Cycling from Bangor to Belfast to see a Jetplane

Bangor (the Northern Ireland one) is less than 15 miles from Belfast, a distance which may be a longer than average ride, but should be easy for most regular cyclists or reasonably fit irregular cyclists like myself, if you have the excuse.

My excuse was to try to get a look at Bombardier’s newest plane, the CS300. This aircraft has a large amount of manufacturing input from the firm’s factory in Belfast. The plane had just been to the Paris Air Show and on it’s way back to Montreal it had a stop-off at Bombardier’s Belfast site, which is right beside George Best Belfast City Airport. Take off for Montreal was to be at 9am on 20th June so instead of burning a lot of petrol to be a planespotter for just half an hour, I thought I should ride my bike.

I had to take a screenshot instead of letting Medium embed a map because the cycling haters at Google made it so the link only showed the car info when pasted into Medium, not the cycling info

I have driven from Bangor to Belfast many times but the thought of cycling on it filled me with dread. Once outside Bangor, the direct route by car is all two lanes in each direction of varying speed limits from 40 to 60 miles per hour. Alternatively there is a coastal footpath that has sections suitable for cycling, but in the end I was in a hurry, so I took the straight path and rode the main roads, with a bit of a detour through a village to straighten the route further and avoid one of the 60 miles per hour sections.

Google suggested that to cycle the route would take about an hour. I left the house (not the address in the image) at 8:20am, knowing that I was cutting things fine.

The ride to Crawfordsburn village was very pleasant. I had never really noticed the cycle lanes up the hills on the outskirts of Bangor and this gives you a sense of relief that you won’t be holding up motor traffic. There is also a fantastic new road surface most of the way.

After leaving Crawfordsburn you arrive at a big junction to join onto the main Belfast to Bangor road at Ballyrobert (the one in County Down: I used to be very confused when people talked about Ballyrobert and I was thinking of the one in County Antrim). At this point you have avoided one of the two 60 miles per hour sections and the junction is traffic light controlled, which allows a cyclist to cross the four lanes of traffic safely.

I was surprised by how good the road manners of the vast majority of drivers were. All but a very few gave me a whole lane when overtaking and only two or three were in danger of catching me on their wing mirrors, which although not perfect was very encouraging to me, as I had imagined being regularly buzzed by motorists. Though any other time than a weekend morning might not be so pleasant.

I rode most of the way fast but steady, later properly kicking it between Cultra and Holywood. I put on my rage face and psyched myself up rather too loudly. I apologise to the residents of Cultra.

Not a pretty sight for a cyclist riding on the hard shoulder on a 60 miles per hour road

After Holywood, though, you get into trouble. There’s another 60 miles per hour section so I opted to ride on the hard shoulder, not realising that choice would leave me stranded when a filter lane crosses it for traffic going into Holywood. Shortly after this point is a shared use cycle path and footway, so I headed for that. Unfortunately when I pushed hard on the pedal to cross the road I got a massive cramp in my left calf, which meant I had to pull over and start to walk.

I was near the airport, though still at least five minutes’ cycle from a suitable viewpoint and I heard a noise that sounded like a plane. I looked round and sure enough it was the back of the Bombardier CS300 rising and heading to the north. Perhaps it was a good thing I had cramped up, otherwise I might not have seen it at all. Though to be sure I had seen it, I wanted to keep going to the bridge over the road at Sydenham train station for a better view.

As I walked I noticed that although there is cycling provision along the road, it is awful. From Holywood to Tillysburn is a shared use pathway whereby a white bicycle symbol has been painted on the footpath. The path is about the size of a normal footpath and is very overgrown, with weeds encroaching at foot level and trees and hedges encroaching at head level. It would be hard enough for a cyclist to safely pass a pedestrian, let alone another cyclist. Plus, there are sharp turns in the path at the Hollywood exchange overpass. I can only conclude the designer had never ridden a bike, let alone tested the route themselves.

Barely enough space to pass a pedestrian, let alone another cyclist

At Tillysburn there was a particularly silly bit of infrastructure: although the shared use path widens and a there is a subway for pedestrians and cyclists to safely cross the large junction, there was only a pelican crossing at road level to get to the subway. Surely this should be a toucan crossing so that cyclists would not be obliged to dismount.

I’m sure all cyclists obey the rules and dismount here

Onto the Sydenham bypass, after crossing an onslip, where traffic may be accelerating and watching for cars instead of bikes, there is a cycle path in the hard shoulder. This path is useless, though, because it is full of debris, so you have to ride in the actual hard shoulder area, between the bike path and the cars.

Good luck crossing to the cycle route on the other side: the onslip traffic has to accelerate to merge with the main carriageway

At Sydenham railway station (which used to be just over the road from the airport terminal before they built a new terminal 400 yards down the road) there is a bridge to cross the railway for changing platforms and to cross the road. The bridge is a great point to safely cross the busy four-lane dual carriageway (two lanes each side), but also acts as a great vantage point to look down over the flat expanse of land between the road and Belfast Lough, including the airport.

Don’t take any luggage with you if you’re taking the train to the airport

The bridge lacks one of those little ramps on the side of the steps for pushing up bikes like there is at the North Road bridge over the Comber Greenway, but my bike is fairly light.

On the bridge I saw two people with big camera lenses, so I assumed they were planespotters. I asked them if I had missed the CS300 take-off and they confirmed that I had (also confirming their planespotter status!). They said it had taken off a few minutes early, without any fanfare.

One of the spotters was quite annoyed by how low-key everything was, and rightly so. Many skilled workers and engineers in Northern Ireland have worked hard to design and build significant parts of the CS300 so it’s first flight into and out of its home airport (well one of its home airports: final assembly is in Montreal) should have been cause for celebration in the local media. Plus, according to the planespotter there is £120 million of government money invested in Bombardier in Belfast, so at least the public should be getting to see where their money is going.

The Swiss were very excited just to receive their first CS100, so how much more excited should the Northern Ireland media be to show off that Belfast is building a lot of it?

At this point I realised I should have brought my annual railcard so I could have taken the train home. Live and learn.

The door is much more mysterious when viewed from normal driving height at 50 miles per hour, than as a still at Google street view camera height

I left the planespotters and descended the bridge down to a little doorway in the airport fence that I had passed many times, but never gone through. I thought it was a viewing area, but it is in fact for a bus shelter and a courtesy phone for travellers connecting to the airport by train to request a free bus to take them to the terminal. Not as exciting as I had thought.

With my curiosity satisfied, I headed home via Decathlon for a Ritter sport to refuel me.

The armco barriers should probably be between the cars and the pedestrians. The trees are lovely, but likely to catch in your bike helmet’s vents

This time I was cycling on the other side of the road (the lough side) and sadly the cycle path was almost as bad on this side if not worse in some areas. From this path I realised the real reason you need a cycle helmet is to stop the overgrown hedges from hitting you. That is, if you actually use the laughably narrow shared use cycle path. Again, I ended up riding in the space between the path and the road.

Beyond Holywood and on to Cultra, I actually think the lack of a cycle lane is a good thing. The road is two lanes in each direction, so passing traffic can give you plenty of room. Don’t get me wrong, I’d prefer a well-designed protected cycle lane, but the cycle path from Holywood to Belfast at best inconveniences cyclists and I think you actually get less space from passing traffic.

Apart from a couple of cars that buzzed me, the ride back to Bangor was uneventful until after Crawfordsburn where I got back to the cycle lanes on the outskirts. These cycle lanes now had a few parked cars dotted around them. #Freethecyclelanes!

Finally, riding down Grays Hill was less than enjoyable because of the angle of attack of the speed bumps. No wonder people drive bigger, taller cars now.

Strava says the elapsed time was two hours and ten minutes, which is about what Google Maps estimated I would do it in, but Google Maps didn’t reckon on me having a massive cramp, walking for a bit of a distance, chatting to planespotters and buying a Ritter sport, so I’m pretty pleased with my time.

Overall, I was impressed by how considerate the vast majority of car drivers were, but I was severly dismayed by the dismal cycle route between Holywood and Belfast, a distance of only 5 miles. This should be considered a ‘strategic’ route for commuting cyclists and should be just as strategic as the road and railway. Lots of journeys between Belfast and Holywood could be made by bike if only the road was safer for cyclists. The road would then be freed up and not become the car-park it usually is at rush hour.

How to improve things? First, the route needs normal, regular maintenance to control the overgrowth and make sure the route isn’t covered by debris. Next, a roads service boss should actually cycle the length of it in both directions. That should concentrate minds to provide paths of appropriate width and clear up niggles like sharp corners and the lack of toucan crossings. Further, there need to be plans to build safe, protected cycle lanes you would let an 8-year-old ride on. Belfast city centre is slowly opening up to cyclists, so it is only logical for the city’s access roads to become more cycle friendly in both directions. The eastbound coastal route should be a tourism hotspot, not a wasteland.

Despite my calf injury and how poor the cycle paths are between Holywood and Belfast, I do love being on my bike, so I really enjoyed being out for the morning. More importantly I felt a great sense of achievement both from completing the route and by riding it much faster than Google suggested I would.

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