Bike-based campaigning

Many campaigners on environmental and global justice issues are also keen cyclists, so it’s no surprise that pedal-powered activism is so popular. On the Debt issue alone, teams from Leeds have pedalled their way to G8 events in Birmingham, Cologne, Okinawa, Genoa, Evian, The Rockies and Edinburgh. Below is a guide for bike-based campaigning which was originally prepared for the Climate Chains ride from Bradford to The Wave event in London on 5 December 2009.


So how does it work?

italy_dustMany campaigning rides are one-day (or even one-hour) events, such as a Critical Mass gathering (where the message is mainly about cycling itself) or a staged photo opportunity with a suitably bedecked rickshaw. But on this page I’m talking mainly about longer, multi-day rides.

Typically, the goal is to join a major national event (like The Wave) organised by a coalition of NGOs – and they will usually be keen to encourage and publicise such bike rides from different parts of the country. It’s in the interest of both the riders and the national event organisers to keep each other informed – particularly as the final day approaches, so that the media can make the most of photo and interview opportunities.

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Daily distance

Jubilee G8 Bike Rides 2005

Jubilee G8 Bike Rides 2005

Experienced cyclists will often clock up distances of over 100 miles a day, but for a mixed ability team, it makes sense to aim for about 50 – 60. Other factors to consider are: the amount of luggage to be carried and the sort of roads to be travelled. Serious hills will tend to slow things down (as will headwinds), and although it’s usually a lot pleasanter cycling on backroads and cycle tracks, these can easily add 50% or more to the mileage as well as increasing the amount of time spent getting lost and then stopping to peer at maps.

The map at the right shows the routes taken by the various teams who rode to the Make Poverty History event in 2005. One rickshaw and 225 bikes converged just south of Edinburgh and rode together into the city centre.

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Good practice on wheels

If a few basic groundrules can be agreed amongst the group, these can help to minimise delays, frustration and accidents. (When the Rickshaw Freedom Riders pedalled to Cologne in 1999, we were fairly disorganised and seemed to average one accident per day. Two years later, when we pedalled to Genoa over the Alps, we’d learned our lesson and the accident rate was down to about one per week.)

Typical groundrules might include…

  • One person to take on the role of navigator for each day and to set a pace that all are comfortable with.
  • A pattern of rest stops should be agreed in advance.
  • There will always be a designated ‘back marker’, to make sure no-one gets left behind and to help with punctures etc.
  • Navigator and back marker each to have mobile phones so that the front and rear of the group can keep in touch.
  • On busy roads when there are more than about 12 riders, the group should leave a gap in the middle, to make it easier for vehicles to overtake.
  • Banners should be furled whenever horses are encountered (they tend to freak out quite alarmingly!)

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For small teams with a handful of riders, it’s sometimes possible to find supportive households to provide full board and lodging. Try friends, family or contacts through campaign networks. And such generous souls can often find other families in the neighbourhood who are prepared to offer additional space if needed. However, it’s a lot trickier to plan the next day’s ride and to set off quickly in the morning if the team is split between several households.

For larger teams, the simplest solution is often to find a church hall with suitable facilities. Many churches these days are keen to support campaigns that address issues of global justice, and some will even lay on a slap-up meal to welcome wheeled pilgrims. One way of locating such havens is through organisations like Christian Aid, Tearfund or Cafod. Another technique is to Google “churches in Walthamstow” or wherever, and then phone the most likely-looking candidates. It’s worth asking, too, if they’re interested enough in the issue to make good use of you while you’re there – maybe setting up an evening event where you can say why you’re doing the ride.

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Support vehicle

It makes riding a lot easier if you don’t have to carry much luggage. So some rides are accompanied by a support vehicle.


Going to Genoa in 2001, the support van carried all the tents and most of the other luggage. The support team would arrive early at the campsite, put up most of the tents and start fixing the evening meal. They also occasionally provided a pick-up service for broken bikes and injured/exhausted cyclists – and once we’d completed our mission, they then transported all the bikes back home again. Fantastic!

The main drawbacks, however, are (a) the expense, (b) someone’s got the tedious job of driving at cycling speed and then doing a lot of skivvying and (c) it partly defeats the point of travelling by pedal power (rather like David Cameron’s infamous support limo). Interestingly, one of the little-appreciated advantages of including a rickshaw on the ride is that all the sleeping bags can be slung onto the back seat, and – in an emergency – it can even be used to transport injured bicycles or people. Rickshaws: is there anything they can’t do?

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How much to take

b01-12Assuming no support vehicle, and that accommodation is mainly in church halls, a typical load would be two rear panniers mainly full of clothes, a sleeping mat wrapped round a sleeping bag (all in a bin liner and strapped on top of the rear rack), and a handlebar bag containing maps, snacks, camera etc for easy access while riding. Different riders have very different preferences, of course: some hate to wear a backpack, while others feel naked without one.

A couple of the more experienced riders should bring a fairly comprehensive toolkit. All riders, however, should have (at the very least) working lights, a pump, puncture repair kit, enough tools to remove a wheel and tyre, and a new spare tube. Some will also carry a spare tyre, in case a broken bottle does serious damage.

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trainingrideBoth rider and mount need to be fit for purpose. Training rides are good for evaluating both.

The bike should be given a thorough overhaul a few weeks before the ride by someone who knows what they’re doing. This should probably include replacing the chain and rear sprocket unless this has been done recently.
One of the best ways of getting fit for the main event is to do regular rides in the preceding weeks, even if the distances are fairly short. Leeds cycling legend Tim Harberd reckons that cycling 10% of the proposed daily ride distance every day for a couple of weeks is ideal preparation for the main event.

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And there’s more

There’s obviously a lot more that could be said on bike-based campaigning and I hope to expand on this topic in due course – and I’ve now started a page on making and using silky banners. In the meantime, if you’d like to join the Climate Chains ride, you can sign up on their website.

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Bill Phelps