Bristol Cycle Festival celebrates 4th year
Author: Antony de Heveningham
With the fourth Bristol Cycle Festival coming up this July, how have a group of enthusiastic amateurs ended up running a community festival attended by over 2,500 people each year? That’s a question I’ve often asked myself, sometimes slightly ruefully, over the past few years.
It started back in 2010, the closing year of the Cycling City project. Taking inspiration from the bike-mad American city of Portland, a two-week celebration of cycling was put together by Bristol’s vibrant cycling and arts community. I joined to work on the financial side of the festival, but like everyone else I got carried away and ended up organising an event, the first ever bike polo tournament to be held in Bristol. Elsewhere some really big, spectacular events took over the centre of the city. There were synchronised bike dancers at Colston Hall, bike trials and artistic cycling shows in Broadmead, street games in St Nicholas Market, mountain bike races in Victoria Park, and a full-on fancy dress bike parade through the city centre.
Next year, we all agreed it had to happen again. But there was a problem. With the end of the Cycling City project, the funding for the festival was no more. It’s all very well asking people to do things for love, but when that translates into “Work incredibly hard at something for free, while possibly turning down paid work as well”, people back away from you, rapidly.
For a while things were looking shaky. But then someone resurrected the idea of a Bristol version of the Tweed Run, London’s wildly-successful vintage-themed bike ride. By using this as a fundraiser, the theory went, we’d be able to scrape enough money together to put on a bare-bones festival. And so it turned out to be. We were completely taken by surprise at how successful the first Vintage Velo was. People came from all over the South West and beyond. Some had even purchased bikes specially for the occasion, and we stunned the staff at Tyntesfield Estate when over a hundred smartly-dressed cyclists rolled up to the house for a photo-call. And the money from entry fees, cream teas, a monster raffle and a well-stocked bar was even more than we were expecting.
After banking our modest nest egg, we began to forge the alliances we needed to make the festival happen on a minimal budget. We cajoled some amazing graphic designers into making our paper programme, giving ourselves a strong new image. The Capacity Bristol project supplied us with a permanent venue smack in the city centre, and one of our committee booked a week off work to staff it. And lots of new people got in touch, telling us they wanted to put on an event. We had successfully shifted the festival from a big-budget showpiece for the city to an exciting, community-driven grassroots affair. It wasn’t completely stress-free, and in particular the weather keeps doing a number on us, but we’re getting wiser each year. Last year could have been an utter disaster, with all kinds of events across the UK becoming washouts, but we’d programmed more indoor events, and we also saw how willing people are to brave a bit of miserable weather if it means getting to do something fun. We’re also extremely proud to have spawned a year-round venture, the Roll For The Soul community cycle café, which should be opening soon.
This probably sounds like we’re terribly pleased with ourselves, and you’d be right. But we do also think about to how much things like the festival actually promote cycling, as opposed to being just for people who already do it. We’re not big enough to put into practice some of the ideas that people keep suggesting to us (an urban downhill race on Christmas Steps and pedalos on the Harbour are two recurring favourites) so we tend to focus on events that don’t fit into existing categories, or add something extra. For example, the Carnivelo brings a similar feeling of cycling in a big safe group to a Sky Ride, but with fancy dress rather than fluoro tabards. It’s novel ideas like this, not to mention the fact that we’re bringing events right into the city centre, which should encourage people who’ve never attended a cycling event before to give it a try.
We’re currently looking for events for this year’s programme, as well as helpers to marshall and sign rides, give out flyers, provide first aid cover and lots of other roles. If you’d like to be involved just email firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll fit you in somehow!