“Here comes the sun…”
These are the words that filled the air as we cycled along the traffic-free route from Belfast City Hall to Botanic Gardens yesterday morning (and I haven’t stopped humming them since!). Ironically, despite all my best efforts all week long at a tribal sun dance, the heavens had opened that very morning and the rain fell continuously as we joined hundreds of others all out to enjoy the annual Ciclovia cycling event.
This was our 4th time attending the event and it is without a doubt one of the highlights on our calendar every year – with my 3 boys keen to go exploring their city by bike; followed by lunch of course!
This year, rather than making our own way into town we decided to meet with others from our local area and travel in a cycle convoy which was kindly organised and led by the lovely folks at the Connswater Community Greenway.
We wakened early and looked outside, a little dismayed by the sight of the dense grey clouds looming overhead. But, being a hardcore Northern Irish family and well-used to rainy days, a little drizzle cannot deter us from getting outdoors and active, so we donned our winter woollies and jackets and left home around 9.15am to meet with the group at C.S. Lewis Square for a 9.30am departure into town.
From the minute we arrived we were made to feel so welcome by the staff members from the Connswater Community Greenway. We parked up alongside the sculpture of Aslan, the great Lion from The Chronicles of Narnia for a briefing on the route we would take through Victoria Park, along Sydenham Road, around Queen’s Quay, across the Lagan Bridge and through the city centre to the City Hall.
With everyone eager to get moving and stay warm we enthusiastically set off at a gentle pace to accommodate everyone. Our group consisted of several families, with the littlest ones taking up the best seats in the house on the back of Mum or Dad’s bike, toddlers pedalling all on their own – their little legs working at twice the speed of everyone else’s, all the way up to teenagers. Everyone chatted as we cycled towards Victoria Park and across the Sam Thompson Bridge, the view of the world-famous Harland and Wolff cranes strikingly yellow against the dreary backdrop of the sky.
There was definitely a chill in the air, and the rain unrelenting, but we kept a-pedalling onwards, choosing to enjoy the sights our beautiful city has to offer rather than dwell on the soggy bottoms squelching in our bike seats! Along the Titanic slipway, past the SSE Arena, over the Lagan Bridge, giving the Big Fish a wave as we headed on towards the leaning Albert Clock – how great to be able to do a mini sightseeing tour in our own fair city early on a Sunday morning!
Once we made it to City Hall, we joined the many other people who had gathered to enjoy to traffic-free route, all at our own leisure. Along the way were dotted buskers and bands, a Chinese dancing dragon, the Cancer Focus NI choir, the Sustrans NI ‘bling your bike’ stall, drummers and circus performers – creating a wonderfully musical and colourful, vibrant carnivalesque atmosphere.
It’s only when seeing the roads empty of cars, vans, lorries and buses that you truly get to see just how much space they take up in the urban landscape. It was so great to be able to use the roads to cycle safely as a family and to be able to enjoy the city without breathing in the dangerous toxic fumes emitted by the many vehicles which normally pass through it on a daily basis.
The numerous cafes and coffee shops along the route were bustling as people tied up their bikes to go in search of some refreshment and warmth – how great for local businesses to see such good trade, especially in the wake of the terrible fire which recently destroyed the Belfast Primark Bank Buildings, the knock on effect of which has seen local traders take a hit financially.
The Ciclovia organisers did a sterling job making sure the event had attractions for all the family to enjoy and get involved in, with fitness demos, lazer tag, football pitch, climbing wall, First Aid instruction and information stalls providing plenty of things to see and do.
We decided on reaching Botanic Gardens ourselves to visit the newly updated Tropical Ravine, so we secured our bikes and went off to explore inside. It is so beautiful and well worth a visit along with the glorious neighbouring Palm House.
It was then time to cycle back towards City Hall, as we really wanted to catch a glimpse of the stunt-show by the award-winning team from Thunder Action Sports. Sadly, the continued rainfall meant the guys were unable to safely perform their usual nail-bitingly daring stunts which never fail to wow the crowds wherever they go. They did however spend time chatting with fans, telling them all about their action sports facility at Thunder Park, smiled a billion times for photos, encouraged kids to try out some small skateboard and BMX ramps and generally brought their zest and enthusiasm to the day’s events.
The roads were due to reopen once again at 12pm, such a shame really, as we were happy to keep on cycling, enjoying the space and festivities for a while longer – maybe next time this could be an all day event that would allow people to drop in and out over the course of the day – just a thought!
We take so much away from the event each year, and Ciclovia 2018 made me especially aware of this, that Belfast is such a fantastic city – in fact we are not the only ones that believe so! Lonely Planet rates Belfast and the Causeway Coast, Northern Ireland, as it’s Number 1 ‘must-see’ region in 2018! How cool is that? We should definitely be making the most of that, by ensuring that Belfast continues to be a place that people want to visit, can travel around easily, enjoy the good ol’ Norn Irish craic and know the welcome that makes us such a heart-warmingly endearing people.
Another thing that really struck me this year as I cycled along with my own little family in the rain was how events like this are so integral in creating community. Yes, we can talk about safe cycling infrastructure all day long, and yes, it’s important that we do continue to pursue the development of cycle routes and so forth, but you know, underneath all of that important discussion, something quite magical was happening as like-minded people came together for good.
I saw and received so many lovely smiles and waves, conversations were shared between strangers, families enjoyed exercise and quality time together – a vibrant community was created thanks to the organisers who once upon a time had a dream to see Belfast opened up to people in a different way. That’s exciting! We all know Northern Ireland has had its fair share of troubles and what events like this show is that we as a people are moving on, have moved on in so many ways, and will continue to move on to see this country shine for all the right reasons – because it is such a great place to live and visit.
There is indeed so much potential waiting to be tapped into in terms of developing Belfast (and beyond) into a great cycling city, where the streets and roads are harmoniously shared and enjoyed by everyone. I am excited for what the future holds here and I am grateful for the reminder that great things can happen when people work together to do good things, that when we look outside, see the rain, we zip up our jackets, pull on our gloves and head out in the rain humming…