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Biking for biosecurity

Author:  Simon Cox
Last Updated:  05/03/2019

Starting from AA Headquarters, on the edge of the Severn estuary in Gloucestershire, at around 2.30am on a cold morning in December, four intrepid Arboricultural Association members cycled to the Houses of Parliament to deliver the biosecurity message in person at the official release of the AA’s Guidance Note 2: Application of Biosecurity in Arboriculture. This is the story of their journey.

‘You’re mad as a box of frogs’

…said the bewildered lady, walking her dog. We’d stopped at yet another set of traffic lights somewhere between Maidenhead and Slough during rush hour. She asked if we’d come far. ‘Gloucestershire,’ we said, which is what prompted her reply. Lights changed, ‘toodle pip’ and on we went.

For me this journey started long before the early hours of Thursday 6 December 2018. It took three years to co-compile AA Guidance Note 2: Application of Biosecurity in Arboriculture, which received its official launch at the Houses of Parliament at an event attended by Members of the House of Lords and the House of Commons, among others. Being there was an absolute chance of a lifetime. And if I was going to attend, I decided it would be by bike.

A plan hatched, I ‘Russelled’ up some support (that’s so awful I had to put it in), and without hesitation, a few put their hands up to join me:

Simon Cox en route with the Guidance Note
Night riders
Early morning at the gates of Kew

All are keen cyclists and felt they had the miles in their legs. But this ride was different. All of us were nervy about night riding for such a long time, the risk of bad weather, city cycling, and time pressure.

The route itself was pretty straight-forward and relatively flat. Leaving The Malthouse (AA HQ) near at 2.30am, we headed to Stroud and on to Cirencester. This included the first and steepest climb. Around a mile long and peaking at 11%, I consider Cowcombe Hill on the A419 to be one of the duller routes out of the Stroud Valleys. But around 3am, after little sleep, it was a wake-up call. Russell phrased it perfectly: ‘My brain was engaged but certainly not my body.’

From Cirencester we took in some very sleepy Cotswolds towns and villages along the A417 for miles on end. We crossed the river Thames for the first time, our pace was steady, there was a tailwind, and the temperature was surprisingly mild, but the most amazing thing was the silence. Peace and tranquillity mile after mile. Night riding turned out to be a joy. After a quick stop to access an outside tap (in the dark) at a cycle shop en route, we trundled on. Before we knew it, we were 50 miles in and heading for the Chilterns.

The chosen route avoided Reading, instead looping round to Henley-on-Thames from Wallingford. Breakfast and coffee loomed, so the 5-mile ascent followed by the same downhill seemed effortless (for some). By 7.30am we’d covered over 70 miles, had a few photo opportunities, and completed almost all the climbing. Night turned to day as we smashed coffee and croissants having taken over a small coffee shop with Lycra, bikes and high spirits. It couldn’t have gone any better.

Back on the bikes for the last 40 miles. We felt confident because now we had the best part of 3.5 hours to get to Westminster and park up. After a few steady short climbs we picked up the A4. Rush hour had firmly kicked in as we crossed Maidenhead and Slough. It seemed to take forever to make it to Colnbrook, then Heathrow … Osterley … Brentford. The stop-start had really dented our pace, which was not helped by daylight providing a welcome opportunity to see our surroundings, trees and changing landscapes. After a quick conflab, we decided to take in some London sights, so we headed off-piste to Kew Gardens for a group photo, document and all. At this point we realised time was getting tight. The trickiest traffic was to come. From Chiswick we became weavers and carvers through the slow-moving traffic, occasionally thinking better of the gaps between the buses and the lorries. As fast as we tried to go, another set of lights was not far away. Sticking together as a group in the hustle and bustle became challenging. We started to pass some landmarks – Kensington Palace, the Royal Albert Hall, Knightsbridge, Hyde Park Corner. The route took us past Buckingham Palace, our last photo opportunity, and we couldn’t resist even if it made us late.

But we weren’t late, after all the rush and worry, 108 miles, 9.5 hours, several counties and numerous traffic lights we were bang on time. Commuting from Gloucester to London by bike could become mainstream.

After abandoning the bikes which we locked to some railings (and not entirely confident they would be there on our return), we headed to our entrance gate and security check. The area around Parliament was heaving with activity and it added to the excitement. Without a doubt the most amusing part of my day was seeing Russell imagining he was receiving a massage whilst being patted down by a House of Commons security guard. We were in stiches. Other visitors were perplexed.

You can probably tell Russell provided us with humour and energy throughout the ride, so thank you to him for that. Karl deserves a thank you for excellent navigating skills (and the ability to use a Garmin), pushing the pace when needed. The ‘quickest 100 miles I have ever cycled, can’t wait for the next one’ in Karl’s book. I still can’t comprehend how Pete managed this, but from 2am until the end of the day, he owned social media – photos, videos, comments, likes, the lot. All whilst riding. He logged the entire ride so if you want to see more check out his various profiles. The idea of this ride and all its associated risks gave Stewart Wardrop, the AA CEO, kittens.

The official release of the Guidance Note at the Houses of Parliament

A huge thank you to him for looking after those kittens. He was certainly a relieved man when he saw us all arrive at Parliament. We’re not sure if he slept a wink that night.

Pete also deserves a thank you for representing not just AA interests but also the Institute of Chartered Foresters (ICF) on the ride. Guidance Note 2: Application of Biosecurity in Arboriculture was delivered to the event by representatives of the AA and ICF, which showed a clear, unified and strong message to stakeholders and policymakers. It is ironic that the next day the UK’s first outbreak of eight-toothed spruce bark beetle (Ips typographus) was reported in Kent. We were all chuffed to bits that both Lord Framlingham and Professor Nicola Spence (Defra’s Chief Plant Health Officer and Deputy Director for Plant and Bee Health) mentioned the ride in their speeches. Thanks also to the ICF for part-funding our jerseys.

I never considered I would go inside the Palace of Westminster in my life, let alone invited. The experience was overwhelming when Prosecco and endorphins were added to the mix. I hope having four smelly, sweaty and windswept men gallivanting around in Lycra added to the attendees’ experience. I’m sure it will be remembered at least.

I’d love to give you a romanticised story of how the ride resembled authoring the guidance note – all the effort, planning, blood, sweat and tears. Unfortunately, there is no clear link or good reason for riding bikes to the release event of the document. But it made for a fantastic experience and a bloody good excuse to get cycling.

If this inspires you in any way and you want to contribute to the industry, get in contact with the Arboricultural Association or the Institute of Chartered Foresters. Alternatively, for an easier life, just donate some money to Fund4Trees

Oh, in case you wondered, we all got the train home, bikes and all.

Article taken from The ARB Magazine Issue 184 Spring 2019. As a member you can view The ARB Magazine online, simply Log In and view the 'ARB Magazine' tab in your Account Area.