By Ian Tallach, an MS sufferer from Drumnadrochit
It’s Saturday the 20th of July. A few dozen cyclists have gathered in the B&Q car park in Inverness. We’re about to set off on a protest ride along the A82 Longman Road section. The route is identical to the one taken by Fiona Johnson (WheelNess, Inverness), Mick Heath (Cycling Without Age) and me, a month ago, at which time we noted multiple impediments, several risks to life and limb and not a few particular difficulties for disabled riders.
I know people who react to the word ‘protest’ with some dismissive caricature of people with laudable enough aims, but not a lot of humour, lying in front of lorries, chanting ‘Blowing in the Wind’ or handcuffing themselves to each other: people who wouldn’t know what to do with their sour faces if their wishes ever came to pass. We owe a lot, of course, to movements of that kind.
Poking fun at the stereotype is usually just a way to salve a guilty conscience, not to mention that the future of our planet may depend on their grit and bloody-mindedness. Let’s not forget that.
But what strikes me first about our group is how disparate we are. There’s no dress-code. BMI range – cachexic to obese. Age range low 20s to over 70. Not a stereotype in sight.
Perhaps a few generalisations can be made –
1 – their welcome has been warm and sincere.
2 – their eyes are bright and earnest.
3 – everyone seems just a little apprehensive. (Almost everyone – the one exception is Mick Heath (MBE-for-bomb-disposal), who seems to lack that particular emotion.
4 – they all have helmets. (Ach! My helmet. Where’s my helmet?!)
‘Purple Haze’, the Jorvick e-trike that first introduced to me the notion that cycling might, after all, be possible for someone no longer of-much-use-to-man-nor-beast, has just been delivered by Jan, Mick’s wife. She’s ridden it here from the cycling shop. Her smile is warm and reassuring. I look down at Purple Haze. It’s difficult not to attribute those same human qualities to this machine that seems to understand my deficiencies and compensate for them instinctively. As I’ve mentioned, all this has opened up a world of possibility for me. And with her (I mean the e-trike – it’s also difficult not to assign a gender of preference) is a helmet for my head! Very good.
It has always struck me that those places deemed most suitable to meet and talk with strangers or friends we haven’t met yet – parties, clubs or gigs, for example – can also be the most difficult places in which to hold a conversation. I suppose the loud music makes us lean unnaturally close together.
With all the obsequious nodding that goes on in the attempt not to disagree with them, there’s always a chance of physical contact. Maybe that’s the idea. But, still, I’d really like to know what those people are saying. Sometimes I’d like for them to hear me, too.
And here, in the B&Q carpark, I notice that same sort of nodding. The intense hum of city traffic along the A82 is loud enough to have a similar effect on us. But Mick, once again, is the exception – he calmly addresses us with tones that rise above the growl. His words are in equal parts encouragement and practical guidance – words that keep the drone at bay. I hope they have the same effect on traffic after we set out! The pep-talk is comprehensive – clearly a lot of thought has gone into this initiative.
Then we set out. It happens so fast, all I can do is grind to a clumsy start, praying that I don’t bring up the rear. Can’t have them waiting for me. Not again. I manage to slip into the line of cycles – mainly bicycles – near to the back. Good. Still some bikes behind me.
We exit the B&Q car park. Some up ahead are stopping at the junction with Henderson Road. A little opportunity to catch up. Everyone looks relaxed now – in their element. I feel exhausted and we’ve only just begun. Didn’t expect to feel like this. I dread the thought of breaking into sweat.
That word comes back to me again – inertia. MS can result in almost any combination of neurological symptoms. For me, though, the most challenging stage of an activity is usually the beginning. On Purple Haze, I struggle to engage the battery, for reasons not worth mentioning. (Alright – Beyonde, the e-mountain trike that WheelNess have very kindly made available to me, has a walk-assist function that contributes to overall speed. In contrast, the walk-assist function on Purple Haze allows you to get started, but only until you’ve used the pedals, however weakly, and the battery kicks in. This is a very minor difference, but enough to make me feel a little stupid – something about switching back to a standard e-trike has been very counter-intuitive.) And the result is what I dreaded; I can taste the sweat already and it’s trickling down my neck.
‘You alright, mate?’ Another kind face beside me.
‘Yeah. It’s this MS thing, bud.’ Gasp. ‘Flip side is, they’ve given me…’ Huff ‘… an e-trike – these guys.’
Puff. ‘WheelNess, I mean.’ Gasp. I always come out with less-than-concise information when I’m out of breath. Another ironic thing.
‘My name’s Dave.’ His smile is generous.
‘I’m Ian.’ We’re almost at a standstill, now. ‘Sorry about the speed.’
‘No worries. Take your time. Enjoy.’
We’ve crossed the A82 near the Longman Roundabout and are about to leave the joint pedestrian/cycle-path and join the flow of traffic. This is a hazardous place to make that transition. We’re always irritating someone – either pedestrians or drivers.
‘Hi, Fiona.’ (Fiona Johnson, secretary of WheelNess, Inverness, has drifted back to check that I’m OK.’) I’m swaying side-to side, just with the effort to keep moving. It shouldn’t be like this.
‘Dave, have you met Fiona?’
‘Yes, we know each other.’
‘Well, it’s her I have to thank … principally.’
‘Oh. WheelNess. Yes, of course.’
‘Salt of the earth. Well … like you … and ALL of you – the cycling fraternity!’
‘Like US!’ he corrects, without delay. We laugh together.
‘Everything OK?’ Fiona asks.
‘Yeah. Sorry to hold you up. Just a bit of a struggle today. Wouldn’t want to be anywhere else,
though.’ If my smile is weak, it’s only because I’m weak – I’m still delighted to be here. She gently points out what I’m doing wrong. At any speed above ambling I’ve been fighting against the battery.
‘Ah, stupido mio!’ (I always feel less brutalised if I self-deprecate in Spanish.) On Fiona’s timely advice, I disengage the walk-assist function. The battery kicks in. Much easier now. I sit bolt upright. Ah! This is better. We’re almost at the top of the rise near the Rose Street roundabout. It’s all downhill from there.
I look ahead at the rest of the group, now spread out over half a mile, between us and the river. It strikes me how important this thing is. It was always self-evident, of course, but there are moments when thoughts gel. Moments of insight, moments of clarity. Moments when we want to tell the world – ‘listen up – this is vital! Just hear me out before I lose my focus!’
This thing we’re doing – it’s not just a plea to build more cycle-paths. In a time when, more than ever, we desperately need community, togetherness, belonging – when virtual connectedness has become the shrivelled substitute for actual connectedness – THIS is precisely what we’re missing.
There are no barriers between us. Everyone is equal … even me. This way of getting about is an antidote – to social isolation, to exclusion, to the tyranny of metal fortresses! I look at the faces of drivers as they pass by. Every one of them looks disaffected in some way. I’m convinced they have much better sides to them, when they’re not sat behind a wheel. (That’s not to disparage motor vehicles – they’re needed, of course – it’s just, they never seem to bring about much wellbeing or contentment, the sense of arrival-in-life, the unconfined joy that car advertising seems all-too-intent to get across.)
Of course, the case for cycling is more robust than that. It has unparalleled benefits to both physical and mental health. In a country with a shocking (and rising) incidence of obesity, and its attendant demands on an overstretched NHS, the case is even clearer. I think of fellow-protesters around the world, especially those tree-huggers. I want to hug them. Cycling is not just one solution. It strikes me that for towns and cities, it is the solution.
For a greener, healthier, happier, safer future, some big changes are about to happen. They need to happen. There is already a groundswell of political will in Scotland. And cycle-friendly improvements to this section of the A82 absolutely must be part of that. Longman Road is an anomaly – a bypass that goes straight through the town. These changes will be challenging, of course. But, at the same time, it strikes me that the necessary work, on this particular section of the A82, has potential for changing the whole atmosphere of Inverness, and its perception in the public consciousness, into that of a city with new priorities – inclusiveness, accessibility, mobility for all, respect for age and disability.
It’s very clear that the Longman Road was not built with any will to accommodate cyclists. But it’s a barometer for change – vital change, if government targets are to be met – more than any other part of Inverness. This – what we’re doing right now – is massive.