't a single moving
mass and it wasn't always obvious where the people ahead had got to.
Fortunately things had been very well organised and there were always
people in tabards positioned at junctions signalling where we were to
turn off.

Scattered throughout the ride were various bikes towing sound systems,
pumping out enthusing numbers such as "I Want to Ride My Bicycle (I Want
to Ride It Where I Like)" and other dominant beats.  When two or more of
these bikes got themselves into close proximity the mixed results were
indescribable - and loud enough to be painful to the ears, at least to
me, though they made for handy rendezvous points at which you could try
to regain contact with neighbouring members of the group.  It was very
hard to avoid being split up in the constant stop-start progress, where
we were constantly being urged to pack ourselves in as tightly as
possible in order to get as many bikes into the road space as possible;
I did pity the unfortunate drivers who found themselves surrounded by
crowds of women cyclists accidentally occupying the turning lanes and
progressing at dead slow speed.

To be honest I think we spent more time stationary and waiting for the
road to clear ahead than we did actually cycling, and I can see where
there would have been a temptation to simply ignore the traffic signals
and use the sheer mass of riders to carry out the protest.  At the
entrance onto the Mall there was the most tremendous hold-up of about
fifteen minutes before we were finally sent through the red lights en
masse down towards Buckingham Palace (I eventually heard rumours that we
were being deliberately held at this point in order to allow the tail of
the ride to catch up), and by the time any of us made it back to
Lincoln's Inn Fields it was long after the agreed start of the Kingston
group's ride home.  We were rather dismayed to find that our guides,
having spent the time waiting patiently in the pub with no idea of what
was happening, had apparently given up and gone off without us!

Some very belated lunches were eaten and shared around - with hindsight,
we should have had lunch while listening to the speeches at the start -
while, thanks to the magic of mobile phones, the missing marshals were
located and summoned back.  We were told the rest of the group was
waiting for us at the Ritz, but to our mock disillusionment it turned
out to be outside the entrance to the Savoy instead....  The Kingston
ride set off up towards Hyde Park for a scenic ride home via Richmond
Park, but as this was rather a long way round for the Merton contingent
three of us peeled off at the Houses of Parliament and went on down the
Embankment to cross the river at Vauxhall Bridge and take the quick and
grimy route home along the familiar territory of 'Cycle Superhighway 7'
via Clapham and Colliers Wood.

The total mileage for the day was about 26 miles:  well short of the 38
miles clocked up by the Kingston contingent with their longer journey,
but quite enough to be exhausting for an inexperienced rider, and enough
to make me start to feel sore.  We were impressed by the organisation
(and turnout!) of the Kingston Cycle Campaign, and it was suggested that
maybe Christine would like to arrange for some shorter local
recreational rides in Merton, as judging by the number who turned up for
this one there is evidently pent-up demand.

The general verdict among the people I spoke to seemed to be that the
expedition into London on a Sunday was enjoyable in itself, but that the
grand protest ride wasn't much fun - it was basically hours of non-stop
traffic jam on a bicycle.  (It has been years since I did one of these
mass London rides, but I seem to remember that my one and only previous
experience was much the same, which was why I haven't been on any
since...)  But the weather was lovely, and it was a great relief not to
be constantly looking behind me all the time to check that none of the
group were dropping behind or getting lost, since there were people
officially in charge of that.