Yesterday morning I met Chris Tomlinson of Birmingham Bike Foundry to check on progress with his cycling tour for the festival. Chris was finishing off a game of Bike Polo at Highgate Park’s Urban Cricket ground. Urban Cricket isn’t seen there so often but polo seems to be on the rise. So is cycling generally.
Radial Truths will be a three hour cycling tour exploring what’s left of Birmingham’s cycling industry, and in many cases, that’s an archeological exploration. This is Chris’s first guided tour, but cycling has long been an interest and in 2010 he co-founded Birmingham Bike Foundry to recycle, repair bikes and offer maintenance training. I’d never really looked at this side of Birmingham’s industrial history and was looking forward to finding out what he had in store on the trip.
One question I had for him: how had Birmingham turned from a bike industry leader to motor city in such a short period…and a relatively bike – unfriendly city at that? Chris explained how the Midlands bicycle industry responded to the public’s transportion needs…when motorbikes and cars became more affordable, cycle manufacture slowed down. It wasn’t that the factories “liked” cycling, rather that they could profit from supplying that demand. BSA, for example, moved from artillery through to bicycles (or “dicycles”) for the same reason. After the War, Birmingham reinvented itself as a car-centric city and the association with bicycles was largely lost. Giants like Aston’s Hercules disappeared almost overnight. Yet only a few years previously, the industry was still looking to shiny future…
I asked if there were any pre-war cycle routes so we could follow some historical routes, but as Chris gently explained, there were no cycle routes back then. Cars were the exception on most roads. The road was the cycle route. A young bike polo spectator overheard us and told his his grandfather had been employed by Hercules and he was enthusiastically researching the company’s history too. Could he come on the tour? I enjoy these moments!
Our first stop was the site of the once-enormous Ariel factory complex in Selly Oak. Even since I was last there in 2011 huge swathes of land have been cleared and rebuilt, including the aquaduct. So should this important cycling location be on the tour? I felt if we could identify one remaining trace, he should use it (I hate hearing the phrase “here once stood” on guided tours). Chris had heard a rumour that there was a plaque somewhere on the aquaduct, named Ariel Bridge after the factory. But there was no trace of anything – something Birmingham is very good at! We had to press on with the tour, with the ultimate destination of the mighty Hercules plant.
Find out how Chris got on with his exploration by booking a place on his tour. I promise, we did find something!