NCN 51 Surface Improvements?

At about the same time that I broke my collar bone, Sustrans started improvement works on the surface of their National Cycle Network route 51, between Southoe and the B661. This work was long overdue. I’m back on the bike now so, this week, I decided to try out the NCN for my commute to St Neots station. What would the improvements be like – would this section of the NCN finally be a genuinely fit for purpose national cycle network?

First, the link from the Grafham Water cycle track to the B661 is still mud and grass, however, a patch of tarmac has been laid to fill in a pothole between the small bridge, over a drainage ditch, and the road.

A new tarmac section, a big, welcome improvement but will it stay free from vegetation?

A new tarmac section, a big, welcome improvement but will it stay free from vegetation?

Across the road and things start to look better. Previously, this sector was a 300m stretch of muddy bridleway. In the winter it frequently flooded. It has now been resurfaced with tarmac which is a huge and welcome improvement, but it has been done in a rather strange way. Rather than a single, wide tarmac path, it has been split into two narrower parallel lines with a mud and grass strip running down the middle. I can only guess this middle strip is for horses, but if so, why not put it to one side? The tarmac surface now has four rather than two verges, so four sides for vegetation to encroach from. This surface is a leap in the right direction, but it will be interesting to see how durable it is.

New, deep gravel to cover the mud

New, deep gravel to cover the mud

The Tarmac surface soon comes to an end, but it is not the end of the new surfaces. Else where along the route several tonnes of gravel have been used to cover the worst of the muddier sections. On first glance, though not as good as a sealed surface, it looks like another huge leap forward, but start riding on it and concerns surface.

An effort has been made to pack the gravel down, however, there are patches where it is still quite loose. This is especially noticeable around the corners and I found some of them quite sketchy. I had originally planned to put narrower and slicker tyres on my bike – I was glad I went for something a little more robust.

A problem for this route’s surface is that it is shared with farm traffic. While bikes and horses might disturb some of the gravel, it will be interesting to see how it fares under the weight of tractors, trailers and combine harvesters. Well, the harvest will be coming in over the next couple of weeks so we’ll soon know…

More new gravel - glinting prettily in the sunlight?

More new gravel – glinting prettily in the sunlight?

Riding home I noticed areas of the gravelled surface glinting in the late afternoon summer sun. I wondered what they might be, so stopped and had a look. Tiles. The gravel was full of bits of broken, glazed tiles. But now that I was and, for the first time, looking properly at the surface I was shocked by what I was seeing. By comparison to what else I found, bits of broken tile were quite benign. In the about ten seconds I found numerous bits of broken glass, a dozen nails and screws, a bolt and a few other bits of metal, including a two inch hinge! The surface was full of embedded pieces of puncture inducing junk – small wonder that the next day I passed a couple walking home with a flat tyre (I did offer to fix it, but they declined).

Surface materials provided by Sustrans

Surface materials provided by Sustrans

I was angry, I still am angry. Sustrans is an organisation which claims to speak for cyclists, which claims to lobby for better infrastructure for cyclists. Yet here they are, providing a new surface, on their flagship national cycle network, embedded with nails and broken glass! Not gravel, more like cheap, smashed up hardcore from a demolition site. When Sustrans are content to provide surfaces like this, it should be no surprise that cycling infrastructure in the UK is in the parlous state it is.

About richardjostler

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

4 Responses to NCN 51 Surface Improvements?

  1. garethtovey says:

    The problem with most cycle lanes in the UK is they’re an afterthought at best, usually maintained with the dregs of a local transport budget or funded by central government grants. Organisations like Sustrans are compelled to endorse them because to do otherwise would be political suicide.


    • velorichard says:

      I’m not sure I would agree that Sustrans are compelled to endorse them, and if they were, then compromising like that for political expediency would represent a very sorry state of affairs.

      What I would like to see is Sustrans lobbying for usable infrastructure, and if it doesn’t come up to scratch saying so. I don’t think that would be suicide. The problem though is that with their flagship NCN they are quite happy to stick a couple of blue signs on a muddy bridleway and call it cycling infrastructure. When they do that, with what authority can they lobby local and national government for better infrastructure? Furthermore they risk alienating the very people who should be their core supporters. That, I think is political suicide.


  2. garethtovey says:

    There is a wider problem of cycle infrastructure being not fit for purpose, of which this is an extreme example. I think in many cases, a simple blue sign on a post, or worse, a sticker, constitutes a cycle lane in the minds of the local authorities and lobby groups, with little apparent thought to the users, possibly because they aren’t necessarily the ones using the routes regularly. I’ve recently been in contact with a local council and a local lobby group over a contra flow cycle route which routes cyclists against the flow of traffic in a one-way system, which is leading to confrontation and confusion between cyclists and other road users. The council were sympathetic, the lobby group, less so. They’re view was “use it or lose it,” a fair comment in most circumstances but in this instance a somewhat blinkered view when the problems with the route are being highlighted by the users. For all it’s problems though, that route does at least have Tarmac on it, but it is still very annoying when cyclists’ are undermined by the groups purporting to work for them.


  3. Pingback: Bolts, Plugs and Builders Nails | Velo Richard

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