The National Cycleway Network. Route 12 the good and the bad.

I’ve recently blogged about repairs to sections of the National Cycle Network, Route 12. I’ve decided to follow this up with a critical post on why I don’t believe this section of NCN Route 12 is fit for purpose.

Riding your bike, you may have noticed small blue, numbered signs fixed to sign posts. If you  have ever wondered what they are for, they are the way-markers for the UK’s National Cycle Network (NCN). The NCN is a mix of off and on road routes supported by the sustainable transport charity Sustrans. Sustrans aim is to provide safe, welcoming routes to encourage people out of their cars and chose to ride or walk instead. Their preference is to route cyclists on traffic free routes and, if they are not available, calmed urban streets or quiet countryside lanes. To date, the NCN has 13,400 miles of signed routes.

Sustrans has published an information sheet, Ways Through the Countryside, which tackles some issues around traffic free routes. Their preference is for sealed surfaces or, if appropriate, surface dressing using local stone. Regardless of the surface, Ways Through the Countryside states:

“All legitimate users should be able to use National Cycle Network routes comfortably in any weather conditions”

I don’t deliberately plan rides to use the NCN, however, National Route 12 is an option for my daily commute. Route 12 heads north from Bedfordshire, through St Neots to Huntinigdon via Grafham Water then on to Peterborough. Grafham Water is a popular destination for leisure and MTB cyclists. Providing 9 miles of traffic free cycling it is directly accessible from route 12. I use route 12 along the sections between Huntingdon and St Neots and, for me, it showcases the best of the NCN and, sadly, the worst. As I am intending this to be a critical piece I will get the praise out of the way first!

Praise for the NCN
St Neots is a growing town straddling the River Ouse. Developers haven’t yet built over the river’s flood plain and so the town is gifted with a broad expanse of green space covered by an extensive network of footpaths and cycle tracks. The cycle tracks are superb, being wide and suitably surfaced. And then there is Willow Bridge. Built as a Sustrans Connect2 project, the 390m bridge opened in 2011. It has greatly improved travel across the river and is a stunning example of what a national cycle network can look like.

Off-road problem sections on NCN route 12

Concrete lumps embedded in the mud

North of St Neots Route 12 crosses the A1 on a shared use pedestrian and cycle path to Hail Weston where it turns on to a quiet country road. After a mile on road the route turns north onto an off-road track to Grafham Water. This is where the NCN fails. Badly.

From April through to October the route isn’t to bad. There are the persistent year round problems of potholes, loose gravel and erratic lumps of embedded concrete. Some sections can get packed into quite a smooth and fast surface, but mostly, when dry, it is just rough and lumpy. Provided your tyres are not too slick and too thin it is rideable, just not too quickly or comfortably.

Puddles, or are they ponds?, on NCN Route 12

Once it starts raining, the surface deteriorates rapidly. The route gets muddy quickly and during the winter this is normally a persistent problem. Sections of the route are rutted farm tracks,  and as the rain falls the ruts form an extensive network of puddles. Elsewhere puddles span the whole pathway.


100% natural surface materials

The final section before Grafham Water is not even surfaced, just grass and mud skirting alongside a field margin. You really do need chunky, knobbly tyres to negotiate it. Imagine what the mud would be like if the route was widely used!

Rain isn’t the only problem. The route passes through farmland and is used by farm machinery to get around. You are unlikely to have your journey interrupted by tractors and combines, but, it is not unusual to see evidence of their passing as the loosely compacted surface is rippled into bone shaking corrugations. After harvest and when the fields are ploughed football sized lumps of earth are frequently scattered across the path.

Stones used to fill potholes spread across the track

Potholes are an issue, both their existence and how they are repaired Being dirt tracks potholes are filled with loose gravel and sharp stones. No effort appears to be made to compact the material down, so instead of swerving around a pothole you swerve around a pile of puncture friendly stones. Of course the first farm vehicle that comes along rips up the top layer of filling scattering it across the track. The pothole soon reappears only now the track has more loose gravel and grit.

Why Route 12 Fails
Mostly I use Route 12, or would like to use Route 12 for commuting. As an off-road trail for mountain bikers, this section of Route 12 works well, but for a commuter, leisure cyclist or family, exactly the people Sustrans wants to target, it fails as a credible national cycle way.

For me it fails because:

  1. I’m commuting so I want to ride from point A to B quickly. Route 12 is the most direct route for me, but because the surface is so poor it takes longer than the further (by at least a mile) on road routes. Furthermore, because of the surface quality it is necessary to use a slower bike with larger, heavier off-road tyres.
  2. When it’s wet and muddy, at the end of the working day, I don’t want to have to put on muddy clothes from the morning, neither do I want to have to hose down my bike every night.
  3. Using route 12 my bikes require more maintenance than using on road routes. Chains, breaks and tyres wear faster.
  4. Despite using tough tyres I get more punctures on route 12 than on the alternative road routes. Changing the inner tube from a tyre covered in mud and grit, in the dark, isn’t much fun.
  5. In its current state, I would not take my children on it. I am too nervous of slipping on gravel to take my youngest in their child seat. I don’t suppose the ride would be very comfortable for them either.
  6. During the winter I generally do not use the route for points 1 to 4.
  7. There is an inherent conflict in using established farm tracks (which much of this section is). Large farm vehicles damage surfaces in ways bikes cannot. Farming creates hazards on the track too. 2 years ago sugarbeet was grown in an adjacent field. For a month after harvesting, large football sized lumps of mud and beets littered the track. Should anyone be responsible for clearing such obstacles, if so who?

To be a credible national cycle way the average cyclists should reasonably expect off-road routes to provide a maintained, smooth surface across which they can travel at a good pace on an average bike and at any time of year. As stated at the start of this post, this is something Sustrans aspires to. Off-road sections of the NCN Route 12 do not provide this. And it is such a terrible shame. Sustrans does an enormous amount of good promoting cycling, yet is let down by some few pretty lines on a map.

I accept Sustrans is a charity and its resources are limited. However, if a route is clearly not fit for purpose and there are not the resources to make it so, then please Sustrans, do not brand it as something it is not. Cyclists would rather see 5000 miles of good quality and planned network rather than 15,000 miles of route ranging from outstanding to abysmal. The later will only serve to prejudice potential cyclists against the NCN.

About richardjostler

Data Scientist working at Rothamsted Research
This entry was posted in Commuting, Cycling, National Cycle Network, sustrans and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to The National Cycleway Network. Route 12 the good and the bad.

  1. jason says:

    shocking!!! i wonder if the guided cycle from the ambiance cafe on sunday will cover this section, as they ask for a donation to sustrans?


  2. Pingback: Commuting on the Sustrans National Cycle Network | Velo Richard

  3. Philjcoates says:

    That’s if you can find it!


  4. Beth says:

    It’s also interesting to note that there is a daytime cycle ban on part of route 12 — on Bridge Street in Peterborough!


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