Star Interview with Richard Blackledge: ‘Cycling can be for everyone in Sheffield’

Councillor Steve Wilson, Sheffield Council's 'cycling champion', pictured. Picture: Marie Caley NSST Wilson MC 3
Councillor Steve Wilson, Sheffield Council's 'cycling champion', pictured. Picture: Marie Caley NSST Wilson MC 3
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“I can remember what this used to be like,” says Steve Wilson, pushing his bike along Portobello on Sheffield University’s campus, a street remodelled as a sanctuary for cyclists and pedestrians.

“It was bumper-to-bumper with cars. And now you’ve got this space that’s opened up – people can walk, or ride a bike. This is the sort of thing we want to do.”

Sheffield’s city councillor for East Ecclesfield is a cycling evangelist. Having taken up riding again in a bid to lose weight, he’s convinced that taking to two wheels is the answer to solving traffic problems and improving the environment, and is now the council’s ‘cycling champion’.

But he accepts the city has far to go in order to match places such as the Netherlands, a country he’s just visited, where cycling is embedded into everyday life.

“I was amazed when we went to Holland that children cycled home from school,” says Steve, who’s arrived for our meeting fully kitted out in lycra on an impressive road racing bike.

“There were no cars, people just got on bikes, because the infrastructure has been built for them.

“But if you go to any school anywhere in this country at 3pm you won’t be able to move. There will be cars everywhere. It would be better for us, them, and the environment if they cycled, and the economic benefits, I’m told, are tremendous, because you haven’t got a parent coming to pick up their children. They can be doing something else – working.

“The catchment areas for primary schools are tight, so they’re probably only driving two-and-a-half miles, at the most.”

The council has its own cycling strategy, and conducted an inquiry after the Tour de France’s visit in 2014.

Off-road cycling is increasingly popular – mountain bikers have taken to using a course at Parkwood Springs, and there is a trail at Lady Canning’s Plantation in Ringinglow, with another planned at Redmires.

Next weekend the Tour de Yorkshire passes through Sheffield, with a stage finishing at the Fox Valley retail park in Stocksbridge.

However, commuting by bike can be an unpleasant experience, Steve accepts.

“Any cyclist will tell you on a weekly basis that they get knocked off or something nearly happens. I think we need to change that. We probably can’t do it quickly, but there are certainly some people within the council who want to see it happen.

“But for some, it’s not central to their thoughts. We haven’t won yet.”

He said Sheffield’s roads were ‘nearly at capacity’.

“They’re not safe. We can’t keep having people in cars on the same roads. Evidence suggests if you build more roads, you get more cars, so that doesn’t solve the problem.

“At some point someone’s going to have to come up with a solution. For some journeys people need to drive a car, but we need to give them a good alternative option.”

There is one immovable obstacle to accessing some parts of Sheffield by bike – Crookes and Walkley, for instance, are notorious for their gruelling hills.

Steve is relaxed about this challenge, though.

“Most of our roads are in valleys. I’ve got to go up a hill to my house in Hillsborough, but there’s something coming around the corner – electric bikes. They’re amazing. They make going up hills a lot easier.

“One of the things the council wants to do is finish the cycle lane from Hillsborough, up to Stocksbridge and out into the Peak Park. That’s fairly flat and you don’t have to do it all.”

It is more likely that transport firms will install more secure bike parking, rather than adapt their buses and trams to allow cycles to be carried on board, he admits, while hire bikes are ‘starting to catch on’, as more docking points are created.

“If you want to transform a city you’re talking about a generation. I’d like to see a completely different city, and I think it can be done.”

Steve, who grew up in Nether Edge, Handsworth and Chapeltown, was a keen cyclist as a child – “It was my freedom” – but had a bad accident aged 13.

“I came off and went through a plate glass window,” he says, pulling down his cycling shirt to reveal a significant scar along his neck.

“Besides nearly killing myself, my mum threw my bike away, to my horror, and said ‘You’re never riding it again’.”

He attended Ecclesfield School, spent eight years in the Royal Navy and entered politics after taking a degree in economics, meeting his wife, Penistone and Stocksbridge MP Angela Smith, in the early 2000s.

“I suppose I was always political, I come from a political family. My dad was a trade unionist, I was the shop steward in the Royal Navy – it’s in the DNA somewhere.”

Five years ago he weighed around 18 stone, but he’s now seven stones lighter simply through exercise.

“I thought, I’m going to get a bike. And I fell in love with it again. I adore it. If you want to see anywhere, see it on a bike, because you’re going at 20mph rather than 50 or 60.”

He completed a 400-mile ride from Berlin to Copenhagen in stages, and bought Angela a bike too, but the outcome was unfortunate.

“She rode it three times, came off on the tram tracks at Hillsborough and hurt herself badly. She never rode it again. She was put off. That’s sad.”

A report is progressing through the council proposing measures to reduce the risk of crashes posed by the tram rails.

Steve, aged 55, has a grown-up daughter and son, and has been married to Angela for 12 years, juggling his council responsibilities with a job as the MP’s senior parliamentary assistant, spending two days a week in London.

He says the Tour de Yorkshire will be ‘a great event’.

“The guy behind it, Mark Dransfield, is a cycling nut. The council couldn’t afford to do it, so he said ‘I’ll pay for it’, and paid the £100,000. He’s not daft – he’ll get the money back.”

And world-class cycling will make a return to the county on a big scale when Yorkshire hosts the 2019 Road World Championships, marking the return of the showcase event to Britain after 37 years.

“That’s going to be massive. I don’t think people have worked out yet how big that’s going to be.”

‘Cycling lobby has to decide what it really wants’

Councillor Steve Wilson says Sheffield’s cycle lobby ‘needs to be more focused’.

“I think it gets confused sometimes. It’s very vocal, sometimes mistakenly so. It has to decide what it really wants.

“Criticise the council, yes, when it’s not doing things right – I’ve criticised the council for mistakes made on Penistone Road – but don’t keep coming back and saying everything’s wrong.”

He adds: “The people within the council trying to make a difference get a bit disheartened when they put together a scheme and people say ‘I’m not having that, it doesn’t go past my house’, or whatever.

“With the tight budgetary circumstances Sheffield Council has got, finding resources to do something everybody wants is very difficult. You can never win.”

This Saturday the 2017 Big Ride, organised by Cycle Sheffield as part of the national Space for Cycling campaign, will take place, involving hundreds of bike riders of all ages and abilities.

Cyclists will leave Devonshire Green at 11am.