Malcolm and Gia Margolis founded the Harrogate Wheel Easy cycling group to cater for people who wanted to enjoy friendly, not competitive, cycling. Continuing our focus on highlighting ‘groups who like to be active’, Val Baynton finds out more about tourism on two wheels.
The opening three stages of the Tour de France’s 2014 visit to Yorkshire and London revealed the enthusiasm for cycling that exists in Britain, an interest that was kick-started by the London Olympics in 2012. It’s not just competitive cycling that is attracting record numbers of participants and spectators; there’s a growing trend for getting on bikes for simply social activity. Groups of enthusiasts meet up locally to enjoy outings aimed at discovering the countryside, making friends and gently increasing fitness. The Wheel Easy Cycling Club in Harrogate, established by Malcolm and Gia Margolis in 2006, is one such group and now encompasses nearly 300 members aged from their mid-twenties to 82 years, with outings for all levels of ability organised twice a week as well as overseas trips.
One of the factors in the growth of ‘pedal power’ is that the support infrastructure for cycling has developed over the last 20 years. The National Cycling Network was officially created in 1995 and has grown from 5,000 miles in 2000 to 14,700 miles today. Cycling is now actively promoted by VisitBritain, and many local tourism destinations, while specialist operators help groups plan and enjoy longer cycling breaks both within this country and around the world. See page 48 for more about all these initiatives.
Setting up Wheel Easy
Malcolm and Gia Margolis retired in 2005. Feeling that it would be more fun to explore their enthusiasm for cycling with other like-minded people, they decided to set up a group. ‘For us, cycling was, and still is, about enjoyment,’ Malcolm explains. ‘We don’t want to go fast or compete against other cyclists.’ Since they couldn’t find a local group of this sort, they contacted the Harrogate Advertiser, announcing that, on 7th May 2006, there would be an easy 10-mile cycle ride to Knaresborough and back, and inviting cyclists to come along. The route also took in the Beryl Burton Cycleway, named after the internationally renowned cyclist who was born in Leeds in 1937 and received the OBE in 1968 in recognition of her achievements. To the couple’s amazement, 35 people turned up and the group was born!
Initially rides were Sundays only but, as the weather improved in the early summer, more people joined the group and weekday rides were introduced. Longer and harder rides were also offered to cater for more experienced cyclists but the social and pleasure focus remained key. A committee of 10 people was formed, a leaflet was created – which became the basis for the website – and the name for the club, ‘Wheel Easy’, was coined. As Malcolm says, ‘It’s a very appropriate name; it is exactly what the group is about and the bonus is, when you say it, you can’t help but smile.’
An important ethos guiding the group has been the principle of ‘looking after the slowest rider’ and this spirit has encouraged a lot of new or returning cyclists to join, and is particularly attractive to women. ‘Members really do look after each other,’ Gia adds. ‘A lot of new friendship groups have been created and the ethos has sustained the group. Over the last eight years, some members have suffered bereavements, illnesses and undergone replacement hips or knees, yet the caring philosophy has encouraged individuals to get back on the saddle, knowing the support from the club is there.’
New cyclists join the group each week, learning about it from word of mouth and also from the weekly article in the local newspaper’s ‘clubs and societies’ section. Gia notes that in the last year more women in their 30s and 40s have taken up membership. Annual membership is £5, the club has insurance from CTC (the Cycling Touring Club, which dates back to 1878 and is now also the national cycling charity) and members are encouraged to take out personal insurance from CTC too.
Rides now take place every Sunday and Wednesday, with cyclists meeting at Hornbeam Park Railway Halt, Harrogate, for departure at 9.30am, and there’s a choice of routes from 25 miles to 100 miles or more, with beginners’ rides of around 15 miles also taking place on Sundays. Return time is usually by 3.00pm. Routes are detailed in advance on the website and confirmed on the day, dependent on the number of members and their abilities.
Each ride is led by one of the club’s 40 ride leaders, who has researched the route. The Wheel Easy committee encourage members to observe basic rules, as framed by the CTC, covering equipment, the Highway Code and safety and etiquette. To ensure safety, especially on road routes, members are usually split into groups of around eight cyclists, taking slightly different routes with rendezvous points. ‘Cafe stops are an important part of every ride, as is chatting!’ laughs Gia.
Routes take members all over Yorkshire and favourite stopping places include Fountains Abbey, Studley Royal Deer Park, Ripley Castle and Beningbrough Hall Gardens, as well as a host of cafes enroute such as Oliver’s Pantry in Ripon.
Over the last seven years, Malcolm has been involved with the development of the Nidderdale Greenway – a former railway line – connecting Harrogate to Ripley, which has brought back into use the Grade II listed, seven-arch Nidd Gorge Viaduct and provided a new safe crossing of the A61 near Ripley. ‘We’ve worked with the transport charity Sustrans in developing the route, and it has made a fantastic difference to off-road cycling,’ says Malcolm. ‘We are trying to extend the route to take it into the heart of Nidderdale.’
Occasionally, the club takes in a cultural visit or annual events such as Kettlewell Scarecrow Festival in August or the Masham Steam Rally in July. The Yorkshire Stages of the Tour de France were on the group’s programme – with ringside spots in Harrogate for the final sprint on the first day, 5th July. The next day, eight members rode to the Cote de Blubberhouses to enjoy the carnival atmosphere and to watch the professionals speed past.
There’s also a varied social programme with different members organising activities within the group such as theatre trips and visits to the Velodrome at the National Cycling Centre in Manchester, as well as inspiring talks from members about overseas rides.
Pedalling further afield
Each year, members of Wheel Easy organise longer trips, which any member of the club can join. They’ve taken the train to Edinburgh and over four days cycled back to Harrogate. Other journeys have taken coast to coast paths such as the Ways of the Roses from Morecombe to Bridlington and the Sea to Sea route from Whitehaven to Sunderland. Generally, members carry all their luggage on these rides, staying in pubs or small hotels enroute.
Trips to Europe include a memorable break in Slovenia in 2013. This was organised by Paul Wadkin of Simply Cycling Slovenia (SCS), whose father, Terry, is a member of the Wheel Easy Club. Eight members flew to Ljubljana in Slovenia from Stansted with easyJet and SCS organised transport to their first hotel near Ljutomer in the Pomurje region of north east Slovenia. The week-long tour gave members an insight into the beautiful landscape of the region, and they crossed borders cycling into Hungary, Croatia and Austria too. Around 50 miles were covered each day, with time to visit local landmarks. Highlights included relaxing in the thermal baths at the hotels, being together and socialising as a team. The last day was spent exploring Ljubljana’s castle and trying out the funicular railway. Luggage was transported between hotels by SCS and Wheel Easy members used SCS’s bikes – it is usual to hire bikes locally for overseas tours, although it’s possible to pack a bike in a special box for transport by the airline. To ensure members don’t get lost, mobile phones and sat navs are essential equipment, especially in countries where little English is spoken. A number of countries are ideal for European cycling tours (see below).
European wide cycling
The National Cycling Network is a series of safe, traffic-free lanes and quiet on-road routes that connect to every major city and now stretches for 14,700 miles across the UK. The concept began in Bristol in 1977 with a campaign to improve conditions for pedestrians and cyclists in the city. The first success was the opening in 1984 of the Bristol and Bath Railway Path, a 17-mile traffic-free trail along a disused railway. The charity Sustrans continued to develop the idea and routes elsewhere in the country opened, with the overall network being established in 1995 with a grant from the National Lottery, and officially opened in June 2000 when 5,000 miles had been completed.
The network links into the European Cycle Network, known as EuroVelo, and one third of a projected 37,000 miles of cycle paths are already open in countries including Austria, France, Germany, Italy and the UK. EuroVelo routes in the UK include the Atlantic Coast Route stretching from Plymouth to Aberdeen and the Capital Route starting at Holyhead, travelling through Snowdonia to Cardiff, visiting Bristol, Bath, and London, and finally travelling north to Harwich. The North Sea Route starts in Harwich and travels north through Lincolnshire, Yorkshire and Northumberland to Edinburgh and the Shetland Islands. In development is a route linking Devon and Cornwall with Brittany and Normandy. To find out more about both networks visit www.sustrans.org.uk.
Ways to get you Cycling at home…
Going for a ride away from home can be a challenge to plan but there is plenty of advice to help groups spread their wings. VisitBritain has put together its favourite 10 routes around the UK, with distances varying from under 10 to over 100 miles, and covering both hilly and flat terrain. Choose from beautiful countryside, such as a circuit of Lough Neagh in Northern Ireland and the Millennium Coastal Path in Llanelli, Wales, to the foodie-themed Chocolate Tour around the canals of Birmingham, and the Crab and Winkle Way linking Canterbury with Whitstable Harbour. Many regional tourist destinations such as the Forest of Dean and Wye Valley or Visit Kent give details about local cycle trails, and where to hire bikes, on their websites. London-based cycling specialists include Mind the Gap, which organises small group cycle rides from London to Windsor, led by guides who recount interesting histories and anecdotes enroute. Discovery Richmond’s expert guides lead a tour around the town taking in a short part of the route used in the 2012 Olympics. Admission to Strawberry Hill House – one-time home of the 18th century politician, Horace Walpole – is included in the price. Both companies include hire of the bike, so this is a good option for a non-cycling group looking to try a new activity.
There are plenty of options in Europe too. In Germany, there are 200 long-distance cycle paths following rivers, and linking historic towns, coastal routes and mountain scenery. The German National Tourist Office website, www.germany.travel/cycling, has helpful advice about where to go and how to plan your cycle route with online interactive maps, as well as hotel listings including over 5,400 ‘Bed & Bike’ accommodation offers, which cater specifically for cyclists with lockable and sheltered racks, and drying rooms. French Cycling Holidays offers a complete solution to a cycling break in France. Fully tailored cycling tours can be arranged – whether a tour of the World War One Battlefields, as recently booked by a 100-strong Canadian group supporting the charity Wounded Warriors (similar to the UK’s Help for Heroes), or an energetic ride over the Alps! There are many other options too, but beautiful views, charming hotels and fine regional cuisine are always part of the package! Meanwhile, for trips further afield, gadventures organises bespoke international cycling tours for private groups to places like Thailand, Vietnam, Burma, China, Cuba and India, tailoring each adventure to take in specific needs and budgets. Meanwhile, Exodus has 12 new cycling itineraries for 2015. Half of these are road cycling tours, reflecting the growing popularity of Exodus’ cultural road trips. Farflung destinations include Colombia, Mexico, Costa Rica and the Mekong Delta.