Northern Delights – Manchester by bike

My first visit to Manchester in 2003 was less than thrilling and I’ll admit my relationship with the city didn’t get off to the best start.  Much like Glasgow, I found it full of oppressively red brick Victorian buildings, difficult to navigate, and rainy.  I’d been living in Edinburgh for the last several months and  much preferred the city’s medieval and Georgian architecture, which was far less stifling.

Time passed, I ended up in Liverpool and started to make the jaunt up the M62 more regularly.  The city grew on me; I began to find my way around the city centre and get to know outlying areas like Stockport and Chorlton.  I know my way around the tram network and the odd bus route.  The galleries and museums intrigued and impressed me, as did the biannual Manchester International Festival.  I have some wonderful friends scattered around the area, so I enjoy spending time there when I get the chance.

On the last weekend of good weather in May, I was staying with a good friend who is also a keen cyclist and told me about the Brompton Dock bike rental scheme at Piccadilly station.  She’d already picked up a bike for a week’s trial and it sounded like a pretty good way to hire a bike for a few days and explore the city on two wheels.  It’s really easy to use; create an account online, decide which membership plan you want to pay for (trial, occasional or frequent rider) and enter your mobile number so you can receive access codes to the lockers.  The trial membership is only £10 for a week’s rental, which is by far the cheapest way to rent a bike in Manchester.  It’s a lot easier to use than the Boris bikes in London, which required a card with chip and PIN to rent one, last time I was there. Meaning of course that a pretty big group of tourists is excluded from turning up and renting a bike.  Visitors from non-C&P countries can use Brompton Dock provided they have a UK mobile number. You can reserve a bike online or via text and then you get an access code to open the designated locker.  There are instructions on the lockers on how to fold and unfold the bikes as well as demo videos online.  Not being mechanically minded I wasn’t sure how easy it would be, but I got the hang of it pretty quickly.

Brompton Dock Manchester, image via brompton.co.uk

The Brompton was easy to ride, very manoeuverable and light.  I had no trouble getting it on and off the tram or getting it indoors when needed. It’s great on paved surfaces, but you’re going to feel it on cobblestones as there’s nothing to absorb the shocks.  The saddle is the only real drawback; we agreed that it was not comfortable, it’s somewhat narrow and doesn’t have much in the way of padding.  There’s a non-standard bolt securing it to the frame, so swapping it over for your another saddle isn’t an option.

So I have a fun little bike–what did I do with it?

On Friday, I joined my first Critical Mass ride–a monthly mass cycling event encouraging people of all ages and experience to get out and ride together through the city.  The route is spontaneous, changing each time.  The sunshine brought out about 150 riders to central Manchester’s and with such a large group no one was going to be setting any landspeed records, which suited me fine.  The route rambled through the Northern Quarter and Great Ancoats Street before eventually turning south and finishing in Platts Fields Park, near the space run by bicycle co-operative Pedal Manchester. It was a lot of fun and we had a good chat with some fellow riders afterwards.

Sunday’s journey was the more sedate Gabardine Ride, which was something of a warm up for June’s Tweed Ride. Anyone who wished was welcome to put on some summer finery and meet in Albert Square for a leisurely ride towards Chorlton.  Given that I was travelling out of a backpack, I pulled together an ensemble consisting of a top somewhere between a dress and a tshirt, leggings, and a pair of Campers that are half-brogue, half-trainer. With some borrowed pearls for that finishing touch.

Gabardine Riders, image courtesy of Mad Cycle Lane Manchester

There were about 10 of us in total, and their knowledge showed me parts of Manchester I would have never seen otherwise.  We stopped at the Whitworth Art Gallery for some refreshment partway through; their cafe has garnered a fair bit of attention for its seasonal and locally sourced menu.  I couldn’t resist a slice of deep dark chocolate cake to help fuel the remainder of the ride.  Winding through Moss Side, Fallowfield and taking in some lovely shaded cycle paths, we arrived in Chorlton for a quick pint in the sun at The Beech Inn’s beer garden.  Chorlton is one of my favourite towns in the north and its village green was a happening place with a family-friendly festival in full swing as we biked past.  Word of another cycle group at Jackson’s Boat pub near Sale got us back on our bikes and following part of the Mersey river near the Sale Water Park.  It was really tranquil and felt worlds away from Manchester city centre.

Eventually it was time to head back to the city and we were guided to Stretford tram station by a local rider.  It was easy to get the Bromptons on and off the trams and then return mine to the dock at Piccadilly.

Me with the Bromptons on the tram, Manchester

It was a fantastic weekend to explore Manchester by bike.  Cycle events take place across the city regularly and if you want to find out more, the Greater Manchester Cycling Campaign is a good place to start.

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10 Comments

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10 responses to “Northern Delights – Manchester by bike

  1. You chose a great weekend to visit! I missed that last Critical Mass but from what I’ve heard it was a really good one, glad you enjoyed it. £10 for a week is a bargain for a Brompton too!

    • Thanks for your comment Phil. There was such a big turnout for Critical Mass, loads more than the last one I was told. I’d definitely do it again if I get the chance. Can’t say enough good things about the Brompton scheme, it’s worth having a go if you just fancy trying one out.

  2. You know, I never actually knew about that bike hire… what a great idea. And what a lovely way to see the city too.

    • I know it’s only been going since March, so I hope the word is starting to spread. We got a fair bit of attention at Critical Mass and sounded like proper brand ambassadors by the end of the event. 😉 I definitely want to do it again and bring the camera, there’s so much of greater Manchester to explore and such a contrast between urban and rural.

  3. Steve

    Interesting that you were allowed on the tram without putting the brompton in a bag…..Technically folding bikes are still against the Metrolink bylaws.

    • Thanks for stopping by Steve. We were warned that inspectors might insist upon putting them in bags, but I guess we got lucky, as we didn’t see any inspectors on our tram at all. Some folks have said they carry around a bin bag with them for such instances, I’ll have to do that next time.

      • Steve

        I commute in to Manchester from Stoke everyday with Brompton. I carry a wheelie bin bin bag just in case i need to use the tram. Although since they changed operators and now they are operated by RATP (Paris Metro operator) they seem to have become more folding bike friendly. Maybe it was the Brompton adverts on the trams. Interesting that Brompton Dock are opening in Stoke the Virgin trains Brompton hire scheme in Stoke bombed.

  4. Dave H

    Good to see the word is getting around. The bike scheme is also more flexible than bike sharing, and regular users are encouraged to take bikes out on long term hire, as unlike the Barclays bikes the prices come down the longer you keep the bike. This of course means that another bike can be put in the locker and hired out. The first manual pilot scheme was launched in May 2009 – several months ahead of the Barclays scheme, but quietly with 50 SW Trains season ticket holders, and around 100 bikes have been on long term hire from Waterloo building up operational experience. The first automated unit is in Guildford, and due shortly to be upgraded to the Manchester (production) standard. Next week should see the Stoke on Trent launch, and there follow around 20 other locations, noted on the website.

    Already some employers and large institutions are looking to offer free membership or even free use of the fully serviced bike as an incentive to give up a car park space on their sites. One large West London HQ reckons that for every employee who does not require a parking space on site they make a saving of around £9000/year, and just the other day I learned that for a Home Counties regional hospital site, the provision of an expanded (multi storey) car park costed at the very minimum of £12,000/space* to construct would need to be charged out at just under £7 per space per day to cover amortisation and operating costs over a 25 year write-down – a Brompton Dock bike on long term hire costs under £1.70 per day to the user, and that includes an element of revenue to the host site. Hence a likely appearance of these bikes in corporate branding at large workplaces, business parks, universities, and NHS sites.

    *Currently my record price per parking space sits with Penrith Station, where a second level of car parking has been built over the existing car park to add just 30 more spaces at a cost of £2.5m – or £83,333 per space, at least it seems to be filling up, unlike Preston and Wigan (c £23,000/space), where prices have been cut by 40% to get the spaces filled. Do post me details of your empty car parks – it is a growing national trend with car use reducing since 2007.

    Amazingly London 2012 turned down the option of having Brompton, or Pashley (the only remaining UK volume bike producers) as the supplier of bicycles, instead opting for a package of BMW cars with ‘BMW’ bikes, which, are a rather ugly looking hard-tail MTB which do not even carry a maker’s branding or London 2012 logo (almost as if the bikes are an embarrassing but necessary requirement). What we could have done with a legacy of re-useable utility cycles to local bike hire schemes carrying their branding of London 2012 into their new uses.

    • Those are some interesting stats Dave, thanks for sharing.

      I hope Brompton Dock continues to be successful and expand. Glad to hear their Stoke-on-Trent launch is imminent. Having been picked up at Penrith station not too long ago, I can safely say that the car park gets quite full there.

      I’m surprised London 2012 turned down the chance to have a fleet of Pashleys or Bromptons, as that certainly would have helped both brands’ marketing. Perhaps they were following the look of the Boris bikes–functional and less desirable to steal. That’s total speculation on my part though.

      • There may have been an element of not being able to scale up production for a whole fleet – the Pashley factory must be quite limited in terms of how many bikes they can make a day what with each bike being assembled by hand. It’d also have been a rather expensive fleet to purchase! A collection of Pashleys with Union Jack livery would look absolutely fantastic though!

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