Venus to Velodrome: an interplanetary social ride

In March, York Cycle Campaign organised a rather daunting social ride: to cycle across the solar system. Thankfully, as ride leader Rob Ainsley explains, there was no need for spacesuits or rocket fuel; just a thirst for knowledge and a working set of wheels…

York has two separate Planets Trails. The more famous one starts with the sun at Tesco and finishes with Pluto at Riccall, en route to Selby. But there’s a smaller version, wound through the university campus, and this was the one visited by a small but enthusiastic group of riders on York Cycle Campaign’s leisure ride this mild, dry evening.

We met by the Minster and headed down the west side of the Ouse, over the Millennium Bridge and across the stray to the university. Its Planets Trail starts at the observatory, where a selection of washing lines – sorry, radio telescopes – are helping in the search for planets outside our solar system. Where could there be intelligent life in the universe? Looking at the inability of the UK’s Parliament to find a way through Brexit on the same evening, many might wonder if there’s much of it in Westminster.

Mars, notable for its lack of politicians, is becoming an increasingly desirable place to live

The uni’s models, unlike the ‘other’ lot where Pluto is a ball-bearing 11km away, are not on the same scale as the horizontal. In fact, every planet is the same beach-ball size, from diminutive Pluto (which was discovered by accident and nearly called ‘Percy’, before acquiring its name from an 11-year-old girl, as tour leader Rob Ainsley vividly explained), to mighty Jupiter (whose Great Red Spot is a storm that has been raging for over a thousand years, which must have ruined a lot of holiday plans there).

Rob points out Jupiter’s millennium-old Great Red Spot

They’re strung out through the uni campus, which is a pleasant place to bike round, and quiet out of term time. Saturn, in the manor-garden grounds of Heslington Hall, has unfortunately been stolen, presumably adorning the room of a rather embarrassed and sobered-up student somewhere. The recent university extension, Heslington East, feels like part of the Netherlands, with its wide cycleways, shiny new eco-ish faculty buildings and accommodation blocks, and clanking brick setts on cyclable busways that feel built on dodgy sand; we passed Uranus on the way there, which as Rob explained, was discovered in a back garden in Bath in 1781 and initially called ‘George’.

Good thing they settled on Uranus. George is a ridiculous name for a planet

Beyond Pluto, we cycled the short distance to York Sport, to look at the Velodrome. Darryl – here on the ride as a participant, but an informed source on the ‘dromes, as he works there – explained how it compares to Manchester and London’s more famous, steeper, but less accessible versions. York’s is in frequent and lively use by local clubs and organisations, and any kid who fancies becoming the next Jason Kenny or Laura Trott can come along and join in, without needing anything in the way of costly equipment – they even lend bikes.

The velodrome is accessible to absolutely anyone, beginner or expert, no equipment necessary (so long as you turn up during daylight hours)

By the side of the velodrome is a 1km flat, smooth tarmac circuit, which is open to members of the public to cycle round – not tonight though, as it happened, because York Triathlon club were whizzing round it on a training run. Like the velodrome (which isn’t open to the public for cycling, though you can stroll around its viewing-gallery perimeter) it’s a fabulous cycling resource to be proud of, and one that ought to be better known in the city. Again, Darryl had a fascinating and entertaining insider’s view of the facility.

Darryl explains why riding a Dutch bike at 10mph around the velodrome is neither sensible nor physically possible

It was now dark, and we cycled past the Park and Ride, past B&Q on a substandard shared-use path, and through Osbaldwick, where we joined the western end of the Foss Islands Path to take us easily back to the centre. To the edge of the solar system and back in two hours: not a bad evening’s work.

Thanks to all participants for an enjoyable, lively and amusing ride. We’re looking forward to more in the lighter spring and summer evenings!

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