Brighton Bike Fest 2012

Tom Lawson visits a colourful new cycling festival in Brighton

After pedalling around an unfamiliar city for a leg-achingly long amount of time and already an hour late for the start, I wondered if I would ever find it. But then, suddenly, I heard the faint, familiar sound of a jingling bicycle bell. I turned the corner and sure enough a sea of cyclists stretched out in front of me. I had arrived at the first ever Brighton Bike Fest.

The event, which took place on 16-22 April, was a free week-long extravaganza promoting cycling as a safe, healthy, cheap and sustainable alternative to the car. It also highlighted the bicycle’s ability to bring people together by hosting group rides, workshops and games.

The festival was entirely volunteer-run and organised through a series of open meetings. Cycle groups from across the city organised taster sessions of their regular events as well as hosting some unique activities especially for the festival. Events during the week included a critical mass ride, bike polo tournaments and workshops including zine-making and bike beautifying, evidence of which could be seen around the city with bicycles bearing flags, ribbons and polka dot paint.

I was there for the final weekend of the festival and arrived at the Level, the base for the outdoor events, where stall-holders greeted me with city cycling maps and information promoting local cycle groups.

Nearby, the bike doctor was on hand to fix any niggling ailments and for the more adventurous mechanic there was also Cranks, a repair shop usually open three days a week providing tools and advice to have a go at fixing for yourself. It was the morning after the festival’s 50-mile London-Brighton ride, so both had a stream of customer queuing up. Tim, who was on the ride said, “we got a little held up by punctures but all 14 of us made it in the end and for some it was their longest ever ride. A few of us are even thinking of heading back by bike again tomorrow.”

The first event of the day was the treasure hunt. With a map and book of clues in hand, I joined a team of intrepid treasure hunters and set off cycling across the city. To my pleasant surprise I soon discovered that the festival had attracted not only Brighton-based bike-lovers, but people from across the UK. This did however make navigating our way around a little tricky and in the end we headed back defeated to catch the rest of the day’s events. But we had great fun and as team member Chris says: “It’s a lovely idea. You really get to see Brighton.”

Back at the Level I met Duncan Blinkhorn who has helped run a daily ‘bike train’ to the university for the past two years. The train involves cyclists riding together along one lane of a dual carriageway. “Safety in numbers is the idea,” says Duncan. “The aim is to make a busy road more accessible, to assert our own road space and give a visual message but still allow people to overtake.”

The scheme is expanding and the festival marked the first bike train to a Brighton and Hove Albion football match, which will run for every home fixture next season.

The day ended with crowds gathering for ‘awkward races’ including slaloms and egg and spoon, as well as the jousting competition. Knights on bikes lined up for duels in which participants frantically pedalled towards each other with lances made from recycled cardboard tubes padded with old clothes; the whole thing ending with predictably comic results. All of this was accompanied by a cycle-powered sound system made at a workshop earlier in the week and with everyone taking part it really summed up the spirit of the festival.

Organisers hope to make it an annual occurrence. A volunteer, Zeski says: “It seems like we’ve generated a lot of interest for the future and we’re already looking forward to next year.”